Try this Wine: 2015 Smith-Madrone Riesling

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Note: This is the inaugural edition of Try this Wine, a series we hope to make regular on the website. You can’t know more than you taste, and knowledge is what builds a palate, so exploration is key to developing an appreciation for wine. Each edition will spotlight a wine that we believe has, whether we happen to like it or not, a compelling reason or two for people to try. Some of the wines will be harder to find and/or more expensive than others, but the one theme that will be constant is our belief that the wines we feature will improve your appreciation for wine. At the bottom of each Try this Wine post, you’ll find a list of places to purchase the wine.

Most wine drinkers aren’t going to like the Smith-Madrone riesling because they don’t like riesling, or so they think. “It’s too sweet” is the variety’s reputation, and the industry hasn’t done much to help itself in this regard. People see the grape and think ‘sweet’ and there’s nothing, except the occasional demi-sec or sec label (which doesn’t mean anything to most people anyways) to clue them in to the reality. Smith-Madrone’s 2015 riesling carries 0.68% residual sugar, which is for all intents and purposes a dry wine. But you wouldn’t know it from the label.

The other thing you wouldn’t know from the label, unless you knew the winery’s reputation already, is how good it is. The rieslings with the most widespread and greatest reputations aren’t grown in the United States, but I’d put money on a few domestics to place well in a Judgment of Paris styled event in Alsace or Wachau. Good Vitis hosted a blind tasting of thirty-two American rieslings with a couple of esteemed wine professionals about a year ago. All of us were more impressed than we expected with the overall quality, and super impressed with a handful of them, including Smith-Madrone. Stu Smith, a General Partner and winemaker at Smith-Madrone, dropped in and tasted with us, nervously hoping his wine would show well. It did.

There are a couple of things that combine to make riesling a special grape like no other. The versatility of the grape is, I would argue, without peers. It can be grown in so many different soils and climates, it’s remarkable. It also picks up terrior as well as any grape, and better than most. Multiply its ability to grow in so many different places by its ability to represent each unique location and you end up with a massive range of differences. With its racy acid, focus and complexity, riesling is also an incredibly versatile and nimble partner of food. On top of that, it ages gracefully and for decades (when grown and made to do so). In the collateral sent with the Smith-Madrone sample, Stu writes that “we think this will have a lifespan of 20-30 years” and there’s no doubt that he is right. The best-made riesling in Germany and Austria is known to gain complexity over decades and decades. Stu’s been making riesling long enough to know, when he says his will go twenty to thirty years, that it will do so while improving.

When you have a really good riesling, it’s impossible to objectively say there is better wine in the world. The kicker is, the best riesling is outrageously cheap by the standard of any other variety that can come close to riesling’s quality. You have to search far and wide to find a riesling that will cost you, off the shelf, over $100, or even $50. For a third of that ($32), you can get the 2015 Smith-Madrone, and it just might be the best $32 white wine you’ll find, and a wine that’s far better than many other varieties costing significantly more.

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Some of Smith-Madrone’s vineyards. Picture credit: Pull That Cork.

They ferment it in stainless, and keep it there through clarification, aging and filtration. It’s 100% riesling that is kept from going through malolactic fermentation and gets no lees stirring. This is all to say, it’s really well-grown estate riesling from a really great mountain site that showcases terrior and talent. Stu boasts of “a proud history with this varietal, from our very first vintage. That 1977 vintage won the Riesling Competition of the 1979 Wine Olympics, a tasting organized in Paris by the food and wine guide Gault & Millau.” Bring on The Germans and Austrians.

Tasting note: What a wonderful nose with elevated florals, dried apricot, tangerine, wet stones, chalk, margarita salt and white peach. Medium in weight, the acid is racy with a lush texture. The ripe flavors hit on tangerine, yellow peach, lime, rhubarb and tobiko. The finish goes for ages. Another brilliant vintage of this stuff, the 2015 should have an excellent fifteen to twenty year lifespan, at least. 92 points, value A.

Where to Buy

The 2015 is still finding its way to shelves around the country. Smith-Madrone sells a lot of direct-to-consumer, and you can purchase this wine from them now. As this vintage gets distributed (there is often a lag time between winery release and completion of the distribution process), it should be available around the country in discerning wine stores. Right now, wine-searcher.com is listing only one store:

Truly Fine Wine, 4060 Morena Blvd., Ste K, San Diego, CA 92117. Phone: (858) 270-9463.

Direct from the producer: Smith-Madrone, 4022 Spring Mountain Road, St. Helena, CA 94574. Phone: 707.963.2283. (You can also call them to inquire about where you might find it locally).

You can find other locations for other vintages here.

Life and Wine Done Right

Koerner Rombauer

Readers of Good Vitis know that I’m a fan of Rombauer Vineyards in Napa Valley. I’ve written glowing things about the wine and the winemaker, yet I’ve not written about the man, the visionary, behind the business: Koerner Rombauer. I never had a chance to meet him prior to his death earlier this month at the age of 83, which comes as a great disappointment knowing what I know about him through the grapevine. The major publications have written stories about him in the last week, and I have nothing to add to those other than my appreciation for the winery he created, the way he enabled his talented staff to make great wine, and the philanthropic penchant that ran through his veins.

The most direct knowledge I have of Rombauer comes from his winemaker, Richie Allen. I’ve spoken with Richie a number of times over the last year, and several times he referred to his gratitude for the enormous support Rombauer gave Richie and his team to make better wine year after year. I tried to capture this support in a post from last summer called “Doing big things quietly: Rombauer delivers” in which I wrote that “I’ve come to understand that (nearly) no cost is too much to improve quality for the Rombauer family.” Richie is obsessed with improving quality in the vineyards and winery, and the zeal with which he offers evidence of that obsession, and the magnitude of evidence, are unmatched by any other winemaker I’ve met. It takes an owner of at least equal enthusiasm, and not a small amount of trust and vision, to enable Richie to do all that he’s done, and I got the feeling that more than a few times Rombauer said yes to a Richie hunch when other owners would’ve said no. We, the consumers, are the beneficiaries.

The other aspect of Rombauer that I’ve always admired is his philanthropy. It’s one thing to give to charity, and Americans do that in globally high numbers. But Koerner was a real philanthropist, not just giving to charity but starting his own as well. As someone who deals a good bit with philanthropy, the magnitude and breadth of Rombauer’s work is impressive. I joke with people that “you don’t get into winemaking to make money,” but some end up making a good amount, and Rombauer was one of them. Yet, to turn around and give a good chunk of it away, while relying on the low margin and inconsistent revenue source that is wine, is admirable. That he was able to give millions of dollars made in the wine production away suggests he was a very good businessman as well.

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Wine has a way of finding great people and then captivating them for the remainder of their life. We’ve lost one of those in Rombauer, and his passing was sad news for me. Thankfully, his spirit and passion live on through his winery. It’s that love of life that Kayce and I toast tonight with a bottle of Rombauer Proprietor Selection chardonnay, which has a special place in our relationship as a wine that early on paralleled the spirit and passion we share for each other and the life we’re making together.

From the Rombauer website:

KOERNER ROMBAUER, FOUNDER OF ROMBAUER VINEYARDS, PASSES AWAY AT 83

Napa Valley, California, May 17, 2018 —- Koerner Rombauer, the founder of Rombauer Vineyards and a beloved figure in the Napa Valley over the last four decades, died on May 10. He was 83.

Koerner is survived by his wife, Sandy, children Sheana Rombauer and K.R. Rombauer III, grandchildren Reagan, Drew, Seth, Lane, Ransome and sister Kay Thornton.

Koerner was born and raised in Escondido, California where he married Joan Ransome, his wife of 43 years. He served in the California Air National Guard as a pilot from 1956 to 1965, beginning his lifelong love of flying. Koerner and Joan had two children, Sheana and KR, who were born in Escondido and then later moved to Texas where Koerner began his commercial airline pilot career flying for Braniff International Airways in 1965.

The family relocated to the Napa Valley in 1972 where they settled in a hilltop property north of St. Helena on the Silverado Trail. In between his commitments with Braniff, Koerner began spending time learning about winemaking at Conn Creek Winery. In 1980 they founded Rombauer Vineyards. They harvested their first grapes—-Cabernet Sauvignon from the Stags Leap District—-in 1980 followed by their first vintage of Chardonnay in 1982. Joan died of pancreatic cancer after a three-year battle in 2002.

Rombauer wines, especially the Chardonnay, are beloved around the world. Such uncommon affection from the public grew partly out of Koerner’s outgoing personality, his contagious sense of pleasure for wine and gusto. Koerner was the kind of person you could recognize from a mile away. There would be no mistaking his optimistic and sunny personality, and the confidence and pride with which he wore his signature stars and stripes jacket. He was red, white and blue, through and through. From the time he first came to Napa as a commercial pilot, he would always share his personal love of life in everything he did. His habit of including everyone around him in his enjoyment carried through into a passion for the Napa Valley, and became one of the cornerstones of Rombauer Vineyards.

The connection with the legacy of his great-aunt, Irma Rombauer, and her American classic, The Joy of Cooking, often provided Koerner with an introduction to his customers and accounts. He explains that Joy, as the book is affectionately known around Rombauer Vineyards, helped him be perceived as someone with whom people were already familiar; he wasn’t a stranger, he was Irma’s grand-nephew. This emphasis on helping people feel at ease and like family is no small detail. It sums up the way he lived his life. The sense of graciousness and hospitality infused his decisions and his vision and became synonymous with the Rombauer Vineyards style—distinctive and inviting.

Koerner was known as an extremely generous philanthropist. Before Joan passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2002, they started the Rombauer Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund at University of California, San Francisco. The Rombauer Family has continued to be involved in fighting cancer and in 2010 established a $4 million endowment, the Joan Rombauer UCSF Endowed Fellowship. Other causes he supported included V Foundation for Cancer Research, Collabria Care (formerly known as Napa Valley Hospice and Adult Day Services), Napa Valley Land Trust and the St. Helena Montessori School.

Koerner’s community involvement has included serving on the boards of Napa Airport Advisory Board Committee and Tower Road Co-Op as well as being the 2011 Auction Napa Valley Chair. He was a long-time supporter of the St. Helena High School FFA and Agriculture Program and a recurring purchaser of livestock at the Napa Town and Country Fair.  For many years, Koerner was a familiar face at the Calistoga Fourth of July parade driving Congressman Mike Thompson.

His love for flying took him many places, allowing him to share his passion for life and generous spirit with countless people.  When Koerner was once asked to explain why both flying airplanes and making wine were so important to him, he answered that “Flying and winemaking are both mystical, magical things. The magic of flying is that it allows you to leave behind all that binds you to the earth. The magic of winemaking is that you create something with your own hands, from your own piece of earth, that lasts for years. If you turn out a wine that can score the highest points, or highest bid, it’s like breaking out at minimums, right over the runway numbers, knowing you’ve nailed the approach.”

Memorial church services will be held at 11:00 a.m. on June 5 at Grace Church in St. Helena, followed by a public Celebration of Life from 12:00 until 4:00 p.m. at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena. Interment will be private.

The family suggests donations can be made in Koerner’s honor to Rombauer Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund at the University of California, San Francisco, V Foundation for Cancer Research or Collabria Care. Details: https://www.rombauer.com/memorial-donations/.

The Black Magic of Winemaking: Tannins

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Credit: Gerald Hoberman, Getty

Last December, I took a trip to Napa and visited a ton of wineries throughout the Valley. Though not the purpose of the trip, it became a study in tannins. The experience reminded me just how impactful vineyard and winemaking decisions can be on a wine’s profile. The largest differences in the wines came in the size, shape and structure of tannin, and I realized I should know more about why those differences exist because I clearly had preferences about them.

To learn more, I reached out to three winemakers whose wines I love in large part because of their tannins: Richie Allen of Rombauer in Napa, Shane Moore of Zena Crown and Gran Moraine in the Willamette Valley, and David Larson of Soos Creek in Washington State. Richie’s Napa cabernets are highly structured wines, but were also among the very small minority that do not overload the tannins. I found this remarkable because most of the Napa cabs I had, including many from esteemed wineries that receive (incorrectly, I believe) higher scores from the big reviewers than do Richie’s, hit you upside the head with dense, chewy and often times coarse tannins that prematurely dry the mouth and kill the flavor.

Shane’s pinots (and chardonnays) from Oregon are complex and rewarding at every price point they hit, and though one doesn’t talk about tannin in the same way with pinot as is done with other red varietals, I’ve found his pinots to achieve captivating textures.

For more information on Richie, Shane and their wines, you can read about my visit to Rombauer here, a profile of Richie here, and a profile of Shane here.

David’s Bordeaux-varietal wines from Washington, a state whose climate can develop ample tannin, go through a wonderful evolution as they age. He’ll tell you that he prefers at least five years on most of his reds, if not ten, largely because it takes time for the tannins to resolve. When his wines hit their target balance, they offer classic Washington flavors combinations and textures. I recently had an 8-year old Soos Creek and loved it.

The first thing to know about tannin is, well, what it is. Tannins are chemical compounds, and the term originates from leather tanning, as leather workers used them to preserve the leather. Tannins bind proteins together. The physical sensation we associate with tannins in our mouths when drinking a wine is the actual process of proteins being bound in real time.

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Phenolic tannin. Credit: WineLand Media

The next thing to know it is that the term “tannin” encompasses two components: anthocyanin and phenolics. Anthocyanin is the color in the wine, and it’s the main focus for Richie at Rombauer because “it’s a very good indication of quality: the higher the color, the higher the potential quality.” Color is finite; there is only so much color in fruit and only that amount available can be extracted. Phenolics, of which there is usually higher quantities than anthocyanin, are chemical compounds, of which there are potentially hundreds of varieties.

Richie aims for full extraction of color. If he can hit that, then he and his team can build the desired tannin structure because there’s usually more phenolics than they need. Put another way, if they have really high anthocyanin then they can push the tannin structure without throwing the wine out of balance. However, if the anthocyanin is moderate and they try to push the tannin structure by ramping up phenolic extraction, they end up with a highly tannic wine that has a hole in the mid palate, something Richie and his fellow Aussies refer to as “donut wine” (lots of tannin around the sides and nothing in the middle). Shane, too, is focused on color. He describes one of his priorities as achieving good “color stabilization,” which is another term for the same thing: the bounding or conjugating of anthocyanin and phenolics into “complexes.”

Tannins, as David explained, “are very specific to each batch of grapes. Like everything else in winemaking there’s a lot of variability between varieties, vineyards, and even blocks within vineyards.” David is looking for great mouthfeel. His ideal tannins are the kind “that caress the mouth. It’s one of the best attributes of a wine, but hard to achieve. I’m looking for abundant but fine grained tannins, which create elegant wines.” These, as will be explained below, are long-chain tannins formed by the binding of anthocyanin and phenolics.

When speaking to a pinot noir producer, you enter a different tannin realm. Pinot’s tannins are very different than any other varietal because physiologically, the tannins and structure are unique. “You have skin tannins, your anthocyanins, and then you have seed tannins, and not a whole lot of other phenolics involved like you do with cabernet or the Bordeaux varietals,” Shane said. “This makes both tannin extraction and the mouth feel very different.” The differences in tannin that we experience in drinking pinot noir are unique tannin experiences when compared to other reds.

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Credit: EnoViti

Anthocyanin is developed in the vineyard and lives in the skins of the berries (the term used to refer to the grapes). Richie looks at many things in trying to influence color accumulation in the skins. If the berries get too large, color gets diluted. Too many berries on the vine can lead to less color. Sun exposure is key: too much sun and the berries get sun burnt; not enough sun and they don’t develop much anthocyanin. “Think of anthocyanin as sun block,” Shane explained. “If you’re giving the berries less sun, they make less sun block.”

This makes canopy (the leaves) management critical. The act of picking leaves from the vines, called “leafing,” is part of this. In Shane’s vineyards, they begin leafing right after flowering and fruit set in most cases. This approach is suited for the cooler climate of Oregon where sufficiently warm sun, needed to develop anthocyanin, isn’t in always plentiful. “More sun produces more and riper anthocaynins for us,” Shane noted.

Richie focuses on berry weight and size. Smaller berries tend to have higher anthocyanin levels. That said, Richie has his outliers. “I have a couple of vineyards that, on paper, should be terrible when you look at the numbers, but when you taste them, they’re really good and the numbers don’t match. I always say, you can graph it and draw your correlation line, but there are always outliers, and that’s why we taste.”

Shane expressed a strong desire to produced “balanced crops.” If there is too much fruit hanging, “you often get more green tannins, meaning seed, or short-chain, tannins.” Over the years the average crop of Willamette pinot noir has settled into the 2.5-3.5 tons per acre zone, “and when you hit that tonnage,” Shane says, “you’re ripening your seeds, and ripe seeds equal ripe tannins and you’re not extracting shorter tannins; you’re getting longer chain tannins and that’s your desired starting point” in achieving good texture and mouthfeel. “Balanced vines are going to give you ripe tannins and balanced wines.”

A common theme among these three winemakers is that they approach winemaking looking primarily at the structural elements of the wine, not flavors or aromas. Shane’s approach is to make wines “texturally” because texture shows through in the wine for a longer period of time than other elements and “is more of the wine itself then flavors or aromatics. Texture is the most stable part of the wine.” Therefore, when Shane extracts tannins, he’s doing it in the context of achieving that desirable texture.

Richie has been accused of making wine by numbers, and he admits that to a certain extent, he does. “All I’m doing is stacking the deck in my favor. It’s like counting cards – you’re working the probability to get a desired outcome. That’s all that we’re doing, and with fruit that’s $10,000 or more per ton, you want to make sure you nail it every time. In high end winemaking, you can’t screw it up one year and say, well, we’ll do it better next year. That doesn’t fly.”

Winemakers can’t rely on taste alone in the tannin context because of the presence of sugar during fermentation. “The reason we’re so interested in the numbers is when the wines are fermenting and you still have sugar, you can’t taste or feel tannin in your mouth. It’s all hidden by the sugar,” Richie told me. “So the only way to see if you’re heading in the right direction is to run analysis. You don’t know if you’ve gotten all the tannin out, you don’t know what the tannin level is when it’s at even three Brix. You can’t taste it. And if you keep pumping it over and you overshoot that mark, it’s too late. You can use strippers [like egg whites or gelatin] to lean the tannins, but you can’t just strip tannin without getting rid of stuff you want to keep. Fining agents are not as selective as they’re portrayed. The analysis is a good indicator of potential quality, though it doesn’t replace actually tasting either.”

David strives to balance alcohol, tannin, fruit, oak and acid. “This is largely a function of the grapes you get,” he says. In Washington, David believes the most impactful adjustment to make to find the sweet spot in the balance is tweaking sugar levels. “It matters a great deal because it determines the alcohol level, and I want a relatively low-alcohol wine.” For age worthy wines – read high(ish) tannin and high(ish) acid – alcohol is be the sticking point because while tannins and acids soften with age, alcohol remains exactly the same its entire life. A wine with great tannin and acid at bottling will fall out of balance with time if the alcohol is too high.

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Credit: Wine Folly

Fermentation is a key phase for tannin development, even though, as noted above, you can’t detect the tannins by taste, because, as David explains, “the higher the temperature the more tannin extraction you get. The longer the juice stays on the skins, the more extraction of tannin (up to a point). The tannins will start to soften as they get longer.” He starts his fermentations off at usually around 65 degrees and allows them to creep up slowly to the mid to upper-80s. This translates into fermentations usually lasting around 20 days, though they’ve gone as long as 30. He added that the shape and size of the fermenter matters as well in that it determines the juice to solids ratio as well as the flow, or interaction, of the juice with the solids.

Shane approaches fermentation with temperatures that are considered on the lower side for pinot noir. Whereas most are toping top out at around 86-90 degrees, Shane doesn’t go above 78-80 degrees. Temperatures matter for tannin extraction – warmer temperatures help to extract heavier tannins. Therefore, if he’s getting a higher extraction than desired, he will lower the temperature, and vice versa.

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Punching down the cap. Credit: Willamettewines.com

Management of the cap, meaning all of the solid bits that float to the top during fermentation, also plays a big role because the cap is where the tannins – anthocyanin and phenolics alike – originate. The two most common ways to manage the cap are “pump overs,” which involves keeping the cap where it is while pumping the juice below it up and onto the cap, and “punch downs,” which refers to pushing the cap into the juice. The former adds more oxygen to the juice, which functions to elongate the chain of the tannins. As Shane describes it, short chain tannins are coarser drying tannins whereas longer chain tannins are “umami tannins and not as drying.” Shane uses pump overs early on to elongate the tannins as those are his preferred variety. Once fermentation is over, so too is grape-based tannin development.

Phenolics drive more of the textural element than anthocyanin. When there is an excess of phenolics, winemakers strive for high levels of bound anthocyanin and phenolics because it helps to reduce coarseness. I asked Richie if determining the chains by taste is as simple as, if the wine is coarse, it’s heavy on the short chain, and if it’s smooth, it’s heavy on the long chain. “More or less yes,” he said, adding that I was “basically correct, [but] when you start to look at the types of tannins and their interactions it becomes very complicated and our understanding is in its infancy. Thus is the art of winemaking.”

Untoasted wood chips can help in this department, as do additives like enological tannin. Richie has played around with these methods in trials, and while they’ve offered some interesting outcomes, he hasn’t felt like it’s boosted quality and hasn’t deployed it in production Rombauer. However, if using highly cropped, lower quality fruit, the use of chips or enological tannin can really help develop a wine of superior quality. “I’ve known people who do it really, really well,” Richie said. “And I’ve done it myself [at other wineries]. If you don’t understand how to use exogenous tannins correctly, you’re really limiting your ability to make quality wine. Especially in the cheaper bracket. At the higher end, you don’t need to do it.”

I asked him if it’s possible to pick up on the use of these tools in a wine by taste, and he questioned whether one could. “I’m not saying it’s impossible, but I don’t have the ability to do it and I don’t know of anyone who does. However, to make wines taste more palatable texturally and give them more palatable mouthfeels, especially in the lower price tier, their use is a sure way to improve your quality.” Dispelling any notion that it’s a New World thing, Richie explained that it’s very common in Europe, and referred to an unnamed friend in France who “is really well versed in how to use enological tannins and phenols to build wines to make them significantly better in that lower price bracket, and he’s really, really good at it. If I were making $10 wine, I’d be calling him to learn more.”

Measuring anthocyanin levels in the vineyard is challenging, and naturally Richie and his team have found that the most labor intensive way to measure gives them the best data. I promised not to spill the beans on this method, but after the explanation it’s understandable why those not using it are a step or two behind. These measurements, however, don’t necessarily mean anything because there is often a difference between the amount of anthocyanin in the vineyard and the amount that can be extracted in the winery. Determining the factors that drive that difference would be a holy grail in winemaking, and one that Richie is chasing in earnest. Richie does not believe that any of the theories about anthocyanin extraction hold up to scientific scrutiny, though he believes this is the direction high end red wine is going: “how you maximize color accumulation and color extraction drives wine quality.”

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Credit: Wine Folly

How one extracts anthocyanin from the berries depends on the varietal. “You always hear about cold soaks with pinot noir, and that’s not something you really hear about with many other red varieties. Syrah, maybe. Some winemakers working with Bordeaux and Rhone varietals are doing cold soaks. Nebbiolo, too. But when it comes to red varietals, when you hear cold soak you think pinot,” Shane said. David is one of those doing cold soaks with Bordeaux varietals. During that process, both make no qualm about using appropriate levels of sulfur, which they find critical to tannin development because it helps to stabilize the anthocyanin complexes in both stages.

The goal as Shane explains it is to build stable anthocyanin-phenolic complexes by bringing as many together as possible to form the longest chains they can “because these are the good tasting tannins.” Oxygen, as explained in the paragraph above on cap management, is critical for this to occur. Most red varietals require doses of oxygen exposure for these chains to form and grow longer. If you’ve ever had a reductive syrah, for example, chances are it was not racked (a method for adding oxygen to the wine post-fermentation) because syrah requires a relatively high amount of oxygen to avoid reduction. In a reductive wine the tannin complexes are scavenging for limited or non-existent oxygen in the wine, which reduces the vibrancy of the wine’s aromas and flavors. This is why, when one aerates a reductive wine, it can snap out of its reductive state.

Pinot is unique among red varietals in that it has a naturally high anthocyanin-phenol ratio. Therefore, if it’s exposed to sufficient oxygen, it does a great job on its own of building beautifully tasting tannins. “Somehow,” Shane noted, “they figured this out over 1,000 years ago in Burgundy. If you start with great pinot fruit and age it in French oak, which breathes perfectly for the varietal, and don’t mess too much with it, you get great wine.” He continued, “once it’s in barrel, all you need is once-a-month topping and the wines won’t go reductive.”

When Shane gets his pinot harvest into the winery and destems, he’s aiming to maintain whole berries (he destems roughly 80% of his clusters) to allow for a longer cold soak. “Crushed grapes tend to ferment faster because, I think, it releases more nutrients [for the yeast to feast on].” Whole berry fermentation allows for maximum anthocyanin extraction while protecting the seeds longer before their harsher and more abundant tannins begin to enter the juice. “Pinot noir is a low tannin wine in general. Almost all your tannins are in your seeds, and it’s also a relatively low anthocyanin grape.” With that in mind, Shane does long cold soaks (~5 days for Gran Moraine and ~8-10 days for Zena Crown) to maximize anthocyanin extraction before fermentation “so you can really control tannin [phenolics] extraction during fermentation using punch downs, pumpovers and temperature, the principle being that seed tannins are highly extractable in an aqueous alcohol environment (alcohol dissolved in water), whereas you don’t need alcohol to extract anthocaynins.” Since there is no alcohol in the cold soak, there’s no risk in extracting phenolics while anthocyanin is seeping into the juice.

Richie describes the profile they seek at Rombauer as an “iron fist in a velvet glove,” which is driven by the color and phenolic binding. Wines cannot achieve a high level of binding unless there’s a lot of color already in the wine, which makes it the limiting factor in driving quality if you follow Richie’s logic. When Rombauer does in-house trials, they look at the free anthocyanin, bound anthocyanin and phenolics [a.k.a. complexes], and they find that more often than not, the wines with the highest bound anthocyanin are the ones they score the highest in double blind tastings.

Quality wine evolves with age, and to many palates it improves over time. I asked Richie about older wines and why the color loss during aging didn’t necessarily lead to losses of flavor and structure. He explained that bound color, which tastes good, is stable and resists oxidation and changes in pH. Unbound color that exists in wine is unstable, and as wine ages it’s the unbound color that drops out while the bound color remains. Therefore, a wine with a higher level of bound color is going to keep its color, and its desirable flavors, longer in the bottle.

Referring back to his holy grail of winemaking, Richie noted that “tannin is kind of like the black magic of winemaking at the moment, and not everyone understands it. A lot of high end wineries run [the data], but they don’t actually do anything with it because they don’t understand it. They run it because it’s the latest cool thing to do in winemaking. ‘What tannins do you have?’ It’s like, ‘what does it matter? What are you going to do with them?’ If you don’t know what you’re trying to achieve, the data is useless.” Shane doubled down on the difficulty of understanding tannins. “I took a whole graduate level course on tannin chemistry. It’s incredibly complicated and possibly the most difficult college course I took. I think it was called “The Biochemistry and Physiology of Horticultural Products” or something, and we still have open questions about tannins.”

Where our understanding of tannins goes from here is up to people like Richie, Shane and David who make it a focus of their winemaking. I do think it’s important, though, too, for consumers to educate themselves and maybe even do a bit of purchasing based on their tannin preferences. I would sure love more winemakers to focus on developing those long chain complexes.

 

An Epic Five Days in Napa

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The view from my accommodations: Mount St. Helena

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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One of Smith-Madrone’s younger vineyards

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

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Koerner is the man

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

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Richie is the man, too

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

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

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

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

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

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Kelly Fleming’s cave

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

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

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

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

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The author with Elizabeth Smith at Ehlers

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

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

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

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

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The 750 tasting

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

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

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

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

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

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The Spire tasting room (credit: Inspirato)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A gorgeous view from Cardinale’s estate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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One of the barrels we tasted

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

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Silverado (credit: Inspirato)

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

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

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The castle (credit: visitnapavalley.com)

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

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

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Hess

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

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Historic vines at Hess

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

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

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

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

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Our tasting room

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

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

 

 

 

 

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.

2017’s Most Memorable Wines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

California is Burning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Napa 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sonoma

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mendocino

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

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

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

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

 

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.

*****

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.

Good Vitis Unplugged: Stu Smith and the wines of Smith-Madrone

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I know which way I’m going. Picture: Mumu Les Vignes

I already knew I liked Stu Smith when he told me he had worked for André Tchelistcheff when he was young. By that point in the night we had left the dinner crowd and found a nearby wine bar to talk one-on-one, and Stu had moved on to a glass of beer. I was still sipping wine, but had transitioned from Stu’s Smith-Madrone line up to a cabernet franc from Chinon, which frankly tasted more like an inexpensive, cloying California red blend than the funky fruit from the Old World I was seeking. When you can count Tschelistcheff as a former boss and mentor, you don’t have any legitimate excuses for making bad wine. Thankfully for Stu, he doesn’t need excuses because Smith-Madrone is for real. Stu and his avid followers don’t need me to tell them that, though.

André Tchelistcheff could be the subject of an entire book, let alone a blog post, but for now he’ll have to be simply a reference for this blog post. I know about him because of the crucial role he played in the early development of the wine industry in Washington State where I’m from and whose wines takes up half my cellar. He is one of the maybe three most important figures in the state’s wine history. Stu was lucky he didn’t mention the relationship until the end of the night, otherwise we wouldn’t have discussed anything else the entire night.

What we did discuss, though, was quite interesting and wide-ranging. Being just a few blocks from Congress we discussed politics, both in the context of general musings and those specific to the wine industry, meaning how local, state and federal decision-making affects the industry (not who is buying you-know-who’s used barrels which may or may not be tainted with brettanomyces (wink wink)). Stu is one of the more politically engaged winemakers I’ve met and when he decides he is willing to go on record about politics, I may have to start a Good Vitis podcast.

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Stu Smith of Smith-Madrone. Picture: Smithmadrone.com

We also discussed a great deal of Stu’s thoughts about running a winery. For instance, he’s managed to avoid having to start a wine club, which for a winery that celebrated its 45th anniversary last year and makes around 4,000 cases a year is a remarkable feat. Wine clubs are the business model these days for small producers of coveted wine like Smith-Madrone because they bank on future sales to club members. And I say ‘managed to avoid’ because he’d rather not go that route. Why, goes his thinking, do that when you can sell the wine on its merits without having to resort to marketing gimmicks. Even still, he does care about continually expanding his market and building upon his already well-established reputation. That’s the answer, more or less, that I received to my question of why he needed to make the rounds in Washington, DC, let alone sell his wine in the area, given the long-standing high demand for his limited production. It’s an astute answer because it implicitly recognizes that no customer can be counted on for repeat purchases – even wine club members come and go.

Over dinner earlier in the night with a number of other Smith-Madrone admirers, Stu began his remarks by stating the belief that ‘you can only make the best wine from the best grapes, and you can only grow the best grapes in the mountains’ because ‘Bacchus loves the hills.’ Stu had the wherewithal in 1972 to plant the vineyards used to make Smith-Madrone’s wines, to this day, on the side of a mountain in the North Coast of Napa Valley, and he chose one with slopes as steep as 30 degrees. Situating each varietal within the vineyard where it was best situated (“eastern exposure for the Riesling, southern and western exposures across flat stretches for the cabernet sauvignon; the coolest north-facing slopes for the chardonnay” according to the website), Stu has moved to dry farming to ensure vine struggle sufficiently to produce smaller berries to achieve a higher, and more desirable, skin-to-pulp ratio (most of the flavors and nearly all of the structure of wine comes from the grapes’ skin). Stu defined his winemaking style as the antithesis to “OTT” (Over The Top).

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Smith Madrone’s hillside vines. Picture: Smithmadrone.com

These days, many American consumers like to buy a story, not just a product. Although Stu can deliver his compelling story with thoughtfulness and humor, by the time the competition for his attention bowed out, leaving just me, he was ready to talk about something other than wine. Because I was going to be writing an article about Smith-Madrone we tried to return the topic of conversation to winemaking on several occasions, but we didn’t stay on it for long before going off in the direction of the state of the Republican and Democratic parties, or the regulatory challenges wineries face (especially in land use), or whether winemakers were inclined towards one particular political persuasion, or the value of a good distributor (I can attest to this having heard more than a few horror stories), or if a Parker 89-point review is worse than no review at all (answer: it is), or any of the other dozen topics we discussed. By the end of the night I came to like Smith-Madrone’s story because I liked the man at the center of it. Stu is real people, and you get a deep sense of that in his wine. It’s honest wine for honest people, or at least that’s my slogan for it. I’m quite glad we didn’t dwell on winemaking any longer than we did.

Coming from one of the best areas in Napa for more classically-styled wine, Smith-Madrone’s offerings are fantastic. If you want reserved, classy wines with especially deep and complex layers, all at what amounts to a steal for the quality and pedigree, made by a real person genuinely more invested in the quality of his life’s work than the potential fame or fortune of it, then you need to look into Smith-Madrone. The reviews below are from bottle samples the winery sent me that were tasted sighted.

2014 Smith-Madrone Chardonnay – The nose dazzles with banana, oak, lemon-lime Sprite, and vanilla bean with nice streaks of flint and smoky white pepper. Super engaging profile. The palate is full with a glycerin sensation but avoids becoming cloying by offering a fine balance of bright acidity, slight grainy tannin and honeyed fruit. The flavors feature Meyer lemon, pineapple, tart Starfruit, nectarine, cider, saline, tarragon, slate and just a bit of chili flake kick. This is top shelf chardonnay at a fantastic value. 93 points. Value: A

2014 Smith-Madrone Riesling – Bright nose of tennis ball, limey minerality, apricot, banana leaf and peach. The palate is medium bodied with a high viscosity and cutting acidity. Loads of lemon, lime and slate on the initial hit, followed by white pepper as it turns to key lime pie with whipped cream and a hint of nutmeg and gets lush. The acid carries through on the long finish. Expertly crafted riesling with a promising decade of evolution ahead. 91 points. Value: A

2013 Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon: The nose is funky, dark and smoky. Hickory smoke, olive brine, dark cherries, blood, dusty cocoa and tangerine peel. With more air the raspberry pops. It’s medium bodied with mouth-coating dusty tannins. The palate is also quite savory and very refined. There are multiple layers to this that years in the cellar will expose. Right now it’s under ripe cherries, maraschino sauce, dark plums, loam, tarragon, black pepper, mocha, a bit of iodine, and saline. Quite dry at the moment with a quick finish, I do expect it to fill out a bit with age as the tannins smooth and release. If this happens, the score will improve. 92 points. Value: A-