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.

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Spotlight: Ehlers rose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2016 Ehlers Estate Rose (of cabernet franc): I don’t normally comment on color but this is a gorgeous, watermelon-colored red with a pinkish hew. Nose: a bit reticent at first, it wafts lovely strawberry, watermelon, lime zest, white pepper, sea mist and parsley. The body is medium in stature and has a real presence on the palate, it’s entirely dry with nicely balanced biting acid. The fruit, all red with the exception of under ripe mango and lime pith, is bright and light and backed up by some really nice bitter greens, celery, thyme and rosemary. This brilliant effort is best served with food as the racy acidity needs to sink its teeth into something. I successfully paired it with Santa Maria-style grilled tri tip. I’d actually be curious to stuff a few of these away for a year or two and see how they develop over the following three years. 92 points. Value: B+

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

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

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

Doing big things quietly: Rombauer delivers

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Picture credit: rombauer.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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An optical sorter. Picture credit: rombauer.com

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

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

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

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-