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

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Taste Camp takes over Black Ankle

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

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The author, asleep, on the Taste Camp bus

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

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

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

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

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A Big Cork Vineyard

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

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

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The Black Ankle lineup

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

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

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

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The tasting at Big Cork

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

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

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

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

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

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Backroom Big Cork tasting

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

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

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

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Boordy’s new winery

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

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

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

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

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

A Quick Trip to Santa Barbara

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Good Santa Barbara vitis. Picture: http://www.santabarbaracountywines.com

Taking advantage of a work trip to California, I made a quick jaunt from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara to squeeze in two tasting room visits. I had had one bottle from Jaffurs Winery eight or nine years ago and was interested in revisiting, and had never tried but was eager to explore the strongly reputed Au Bon Climat. Neither disappointed, and I didn’t even tell them I was coming. I strongly recommend trying wines from both wineries who also represent off-the-charts value. My tasting notes are at the end of the post.

Jaffurs is a warehouse winery that hosts its tasting room in the middle of the crush pad. I love these set ups for a host of reasons, the main one being that it smells, well, like a crush pad, and I love that smell because it reminds of the joys and challenges of making wine. It also removes any of the ultimately damaging air of aristocratic pomposity many tasting rooms, unfortunately, achieve.

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Jaffurs Winery

I was the first customer of the day, and a man named David saddled me up to the tasting bar and poured five wines for me while discussing the winery’s approach and impressive array of vineyard relationships. Jaffurs has been around for over 20 years and seem to be a local legend. They focus on Rhone varietals, and offer multi-vineyard blends plus a lineup of single vineyard syrahs, and the wines are evidence enough of why Jaffurs has such a good reputation among the industry.

Au Bon Climat’s tasting room is in downtown Santa Barbara, an almost idyllic setting that no doubt influences customers’ experience. I was also their first visitor of their day and Emily, the assistant tasting room manager, poured me a very good flight of six wines that mostly exceed my expectations. Emily’s personable nature and obvious zeal for the winery and industry was a great compliment to the wine. The tasting room, as Emily explained, was really a showroom for Jim Clendenen, the man behind Au Bon Climat and a number of other efforts. Clendenen focus is on taking what is clearly fantastic fruit and making the more refined, Burgundian and Italian styles of wine.

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Clendenen Family Estate Vineyard

It isn’t fair to offer scores of wines tasted in a tasting room – the pours are too small to fully analyze the wine, and often times the wines haven’t received sufficient aeration. Therefore, I’m going to relay the notes on the wines that I scribbled down while tasting, but leave out scores are values. That said, I imagine all the wines I tasted would likely score at or above 90 points and receive values of at least a “B” based on my process.

Jaffurs Winery (click for wine-searcher.com listings)

2015 Roussane: really classic representation of roussane’s tropical characteristics, and a really cool juxtaposition of above-average acidity and a slightly oily mouthfeel. I took a bottle with me.

2013 Enticer Pinot Noir: separate label made by Craig Jaffurs. Really pretty nose, very floral and bright. Leaner palate for a California pinot, Burgundian. Great acidity with tar, cranberries and huckleberries. Touch of sweetness balances the tart fruit.

2013 Grenache: muted nose but a really cool, dirty palate. 30% whole cluster press and a very herbal profile with gorgeous fruit. Bought one of these, too.

2014 Syrah: blend from several vineyards, meant to be a consistent profile from vintage to vintage. A bit chewy, full bodied but with good acidity. Dark fruits with some fungal funk and a nice black pepper kick.

2012 Verna’s syrah: vineyard designate. 50% whole cluster. Very meaty, funky nose and palate. Very nice harmony between bloody, smoky and salty elements. My kind of syrah.

Au Bon Climat (click for wine-searcher.com listings)

2013 Nuit Blances chardonnay: some new oak. Cote de Beaune-esque nose, palate lighter than expected but still full bodied. Nice acid and tension on the finish. Green fruits.

2011 Santa Maria Valley Bien Nacido Vineyard chardonnay: nice juxtaposition of butter and lemon, with white pepper and banana leaf. Strong oak vanillin is a bit distracting, but might integrate with more aeration.

2013 Aubaine pinot noir: funky pinot nose with baking spices, cherries, lavender and rose. Palate is restrained, dark and herbal. Dark cherries and raspberries. Smoke, thyme and tar. Round and full bodied with a robust grainy tannin structure.

2012 Talley Vineyard pinot noir: big, bold and fruit nose with some florals. Body is framed with significant oak, smoke and salty red fruits. Big mushroom on the finish. This could be great in 5-10 years.

2008 Nielson pinot noir: meaty, savory nose with cherries. Complex, deep palate. Beautiful smoked meats, cherries, strawberries and blood orange. The fruit is really deep and bright. Nice salinity with a touch of smoke. Will continue to develop. World class wine. I bought several.

2010 Nebbiolo Bricco Buon Natale: very perfumed and tropical nose with a dose of kerosene. Palate is really nice and soft, but the body is substantial. Spiced red berries and beautiful candied plums with black pepper. Gorgeous, also world class. I’ll be enjoying the several bottles I purchased.