2018’s Most Memorable Wines – and Moment

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

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

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

Vineyard of the Year

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

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

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

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

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

Try this Wine, Damnit!

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

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

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

Well-aged Wine is the Bee’s Knees

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

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

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

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

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The 2010 Copain chardonnay was also amazing

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

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

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

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

Bringing Back Real Rosé

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

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

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

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

Appreciating Value

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

Something Really Different 

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

A Story of Wine and Love

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It’s official. Credit: Nikolaichik Photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Exchanging vows in Víc. Credit: Nikolaichik Photo

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

Life and Wine Done Right

Koerner Rombauer

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

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

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

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

From the Rombauer website:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.