The Streak Continues: Clarice’s 2018 Pinots Deliver

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Last year I wrote an in-depth piece about Adam Lee’s then-new project, Clarice Wine Company. It was an exciting piece to research and write because the wines were very good and, more importantly, compelling because they offered a kind of depth and complexity rarely found in today’s wines. I’m lucky to taste a lot of wines each year, and few have been as good as Clarice.

I titled last year’s piece “Clarice Wine Company: The Next Evolution in How We Wine” because Adam had designed a business model that uniquely responds to how customers are increasingly engaging the premium wine industry. While many wineries try to offer various ways for customers to experience their wine, Clarice aims to build community with and, unusually, among its customers. From the original article:

“The winery offers three wines that are only available to its club members, and sold once per year in a single case shipment comprised of four bottles each of the three wines. Despite the wine being very good, being a Clarice customer is about much more than the juice. The membership includes a number of unusual benefits all designed to achieve a goal Adam believes is critical to building a bigger and more profitable wine market in the United States: creating a robust combination of customer education and genuine relationship formation.”

There’s no quick way to summarize the business model, so instead I’ll list the perks:

  1. Regular exclusive written content produced, at Adam’s request, from well-known winemakers and other wine professionals. Example: a post on winery financing written by the Silicon Valley Bank, which finances many wine projects;
  2. An online private Facebook forum;
  3. In-person parties, including a Clarice vintage release party and several others organized at various wineries; and
  4. Discounts at other wineries within Adam’s sizable personal and professional network.

Since Clarice has had a year under its belt, Adam and I figured it was time to talk through how things have gone, as well as taste through and discuss the 2018 vintage, which will be released later this year.

The first reflection he shared was that, at least until the COVID pandemic, the amount of people interested in the Facebook forum were less than expected. Based on feedback he received, it came down to the apprehension of many who did not have Facebook accounts to set them up simply to access the Clarice forum. “A lot of people don’t want to deal with the BS of Facebook feeds, so a smaller fraction [of members] that I expected were participating,” he said, even though those using the forum were building and enjoying their own community of wine, food and travel aficionados.

However, he’s seen a big uptick in activity on the Facebook forum since the COVID crisis began. “The sign up period for the club is happening right in the middle of the pandemic and I’m seeing people signing up because they cannot visit wineries and are taking to the online forum. [In the last month or two] the forum has been more active than ever.” Leave it to Adam to find success in the midst of a global crisis.

He also found that “the people who were interested in the parties were very interested. However, some members who didn’t live near where the parties took place didn’t get the same benefits and a number of these people dropped out [of the club]. I’m making it a point to do some more events outside of California in the future once this COVID stuff dies down.”

New member sign-ups are down about 10% from where they were this time last year, but he hasn’t spent any time or effort pushing the sign up campaign. “I feel people need to adapt to the new normal before I ask them to sign up for a fairly expensive wine that’s a year from being delivered.” He has changed the payment process from six-consecutive monthly payments of $160 to 12 monthly payments of $80. To incentivize people to pay 100% upfront, he is giving those who make the single payment an entry into a drawing to win one of two etched three liter bottles of Clarice. “A fair amount have chosen to take that option,” he noted.

Garys

All-in-all, it seems the inaugural year of the Clarice business model faired well, and Adam is making tweaks rather than wholesale changes. It’s interesting to look at how other wineries are adjusting to social distancing. Many are doing online tasting events to keep communication with clientele up in the vein of where Adam was with Clarice over a year before COVID hit. Adam himself has set up a Zoom tasting for his customers, and is partnering with a number of wineries to do joint offers so that customers are able to get a wider variety of wine without paying to ship it independently from each winery.

Having tasted the 2018s for this piece, I can say with total confidence that the trajectory of quality is going in the right direction and it won’t be long before the club is full. The inaugural releases, which I reviewed in the previous article, were excellent and established a high bar for the label. While the those were very, very good – “It’s incredibly difficult to find pinot noir this good” I raved – the 2018s are even better.

“2018 was just a better growing year. 2017 had numerous heat spikes; it would not have been my vintage of choice for any new project based on pinot,” Adam told me. “2018 was a longer, cooler growing season in ways that are pretty much ideal for pinot noir. It wasn’t as cool as the historically cool vintages I’ve done like 1995, 1999 or 2005, but 2018 had no heat spikes or anything that forced us to rush. I would’ve even moved my picks by a few days if my growers had asked.”

The 2018 vintage appears to be a dream vintage for winemakers with patience and experience. “I saw some people struggling,” Adam told me. “They looked at the long, cool season and worried there would too much of this or that, so they got their picks in early. I figured, yeah maybe, but maybe not. At this rate the weather is cool, I can continue the hang time [of the fruit on the vine], so I gave it some time. Nothing bad is happen during slow ripening, just good stuff. It allowed for better ripeness for the stems, which allowed me to up the percentage of whole cluster a good bit and I found that it helped a lot.”

We agreed, ironically, that the 2017s actually tasted more stemy than the 2018s even though, as I learned, they had a lower percentage of whole cluster than the 2018s. Adam explained this was because the stems did not achieve the same ripeness in 2017 as they did in 2018. “I try to build more structure into Clarice than I did at Siduri, and I’m doing that through stem inclusion and tannin development.”

Stem inclusion contributes to tannin development (as well as aromatics and flavors) in good or bad ways depending on how it’s done. In explaining this, Adam said that “stem ripeness has more to do with hang time and less to do with brix than you would think; sometimes it’s antithetical to brix. Stem ripeness is entirely dependent upon hang time. If you have hot years and sugar builds quickly [in the grapes], you don’t have the opportunity for the stems to get ripe [because you’re harvesting on the early side, reducing hang time]. But if you can keep both in line with each other, it can work out incredibly well, and that’s what happened for us in 2018.” Just to be clear, I asked him, was this the most pivotal difference between 2017 and 2018? “Yes, absolutely,” he replied, though upon prodding he explained the few other differences.

First, his barrels were all a year older, which is a good thing for those who like softer, longer tannins and wines that express the grapes and terrior. Even more crucial is the hygienic advantages this gives a young project like Clarice.

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Barrels are often used for multiple vintages out of both economic and winemaking considerations. Because they are a great place for bacteria to grow and live, however, they need to be thoroughly cleaned between uses. So when a new winery starts, if they don’t want to produce wine using 100% new oak, likely because they want to produce wines that don’t taste like they come from 100% new oak, they have to find used barrels to purchase, which introduces greater bacteria risk because you never really know how well-maintained and cleaned the barrels were by their previous owner(s).

For his inaugural release, Adam purchased a mix of new and used barrels, the latter from the personal project of Ryan Zepaltas, who has been Copain’s head winemaker since 2018. “The only reason I felt good about buying barrels is because I could get them from Ryan, whose barrels actually came from our days together at Siduri. Ryan is extraordinarily conscientious about keeping things in good, clean condition.” Even still, “any winery would want to generate their own used barrels.” Coming into 2018, Clarice did that for the first time as the barrels Adam bought new for the 2017 vintage now had a full vintage under their belt.

The second difference was that the variations in growing seasons necessitated different vineyard treatment. Adam did not drop fruit in 2017 because it was the first vintage since 2012 to be a non-draught year: “I figured in 2017 the vines would be something akin to myself getting a food drop on a deserted island after having starved for a month – the vines would over-consume and I wanted to make sure the grapes still achieved good concentration.” Doing it this way slowed the growth of the shoots and leaves, giving the grapes priority access to water. Conversely, in 2018 Adam didn’t feel the same approach was necessary because it was a more normal year rainfall-wise.

Finally, Adam did more saignée in 2018, a reference to the method of discarding some of the juice early in the maceration phase in order to concentrate the future wine. “The yields were higher [in 2018 than in 2017] so I didn’t mind,” he explained, adding that “the fruit had hung clean [in the vineyard], there wasn’t a great reason to drop much of it, and so it looked more juicy in the tank than I wanted. I did quite a bit of saignée in the end, about 20%, because I kept going until I got it to a place I liked. It was like mixing instant oatmeal by eye.”

But, don’t get your hopes up for a Clarice rosé (many wineries use their saignée juice to make rosé). “I’ve made four rosés in my life. The first one was at Siduri and it was great and easy, so I figured I would be able to do it well again. The second and third attempts sucked so much that I threw them out. I busted my ass on the fourth attempt to do it right, but it was so expensive and distracted me from my main job that I decided that was the last time.” The saignéed 2018 Clarice juice was given to a friend who made it into rosé in exchange for a few bottles of the finished wine.

The end result in 2018 is a noticeable improvement across the three wines that had already dazzled in 2017. That said, I didn’t like each 2018 better than its 2017 version. Taking them alphabetically, the 2018 Santa Lucia Highlands bottle was stunning and received a point higher than its older sibling:

Aromas of scorched earth, red and black plums, high toned cherry, leather, lilac and strawberry. On the fuller side, this has fine grained tannin that spreads throughout the palate, spreading elegant and smooth acid. The structure is lovely and built for positive mid-term aging. The flavors are soft yet saturated, offering Bing cherry, mountain strawberry, red plum, ground cinnamon, leather and sweet cranberry sauce. This is quite nice now and I see it getting better over the next five years. 95 points.

Next is the Rosella’s Vineyard bottle. I actually liked the 2017 version of this more, awarding it two points higher than the 2018. Both vintages struck me as needing significant time in bottle to unwind, and the most difficult to score because of it. The difference in structural elegance is what gave the 2017 the advantage for me. Nevertheless, the 2018 is a stellar wine:

The nose remains reticent after having been opened 12 hours ago for a bit and then re-screwed closed. Aromas are a bit sappy, dripping crushed strawberry, sweet cherry, spiced plum jam and charcoal. The full body is round and plush with dense, tight tannin and slightly juicy acid. The structure warrants 5+ years of aging to unwind, and will then evolve nicely over another 5-10 years. Red-fruited flavors include strawberry, raspberry, not-so-tart Sweetart, blood orange, black pepper, red plum and wet earth minerality. Give this time in the cellar. 93 points.

Last but not least, we have the Gary’s Vineyard offering, which scored two points better in 2018. Where the Rosella’s 2017 structure beat out the 2018, the Gary’s Vineyard showed improvement in this department from the older vintage to the newer one:

The aromas jump out of the glass, wafting an array of dark scents: crushed blackberry, black plum, black currant, prune, baking spice and reduced strawberry. It’s full bodied with broad, fine grain tannin and precise acid. Tasted on the second night, it offers a substantive structure that suggests a solid decade or more of positive evolution. Flavors revolve around a similarly dark profile of blackberry, plum and currant, though the baking spice is more accentuated on the palate and some graphite/moist earth minerality emerges. This young wine deserves another 3-5 years of aging before it’ll start showing its best, but it’s quite tasty at the moment. 96 points.

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Grapes from Clarice’s section of Gary’s Vineyard

We briefly discussed the 2019 vintage, which Adam called “something of a hypothetical cross of 2017 and 2018.” While 2018 had no days over 100 degrees in the vineyards, 2017 had at least six of them. 2019 had a week of hot weather followed by 10 weeks of cooler weather, then another hot week and then another long stretch cool, then a hot week… “2019 is going to be fascinating, Adam said, “and it’s going to be a great vintage to round out Clarice’s first three-year vertical.”

I’ve been drinking a ton of pinot noir in 2020, and had a lot during the 2019 holiday season as well. Most of it has come from California, and nearly all of it has been current release samples. I wouldn’t call where I’m at pinot palate fatigue (yet), but it’s becoming harder for pinots to stand out from each other these days. That said, Clarice has been the clear standout of excellence, depth, quality and personality.

If you’re willing to spend $960 on case of wine (as well as the additional perks), the only potential downside to Clarice that I see may be that you don’t want to buy a full case of it. It is tough to commit to four bottles each of three wines, even though they are as different from each other as they are compelling. To be frank, this is the dilemma I face.

That said, I may be just a year or two away from membership myself because, as silly as this sounds, I’m not sure I can be indefinitely happy with a set of samples. Two years in a row now I feel like I’m getting teased because what I’d really love is have multiple bottles to age and enjoy over many years. I love variety in my wine life, but there are rare occasions like Clarice where I want more of the same.

I know it’s hard to take someone’s word when making a $960 bet, but I’m as confident recommending Clarice as I am any wine I’ve tasted for Good Vitis. These aren’t the best of economic times to drop that kind of money on luxury goods, so at least put Clarice in the back of your mind and on your wine to-do list for the future.

On Cork Report: Early Mountain’s Secret Weapon

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This piece was originally published on The Cork Report. You can read the full thing here.

A few weekends ago, my wife and I spent three nights in a cabin on a property called Getaway House in central Virginia, about 20 miles north of Charlottesville. They pitch themselves as an off-the-grid escape with no Internet or television. The cabins are actually “tiny homes” with just two rooms: a bathroom and an everything-else room. The kitchen has a small two-burner stove and minifridge. There’s a table for two people and a double bed. Outside each cabin is a firepit. That’s it. It’s quite nice and well-executed.

Fifteen minutes down the road from the Virginia Getaway House is Early Mountain Vineyards, though our plan was to do nothing other than hang at the cabin and hike.

Our best -aid plans were just that, best laid, and on Friday my wife had to spend a few hours working. So, I jumped in the car and made the drive to Early Mountain hoping that Ben Jordan, head winemaker, would be there and available because I’m terribly behind on two Cork Report articles that require a conversation with him.

While he wasn’t there, I was lucky enough to run into the assistant winemaker and head viticulturalist, Maya Hood White. It turned out to be a very fortunate experience.

Continue reading here

Try this Wine: Killer $22 Pinot

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It took real persistence to get this piece written. Not by me, but by Jesse Inman, who is one half of the sibling pair behind Lucky Rock Wine Company. First, he sent me their sauvignon blanc in July 2019, then their pinot noir a few months later. Except, it didn’t arrive, so he had to send another bottle. Then he had to pester me for, like, three months to get the interview scheduled. Finally, nine months after making first contact, we spoke. And the thing is, it’s not like the wine sucked and I didn’t know how to say “no.” I wrote this because, as the title of the post suggests, I want people to try this wine. It’s really good.

I’m neither a true snob nor judgment-free when it comes to wine, but somewhere between depending on the day. I’ll admit to huffing and puffing every time I see someone on Bachelor hold their wine glass by the bulb, yelling “BY THE STEM” at the television while my wife, who for the record agrees, rolls her eyes. And I’m often guilty of talking more about a wine that we’re sharing with friends that they care to hear, sometimes going on diatribes laced with nitpicks of the obviously wrong decision to do malo or the overly-judicious use of new oak on such a delicate grape.

That said, I also get great joy out of making the case against top of the line Bordeaux because the value proposition is garbage. And for the life of me, I cannot wrap my head around the people who rave about some of the most lofted California cult wines, which from my experience offer underwhelming sophistication and are often wildly out of balance (which is okay because they’re built in a way that the balance only gets worse with time).

I’m skipping ahead a bit in the interview with Jesse, but he peppered it with a two lines that explain the above paragraphs:

“Take your ascot off and drink our wine.”

“We’re hoping that [our] quality is good enough that people [who usually pay more] are willing to drink down to it price-wise, but also [people who don’t normally pay our price] drink up to it because it’s so good that it justifies them spending a bit more than usual.”

If the suspense is killing you, here it is: Lucky Rock pinot noir retails for $22, but to my palate it’s better than a lot of $30 and $40 pinots I’ve had. More on the wine later.

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Lucky Rock is not trying to be your typical winery. Their Instagram profile describes themselves as “Wine, Tattoo, Food Truck,” and is filled with pictures of tattoos, their pick-axe (say it fast and it sounds like “kick ass”) logo and dudes in beards and trucker hats having fun. One post, featuring a (relatively) close up of the chest of a heavily tattooed woman wearing a Lucky Rock tank top, uses the line “Look! We’re a lifestyle brand that actually knows how to make wine?”

“Our whole model is no pretension and good wine at a good price,” Jesse told me. I’m in the middle of a book on the history of Ralph Lauren, the man and the company. Lauren has been very clear that he is not a fashion designer nor is he selling fashion. Rather, he explains, his clothes are about style within the context of a lifestyle that he wants the people who wear his clothes to experience. I had asked Jesse about their lifestyle approach because in the same way that Ralph Lauren ads are as much about the non-clothing elements of the visuals and language used, Lucky Rock seemed to be about a lifestyle package that includes wine as one of the many elements.

“You can’t just rely on brand [to make it in wine],” Jesse said. “Obviously we make wine, but the tattoo part [of the brand ID] is a parallel for modernizing the wine business. We cuss a lot, we’re covered in tattoos, we joke around, and that’s unusual for quality wine. My brother and I figured that if we’re going to put this amount of effort into it then we have to have fun and be authentic about who we are.”

“The food truck,” he continued, referencing the Instagram profile description, “is that great wine and food go together. But just because you’re eating great food doesn’t mean that you need a white table cloth. [There is a] correlation between food truck and Lucky Rock – French Laundry and Bond are synonymous the same way. We’re not trying to kid ourselves, we’re not Bond, not trying to be that, nor do you want to be. But we know that our wine goes with great food regardless of where the food comes from. There is really fantastic food coming out of trucks, just like we’re trying to make really fantastic wine that comes to you in an unpretentious way.”

I’ll be completely open about my own experience with Lucky Rock. I’d never heard of it until Jesse contacted me, and after looking at the website and Instagram I set myself up for disappointment. The sauvignon blanc was solid, maybe even good, but the pinot noir blew me away. The reality is that Lucky Rock is a legitimate winery that punches above its price point.

They’re able to do that because they take advantage of economies of scale built into their business model. They make a lot of wine for other brands, much of which comes from really good vineyards that are strategically chosen based on their ability to deliver high quality grapes at less than high-end Napa prices. Of the annual haul, a small amount is taken to produce Lucky Rock. By pooling the collective tonnage needs, they’re able to get grapes that a stand-alone winery could not afford to sell at $22 per bottle. Put another way, if they were buying these grapes just for Lucky Rock, the price point would be significantly higher.

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Starting from the goal of making a very reasonably priced wine, a few other elements of the business plan are critical to success. They are about 60% wholesale having made the conscious choice to prioritize that over being direct-to-consumer, which lowers overhead. They have to be high volume, as well, because they are low margin. “We want to be different,” Jesse explained, “if we ever opened a traditional tasting room we’d be letting ourselves down. If anything, we might open a tap room featuring different wines and beers to pour alongside our stuff.”

It is also critical to making a high quality $22 pinot that they actually know what they’re doing. Jesse cut his teeth making high quality, more expensive wine at August Briggs Winery, where he got his start thanks to a close family connection and where he continues to make the wine today. While the Lucky Rock lifestyle is more warehouse than Napa Valley, the winemaking is as advanced as those who sell the high society lifestyle. Jesse has been making pinot noir “for my entire winemaking life. We’re taking the high end mentality and finding vineyards where we can apply that approach without going as expensive.”

Jesse and I talked tannins for a solid ten minutes because one of the more impressive aspects of the 2018 pinot was the quality and elegance of the structure. Often times, pinot under $30 falls flat and thin, but not Lucky Rock. He takes tannin structure seriously and has been trying various trade craft over the last several vintages to build a consistent profile. Close relationships with fruit growers, careful use of highly selective tannin additives and lots of experimentation with various barrel cooperages and treatments has led to three consecutive vintages now of positive refinement of the tannin structure. It sounds like he’s getting to a place where achieving consistency will keep the wine at a great place.

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Here’s the thing: Lucky Rock’s lifestyle isn’t for everyone, though I do imagine that it is a major factor behind the label’s success thus far. What is for a wider audience, though, is the wine. Lucky Rock’s desire to capture customers based on the quality, whether it’s more or less expensive than you normally pay, delivers in the glass. Even if you aren’t into tattoos, food trucks or trucker hats, even if the label is a bit too aggressive for you, you need to try the wine because, and I feel confident saying this, you won’t find a better pinot noir for the price. And if you dig their vibe, all the better. Dive right in.

Here’s the tasting note on the 2018, which is currently for sale: The nose-filling aromas are dominated by bright cherry and raspberry, but also include subtle tar, rose petal and baking spice. The body is medium plus in weight with fine grained tannin and modest but well-integrated acid. This could age for another 1-2 years and do nicely, but it’s gulpable at the moment. Cherry and raspberry pop on the palate as well, and are bolstered by blood orange, lilac and something spicy. This punches well above its price point. 92 points. Value: A+.

Where to purchase:

Right now, help the brothers out and order direct. They’re offering a temporary COVID-inspired discount: 15% off 6 bottles with $6 shipping and 20% off 12 bottles with $12 shipping. Discount codes can be found here. They ship to a good chunk of the country.

If you’d rather find it locally, they have a retail finder here.

Siduri Likely to Keep on Winning

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Siduri founding winemaker Adam Lee (L) and new head winemaker Matt Revelette (R)

Siduri was started in 1994 by the husband and wife team of Adam Lee and Dianna Novy. With an exclusive focus on pinot noir and an approach based on site-designate wines, Siduri became a leading name in the burgeoning California pinot noir scene where it remains a vanguard producer today. Like many of Adam’s endeavors, Siduri was on the leading edge of a consumer-driven revolution. A few years ago, Adam and Dianna sold their successful winery to Jackson Family Wines, and late last year it was announced that after a few vintages of tutelage under Adam, Matt Revelette was taking over as the full time head winemaker as Adam would step away completely to focus on other projects.

In terms of experience, talent, reputation and character, Adam’s are big shoes for Matt to fill. Yet, when I sat down for dinner in early January with Adam, he was glowing over both his new freedom and the excitement he has for where Matt can take Siduri. The basis for this confidence in Matt is rooted in Matt’s winemaking prowess, but also in the friendship they’ve developed since Matt came on as his heir apparent. Adam, and later Matt when I spoke with him, referenced the long, fun days spent driving up and down California as Matt was introduced to Siduri’s long and impressive list of vineyard sources, and the time they’ve spent together socially. I’ve long believed that winemaker personality and character is a part of a wine’s terroir, and I don’t feel the least bit worried about that aspect of Siduri’s future with Matt taking over.

It came as no shock to me when I learned that Matt was a philosophy major in college. Adam’s mind moves one hundred miles per minute, coming up with all sorts of new business ideas while simultaneously mulling over ways to improve wine quality. The most substantial project he’s launched since selling Siduri is the Clarice Wine Company, which leverages three incredibly good pinot noirs made by Adam to create the next evolution in wine business models. You can read the Clarice profile I wrote last year here. In order for someone to earn Adam’s exuberant endorsement as Matt has, I can’t not see that person being a purposefully thoughtful and continuously curious person.

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To go further with this parallel, because Siduri makes over twenty wines from eight California and one Oregon AVA, all from vineyards owned by other people, it takes the mind of a thinker and a voraciously intellectually curious person to manage such a portfolio so productively. When Matt and I talked about his plans for Siduri, his first answer was that it all boils down to maintaining relationships with the growers. “It’s hard to make this many vineyard-designates without maintaining a lot of friendships. A lot of the onboarding has been getting to know the families that own the vineyards.” As if to make my point for me, Matt noted that “Adam didn’t build Siduri to what it is today without being forward-thinking, and I’m going to maintain that mindset of always moving forward and making those qualitative and incremental improvements.”

All of Siduri’s wine is made in its warehouse winery in Santa Rosa, to the west of Napa Valley, yet the vineyards it sources from are as far north as the Willamette Valley in Oregon to as far south as Santa Barbara (just north of Los Angeles). “That means lots of road time,” Matt told me. A common routine of his and Adams, was to meet up at 2:30 in the morning, get coffee and eat a breakfast sandwich, and arrive in southern California by 7:30. “We’d visit the vineyards, then travel down to Santa Barbara and see the vineyards there, then head to the Santa Lucia Highlands and drive back. We’d stop for a steak at The Hitching Post for dinner and then go to sleep.”

Despite schedules like that, “there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing,” Matt said. “If given the opportunity to do this in my spare time, I would. It’s great to see the vineyards, make friends with growers, see the site differences that manifest themselves naturally at harvest. It’s just amazing.” If Matt can keep up with Adam, then he can run Siduri like a champ and continue the tradition of great site-specific pinot noirs. Siduri’s business model is premised on an indefatigable engine, and it appears they have that in Matt. I feel good in saying that Matt will both continue Siduri’s legacy of expressive, high quality pinot noir, and over time make incremental steps that will drive Siduri’s continued improvement and growth.

Although Matt’s first solo vintage isn’t commercially available yet, I recently tasted through four of Siduri’s entry level AVA blends from the 2017 vintage: Willamette Valley, Anderson Valley, Russian River Valley and Santa Lucia Highlands. Each of these range in price from $35-40, express their unique little corner of the world, and are accessible upon release.

For fun, I decided to taste them blind. I had decently high confidence that I’d be able to get them correct; after all, these are four distinctly different terroirs. I also wanted to eliminate any bias I might have. I’ve never been much of a fan of Russian River Valley pinots, love Willamette, have been tasting a lot of Anderson Valley recently for an upcoming profile of the AVA I’m working on, and tasted through a case of Morgan Winery Santa Lucia Highland wines a few months back. I wanted to eliminate whatever I thought I knew about these AVAs to give them a fare shake – and to test my tasting abilities.

In short: I failed miserably with my picks. I got the Anderson Valley correct, mixed up the Russian River with the Santa Lucia Highlands, and was totally off with the Willamette Valley. I told Matt this when we spoke, and though he may have just been polite, he told me that he didn’t think he’d get it 100% right with this particular line up and vintage. I’ve chosen to take him at his word.

The first lesson I learned, which I’ve learned in the past and clearly forgotten, is that I do actually like Russian River pinot. In fact, it was my favorite of these four wines. The second lesson was that Anderson Valley really does have a unique signature that cuts across producers in certain seemingly unassailable ways (Matt confirmed my thinking on this, which I’ll flush out in the forthcoming AVA profile). Finally, there’s something special still undiscovered by the masses in the Santa Lucia Highlands, and I’m barely a step into that room but very excited to explore it more.

I’d buy three of these four wines for future consumption, especially the Russian River bottling. I’ve never latched onto Siduri’s Willamette Valley pinot, and the 2017 hasn’t changed my mind despite me really wanting to have my mind changed. Nevertheless, they all represent good to great value, and one cannot complain about the quality of any.

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2017 Siduri Anderson Valley pinot noir: The slightly sweet nose wafts scorched earth, plum, currant, raspberry, blood orange juice, pencil shavings and top soil. The body is quite smooth and elevated with sturdy, precise tannins that take a minute to settle in. The well-appointed structure frames nicely flavors of semi-sweet raspberry, plum, cherry, roasted coffee bean, dark semi-sweet cocoa and tanned leather. Amazing value for a really good wine. 92 points. Value: A.

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2017 Siduri Russian River Valley pinot noir – The nose is just gorgeous, offering aromas of baking-spiced red and black fruit, including strawberry, blackberry and blueberry. There’s a moist earth note as well. The deeply layered body is full and round, but juicy acid adds levity, elevating the light and sweet tannin. Flavor-wise, it offers sweet and polished cherry, blueberry and strawberry, which are accompanied by black pepper and cigar tobacco. This is a very pure expression of Russian River pinot. 93 points. Value: A.

2017 Siduri Santa Lucia Highlands – The dark, almost hedonistic nose is laser-focused on a concentration of raspberry, black plum, black currant and black cherry. The full body is elevated by bright acid, and mellowed by smooth, long and well-integrated tannin. The structure is seamless. Flavors icnlude strawberry, plum, cherry, sweet rhubarb, graphite, black pepper and a bit of iron. It finishes with a spicy flourish. Great stuff. 92 points. Value: A.

2017 Siduri Willamette Valley pinot noir – The nose is blue-ish in tone, with blueberry, plum and rhubarb making immediate appearances. Below them rest a mild fungal element and a saline quality. The body is slightly over medium, and texturized by slightly gritty tannin that carries sweet and juicy acid. Structurally it’s a nice wine. Flavors include blueberry, Acai, general florals and top soil, while it finishes on a note that suggests menthol cigarette. 90 points. Value: C+.

Try this Wine: 2015 Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon

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Welcome to 2020! Our first Try this Wine piece, posted back on July 1, 2018, featured one of our favorite white wines here at Good Vitis, Smith-Madrone’s Napa Valley riesling, which is produced entirely from the winery’s estate vineyards on Spring Mountain. Today, we’re writing about the winery’s 2015 estate cabernet sauvignon. Clearly, we have a bit of a fixation with the winery, and we think it’s for good reason; the wine is excellent and excellently priced.

Stu Smith, one of the three Smith family men working the property and making the wine, has many opinions. One of them is that riesling is a great grape for making wine. Another is that what he and other like-minded producers call “mountain wine” is superior to other wine. By “mountain wine,” Stu means wine made from grapes grown on mountain slopes.

The steeper slopes, elevation and orientation of mountain side vineyards offer particular perks that vineyards planted on flatter ground do not. I’ve written about this before in a piece on merlot. In brief, you get better drainage and more radiant energy than flat land vineyards, which drives flavor concentration and skin development while aiding ripening. While that’s too brief to do the argument justice, it’s not really the point of this post, and, plus, the proof is in the bottle. It’s one reason why you should try this wine; tasting is believing.

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Smith-Madrone estate vines and the incredible views of Napa Valley from Spring Mountain

Smith-Madrone cabernet sauvignon is priced around $45-65 depending on where you find it, which means for the quality it’s an absolute steal in the Napa cabernet category. I’ve not had another Napa cabernet as good for less than $75, while many of the $100+ bottles don’t match its complexity or elegance.

I’ve been a fan of the 2014 vintage of the cabernet, which is still available on shelves. I tasted the 2015 for the first time about two weeks ago and was blown away. I reached out to Stu to talk about it briefly, and he described the 2015 as “a clean, pure expression of mountain cabernet.” I found it to be a substantive wine layered with complexity, but far from heavy or thick. The tannins are ever-present but refined and encourage the flavors rather than extinguish them, a productive feature not found in abundance in Napa. It offers immediate appeal with several hours of decanting and is really impressive on the second night.

This experience with the 2015 is a bit different from the 2014, which as Stu wanted to point out highlights the purpose of Smith-Madrone’s approach to making wine. “2014 was a relatively big vintage. 2015 was on the smaller side. Alcohol is on the low end, and it has good acidity and bright cabernet fruit. 2014 is a bit more lush, fuller, richer. They’re two different styles of wine, and in some ways they show together what we’re trying to do, which is to get the vintage into the glass of wine and not pound a round peg into a square hole. The reason we vintage date [our wines] is to celebrate the diversity of the vintage. It’s a real value to the consumer.”

I gave the 2014 vintage 92 points, which ain’t bad. The 2015, though, well:

Decanted this for an hour and as it revealed itself, it became the best vintage of this wine that I’ve had. The nose is a mountain slope of dark sweet cherry and strawberry, wet barky soil, Herbes de Provence, licorice, molasses, black olive and smoke. It is medium plus in weight with elegant and refined tannin and acute acid that combine to form a traditional Old World style structure. The flavors are layered and extended aging will reveal them all. Right now they include salty cherry, strawberry, plum and rhubarb fruit that cohabitate nicely with olive tapenade, black pepper, rose water and graphite. I’d sit on this for at least another five years and then enjoy through 2030. 94 points. Value: A.

This is a wine to try because of the quality, value and intrigue it offers as an elegant, Old World-style wine with a mountain slope twist that drinks well now and will drink well into the future.

Where to purchase:

You can buy direct from Smith-Madrone, where it is being sold for $52, and also from:

K&L Wine Merchants (online and around California)

Rye Brook Wine & Spirits (online and in Rye Brook, New York)

Wine.com (online)

Woods Wholesale Wine (online and in Grosse Point, Michigan)

The 8 Most Revelatory Moments of 2019

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The author and his wife, Kayce, at Barboursville Vineyards in Virginia

There’s no doubt I have a lot to be thankful for in life: family, health, friends and general happiness. Add that my hobby is writing a wine blog, and there’s no seriously arguing that I don’t have a good existence on this planet. I’m especially happy with 2019 because it marks the first full calendar year of being married to a great woman and the attendant benefits of great in-laws in my life. 2019 carried with it some challenges, but all-in-all I loved it. And because 2019 was also a great year in wine for me, I’ve been especially excited to write this year’s retrospective best-of post.

These retrospective pieces are admittedly a bit self-indulgent; they are effectively an exercise in bragging (look at all this great wine I got to have, and all these great places I got to go!). I justify writing them nonetheless because if you’re into wine like I am, and I know some of the Good Vitis readers are, you want to read about the wine experiences of others because wine is a unique way of appreciating the world, and it can be inspiring. It adds, literally and figuratively, flavor and beauty to life in ways that can make one feel better about, and more appreciative of, the people around them and the planet they inhabit.

Some of this impact can be revelatory, and these experiences are almost always more meaningful and impactful when shared with others. All of the experiences below were made better because of the people I shared them with, and I hope reading about them will motivate readers to seek out more special moments of their own in 2020.

With this in mind, and in keeping with the Good Vitis tradition of doing each year’s retrospective a bit different from those before it, this year’s piece will focus on the eight most personally revelatory wine experiences of the year. Here we go.

Revelation No. 1: Sauvignon blanc is amazing

Aaron before February 6th, 2019: I don’t much care for sauvignon blanc. It’s unbalanced and too acidic, it’s green, it’s lean and it’s monolithic in profile.

Aaron on September 14th, 2019 after a sip of 2005 Edmond Vatan Clos la Néore sauvignon blanc from the Loire Valley: This is the best wine I’ve ever had.

In 2019, I’ve had four sauvignon blancs that collectively have turned me from a hater to an appreciator. I’m a lover of these four, and more willing to try sauvignon blanc in general. The first to show me that the grape could be more complex and enjoyable than I’d previously known was the 2017 Loveblock sauvignon blanc. In the article I published about the winery started by Erica and Kim Crawford of New Zealand sauvignon blanc fame, I said of the wine that “[the] Loveblock style of sauvignon blanc is rounder, more tropical and complex [than that made famous by the Kim Crawford label]. My tasting note on the wine describes an expressive, jovial and entertaining wine with more intrigue then the typical New Zealand profile tends to inspire in me.” I gave the wine 91 points with a value of A.

Loveblock

Around the time that I published the Loveblock article, my wife Kayce and I had dinner with Sam Teakle, the winemaker at Capture Wines in Napa. Although Capture mostly makes red wine, it has two sauvignon blancs and Sam brought with him the entry level bottle which is called “Tradition.” Kayce, who like me wasn’t a sauvignon blanc lover at the time, loved it, as did I, and so in following up later I asked for a full bottle so I could write a Try This Wine feature on it, which I did.

In the short piece, I noted that the Tradition “offered more substance, weight and depth than I had been accustomed to finding in the variety. I had always thought of sauvignon blanc as a lean, citrusy and acidicly- sharp wine that was simple and even sometimes unpleasantly bitter. The Captûre Tradition proves all this wrong – it proves the haters wrong – at an incredibly reasonable price of $25. It will over-deliver as a pop-and-pour summer white wine, and has sufficient seriousness and complexity to be decanted for an hour and enjoyed over the course of an evening.” I gave it 94 points with an A+ value rating.

Clos de Neore

Picture poached from Isaac Baker’s Instagram

Several months later, I visited a friend of a friend, with the mutual friend, who wanted to swap some wine from his cellar for stuff he’d never had before. I’m not sure what was traded for it, but we walked away with a bottle of 2005 Edmond Vatan Clos la Néore. This is a sauvignon blanc from Sancerre in France’s Loire Valley, and to be fully transparent, I’d never heard of it before (waiting for the gasps and looks of disproval to subside…). We ended up drinking it that night with another wine loving friend at his suggestion. I took one sip and thought, “well holy fucking shit, I don’t even know…I mean…wow.” I pulled out my phone, opened the CellarTracker app, and wrote a tasting note:

This is otherworldly. The nose wafts a crazy cornucopia of waxy golden raisin, Thai basil, honeycomb, kiwi, peach, crushed rock minerality, cantaloupe and spearmint. The palate is spry but delivers seriously hefty layers in a mind-blowing juxtaposition. The flavors are crazy cool, delivering serious star fruit, Sichuan spicy, honeyed melon, poached pear, poached peach, grapefruit, Calvados, rose water, kiwi and spearmint. It’s entering a transcendental phase. 98 points.

That’s the highest point total I’ve ever given to a wine, and the taste and texture and complexity and mouthfeel remain incredibly fresh in my mind. As I said above, it’s the best wine I’ve ever had. I want more, I will always crave this wine. And I feared that I’d never enjoy another sauvignon blanc again after the Vatan.

Chimney

Then, about a month and a half later, I opened a bottle of 2009 Chimney Rock Elevage Blanc that I’d bought at auction and realized that the Vatan had not ruined the variety for me. I’d visited Chimney Rock in Napa in March of 2019. Known as a red wine house, I was most impressed with their rosé and the Elevage Blanc, their only white. I included the latter in a Try this Wine post about what I called “spring whites” that included the Chimney Rock along with others from Carlisle, Copain and Yangarra, all of which fit my conception of a white wine perfect for the season between winter and summer:

“The profile of white that I’m suggesting – some weight, multiple layers of flavor, thick acid – is also more versatile food-wise than many other wines. This is to say, it can hold its own with grilled vegetables, chicken, turkey and fish as well as red-fruited wines like pinot noir, trousseau, gamay, cabernet franc and zinfandel. Just because you’re going to a friend’s grill-out doesn’t mean you should avoid white wine.”

Chimney’s Elevage Blanc is a blend of sauvignon blanc and sauvignon gris, and I gave the 2016 that I tried at the winery 93 points with a value of A-, and said of it:

“It offers incredible smoothness in personality and feel. With a deft full body, it boasts loads of stone and tropical fruits, spicy zest, marzipan, slate and flint minerality and a smoky finish. If you tend to find sauvignon blanc too bitter and cutting, this is one that may change your mind.”

Based on this experience, I bought the 2009 off Winebid hoping that it would be something cool, and it was. The note:

“The saturated and tropical nose offers aromas of paraffin wax, dried kiwi, dried papaya, dried pineapple, white pepper and orange preserves. It is full bodied on the palate with lush acid that gets slightly gritty on the finish. The balance is on-point and the mouthfeel is sumptuous. Flavors come in fascinating waves of pear, cantaloupe, barely ripe papaya, green chimichurri sauce, Key lime, almond paste, Mandarine orange and flint minerality. This is a super cool, interesting wine that is at the very end of its prime life.” (I gave it 93 points).

I did an Instagram post about it in which I said “[this] fascinating 10-year-old Napa blend of sauvignon blanc and sauvignon gris delivers captivating balance, a lush mouthfeel and deeply layered flavors that only come from the combination of great fruit, terroir and winemaking.” I tagged John Terlato of Terlato Wines who owns Chimney Rock, and he was nice enough to post this comment on it:

“Thank you for the kind words. Our goal was to make a white wine for red wine drinkers – a wine which was at the same time complex, sublime and possessed the ability to age. Glad you enjoyed our work. Elizabeth Vianna’s hand clearly showing here. Inspiration + talent + vineyards = potentially extraordinary wines. Thank you again.”

Although the Elevage Blanc wasn’t as good as the Vatan, it seriously juiced my newfound love of sauvignon blanc and boosted my interest in trying more. If 2019 was the year of any grape for me, it’d be sauvignon blanc. A year ago I never would have predicted that.

Revelation No. 2: Judging a wine competition is weird

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I was honored to be asked to participate in the judging of the 2019 Maryland Governor’s Cup competition. It was my first wine competition judging experience, and made me realize (a) just how hard it is for a competition to be worthwhile for the consumer, (b) just how hard it is to design and run a competition that allows the best wines to actually win, and (c) just how frustrating it must be for the industry that competitions are what they are. That said, I tip my hat to the gentlemen who is hired to organize and run the competition. Given the limitations impressed upon him by the factors involved, he did a hell of a job. I learned the following things:

  1. The Maryland competition and many like it are open only to wineries who want to pay to enter, so it does not cover every winery that otherwise could be part of it.
  2. Many use volunteer judges, and because it’s often a full day event that judges must travel to, when judges judge for free you rarely get the best overall quality of judges.
  3. At this competition, no judge tasted every wine. In fact, we tasted at most half of them each. I’m not sure about other competitions, but I imagine many of them are the same. This, when combined with #1 and #2, meant for me that only two of the eight winners deserved to make the final round.

These competitions are helpful for many in the industry, especially up-and-coming regions like Maryland and for really saturated markets like California where the best wines don’t need competition awards to sell out every year and the lessers are looking for ways of impressing customers. If I sound pessimistic about all of it, I am, but I do believe at the end of the day they’re a net positive for the industry, especially Maryland because of where it is in its maturation as a wine producing state. It needs these opportunities to compete against itself so that the bar is continuously raised.

Revelation No. 3: Even you can import wine

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Okay, so not really. I didn’t import any wine. I can’t, I don’t have the permits or the business license to do it. But, my friend Peter Wygandt of Weygand-Metlzer Importing does. When I found out that he was traveling to the Republic of Georgia, I wanted to him to visit my friends over there who make incredible wine, the Togonidze family. I told him that if he could squeeze one more winery visit in while he was there, he’d taste the best wine he’d have on the trip and that there would be no way he’d be able to bring any of it into America because they don’t make enough to export. Peter said he’d try, and I sort of forgot about it.

If the name Togonidze rings a bell, it might be because you read the Good Vitis post about my visit there, which is called “Words Escape Me: The Country, Food and Wines of Georgia.” I truly love Georgia. The people, geography, beauty, food and wine are individually incredible and collectively breathtaking. The main feature of the piece is the night I spent eating and drinking with the Togonidze family at their home. Their Mtsvane (a white grape with very green skin) is among my very favorite wines and probably the most unusual wine I’ve had that actually works despite how unusual it is.

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Peter (left) with Gia Togonidze in Georgia

A few months after talking with Peter, I saw that the Togonidzes had posted pictures of them with Peter at their home. I got the biggest grin. How cool is that?! Still, I thought, no way Peter is signing an account with them, they don’t make enough. But then, another month or two later, I get the email from Peter: I’m importing Togonidze. I rejoiced. When the wine arrived, Peter hosted a tasting at his brick and mortar store in Washington, DC and sent me a note making sure I would show up. Of course I would, and of course I did. Peter was gracious enough to acknowledge my role in bringing Togonidze to America to the crowd that was there when I arrived. We happily bought a case and half and are reserving the bottles to share with the people closest to us.

Revelation No. 4: Mosel is for real

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The Master of Mosel, Markus Hüls

Speaking of Peter Weygandt, after Kayce and I decided our honeymoon was going to include Germany, I asked Peter if he could connect me with one of his producers in the Mosel Valley because we were going to spend three days there. He chose a producer named Markus Hüls and set a tasting up for us with Markus himself. For a while I hadn’t cared for riesling, but I’ve slowly grown to appreciate it over the last three or so years. Before you think “he doesn’t like sweet wines,” I do. The issue for me was acid – the riesling I was told was the good stuff was too acidic for me.

I started to turn the corner, actually, after a conversation with a coffee roaster in Syracuse, New York, in 2012 who told me that “acid means flavor,” which translated means that acid carries flavor to our taste buds, almost like salt. I started paying more attention to acidic foods and wines and how the flavors might be different in those compared to others with lower acid, and I noticed that he was often right. Acid is also part of a wine’s physical structure and sensation, and in white wine its impact is particularly felt because of the absence of tannin. I wouldn’t say I’m a raging aid head, but I certainly like acidic wines much more now than before.

I wrote a feature piece on Hüls in September in which I praised the acid profile in the wines and Marcus’ ability to harness acid to drive aromatic and flavor profiles that build gorgeously structured wines. “Markus Hüls is a revelation in steep slope Mosel wine,” I wrote, “that delivers an acid profile defining something both unique and exceptional.” We now have a case of Hüls aging in our cellar, and I’m on the hunt for more riesling.

While crystalizing a desire to add more riesling to our cellar, the three days spent in Mosel clarified for me why it is considered by many to be the best place on earth to grow and make riesling. Riesling is one of those grapes with enormous range, and the impact of the winding rivers and steep slopes on the vines explains how one grape can be made to taste so many different ways.

Revelation No. 5: Cayuse can age well

Let me apologize now for small size of the crowd for which this revelation is relevant. Growing up in Washington State and getting into wine through the state’s industry, chances are good that you come to revere Cayuse Vineyards even if you don’t taste their wines. They are among the most legendary wineries in the state, and also among the most closeted and elitist. Its founder and winemaker, Christophe Baron, famously happened upon Walla Walla, Washington, on his way from his home in Champagne to Oregon where he intended to make pinot noir. Captured by an internship in Walla Walla, he never left. He now owns several labels, all of which receive numerous mid to upper 90s scores from the major reviewers, including several 100’s. He sells almost exclusively through a wine club that maintains a wait list that is five to ten years long.

I waited on the list for seven years myself before I was offered 3 bottles of a single wine of my choosing. My choice was the God Only Knows Grenache, and I came in at the 2013 vintage. At some point in the last year or two, I received an email saying that I could opt into a lottery for older vintages of wine because they were clearing out the library. The rule was: you get what you get, up to six bottles, and you have to take them all. I sent a note to two friends asking if they wanted to split the spoils, and we went for it. We ended up with the 2000 Coccinelle Vineyard syrah, 2004 Cailloux Vineyard syrah and 2008 The Widowmaker (En Chamberlin Vineyard) cabernet sauvignon. One friend added his own 2011 Cailloux Vineyard syrah.

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The Cayuses, and other great wines from that remarkable night

There is some debate as to whether high end Washington wine gets better with significant aging. The best stuff has the tannin and acid, but some worry that the warm climate produces too much tannin as well as too much alcohol for a wine to get better over ten-plus years. Within this discussion, Cayuse is hotly debated. This library lottery gave me the chance to find out for myself, and the answer is an unqualified “yes.” They are magical wines. To be able to say that with absolute clarity is a big deal for me, even if it only matters to a handful of people. We were all impressed by the wines, and though we didn’t taste any of the Cayuse I have in my cellar, it gave me confidence to sit longer on the wines I’m hoarding. If you’re curious, you can find tasting notes here.

Revelation No. 6: Old wines rock

I’m just starting to get to the point where I know what to look for in old wine, and I say this both from the perspective of buying it and tasting it. It began a few years back with an extraordinary flight of 2000, 2002 and 2003 Cameron Abbey Ridge pinot noir from Oregon, and it’s taken off since then. 2019 was the first year in which seriously old wine became a somewhat regular thing in our household.

It’s hard to describe the qualities that make old wine worth the wait, especially because different types of grapes go through different kinds of changes, and because winemaking becomes a bigger factor when it goes up against the test of time. We get to see how the structure of the wine plays out. Did the components – tannin, acid, alcohol and fruit – find harmony, or fall apart? Did the depth of the wine reveal itself, allowing the drinker the opportunity to smell and taste everything it has to offer but needed time to reveal? Really good wine that is aged appropriately takes on qualities and physical sensations that no young wine, regardless of what it is or how it was made, can have. It’s the nature of the difference that is so special to me.

A contributing factor to my love for old wine is the revelation, good or bad, of tasting a wine that’s spent so much time by itself. What has it done with that time? Did it make the most of it? There’s also the game of when to open it. Is ten years enough? Fifteen years too many? There’s only one way to find out: pull the cork. The anticipation, and the result, are fun to experience.

Allowing wine to age teaches you a lot about the winery, the vintage and the region. In 2019, we drank 23 bottles of wine that were at least 10 years past their vintage. In addition to the older wines discussed above, I’m listing several below along with the lessons I learned from having them.

Chablis

2009 Vincent Dauvissat Les Preuses Grand Cru Chablis – Chablis is one of my favorite regions, but can be hard to judge on ageability. My favorite aspect about Chablis – its twitchy, nervous acid – tends to fade fairly quickly, so aging it means losing that. On the flip side, as this wine proved, Chablis can take on a multitude of dimensions with age that are special.

2008 JD Varja Ruggeri Langhe – I love nebbiolo, but it can be a tough grape. It’s quite tannic and acidic, and so it can age for a long time, and often should. But on the lower end, while it can retain sufficient tannin and acid, it doesn’t always develop the requisite fruit to go the distance. This was an example of that. I liked it, but didn’t love it. It was ideal probably five years ago.

Willi

2007 Willi Schaefer Graacher Himmelreich Kabinett Riesling – This was one of the best wines I’ve had, and a perfect example of how quality riesling gets amazing with age: so many deeply developed flavors with acid that keeps them raging, seemingly indefinitely. It could’ve gone for another ten great years.

2006 Domaine Pierre Usseglio & Fils Cuvée de mon Aïeul Chateauneuf du Pape – This was a good vintage for Chateauneuf du Pape, and Usseglio is known for producing particularly age-worthy wines. The case with this one, though, was disappointing because I opened it too early. It was only just starting to awaken, and it had miles of depth left to unravel.

2005 Lucien Le Moine Burgundy – Maybe the most frustrating wine of the year for me. When it was released, I’m told by the person who bought it, it was maybe $15 or $20. It’s Moine’s entry level Burgundy. Today it goes for $50+. It was damn good, much better than nearly all of the sub-$50 pinots I’ve had from anywhere, and better than many $100+ Burgundies I’ve tasted. If I could go back to the mid-2000s, when a lot of great Burgundy was still being made without a ton of oak, I’d buy it by the pallet so I could start opening it now.

2005 Spring Mountain Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon – The lesson to be learned here is that the size of the bottle matters. Because the cork allows oxygen into the wine, the ratio of oxygen to wine is the highest when the size of the bottle is the smallest. I had this out of a half-bottle, and while it was delicious, it was past its prime. It would not, however, been past its prime if it had come out of a regular or large-format bottle. Lesson being, don’t age your half bottles as long as you would larger bottles.

Huet

1989 Domaine Huet Le Mont Moelleux Premiere Trie – I got this birth year bottle to celebrate my wife’s 30th birthday. Loire chenin blanc is her favorite wine and among my favorites, so it was a no brainer. This particular bottle is pretty special; I think it’s safe to say that Huet is universally regarded as among the best Vouvray producers and one that gets better and better over its first 30-plus years of life (incidentally, not unlike wife). I had personally verified the quality of Huet previously, and can now verify its ageability. This bottle will make it hard to drink Huet that isn’t decades old.

Margaux

1967 Chateau Lescombes Margaux – This bottle was a gift I received less than a minute into meetings its original owner. We crossed paths at Domaine Storage in DC where we were both storing wine. I got a locker there about six months ago, and he was in the process of emptying his out. He was a bit into retirement and realized it was time to drink through the remainder of his collection, most of which he’d forgotten about. We were having a nice conversation and he reached down into a box and pulled out two of these bottles and handed them to me with the advice to not forget about the wines I was buying, like he had, so that so many wouldn’t go to waste. These 67’ Margauxs were past their prime and he knew it, but figured it would be fun for me to take a flyer on them since I wasn’t paying for them and he had so many. We haven’t opened the second bottle, but the first bottle was both past its prime and delicious (especially the nose). I doubt I’ll find myself in the position he was with someone like me decades from now, but his advice is a great reminder that collecting wine is about finding your sweet spot and reveling in it.

Revelation No. 7: Barboursville Vineyards

I wrote about a two-day stay at Virginia’s Barboursville Vineyards over on The Cork Report back in February in which we tried multiple vintages of the winery’s best red wines (in my opinion at least): cabernet franc reserve, nebbiolo reserve and Octagon, their Bordeaux-style flagship wine, going back to 1999. I’ve visited some of the best-known and most respected Virginia wineries, but I didn’t appreciate how good Virginia wine could be until the Barboursville visit. Their signature is no flash, all substance. As I wrote in the piece, “[a] trip to Barboursville Vineyards in Virginia feels to me like what a visit to Gaja in Piedmont, William Fevre in Chablis or López de Heredia in Rioja might: the chance to experience an especially iconic, historical, traditional and consistently high-performing estate in its respective region.”

Barboursville

#NoFilter

Barboursville has been around forever relative to the Virginia wine industry, and the know-how they’ve developed through low personnel turnover and farming the same vineyards for decades has translated into the rare Virginia wine that deservedly belongs in lineups with the best producers in the world. The 2010 Nebbiolo Reserve and 2007 Octagon were particularly revelatory for me and I’d love to see how they would perform in blind Barolo and Pomerol tastings, respectively. Viniculture and winemaking are labors of love for the people at Barboursville, and for their long-term winemaker-turned general manager Luca Paschina, it’s a way of life. He has shown what Virginia is capable of, and the more Luca’s the state has, the better.

Revelation No. 8: Emidio Pepe

During our honeymoon this summer we spent three days at Emidio Pepe in Abruzzo, Italy. I wrote all about it in a profile I did of the winery so I don’t need to go in depth here. What is most important to say now is that it may have become my favorite winery. There is an obvious bias in play because we spent time there, and it was wonderful. Amazing food and wine, great service and people, unreal setting, the romance of the honeymoon, etc. – I have names, faces, vineyards, views, aromas, flavors and emotions to connect to the wine that can’t be replicated by a retail experience. But even still, for my palate it doesn’t get better than Pepe.

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The characteristic of Pepe’s wines that I most connect with are the evolution they go through as they age. As I explained in the linked profile above, Pepe purposefully makes reductive wines that work with the naturally high acid and tannin of Abruzzo and their vineyards to make wine that transcends itself over periods measured in decade increments, giving the depth and complexity of the grapes times to marry and sing. The beauty of the wine is then amplified by winemaking choices – pressing technique, aging vessel, etc. – that are chosen because they assist the grapes and vineyard in putting their best selves forward. It’s as if they extract all of the best qualities of the grapes and terroir…and then some. This is the good kind of human intervention. While there is beautiful wine made from human decision-making that goes beyond, or around, expressing the grape and vineyard, there is something especially extraordinary and rare about a wine that wows you without needing cosmetic surgery. Pepe pulls it off better than any other wine I’ve had.

Closing

Let me finish with a quote that brings home the point of these retrospective pieces:

“One should always be drunk. That’s all that matters…But with what? With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you chose. But get drunk.” – French poet Charles Baudelaire.

Wine brings people together and plays the role of a properly adjusted saturation filter for life. Make sure you enjoy some (safely) with the people who matter most this holiday season.

Merlot is Back

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Picture source: Pixabay

Up until I had that 21st birthday bottle of Delille Harrison Hill 1998, a gift from a family friend, merlot dominates my wine-associated memories. My mother kept a bottle of merlot – the winery, I don’t remember, but I imagine a rotating selection of places like Chateau St. Michelle, J. Lohr, Mondavi and Charles Shaw – in the refrigerator with some frequency. I never took much interest in its presence there. I wasn’t one of those kids who stole pulls from the liquor cabinet, adding a quick stream of facet water to the half-full bottle of vodka in a futile effort to deceive my parents. I didn’t keep a six pack of Busch Light in my closet.

The merlot sitting in the refrigerator never tempted me, either. I just wasn’t into drinking in my youth. I know I tasted it, once in a while, but with my mom’s approval. I remember that it was cold and a little bitter, and not to my liking. It had a mysterious bite that today I can recognize as the alcohol. That’s about it. To my young palate, it wasn’t anything to crave. It was red liquid that my mom liked.

I preferred orange juice. My mother didn’t drink juice, too much sugar. I had to cut mine with water or my mom wouldn’t allow it in the house. Unlike the wine, I cheated with the orange juice when I could get away with it. No watering it down for me. That’s where I went off the reservation. Not the easiest child, I know.

When I was in my middle teens, a couple moved into the neighborhood and began having us over for dinner. The husband was a wine collector and opened wine whenever we came over. My mom enjoyed drinking it, though my dad wasn’t a wine fan (he remains unimpressed). And even though the merlot in the fridge back home never captured me, our friend’s wine did. Over the following several years, I was introduced to what I would find out later was some of the best wine made in the world. Depending on how one looks at it, my palate was either spoiled rotten or ruined for life before I was old enough to purchase any of it from a store.

The bottle of 1998 Delille Harrison Hill was a gift from this neighbor, and it became the first great wine that I associated as my own. Delille is one of Washington’s most respected and awarded wineries known predominantly for Bordeaux-style wines. Harrison Hill is one of its flagship blends, and routinely includes 25% merlot. As one of my early introductions to great wine, it set a personal benchmark for blends that lasted at least a decade. Though I didn’t know it at the time, it helped me form the respect I have today for the role merlot plays as a blending grape.

Fast forward to 2013. I had been unemployed for about five months at this point, having lost a job I didn’t much like and taking my time, albeit stressfully, finding a job I would be excited to start. As money was tight, I made it through this period satiating my wine needs with a small wine collection I had been building for the previous five years (inspirational, I know). I decided that since I had the time, I would find a winery nearby my apartment in Virginia where I could intern and learn firsthand how wine was made.

After scouting a number of wineries, I approached one and made my offer: I would work for free in the cellar a few days a week if they schooled me in winemaking and paid me to work in the tasting room on the weekend. They accepted. I did this for two consecutive harvests, and learned a ton about wine. It remains one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

During my first harvest there, we unexpectedly received a few extra tons of merlot from one of the vineyards where we sourced the grapes we needed beyond what our estate vineyards produced. The truck showed up, the man got out and asked a stupid question: did we want this extra merlot? In a state with a growing wine industry where grape demand far surpasses supply, you say yes. Even if the grapes aren’t great, you make a bad blush out of it because it will sell out once the temperature is high enough for picnicking and stoop-sittin’.

Thankfully, this was good merlot, so our affirmative answer was delivered with extra enthusiasm. As I helped unload the bins off the truck, an idea struck. I asked the winemaker if I could take a small amount of the juice from the extra merlot and make a side batch of my own wine. After consulting with the owner, I was given the green light and three 6-gallon carboys (glass jugs) of merlot juice was mine.

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With the winemaker’s guidance, we made three different merlots. Each carboy was inoculated with a different strain of yeast and given a different wood chip treatment. We went low-ish sulfur (40ppm), only once, and after about 8 months of aging in a dark corner of the cellar with the carboys covered by boxes, I syphoned the contents directly into bottles and hand corked them. I made eight or nine different wines from the three carboys: a case of each carboy was bottled, and then I started blending. We ended up with eighty-something bottles if memory serves.

All but half a dozen bottles were drained within a year of bottling. I was down to just a single bottle remaining until this article; I used the occasion to open it with my wife and in-laws. It is my greatest wine achievement to date because I didn’t screw it up; it’s actually a decent wine. I know this because I threw it into several blind tastings with legitimate wine people and got a range of reviews, none of them bad.

Making my own merlot is the true source of my appreciation of merlot: in the hands of a first time and under-trained “winemaker,” it graciously allowed me to make it into wine. It did its very best with what I gave it, maybe more than its very best, and I am eternally grateful. This article is dedicated to that batch of wine.


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2014 Aaron Menenberg Merlot #6 – The nose offers a compelling combination of floral, funky and crunchy red fruit notes, including aromas of wet saw dust, moist fungal dirt, cherry, raspberry, dehydrated strawberry, baking spice, rose water and spring flowers. The body is barely medium in stature, and the structure is driven by keen acid and scattered fine-grained tannin. The balance is essentially there, but the acid pulls the wine a bit out of its comfort zone. The flavors are similar to the aromas, featuring floral, fruit and funk. Specifics include dry dirt, mirepoix, tart strawberry and raspberry, cinnamon, rose hips and sautéed portabello mushroom. 88 points. Value: N/A.


Beyond my own appreciation of merlot, and certainly in spite of it, the noble grape deserves a good deal more credit and appreciation than it receives for all the hard work it does in wineries across the world. A perpetual performer, it is prized by many winemakers and largely disregarded by consumers. It is a classic example of the consumer doesn’t know best.

I recently published a Try this Wine post on Rutherford Hill’s 2018 Rosé of Merlot, one of the best rosé’s I’ve ever had. A press person from Rutherford’s parent owner sent me this note a few weeks later:

“I was in the Rutherford Hill tasting room the other day and a customer was bragging to his friends that he doesn’t drink “wimpy pink wine” (referring to our rosé of merlot, of course).  Right then, our tasting room manager pulled up your story and had him read it.  Not only did he change his mind, he purchased a few bottles.  So AWESOME!!!!!!!!”


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Best Surprise: 2018 Rutherford Hill Rosé of Merlot

This has a wonderful nose that combines the richness of merlot with the spryness of a rosé. Aromas of strawberry, cherry concentrate, candied fennel, sweet vanilla and Sprite lemon-lime. It’s on the fuller side of the rosé spectrum in terms of body, but it’s balanced brilliantly with bright acid that adds welcomed tension to the mouthfeel. The flavors hit on strawberry nectar, lime mint sorbet, chalk minerality and celery seed. This is among the most complex and complete rosés I’ve had, it’s a stunner equipped to handle a heavy meal. I’d love this with mushroom risotto. 92 points. Value: A.


The case for merlot goes well beyond a great rosé, though that bottle does make a statement as one of the best rosé’s I’ve ever had. Well before the Rutherford rosé, though, I decided that I wanted to take a stab at exploring merlot after hearing an extemporaneous diatribe on merlot from one of the grape’s very best producers earlier this year.

When I decided on doing this profile, my mind naturally went to the movie Sideways, a popular Hollywood movie released in October of 2004 assumed by many to be the death nail of merlot’s profitability and popularity because of a well-acted and entertaining scene demonizing merlot and the timing of it its release coinciding with a period of steep decline in merlot sales. “I am not drinking any fucking merlot!” is the famous line. Miles, the main character played brilliantly by Paul Giamatti, is on a trip to Napa with a friend, both of whom are escaping various aspects of their lives. In a pivotal scene, Miles screams this line.

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Part of what I wanted to get into with this piece was industry views of whether this Sideways correlation was also causation, and so my first element of research was to ask. Over the course of the last six or so months, I’ve had the privilege of speaking to some of America’s, and the world’s, very best merlot producers. The orator of the aforementioned merlot diatribe was Chris Carpenter of Lokoya, Cardinale, Mt. Brave and other great wineries fame.

“[Sideways] wasn’t a bad thing from the perspective of what it ended up doing to merlot in general,” Chris said when I spoke to him on the phone a few months post-diatribe. “Did I go through the history of merlot with you?” He asked, somewhat dauntingly. Merlot has been around for a while, so I wondered how far back he would go. Nevertheless, I opened the door. “No,” I said, and off we went.

Thankfully, his starting point was California: “At one point back in the mid-1990s, the wine industry was looking for the next silver bullet as far as a wine that would be the starter wine for another generation that was coming onto wine. They had had white zinfandel for a while – a lot of people started drinking wine because white zin was on fire and it was tasty and accessible and not too expensive – and it made the industry a lot of money. So, people were looking for what the next white zinfandel was going to be because its popularity was starting to decline and the industry needed something to fill that gap,” he explained.

The industry tried a number of things. “They started planting sangiovese,” one example he told me about, “but that didn’t go over well because they made it too much like cabernet [sauvignon] and sangiovese just doesn’t react that way. They went through a number of iterations like this and eventually hit on merlot.” It had a number of positives going for it: “it’s easy to pronounce, it’s fairly easy to grow from a tonnage perspective, it grows in places across a bandwidth of temperatures and sunlight that are different enough but allow it to get to a certain ripening point. And so you can grow a lot of it.”

The California wine industry ran with it. “They went out and planted merlot every in Napa, particularly in the Carneros region.”  Today, Carneros is dominated by pinot noir and chardonnay, so it’s hard to believe it was once the center of the California merlot scene. “Carneros is on the cooler side and doesn’t get a lot of sunlight,” Chris explained. “Merlot is an early ripener, and so they figured they’d put it down there. It doesn’t get a lot of sunlight, but they thought they could still get it ripe.” Problem was, they couldn’t.

“They forgot that merlot needs a certain amount of light to get past the green flavors. The change in flavor character from vegetative to fruit is driven by light energy, and there just isn’t light energy in Carneros. A lot of how grapes gain weight and develop depth is by heat reaction and it doesn’t get the heat down there.”


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Best In Show: 2015 Mt. Brave Merlot

What a killer, earthy and penetrating nose: sour cherry, strawberry, mesquite charcoal, bitter cocoa, sawdust and emulsified dandelion. It’s full bodied in a way that fills the palate, but the acid is juicy and alive and prevents the wine from settling and cloying. The tannins are fine and focused. The fruit is beautifully layered, with muddled cherry, mountain strawberry and boysenberry that go for ages, and are followed by ground espresso and cocoa beans and graphite. The tail end of the flavor profile features tanned leather, tobacco leaf and a small dose of menthol. This does very well with a couple of hours in the decanter, but I imagine it can go through tremendous evolution over a decade or so. 94 points. Value: A.


Renée Ary, winemaker for the esteemed merlot producer Duckhorn Vineyards, noted additional considerations for merlot when I spoke with her. “Merlot is susceptible to heat stress, so water is a big issue. Because of that, it likes to grow in soil with better moisture-holding capabilities. Clay works well, but if you have a good vineyard team that can stay on top of irrigation, you can do it with better draining soils. They wanted to grow merlot like cabernet, but it’s not the same.”

At this point, though, the industry had invested a lot of money in planting merlot vineyards. “So, they pumped out a lot of merlot and put it on the market, and a lot of people drank a lot of bad merlot.” Chris said, adding that “it was lean and green, and it wasn’t very interesting. It didn’t have weight, it didn’t have complexity, it was very unidirectional. And then the movie (Sideways) came out.”

But it wasn’t what you think. This is when Chris turned into a movie critic, and an astute one at that. “The movie wasn’t really speaking to the bad merlot out there. What Miles’ comment was reflecting on was the [troubled] relationship with his wife. His wife drank a lot of merlot. So, when he went into that tasting room and said he wasn’t drinking any merlot, it was because merlot is what his wife would’ve drank. It had nothing to do with the industry. But, it came at a time when people were starting to react to this wine that wasn’t that good.”

When Miles makes his comment, the industry had already spent a solid decade, or more, laying the groundwork for the merlot market to crumble. Chris noted that “when Sideways drops, merlot falls apart as far as a varietal people are taking seriously, and pinot noir rockets. Nobody was drinking pinot noir back then, but suddenly it just took off. And the good thing that happened was that a lot of that merlot that was planted in the wrong places went away, and they replanted it with pinot noir.”

Enter winemaker Adam Lee, a prolific California pinot noir wizard responsible for great wineries like Siduri and Clarice. “I don’t buy [the theory that Sideways ruined merlot]. It’s true that a lot of bad merlot was being made in the 90s, so when Sideways came out there was a lot to hate about merlot already,” he said.

As an aside, in a cruel twist of fate for lovers of traditional pinot noir, the timing of Sideways’ pinot praise was terrible. “When Sideways came out,” Adam pointed out, “the current pinot releases were 2003 and 2004, both bad vintages in my opinion. They were very warm and we had big, ripe wines that were out of character. People who were supposed to like merlot because it was being made big and ripe, and hadn’t had pinot before, went nuts for the 03’s and 04’s, and in the subsequent years many wineries mainstreamed that big, jammy style, and it’s still around.”


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High Performer: 2016 Rutherford Hill Atlas Peak

Poured this through a Venturi into a decanter, and it showed nicely right away. The dark nose offers saturated aromas of mocha, cherry preserve, dark chocolate bark, graphite, black plum and boysenberry that draw your nose deep into the glass. It’s full bodied with thick, polished tannin and bright acid that runs the full length of the wine, forming a really luxurious mouthfeel and structure. Flavor comes by way of plum, cherry, strawberry, dark cocoa, graphite, cassis and nutmeg. If this wine were a person, it’d be a soldier-scholar: broad statured and muscular with a high intellect and high society manners. With another three to five years it will develop some real grace. 93 points. Value: A.


As Carneros transformed in the wine region we know it to be today, those winemakers still in love with merlot had to turn to smaller pockets around Napa Valley. “These little gems of vineyards that were ideal for merlot” became the hot finds, Chris told me. “When I found gems, more often than not, they were high up in the mountains. There are some things about mountain viniculture that go well with merlot.”

Duckhorn’s Ary referenced these gems herself. “[Sideways] ended up being a positive for merlot. The unserious producers threw it to the wayside. It helped us get access to new vineyards [that were great for merlot] that we hadn’t had access to previously.”

One reason merlot does well in the mountains is because as you gain elevation, the volume of what’s called “radiant energy” increases. If you remember back to Chris’ point about Carneros not getting a lot of sunlight, we’re coming full circle here because one of the types of radiant energy is sunshine.

“You’re higher up [in the mountains] so your volume of radiant energy is much greater and you’re going to have, theoretically, more of the light reactions happening,” Chris explained. “You get a very different expression of merlot than what they were getting in the Carneros, which in some days never sees the sun. Heat drives sugar, it drives acid, it drives tannins. It does not affect flavor to the extent that radiant energy does. Radiant energy drives the change in the flavor compounds.”

The portfolio of wineries that Chris covers with his winemaking is focused on mountain fruit. “We have vineyards on Howell, Spring and Veeder [mountains] that have exceptional merlot and I was, for a while, blending it into cabernets because it adds interesting things,” he said. Explaining the evolution to varietally-labeled merlots, he continued, “but I like underdogs, and merlot is an underdog, and I realized I had some outstanding wines that were 100% merlot and I wondered why we were blending them away. Why do the French and the Italians have a monopoly on really expensive bottles of merlot at the quality level that really can carry that price point? Here in the States [we couldn’t do that]. And so a lot of what I’ve tried to do is to reintroduce merlot at that same level as we think about brands like Petrus or Masseto or Cheval Blanc to a certain degree, because we have those kinds of vineyards. If you’re growing it and making it right, you have the kind of quality here [in Napa] that we do with cabernet.”


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Case Buy: 2014 Freemark Abbey Merlot

This really benefited from a 3 hour decant, which allowed the tannins to smooth and integrate nicely. The modest nose features cocoa dusted cherry, light roast ground espresso bean, graphite, blood orange and faint camp fire. This is full bodied on the palate with juicy acidity and tannins that are initially broad and densely grainy, but which smooth around the edges with air. The structure has achieved a uniform feel. The flavors ride the boisterous acid with evident joy as they hit on red currant, plum, cherry, strawberry, graphite and dry dirt, finishing with a small floral flourish. 91 points. Value: A.


Pahlmeyer, a member of this pantheon of benchmark merlot producers in California, is like Carpenter keen on producing merlot that competes with the quality of the great merlots of the world. Cleo Pahlmeyer told me she believes that Sideways wasn’t the catalyst for the merlot market’s collapse, but rather just well-timed with a saturation of bad merlot in the marketplace. Cleo is now the general manager of the winery, which was started by her father.

“Our first vintage at the winery was 1986, and my father’s dream was to make a Bordeaux-style red wine. Back then, Napa wasn’t known as place for cabernet, so this was a relatively novel goal,” she said. “We made our first merlot in 1988 or 1989 after a barrel tasting with our then-winemaker Randy Dunn. He and my father came across a barrel of merlot [that was going to be blended] that blew them away. It was a complete wine.”

“There’s one merlot descriptor that I hate,” Cleo said. “It’s my snobby wine self saying this, but it’s “smooth” and I hate it.” She hates it because “smooth” implies a level of simplicity that merlot can surpass. Benchmark bottles offer more complexity and texture than the simplistic profile that merlot used to carry when “smooth” first became a widespread attribute of the grape.

Pahlmeyer grows their merlot at the higher elevation points in their vineyards, just like Chris’ wineries. “We grow our merlot on the upper part of our estate vineyard,” Cleo explained. “It’s at about 2000 feet of elevation and sits on top of the mountain. You can see it from vantage points along Highway 29. It gets a lot more sunlight and it stays above the fog. The soil has relatively poor natural nutrients and we keep the yields low by dropping fruit. The clusters are small, the berries are small, and so it develops great tannin and body and quality.”

In Washington State, north of California, merlot has held a special place since the early founding of the industry there dating back to the 1800s. “In Washington, they stayed the course on making quality merlot. They didn’t rip out vines, just kept growing and going. What goes into varietally labeled [Washington] merlot is the best of the best.” This is what Constance Savage of Washington’s historic L’Ecole No. 41 told me.

“Washington State is a great producer of Bordeaux varieties. We are actually a more consistent supplier of those wines at better prices than California. We have no coastal weather issues and because we get no rain, we can control the vines’ water intake [through irrigation]. We have great wind, our soil is well-draining. We’re further north so we get more light and our grapes ripen every year. It’s the perfect place for merlot. As merlot comes back, Washington is going to be the leader in quality.”


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High Value: 2016 L’Ecole No. 41 Merlot Columbia Valley

The reticent nose offers an array of red and blue fruit, baking spice, vanilla and hot cocoa. It’s full bodied on the palate as the tannins are fine grained, dense and mouth coating. The acid is bright and juicy. It boasts an engaging texture. The flavors include blueberry, strawberry, plum, boysenberry, cinnamon, cassis, black currant and graphite. The more serious of the two L’Ecole merlots, it offers some upside with three to five years of aging. 92 points. Value: A.


Those are fighting words, but Washington State has been producing high quality merlot for decades, and L’Ecole as long been recognized as being at the tip of that spear. Washington wine industry people have long praised L’Ecole’s role in the industry but they’ve long been recognized well outside the state as well. Wine & Spirits Magazine put L’Ecole on its list of the top-100 wineries of 2019, the 15th time that L’Ecole has been placed on that list, making it one of 15 wineries to be included in it that many times.

“We’ve been in merlot since 1983 [at L’Ecole]. That was the first vintage at the winery, and we led with merlot and semillon.” Located in the southeast corner of the state in Walla Walla, L’Ecole remains one of the most consistent produces of high quality and reasonably priced wines in the state.

Coming from over two decades in the importing business, Savage feels that “Sideways obliterated the market for merlot. It was really tough until four or five years ago. But it improved the quality of merlot everywhere.” Five years after the movie, she began to realize it was time to start re-ordering merlot again because wineries “were really putting their best wines forward.”

“When I worked with the producers, we would talk about what to do with their merlot vines. [A common discussion was whether they] should they rename their bottles with proprietary names rather than varietally? Yet every year, when I would get my sales team of over 100 people together and get their feedback, in the early 2010s, there was noticeable turn-around for merlot.”

Ary from Duckhorn also noted the five year mark as an important one. “The last couple of years, merlot sales are way up – they are starting to plateau, I think, but the last five years, the number really rose, especially in the luxury merlot tier. Super premium merlot is selling better and better.” In 2017, Wine Spectator made Duckhorn’s 2014 Three Palms merlot it’s wine of the year. “The number one award helped push [sales] along, but it had been trending that way previously. It gave a nice boost.”


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Worthy Cellar Buy: 2015 La Jota Vineyards Merlot W.S. Keyes Vineyard

A nose more reminiscent of Saint-Julien than most of Napa Valley, the fruit is just spectacular. It’s as if an entire farmer’s market fruit section comprised of perfectly ripe fruit has been bottled in this wine. This vision is augmented by kirsch liqueur, cassis, cardamom, pencil lead and light roast coffee. It is full bodied with dense and well-tuned fine-grained tannin. The acid is similarly precise, and the balance stands up to some of the finest of the Old World. The flavors pop in an unusually juicy manner with blackberry, boysenberry, licorice, cherry jam and charcoal. This has two decades of positive evolution ahead of it. I’d wait at least six years to crack this one open. 94 points. Value: C.


An important element of L’Ecole’s business model, especially with merlot, is to “keep the price point low” and the quality high, Constance told me. “We produce 45,000 cases per year, which is pretty big for Washington in terms of family-owned, mid-sized wineries. We want to be able to move and sell our wines so we know the quality-to-price ratio needs to be great.”

Another top tier merlot house is Rutherford Hill, located in Napa Valley, where the grape comprises 75% of wine production. I spoke with their winemaker, Marisa Taylor, who started at Rutherford “right around the time of Sideways” and had come from making pinot noir. “Like pinot drinkers, merlot drinkers are very loyal,” she explained. “They seek you out, they hold you to a standard, and they’re rarely disappointed.”

“Merlot used to be a generic word for red wine, especially in a tasting room, like “Burgundy” or “Bordeaux,”” Taylor observed, noting that it’s still important to dispel this myth. “We try to show the diversity that merlot can develop by farming it in different locations and bottling single vineyard designates. For example, our Atlas Peak is very different from our Oakville. Our tasting room pourers do a lot of education – they actually approach it like a bartender by asking about preferences and choosing wines to pour.”

Cleo Pahlmeyer and I discussed the Napa price points and bang for the buck, and she offered a point of view I consider very on-point. “If you’re looking for a good wine with a budget around $75 and you want to buy a Napa cabernet, don’t buy it. Buy merlot because at that price point you’re going to get so much more quality and better wine with a merlot at the price point.”

Duckhorn’s Ary made a similar argument when I spoke with her. “Merlot has become really polarizing out there [because] there is not good mid-[price] range quality merlot. There is either really good, well-made merlot, or the flip side of that. Sideways was good in a sense that it helped weed out the less serious producers.”

On the topic of sales, Palhmeyer note that “we’ve never had a problem selling out merlot. It has a following that’s remained steady of the years in part because it is regarded as a classic Napa Valley wine.” Giving a nod to the role Duckhorn has played in promoting merlot, she said that because of what Duckhorn has done for the varietal, “Palhmeyer doesn’t have to do much.”

With merlot having rebounded significantly over the last five or so years, I wanted to ask the people I spoke to for this article about the grape’s prospects for the future. It has been well documented that Millennials, now the largest purchasers of wine in the United States, have very different buying habits from their predecessors: they spend less, are more experimental, care less about winery and vineyard prestige, want unusual grapes and seek out wines made using unusual techniques or technology. Merlot is expensive, traditional, found among prestigious producers and anything but unusual. It seemed to me that there is reason for merlot producers to be concerned about the long-term commercial prospects of the grape.


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Classic Example: 2016 Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot

A slight reticence on the nose tells me this needs at least another two to three years in bottle to come out of its shell. So far, it’s giving muddled cherry and blackberry, clove, nutmeg and scorched earth. An elegant medium-plus body, the tannins are nicely refined and line up well with the smooth and integrated acid. This has a serious structure that demands some patience. Serious loam and dry earth mineralilty goes well with cherry, blueberry, blackberry, dried seaweed, tobacco and blood orange zest. Already very tasty, this offers great promise with short to medium-term aging. If drinking in the next two years, decant this for an hour or two if you can. 92 points. Value: A.


Ary was the first to admit that Millennials are “a different market. They are looking for different things.” She explained that Duckhorn is more traditional than trendy, and that is in part because “wines tend to represent their winemakers. I’m more traditional of a person,” even though she knows traditional wine “doesn’t always appeal to Millennials.”

Nevertheless, Ary and Duckhorn are not planning to change the way they make wine in any big ways. “If our tastes didn’t evolve,” Ary noted, “then we would still be drinking sweet wine,” a reference to America’s preference for sweet wine for the better part of its history. “[Tastes] may ebb and flow, but ultimately if it’s a classic wine then it’ll stick around.”

Carpenter had similar thoughts. “Millennials are drinking different, more esoteric wines,” he said, which certainly seems true if you read the wine blogs and visit the hipster somm wine stores and bars popping up across America. “But there are not a lot of people producing these esoteric wines [relative to the size of the industry], and those that are don’t do it in big volumes. You can speculate as to what variety is going to go where and how Millennials will jump on it, but the fact of the matter is there isn’t any one variety or style that has started to dominate the Millennial demographic.”

Chris made an important point about not just what grapes go into these “esoteric” wines, but also how the winemakers approach them. “The wines I produce focus first and foremost on the land. These new wines that appeal to Millennials, however, are more about techniques than terroir. If you start to involve techniques or technology [that go beyond basic winemaking] , what you’re doing is you’re changing that understanding of the land. A lot of natural wines I’ve tasted, they don’t taste like the vineyard; they taste like the winemaker. Some of them are good, but my style is to highlight the land [rather than myself].”

This fundamental difference is key to understanding where merlot is going as a commercial product. If we look at France, where wine has been around much longer as a mainstream consumer product than in the United States, Chris noted that “traditional grapes and winemaking have done well for a couple hundred years. That’s because Bordeaux is the right place to grow cabernet and merlot, and Burgundy is the right place to grow pinot noir and chardonnay.” His larger point: long-term success in wine is about finding the right match of varieties with locations.

Every winemaker consulted for this article shared an appreciation for merlot as a blending grape as well. Carpenter blends it into several hugely successful blends and cabernet sauvignon-designates under various labels. “I use merlot to add complexity and another layer of experience [for the consumer].” One way it’s useful is in the tannin department as a way to smooth out, or “mitigate” to use Chris’ term, the heavy and sometimes grippy sensation of cabernet tannin. “It helps make it a little more texturally silky.”

Ary stated boldly that “it takes a good merlot to make a good cabernet. Merlot is good for midpalate, weight and plushness. It is the go-to for filling out a holey cabernet.”

Carpenter explained that “merlot has different phenolics, and by blending it you’re layering those in. That’s what I use all my blenders for [regardless of grape]. I don’t blend just for fun – though blending is kind of fun – I’m doing it because each one of those [five Bordeaux grapes he uses across his portfolio] adds something unique to the base blend of cabernet. It’s like a spice component in cooking.”

Many cooks have their go-to spices that they are always sure to keep on hand. For producers of Bordeaux (and Bordeaux-style) wines, merlot is certainly one of them. If you start taking a look at how much merlot is in the wines you already drink – especially if you drink varietally-labeled cabernet sauvignon – you may feel a bit remorseful about the last bad thing you said about merlot. It is one of the most important red grapes grown today.


Decoy

Crowd Pleaser: 2017 Decoy Sonoma County

A very fruit and oak-forward nose, giving cherry, black currant, plum, and toasted oak. It’s full-bodied with a smooth combination of tannin and acid, it delivers in the structure department and with just a bit of grip is made for a burger. Flavors hew close to the nose: cherry, black and red currant, black plum, baking spice, black pepper spice and a small hint of sweet mint on the back end. Enjoy this over the next two to three years with some simple red meat or barbecue. 89 points. Value: A.


And if you haven’t had a high quality merlot recently, you might be surprised. The wines I tasted for this article demonstrated compelling varietal typicity, senses of place, layers and complexity, refinement, elegance and, yes, intrigue. Some of them are better than many, if not most, similarly priced cabernet sauvignons. I make this last point because when it comes to food pairings, the Venn Diagram of merlot and cabernet shows a lot of overlap. If you placed the wines reviewed in this article in a blind tasting with cabernets of equal quality, the merlots would do better than many would expect.

So, heading into the winter when temperatures drop and we start reaching for heavier reds, it is the perfect time to give merlot another try. Let go of your previous notions of the grape, open your mind and head for the merlot isle (or section on the website). Take a deep breath, put a few in your cart and share them with your family and friends. And, pay attention to the role merlot places in the red wines you drink; it’s not by accident that talented winemakers everywhere use it in their best wines. Let the final few months of 2019 be the time you reacquaint yourself with merlot.

Other merlot reviews:

2014 Alcance Merlot Gran Reserva (Chile) – The dark nose boasts penetratingly deep sweet oak, maraschino cherry, smoke, black plum, black currant and cassis. It’s full bodied and lush on the palate with fully integrated tannin and surprisingly tart acid, which throws the balance a bit on what is otherwise a nice structure. Flavors are a combination of raspberry, strawberry, tar, tobacco leaf and ground slightly bitter espresso bean. It finishes with a slightly floral note. Were it for less sharp and better integrated acid, this would be a really enjoyable wine. 88 points. Value: C.

2016 Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot Three Palms Vineyard – The exquisite nose offers aromas of lilac, rose petal, crushed Sweetarts, dehydrated strawberry, boysenberry, loam, pink peppercorn and graphite. It has a plush full body with sweet, fine grained Earl Grey tannin that blankets the palate and fine, precise acid that establishes needed tension. The structure is elegant and refined. The flavors are deeply layered and more confrontational than the nose, offering sweet plum, strawberry, tar, bitter cocoa, loam, black pepper and cassis. This is an expertly crafted with great potential to elevate itself over the next 10-20 years. 93 points. Value: C-.

2015 Freemark Abbey Merlot Bosché Vineyard – The aromas carry a sensual air about it, offering sweet cherry, mountain strawberry, crushed gravel, smashed flower petals and potting soil. On the palate, it has a full and svelte body with tightly-woven tannin and well-balanced acid. The structure holds a lot of promise with more age. The flavors check in with bruised cherry and blackberry, mocha, clove and pipe tobacco. While enjoyable now with a few hours in the decanter, I think this will improve demonstrably with at least five more years of bottle age. 92 points. Value: B.

2016 Hickinbotham Merlot The Revivalist (Australia) – A boisterous nose, it wafts sweet hickory smoke, eucalyptus, chewing tobacco, boysenberry, cherry preserves and orange zest. It hits a medium plus stature, the tannins are long, dense and restrained while the acid is slightly elevated. The structure and balance are professional and suggest the making of a wonderful steakhouse wine. The flavors balance nicely between cherry, strawberry, plum, iron, wet dark soil, toasted oak and unsweetened peppermint that collectively produce a deep, penetrating wine. This needs a few hours in the decanter, or better yet, at least five years in the cellar as there’s more there to develop. 92 points. Value: C.

2014 Kendall-Jackson Merlot Grand Reserve – The nose boasts toasted oak, wet gravely soil, strawberry and cherry. Its medium bodied with bright acid and weighty, but fairly imperceptible, tannin. The structure is solid and mouthfeel smooth. The flavors mostly ride the juicy acid and come in slightly sweet: fruit punch, finely ground dark roast coffee bean and cocoa powder. The finish adds sweet orange zest. Easy drinking. 89 points. Value: B.

2016 L’Ecole No. 41 Merlot Estate Walla Walla Valley – The deeply saturated nose wafts dark cherry sauce, black plum, cassis, beef jerky, graphite minerality and smokey black pepper. It’s not quite full-bodied, featuring round and broad tannins that are well integrated and nicely balanced with modest acid. The structure is classic high quality merlot. Flavors are as much savory as sweet due to strong doses of saline and dried tarragon. On the fruit side there’s cherry pit, strawberry, Acai, red plum and dried goji berry. Structurally this wine is ready to go, I say drink over the next five years. 90 points. Value: B.

2015 La Jota Vineyards Merlot – The nose offers really bright red and black currants and plums, red beat juice, graphite and mocha. Just short of full-bodied, this is a flirty wine on the palate due to lip-smackingly juicy acid that feels a few years shy of full integration. The tannins are just slightly chewy and sneak up on you with time in the mouth. The components and stuffing are there to build a top-shelf structure with another 5-10 years of aging. Flavors hit on cherry, plum, currant, bitter cocoa, graphite and wet, dense soil. The finish brings a tangy and incense-driven twist. 93 points. Value: B.

2015 Matanzas Creek Winery Merlot – A very plummy nose that also offers graphite, black tea bag and muddled cherry. Medium bodied with modest, smooth tannin. The acid, unfortunately, is bracingly sharp and seemingly volatile. It’s just off. Fruit flavors are on the darker and purpler sides with blueberry, plum and firm blackberry, while strong doses of cigar tobacco and graphite provide variety. The acid being off doesn’t make for a pleasant experience. 84 points. Value: F.

2014 Matanzas Creek Winery Merlot Jackson Park Bennett Valley – The nose has a nice combination of black plum, boysenberry, muddled and mulberry-spiced blueberry and violet, though it has a slightly alcoholic kick at the very end that I imagine will fade with time. Its medium bodied with slightly thin acid and diffuse, fine-grained tannin. The structure has everything it needs to be complete but isn’t actually cohesive or substantive. Similar to the nose, The fruit flavors are blue, though the blueberry far out plays the boysenberry here. Mocha swirls around the fruit, as does pencil shavings and purple florals. There are attractive elements to this, but it’s hard to get past what feels like a missed opportunity to build a more substantive structure. 90 points. Value: D.

2016 Pahlmeyer Merlot – This is a stiff, tight wine. I ended up decanting it for 24 hours and it’s still very closed. This needs years. At the moment, it has a subdued nose of muddled cherry, loam, graphite, tar, turkey jerky and mountain strawberry. On the palate, it’s full bodied with dense and fine-grained oak tannin that coats the mouth and finishes slightly bitter, all the while overpowering the juicy acid. This has the structure of a wine that can evolve over two decades. Flavors hit on cherry, espresso, black pepper, cinnamon and dark chocolate. I wouldn’t touch this for another seven years (at least). It has tremendous upside. 91 points. Value: D.

2016 Rutherford Hill Merlot Cask Reserve – A potent nose delivers hedonistic aromas maraschino cherry, fruit leather, sweet dark cocoa, wet soil and graphite minerality, black pepper and sweat leather. It’s full bodied with significant fine grained tannin and juicy, sharp acid. The fruit is quite pure, dominated at the moment by red varieties of plum, strawberry, tart cherry and rhubarb. There are shadows of blood orange, cigarette tobacco and espresso grounds. This is showing a lot of promise, it will grow into something really impressive in another five plus years. 92 points. C-.

2015 Rutherford Hill Merlot Napa Valley – The nose features sweet aromas of spiced cherry and blackberry compotes, leather, cola and vanilla. The full body offers refined grainy tannin that is well integrated with modest acid that combine to produce a seamless and velvety mouthfeel. Raspberry, cherry, orange zest, spicy black pepper and bitter cinnamon. It’s a complete if singular merlot. 91 points. A.

2014 Rutherford Hill Oakville Merlot – This does benefit from decanting. The nose is perfumed and elevated, quite beautiful and delicate. It offers red currant, red plum, holiday fruit cake, loam, well-worm leather and violet. The full body is built on a dense and cocoa powder-dusty tannin structure and moderate acid. The flavors include raspberry, strawberry, under ripe boysenberry, dark cocoa, graphite minerality and a blood orange kick on the finish. This is tasty, but it needs 3-5 years to unwind and really express itself, and will then evolve nicely for another 5-10 years. 92 points. Value C.

2013 Rutherford Hill Merlot Atlas Peak – The reserved but elegant nose offers cassis, pipe tobacco, dark chocolate cocoa powder, cherry compote, violet and high toned blood orange. The medium-weighted body offers densely packed fine grain tannin that oozes class. It balances beautifully with broad acid. The flavors are only starting to delineate: ripe strawberry, red plum, red currant, moist dark earth, graphite, unsweetened baking chocolate and a tomato leaf burst on the finish. This needs a few more years to fully unwind. 93 points. B+.

Try this Wine: Contrasting Food & Wine Pairings

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Pairing wine and food can be daunting, even for the well-trained. The most famous guidance, to match red wine with meat and white wine with seafood, actually turns out to be relatively true in theory but also misguided in reality. It’s too unscientific to be universal, and misses the critical factor that how something is seasoned and cooked is as, if not more, important than what it is before it’s cooked.

One of my favorite pairings is steak au poivre with a really well-aged dry or semi-dry riesling, which is a perfect example of why that famous guidance is misleading. In general, wine should be more acidic than the food. This is especially true when the food is fatty, like this steak example, because the acid helps our taste buds and digestion process the fat, allowing more flavors to be detectable while making the meal go down a bit easier. Also, white wine tends to provide more contrast to the food, any food, than does red wine, so if you want the wine to stand up to, and stand out from, the heavy steak, a white is better suited to do that.

This last point on contrasting versus complementary wine and food pairings is really the main point of this post. When people think about pairing food and wine, they often default to finding the complementary pairing. Not only is it easier, but it’s more natural – we tend to look for compatibility in nearly every aspect of life – and can be very satisfying if achieved.

However, what I want to suggest in this post is that successful contrasting wine and food pairings can be both more fun and more satisfying. Here is another example: there’s nothing better than a fried fish sandwich with a good bottle of trousseau to wash it down.

I'm glad we're the kind of people who aren't above pairing wine with nachos.

Source: someecards.com

Pre-planned pairings aside, sometimes you get lucky and stumble on a good pairing. One of my wife’s favorite games to play is getting through dinner and a glass of wine, and then asking if she can have (insert random snack) with another glass. It can drive me crazy, especially when it’s a special bottle of wine and she asks about a poorly fitting snack.

Earlier this week, I opened a bottle of 2015 Wind Gap Gap’s Crown chardonnay, a nice bottle from a now non-operational winery using grapes from a phenomenal vineyard. I had made a big salad topped with sautéed radishes, roasted acorn squash, tomatoes, apples and shrimp. The wine was a bit too acidic and lean for the salad, so the plan became to enjoy the wine after the meal was over.

When we finished the salad, Kayce began her game. She asked if the wine would go with Goldfish crackers. My instincts kicked in and I nearly defaulted to “no,” but I hesitated as I thought about it. “You know what, that might actually work.” She grabbed the Goldfish, and oh man, it was awesome. We had stumbled on to brilliance.

Let me show you what I mean by comparing the tasting notes of the wine pre and post Goldfish. Here’s a note on the aromas, which don’t change with the food, just to get it out of the way: a high-toned and slightly austere bouquet combining sharp lemon and lime zests, slate and crushed gravel, spring flower petals and honeysuckle.

Pre-Goldfish palate: barely medium-bodied with very crisp, slightly juicy acid that is quite long and precisely linear. Flavors include Meyer lemon, tangerine juice, slate minerality, Kaffir lime leaf and starfruit.

Now, here is the post-Goldfish palate: medium-plus in body with rounder, softer and buoyant acid that cuts through the cheese flavor nicely. The palate broadens, adding just a bit of sweetness and more acidic grip to the texture. It’s a more pleasant version of itself with the Goldfish pairing, and more enjoyable to drink.

I had so much fun with the pairing that I posted the above picture of the bottle with the Goldfish on Instagram and had a back-and-forth with friend and fellow wine blogger Isaac Baker of Terroirist.com. Isaac has done this kind of pairing before, and added that Goldfish go particularly well with Champagne. I’m curious to try that combination, and experiment with other cheesy crackers and bright white wines.

These unexpected wine-food combos that work because they contrast each other, rather than complement each other, are really satisfying because they are surprising and don’t hew to normal comfort zones. Try some contrasting wine-food pairings because no one should live their culinary lives according to what they already know. To provide some motivation, here are a few good places to start:

  • A sharp chardonnay with a cheesy cracker – look for wines that are lightly oaked or made in stainless or concrete. Quality producers in go-to regions make this easy. You can find these wines really anywhere in the world, but for short cuts check out Chablis, Oregon and the following spots in California: Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz and Sonoma.
  • Fried fish sandwich with trousseau – there isn’t a lot of trousseau out there, but from my experience those who make it do it in the traditional fashion (i.e. light to medium bodied with good acid and fine tannin), which is what you want for this. We had a 2017 Arnot-Roberts trousseau from the North Coast of California with our fried fish sandwiches last weekend, and the duo brought the house down with my in-laws. Traditionally most trousseau comes from the Jura region in France, but there are good producers of it elsewhere. For the record, we make our fried fish sandwiches with lightly breaded and pan-fried white fish (catfish, porgy and cod all work well), processed cheese, Portuguese rolls and a sauce made in equal parts of ketchup, whole grain mustard and mayonnaise. Don’t dare use real cheese, I promise you it isn’t nearly as good.
  • Fried chicken and Champagne (or other acidic sparkling wine) – this is one of those under-the-radar classic food pairings. The acid and bubbles cut through the fattiness and crispiness of the chicken beautifully and can help you put down that last drumstick you wouldn’t otherwise consider a smart move. The beauty of this pairing is you can be flexible with the chicken and the wine. For the chicken, even the KFCs and Bojangles deliver in very real ways. For the wine, you need good acid and bubbles. You can’t go wrong with Champagne, but Cremants from Burgundy, Loire and Jura work beautifully as well, as do some of the better sparkling wines made elsewhere.
  • Steak au Poivre and an aged dry or semi-dry riesling – this isn’t easy to pull off, but if done right the fattiness and pepper of the steak goes just perfectly with the acid and nuttiness of an aged riesling. For this, quality matters because cheap beef tastes bad and cheap riesling can’t reach the point of maturation needed. The cut of beef matters less than the quality and preparation, but for my money I go with hanger steak. On the wine side, go for trusted producers with at least ten years of age (15 or more is preferable) that have been properly stored the entire time. Don’t go sweeter than German’s Kabinett classification (maximum 188 grams of sugar per liter).
  • Potato chips and Champagne (optional: and caviar) – late night snack craving meets fine wine meets decadence. In an ideal world, I’d start every dinner party with a plate of potato chips topped with caviar and glasses of Champagne.
  • Dry sparkling wine with mac and cheese – this works best if the cheese is a soft and creamy variety.
  • Full bodied chardonnay and bacon – I’ve not tried this yet, but a friend of mine swears by it. I’m told it’s critical that the chardonnay be rich enough to stand up to the saltiness and smokiness of the bacon, which makes good sense. Just make sure not to lose chardonnay’s acid as it is key to handling the bacon’s fat.

Mosel’s Exciting Steep Slope Producer: Markus Hüls

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Markus Hüls of Mosel’s Weingut Markus Hüls

When it comes to the Mosel, I feel like seeing is believing. Not that Mosel’s reputation as the riesling mecca requires an eyewitness experience to confirm – tasting alone can make someone a true believer. But reaching an inherent understanding of what makes so special does necessitate a physical experience beyond the wine itself. I draw this distinction from my own recent experience. We spent a few days there earlier this summer, and though I have no brilliant idea of how I’m going to adequately convey my own Mosel journey in writing, I’m going to try because now I get it.

Riesling itself can be a hard grape to get, which complicates things for Mosel (or any other riesling region). I, like many people I think, didn’t immediately get its appeal. It can be made in so many different styles that it’s hard to think about how to think about it. That it’s made in sweet, semi-sweet and dry styles, and aren’t labeled clearly as to which level of sweetness is in the bottle, is the first obstacle, and a major one.

Flavors and aromas can throw one off as well. Some smell like petrol – which is a hard thing to grasp in wine – while some don’t. How am I supposed to know how lanolin tastes? What bizarre descriptors those two are. The acid can be bracingly strong, which isn’t always managed well and doesn’t always appeal. This can lead to dominating and biting citrus flavors, which aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. And the stuff from Germany, man, good luck reading the label, let alone understanding what you’re getting (this can be true even with American riesling). Is it more accurate to classify Alsace as German or French given its history and the people who live there? The questions abound.

By comparison, understanding more popular white grapes like chardonnay can be done in your sleep. Because riesling doesn’t easily fall into simple dichotomies or straightforward categories, it can be intimidating to approach. No wonder riesling has a hard time selling.

Going to Mosel doesn’t make riesling more approachable so much as it organizes the learning process in a way that makes it more manageable. Being able to match a word from a label with the place you’re standing in helps a great deal, and being able to compare where you are to the vineyards across the river (while putting a name and image on those vineyards as well) helps ground you – and the label – in reality. It’s like finding an anchor word or two for an otherwise empty Friday New York Times crossword puzzle. It’s like finally putting a face to that name you’ve emailed with many times over, only the face isn’t what you expected and that 60 second interaction EXPLAINS SO MUCH (amiriiiiiight?).

Even still, Mosel is itself a complicated place, and it begins with the name. The region was referred to as Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, the names of the three rivers in the region, prior to 2007, when wines were categorized that way regardless of which river valley they came from. However, in a pyrrhic victory for consumer education, wines from any of the three river valleys are now all called Mosel.

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A map of the Mosel river from 1897

In any given wine region, terroir within that region can differ enough from locale to locale to impart differences, small and large, among the region’s wines. When it comes to Mosel, there are significant differences across the region; we’re dealing with one of the more diverse regions out there. The geography is as physically striking as it is challenging to understand from a wine perspective. The rivers form incredibly curvy spines that leave little flat land available for planting grapes, and it’s downright crazy that people prefer to use what limited flat land there is to build, you know, towns, instead of plant vineyards. So up the incredibly steep slopes the vines go.

Many of the vineyards are planted on these slopes. Over 40% of Mosel’s vineyards are planted on slopes at least 30 degrees in pitch. That’s ridiculous, and also breathtaking. The northern Mosel is home to the Bremmer Calmont vineyard, which leans upwards of 65 degrees in slope, making it Europe’s steepest vineyard (which makes me very curious as to which vineyard outside of Europe goes steeper). Further, many vineyards are broken up by small cliffs, a nice little complicating factor for vineyard work. Spoiler alert: there will be a follow up post about Bremmer Calmont because we hiked through it and tried several wines from it.

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As the vineyards track the curvature of the rivers, they are planted on all aspects of orientation with the sun. Further, the soils change as one travels from one end of the Mosel to the other. Here’s how the industry group describes Mosel’s soils:

“Clayish slate and greywacke in the lower Mosel Valley (northern section); Devonian slate in the steep sites and sandy, gravelly soil in the flatlands of the middle Mosel Valley; primarily shell-limestone (chalky soils) in the upper Mosel Valley (southern section, parallel with the border of Luxembourg).”

That’s some serious range. When combined with slope, orientation and other factors, it’s no wonder Mosel produces such diverse rieslings.

These vineyards appear unbelievably difficult to harvest. Incredibly, it’s done by hand – though perhaps it’d be more incredible if machinery could be configured to work on such steep and narrowly-planted rows of vineyards (the spacing I saw on the steeper slopes was around two to three feet, which is objectively narrow). Both seem impossible.

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For thousands of years, Mosel has been and continues to be one of the most human-intensive places to grow and harvest wine grapes. Despite the intimating geography, winemaking in Mosel dates back to the Roman times and some of the cities that dot it date back even further to the Stone Age. Wine is a significant part of Mosel’s history and identity.

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Notice the monorail running straight up the middle of the vineyard

Many wineries have installed “monorails” in their vineyards to make harvesting grapes easier, safer and more efficient. These are long metal tracks that wind their way up and down the vineyards with small “cars” that carry 1-2 people and several baskets of grapes. Though picking the grapes requires getting off the monorail to walk the rows (the monorails bisect the rows rather than run parallel with them), the monorail allows workers to get from one area of the vineyard to another with greater ease, and makes transporting the grapes easier as well. This video from Wine Enthusiast’s Anne Krebiehl and this one on Youtube give POV perspectives of riding these monorails. Both are must-watches, so go ahead and click them. Just promise to come back, pretty please.

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As we hiked through the 65 degree slopes of Bremmer Calmont, I had to fight to keep my fear of heights in check and my vertigo in hibernation. Walking by (and under) these monorails made the thought of riding them damn near mind-blowing. I just can’t imagine riding these metal slides, built for small people, on such steep slopes while handling containers of such delicate and prized contents. How there aren’t deaths every year during harvest is beyond me, and helps the case of those who argue for the existence of an omnipotent and merciful creator.

We tasted a number of wines while in Mosel, but it was the experience we had with Markus Hüls of Weingut Markus Hüls that connected the visuals with the grapes and the winemaking in a way that made sense (“weingut” means “winery” in German). Hüls is a Weygandt-Metzler Importing discovery, which is a good indication that the wine carries a unique and precise personality.

The slogan on Hül’s website is “A 100% passion for steep slope wines,” which is more or less how Markus began describing the genesis of his winery during our tasting. Markus isn’t the first generation winemaker in his family; his dad makes wine as well. After interning for the highly esteemed Weingut Markus Molitor and working for his dad, Markus struck out on his own with the 2012 vintage. Part of his decision to start his own label came from disagreement with his father about where to plant vineyards: he wanted to find the steepest slopes he could while his father preferred the (relative) ease of flatter vineyards. Hence the slogan. Markus’ three vineyards – Kirchlay, Letterlay and Steffenberg, respectfully – are on steep slopes.

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The author with Markus

Hüls is set up in the village of Kröv, with the winery and tasting room in town by the river and the vineyards on the hills that rise up from it. Markus does everything organically, and puts an immense amount of attention into maintaining healthy vineyards. He made the decision to go organic because it “produces the best wine – nature does the best winemaking by itself. It needs time, not intervention, to do this.” To this end, Markus does native fermentation and allows it to kick off on its own. While most big Mosel producers go from harvest to bottling in around three weeks’ time, Markus’ fermentations alone take 2-4 weeks just to start. Low and slow. While the majority of his production is riesling, he has 0.7 hectares of spätburgunder, the German name for pinot noir. In total, Markus produces 40,000 bottles (about 3300 cases) of wine.

Riesling lovers tend to have at least one thing in common: they like acidic wines. Acid is integral to good riesling, so let’s discuss it for a moment because the most impressive theme of Markus Hüls’ wines are the acid they carry, and despite the region being known for acidic wines, Markus’ deliver a particularly engaging and twitchy version that adds really cool texture and structure. As the coffee roaster in Syracuse who I bought beans from every week while I was in graduate school there once told me, acid means flavor, and this as true in coffee as it is in wine. Though far from chemically accurate, the comparison of acid to salt in this context helps. Salt not only brings its own complex flavors, but also elevates other flavors that it comes into contact with and adds brightness to the situation.

Note: If you ever find yourself in Syracuse and in need of a good cup of coffee or coffee beans, The Kind Coffee Company delivers more than anyone else in town.

Acid is also part of the physical structure of a wine, which means you can feel the acid as well as taste it. Since white wine doesn’t carry tannins like red wine does, it means acid is the most important component of the physical structure. Good acid levels and integration lead to a complete wine that dazzles the taste buds while poor acid levels or integration can put one off riesling for life.

Riesling is naturally high in acid, which means every winery making riesling has to deal with it. The ideal situation is that the grapes are grown such that they get to the winery with desirable levels of acid and the winemaker doesn’t have to intervene by either acidulating (adding acid), deacidifying (removing acid) or moderating (e.g. doing at least some oak aging, which adds tannin and therefore reduces the percentage of the structure that is acid). I harped on the role of good farming in winemaking in the Emidio Pepe post a few weeks ago and in my Cork Report profile of Virginia’s Barboursville Winery recently, and Hüls is another case-in-point: as Markus said, if you grow good grapes then you don’t need to intervene. The evidence of this theory can be found in the wines of Hüls, Pepe and Barboursville.

I’ve also said in multiple Good Vitis posts that when it comes to tasting wine, it’s often times best to start with the lower acid wines and move to the higher ones, even if that means going from red to white (e.g. pinot noir before chardonnay in Burgundy or Oregon). The same holds true for Mosel, and I was thankful when Markus pulled his pinot noir first.

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Enjoy8ing Hül’s Spätburgunder

We started with the single vineyard Spätburgunder 2016 from the Letterlay vineyard, which comes from French vines planted at fairly high density (over 3,200 per acre) with the aim of building greater complexity and concentration. These vines, like all those that Markus cultivates, receive zero irrigation. The earthy nose has a lot of crispy red fruit on it – think strawberry, rhubarb, plum and cranberry – and funky soil and fungus aromas. The palate is very fresh and spry with a variety of crushed red berries that suggest they will get sweeter with age, and modest bell pepper. I’m rarely a fan of German or Austrian pinot noir largely because they seem to lack depth or complexity, but I could crush a bottle of this now while letting a case age for another five to ten years because it has enough guts to develop into something more.

We also tried the 2017 Spätburgunder, which I found very special. It offered a nose that reminded me of my favorite Oregon pinot producer, Cameron, who is known for beautiful combinations of spiced fruit and funk. The nose offered ripe and spiced red and black fruit that comes off beautifully sweet to go with a variety of damp and dry soils and rose hip. The light body has spry acid that is slightly tart at this stage, which carries the mineral-driven profile that balances red and purple fruit with scorched earth and a taste I couldn’t pinpoint, but called “almost peppermint.” These are the first grapes harvested in any of Hüls’ vineyards.

As we tasted the Spätburgunder, Markus prepped the rieslings, explaining the differences between the 2017 and 2018 vintages as we were going to try wines from both. The earlier vintage produced more acid and resulted in wines made for the long haul. By comparison, 2018 was a riper year (read: less acid, more sugar, bigger wines) and led to wines better for immediate drinking.

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We began with a side-by-side of Markus’ entry-level rieslings that illustrated the vintage difference. The 2018 Riesling has a very fruit-forward, very ripe nose. The high alcohol (12%, so high is relative to region) really boosts the ripe cantaloupe, tropical fruits and baked pear. It’s full-bodied and round with soft streaks of acid that carry banana, pineapple and green and red apples. It’s a pure, very clean and enjoyable wine. The 2017, though, is more complex (remember, higher acid vintage, and acid means flavor). The nose is higher-toned with a profile that has a distinct lees character. Sharper citrus aromas, less tropics and more stone minerality (flint stands out) than its younger sibling. The acid carries some wonderfully sweet citrus and perfumed (think potpourri) flavors. Starfruit, mandarin and green papaya feature as well. The somewhat chalky texture speaks to the elegance of the acid and build of the wine. This one has good a good ten+ year life span. At around $20, this is an unbelievable value.

We moved on to the 2017 Schieferspiel, a blend of the Letterlay and Steffensberg vineyards. The nose is very concentrated and wrapped up tightly, indicating the wine’s youth. Stone fruit, grapefruit, white flowers and flint are just starting to emerge. The palate, which is exceptional, balances banana, young coconut, perfume, white pepper and green apple. It carries an acidic tension that pulls the wine along the sides of the mouth, a sensation that captivates the mind as the finish carries on for ages.

From there we went into the single vineyard wines – which he refers to has his cru wines –  starting with the 2017 Steffensberg. Markus said this vineyard, he believes, has the best promise of his holdings. The nose offers a basket of stone fruit aromatics, dominated by apricot and nectarine, dusted in nutmeg. The palate is dominated right now by a big variety of citrus – lemon, lime, under ripe orange and Buddha’s Hand – that is kept in tantalizing tension by the bright, juicy and tense acid with starfruit and green apple. This one offers a strong promise of developing that profound nuttiness that the best rieslings take on with significant age. Among the best of the tasting.

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Next came the 2017 riesling from the Letterlay vineyard and vines around 45 years of age. In the summer, Markus drops around half the fruit in these blocks, and at harvest takes the grapes closest to the vine where the flavors are the most concentrated. Then, during sorting, he takes the best 10% of the clusters, destems them, and does whole berry fermentation. This process results in a compelling profile of citrus, sweet and tangy apricot and pear, and bit of skin tannin that adds weight and another dimension to the structure while slightly reducing the acid’s prominence, which remains taught and long. It also has a small amount of residual sugar, but it’s barely perceptible. Though the grapes for this wine are grown only 300 meters from Steffensburg, it is distinctive from the other site in more ways than just the procedural differences.

At this juncture, Markus introduced the 2017 Alte Reben, which at 30 grams of sugar per liter that registers a four out of ten on Markus’ sweetness scale (each Hüls wine is labeled with a number on this scale in an effort to educate the consumer, a labeling feature I believe every winery should adopt with riesling). The aromas are mouthwatering and dominated by a variety of peach and peach dishes: fresh peach, preserved peach, peach pie, peach stewed with vanilla, the list goes on. The palate is very tropical with juicy mango, pear and lychee that are highlighted by honey and vanilla. It finishes with juicy peach and pear sprinkled with baking spice. This was my favorite wine of the lineup.

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We then moved on to the 2018 Kabinett, a classification of wine under a designation called Pradikatswein that refers to the ripeness of the grapes when they are harvested, and is applied to wines typically with some residual sugar. Kabinett is the least sweet of the six Pradikatswein classified wines. Hüls’ opens with a nose dominated by Asian pear, candied lime peel, vanilla and sweet cantaloupe. The fruit on the palate is honeyed in nature, featuring banana, limesickle and carmel-vanilla flavors. At 9% alcohol and 48 grams of sugar per liter, Markus pointed out that this is very “true to the type for Kabinett from Mosel.” It’s a killer wine, and was my wife’s favorite.

We finished with the 2017 Auslese bottle, Auslese being third of six levels of harvest brix (a measurement of sugar content) in the Pradikatswein classification. High quality Auslese wines famously age well for decade after decade after decade. One of my notes on this wine is that I would love to come back to it thirty years from now. Depending on the vintage, it carries between 100 and 115 grams of sugar per liter, which limits the alcohol to around 8%. The acid is remarkably sharp given these other figures, which only adds to its complexity and ability to improve with time. The nose smells tantalizingly wonderful with an array of dry and sweet notes that suggest botrytis, though I did not ask for confirmation. Markus selected the grapes for this specifically with making this wine in mind. At first it seems a bit unsettled – it needs time in bottle to become one with itself – but the juicy acidity does wonders for the honey and sweet fruit and vanilla. This will eventually be a real stunner.

Our time in Mosel was a very fun learning experience for us. Riesling continues to wow me. As I try more versions of it, I’m internalizing how it’s one of the most diverse wine grapes in existence. Its ability to be produced in so many different styles and its natural tendency to take on terroir-specific characteristics combined with the ability of higher quality riesling to develop wildly cool characteristics with age make it one of the most exciting and surprising wines in the world today (despite the fact it’s been around for centuries). Within this context, Markus Hüls is a revelation in steep slope Mosel wine that delivers an acid profile defining something both unique and exceptional. Whether you have a chance to visit or purchase the wines closer to home, it’s all worthwhile when it comes to Hüls.

A True Oregon Estate: Left Coast Cellars

Latitude 45

Left Coast’s Latitude 45 vineyard

I’ve been to all shapes and sizes of wineries. One of my first winery visits in Virginia was to a small producer whose tasting room was the top floor of the small farm house with a nice view where the owners lived, and the winery an adjacent utility building. Outside my hometown of Seattle, I’ve been to the two-million-cases-per-year Chateau Ste. Michelle, which sits on acres and acres of land manicured for visitors’ delight. I’ve been to Napa’s Castello di Amorosa, which is an enormous authentic rendition of a 13th Century Tuscan Castle that takes several hours to fully explore. In Oregon, I’ve gone to the large and stately Domaine Serene, and hung out on the hillside perch that is the tiny Martin Woods. My favorite Israeli and (Republic of) Georgian wineries are effectively in the homes of the owners.

Some wineries source all of their grapes from vineyards they don’t own, while others produce all their wine from grapes they grow themselves (the term for the latter is “estate”).

The lesson I’ve taken from this range of experiences is that good wine is made by dedicated people independent of their winery resources. That said, while the quality of wine is one thing, it’s not the only thing that makes for interesting wine. There are loads of business models variables that are interesting in and of themselves that add to the intellectual experience that can come with wine. Through a range of samples and a conversation with winemaker Joe Wright, I’ve started to get to know Left Coast Cellars, which is located in the Willamette Valley, and their business model. They do it all themselves, and then some.

Founded in 2003, the 500 acre property has 160 acres under vine, which is farmed under both LIVE and Salmon Safe certifications. This effort to farm in environmentally-friendly ways is indicative of an approach to managing the entire property with an eye towards responsible environmental stewardship.

Two projects, encompassing 170 non-vine acres, are managed in partnership with the US Fish and Wildlife Service with the goal of turning them into a permanent wildlife refuge. The first, measuring 100 acres, is an ecological compensation area, while the remaining 70 acres are dedicated to an old growth oak forest restoration effort. Every year, the winery hosts a 5 and 10k race called the “Run for the Oaks” to support this latter project. Further, a good portion of the estate runs off electricity produced by solar panels mounted on the winery. The estate also produces honey, and offers customers a $1 credit for each empty Left Coast wine bottle that is returned.

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Run for the Oaks 5/10k

Speaking of customers, Left Coast offers a variety of “experiences,” including a wine and pizza pairing, property tours in a 1950 Chevy flatbed truck and live music, that allow visitors to turn winery visits into a time to enjoy the property and atmosphere. This is all in addition to a wide array of wines produced exclusively off estate fruit and the tasting room where wine is the focus. The whole Left Coast package, if you will, is a responsibly-run comprehensive business that takes not just the wine into account, but also the health of the property and how it can provide enjoyment, tranquility and sustenance to humans and nature alike for the long term.

The vines stretch out over nine different vineyards on the property, which yielded about 350 tons of fruit in 2018, good enough for about 20,000 cases of wine. Pinot noir represents 65-70% of production in a given year (which is made into pinot noir rouge, rosé and pinot noir blanc), with the remainder spread across pinot gris, chardonnay, pinot blanc (not to be confused with pinot noir blanc), viognier and syrah. This gives winemaker Joe Wright and his team a lot to play with.

Joe has been making wine for 23 years in Willamette Valley, and counts himself quite lucky to be at Left Coast. “I’m sick and tired of manipulating wine,” he told me when we spoke, adding that “I want to make them in the vineyard,” meaning that the focus is on harvesting the best grapes possible. “I get to do that here,” he said.

The Orchards

The Orchards vineyard

As our conversation continued, he proved this point several times over. When asked about tannin development, he explained that the vineyards produce grapes with naturally thick skin, which means naturally high tannin potential, and that means ensuring that crop levels are low enough to produce ample space around the clusters for air to circulate and cool the grapes, which keeps the skin tannin at bay. It means picking enough leaves to allow airflow to get in to the backside of the clusters so they ripen similarly there as they do on the frontside, which helps produce higher ratios of anthocyanin to phenolics, the former being the more pleasant and interesting of the two types of tannin.

While on this subject, Joe told me (and the samples I received supported him) that Left Coast’s wines are capable of decades of positive evolution. He had recently opened a 2002 pinot noir and it was brilliant. “Wines aren’t wine until they’ve been bottled for five or six years,” he said. “When wine goes into the bottle, it’s basically just fermented juice. If you taste base wines, they’re not complete. It’s the things that happen over time during aging that makes it wine.” Right now he’s drinking Left Coast’s 2008s.

I was sent eight different bottles: four whites, one rosé and three reds. Two stood out above the rest: the 2018 White Pinot Noir and the 2015 Right Bank pinot noir. The 2018 Rosé of pinot noir was also impressive. Based on these three alone, it’s evident that Left Coast is making serious wine while also spending considerable time and resources on non-wine related projects. This balance, to say the least, is impressive.

Tasting notes and scores:

2018 Left Coast White Pinot Noir – A white wine made from pinot noir, the reticent nose offers aromas of tangerine, yellow and white florals and white pepper. Full bodied with a slightly zesty, or twitchy, sensation. The acid is well-defined, but spreads out wide and really coats the mouth nicely. Flavors are slightly sweet-edged, though the lemon zest and stony minerality are both strong and welcomed balancing agents. Strawberry, sweet banana, Sprite, lemon curd, cherry blossom, green herbaciousness and orchid. An unusual, interesting and serious wine. This would be interesting to revisit in a year or two. 93 points. Value: A+.

2015 Left Coast Right Bank pinot noir – This has a dark and hedonistic nose. The aromas are saturated cherry, blackberry and strawberry compote, baking spice and graphite-laced smoke that is polished by blood orange zest. This is full-bodied with enormously juicy acidity. The tannins are effectively seamless and highly polished. The structure on this is complete. The flavor profile is slightly bloody in nature, which highlights red plum, strawberry, raspberry and huckleberry fruit. There is a dose of saline to go with bacon fat on the back end. This is an impressive wine with an in-your-face orientation. 93 points. Value: A.

2018 Left Coast Rosé of pinot noir – The nose is a summery concoction of strawberry, cherry, watermelon and wet crushed rock. Nearly full-bodied, this lush and brightly acidic rose gives generous doses of sweet cranberry, strawberry, orange peel and mean and steely streaks of flint and white pepper. Nudges towards the serious end of rosés, this could handle a wide array of even more serious food. 91 points. Value: B+.

2015 Left Coast Truffle Hill pinot noir – This is a very young 2015. I put it through a Venturi four times and then decanted for two hours, and it still seems a bit closed and young. The nose offers blackberry, raspberry, kirsch, red currant and Allspice. It is medium bodied with well-integrated and smooth tannin and slightly bright acid. The structure is refined. Flavors hit on a bunch of red berries and plum and are highlighted by slightly tart Acai. Hard to call this a fruit bomb given its structural finesse, but it is fruit-forward at this stage with only a slight undercurrent of baking spice. I suspect this will start to reveal itself around 2022 and impress in 2025. 91 points. Value: B.

2016 Left Coast Cali’s Cuvée pinot noir – Not the most saturating of noses, but it’s a touch hedonistic. The fruit is dominated by blackberry, with undertones of boysenberry and strawberry. There’s a theme of spiced mulberry as well that’s really nice and works well with the black pepper. It’s of medium weight. While it’s smooth on entry and exit, the tannins break out a bit and give it some nice gritty texture while it’s in the mouth. The acid is a touch sharp, though it doesn’t ruin the wine. The flavors are on the darker end of the pinot spectrum and balance dense fruit with restrained spice nicely. The fruit is brambly and plummy and saved from saturation by the acid. The baking spices really come in strong on the mid palate and finish. This is a great value among pinot from anywhere, especially Oregon. 90 points. Value: A.

2017 Left Coast Truffle Hill chardonnay – A slightly reserved, if prototypical nose of Meyer lemon, key lime pie, white pepper spice and flint. It’d medium bodied and quite round and smooth. The acid is well-placed. Flavors are light and delicate and very pleasant: sweet lemon, sweet white and yellow floral notes, honeysuckle and key lime. A very enjoyable everyday chardonnay. 89 points. Value: B-.

2017 Left Coast The Orchards pinot gris – A very reticent, high-toned and linear nose, it wafts stone minerality and citrus zest. On the palate it’s a juicy medium body with well-fitted acid. Flavors are strawberry nectar-forward, touching on Meyer lemon, orange zest, banana peel, slate and white pepper as well. The finish holds a nice juiciness for an extended period of time, turning slightly savory at the end. 88 points. Value: C+.

2017 Left Coast Queen Bee Bubbly (of pinot noir) – A surprisingly honeyed nose of…honey. Like, straight from the jar honey. Beyond that it’s slightly perfumed by way of jasmine and sweet Thai chili sauce. Quite pretty if a bit monolithic. It’s medium-bodied with bright and streaky, linear acid that the fine bubbles accentuate. Flavors hit on tart cherry and huckleberry, limesickle and slate/crushed gravel minerals. A fun, easy wine sparkling rosé. 88 points. Value: C.