Oregon Wine Month Extravaganza

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Willamette Valley is my favorite American wine region to visit. It has a near-optimal balance of beauty, tranquility, quality wine, quality people and proximity to a decently-sized airport. Though not mountainous in the snow-capped sense, it is an obvious valley with beautiful slopes, rolling hills and a discernible floor. Though remote in feel, its northern tip is barely an hour from Portland. Though dominated by world class pinot noir and chardonnay, it offers fantastic examples of other varieties as well, notably gamay, syrah, pinot gris and riesling in my book. Though world class in quality and price and winery aesthetics, its wine professionals are accessible and friendly and the pretense low. The Willamette Valley is what comes to mind when I think of a trip to wine country.

For those who cannot make it in-person, May was Oregon Wine Month (or so says the industry) and an excuse to delve into the State’s wines. I’m lucky enough to be planning a trip to Willamette in late July, but that didn’t mean I was about to let May slip by without spending serious time with Oregon wine. Jackson Family Wines (I’ll refer to them as “KJ” for Kendall-Jackson, their main label) was kind enough to send me an array of wines from their Oregon portfolio, and I divvied them up into sets of three to explore over five evenings at the end of the month. I posted comments and partial reviews on our Instagram and Facebook accounts, and promised this full write-up in June. Here we are, barely over deadline.

Some words on KJ before I talk about Oregon. I think the content on this blog demonstrates that a large majority of my focus is on the little guy. This isn’t so much a conscious decision I make, something born out of a David and Goliath complex or a distaste for corporations, but rather one driven by the reality that smaller producers tend to push the limits and experiment in interesting ways that catch my attention while producing wines that are, on balance, more engaging and satisfying than the big guys. Yet this is my second piece that heavily features KJ wineries, and in this case it has an exclusive focus on them. So what gives?

I was introduced to KJ corporate through a winemaker dinner I attended in Washington, DC featuring Shane Moore, winemaker at Oregon’s Zena Crown and Gran Moraine wineries, both of which are KJ properties. I wrote a piece on that wine dinner making the case for attending winemaker dinners, and have included Shane in several additional Good Vitis pieces, including a solo profile, because I respect the guy so damn much as a winemaking talent and all-around good dude. This led to a relationship with several people at KJ headquarters, which led to help organizing an incredible Napa trip in December of last year and the upcoming Willamette trip this summer. Through my interactions with KJ corporate people and the wineries they own, I came to appreciate just how much Barbara Banke, the chairman and proprietor of KJ, and her staff respect the soul of the wineries they purchase and don’t impinge, as far as I can tell, much on the wineries. Instead, KJ spends time and money on promoting the wines and authentic stories of the wineries and personalities that originally put them on KJ’s radar while providing the resources to foster growth and quality improvement. I’m sure it’s not all sunshine and puppies, and I certainly don’t want to project a sense that I know more than I do, but I enjoy many of the wineries they own on the merits of the wine and approach taken to make them.

Oregon AVAs Oregon Wine Press

Source: Oregon Wine Press

Oregon has more than one wine region, though I imagine Willamette is the best known. Oregon boasts eighteen American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), which are spread among three main areas. One runs the length of the Interstate 5 corridor (generously conceived for this purpose) between the Washington and California borders,  another comprises a good chunk of the northern border with Washington along the Columbia River, and the other along the state’s Eastern border. This geography covers a number of different terroirs. My favorite Oregon syrah is made by Cowhorn, which is located about 15 miles north of the California border, while my favorite pinot producer, Cameron, is a six hour drive to the north. Some of the most famed syrah produced by Washington wineries is, in fact, grown just south of the Washington-Oregon border in Northeastern Oregon. The Columbia Gorge, which runs East-West across the top of the State, is a growing wine region with a burgeoning reputation on both sides of the border. The wines covered in this piece, though all come from Willamette Valley, represent the Yamhill-Carlton and Eola-Amity AVAs as well as a few that are blends from across the Valley.

Yamhill-Carlton was established as an AVA in 2004. It’s about 40 miles east of the Pacific Ocean, and gets some weather buffering from the Coast Range Mountains, which top out at 3,500 feet above sea level, that stand between it and the ocean. To the north, Chehalem Mountain adds some additional protection, as do the Dundee Hills to the east. The soils are mainly marine sedimentary that lies on top of sandstone and siltstone, a combination that tends to moderate acid development.

Eola-Amity came online as an AVA two years after Yamhil-Carlton. It’s home to Oregon’s longest continuously operating winery, Honeywood Winery, and is located to the south and east of Yamhill-Carlton. Though more inland, it still receives good air flow through a break in the Coastal Range called the Van Duzer Corridor. This keeps the summers and winters temperate, and luckily for producers the rain tends to fall mostly outside the growing season. The soils are a mix of volcanic basalt, marine sendimentary and alluvial deposits, a combination leading to shallow and well-drained soils that help build concentration.

For the first night of this Oregon Wine Month project, I chose Yamhill-Carlton designates from Siduri and Gran Moraine and a Willamette Valley blend from Penner-Ash. Regarding the first two, it’s always fun to see how producers in the same area compare to each other, and in these two I got the contrast I wanted.

Siduri is a California winery focused on pinot noir started by Adam Lee, who also makes the wine. Adam recently sold Siduri to KJ, but agreed to stay on as winemaker. I was fortunate enough to enjoy an incredible evening of wine and discussion with Adam when he visited my area earlier this year, and so was excited to try his Oregon pinot. We exchanged some emails subsequently, and I asked him how he made Oregon wine living in California. It’s an interesting explanation, so I’m going to quote him:

“I’ve been making wine from Oregon grapes since 1995 (the second year of Siduri). We made our first wine, in 1994, at Lambert Bridge Winery where we worked in the tasting room. The GM at Lambert Bridge owned some land in Oregon that he had planted with pinot noir and was impressed enough with what we did in 1994 to sell us grapes in 1995. That’s how we got into Oregon. Since that 1995 vintage we always shipped grapes back to California using a refrigerated truck. The shipping itself is pretty easy, and if the truck is set right around freezing the grapes arrive in fantastic shape. Beginning with the 2015 vintage, the sale to Jackson Family Wines, and the larger quantity of wine we were making, we started making more of the wine up in Oregon. So we trucked some of the stuff down but made more of it up in Oregon. I’d fly up every week on Monday, back on Wednesday. Ryan Zepaltas, our assistant winemaker, flew up on Wednesday and back on Friday. So we basically spent the entire week up there.”

I also asked Adam how he might make his Oregon wines differently than he does his Californian bottles. “There are many years where we do have to do things differently with Oregon fruit than California fruit….but in the last few vintages (2014-2016) there were more similarities in the grapes than in other vintages. Thus there wasn’t nearly as much to do differently,” he told me. “One thing we do always is take a look at malic percentages. Oregon can come in with higher malic levels – so although the grapes come in with great acidity, a lot of it falls out through malolactic fermentation. That really wasn’t an issue in 2015.  In fact, 2015 was just about as ideal of a harvest as you could imagine. Arguably the best year we’ve ever had in Oregon.”

The Siduri and Gran Moraine Yamhill-Carltons, like most of the wines in this article, come from the 2015 vintage. I asked Shane Moore, Gran Moraine’s winemaker, about the vintage, and he threw a serious of adjectives at me: “Expressive. Super heady. Great acidity. Transparency.” Capped off with “Pinot lovers rejoice!”

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Siduri’s Yamhill-Carlton is a blend of Gran Moraine Vineyard and the vineyard at Gran Moraine Winery (yes, these are two distinctly different vineyards). Adam explained that “the vineyard at the winery is entirely dry farmed and, even early in the growing season, I knew it was going to be the first grapes picked. You could tell by looking at the early yellowing leaves. That fruit did, indeed, arrive early. We destemmed it all. We let the fruit at the Gran Moraine hang longer (with careful irrigation), which allowed us to get riper stems and utilize more whole clusters in those ferments.”

I found the nose of the Siduri to be deep and hedonistic, offering sweet cherry, cola, ink, cassis, kirsch and rose. It’s full bodied with smooth and plush tannin and bright acidity, everything appearing in good balance that I think will improve even more with time. Flavors are tarter than the nose, delivering cherry, cranberry, huckleberry, wet pavement, pastel florals and a small dose of wet soil. 91 pts, value B+.

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The Gran Moraine, in my experience with this and previous vintages, delivers incredible value for pinot noir. The slightly restrained nose wafts boysenberry, dark earth, olive brine, lightly tanned leather and orange zest. Boarding on full bodied, it has velvety tannins and shiny acid that’s well integrated. The substantial depth of this one demands a good decant, and benefits from keeping it in your mouth for an extended period of time to experience its development. I think this has good medium-term aging potential. Flavors hit on pomegranate, acai, plum, black olive, currant, wet soil and juniper berry. 92 pts, value A-.

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The Penner-Ash Willamette Valley pinot noir is distributed nationally and shows up on a lot of restaurant wine lists around the country. It serves as Penner-Ash’s entry point pinot, and is one that tries to strike a widely appealing profile. I’ve had a number of vintages and it tends to show very little variation from year-to-year, making its consistency an appealing asset for consumers who like knowing what they’re getting each time. Nevertheless, it usually offers good depth for the price, and is one that I always wish I could have a few years of bottle age.

The 2015 has a saturated nose of plummy cherry, Dr. Pepper, graphite and lavender. It’s rocking a full body that enters thick. The tannin is restrained but mouth-filling and slightly grainy, and the acid strikes a good level. Flavors are a briar patch of blackberry, raspberry and boysenberry complimented nicely by baking spice and just a touch of saline. While it’s nice now, I’d love to try this one again in 2020 and expect it to do well for a few additional years. 91 points, value: B+.

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On night number two, I took a similar but more narrow approach in choosing two wines that come from the same vineyard, but then added a white into the mix. The latter, a pinot gris, was my first introduction to WillaZenzie Estate, a winery that quickly became a revelation. All of WillaKenzie’s wines come from their own vineyards, and many of their wines are vineyard-designates. I’ll get to a number of their pinots later, but the 2017 pinot gris has a voluminously perfumed nose of grapefruit, peach, gravel, slate lime zest and marzipan. Lean on entry, it gains body as it sits in the mouth. The acid is nicely balanced, neither subdued nor overbearing. Key Lime pie, starfruit and grapefruit dominate the fruit profile, though the stony minerality really drives the length of this linear, focused wine. Impressive effort. 90 points, Value A.

The two reds hark from the famed Zena Crown vineyard. I asked Shane what makes the vineyard so special. “It’s all about the terroir! Fantastic soils (both volcanic and sedimentary); Great SW facing aspects; cold evening wind at night during the summer; in the sweet spot for Oregon viticulture in terms of elevation at 200-800ft,” he said.

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

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

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Shout out to Zena Crown for the short foil. I’ve long wished wineries eschewed them altogether so customers could see the condition of the cork.

On the third night, I randomly selected three wines: two pinots and a chardonnay. Some Burgundian producers prefer to serve these varieties in what might otherwise be reverse order: red first, then white. Because pinot isn’t a heavy or cloying red, it can be followed by a white that brings sharper acidity and good body. I’ve always preferred this method and followed it again this time to great success.

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The 2015 Willakenzie Pierre Leon was the revelation of this entire Oregon Wine Month line up for me. It offers a very ripe and pretty nose wafting raspberry, cut cherry, perfumed rose and tangerine peel. It’d medium in weight with very juicy acidity, I just love how it coats the mouth. The tannins are subtle, but the wine is no wimp. The flavor profile is also ripe and pretty with raspberry, cherry, potpourri, tangerine, light tobacco, white pepper and Chervil. This is an elegant wine in structure, aroma and flavor. It reminds me of Musigny. I’d love to have it with another 5-8 years of age. 94 points, value A.

Next was the 2015 La Crema Willamette Valley pinot noir, which is another nationally distributed bottle that aims to find all sorts of middle ground and appeal to a wide audience. It has a fairly dark nose featuring cherry compote, raspberry chocolate cake and wet tar. The mouth is round and smooth, the acid bright and the tannins restrained. Flavors are fruit-forward with sweet cherry and strawberry, while subtle pepper and Herbs de Provence drive the finish. Not the most complex wine, but enjoyable. 89 points, value B+.

Finally came the white. The 2015 Gran Moraine Yamhill-Carlton chardonnay is benchmark Oregon chardonnay in my book and the twinkle in the Gran Moraine eye. Priced in the mid $40s, it’s not cheap, but routinely out performs many of the State’s more expensive chardonnays. This vintage is a stellar one. The nose gives off sweet oak, dried mango, honeysuckle, vanilla custard and a smidge of Earl Grey tea. It’s a plush medium weight on the palate with a bit of a glycerin sensation that I just love. The barrel influence is restrained but present in the structure and flavors as well as the nose, it’s managed just right for this profile. There’s oak vanillin, Meyer lemon, sweet cream, Thai basil, persimmon and dried apricot. 93 points, value A.

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Night number four introduced a rosé. I’m finding more and more that pinot has a pureness about it that other red varieties don’t deliver in rosé form. The 2017 WillaKenzie Estate Rosé delivers serious pureness on the nose, which I completely dug, though the palate seems a bit disjointed at this stage and may need a few months in bottle to merge. It has a nose of bright crushed strawberry, cantaloupe, crushed limestone and coriander. It’s on the fuller side of the rose spectrum, and quite lush. The acid is kicking. The fruit zeros in on strawberry, cranberry and salmon berry, while there are touches of nutmeg and parsley that seem out of place. 88 points, value C.

The 2015 Siduri Willamette Valley pinot noir seemed a little thin and hasn’t quite delineated itself yet on the palate to the point of flavors becoming individually discernible. It has, though, achieved an impressive balance that suggests it can fill out. I suspect it may just need a few more months in bottle to come together. The round, ripe nose is mostly about the strawberry, raspberry and cherry, though dark, wet soil adds some depth. It’s of medium weight on the palate, largely due to the juicy, bright acidity that brings levity. The tannins are quite refined, and the balance is impressive, though ultimately this feels a bit thin. The flavors are slightly muted at this stage. The fruit is a bit generically red, though there are some pretty florals – rose petals mostly – trying to peep through. I think three to six months in the bottle will bring this together, though longer aging is likely unnecessary. 88 points, and on the assumption that it will come together, it gets an A value.

The 2015 Penner-Ash Estate Vineyard pinot noir offers a boatload of potential for the patient. The nose boarders on hedonistic, and offers some killer aromas of iron, black strap molasses and bruised strawberry and blackberry, though it’s obvious that with some bottle age there will be more to come. The body is as full-throttled, and the tannin structure and acid suggest a minimum of 5-6 years is required for it to really come together, though I’d give it a decade to allow the full range of fruit and Earthy flavors to shine: Acai, pomegranate, raspberry, blackberry, tar, black tea and black pepper all duck and weave through a robust tannin structure and acid that will need to relax for this wine to show its best self. This will be an all-star if one can wait a solid decade. Penner-Ash’s Estate Vineyard has some cool stuff going on. 92 points, value A-.

For the fifth and final night I reserved all WillaKenzie pinots, though as it turns out, night three’s Pierre Leon was my favorite from the producer. Those four are all part of the estate’s single vineyard bottle program that draw from estate vineyards that are very close to each other, though each has its distinct personality and profile. For those unconvinced of terroir, pouring the Pierre Leon and these three blind, and then showing the vineyard map, ought to be enough to suspect the French were on to something.

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Of the three tasted together, the 2015 WillaKenzie Estate Aliette is the most delicate. It’s quite perfumed with a bouquet of Spring flowers and rose potpourri, cherry, strawberry, juniper, clove, and allspice on this high-toned nose. The palate is modest in weight, but round and smooth. Tannin is well integrated, while the acid is pleasantly juicy and slightly tart. The range of red fruit is impressive: strawberry, cranberry, huckleberry and raspberry, plus a not-so-minor role for plum. Tar, pepper and mulled spices feature on the back end. Pretty, but uninspiring at the moment, I suspect it will reach a higher elevation with three to five years of aging. 92 points, value A-.

The 2015 WillaKenzie Estate Kiana gives the impression of purple-ness. Its nose is reserved at the moment, though it offers promise with fruit punch aromas, uncured bacon and molasses. The tannin is fine grained and refined, the acid juicy and the overall weight modest. The flavors a bit more alive than the nose at this stage, with raspberry, boysenberry and pomegranate driving a profile supported by tobacco leaf and tar. Coming together nicely, I think it’ll continue to develop positively over the next five to ten years. 93 points, value: A.

While the 2015 WillaKenzie Estate Emery is a bit reticent on the nose at the moment, it delivers licorice, molasses, blackberry and pepper. The body is big and round, though the acid keeps it plucky and the tannins are integrated sufficiently to maintain the smooth profile. Slightly savory on the palate, it offers uncured bacon, red currant, red plum, Acai, black pepper and tarragon. This is a compelling package that I’d love to revisit in five plus years. 94 points, value A.

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I love Oregon wine. This line up of 15 bottles reaffirmed that. The quality is there. The terroir is there. The talent is there. It’s just a fantastic place to produce high quality pinot and chardonnay that has distinction from the world’s other pinots and chardonnays, as well as, as mentioned above, a number of other varieties (for fans of savory syrah, old school riesling, and refined pinot gris, Oregon has stones worth turning over). It has a soul, which is not something that every wine region can legitimately claim. I think this is in part because the world seems to have left the State relatively alone long enough for it to find its identity and strengths and settle in on its own terms. It’s probably insulting to say that its wine is ready for the world, since it has been for a while now, but commercially it has a lot of unrealized potential and I’d like to see more wine drinkers across the world take note. Oregon Wine Month 2019 is another eleven months away, but don’t sit on Oregon wine until then.

On Cork Report: Defining a New Region Near the North Carolina Border

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Rosemont of Virginia Winery

Note: this piece was originally published on The Cork Report on June 6th.

Rosemont of Virginia is located just four miles north of the State’s border with North Carolina, and that puts it well off any of the Commonwealth’s wine trails. While there are a few small wineries in the area, Rosemont is producing 6,000 cases annually, putting it squarely into the state’s mid-sized tier of producers. Because of its location, it may be one of the least well-known Virginia wineries of its size. Most of its foot traffic comes from tourists visiting Lake Gaston and Roanoke Rapids Lake (two joined reservoirs), which allows it to produce at such a volume.

If you haven’t heard of Rosemont, though, you’re not alone. When a trio of samples showed up I had to turn to the Internet to make myself aware of the producer. Read more on The Cork Report.

Arizona Continues its Evolution at Aridus

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Arizona’s wine scene remains a bit of a black hole for me. I’ve written about visits to AZ Stronghold and Fire Mountain, which began to clue me into the state’s potentially bright wine future, but beyond that and a few bottles of the state’s most famous winery, Caduceus, that had been it for me. When samples arrived from Aridus Wine Company, I was excited for the opportunity to try another producer.

In preparing to write this post, I wanted to see how much wine the state was producing, and it is paltry. In terms of bulk wine, Arizona produced less in 2017 than Arkansas. Florida produced five times more in the same year than did Arizona. Indiana nearly quintupled Arizona’s production. In total, the state produces 0.0000003% of the nation’s bulk wine. In terms of what goes into bottle, the percentage drops a bit to 0.00000026%. Though I don’t have numbers, I know a decent amount of the state’s wine comes from grapes sourced outside the state. Still, that Arizona has any national reputation for wine, and it does have a budding one, is staggering giving its contribution by volume.

Having had good wine from Arizona, when I spoke to Aridus’ winemaker, Lisa Strid, I asked her the same questions I’ve asked other winemakers from the state: is Arizona ready for the national stage, and what’s keeping it from mainstream conversation? She boiled it down to the state’s biggest limitation, water. Arizona has long had water issues, and it’s scarcity, especially where grapes grow best, limits volume and quality. Water availability hasn’t been an entirely solvable problem for the state in general, so marshaling more for the luxury that is wine production hasn’t been a winnable fight. Without sufficient water, they can only make so much wine. Full stop.

Working with what water they do have available, Aridus gets juice from its own vineyard and other sources both in and out of the state. Right now, only some of its whites are coming from estate fruit, while the reds haven’t come online yet, though Aridus is making a concerted effort to ramp up planting and production of more of its own vines. Their vineyard is in Pearce, located up against a stream-fed hillside where there is slightly less water pressure. The site is also at a higher elevation than the rest of the AVA, which helps to moderate the temperature a bit. All of this helps the site do a better job at retaining acid in the grapes, a constant challenge faced by Arizona wineries in achieving lower pH levels. As more of their estate fruit comes on-line, hopefully the wines will hit lower pH and achieve more brightness.

Aridus produces a wide range of wines, and the four I tried are best described as “big.” All of the reds get oak treatment, typically around 18 months in anywhere from 40% to 100% new oak, most of which is French. On the white side, they go for “a lot of expression of the grape – bold aromas and flavors.” They’re bold in structure, too.

Lisa is high on their Malvasia, which I tried along with the Rosé (of mourvedre), malbec and petit sirah. I was able to confirm that the house style described came through in the wines. The Malvasia was indeed expressive, and had an interesting texture that gave substance to its volume. The Rosé was a very nice full-bodied sipping wine, and one that I think is probably best had on its own due to its lower acid. Both the malbec and petit sirah are big bodied wines that show their extensive oak, which dominates at the moment. While alcohol levels on both are modest, I do wonder if the higher pH can facilitate better integration of oak and drive more expressiveness with age.

What I find most exciting and interesting about Aridus is the evolution it could take as more estate fruit is cultivated, which sounds like promising material from which to make wines of increasing quality. Lisa is working with a big variety of grapes, not all of them from Arizona, and so she’s having to deal with a plethora of evolving challenges and conditions. This is standard for experimental winemakers in emerging wine regions. Lisa recently returned from a harvest in Australia where she learned a few new tricks that she wants to try out at home. More vines will go into the ground at the Aridus vineyard. She’ll have another vintage under belt at the end of this year. Other Arizona winemakers will try and share new knowledge with each other. All of these are necessary to developing a wine region and house styles, and it’s fun to watch it happen.

2016 Aridus Malvasia Bianca: Ripe, tropics-drive nose of honey, melon-dew, cantaloupe and big pineapple. Rich vanilla curd swirls around the edges, while there’s just a wiff of green vegetalness. It’s medium weight on the palate. The acid is modest and well-integrated into a slightly sweet and round structure that has a bit of a grainy texture that’s diversifies things nicely. Flavors are bitter-sweet lemon, vanilla, Starfruit, green papaya, apricot, white flowers and dandelion flower. A pleasant sipper with an interesting texture. 88 points. Value C-

2016 Aridus Rosé (of mourvedre): Classic Mourved rose nose of crushed blackberry, cherry and bramble berry, pepper and a little vanilla. Towards the end of the full body rose spectrum, it’s round and lush and well-polished – a velvety mouth feel. The acid is light but enough to add needed mid-palate lift. The tannins get slightly grainy on the finish. Flavors are all sorts of crushed berries – red, blue and black – along with vanilla pudding, marzipan and a slight hit of saline. Downright lovely, it’s probably best on its own rather than with food. 88 points. Value: C-

2014 Aridus malbec: The reticent nose boasts a hedonistic compote of blackberry, blueberry and cherry that is lifted by heavy baking spices. This one is medium bodied with a bit of extraction, it wears its malolactic fermentation and oak influence on its sleeve: baking spice, oak vanillin and a buttery finish. Acid is modest. The fruit is modest cherry, red currant and Acai. With air it develops some very welcomed graphite minerality. Not quite sure what to make of this one, the oak influence is dominating at this point. It may have enough acid to survive some evolution, which hopefully would allow the oak to better integrate. 89 points. Value: B

2014 Aridus petit sirah: What an inky nose, it saps with wild berries, high-toned orange zest, cracked pepper and sea brine. Closer to full-bodied, the acid is bright and the tannins grainy and chewy, likely smoothed out a bit by the oak. The fruit is a bit darker on the palate, coming in the forms of blackberry, cherry, strawberry and blueberry. Oak baking spices are quite prevalent, while black tea, pepper and cocoa finish things off. As time goes this gets more savory. It develops mesquite and iodine. While this has under half new oak, it has a big impact. Not the truest to type, it is nonetheless well-done and enjoyable. 89 points. Value: B

The Black Magic of Winemaking: Tannins

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Credit: Gerald Hoberman, Getty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Phenolic tannin. Credit: WineLand Media

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

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

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

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

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Credit: EnoViti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Credit: Wine Folly

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

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

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Punching down the cap. Credit: Willamettewines.com

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

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

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

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

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

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Credit: Wine Folly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

On The Cork Report: Orange Wine Trials at Veritas Winery

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Note: This article was originally published on The Cork Report on February 26th, 2018.

In May of last year, I went on vacation to the Republic of Georgia. Most people are surprised when I use “vacation” to describe my time there, but for me and, for a lot of people, it’s a bit of a fantasy world. Between the breathtaking beauty, geographic diversity, outdoor activities, history, gregarious and caring people, and delicious and unique cuisine, it has it all — in a one-of-a-kind way.

Archeology has proven that the Georgians began making wine more than 8,000 years ago, making them the oldest known winemakers in the world. They made red and white wine, but at some point were also the first to make orange wine, which I’m referring to in this article as “skin contact” wine. Red wine gets its color from the skins of grapes, which interact with the juice and over time leach their color (as well as textual, structural, flavor and aroma components as well). Although no one I know refers to red wine as skin contact wine, it could be labeled as such.

When white grapes are put through the skin contact method, they often times come out orange(ish) in color, hence the term “orange” wine. Continue reading here.

An Epic Five Days in Napa

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The view from my accommodations: Mount St. Helena

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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One of Smith-Madrone’s younger vineyards

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

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Koerner is the man

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

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Richie is the man, too

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

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

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

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

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

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Kelly Fleming’s cave

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

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

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

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

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The author with Elizabeth Smith at Ehlers

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

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

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

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

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The 750 tasting

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

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

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

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

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

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The Spire tasting room (credit: Inspirato)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A gorgeous view from Cardinale’s estate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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One of the barrels we tasted

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

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Silverado (credit: Inspirato)

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

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

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The castle (credit: visitnapavalley.com)

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

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

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Hess

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

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Historic vines at Hess

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

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

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

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

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Our tasting room

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

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

 

 

 

 

Two Great Wines from the Famous Land of Tomatoes

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So it turns out wine from the heel of Italy is pretty good. Specifically, San Marzano wine. I’ll admit to knowing next to nothing about wine from this part of Italy, this part being Puglia. When I hear Puglia, my mind goes back to Mario Batali’s old (and best) Food Network show, Molto Mario. My first culinary love was Italian food, and in my formidable teenage years I learned through the show the concept of what I can call “regionality,” which effectively means that how and what people cook varies by where it’s done. If this sounds a bit like terroir, that’s not far off, although it encompasses a bit more: in addition to how differences in land and climate affect the taste of the ingredients, it also includes methodology traditions, ingredient combinations, religious influences, past conqueror(s) influence, and more. One could make a case that terroir can encompass all of this as well, but I think that goes beyond the spirit of terroir’s focus on non-human elements.

Regardless, when I think of Pulgia and San Marzano, I think about food and the latter’s renowned tomatoes (though don’t let the grocery store packaging fool you). Until now, until these Talo wines. I tasted them over two nights, and had a neighbor over to try them on the second. Not a wino, he asked me to tell him about the wines and I found myself going down the rabbit hole of trying to explain the terroir of certain wines from Southern Italy and Greece, which I flippantly referred to as “Med wines,” a terrible term that doesn’t actually exist outside this world of one because it also applies to wines from, say, Israel, that offer little in similarity. In my mind, Med wines are driven by a peppery spice and loam-driven minerality that I can pick out of any assembly of wines from around the globe. Not having tasted San Marzano wine before, I could’ve called Med wine in a blind tasting but in a million years would never have placed them in the land of the world’s most famous tomatoes.

And what a pleasant surprise, because these are uniquely expressive and approachable wines that bring that “Med wine” edge that I’ve always loved and have never spent enough time getting to know. I’ll be reviewing a trio of whites from Greece in an upcoming post, and these two wines have made me a little more excited to do that. I had a lot of fun with these, reviewing them separately and then going back and forth identifying differences and themes.

On quality and approachability, they are comparable. Both benefit from an hour or so of decanting. Their textures suggest the same warm, dry climate, and they both deliver that peppery-loam energy I noted earlier. Beyond that, we’re talking about distinctly different wines that can still be thoroughly enjoyed by anyone liking either. That is to say, if you get to try one and like it, definitely seek out the other. Or better yet, just get both and drink them together.

The 2015 San Marzano Talo Malvasia Nera, made from the Malvasia grape, is the more fruit forward of the two. It’s dark, brutish nose bursts with bruised cherries, crushed blackberries, blood orange, tar, violet and crushed rocks. The palate is full bodied with saturated grainy tannin that never seem to settle in one place. The juicy, bright acidity keeps the wine from developing a cloying sensation, which is an important counter balance to the sweet fruit that comes in waves of boysenberry, strawberry, blueberry, Acai and bewildering big dose of grapefruit that I could never get over, or stop appreciating. There are streaks of loam, saline and sweet tobacco leaf as well. Overall, it’s a brilliantly unusual package of aromas, flavors and textures. I’m giving it 89 points with a value rating of A.

The 2015 San Marzano Talo Negroamaro, made from the Negroamaro grape which I’m not sure I’ve had previously, is also a real treat and my preference of the two if I’m forced to pick. The fruit is a bit more reserved than the Malvasia Nera, which allows more savoriness to come through. The nose is all about minerality and Earthiness, offering seasoned leather, tar, wet Earth, granite, Evergreen, saline and sour cherry. On the palate, it’s full bodied with lush, juicy acidity that really carries the flavors and round, fine grained tannin that keep things well-framed. The flavors strike an almost-elegant tone. The fruit is sweeter on the palate than the nose, boasting cherry concentrate and huge hits of black and red currants. Dusty mocha, loam, graphite and bright, sweet orange juice come through as well. I suspect this one might improve with a year of aging, but decant it for an hour and it won’t matter. This one deserves 90 points and an A value rating.

Since we’re less than a week out from Thanksgiving, I’ll answer the question: yes, these would work well for your feast. They also work well on their own, and I can imagine them pairing nicely with a big range of foods, even including heartier seafood. At roughly $15 each, they are some of the more interesting and unusual wines you’ll find in that price range. I’ll put it succinctly: there’s good reason to find and try these wines.

Bigger, Badder and Better than Ever: Old Westminster Winery

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Old Westminster Winery was full of energy when I showed up, having just completed bottling a 2017 Nouveau, their first attempt at that style of wine. Nouveau, made famous by the French region Beaujolais, is a light style wine that by French law (when it is produced there) must be sold within the same calendar year that the grapes are harvested. Traditionally made from red grapes, this means as much aging as to mean very little. The wine ends up being a very pure expression of a red wine, something we consumers almost never experience as the reds we drink usually spend a fair amount of time aging in oak barrels that alter everything about the wine. It’s extremely difficult to find Nouveau wines from anywhere other than Beaujolais, which is to say for someone like me, a frustration. The winery’s crew was running around, the bottling truck humming on the crush pad, but here came Drew Baker, the winery’s vineyard guru and my host, sauntering across the lawn towards me as I got out of my car, a big smile on his face delivering a warm welcome. What a way to arrive. And that’s Old Westminster in a nutshell: “what a (fill in the blank)” said with great esteem.

Jumping way ahead to right before I left, Drew took me to a tank in the winery and poured a sample of a wine called Farmer’s Fizz, which will be sold in a 375ml can (the equivalent of half a bottle). As we tasted it, Drew’s sister Ashli, who runs the wine club (and many other things), came over and showed me the video that would announce the canned wine project. Both beaming with pride, they talked about how they had long schemed the project and were still a bit nervous about how it would do. “Do you think it’ll cheapen our brand?” Drew asked.

What a stupid question (sorry Drew). Old Westminster is developing a reputation for being on the cutting edge of the industry, and not just in Maryland. What Drew, Ashli and their sister Lisa (who makes the wine) are doing has drawn praise from every serious wine person I know who has tasted their wine or spent time with them. I’m clearly a cheerleader, as is nationally known wine writer Dave McIntyre, who has written about them several times in The Washington Post. Despite being more than capable of selling their entire inventory through their wine club and out of their tasting room, their wines are being distributed around the tri-“state” area of Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, as well as in Chicago and San Francisco. They may also be available further north up the Atlantic Coast in the near future. That’s what happens when distributors active in some of the very top markets in the country taste their wine.

Ring ring.

“Yes, hello?”

“Old Westminster Winery?”

“Yes.”

“Great, send me your wine.”

It’s not just the killer juice that sells people on the winery, it’s the fun and adventure they create for their customers by making things like a Nouveau and canned wine. And, oh, by the way, they now have a skin contact (a.k.a. “orange wine”) pinot gris available as well that is, of course, a complete joy to drink. Then there’s the expanding line of pet nat wines that sell out in no time. And, of course, there are the bottled still wines that are, as I’ve written before and will intimate again in this post, world class. Put all of this together and you have a winery doing a lot of things that a lot of people appreciate. I tasted Farmer’s Fizz, and no, Drew, your reputation won’t suffer. If anything, it will improve.

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Old Westminster has expanded; the second room is new.

How does all this magic happen? It’s hard to describe in one post how much thought these Baker kids put into each and every situation, each and every decision, they make. Here’s one example. The first wines we tasted were “two chardonnays done two ways” from the 2016 vintage. Hailing entirely from the home vineyard (their estate), roughly half the grapes were picked on the early side with the rest harvested five days later. Both were fermented with indigenous yeast. Although they had originally intended to make one blend, as the wines were coming to life in the winery, they realized they had two distinct wines, and so treated them differently and bottled them separately. One was almost entirely raised with stainless, the other a combination of 50% new French, 25% used French, and 25% stainless. The results were distinctively different wines that could be appreciated as coming from the same vines, and better than an amalgamation of the two would have been. Seems like an obvious choice, then, to do two different wines, right? Well, not necessarily. The amount of effort required by dividing the harvest into two separate wines is bigger in time and money than making a single wine. Most wineries would’ve stuck to the original plan. The Bakers made the choice to follow where the grapes were taking them.

Here’s a second example. The Baker family purchased serious acreage on a property called Burnt Hill a year or two ago where they will plant a large vineyard. They consulted with experts, did a ton of research, dug soil pits and tested the crap out of the land, and thought long and hard about what to plant there. The driving question wasn’t “what grape do we need to sell out every vintage?” It was, “what will grow best here?” And it wasn’t just the varietal, it was the clone. Or clones, because the plot is large enough with diverse soils and nutrients to benefit from a variety. Roots stocks are likely a question, too. Up until this visit, I had been told, it’s going to be all about cabernet franc, though different clones for different parcels. Fine, great, I love a good cabernet franc, especially if it’s grown where it should be. Their 2014 Antietam Creek cabernet franc is special, they know how to make the varietal.

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Not Burnt Hill, but Maryland is gorgeous, right?

But I love syrah more than cabernet franc, and Drew knows that, so when he told me that research on Burnt Hill had continued and that they now intend to plant parcels of syrah near the top of the hill, I got excited. I got excited because I can’t wait for an Old Westminster syrah – if anyone in Maryland is going to produce the best syrah, it’s going to be them (no offense to the current banner carrier of Maryland syrah). And it’s going to be them because, and this is really why I got excited, the amount of research and study that went into that decision is what produces the best wine. I’ve not known a single winery that puts this amount of time and effort into deciding what to plant, let alone what to produce, and does it seemingly purely from the perspective of ‘what can we do best?’ Most wineries, they’d buy the land, do some research, and lay down vines sooner rather than later; let’s get the revenue stream going. The diligence with which the Bakers are approaching Burnt Hill is going to yield amazing wine.

A final example: the canned wine project. To be fair to Drew, because I mocked him about this above, the consumer jury is still out on canned wine. The major projects already rolling in this category are decent but not serious wine. Old Westminster, for all the fun they have, only put out serious wine, even if it’s playful. When Ashli showed me the announcement video, it reminded me of the professionalism and thought they put into their marketing. The design of the can is beautiful, the production of the video as good as they come, and the themes of the video will resonate with consumers. Look at their Facebook page. Check out their regular Facebook Live #WineForDinner series and, I guarantee, you will learn something new about wine every time. Do yourself a favor, take the next two minutes to watch this video. It encapsulates what I think Old Westminster is namely about: an effort to make world class wine in Maryland in a way that people enjoying it understand why it’s so good and feel like they’re an integral part of it.

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Pet Nat capping

Drew and I talked a bit about how it is that Old Westminster gets to be so playful. The answer, he says, is their ability to “enjoy a unique position flexing experimental muscles” that is afforded to them by their direct-to-consumer sales model. Visit the tasting room and you may well be served by Drew or one of his sisters. This gives them the opportunity to explain why their wines are so cool, and why one should try a pet nat or an orange wine. It means they can convey to you why you shouldn’t be surprised that Maryland wine can taste this good. If Old Westminster was relying on other people to sell the wine, they’d have to convince “the trade” of these things, and then hope that their distributors and the retailers take the time to try the wines, let alone understand them and, and this is really a stretch, push them with customers. On the rare occasion a distributor wants to carry their wines, they know it’s because the distributor gets it precisely because selling Old Westminster in Illinois or California is going to take some perseverance. Distributors are about sales, and so will only take on something like Maryland wine if they’re true believers themselves and willing to hustle.

There has to be some wine geek elements to this post, and here they come. Since they were bottling the Nouveau, Drew and I spoke briefly about the 2017 harvest. He described it as a vintage he’d take again, but one that, while solid, will be forgotten in ten years. It began early and warm; Drew recalled pruning in March wearing a t-shirt. June and July were hot with sporadic thunderstorms, which is fairly common. August, however, took a turn for the worst, delivering unusually cold and wet conditions. At the end of the month, Drew felt very pessimistic knowing that there hadn’t been any growing degree days (meaning days warm enough to continue ripening the grapes). Thankfully, September was kind to the vintage and saved it. Temperatures warmed and no rain fell. Harvest came about a week earlier than normal, but the duration of it remained normal. We tasted a number of 2017 wines in tank, and of course, tasted the 2017 Nouveau from a bottle that had been filled and sealed no more than an hour earlier. I’m excited for the final products because the Bakers are making them and will give customers the best of the vintage can offer.

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On to the tasting, which I’m going to cover with formal notes below. I’ve now had probably twenty or more wines from this producer, and all have been good. More than a few have been great. As the family expands their projects, I have no concern that they can maintain the quality. The Bakers seem to learn and grow with every harvest, and I imagine the quality will only improve the more they experiment and experience.

When wines are provided to me for free because of this website, I note that. I wasn’t charged for the tasting or the visit. However, I did come home with eight wines that I purchased myself as part of my wine club membership. Old Westminster is a project of passion for the Baker family. I am all too happy to be a paying beneficiary of their work, and am honored to be allowed to spectate from time-to-time.

One note: some of these wines are yet to be released, and so retail price points are unknown. Wines that aren’t given a value rating fall into this category.

2016 Chardonnay – Aged in 85% stainless and 15% new French oak and harvested on the earlier side. The nose offers sparkling aromas of tropical fruit, florals, sweet cider apples and marzipan. The wine glides onto the palate with a glycerin sensation, but the acid doesn’t mess about and provides a wonderful balance creating a mid-weight wine. Flavors of green apple, lemon zest, starfruit and pineapple fill the mid palate as chalk kicks in on the finish and the acid turns twitchy. I really enjoyed this. 90 points. Value: B

2016 Premier Chardonnay – Aged in 50% new French oak, 25% once-used French oak and 25% stainless steel. The reticent nose is honeyed and slightly buttery but will fill out with some bottle age and oxygen in the glass. The body could be considered almost full, and delivers ripe apples, white pepper, honey drew and that wonderful, nervous, acid. 90 points.

2016 Greenstone – A blend of 58% viognier and 42% gruner vetliner fermented with native yeast, it was bottled unfined and unfiltered. Spicy and floral aromas jump out of the glass and are backfilled with big apples and banana leaf. The body is nicely in the mid weight category, offering baking spices, white pepper, stone fruit and a little bit of saline on the finish. The lovely acid and flavor profile suggests the viognier wasn’t allowed to hang on the vine for too long. This is a brilliant wine. 92 points. Value: A-

2016 Alius – Latin for “something a little different,” this is a semi-carbonic, skin fermented pinot gris with whole berries going into the tank that were allowed to ferment spontaneously. The nose requires air to bloom, but offers cider spice, apple and high-toned smoky pepper at the onset. The palate gives you honeysuckle, ripe strawberries, watermelon and huge amount of texture to ponder. I’ll take this wine in any setting. 90 points. Value: B+

2017 Nouveau – Predominantly cabernet franc, this wine was harvested five weeks before bottling and racked directly into the bottling line. The nose is unmistakably cabernet franc, offering huge doses of cherries, cranberries, baking spices, funk and smoke. The palate goes even further, delivering brilliant and thirst-quenching juicy acidity that makes the fruit shimmer while the masculine texture only briefly distracts from the svelte body. Tannins are light and finely grained. It bursts with cherries and strawberries, and delivers red currant, orange peel and black pepper as well. The question this wine poses is: do you really want to share it? 91 points. Value: B+

Tapestry Third Edition (non-vintage) – A blend of the 2013, 2014 and 2015 vintages and consisting of 42% cabernet franc, 21% merlot, 21% petit verdot, 11% cabernet franc and 5% syrah, this is the latest red wine release. The nose is a bit meaty, and air develops red berries, plums, crushed cherries, huckleberries and hickory smoke. The palate delivers olive brine, smoke, iodine, and black pepper, but the beautiful acid really elevates the fruit, which is dominated by crushed cherries and blackberries. This will age gracefully and with purpose for many years. 92 points. Value: A

2014 Black – Consisting of 38% Antietam Creek merlot, 25% South Mountain cabernet franc, 25% Antietam Creek Petit Verdot and 12% Pad’s View syrah, you might as well call this a reserve wine as it comes from premier vineyards and is a brand-new release having spent a year and a half in oak before resting for another year and a half in bottle. The nose delivers bruised cherries, Acai berries, cinnamon, scorched Earth, hickory smoke and black pepper, and is utterly captivating with extended decanting. The palate is mouth-coating with round but firm tannins that will require time to fully release. Bright acid delivers a medley of red, black and blue berries, cinnamon, nutmeg, subtle olive and smoke. It finishes with a kick of cracked black pepper. This is just a baby, it stands to improve with your patience. 93 points now, likely more in the future. This is up there with the 2014 Malbec and 2014 Antietam Creek cabernet franc as my favorite Old Westminster reds to date.

Living Legends of Washington Wine

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The term “first ballot hall of famer” is a sports term. I don’t know about professional sports leagues outside the United States, but in America each of the major sports leagues has their own hall of fame, and every year new members are selected by a group of electors. Many hall of famers don’t make the cut the first year they’re eligible, but those who do are called “first ballot hall of famers” and the phrase is often used to refer to active players who will undoubtedly be elected in their first year of eligibility. Last Friday I attended a Washington wine event outside Seattle and the room was stocked with first ballot hall of Washington wine famers. I fanboyed pretty hard.

The occasion was The Auction of Washington Wines. Spread out over several days and several events, it is christened by Wine Spectator as the fourth largest charity auction in the United States. This year was record-setting for the auction, raising over $4.1 million for the Seattle Children’s Hospital and Washington State University’s Viticulture and Enology Program. The event I attended, the Private Barrel Auction, was a trade-only event that a few media types were invited to attend as well.

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Twenty wineries each donated a barrel of wine to the auction, but the catch was that each barrel had to be a wine that was made specially for the auction and would not be made available to anyone other than the winning bidder, meaning these were unique barrels. We were treated to samples of each in the lead up to the auction, and clearly many of the winemakers had fun with the project. When an industry-leading winemaker gets to play with a barrel’s worth of world class fruit, the results can be good. When they know they’re putting their wine up against their friends and competitors in an auction where the participants are retailers and restauranteurs who are considering only the sellability of the wine, the motivation to perform skyrockets.

Real quick, because I know some readers are wondering, the following wineries participated: Force Majeure, Delille Cellars, Forgeron Cellars and The Walls (a collaboration), Mark Ryan, Va Piano, Col Solare, Long Shadows, L’Ecole No. 41, Fidelitas, Woodward Canyon, Sleight of Hand, Chateau Ste. Michelle, Quilceda Creek, Owen Roe, Januik, Pepper Bridge, Brian Carter, Leonetti, Dusted Valley and Betz. All of these, in one room at the same time, with the winemaker from each pouring their unique one-off projects. Holy crap, right? Exactly. Januik was our wonderful host for the tasting and lunch, which was prepared at their in-winery restaurant by their very impressive chefs using a range of local ingredients. We later transitioned to Chateau Ste. Michelle for the auction. Kudos to both for providing barrels and such generous hospitality.

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I made it through seventeen of the twenty wineries before lunch was served as I enjoyed talking to the winemakers not just about their barrels, but other topics as well, and couldn’t keep pace. The most magical moment came at Sleight of Hands when, after tasting my favorite wine of the day and catching up with one of wine’s most fun-loving personalities, Trey Busch, the legendary champion and producer of Washington wine Bob Betz stopped by to endorse Trey’s talents and have a sip of Busch’s wine with us. I couldn’t pass up that opportunity for a picture with the two of them.

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The author with Bob Betz (L) and Trey Busch (R)

The vast majority of the wines came from the 2016 vintage, which Owen Roe’s David O’Reilly told us began early. He has about 10 acres of cherries that he uses as his indicators of when the vitis will kick off, and in his 45 years he’s never seen it start so early. He braced for a really hot growing season, but by summer temperatures had regressed towards the mean. By the end of August, evening temperatures were in the 40s and harvest stalled. This gave the fruit extended hang time, preserving aromatics and flavors. The end result are wines lower in pH than normal with extremely deep colors (this was very evidence in the samples). He described the vintage as “unmistakably ripe, but every element sings at very high levels.” Rick Smalls of Woodward Canyon compared the vintage to those from the days of when he started his winery forty years ago, saying that now, across the industry, consumers are getting real senses of place in Washington wines as winemakers and vineyard managers learn more and more about their sites and fruit.

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L-R: Bob Betz, Ted Baseler, Rick Small, David O’Reilly

Ted Baseler, president and CEO of Ste Michelle Wine Estates, attributed this evolution in part to Washington State University’s (WSU) Viticulture and Enology Program, saying that when Michelle brought viticulturists onboard not that long ago, they needed five-plus years of training, whereas now, getting them out of WSU, “they’re turnkey.” Baseler, whose prescience of the Washington wine industry is well respected, predicted that in twenty to twenty-five years, the state would see an increase in planted acreage from the 60,000 it has today to 200,000 (nearing parity with today’s Napa). He also predicted a rise from today’s ~900 Washington wineries to 3,000. These are bold predictions, but given the state’s growth to this point, it’s not impossible if current consumer trends continue.

The vast majority of wines on offer were cabernet sauvignon-dominate, not surprising for Washington, which is best known for the varietal. The outliers included a 100% grenache dubbed “Duex Dames du Vin” produced in partnership by the female winemakers of Forgeron and The Walls, a very impressive 100% petit verdot from Mark Ryan, a Bordeaux blend featuring majority cabernet franc from Brian Carter, and 100% syrahs from Force Majeure, Sleight of Hand and Quilceda Creek.

All of the wines showed like barrel samples, which is to say far from complete integration and with dense, mouth-coating tannins. I’m continually impressed when I see highly descriptive notes from barrel samples as it’s a significant challenge to get into the complexities of young, brutish red wine. From a small but growing amount of first-hand experience, I still take barrel sample scores with a great deal of salt, but that said, there were some real standouts in this bunch.

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On the cabernet front, Long Shadow’s “Winemaker Selection” blend of cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot, malbec and merlot showed a lot of developing complexity and intrigue that, with ten-plus years, is going to be spectacular. Woodward Canyon’s 100% cabernet from 40-year old vines in Champoux Vineyard had a real presence with layers of savory flavors, cassis, blackberry, mocha and spice. Leonetti’s barrel was filled entirely with cabernet from block 7 in the Mill Creek Upland Vineyard. My first scribble is “oh my, good.” It’s dark, dark stuff with smoke, iodine and bacon that could be mistaken for a syrah at this stage, though it had the fruit, mocha, graphite and mineral core that one would expect from Walla Walla loam soils that I imagine will emerge more prominently and eventually dominate with time. Col Solare’s Estate Blend of 70% cabernet sauvignon clone 2 and 30% cabernet franc clone 214 offered refreshing herbaciousness and spice, and I imagine I’d enjoy this quite a bit in the future.

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The three standout wines, however, had no cabernet in them. Mark Ryan’s 100% petit verdot was perhaps the most complex varietally bottled PV I’ve had (and it’s still young!). The nose was wild and briary, the tannins lush and already polished. The acid drove this pretty wine, delivering pepper, violets and loads of purple fruit. Quilceda Creek, known for its many 100-point single vineyard cabernet sauvignons, had fun with syrah in an effort that fetched the highest bid at the auction. They delivered what they described to me as “a cabernet lover’s syrah,” evident in its structure and mouth feel. Yet, it offered smoked meat and iron. It was very cool and quite delicious. The wine of the night, though, was Sleight of Hand’s 100% syrah from Lewis Vineyard that was raised entirely in concrete egg. Super funky stuff, it’s my kind of syrah. It’s level of polish and integration was the most impressive aspect of any wine of the day given its youth, and it will develop with time into something truly special.

As if this born-and-bred Washingtonian needed more evidence that Washington wine rocks, this event provided ample amounts. What it did expose me to, though, for the first time at such a high level, is the amount of camaraderie that exists at the pinnacle of the industry. No one in the room believed that Washington wine had reached peak quality, and they’re working together as much as anyone could reasonably expect in what is really a foolish effort to summit that mountain. The reality is that the mountain keeps getting higher.

Many thanks to The Auction of Washington Wines for allowing me to attend, to the wineries and winemakers for putting in great efforts to raise money for worthy causes, and to my friend Jesse for taking some great pictures.

 

 

 

Opening Post: My Most Memorable Red Wines

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Hello, and welcome to Good Vitis. I appreciate you checking the website out and I promise to use it to the best of my abilities to entertain and inform you so that you visit the site often. I’m not a wine professional, but rather a modest collector with a curious palate who has been lucky enough to help make wine at a professional winery a few times (which means I’m very good at cleaning a crush pad). I’m drawn to wine, like a teenage girl to Justin Timberlake, because it indulges two of my greatest weaknesses: the romanticism that comes with producing something from nature and a deep intellectual quest. I love wine and I like to write, so hopefully this experiment works out.

Since the purpose of Good Vitis is to document my search for as much really good wine as I can find within the limitations of normal life (resources, time and health), it seems appropriate then that I kick off by going through some of my more successful attempts. You’ll notice that the list of my most memorable red wines below is heavy on the New World, which can come into conflict with my preference for the Old World style of restrained, low alcohol, Earthy and medium-bodied wine if I’m not careful about who I buy from. The Washington, Oregon and California wines in the list below came from producers known for producing in the Old World style.

As I’ve built my collection I’ve implemented a rule that I’ve broken only few times: if I can’t taste it, I won’t buy it. I try to plan out my cellar so that I have 6-12 bottles of wine that are in their optimum drinking window each year, which means I’m now buying wine that needs 5-15 years of aging. I’m also slowly balancing the contents of my cellar to include more French and Spanish wines, focusing on Bandol, Chablis, Priorat and Bierzo. And, I’m doing this within the confines of relatively limited cellar space. It will take time, but I know it will pay off. In the meantime, I’ll continue to buy aged wine, go to tastings, share special bottles with fellow collectors, and travel to wine regions. Good Vitis will document this journey and I hope you become part of it.

I’m going to use the post today to cover the ten most memorable red wines I’ve had to date, and will follow up in a subsequent post with the most memorable whites even though this feeds the “Winestream media bias” narrative pushed by The Wine Curmudgeon in a recent study they conducted (which is worth reading despite a methodological issue that I’ll discuss in another post). On to the topic at hand: the wines.

Category: probably the best wine I’ve had

Winner: Cameron Winery Abbey Ridge pinot noir 2000

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I love Cameron Winery’s pinots and chardonnays

Collectively this wine’s nose, palate, finish, structure and balance combined to produce the singular best wine experience I’ve had. This is the most complete wine I’ve had, and is therefore the recipient of the highest score I’ve ever assigned. Here’s what I wrote in Cellartracker:

Nose: gorgeous, big nose of candied and tart cherries, tutti fruiti, dark soil and banana leaf. Palate: rich, deep cherries, smoke, candied bacon, tar and hickory flavoring. It’s smokey and perfectly ripe with mild but rich mushroom funk. Full bodied, fully integrated wood tannin with a bit of skin tannin still peeking through. There’s a perfect level of underlying sweetness to this that does not distract from the Earthy and savory notes. Very Burgundian in style and weight. 97 points.

What set this wine apart from all the others is the total harmony it achieved. The fruit was satisfyingly sweet and pure, and melded perfectly with the viscosity to achieve real satisfaction. The savory elements were beautified expressions of their natural states, and enhanced the fruit. All of this was achieved through a perfect balance of weight, tannins, acidity and alcohol. I had this just a month or so ago, so it was 16 years old, and it still had another 2-3 years of greatness left.

Category: master class blend

Winner: 2007 Delille Harrison Hill.

Delille’s Harrison Hill Bordeaux-style blend comes from the smallest Washington AVA, Snipes Mountain, home to some of the oldest, longest planted vineyard blocks in the state. The 2007 wasn’t my first Harrison Hill, but it is the best (although I’m betting the 2010 will surpass the 2007 in a few years). Year-in, year-out, this is my favorite Washington wine and the wine I would pour for anyone who could not answer affirmatively the question, “have you had a wine whose sum is greater than its parts?”

Delille’s winemaker, Chris Upchurch, is surely among the pinnacle of master blenders. He’s also been the teacher and mentor to many of the state’s best winemakers over the years. Delille’s wines aren’t cheap, and they require long aging to reach their potential. From my notes:

Nose: cola stands out at first in this beautiful nose. Also a berry medley that becomes dominated by strawberries and boysenberries. There’s a touch of earthiness, and floral notes of rose and violets. Also a bit of pepper and cardamom. Fruit is the dominate scent, with only a whisper of oak. Palate: Cola again. After 1.5 hours of decanting the dusty tannins are nicely integrated with lively acidity and iodine in the mid palate. Fruit is nicely leveled with strawberries and cherries. Also some nice loam minerality and bit of chewiness from the tannins. A wonderful violet essence builds as the wine takes in more air. With 2 hours things start to mesh and integrate allowing the prettiness to sing as the chewiness disappears. This is a masterfully blended wine – you know it’s Bordeaux style, but it’s so much about the profile that you don’t notice or care about its varietal components. Definitely a wine that is more than the sum of its parts. Going into the third hour, the fruit flushes out into cherries. Finish: very smooth and long-lasting. The cola rides indefinitely with a touch of smoke and saline. The floral notes, especially violets, flutter about throughout. An extremely impressive wine that is doing very well after almost 7 years in bottle. 96 points.

Washington has a number of different growing regions, each with their own unique signatures. Harrison Hill vineyard is in the Yakima Valley and its signature that I recognize is dark berries, iodine, smoke and saline. Delille’s blend offers an expression of this profile that I can’t resist. I’m also a sucker for floral and spicy notes, and this bottle offered both in spades. If there’s a better blender than Chris Upchurch out there, please point them out so I can drink their wine.

Category: there’s mint in my cab

Winner: 2006 Robert Craig Mount Veeder cabernet sauvignon

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Mount Veeder Winery vineyards. Credit: Mount Veeder Winery.

This bottle was probably the first “best” wine I ever bought and aged myself, and beyond being a great bottle of high quality wine it sticks out for really one reason: so much mint. I’ll admit to being a novice when I had this wine, but it showed me something seasoned fans of cabernet sauvignon come to know: in certain places of the world the grape shows exceptional herbal mint flavors. Sadly, I didn’t take notes when I drank this bottle, but I’ll always remember its mint notes. At some point I’ll be stashing a few of Craig’s Veeder cabernets in the cellar in the hopes of eventually reliving my minty experience.

Category: most leathery wine EVER

Winner: 2002 Lopez de Heredia Reserve Vina Tondonio Rioja

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Credit: www.pets4homes.co.uk

The first time I experienced what I imagined licking an old, oiled, sweaty leather horse saddle would taste like was this bottle. It’s definitely not for everyone, which is why most Rioja now days flouts its fruit and alcohol. Thankfully, though, there are still some Rioja producers making the style that made Rioja famous. This original style of Rioja at the Reserva level really does require at least a decade of aging before it starts to taste good, and Heredia typically releases its Tondonia bottling thirteen years after vintage. My notes:

Nose: dark cherry liquor, leather, spice box, burnt orange rind and touch of limestone. Palate: very smooth with just a touch of dusty tannin. Light body with bright acidity and high notes of tart cherries, strawberries and raspberries. Leather, tobacco leaf and rose. With time candied plum emerges. Finish: mouth drying tannins leave behind the tart berry medley. Nice Rioja on its own, but some Stori Dimon cheese from Iceland I had made it really pop. 92 points.

Category: guaranteed gateway syrah

Co-winners: 2008 Gramercy Cellars Lagniappe and 2008 Gramercy Cellars Walla Walla

My favorite red grape is syrah, and I have Gramercy Cellars and its founder and winemaker Greg Harrington’s 2008 Lagniappe and Walla Walla bottles to thank for that. Like Delille, Gramercy takes Washington’s warm climate grapes and makes reserved, terrior-driven wines that find a sweet spot in the New World-Old World stylistic spectrum by balancing bursting flavors of pure fruit with fantastic savory elements packaged into nicely balanced structure delivered with amazing mouthfeel. My Lagniappe notes:

Nose: medium aromatically. Dark fruits, mostly cherry, but it’s the savory elements that dominate nose, palate, and finish. Meats, iodine in the nose, almost no oak detected. Bit of an alcohol burn early on. Cherries come through after two hours, along with black olives, green bell peppers. Evolving nose, smell something different every time. Interesting in a very good way. Palate: savory, salty. Medium pepper. Meat, bacon fat. very smoky. Thinish wine, but full of flavor. After 1 hour tannins are almost imperceptible, but still has a solid structure. Good acidity. Finish: Smokiness explodes on the finish as the saline comes through. Medium finish length. 94 points.

The Walla Walla’s notes:

Nose: very aromatic wine. Iodine/iron jumps out early followed by violets and dark, almost sour cherries plus mild blackberries and raspberries. Bit of smokiness, and with more air the fruit and its sweetness in the form of gummy worms emerges. Palate: lively acidity makes up for lack of tannins, holding the wine firmly together. Predominantly savory flavors over first hour with bacon fat, tarragon, iodine and smoke. Sour fruits of cherry and huckleberry along with rose water. Into second hour, pepper comes out as the sour fruit deepen and start becoming sweet. Finish: Touch of warm heats leads into pleasant smokiness and barely sweet cherries. Definitely leans more old than new world. 94 points.

Gramercy produces a wide range of varietals and blends, and its club is perhaps the most rewarding I’ve ever been part of in terms of what they do for their members; in 2015 he made a few cases of Washington’s first (natively grown) picpoul for God’s sake, and it was awesome! Their release notes for the wine club are super entertaining as well. Check out the Spring 2015 notes for a great example.

Category: best meat

Winner: 2007 Arns Melanson syrah

The 2007 Arns Melanson syrah from California fleeced us all in a blind tasting. We had half a dozen syrahs from around the world lined up and paper bagged and the only unanimous guess was that this was Northern Rhone. I love Northern Rhone syrahs for their meaty and herbal and smoky savory goodness, but this Arns is the closest thing to that profile you’ll find in this post. It was also perfectly aged. Pure bliss, a top-5 all time wine for me. I didn’t take notes but it would’ve received at least a 95.

Category: from a hilltop far away…

Winner: 2012 Psagot Cabernet Sauvignon

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The view from Psagot Winery. Credit: Times of Israel/Remy Albert

This cabernet sauvignon from Psagot Winery in Israel left a real impression. It wasn’t my first Israeli wine rodeo (it was my second, which you can read all about here) and I continue to have a love-hate relationship with it. But if any of Israel’s wines I’ve had has convinced me to plan a third rodeo, though, it’s this one. My notes:

Fruit compote of blackberries, plums and cherries on the nose, along with black pepper and tobacco. There’s some wildness to it along the lines of a northern Rhone syrah, and wet soil. Over time, spearmint emerges. The palate is medium-plus in body with dense, grainy tannin. Medium acidity helps cut the tannin and define a dense structure that achieves a lightness that the nose does not suggest. Flavors include dark cherries, blackberries, smoke, cocoa, espresso and peppermint. It’s a dark and brooding flavor profile. The finish is long and pleasant. This is still a young wine and requires at least 2-3 hours of decanting before consuming. It has a good 3 years of prime drinking ahead of it, at least. For the price, this is better than most cabernet sauvignons from any part of the globe. 93 points.

This is New World brilliance but without the heavy sweetness and alcohol, which means its flavors are laser-focused because they aren’t beat down by brooding weighty, sugary tannins or alcoholic burn. One of my biggest complaints about Israel’s wine industry is that it has yet to develop a signature style or grape, and though this bottle doesn’t address that complaint it makes a very compelling argument for not caring.

Category: holy crap, what is this, and can I have more, please?

Winner: 1994 Turley (don’t remember the vineyard designation but it was a vineyard designate) zinfandel

Turley is known as one of the best zin producers in the world, and for good reason. Yet this bottle didn’t taste like zinfandel. In fact, I didn’t know which grape or blend it was when I first tasted it; it was simply an amazing flavor profile that harnessed the best senses of humor and whimsical playfulness I’ve experienced  in any wine. I should note I had this wine in the summer of 2016, so I now know that really good zinfandel can go that long. You know how sometimes you really just want to chug some fruit punch drink? This 1994 Turley was the adult version of that. The fruit was playful and popped and I didn’t stop smiling until the next day.

Category: see, this is why you age Chateauneuf!

Winner: 1998 Beaucastel Chateauneuf de Pape

I drank this the same day as the Turley, which means it was a great day. I didn’t take formal notes, but did jot this down:

Drank at dinner, no formal notes. This is awesome right now. Great balance of fruit and savory aromas and flavors. Nicely balanced structure with lively acidity. This is definitely on the more elegant end of the CdP spectrum. It probably has another 2-3 years of prime drinking left. 95 points.

Frankly, it was everything you want in a CdP: dark fruits, smoke, graphite, garrigue, tar and black pepper. It offered all of this in an elegant manner with a gorgeous mouthfeel and perfect balance. And at 18 years of age it showed its wisdom. This wine, and this wine only, is what I think of when I dream of Chateauneuf.

Category: I’m proud and I won’t hide it

Winner: Merlot #1 2014

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You’ve probably never heard of it; it’s a very exclusive wine. Only one case of it was made and less than two dozen people have been allowed to taste it. See, I know all this because I made it (along with a friend/professional winemaker at a professional winery). It’s single vineyard Virginia merlot gently pressed and made with the least amount of intervention by human or science we could muster. Aged 11 months in glass carboys, six-plus months to complete malolactic fermentation, gentle yeast, minimal sulfur, one racking and no fining or filtering. There’s nothing like drinking wine you made and it’s completely fulfilling to share it with friends and family. It’s not the best wine I’ve had, but it’s my wine. I also bottled numbers 2-7 which were either from batches that received different wood and yeast treatments or blends of the batches at different percentages, but number one really is number one: single vineyard and no oak, I’d be hard pressed to figure out how to convey a less unadulterated site and vintage expression.

These are my ten most memorable wines. Now. I never want to forget them, but I hope that more wines etch themselves into my memory as these have. This may be a problem because my memory is the result of my genes, and that doesn’t bode well. Yet another reason to start Good Vitis.