Articles in Winemaker

Main photo: Peter Gago, chief winemaker at Penfolds, at Magill Estate. Credit: Courtesy of Penfolds

One often hears it said that place is the most important factor in a wine’s identity. Or, to echo a silly cliché, that wine is made in the vineyard. But the quality and the character of the top wines from Penfolds, Australia’s iconic wine company, suggest something else. Multi-vineyard and in some cases multi-regional blends, they are true to a vision, not to a place.

A meeting a few weeks ago with Peter Gago, Penfolds’ chief winemaker, brought home the importance of stylistic vision in the production of truly distinctive wines. The occasion was the release of new vintages of some of Penfolds’ most renowned wines, including Grange, St. Henri Shiraz, and Yattarna Chardonnay. Though suffering a bit from jet lag, Gago was his usual gregarious self, an equal mix of witty cheer and insightful wisdom. The topic dominating our conversation was the significance of style.

Penfolds, founded in 1844, is one of the oldest wine companies Down Under. It began to rise to its current place in the Australian pantheon in the 1960s, when the national market for fortified wines slowed down and interest in table wines increased. The winemaker at the time was the now legendary Max Schubert, who inaugurated the style that his successors, including Gago, have emulated and refined over the years.

That style marries exuberance with finesse — a paradoxical but, when successful, enthralling combination. It came in part from the natural growing conditions in South Australia, and in part from Schubert’s desire to make wines inspired by a European, especially a Bordeaux, model. Since South Australia tends to be hotter and drier than Bordeaux, the grapes grown there will ripen more fully, yielding wines with more flamboyance and power. To fashion the sort of wines he wanted, Schubert thus needed not only to respect the vineyards he used in his blends, but also to tame the fruit that grew there.

In the subsequent decades, this style became what Schubert and the winemakers who followed him strived to achieve. It is, Gago freely acknowledges today, the company’s “house style,” and he thinks of himself as its custodian.

Good grapes are just the beginning

This emphasis on style does not mean that vineyard sites are unimportant. “You can’t make good wine without good grapes,” he told me, “and good grapes come from good vineyards.” That, however, is just the beginning. Being true to a style means being able to blend wines from various barrels, lots and cuvées in order to achieve the desired result. The more options the winemaker has to choose from, the better his or her chance of success. Thus Gago uses grapes from separate sites, vineyards and even broad geographic areas to craft the wines he wants. Due to different weather conditions in different years, the sources vary from vintage to vintage. That’s because Gago’s goal remains “consistency above all.”

Penfolds has had its house style for nearly half a century. Given the myriad of advances in grape growing and winemaking over that period, as well as the many shifts in consumer preference, it has evolved subtly with the times. The changes have been gradual, but the result has been a stylistic vision that testifies to the value of a living tradition.

Many of world’s best wines are blends

This emphasis on style and the winemaker’s vision may contradict what many vintners (and critics) say about wine today, but it actually is in accord with what happens with many, if not most, of the world’s finest wines. These too are blends, often of different grape varieties and different vineyard plots. Bordeaux and Champagne are obvious Old World examples, but even in Burgundy, where vineyard holdings tend to be quite small and single varieties are the norm, many producers blend barrels or lots to create their best wines. And what defines their best if not an awareness of style?

Of course, such awareness depends upon a knowledge of past vintages of the wine in question as well as many other wines (and not just those made nearby). That knowledge is something that far too many contemporary winemakers lack. It is not something taught in schools of oenology, and it cannot be acquired through scientific analysis. Ironically, its absence helps explain why so many winemakers contend that their wines reflect the character of their vineyards rather than decisions made in the winery.

Great wine clearly begins in great vineyards. It achieves true distinction, however, in the winery, where the skills of talented men and women transform nature’s gifts into human art. And one of the winemaker’s most important skills is identifying the style that he or she wants to realize. As Gago insists, he and by extension any winemaker who aims to craft wines of true distinction have a responsibility “to build upon the legacy of winemakers past.” Put another way, regardless of where the grapes come from, great wine is rare if not virtually impossible without a stylistic vision that has its source in the winemaker’s own awareness of the value of tradition and style.

Main photo: Peter Gago, chief winemaker at Penfolds, at Magill Estate. Credit: Courtesy of Penfolds

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In London Cru's urban winery, workers led by winemaker Gavin Monery prepare Chardonnay grapes for pressing. Credit: Ian Sterling/London Cru

The way to make a small fortune in wine, they say, is to start with a large one. The phrase comes to mind as I taste the first vintage at London Cru, the eccentric, possibly uneconomic, but very serious urban winery in southwest London: the first in the UK capital.

London Cru follows a pattern of urban wineries such as 8th Estate in Hong Kong and New York’s City Winery, buying in grapes and vinifying them in the city. It is the brainchild of the keen young team that surrounds Cliff Roberson, a 74-year-old wine merchant of considerable renown.

He started the importer Buckingham Vintners in 1974, and in 1991 opened his flagship shop, Roberson Wine, in London’s Kensington district. By 2004, he’d sold all of his shares in Buckingham (by then one of the UK’s biggest wine companies, selling 40 million bottles a year) to the European wine group Schenk, to focus on the retail side of the business.

A couple of years ago, Roberson “got itchy” as he put it. When his right-hand man, Adam Green, suggested they set up a winery, he was interested.

“Ninety-nine out of a hundred businessmen would have run a mile,” Green says. “Cliff is that one in a hundred who saw the possibilities.”

From warehouse to urban winery

They enlisted as a partner an itinerant entrepreneur, Will Tomlinson. With a million-pound start-up fund, they equipped a former gin distillery in Fulham that served as Roberson’s warehouse with five open-topped stainless steel fermenters and a barrel cellar. The capacity: 2,500 cases, They hired Australian winemaker Gavin Monery, whose résumé  includes premium wineries such as Cullen and Cape Mentelle in Margaret River, Chave in Hermitage, and Remoissenet and Alex Gambal in Burgundy.

Australian winemaker Gavin Monery eyes the latest vintage at London Cru. Credit: London Cru

Australian winemaker Gavin Monery eyes the latest vintage at London Cru. Credit: London Cru

Roberson, a company with annual wine sales of 10 to 12 million pounds through retail and the restaurant trade, and with a fine wine broking arm, has access to premium producers in every wine region of the world.

“Most of the guys we are buying grapes from, we import their wines anyway,” Monery says.

So he can control harvest dates (they pick early for freshness), and quality. To ensure they get exactly what they want, they pay handsomely —  more than double the going rate, in some cases.

The first vintage, the 2013, consists of four wines: a Chardonnay, a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Syrah from Roussillon, and a Barbera from Piedmont. Monery has sourced three more for 2014, a Syrah and a Garnacha from Calatayud in northeastern Spain, and a white English grape Bacchus, from Sandhurst Vineyards in Kent. Labels are minimalist: the wines are called SW6 (London Cru’s postcode) White Wine No. 1, Red Wine No. 1, and so forth. For reasons that are difficult to fathom, the UK’s Byzantine food laws forbid the mention of vintage or grape variety on the label.

A long journey by refrigerated truck

When the grapes are picked, they are transferred immediately to refrigerated trucks, which then make the 36-hour journey through mainland Europe, over the English Channel and into the winery. The trucks are key to the operation, Monery says. A fleet of such vehicles buzzing back and forth through Europe can’t come cheap. Is this a viable business model?

Renowned London wine importer and retailer Cliff Roberson has joined the production side of the business by launching London Cru, an urban winery in the UK capital. Credit: London Cru

Renowned London wine importer and retailer Cliff Roberson has joined the production side of the business by launching London Cru, an urban winery in the UK capital. Credit: London Cru

“Well,” Green says with a smile, “it’s not the safest or the most rational business plan you could come up with, but, equally, it’s one that we all thought was interesting. We are thoroughly aiming to offer our investors a good return, and they see the aesthetic pleasure of being involved, and of bringing something genuinely new to London.”

Indeed, it is aesthetically pleasing to be in a fully functioning winery — complete with pungent aromas of oak and fermentation — in the middle of London. And the wines themselves? I don’t know what I was expecting from French and Italian varietals vinified in Fulham by an Australian, but I found them fresh, bright, charming, and loaded with varietal character.

It’s a pity that the 2013 is made in such tiny quantities — far fewer than 1,000 cases in all, and they are down to their last bottles. There’s a small fortune to be made here.

London Cru wines

All about $24 (£15) , available from the winery’s website.

SW6 White Wine 1 – Chardonnay: Bright, fresh, rather exotic nose with nice creamy roundness, this mitigated on the palate by brisk and precise acidity cutting through crunchy apple and some high tropical notes. Charming.

SW6 Red Wine 1 – Syrah: Picked early at 12 degrees alcohol. Delicate white pepper nose followed by a savory palate with dark fruit topped with ripe black cherry. Soft tannins with grip dissolve into lovely mouth-watering juice. Excellent.

SW6 Red Wine 2 – Barbera: Ruby red hue, bitter cherries on the nose, dancing acidity, tannins that are dry, even dusty, quickly releasing gouts of mouth-watering juice leaving a memory of ripe fallen damsons. Fresh, wild and utterly beguiling.

SW6 Red Wine 3 – Cabernet Sauvignon: Aromas of leaf and nettle that swirl out of the glass like a genie from a lamp. Classic blackcurrant leaf palate, tannins with grip and heft, scent of menthol alongside the hedgerow fruit, lots of juice on the finish. The best of a very strong quartet of wines. Bravo.

Main photo: In London Cru’s urban winery, workers led by winemaker Gavin Monery prepare Chardonnay grapes for pressing. Credit: Ian Sterling/London Cru

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Grapes from the morning pick at Flowers’ Vineyards. Credit: Courtesy of Flowers’ Vineyards

Sonoma County conjures up pastoral images of California’s bucolic wine region — vineyards and creameries tucked along back-country roads dotted with farm stands and rustic garden shops, cows grazing in pastures, herds of sheep roaming in meadows.

And then there’s the other side of the Sonoma wine region, the rugged, extreme coast that hugs the Pacific Ocean. The newly established Fort Ross Seaview appellation is ensconced in this pocket of the larger Sonoma Coast American Viticulture Area, or AVA.

Perched on mountainous terrain, Fort Ross Seaview’s fog-blanketed vineyards appear to cling to sunny mountain ridges, some as high as 1,800 feet, pushing through the dense fog that rolls in from the Pacific Ocean.

The areas above 900 feet are blessed with a longer duration of sunlight and are in fact warmer than the surrounding land below. This warmth, combined with the tempering effect of a cool maritime influence, creates a perfect growing season for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, varietals widely planted in the region. The grapes enjoy gradual ripening with no dramatic ups and downs, which results in balanced sugar and acidity levels. Although noted for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the region is also planted with Zinfandel, Pinotage and Rhône varietals.

The wines of this extreme coast are low in alcohol and packed with bright fruit flavors, complex minerality and bracing acidity.

Sonoma County AVA the newest in popular wine region

On a recent visit to the Sonoma coast, I trekked out to visit this isolated and challenging site that received its own AVA in 2012. The Sonoma County AVA brings the total for the county to 17 appellations.

Fort Ross Seaview’s 27,500-acre appellation includes 18 commercial vineyards, and more than 550 acres are planted to vineyards by such noted vintners as Marcassin, Martinelli, Peter Michael and Pahlmeyer. The area has five wine labels, among them the region’s pioneer, Flowers & Winery.

The AVA’s only tasting room open to public is at Fort Ross Vineyards. Coming from Sebastopol, it took us more than an hour to get to Fort Ross Vineyards, the first destination on our trip. The drive along Highway 116 that connects to Highway 1 was spectacular, taking us through the hamlets of Guerneville and Monte Rio along the Russian River. The dramatic coastline winding through the coastal town of Jenner brought us to the Fort Ross tasting room, which is tucked away in the mountainous landscape between the towns of Fort Ross and Cazadero.

San Francisco-based owners Linda and Lester Schwartz purchased the 975-acre Fort Ross property in 1991 and later planted 50 acres of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinotage. With Jeff Pisoni on board as winemaker, they launched their first commercial release in 2000.

The 32 different parcels of small vineyards are perched at elevations ranging from 1,200 to 1,700 feet. The tasting room is enveloped by evergreens in a forest-like environment and sits at an elevation of 1,000 feet.

As we tasted the lineup of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay on a mid-August afternoon, the fog hung thick below the tasting room’s terrace. We were clearly above the fog line.

We savored the three different styles of Pinot. The 2012 palate-caressing, drink-now Sea Slopes showed hints of strawberry, while the 2010 signature Fort Ross Pinot reflected the region’s terroir, with layers of complexity, smoky blackberry notes and firm tannins. Lush with cherry notes, the silky-textured 2009 Reserve Pinot was indeed cellar-worthy.

Chardonnay mirrors the coast

The zesty 2012 Chardonnay had bracing acidity and minerality reflective of the extreme coastal terroir. Originally from Cape Town, South Africa, the Schwartz family paid homage to its signature Pinotage grape (a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault) and imported the budwood. Grown in the cool, coastal climate, the 2009 Pinotage showed a Pinot Noir body but with rustic brambly notes.

Our next stop was at Flowers Vineyards, renowned for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Walt and Joan Flowers pioneered this rugged area when they planted these two varietals in 1991 at the Camp Meeting Ridge Estate Vineyard, and they released their first commercial vintage in 1994. The winery is now owned by vintner Agustin Huneeus of Napa Valley’s famed Quintessa Winery.

Rising up just 2 miles from the rugged Pacific Ocean cliffs, the Flowers property is breathtaking. The vineyards, heavy with fruit, are spread out on elevations ranging from 1,150 feet to 1,875 feet. Our guide and host Michelle Forry informed us that this mountainous range was at one time a sheep ranch till the coyotes wiped them out.

Flowers follows organic and biodynamic practices on its 80 acres of vineyards, 30 acres on Camp Meeting Ridge and 50 acres on Sea View Ridge. The entire mountaintop ranch totals 648 acres.

The well-known San Andreas fault runs nearby, Forry said, and its geological movement has influenced the Camp Meeting Ridge and Sea View Ridge vineyards. Through time and cataclysmic events, the ancient rocks and weathered marine and volcanic soils have helped control vine vigor, resulting in distinctive coastal minerality with bright fruit, signature characteristics of Flowers wines. And it’s this expression that has made me a longtime fan of Flowers’ wines.

Pinot Noir with a lovely finish

We tasted the 2011 vintages of Pinot Noir from the two estates. The Camp Meeting Ridge Estate Pinot showed bright red fruits accented with acidity and minerality. The Sea View Ridge Vineyard had a deep brick color (due to the volcanic ash in the soil) laced with cherry notes and a lovely lingering finish.

The classic sea-salt minerality of Camp Meeting Ridge vineyard was reflected in the 2011 Chardonnay, layered with cardamom and citrus fruits. The 2012 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay also showed the signature minerality laced with pear and apple.

Because the AVA is just 2 years old, you might not see the Fort Ross-Seaview name on bottle labels yet. In fact, Flowers does not intend to use that appellation name on its labels.

“For us we are Sonoma Coast first,” Forry said.

Main photo: Grapes from the morning pick at Flowers Vineyards. Credit: Courtesy of Flowers Vineyard

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Syrah grapes at Lake Chelan Winery's vineyard near Manson, Wash. Credit: Roger Ainsley

If you live in Seattle, you summer at Lake Chelan.

It’s a requirement of residency, along with buying your pearl barley at the co-op and stoically facing down nine months of gloom each year. You load up the Subaru Outback and make the 180-mile trek across the Cascade Mountains to a narrow glacier-fed lake that cuts into those peaks for 50-plus miles. There you swim, boat and bake — or burn — for a few of the inland region’s 300 days of sunshine a year.

And increasingly, you travel from winery to winery, tasting local bottlings that are expanding in number and quality.

Summertime on Lake Chelan in eastern Washington state, and the office is many miles away. Credit: Roger Ainsley

Summertime on Lake Chelan in eastern Washington state and the office is many miles away. Credit: Roger Ainsley

Wine grapes have been grown on the lakeshore since the late 1800s. But Chelan is still an infant among American wine regions when it comes to commercial production, going back less than two decades. The 24,040-acre Lake Chelan American Viticulture Area — the 11th AVA in Washington state — is only 5 years old. It remains part of the 11-million acre Columbia River AVA, one of the powerhouse regions in a state that ranks 2nd only to California in U.S. wine production.

Lake Chelan Valley’s unique properties — including the lake’s cooling effect that helps counter eastern Washington’s relentless heat — have been attracting winemakers and growers, sandwiched among the area’s traditional apple orchards. From a handful a decade ago, the area now has more than 20 wineries with an upstart temperament and, sometimes, a quirky sense of humor. (The Hard Row to Hoe winery takes its name from an enterprising oarsman who nearly a century ago carried workers across the lake to an equally enterprising brothel.)

The lake’s wineries are bottling a wide range of grapes from Chelan and the broader Columbia River region, from Syrah to the obscure Picpoul.

Charlie and Lacey Lybecker know about both grapes — and about pursuing the dream of making wines on a small scale in a corner of Washington wine country.

The Lybeckers are in their sixth year of producing wines, for the past three years from Cairdeas Winery on Highway 150 near the town of Manson. Their operation says family owned and operated, down to 2-year-old Eugene in his father’s arms as Charlie passed through the tasting shed on a recent afternoon.

Cairdeas, which means friendship, goodwill or alliance in ancient Gaelic, is a dream still in the midst of being fulfilled for Charlie, 34, and Lacey, 31. They produced their first bottles in their home in West Seattle and were looking to relocate to eastern Washington wine country when Lacey came to Chelan on a business trip.

Getting in while Lake Chelan Valley’s young and growing

Two wines from Lake Chelan: 2010 Whistle Punk from C.R. Sandidge, a big, jammy blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec; and Cairdeas Winery's 2013 Southern White, which includes Grenache blanc, Roussanne and Picpout. Credit: Roger Ainsley

Two wines from Lake Chelan: 2010 Whistle Punk from C.R. Sandidge, a big, jammy blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec; and Cairdeas Winery’s 2013 Southern White, which includes Grenache Blanc, Roussanne and Picpoul. Credit: Roger Ainsley

“As soon as we saw Lake Chelan, it was like there’s no other option,” says Charlie, who studied winemaking at Seattle’s Northwest Wine Academy. “It was really appealing to us to get in while it’s still young and see the valley grow and help it grow.”

Cairdeas reflects their passion for Rhone varietals — Syrahs, Viogniers, Roussanne — with the grapes coming from around the Columbia River AVA, some from Chelan. Their method for sourcing grapes is straightforward: When they taste a great wine from the region that reflects the style they are seeking, they find out where the grapes came from and go knocking at the grower’s door.

By next spring, however, about half of their six acres near the lakeshore will be planted with their own Syrah.

“There are some very high-quality grapes coming out. I think people are really experimenting a lot and seeing what types of grapes grow really well here,” Charlie says. “For my personal taste, I think the Syrah from Lake Chelan is absolutely the best.”

And then there’s Picpoul, an obscure grape that Charlie has used to advantage in his “new favorite white wine right now,” Cairdeas’ Southern White. “It’s an extremely acidic grape by itself but has great flavors and we use it as a blending grape,” he explains. The result: a bright wine with a broad palette of flavors that could work in place of Sauvignon Blanc with a simple grilled chicken.

The Lybeckers hope to tap in to Lake Chelan’s natural advantages, including as a wine tourist destination. As Lacey notes, the lake comes ready made with tourism infrastructure — lakeshore hotels, golf courses, water sports and winter snow skiing — that some Washington wine regions had to create from scratch.

Their goals are at once ambitious and limited: Having grown from producing 250 cases in 2009 to slightly over 2,000 this year, they figure on topping off at about 4,000 cases. Then build a new tasting room facing the lake. Add a picnic area and a pond. Maybe offer up farm dinners.

“We are always going to be a very small family winery,” Charlie says.

Adds Lacey: “We want to make sure we always have our hands in the process.”

Main photo: Syrah grapes at Lake Chelan Winery’s vineyard near Manson, Wash. Credit: Roger Ainsley

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A selection of Malibu wines sold at the Cornell wine shop and tasting room. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

Say the word Malibu, and visions of  bikini-clad women, surfer dudes and movie stars’  homes typically come to mind.

Now you can add vineyards with a view to the list of Malibu, Calif., attractions.

This month, the tony area will receive its Malibu Coast American Viticultural Area (AVA) classification, a process that took three years.

Malibu’s wine history begins in 1800s

“Now that we have a Malibu AVA, it gives us a sense of place and validates that we have a specific geographic area and we can reunite our group with a wine-growing history that goes back to 200 years,” said Elliott Dolin, proprietor of Dolin Malibu Estate Vineyards.

Vineyards in the Malibu area were first planted by the Tapia family in the 1820s. “Between Prohibition and fires, the vineyards disappeared,” Dolin said.

Malibu’s viticultural history was revived in the mid-1980s by Santa Monica restaurateur Michael McCarty, who launched The Malibu Vineyards, and Los Angeles businessman George Rosenthal, who produced the eponymous label at his Malibu Newton Canyon vineyard. They were later joined by Ronnie Semler with his Malibu Family Wines at Saddle Rock Ranch.

Now Dolin is among 52 Malibu-based vintners farming wine grapes in California’s newly established AVA, which is comprised mainly of the Santa Monica Mountains. Some 198 acres of vineyards are planted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Chardonnay. The appellation is 46 miles long and 8 miles wide, with elevations ranging from sea level to 3,111 feet atop Sandstone Peak. The two previously established minuscule appellations of Saddle Rock-Malibu and Malibu-Newton Canyon now come under the larger Malibu Coast AVA. About 30 wine labels are produced by the 52 growers.

But for tourists looking to visit wineries and tasting rooms, you’re out of luck. Because of state and county restrictions, Malibu does not have wine-production facilities with tasting rooms in the AVA. All the vintners custom crush their grapes in various Central Coast locations, and wines are sold through mailing lists and at retail stores and restaurants.

However, I discovered two places to savor local wines — Rosenthal Wine Bar & Patio on Pacific Coast Highway and Cornell Winery Tasting Room in Agoura. (Cornell is not an actual winery, but a wine bar and retail shop).

Perched on the western boundary above the Pacific Ocean, the Dolin estate is a seagull’s flight from Zuma Beach and sits on Zuma Mesa. The volcanic soil was called Zuma, hence the name of the beach, Dolin said.

Standing on the terrace of his Mediterranean-style villa, Dolin pointed to six other small vineyards around his property. The coastal weather is ideal for wine grapes. “We have cool fog in the morning, warm days and it’s cool in the evening,” he noted.

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A family of peacocks strut around the garden of the rustic Cornell Tasting Room in Agoura, Calif. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

A native New Yorker, Dolin joined the Nashville music scene (he played electric guitar) and then turned to real estate development. He was introduced to fine wines through a dedicated wine group in Los Angeles and developed a love for Bordeaux and California reds. He and his wife, Lynn, purchased their 2-acre ocean-view property in 2001 and planted the vineyard in 2006. The Dolins hired Bob Tobias as their vineyard adviser, and he suggested a Chardonnay planting with the Dijon 96 clone.

Why a Chardonnay vineyard for a red-wine aficionado, I ask?

“Our best chance for quality fruit was Chardonnay, so decision was terroir-driven, not taste-driven,” Dolin said.

The first release in 2009 was made by Dolin himself at a custom crush facility in Camarillo. In 2010, Kirby Anderson — the former head winemaker at Gainey Vineyard — came on board as the winemaker, winning the Chardonnay a double gold in the San Francisco Chronicle’s wine competition. Currently the wines are produced at a custom crush in San Luis Obispo.

It’s a gorgeous Malibu afternoon, with clear skies, a gentle breeze caressing the vines planted just below the villa’s scenic terrace and the ocean in the distance. We savor the lush, round-mouth feel of the 2011 Chardonnay, which clearly says “California Chardonnay.” Barrel-aged for 13 months, the wine shows balance of fruit and acidity with oak playing a supporting role.

With his passion for reds, Dolin is expanding his 2014 portfolio, sourcing Central Coast Pinot Noir from such prestigious vineyards as Talley’s Rincon, Solomon Hills and Bien Nacido. We had a preview of this portfolio, tasting a salmon-hued 2103 Roséproduced from Central Coast Pinot Noir.

I later met with Jim Palmer of Malibu Vineyards at Cornell Winery. This not a winery but a retail shop and tasting room that specializes in Malibu labels plus wines made by small producers from Temecula to Monterey. It’s tucked away in the Santa Monica Mountains in the hamlet of Cornell.

The tasting room is adjacent to the popular eatery The Old Place, which was once the Cornell post office. A throwback to the Old West that has served as a backdrop to several Hollywood productions, this tiny oasis is wedged between Malibu and Agoura along Mulholland Highway and was part of the old stagecoach route, Palmer said.

In the mid-1990s, Palmer purchased his 4-acre Decker Canyon property 3 miles from the coast. Perched at an elevation of 1,500 feet, the vineyard is planted with Sangiovese, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot. His first vintage, a Syrah, was launched in 2003, and currently his annual production is a mere 400 cases.

Palmer poured the 2010 Sangiovese Vortex, a Super Tuscan-style Sangiovese blended with Merlot and Cabernet Franc — a sublime wine with balanced acidity and traces of cherry fruit. The fruit-forward style 2010 Syrah showed a hint of spice.

An accountant by profession, Palmer calls his wine business a one-man show. “By doing that, I can control all aspects of winemaking,” he said. “I also sell my own wine.”

Malibu may be renowned as a beach retreat for movie stars and billionaires, but it’s also gaining recognition for vintners growing grapes on small patches of vineyards and crafting very good wines.

Main photo: A selection of Malibu wines sold at the Cornell wine shop and tasting room. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

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A selection of Robert Biale Vineyards wines. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

The 2014 Auction Napa Valley-The American Wine Classic shattered last year’s record and raised a staggering $18.7 million over one weekend in June.

The auction was the brainchild of the late Robert Mondavi, known as the “Godfather” of Napa Valley. His vision was supported by the Napa Valley Vintners Association, and the auction was launched in 1981. To date, the group has invested more than $120 million from auction proceeds in Napa County nonprofit organizations.

As in previous years, 2014 auction lots were gilded with trips to far-flung locales in private jets or luxury yachts, flashy sports cars, magnums of pricey Napa red wine and the ultimate indulgence — dinner for 50 at the venerable French Laundry restaurant.

After all, this is the Napa Valley brand: touting high-end Cabernets and projecting a sexy, glamorous image. And it takes a village to stage an auction of this magnitude — an event that draws oenophiles from around the globe.

Napa Valley’s vintners are as diverse as its terroir. There are the stratospheric cult labels such as Screaming Eagle, Harlan, Colgin and Araujo. Then there’s the other face of Napa: winemakers who are active participants in the auction but seek a lower profile.

After the adrenaline rush of this year’s auction slowed Sunday morning, I had the opportunity to meet one such winemaking family, the Biales of Robert Biale Vineyards, who are among the pioneers making up Napa’s historic landscape.

Clementina Biale, 82 years young, and her son Bob Biale greeted me in the matriarch’s Tudor-style house in the city of Napa. For 70 years, the family has farmed Zinfandel in Cabernet country. “Aldo loved Zinfandel,” Clementina said of her late husband while walking us out to the terrace overlooking vineyards planted with Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Sangiovese.

Today, the Biales are continuing their family tradition of Zinfandel. Their annual production of 15,000 cases includes 12,000 cases of 14 vineyard-designate Zinfandels from various properties in the Oak Knoll appellation and 3,000 cases of Petite Sirah and blends. The wines reflect elegance and balanced fruit — none of the jamminess you associate with Zinfandel.

“Napa was full of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah,” Bob Biale said. Then Cabernet Sauvignon came along in the late 1960s. After Napa’s win at the 1976 Judgment of Paris competition, Cabernet became even more popular, he said. “Napans found that Cab grows well, so they pulled out all the Zinfandel.”

Biale family has humble origins

An active octogenarian, Clementina drives around Napa doing errands and going to church. She draws the line at driving on the freeway, though.

“I never went to university,” she told me. “I was happy to raise a good family. We had a good life, nothing fancy.”

A few times a week, Clementina visits the humble barn-like Biale tasting room in Napa, where her handmade aprons and bottle bags are sold among other items.

“Aldo always said you don’t need a million-dollar room to have good wine,” she said fondly about her husband, who passed away in 2009 at age 80.

Aldo Biale was born in 1929 on Napa’s Mount Veeder to Pietro and Christina, who arrived in the early 1920s from Liguria, Italy. To help Aldo learn English, the family moved to the valley floor and purchased its first 5-acre parcel in 1937. They planted Zinfandel and fruit orchards while also raising white leghorn chickens. Pietro passed away in 1942, leaving 13-year-old Aldo and his mother to tend the ranch.

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Clementina Biale with her son, Bob Biale, on the terrace of her house overlooking the 6-acre vineyard in Napa. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

In 1953, Aldo visited Italy for the first time and met Clementina in Piedmont. “He took me to a fiesta,” she recalled.

They married a year later, and Clementina arrived in Napa in 1954. She raised four children and helped out in the farming operation.

In his teen years, Aldo worked on the family vineyards, delivering fresh eggs in the community. At age 14, he figured out there was more money in wine than selling Zinfandel grapes at $25 per ton, so he started making homemade jug wine and sold it without a license until the mid-1960s. Aldo continued selling grapes until 1990, including to such companies as Gallo and the St. Helena Co-op.

Aldo also kept his day job, working for Napa City’s Water Department. He would come home at 4 p.m. and start farming till 10. “There were lights on the tractor,” Bob recalled. “He had chores for me and my brothers. Now I’m glad we grew up this way and learned from him.”

As we taste the Black Chicken Zinfandel, a blend from different vineyards, Clementina tells the story behind the label. The name was a code for the jug wine for customers who ordered by telephone. The Biale family’s phone was on a party line, meaning it was shared with possibly nosy neighbors.

Clementina had just arrived from Italy when she answered a call from someone asking for two dozen eggs and a black chicken. “I said to this fella, ‘We have no black chicken, we have white,’ ” she said, laughing. She soon learned it was the code for Aldo’s secret Zinfandel.

“But my father’s dream was to have a brand that was our own wine,” Bob said. That was realized when Aldo and Bob founded Robert Biale Vineyards in 1991. Later, a partnership was formed with Dave Pramuk and Dave Perry.

“We had a nice little team, but we still kept our day jobs,” Bob said. He worked with the cellar team crew at Beringer.

Bob reflects sadly about the old-vine Zinfandels that were pulled out and replanted to Cabernet Sauvignon. He points in part to Robert Mondavi for this conversion.

“He was right by planting more Cab varietal, which put Napa on the map,” Bob said. “God bless him, that Cab conversion has allowed us growers to actually make a living. But it came with a sacrifice by removing old Zinfandel.”

Standing by their Zinfandels, the Biales are part of Napa’s mosaic of vintners. Over the years, Biale wine has been poured at the barrel auction’s marketplace tasting. “I am considering participating in the barrel auction next year,” Bob said.

That Biale Zin is sure to stand out in a barrel room full of Napa Cabs.

Main photo: A selection of Robert Biale Vineyards wines. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

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Picking Grenache at Grover Zampa Vineyards. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

India is trending toward wine. The favorite beverage of Dionysus is fast becoming the gateway drink for the nation’s younger generation. The tradition of two scotches before dinner is morphing into a wine-by-the-glass culture.

Noticing this change, France’s legendary House of Moët & Chandon has made its initial foray into India with the premiere release of Chandon India, a sparkling wine produced for the domestic market. The wine is made in the emerging wine region of Nashik (or Nasik), a four-hour drive north of Mumbai. The uncorking of Chandon Brut and Brut Rosé in October 2013 drew Mumbai’s glitterati and Bollywood superstars.

Most wine regions are known for their distinctive grape varietals: New Zealand’s Marlborough area for Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc, France’s Chablis for Chardonnay, Germany’s Mosel region for Riesling and so on.

On my recent visit to Nashik, I was impressed by its Chenin Blanc. It was so good, I suggested to a few winemakers that they brand this region as “Chenin Blanc Country.” This is the varietal that goes into Chandon’s sparkling wine. Nashik’s diurnal temperature creates an ideal growing condition for Chenin and Sauvignon Blanc — wines perfectly suited for India’s hot weather and spicy foods.

Wine just beginning to emerge in India

India’s wine industry is in its embryonic stage. In a country of 1.2 billion people, wine consumption in 2013 was estimated at 1.6 million cases, with an annual growth rate of 20% to 25%. The country has 70-plus wineries with more than 260,000 acres under vines spread among 11 Indian states. The noted areas are Bangalore in Karnataka state in the south and Nashik and Pune on the west coast, both in close proximity to Mumbai in Maharashtra state.

On the banks of Godavari River, Nashik (with a population of 1.5 million) is steeped in mythology. It’s among the four locations where Kumbh Mela — a Hindu pilgrimage — is held, making it one of India’s holiest cities. With more than 100 temples, temple tourism is a big draw. The city is also an automotive and pharmaceutical manufacturing hub. And now comes its newest attraction — wine tourism, with some 30 wineries, fancy tasting rooms and harvest festivals.

Chandon’s winemaker, Australian Kelly Healey, was my daylong guide in Nashik. The company purchases fruit from local growers, and production, started in 2011, is done at the local York winery. Chandon’s own winery is under construction in Dindori, a subregion of Nashik, and scheduled for completion later in 2014. New Zealand’s Cloudy Bay Winery is Chandon’s technical partner in Nashik, Healey said.

Avoiding soil that’s better for table grapes

Healey gave me the lowdown on Nashik’s geological profile. Hillside vineyards, some at an elevation of 1,300 feet, contain porous, red-brown, rocky basaltic soil with a slightly richer brown soil on flat land.

“The one we want to avoid is the black soil on alluvial plains,” Healey said. The rich organic matter with water-retaining property is better suited for table grapes. And there’s a lot of that going on, because table grapes exported to the United Kingdom and Russia fetch a better per-ton price than wine grapes.

From October to February, temperatures dip to mid-40 F. Harvest season is from February to March. “There’s no dormancy, so the vines are all confused as there’s year-round growth,” Healey mused.

Annual prunings are in April and September, and most farmers create artificial dormancy in April. “They spray with a hormone so the vines drop leaves,” Healey said. During monsoon season, June to August, vines are sprayed to keep them healthy. “It’s a difficult place to do organic farming,” he admitted.

Nashik’s popular varietals range from Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc to Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Merlot and Malbec. Some producers are experimenting with Tempranillo, Grenache and Sangiovese. Nashik does not have an appellation certification, but the bottles bear the name. The region was pioneered in the 1980s by Chateau Indage, followed by producers like Sula and Zampa.

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Lunchtime for farm workers at Vallonne. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

I visited four wineries, starting with Sula, which was launched in 1998. Back then, visitors lacked wine culture, recalled winemaker Ajoy Shaw. “They didn’t know what wine was. ‘Can we mix with water?’ they asked.”

Sula ushered in California-style wine education with an upscale tasting room and winery tours. All Sula bottles have screw caps because many consumers don’t own corkscrews. “And waiters struggle to open bottles in restaurants,” Shaw said.

Sula is clearly the leader in the Indian market, with an annual production of 700,000 cases and 29 different labels. The flagship wines are Sauvignon Blanc and sparkling wines. The reds include Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Shiraz. In tasting the Nashik reds, especially Cabernet Sauvignon, I found they lacked the tannin structure. No wonder, because Cabernet requires a longer growing season, which this region does not offer. So what you get here is sugary ripeness, not flavor ripeness.

I tasted an exceptional Chenin Blanc at York Winery, a wine I feel could stand up to any world-class Chenin in a blind tasting. Owned by the Gurnani family of Nashik, York is run by brothers Ravi, in charge of marketing, and winemaker Kailash, who studied oenology at Adelaida University in Australia.

In 2008, they produced their first vintage of wines from sourced fruit and the six-acre estate vineyard. Annual production of 10,000 cases includes Sauvignon Blanc Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and a Zinfandel Rosé.

In nearby Kavnai village, Vallonné Winery sits on a 20-acre estate. Founder Shailandra Pai conducted a tasting of a fragrant 2013 Rosé of Cabernet Sauvignon and a 2011 fruit-forward  Malbec. I was impressed with the barrel tasting of the 2013 Merlot, which showed integrated tannins.

A few miles further, Grover Zampa’s 13-acre vineyard is set on a 35-acre estate. Its annual production of 25,000 cases includes 18 to 20 wines. The whites lacked fresh acidity. What stood out was the flagship 2010 Chêne Reserve, a blend of Syrah and Tempranillo showing structured tannins and fruit.

The Nashik trip was quite an experience — modern hotels in the city yet bullock carts, corn fields and sun-dried cow dung cakes along wine country’s rural trail. But Ravi Gurnani is positive about the future.

“Chandon being here is a good push for others,” he said.

Main photo: Picking Grenache at Grover Zampa Vineyards. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

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The Cornalin Museum, Château de Vaas, La Maison des Cornalins in the village of Flanthey. Credit: David Latt

Which Swiss wines do you love? Hands? Anybody? Nobody? Know why? Only 2% of Switzerland’s wine production is exported. All the rest is consumed domestically. The best way — actually, the only way — to sample Swiss wines is to visit Switzerland. That’s what I did last fall.

The Valais’ microclimate

Having grown up with images of Switzerland as a land of snow-covered mountains,  I expected cold weather when I visited the Valais, a  French-speaking canton east of Geneva. But the climate was better suited to shorts and T-shirts than to parkas.

Neatly trellised vineyards climb up steep hills taking advantage of a hot, dry microclimate. With 300 days of sun a year, the Valais feels like Napa and Sonoma except for the Matterhorn looming in the distance.

In Switzerland, family-owned vineyards and wineries (called vignerons-encaveurs) are the rule. Even if unprofitable, they stay in the family. We met one winemaker whose family was regarded as a newcomer. They had worked the vineyard for only three generations, whereas the neighboring farm had been owned by one family for seven generations. Neither winery was self-sustaining. Everyone had a day job.

During a hosted trip we tasted dozens of varietals from local vineyards, some with such a small output that customers who lived in the neighborhood consumed their entire production.

The wine most closely associated with the Valais is Fendant, a white wine made with the Chasselas grape. But it is a red wine, not a white, that is making news these days.

Cornalin, the new kid on the block

Twenty years ago the Swiss government encouraged farmers to plant improved strains of grapes that were indigenous to Switzerland and to pursue new blends with distinctive qualities. The goal was to expand the export market for Swiss wines.

In the Valais that led to the improvement of Cornalin, a grape that had been cultivated since the Roman Empire. Used primarily in blends to make inexpensive table reds, the wine was often bottled without appellation or date of production.

Rouge du Pays

Frequently confused with an Italian grape with a similar name, the Swiss variety (Rouge du Pays or Cornalin du Valais) is genetically distinct. In the 1990s the Agroscope Changins-Wädenswi, a federal agricultural agency, funded research to cultivate promising local strains to improve the quality of the grapes and the survivability of the vines. A group of young vintners adopting the appellation Le Coteaux de Sierre planted the new vines. Over time, the acreage in the Valais devoted to Cornalin has expanded.

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The Cornalin Museum, Château de Vaas, La Maison des Cornalins in the village of Flanthey, Switzerland. Credit: David Latt

The wines have a low-tannin, fruity flavor and a dark cherry red color. Helping market wines made with 100% Cornalin grapes, the wineries of the area have enlisted an unlikely champion.

Antoine Bailly is an internationally respected academic and a Nobel Peace Prize winner (Geography, 2012). A native of Switzerland, Bailly travels the world as a lecturer. These days his passion project is Cornalin.

A Cornalin Museum: Château de Vaas, La Maison des Cornalins

On a tour of the under-renovation Château de Vaas, La Maison des Cornalins in the village of Flanthey, Bailly pointed out details of the building, parts of which were built in the 13th and 16th centuries. Restored at great expense, the building is unique in the area for its history and architectural details. Open to the public in late August 2014, a photographic tour of the museum is available on a French language website.

In the tasting room, products from 17 of the local wineries can be sampled, along with cheeses and charcuterie from local purveyors. To visualize where the grape is grown, Bailly created an interactive map with the locations of the Cornalin vineyards in the Valais. Another interactive display with video screens illustrates the cultivation of the grape.

A temperamental grape

In the tasting room, with Bailly leading an animated discussion accompanied with appetizers of local cheeses and slices of beef sausage from Boucherie La Lienne in the village of Lens, we sampled several of the 100% Cornalin wines. Each of us had our favorite. Mine was the Bagnoud Cornalin, Coteaux de Sierra (2012) Rouge du Valais.

Bailly described the grape as difficult to grow and unstable. Slight variations in heat or rainfall can ruin the harvest. Through trial and error, the vintners have learned how to get the best out of the grape.

So why bother with such a temperamental grape? The answer was pretty direct. The vintners like the wine they’re making with Cornalin. For them, the extra effort and increased risk are worth it.

Cornalin needs three years in the bottle to mature. With the vintages currently offered for sale, these wines will be at their best just about the time the museum opens. Bailly invited us all to come back then. In the meantime, we bought bottles of our favorites to bring home. We had become little agents of export for Swiss wines.

Top photo: The Cornalin Museum, Château de Vaas, La Maison des Cornalins in the village of Flanthey.  Credit: David Latt

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