Articles in Winemaker

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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Trimbach vineyards in Ribeauvillé, Alsace

Once upon a time, Alsace wines were relatively simple to understand. Alsace is virtually the only French appellation that allows the mention of a grape variety on the label, and with a couple of easily identifiable exceptions, the wines tended to be dry. But things seem to have changed in recent years. Am I alone in feeling disappointed that a wine I thought would be dry from the label turns out to be rich with a sweet, even cloying, finish? And then matters are complicated further with all the grands crus names. There are 50 altogether, but I can only ever remember a handful. Happily, a recent visit to Maison Trimbach in Ribeauvillé has served to restore my faith in the region.

The first thing you see when you walk into Trimbach’s tasting room is a sign: “Say No to oak. Help put the fruit back in wine.” This augured well, as did the appearance of my guide, Anne Trimbach. There have been Trimbachs in Ribeauvillé since 1626, and she is a member of the 13st generation. Bright and vivacious, she is the daughter of Pierre, the winemaker, and helps her uncle, Jean, on the export market.

Trimbach makes the full range of Alsace grape varieties, with elegantly leafy Pinot Blanc, some rounded Pinot Gris and some deliciously understated Gewürztraminer — we joked about whether a restrained Gewürztraminer really exists. But it is really with Riesling that the Trimbach style comes into its own, emphasizing the slatey minerality of the grape variety.

A full range of Riesling

Trimbach makes seven qualities of Riesling, beginning with the simple Riesling based on grapes purchased from some 30 growers, picked and pressed by hand. The vinification is very simple, usually entailing a malolactic fermentation and certainly no oak. Freshness and minerality are the key characteristics. The wine has a fresh slatey note, with very good acidity, and a firm dry finish — just as Alsace Riesling should be.

Next up the scale is the Riesling Réserve, a selection of grapes, mainly from Trimbach’s own vineyards around Ribeauvillé. The vinification is the same, but the grapes come from vineyards with a higher limestone content. The result is a wine that has citrus notes and is very mineral, with wonderful freshness and great length. There is a certain austerity on the palate, making for a very pure example of Riesling.

The cuvée of Vieilles Vignes comes from vines that are 35 to 40 years old. They first made this cuvée in 2009, from two foudres of particularly good wine. The flavors are rich and intense, but not sweet. The wine may be a little more gourmand than the Réserve, but the fruit is always balanced with steely acidity, making a wine that is dry and honeyed, with an elegant finish.

The Cuvée Frédéric Emile is one of the flagship wines of Trimbach, whose grapes are grown in marl and limestone soil. We tasted the 2007, which Anne described as a miraculous year — full of scares about the next climatic hazard, but everything turned out well in the end. The nose was rich and honeyed, very intense with an underlying austerity.  On the palate, the wine was firm and slatey with very good acidity and razor-sharp clarity. I could almost describe it as the Chablis of Alsace.

The Trimbachs, from left: Jean, Pierre, Anne and Hubert. Credit: Courtesy of Maison Trimbach

The Trimbachs, from left: Jean, Pierre, Anne and Hubert. Credit: Courtesy of Maison Trimbach

The other flagship Riesling is the Clos Ste Hune, from a vineyard the Trimbachs have owned for 200 years. The soil is pure limestone, and the vines are an average of 80 years old. The wine is made the same way as Frédéric Emile, but here you taste the effect of terroir: They are quite different. The Clos Ste Hune is very slatey, very mineral, very powerful, with very good acidity and still very youthful, with wonderful length.

And then we were given a treat: 1985 Clos Ste Hune. The colour was golden, with an elegant nose that was dry and slatey, but with an underlying richness. On the palate, there were lots of nuances, with some very intriguing dry honey and some lovely notes of maturity. It was rich and elegant, but not heavy or sweet, with a lingering finish. A fabulous glass of wine that demonstrated just how beautifully Alsace Riesling ages.

The Vendanges Tardive and Selection de Grains Nobles, traditionally sweeter and richer, are only made in the very best years. The 2002 Vendange Tardive Riesling was light golden in color, and on the nose, rich with a maturing nutty nose. On the palate it was very elegant, with very good acidity — there was a little noble rot in 2002, but that is not essential. The palate was beautifully balanced with rich honeyed fruit, combining fresh acidity with some sweetness. It was subtle and nuanced.

Our tasting finished with 2001 Sélection de Grains Nobles Frédéric Emile. The grapes were picked in mid-November, with some noble rot. The color was golden and the nose maturing beautifully, as only fine Riesling can. On the palate there were nuances of dry but honeyed, nutty fruit, with some slatey characteristics and a touch of minerality, with a smooth rich finish. It was a powerful example of the heights that Riesling can achieve.

Top photo: Trimbach vineyards in Alsace. Credit: Courtesy of Maison Trimbach

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Winemaker Rosemary Cakebread in her vineyard. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

Sometimes, when you taste a wine, it’s so sublime it’s evocative of liquid poetry in a bottle. I came across such an experience on my recent visit to California’s Napa Valley when I discovered Gallica’s lyrical wines.

Before I even tasted the wine, I could tell from winemaker Rosemary Cakebread’s email that I was going to meet an artist. The directions to her house were a graphic, hand-drawn map with winding roads, trees, farmhouses and vineyards.

Winemaker includes an artist’s touch in her work

Under Cakebread’s Gallica label, a minuscule production of 600 cases annually, she handcrafts Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache wines that are elegant and poetic, wines that show restraint and finesse.

“Wine should be seamless,” says the winemaker. “I want the wood to be integrated with wine.” Therefore, these wines can best be described as lyrical and beautifully knit. The artistry in her winemaking is also reflected in the name Gallica, a botanical term for a type of rose used in perfumes.

Cakebread is not new to the valley. She has been crafting wine in Napa for 33 years. However, she claims she got introduced to viticulture by accident. “Stars were in alignment,” she says with a laugh.

During the summer between high school and college, she got a job on the bottling line at Sebastiani Vineyards. “It piqued my interest. I didn’t know what I was getting into, but I was curious,” she remembers.

Rosemary Cakebread with a Cabernet Sauvignon and a wine from her Suzuri Series. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

Rosemary Cakebread with a Cabernet Sauvignon and a wine from her Suzuri Series. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

She enrolled at the University of California, Davis, and received a degree in oenology. Her first job was in the laboratory at Inglenook Winery. From there she went to Cakebread Cellars for a short period and met Bruce Cakebread. The two have been married for more than 25 years.

Soon she moved on to Mumm Napa Valley. “I’ve always separated my career from marriage,” says the veteran winemaker.

Cakebread entered the world of sparkling wine and worked at Mumm when it was first established in Napa, operating out of Sterling Winery. In 1997, she took over as winemaker at Spottswoode Winery, a position she held till 2007. She maintained a consulting winemaker position at Spottswoode till 2012.

We met at Cakebread’s farmhouse in St. Helena (just off the Highway 29), which serves as her office. The recently purchased house just happens to be next door to her residence. The house/office comes with a patch of old Petite Sirah vine, which she plans to pull out and replant.

“Cabernet is what I know and love making,” she acknowledges. It’s this passion that led her to create the Gallica label with a 2007 vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon.

Yet the winemaker is also drawn to Rhône varietals, so she added Grenache to her portfolio in 2010. Napa Valley is not known for growing Rhône varietals, but Cakebread found a good source in the Shake Ridge Ranch vineyard in Amador County, Calif., in the Sierra Foothills.

We taste the 2011 Grenache, which is blended with Syrah, Mourvèdre and a touch of Viognier. This is an exceptionally elegant, well-rounded wine with balanced fruit and soft tannins.

The Rhône red wine production falls under the Suzuri Series, a collection that will feature different blends each vintage. Cakebread chose the name “Suzuri,” which is a stone plate used for calligraphy, because of her love for Japanese art.

Gallica’s Cabernet Sauvignon bottling generally consists of 80% to 85% of this varietal blended with Cabernet Franc — to add an herbaceous quality — and Petit Verdot, which lends notes of fruits and violets. The 2010 Cabernet is superbly balanced and elegant.

There’s no overabundance of fruit here. “That’s what I like to drink,” Cakebread says.

“I tend to pick my fruit earlier. Some people say I pick under-ripe, but late picking adds too much alcohol to the wine,” she explains.

Besides the fruit that comes from the 1-acre vineyard behind the Cakebread residence, she purchases grapes from Oakville Ranch for her Cabernet Sauvignon wines.

“I’ll always make Cabernet — that’s the engine that drives everything.” However, the winemaker will soon be releasing her 2012 and 2013 Syrahs from Pisoni Vineyards in Monterey’s Santa Lucia Highlands.

How about white wine? I ask.

“Not that I don’t like whites, but it’s a big ocean to swim in,” she muses. She doesn’t want to produce yet another Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc.

“I am looking for other whites like Chenin Blanc. It’s hard to find old-vine Chenin Blancs, but I’ll keep looking. I’d like to make a Vouvray style,” says the creative winemaker ever in search of a new artistic achievement.

Top photo: Winemaker Rosemary Cakebread in her vineyard. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

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New growth on an old vine from

California wine is finally getting interesting, and wine lovers can dare to hope that America’s premier wine region will produce more wines of higher quality.

What? Those $200 Napa Valley Cabernets aren’t great wines? Sorry to say, most are not. The good news is a group of winemakers is stepping away from California’s pack mentality to produce wines that reflect both an appreciation of the place the grapes are grown as well as an understanding that bigger is rarely better when it comes to wine.

And, be still my heart, they aren’t afraid to say it. Out loud. In print. San Francisco Chronicle wine critic Jon Bonné has captured their voices and given early support to this movement in his recently released “The New California Wine: A guide to the producers and wines behind a revolution in taste” (Ten Speed Press).

During the past half-dozen years, I’ve met with established winemakers who talk about dialing back the alcohol levels on their wines. They claim a deep longing to produce “European” style wines with greater finesse and character. Then they beg, “Please, don’t quote me!” Inexplicably, they seem to think they can accomplish this transformation so slowly that their public — and the critics — will barely notice the change.

Documenting the historic shift

Shifting directions is risky. Timid American baby boomers learned about wine by leaning heavily on critical scores, buying what they were told they “ought” to drink. So when the two overlords of California wine criticism — Robert M. Parker’s Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator’s Jim Laube — championed high-alcohol fruit bombs, America’s first generation of wine drinkers eagerly fell in line behind them.

The rare winemaker willing to be quoted declaring a dramatic shift in style away from that norm has crumbled when facing angry consumers wondering why they had been paying top dollar for wines that the winemaker suddenly says are not what they ought to be.

From his perch at the Chronicle, Bonné was able to dig deep into California’s wine culture to find the winemakers who never compromised. Years of walking vineyards in every corner of the state paid off in the discovery of Steve Matthiasson, Tegan Passalacqua, Ted Lemon and dozens of other pioneers making wine to suit their personal taste rather than to score critical points. “Just three or four years ago, these guys were really out in the wilderness,” Bonné says.

Their stories of reviving abandoned vineyards in marginal growing areas, cobbling together wineries in deserted warehouses, and striking crazy work-for-free deals with vineyard owners sound more like the do-it-yourself culture that is transforming the American food scene than the big-money mentality that dominates California wine.

More than one kind of California wine

Bonné is a wine geek who delights in highly nuanced details of grape farming and cellar work. And, while that can result in a slow read at times, it’s an important plus. These are the distinctions that make a difference and separate the pioneers from more established vintners. Bonné empowers his readers by carefully explaining these specifics. And, bless him, he spares us the poetic hyperbole that hobbles so many wine books.

“This story was totally evolving as I was writing it,” says Bonné. “It was terrifying and exhilarating.” The first wine writer to make a strong statement about the promise of these emerging winemakers, and by comparison drive home the problems with California’s established wine industry, Bonné takes a risk. The nascent movement is so small it could easily dissipate.

The established “cult Cabernets” will not go away, Bonné says. Rather, support for these new wines will grow. “The people who had given up on California will turn around,” he predicts.  In the future, there will be more than one kind of California wine.

Eventually, “there will be a transfer of power” in the American wine industry, he says. “This emerging generation is drinking with a level of curiosity that is very different from their parents.”

Jon Bonné and Rajat Parr at domaineLA. Credit: Corie Brown

Jon Bonné and Rajat Parr at domaineLA. Credit: Corie Brown

Judging by a recent crowd of young wine lovers eagerly tasting through a selection of California wines championed by Bonné, he’s calling it right. At domaineLA, a Los Angeles wine shop with a reputation for promoting an international selection of well-priced, high quality wines, Jon Bonné and Rajat Parr. was joined by leading Santa Barbara small-production vintners Sashi Moorman and Rajat Parr, partners in Sandhi Wines, and Napa Valley-based winemaker Steve Matthiasson. This year, Bonné named Matthiasson the San Francisco Chronicle’s “Winemaker of the Year.”

The wines had bold, pronounced flavors, yet they retained the lift of natural acidity. All but a couple of the dozen wines on offer were priced below $40 a bottle. And the alcohol levels were all under 14%, a mark of a classic European-style wine.

Questioning the dominance of Napa Valley’s over-extracted and over-priced bruisers will soon go from taboo to “told you so.”

Top image: The beginning of growth on an old vine. Credit: Courtesy of Ten Speed Press, publisher of “The New California Wine” by Jon Bonné

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Peter Mondavi Sr. blows out the candles on his birthday cake at a party celebrating his 99th birthday. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

Peter Mondavi Sr., the patriarch of Charles Krug Winery, turned 99 on Nov. 8. Over the years, I’ve attended many outstanding events in Napa Valley, but this birthday dinner aced them all. It was a memorable and historic celebration.

Looking youthful (for 99), Mondavi blew out a handful of candles topping the lemon cake baked by his granddaughter, Lia Mondavi.

“I’ve been in this business for 70 years, a business that has its ups and downs,” the Napa Valley legend said moments later. “I’m looking forward to a great future.”

Spoken like a man with no intention of ever growing old. Indeed, now that he is on to his 100th year, major celebrations are planned for his centenary during the 2014 Auction Napa Valley weekend, to be held June 5 to 7.

Wine and work the secrets to Mondavi’s longevity

When I met Peter Sr. last summer, he told me that wine accompanies every lunch and dinner. And he takes the staircase to access his office. He has little choice: There is no elevator in that part of the building.

“His youthfulness is not only because of the glass of wine but he comes to the office every day,” Peter Mondavi Jr. said as he welcomed party guests to the newly designed hospitality center at Charles Krug Winery.

For 67 years, Peter Sr. has been involved in every aspect of the winery’s operations, even though he admits his sons Peter Jr. and Mark now do most of the work. The patriarch’s spirit and legacy are very much a part of Charles Krug, Napa Valley’s oldest winery, founded in 1861.

The Mondavi family’s “farm-to-table” dinner was orchestrated by chef Larry Forgione, culinary director of the Conservatory for American Food Studies at the Culinary Institute of America at Napa Valley’s Greystone campus.

A 2005 Limited Release Dr. Galante Vineyard Pinot Noir. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

A 2005 Limited Release Dr. Galante Vineyard Pinot Noir. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

Forgione conducts a 15-week culinary program for CIA students at the Charles Krug 3-acre organic farm. On weekends, food prepared by students is offered at a pop-up restaurant at the CIA.

The four-course birthday dinner started with a salad of frisee, arugula, fresh burrata cheese and shaved Conservatory duck prosciutto made from the CIA Conservatory & Charles Krug farm. This was paired with a delicious 2012 Chardonnay from Carneros.

“Dad bought the Carneros vineyard in the late 1960s with an intention to make sparkling wine,” Peter Jr. said. “He bought it for $2,000 an acre.” You can add a few zeros to the going price of an acre in Carneros these days.

Peter added that the Charles Krug olive oil on the table was another of his dad’s endeavors. His older brother, Mark, had planted some olive trees, he said. “Dad did not like to see the fruit go to waste,” Peter Jr. said. The resulting olive oil is for private consumption only.

The second course of sweet potato gnocchi with braised Napa Valley heritage rabbit and black truffle ragout was superb with the 2005 Limited Release Dr. Galante Vineyard Pinot Noir, from the Russian River region of Sonoma. This is the only vineyard outside Napa from which the Mondavi family sources fruit.

Two Napa Cabernets, a 1983 Vintage Selection (decanted from a 12-liter bottle) and a 2010 Vintage Selection, were superb served with wood-grilled California pastured veal loin served atop Bale Grist Mill polenta, chanterelles, wild black trumpet mushrooms, goosefoot spinach and cipollini onions.

A fragrant quince tart with goat’s milk caramel paired with Lot XVI Limited Release Zinfandel Port added a perfect final touch to this remarkable evening.

The birthday party was a joint celebration because it coincided with the opening of Charles Krug’s newly restored Redwood Cellar, which has been transformed into a hospitality center.

Peter Mondavi Sr. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

Peter Mondavi Sr. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

In the cavernous room filled with flowers and candles, some 100 Napa luminaries gathered for the celebration, including Barbara and John Shafer, Molly Chappelet, Bob and Evelyn Trinchero, Liz Martini, Dan and Nancy Duckhorn, nephews Tim and Michael Mondavi with wife Isabel and Napa’s grande dame herself, Margrit Mondavi, widow of Peter Sr.’s brother Robert.

One of Napa’s National Historic Landmarks, the 1862 Redwood Cellar housed 173 large redwood tanks in the not-too-distant past. The legacy of this historic tank room has been maintained as you see its aged redwood recycled on exposed walls. The tank room has been transformed into a swanky, contemporary-style tasting lounge/bar and hospitality center designed by the team of noted Napa architect Howard Backen.

I asked Peter Sr. what he thought of the recycled wood on the walls. “I was a bit leery about it, but it worked out very well,” he said with a smile.

The $25 million improvements to the family’s eight Napa Valley estate vineyards and historic winery began a decade ago and ended with completion of the hospitality center. Of this final renovation, son Mark ruefully remarked: “You can only do so much with $8 million.”

Top photo: Peter Mondavi Sr. blows out the candles on his birthday cake at a party celebrating his 99th birthday. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

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