Articles in Winemaker
This Sonoma wine captivated with scents of gently crushed black cherries mildly seasoned with oak. Its attack was silky and the flavors echoed the wine’s alluring aromas. It was fresh and structured, though the oak gradually became more of a presence, indicating that the wine wanted cellaring.
It was the 2008 Vérité “La Joie,” an obsessively calculated blend of — here goes — 71% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc, 4% Petit Verdot and 3% Malbec. Wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr. awarded it 99/100 points and rated the 2007 vintage 100/100. There was another perfect score for “La Joie’s” sibling, Vérité “Le Désir,” a Cabernet Franc-dominated blend. And the third wine of the Vérité trio, the Merlot-based La Muse, garnered 99/100 points.
I do not typically score wines. I write pages and pages of notes. Amid the adjectives for that 2008 Vérité “La Joie” I noted “quite European in style” and “very French.”
So perhaps it’s not surprising that the wines were made by a Frenchman, Pierre Seillan, 64, who hails from the Lot-et-Garonne region south of Bordeaux.
The Vérité project
The Vérité project was the dreamchild of California wine icon, Jess Jackson, who died in 2011. An attorney and self-made billionaire, Jackson bought a pear orchard in 1974, planted grapes and eventually began making wine. In 1982 he created Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay and gave birth to a vinous revolution: Here was a moderately priced wine that trounced the Hearty Burgundies and other jug wines.
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Jackson continued to build his empire, which at its height comprised 35 wineries in five countries. What eluded him was a great wine. Then Seillan entered the picture.
The time was 1995. Seillan was managing estates for the Bordeaux negociant Cheval Quincard, when a mutual friend arranged for Jackson’s wife, Barbara Banke, to visit Seillan at one of the châteaux he was directing. In 1996 Seillan visited Jackson and by 1997 the Seillans had moved to Sonoma County.
They wasted no time. Vérité debuted with the 1998 vintage. But, first, as Seillan recalls, “Jess and I explored his different estates, vineyards and properties around California and around the world. I was able to identify and develop new locations in Sonoma County that were the right place for growing very high quality grapes, and matching the terroir to the appropriate varietal and rootstock. I then was able to identify what I defined later as ‘micro-crus.’ ”
The ‘micro’ approach
Seillan has worked with micro-crus for most of his life. “Ever since my grandmother taught me about soils and gardening when I was little at my parents’ estate in Gascony, then my work across Bordeaux, in the Loire Valley, in Tuscany and California. I learned to listen to the message of a particular place from the soil, climate and the vegetation, and to be able to match that to producing the right grapes in the right way.”
Seillan selects the best grapes from roughly a thousand acres of vineyards owned by Jackson to make the three versions of Vérité. The key parcels, well-exposed hillsides ranging from 578 feet to 2,457 feet, are: the Kellogg vineyard, Alexander Mountain Estate, Vérité Vale in Chalk Hill and Jackson Park.
Was the micro-approach uncommon in California? “Yes,” Seillan said. “Viticulture in California is still very young compared to France.”
In 2003, the Jacksons and the Seillans purchased the 55-acre Château Lassègue St. Emilion Grand Cru, and several years later, the 31-acre Château Vignot, also a St. Emilion Grand Cru. And Seillan manages the team at Jackson’s Tuscan properties.
Not surprisingly, the philosophy of micro-cru prevails, from painstaking selection of soils to persnickety parsing of grape percentages for each bottling.
A few favorites
Having tasted more than a dozen Seillan/Jackson wines recently, I had a hard job picking favorites. Nevertheless, I loved the 2010 Château Lassègue. Velvety and nuanced, it was fresh and structured, with notes of licorice blending with those of Burlat cherries. At $90 it’s not out of line for high quality Bordeaux and a lot cheaper than the 2008 Vérités ($390 a bottle). Of the three Tuscan wines, I much preferred the Chianti Classico to the two Bordeaux blends. Made from Sangiovese, the region’s traditional grape, it had a tasty story to tell on its home turf. What’s more, at $30 a bottle, it’s priced at roughly a third of the Super Tuscans.
And there’s a new, nicely priced charmer: Seillan has resuscitated vineyards planted by his mother on the Coteaux de Montestruc, facing the Pyrenees. True to form, he opted to plant Bordeaux grapes rather than those traditional to the region. The results are delectable. The 2012 Bellevue Seillan Côtes de Gascogne VdF, a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec, is a lip-smacking crowd-pleaser as well as a good value at $30 a bottle. Seillan’s grandma must be smiling.
Main image: Pierre and Monique Seillan moved to Sonoma in 1997. Credit: Courtesy of Monique Seillan
On a Sunday night in May, Scott Wright arrived at his Carlton, Ore., winery to find flames shooting from the roof and smoke billowing into the sky. “There were 30 to 50 firefighters in full gear scrambling around, working on the blaze,” Wright said. “It was like something you see in the movies, very surreal.”
He tracked down the crew chief to find out whether the fire had been contained. Foremost on his mind was the condition of the 2013 vintage at the other end of the building. He’d sampled the wines only the day before and had marveled over the quality.
“It would be absolutely crippling,” he said. “I can’t imagine anything more damaging than losing an entire vintage.”
Wright is one of the winemakers I interviewed for “American Wine Story,” a documentary that explores the drive to start life over in the wine industry. He co-owns Scott Paul Wines, a business he started after leaving behind a successful career in the music industry in Los Angeles.
Wright’s preoccupation with reinventing himself in wine was so great that it had affected his health. Unable to track the source of the decline, his doctor encouraged him to follow his obsession. “Driving home from that doctor’s appointment was when I had the realization that, yes, I really had to do this,” Wright said.
Shortly after that visit, he founded Scott Paul Wines in 1999 and never looked back. In the settling smoke 15 years later, his future was in question.
Wright’s plunge into the wine business follows a common thread in the industry. During five years of filming, I spoke to dozens of people who left their previous lives behind. Engineers, radio personalities, computer programmers — the dizzying array of former careers was matched only by the unimaginable stress and labor it takes to launch a wine brand.
Despite the inherent risks, the steep learning curve and the long hours, there’s no shortage of born-again oenophiles willing to take a shot at making it in wine. We began filming at the height of the Great Recession. At that time, by official count in our home state of Oregon, there were 275 wineries.
A financial downturn seems hardly the time for people to dive en masse into a capital-intensive business like winemaking, in which it takes years to generate a return. But five years later, just as we’re releasing “American Wine Story,” Oregon wineries now number 545.
“Most people starting wineries in Oregon come to it as a second or even third career,” said Michelle Kaufmann of the Oregon Wine Board. It’s no easy transition. “Oregon is a challenging place because our yields are small. It takes a lot to produce wine here.”
Given the obstacles, why did the roster continue to expand even during tough economic times?
“When the recession was happening,” Kaufmann speculated, “people were looking for what really makes them happy.”
Wine makes people happy. And obsessive.
Look at the prices on the top shelf of any good wine shop and you’ll know that you have to be a little crazy to spend a small fortune on a bottle of fermented fruit juice. We found clear evidence of that intense ardor for wine as we traveled to six states, talking to the people who make and sell it. Most of them began as consumers.
A leap triggered by an ‘epiphany bottle’
Often it was a single “epiphany bottle” that rocked their concept of what wine could be. A humble beverage suddenly became a captivating elixir that they strove to understand. And the best way to understand wine? Make it.
A pattern began to emerge: desk job, epiphany bottle, wine enthusiast, home winemaker, wine business owner working 16-hour days with a mad glint in the eye and a heck of a story. None of the winemakers we met had regrets. But a few wondered if they’d be able to go through it all again.
The challenges are clear. Yet more and more people are willing to take the risk and jump in. And it’s not just a West Coast phenomenon. It’s happening in every state in the union.
On the opposite coast, Virginia is also striving to stake its claim on wine. The Virginia Wine Board Marketing Office lists 250 “farm wineries” in the state.
Although Virginia may be a lesser-known region in comparison with California’s Napa or Sonoma or even the booming wine town of Walla Walla, Wash., it has some serious wine history. Thomas Jefferson started the Commonwealth’s first commercial vineyard with an Italian neighbor, Filippo Mazzei, in 1776. That project didn’t take off, but the seeds of an idea were sown, and old Long Tom would be proud of what Virginia’s accomplishing today.
You can visit restored vineyards on the slopes of Monticello, where another Italian, Gabriele Rausse, tends the vines and brings them to harvest with more success, doing his part to further Jefferson’s original vision.
“I think that Jefferson was ready, 200 years ago, to sell wine to the French,” Rausse said with a laugh. “We are not there yet. But we are going in that direction.”
We made stops in Arizona and Missouri to learn about some of America’s more challenging growing conditions. We visited large and small producers. We spoke with Oregon wine pioneer Dick Erath, who grew his namesake label to 90,000 cases before retiring to make wine in his garage. We also spoke with Jim Day of Panache Cellars in Philomath, Ore., who commercially produces vins de garage: 250 cases of fine wine emerge each year from his tiny suburban facility.
Despite the myriad challenges and setbacks, tricky weather, fickle markets, entrepreneurial souls continue to plunge headfirst into wine. New labels and entire regions seem to spring up overnight. Both by pluck and luck, Americans are chasing their dreams by the barrelful.
Although the size of the American dream doesn’t matter when it comes to wine, passion does. And a little luck doesn’t hurt, either.
At Wright’s place, the fire hit on a Sunday night, when most of the volunteer firefighters were at home — and thus available — instead of at work. That saved precious minutes, and the fire was kept from spreading to the storage areas. Otherwise, Wright said, “it might not have been a death blow, but it would have been impossible for a new winery to recover.”
A few days after the fire, Wright sampled his wines and confirmed that they’d survived the flames unscathed, showing the same promise they had before the fire. “It was a damn good tasting.”
Main photo: Of his career switch from music to winemaking, Oregon’s Scott Wright says, “I really had to do this.” Credit: David Baker
It is quiet at Cain Vineyards. The hillside estate at the top of Napa Valley’s Spring Mountain is far removed from the hustle of the valley floor. The air is crisp, days are short, winter has arrived and there has been rain. Just enough, says Cain winemaker Chris Howell, to ignite new life in the desiccated vineyards.
Napa Valley winemakers, or at least enough of them to signify the start of a trend, are rethinking the region’s excessive tendencies. Lost for decades in a soulless race to please a handful of critics with dubious taste, these evolving winemakers are trying to reconnect with the soil and climate of America’s most celebrated wine region. While their wines still reflect the strength of the valley’s sunny climate, they are striving for lower alcohol levels and more restrained fruit flavors.
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Howell doesn’t have to change. He has been making terroir-driven wines for decades. And paid a price for that unfashionable decision. Overlooked by critics, his wines have been relative bargains, and most bottles are priced $75 or below. Still, you could say that the newly chastened winemakers are playing catch up with him. And none too soon.
California’s drought has Napa Valley on a razor’s edge. Howell says rain is now a “miracle,” a spiritual event. On Spring Mountain where the only water for the vineyards falls from the sky, those two inches will carry the vineyard through to spring.
“It reminds me that wine is about gardening, nature and the earth,” says Howell. “Those of us on Napa’s hillsides and completely disconnected from the water grid think about these things now.”
There was almost no rain in 2013. By the spring of 2014, there had been 14 months with nothing beyond a few sprinkles. “It was a shock, a big wake-up. I didn’t think we would have any grapes. None.” Rain, not much, but enough, came at the perfect time in February and March of 2014 to save the vintage.
The recent rain falls far short of guaranteeing next year’s vintage. “But the vines loved it. The soil came to life.”
Cain’s 90 acres of vineyards are scattered across the estate’s 550 acres of some of the most rugged hillsides in Napa. The winery’s Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines have a complex herbal quality that sets them apart from other Napa Cabs. His intense, dark wines have a lightness that allows them a seat at the dinner table. They have always been softer, less tannic and more nuanced, even lilting, than the heavier fruit-forward wines most often associated with Napa.
His old-school wines are the result of Howell’s belief that the best wines reflect what is happening in the vineyard. Over the decades Howell has managed Cain’s vineyards, he’s dialed back the irrigation, dry farming the plots where the soils are deep enough. He has farmed organically for 15 years and now is bringing biodynamic — an extreme organic, somewhat metaphysical farming discipline advanced by Rudolf Steiner early in the 20th century — to Cain’s vineyards.
“The more people pay attention to the whole ecosystem of the vineyard, the healthier the vineyard. And, in general, biodynamic vineyards are healthier everywhere I’ve visited them around the world,” says Howell.
That’s given Cain a bit of protection against the ravages of the drought. “We live year to year now,” he says. “I always took the winter rains for granted. They always came. I didn’t think about it. Now I know we can take nothing for granted. I feel closer to the reality of nature, to the vineyards.”
Howell delights in making wines that vary year to year. The drought will be but another marker. So soon in the winemaking process for the 2014 vintage, it’s too early to know how it will change the wines.
How the drought affects his wines doesn’t concern Howell. Using only the wild yeast from the vineyard to ferment his grapes, Howell has given control of his wines back to nature. These days, that is an act of supreme faith. “We think about the spiritual part of things more often these days,” he says.
Other Napa winemakers may never catch up with such radical thinking.
Main photo: Cain Vineyards in the Napa Valley. Credit: Janis Miglavs
* * *
Cain Vineyards makes just three wines:
Cain Five comes is 100% from the Cain Vineyard, and is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Cab Franc and Petit Verdot.
Cain Concept comes from alluvial soils in the Benchland areas of the Napa Valley. It is a blend of Cab Sauv, Merlot, Cab Franc, Petit Verdot.
Cain Cuvee ($34)
NV10, is a blend of two vintages (51% 2010 and 49% 2009) and is a blend of Merlot, Cab, Cab Franc and Petite Verdot. Sourced from Rutherford, Yountville, Spring Mountain and Atlas Pea.
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.
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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
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.
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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.
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?
“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
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.
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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
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.
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
“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.
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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
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.
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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.
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