Articles in Winemaker
California’s Napa Valley is home to some of America’s best wineries. The valley is also well-known as an incubator of female winemakers. Shawna Miller is one of a group of talented women who have pursued a wine-making career in the valley.
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Growing up in a small Virginia town along the Appalachian Trail, Miller spent a lot of time outdoors, hiking and helping her grandmother tend the large garden that fed the family. In the summer they ate what they grew and canned the rest. During the wet, cold winters they happily supplemented their meals with the food they put up in the pantry, including jars of huckleberry and blackberry jam, tomatoes and green beans.
She never thought about grapes or wine.
Studying forestry at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, she graduated with a degree in forestry, which was a natural fit for a woman who had grown up trekking the Appalachian Trail. That’s also where she met and married Zak, who shared her love of biology. To see the world and build their resumes, they picked up jobs wherever they could. After a stint with the U.S. Geological Survey in Florida, a friend invited them to work a harvest in New Zealand. That work-vacation changed their lives.
Learning wine making around the world
Near Margaret River in Western Australia, they worked at the Cape Mentelle Winery where she learned that each grape had a different temperament. Each had to be picked at exactly the right moment. Pick too soon or wait too long and the grapes would yield inferior wine.
She and Zak were hooked. They pursued harvests in California, New Zealand, Australia and Chile. They experienced firsthand how soil and climate — terroir — created different wines. The Indian Ocean breezes that swept across the grapes at the Cape Mentelle Winery yielded wines very different from the ones she came to love in hot, dry Napa.
Taking classes at the University of California, Davis Extension, Miller wanted to learn the science behind raising grapes and making wine. But there wasn’t time to get a degree in enology.
Her graduate work would be done in the fields and in the labs where her background in science got her jobs measuring fermentation levels.
Mastering the art and science of wine
To become a winemaker, she had to master more than chemistry. Wine making is part science, part art.
Even if a wine is made entirely from one varietal, the grapes grown in one part of a vineyard can be markedly different from those harvested from another area. Blending those different flavors is an art that must be developed by a winemaker.
Today as the winemaker at Luna Vineyards, she oversees the production of a collection of well-regarded, affordable wines.
What distinguished Luna Vineyards in its early days was the choice to produce Italian-style wines. When Michael Moone founded the vineyard in the mid-1990s, he wanted to make wine modeled on the Italian wines he loved. He planted Pinot Grigio (white) and Sangiovese (red) grapes and blended the wines in a way that set them apart from the largely French style wines produced in the valley’s other vineyards.
At times in their marriage, Miller’s husband Zak has worked half a world away at a winery in Chile. But now with Zaira, their little girl, to raise, Zak stays closer to home as an assistant winemaker at Domaine Carneros.
As harvest time approaches, they put the call out to their parents. When the grapes are ready to be picked, Shawna and Zak will be in the fields from before dawn until well into the night. Someone needs to be home with Zaira.
In the days before the harvest begins, Miller walks through the vineyard. The fat clusters of grapes hang heavily on the row upon row of well-tended vines. If the weather cooperates and no pests damage the grapes, she could have a very good year. She is always hoping that with luck and hard work, this year’s vintage could be one of the winery’s best.
Harvest — exciting and nerve-racking
With a last look at the refractometer that measures the sugar level of the grapes, Miller makes the call to the vineyard manager, “OK, let’s take it.” And that’s when the real drama begins.
The grapes are ready. Miller is ready. But during harvest time there is more work than workers available. Sometimes when she calls she is told there isn’t a crew available. The grapes won’t be picked for days.
During that waiting time she is at the mercy of the weather. If it gets too hot or if it rains, the grapes will be pushed past their prime and a vintage that could have been great will be less so.
At moments like this, all Miller can do is watch and wait. She busies herself, making sure the lab is ready and the fermentation tanks are clean. Finally, when the crew is available, then it’s all hands on deck. Time for their parents to babysit Zaira.
Fermenting and then blending
What makes one wine different from another? Of course the quality of the grapes matters, but so too does the palate and skill of the winemaker.
Depending on the style, the maturing wine spends time in stainless steel vats or in oak barrels. When Miller believes the wine is ready, she begins a series of trial blends that are like rough drafts. Making several blends, she and her team will sample and rate each, comparing that year’s wine with ones they liked from years before. Like the best chef, she will mix and combine until she has the flavor she loves. At that moment, she will call in the bottling crew.
During the year there are moments when Miller can take a break to spend time with her family. As all-consuming and as hard as the work can be, having time with Zak and Zaira is absolutely essential.
And then it’s time to start the process all over again. In spring the leaf buds poke through the dark wood. In the heat of the summer, the vines need to be tended, the grape clusters are thinned and the plants monitored for pests. And in the fall there is the harvest when so many moving parts have to work together to give Miller what she needs to make great wine.
At the end of the day, even with all those stresses, Miller counts herself lucky to have found a career she loves, in a valley that produces beautiful wines.
Main photo: Late-harvest grapes at Luna Vineyards in Napa Valley, California. Credit: Copyright 2014 David Latt
In 2005, a group of seven Pinot Noir specialists from the West Coast banded together at the behest of their importer/distributor in Colorado to do a promotional tour of the state. The events they hosted under the irreverent banner of the Pinot Posse — motto: “No stinkin’ badges and no Cabs” — were such a smash the tour has become an annual tradition.
Granted, their success may have gotten a boost from a little movie called “Sideways,” released nationwide in 2005. Before it, mainstream America knew little about domestic production of the Burgundian grape; today Pacific Pinot Noir needs no introduction. But that doesn’t mean even savvy wine drinkers know everything there is to know.
After a dinner at Denver’s Table 6, I asked some of the producers to explain what they think consumers should understand about their signature grape.
How did you come to recognize the potential for Pinot Noir in your area?
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Dan Kosta, Kosta Browne, Sonoma County, California: I’ve been drinking Burgundy since I was 5 years old, so Pinot Noir has always played a big part in my life. However, in the late 1980s, I really started discovering the potential of Russian River Pinots, particularly in the wines made by Joseph Swan, Dehlinger, Rochioli, Williams Selyem and others. These were not the lean, soulless wines that many California producers were making at the time. There was complexity and elegance, and they inspired us to focus on Sonoma County Pinot.
Peter Cargasacchi, Cargasacchi and Point Concepción, Santa Barbara County, California: Since the late 1980s, I’d been drinking Pinots from Sanford Winery here in the Sta. Rita Hills. Richard Sanford was a neighbor, and over a period of 10 years, he convinced me that my high-pH, calcareous soils were similar to the great sites in Burgundy. So in 1998 I started planting Pinot Noir for him, Siduri and Babcock.
Ed Kurtzman, August West, Russian River Valley, California: When I started making Pinot Noir, in 1994, I was working with well-established vineyards: Bien Nacido, planted in 1973, and Chalone, planted in 1946. So I kind of walked into Pinot as it was already in motion. Then I began working with Santa Lucia Highlands in 1999, when it was still a young appellation with first-crop vineyards. Same thing with the Russian River Valley/Sonoma Coast: So many of the vineyards there were planted between 1997 and 2004. It has been interesting to have worked with both old vines and young vines. I wasn’t someone who recognized the potential for Pinot Noir so much as someone who gladly participated in its popularity.
Jenne Lee Bonaccorsi, Bonaccorsi Wine Co., Santa Barbara County, California: When my late husband, Michael, and I started making wine in 1999, our goal was always to go to the Russian River. But we had to keep our day jobs, and the closest wine region was Santa Barbara. We planned to learn there and move on at some point. Then we tasted some of Greg Brewer’s wines. They were phenomenal, and we could not figure out how this region was so overlooked. We made a very specific choice to stay. Of course, back then, Cabernet was king, and Pinot Noir was not very popular. We had to really talk restaurants and wine stores into purchasing it.
What don’t a lot of American drinkers know or understand about Pinot Noir that you wish they did?
Jim Prosser, J.K. Carriere, Willamette Valley, Oregon: I wish more people understood it from a classic, historical perspective: It’s basically a connoisseur’s wine due to its subtlety, complexity and movement. It’s the antithesis of an in-your-face wine; it’s more come hither, more about enticement, and its acid combines with, rather than overwhelms, food.
Kurtzman: That color is only important when it comes to high points from Robert Parker or Wine Spectator. Pinot Noir is naturally a thin-skinned, light-colored red wine. People will hold one of my Pinots up to the light, in their glass, and they’ll say, “Hey, what a light wine.” All they have to do is taste it — it’s full of aromas and flavors.
Bonaccorsi: I think we as Americans drink wine too young, especially Pinot. People understand about aging varietals like Cabernet, but they tend to drink American Pinots upon release. They may not need to be aged as long as Burgundies, but they can definitely benefit from a few years. At this point, my 2010 Pinot and 2009 Syrah are tasting well.
What’s your personal favorite food to serve with Pinot Noir and why?
Kosta: This, of course, depends on seasonality, but I tend to lean toward lighter meats and earthy vegetables. In the spring, rack of lamb with morel mushrooms is perfect. Chicken, salmon and pork dishes usually work great. One hint that I offer in the kitchen is to pay attention to the quantity and quality of salt — don’t be afraid to use it! Good salt can really bring out great flavors in Pinot Noir.
Kurtzman: Anything made with duck goes well with Pinot: duck breast, duck confit, duck burritos, duck with scrambled eggs, duck-bacon pizza.
Prosser: Maybe it’s because I’m from Oregon, but charcoal-grilled Columbia River salmon and Pinot is ridiculously good.
Bonaccorsi: The idea of white wine with fish and red wine with meat is very tired; food has changed in leaps and bounds since the days of beef Wellington, and the same is true of pairings. With that said, there is nothing better than a grilled steak and a glass of Pinot Noir.
What are domestic Pinot’s most distinctive qualities — what sensory clues should a wine drinker look for? How best to serve it to show off those qualities?
David O’Reilly, Owen Roe, Willamette Valley, Oregon, and Yakima Valley, Washington: In evaluating American Pinot Noir, I tend first to note the deeper ruby color. It is also more intensely aromatic and flavored than Burgundy, with a lovely, silky richness. The expression of domestic Pinot Noir varies along with the diverse growing areas: wines from the cooler Russian River sites, Santa Rita Hills and Oregon tend to be more fresh-fruited, while wines from the warmer Santa Lucia Highlands and Sonoma will have more power and richness.
However, one defining feature of all is immediate approachability, so I tend not to decant younger domestic Pinots. Only after some cellaring, when the wine is throwing a little sediment, do I decant. The perfect serving temperature is the same as for Old World Pinots: 55 to 60 F.
Craig Strehlow, Camlow Cellars, Russian River Valley, California:
Most domestic Pinots are very fruit-forward, with good acidity and softer tannins. Look for bright red fruit like cherry and raspberry and darker fruit such as currant and plum, as well as some spiciness and a cola finish. The use of new oak is judicious, to keep the wine in balance. Here in California, we don’t need to worry about ripeness, so the winemaker can pick at the time that’s ideal for them to get the flavor profile they ultimately want.
I believe that decanting all wines is a good idea. If they are young, this will open them up and encourage them to evolve in the decanter. For me the ideal drinking temperature is between 65 and 70 F.
What can consumers expect with respect to the wines you’re releasing this year?
Cargasacchi: Our wines will be ripe and dark, balanced by acidity, and will increase people’s vocabulary and singing ability!
Prosser: Well, from J.K. Carriere, you can always expect higher-acid, classic wines that are made for food and built for age. The wines from the 2012 vintage that are out now are gorgeous and will cellar as well as or better than any domestic Pinot. But I don’t make much, so it tends to move pretty fast!
Kurtzman: The 2013s from August West will be on the riper side, similar to the 2009s. Right now, they’re a little closed down, since they’re so young — but as the year progresses, they’ll open up to reveal the incredible growing season that was 2013.
Kosta: The 2013 wines are complex and luscious. Our Pinot Noirs are fruit-driven, with depth and structure that remind me of the intensity of 2005 and 2007. Hold them for a year, if possible.
Main photo: Pinot Posse members Ed Kurtzman, left, and David O’Reilly during an event at Table 6 in Denver. Credit: Copyright 2015 Ryan Olsen
Sancerre’s greatest secret is its red wines made from Pinot Noir.
At the eastern border of France’s Loire Valley, Sancerre is known for its benchmark Sauvignon Blancs, but this was not always the case. Pinot Noir historically covered Sancerre’s hillsides until phylloxera began its devastation of the region’s vines sometime around 1865. (Indeed, it is said the Champenois came here in search of raw material.)
Among the many varieties planted to reconstitute the vineyards, it was Sauvignon Blanc that proved perfectly adapted to the climate and the soils of Sancerre and today accounts for roughly 80% of the volume. Pinot Noir — for either rosé or rouge — makes up the balance.
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Until recently most producers treated their reds pretty much as an afterthought. Now Pinot Noir is getting serious attention. The wines may not yet plumb the depths of, say, Vôsne-Romanée, but the best ought to make Burgundy take notice. Sancerre rouge is getting better every day.
For the most part, these are seductive, light- to medium-bodied reds with vibrant flavors of cherry, plum and strawberry. Bottlings from older vines or prime parcels may be more structured, with hints of sweet spices, black tea and orange zests. They are supremely satisfying and absolute charmers. Most should be drunk slightly chilled.
Listed here are three of my favorite producers. Their grapes grow on one of Sancerre’s three soil types: “white soils,” composed of clay and limestone, also known as Kimmeridgian marl (the same soils as Chablis) on the westernmost hillsides of the zone; pebbly compact limestone, on the slopes and low hills; and flinty clay, or Silex, on the hills at the eastern limits of the appellation. All three vintners harvest by hand, keep yields low, and age their reds, at least in part, in oak barrels.
Domaine Claude & Stéphane Riffault
Thirtysomething Stéphane Riffault is one of my favorite discoveries. After studying viticulture and enology in Beaune, Riffault worked with Olivier Leflaive (Burgundy) and at Chateau Angelus (Saint Emilion) before returning to Sancerre, where he is in the process of converting the family property to organic viticulture. His reds are bottled without filtration.
Riffault’s Pinot Noir comes from a parcel called La Noue which gives its name to his rosé and his red Sancerre. Lovely balance and juicy red fruit characterized the (still too) young 2013. The 2008, however, was cool, silken and fine of grain. Wonderfully fresh, pure and fluid, it had deep flavors of cherry and black tea. (A second bottling, Les Chailloux, is not sold in the United States.)
Domaine Lucien Crochet
Lucien’s son Gilles, a Dijon-trained enologist, has long been one of Sancerre’s best ambassadors, making fine-tuned, concentrated, eco-friendly Sancerres, among them, two Sancerre rouges.
The basic bottling is La Croix du Roy. The 2011 was pale (vintage oblige) with lovely, mingled scents of small red berries. Cool, harmonious and lightly oaky, with a distinctly salty thread, it should be drinking beautifully when it arrives in the United States this fall. The 2010 is limpid and airborne, seasoned with oak, at once delicate and forceful.
Crochet’s Cuvée Prestige rouge is made from the Crochet’s oldest Pinot Noir vines and is produced only in the best vintages, most recently in 2005, 2009 and 2012 (the last won’t be released for another year or two).
The fragrant 2009 was pellucid and firm, a smooth, fresh gourmandise. The vivacious 2005 was similarly delicate but dignified, with rose petal accents, emerging flavors of oak and an appetizing bitter note in the finish.
Domaine Vincent Gaudry
Gaudry’s wines are sui generis … and downright fascinating. Gaudry says he works with his energy and his emotions and is guided by an old vigneron who “speaks the language of energy.” His mentor also provided him with great grapes, to wit, Pinot Fin, a pre-phylloxeric, pre-clonal version of today’s Pinot Noir that the old vintner planted 50 years ago by Selection Massale.
The grapes now make Gaudry’s “Les Garennes,” an unfiltered red, the 2013 of which was utterly seductive, silky, delicate and infinitely nuanced.
With the coarser, ruddier “Pinot Noir” we know today, Gaudry makes Vincengetorix, also unfiltered. The 2009 was dense, pure, cool, and lightly tannic, with flavors of spice and black tea — full of character and mesmerizing.
There are so many wonderful Sancerre rouges and so little space. Herewith, wholehearted recommendations for the following Domaines:
• Francois Crochet
• Pascal & Nicolas Reverdy
• Pierre Morin
• Dominique Roger
• Roblin, Vacheron
• Serge Laloue
Prices range from $22 to $40, and up to $66 for deluxe bottlings. And in case you’re wondering, all these winemakers also make terrific white Sancerres.
For more information about French wines, read “Earthly Delights From The Garden Of France: Wines Of The Loire,” by Jacqueline Friedrich.
Main photo: Harvest time at La Noue vineyard. Credit: Copyright 2015 Denis Bomer
On my recent visit to Chablis, France, I asked to see new producers and was slightly taken aback to find the name Michel Laroche at the top of the list. Laroche has been making wine, and then running a thriving business, ever since his very first harvest back in the terrible vintage of 1963. Over the years he has been at the forefront of innovation in Chablis, with horizons stretching far beyond the narrow valley of the river Serein. And now he has reinvented himself as a true vigneron, cultivating the grapes for the wine that he makes.
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In the 1970s and 1980s, when expansion of the Chablis vineyards was at its height, Laroche was responsible for the development of a large négociant business, buying the grapes or juice for wine, and the growth of the family estate to some 100 hectares (about 247 acres). Not content with Chablis, he developed a wine estate in the Languedoc, Mas la Chevalière, outside Béziers for vins de pays (country wine), because he wanted to try his hand at red wine. In 2005, he bought a wine estate in South Africa, l’Avenir; there was also a venture in Chile. He was a fervent promoter of screw caps at a time when the French market deemed them an anathema. And making use of his wife Gwénaël’s talent for interior design, he opened an elegant hotel and wine bar in Chablis itself. Then in 2010, he sold out to Advini, a company run by the Languedoc family, Jeanjean, which incorporates several wine estates in the key vineyard areas of France.
Laroche can always be relied upon for a perceptive overview of the Chablis market. A former manager of the town’s main bank described him as un grand homme du marketing (a great marketeer) — and she should know, as she doubtless saw the business plans of most of the vignerons of the appellation. After the fusion with Advini, Laroche stayed on for a two-year transition period, consulting on marketing, but now has returned to his roots and become a vigneron, based on his father’s original vines. Appropriately, Laroche’s new venture is called Le Domaine d’Henri after his father, and the label features a charming photograph of his parents enjoying a harvest meal in their vineyard. Laroche has four children, and his two daughters, Céline and Margaux, work with him. Although his sons have taken different career paths, Laroche insists that it is a family business for them all.
The core of the estate is 14 hectares (34.6 acres) of vineyards that belonged to his father and he has bought 8 more hectares (19.8 acres). They are mostly on the right bank of the Serein and include several plots of Fourchaume. There is a new cellar on the outskirts of the town. The vineyards are run organically, but the label does not say so because Laroche wishes to reserve the right to use a conventional spray if the climate demands it, as it did in 2013. His winemaker is Thibaud Baudin, who has worked in the Côte d’Or and in New Zealand, and then most recently for Advini at Domaine Laroche.
However, these days Laroche is very much involved with wine making and vineyard work in a way that the scale of Domaine Laroche had not allowed him for several years – and he is in his element. You can sense his enjoyment at serving wines in which he has played a vital role. As he put it, “le jeu, the game, is to produce quality. It is like a new profession, with a new perspective.” And these days he can spend as much time as he likes in his vineyards, so that he feels so much closer to the product. “I’ve returned to its source.”
As well as simple Chablis from vineyards in the hills above the village of Maligny, Laroche has created a range of three premier crus from the prestigious Fourchaume region. Here you sense his marketing expertise. The first small vintage of Domaine d’Henri was in 2012, and I was lucky enough to be able to taste the wines.
The basic Fourchaume, if a premier cru can be basic, is a blend of several plots. Just 11% of it is fermented and aged in wood, and then blended with the vat-aged wine in the June following the harvest. The year 2012 was a fine vintage in Chablis, so no chaptalization was necessary, and the wine is firm and has great minerality. The Cuvée Vieilles Vignes comes from older wines that were planted in 1970. Here the percentage of oak aging is 21% and the taste is firmer and steelier, with a taut finish. And the third Fourchaume, Cuvée Heritage, comes from vines that were planted in 1937, from a vineyard that Henri bought rather than planted himself. There is just one new barrel out of five, with 37% of the cuvée fermented and aged in oak. The higher percentage of oak makes for a more oxidative style, with more structure and richer flavors. In 2012 they made just 4,000 bottles of Cuvée Heritage, including some magnums and jeroboams.
When I asked Laroche what he considered to be the biggest change in Chablis over the years, he replied without hesitation, “The very positive development of the awareness that we are an appellation with a great potential.”
Back in 1963, most people considered themselves farmers, merely scraping a living from their vines with the aim of quantity, not quality. These days it is the quality of Chablis that provides the excitement, and that is Laroche’s aim as a new vigneron.
Main photo: Wines from Le Domaine d’Henri. Credit: Courtesy of Le Domaine d’Henri
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
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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