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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Top 10 Pinot Noir Producers of the Anderson Valley

"Pinot Noir, more than anything, should tell the truth. And it does that very well. But you have to take a risk in order to hear the truth and then you might not always hear what you expect" - Scott Wright

It's time to uncork another insiders-look, into the world of high-end Food and Wine, an article written by regular guest contributor; Ilona Thompson.  She's the Editor in Chief for Palate Exposure, a self-described believer in the Sustainability of Critical Thinking and Personal Responsibility. She is also a regular contributor to the Brenner Brief.
Much has been said about the ravishing, raw beauty of Anderson Valley. To be there is to catch a glimpse into God's vision of Heaven on Earth. The hills and valleys, the proximity of the Pacific, the pristine environment engulfs your very soul. 
I have been coming to Anderson Valley for several years. However, each visit touches me in a new and unique way. It is the kind of place that unconsciously allows you to get up close and personal with yourself; to find your most authentic voice.
What does it do for winemaking? I suspect it forces winemakers to strive for great things. It brings out the true artisans in them. Wine lovers can certainly taste moments of greatness that reflect not only a sense of place, but a sense of being.

Large swaths of Anderson Valley vineyards are owned by corporations. However there are numerous boutique vintners and growers who chart their own path and push the creative envelope. These renegades have turned the mountains and valleys of this magical spot into a virtual Pinot Paradise. Additionally, there are a number of Alsatian varieties grown there as well and I can happily attest to a solid quality of Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, and Riesling bottling’s.
Anderson Valley is located about 2.5 hours north of San Francisco and stretches from the Yorkville Highlands to the Navarro River. The sprawling metropolis of Boonville (pop. 700) is at the heart of what used to be a brief stop on the way to Mendocino is now a booming wine town. 
An area deeply steeped in agrarian roots, its traditional logging and ranching trades experienced a steep decline in the '60s. The area soon became known for growing California's number one cash crop, marijuana. (Hence the stretch of highway clean-up that is sponsored by medical marijuana patients union.) Grape-growing took hold in the 1980s. The Anderson Valley AVA was established in 1983 and the area is now home to over 30 wineries and numerous stellar vineyards.

Many don't realize that the legendary French Laundry Restaurant shares a connection with the Anderson Valley. After selling the French Laundry to Chef Thomas Keller, Don and Sally Schmitt, the restaurant's original owners, purchased the Philo Apple Farm. It's now a wildly successful, picture perfect orchard that produces dozens of varieties of heirloom apples. They also own the beautiful Boonville Hotel that is known for its restaurant, Table 128, which turns out Michelin-quality food.
My top 10 Anderson Valley producers are as follows:
Lichen Estate
Former owner of Breggo Cellars, Doug Stewart is a consummate entrepreneur and a passionate vintner. Naming his brand after a lacy, symbiotic organism representative of nutrients that sustain the vineyard's very terroir, his four wines are head turners. The sparkling Blanc de Gris is unlike anything I have ever tasted, with glorious acidity and sexy, playful fruit. Les Pinots Noir and Gris 2012 is a blend of Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris is a refreshing palate pleaser, guilt free with only10% alcohol. A revelation, Solera, composition of 2011 of 2012 is aged and blended in the similar fashion to Sherries and Madeira. My wine of the weekend was Lichen 2012 Estate. Sourced from an organically farmed vineyard it showcases opulent red fruit and dreamy vanilla flavors. A glorious 45-sec finish seals the deal.
Black Kite Cellars
My obsession with Black Kite started long ago, in fact, with their first vintage. The wines were lush, generous, yet refined, deftly balanced and most compelling.  In the late ‘90s, Donald and Maureen Green bought a 40 acre parcel overlooking the picturesque Navarro River and replanted a Gewürztraminer vineyard with Pinot Noir. In 2003 Black Kite Cellars was born, named after Donald Green's favorite bird.  Their stellar winemaker, Jeff  Gaffner, who has over 25 years of experience in the wine industry, has produced some of my favorite wines over the years.

FEL (formerly Breggo Cellars)
Cliff Lede, vintner and rock music lover extraordinaire, launched FEL in 2014 in honor of his Mom (Florence Elsie Lede.)  The name was changed from Breggo Cellars; however, the consistently delicious wines crafted by Ryan Hodgins remain. FEL produces several Pinot Noirs for renowned vineyards such as Savoy (which Lede acquired in 2011), Donnelly Creek, Ferrington, Wiley and Hirsch.  They also produce several whites, including Chardonnay, and Alsatian varieties. The winemaking philosophy is simple - maximum viticultural dedication to all aspects of grape growing and minimal intervention in the cellar. What is the result? Some of the best Pinot Noirs I have tasted from the region.
Dan and Margaret Duckhorn founded Goldeneye in 1996, after a 15 year successful Napa Valley run with their namesake label.  Their first wine was released in 2000.  Goldeneye quickly established itself as an important player on the Pinot scene, earning multiple accolades for its uncompromising viticulture standards and thoughtful winemaking. Today Goldeneye has four estate vineyards, a thriving wine club and a state-of-the-art LEED certified facility.  Keep your eye on this exciting winery.

A quintessential family winery, Handley Cellars is a small estate, twelve thousand case operation in Anderson Valley. A disarmingly charming historic ranch house, barn, and water tower greet you upon arrival. Proprietor and winemaker Milla Handley is a local legend, a pioneer of the region who makes soulful, balanced wines that are varietally pure and are deeply representative of the land. Milla honed her craft at Chateau St. Jean and Edmeades, prior to launching Handley Cellars in 1982. Inspired by the beauty of Anderson Valley, she set out to honor the land in her stewardship. She has achieved that and much more. Her wines have won numerous awards and accolades and are worth seeking.

Anthony Filiberti, the winemaker at Knez, is a deep believer in the importance of soil and it’s relation to the quality of the wine. He insists on maintaining profound terroir knowledge of his vineyards; so much so, that he lives on property.  His past winemaking jobs included Lynn Penner-Ash, Josh Bergstrom, and  Williams-Selyem. Additionally, he has an ongoing partnership with Anthill Farms. Handcrafted, traditional winemaking techniques are his hallmark. Farmed organically and biodynamically, the vineyards bear complex and multi-dimensional fruit that Anthony turns into elegantly beautiful Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs.
Foursight Wines was founded in 2006 by the winegrowers Bill and Nancy Charles in partnership with their daughter and son-in-law, with the idea of producing small lots of handcrafted Pinot Noir, Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. The foursome is dedicated to meticulous farming practices.  Joe Webb, their renegade, fearless winemaker, completed stints at Joseph Swan and Londer Vineyards. Joe oversees all winemaking and winery business operations.  Spend a few minutes with him and his intensity and passion become obvious. The wines are pure, honest, edgy, stimulating and quite age-worthy.

After decades of winemaking and vineyard management, owners Jason and Molly Drew made the move from Santa Rita Hills to Anderson Valley in 2000. Their first Pinot Noir and Syrah bottlings were produced in miniscule quantities and immediately found favor with discriminating consumers. Jason is a traditionalist winemaker and does not utilize fining or filtration.
In addition to Pinot Noir and Syrah, Jason recently started producing small lots of exceptional Albariño.  By demonstrating extreme dedication to all aspects of his vineyard, being a meticulous farmer and an astute, flexible winemaker; Drew secured a well-regarded spot in the Anderson wine community.

Ted Bennett and Deborah Cahn started Navarro in 1974, a time when grape growing was a novelty in the Anderson Valley. They took over a sheep ranch and planted Pinot Noir, and a number of Alsatian varieties, such as Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Muscat Blanc, and Riesling. Today Navarro Vineyards enjoys cult like following among hardcore fans. Their most famous Pinot Noir, the flagship Deep-End Blend, is a very limited production wine that delivers an exceptionally high quality experience for under $50. The Navarro brand became synonymous with well-priced, remarkably consistent Anderson valley wines.
They also produce a few non-alcoholic wines.
Champ de Rêves
Champ de Rêves specializes in Pinot Noir and is fiercely dedicated to the authentic expression of the region and the complexity of flavors it can deliver. Perched nearly 2000 feet above Boonville, the Champ de Rêves vineyard is planted to a variety of Pinot Noir clones. Winemaker Eric Johannsen crafts wines of distinction; showcasing the signature characters of Anderson Valley unique fruit and earthy minerality. His hands-off approach results in amazing balance and harmony.
Please note that all of these wineries are estate based and grow or source fruit from local vineyards.There are also numerous notable producers, such as Williams Selyem, Copain, Rhys, Littorai, MacPhail, and Lioco which make remarkable Pinot bottlings with fruit sourced from Anderson Valley.
Anderson Valley is a special place that touches the heart and soothes the soul. The Pinot Noir dramatically differ stylistically from other regions.  These wines are often haunting and unforgettable. They tell the tale of rugged beauty, emerald hills, larger than life redwoods, and winemakers that have formed an un-severable bond with the land.
I hated driving away. I knew a part of me will remain. Till next time.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Wine of the Week: 2010 Ettore Germano, Langhe Nebbiolo

“Fermented beverages have been preferred over water throughout the ages: they're safer, provide psychotropic effects, and are more nutritious.” ~ Dr. Patrick McGovern

I know it's crazy to have nominated two wines of the week, but this wine has so delighted me once again, I thought it deserved time to share the Wine of the Week spotlight.  It would seem the Nebbiolo grape has the correct name as it literally means little fog. Why do I say? That's simple; because from my experience most vino-sapiens find themselves in a fog when it comes to understanding the "grape of kings and the [and what some believe] king of grapes". If you'd like to find out more about the amazing history of this grape, there's a quick tutorial to be found here. 

One of a few funny [not funny ha-ha] things about Nebbiolo is that like Merlot, Chardonnay and other grapes most folks are accustomed to, it's relatively easy to say or ask for in a restaurant. One of the other things I find interesting to note is that not all Nebbiolo is Barolo, but all Barolo is Nebbiolo, which of course is an important distinction to make.  

While it may seem like I'm attempting to be too clever by-half, but hold on. There's a kernel of truth to what I'm saying. So don't run-off. See, to be called Barolo and get that fancy neck-label [its papers] it has to be more than just Nebbiolo. 

It has to meet some aging requirements first, sorry but there's no squishy feel good way to get out of those requirements either. What are those aging requirements? "To earn the name Barolo, the wines must undergo at least 38 months' aging prior to commercial release, of which 18 must be spent in barrel" If you'd like to read more I'm going link to the answer here.

What many have come to know as “Classic” Barolo with the traditional requirement of at least ten years in the cellar to tame those powerful tannins, has seen a shift toward what some call the international style. With some producers moving away from tradition and are moving towards more wines which are more approachable sooner. 

This new direction is of course not without a bitter controversy. There are those who think of themselves as the traditionalist, who believe any attempt to change the face [brand] of Barolo is nothing short of heresy. While the other group, known as the "modernist" [producing a more approachable wine in the short-term] who want to simply cash in on big-score, drink now and drink often crowd. These are wines, for any vino-sapien, who don't have the time or the desire to wait 10 years for those wines to age. If you'd like to read more about this true wine battle I'd encourage you check out this great article.

But at the moment we are going to skip that whole scene by me introducing you a wine you may not be familiar with, that comes from the same great region. You see the wine pictured above is a fantastic representation of what nearly every producer of Barolo does and, that's they make other wines simply labeled as either Nebbiolo d’Alba or Langhe Nebbiolo.

The wine you see above is produced by Ettore Germano. These wines are produced from same grapes that could ultimately be called Barolo, only they're not aged quite as long. The distinction between a Nebbiolo d’Alba and the Nebbiolo which is labeled Langhe is that it's from an even wider geographic area.  If you'd like to learn more about what goes on be-hind the label, here you go.

In my opinion, the wine you see pictured above, is a superb representative of what a wine with soul should taste like. From the first drop to the last splash, it over delivered in finesse and flavor. The color you can see in the glass is amazing, the nose a virtual potpourri of dried red/dark fruits, herbs and leather. After the first slurp, you’ll find this wine to be very generous, slapping your palate with vibrant red-currants, strawberry, licorice, and dried-violets. It has a SRP of $23 and in my estimation well worth the price of admission. 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Wine of the Week: Something different, Something New

“The Roman belief that wine was a daily necessity made the drink "democratic" and ubiquitous: wine was available to slaves, peasants and aristocrats alike.”

I got to thinking about what would the Wine of the Week look like this time around, and I thought it should be a wine that's both, something different and something new. I say different because this wine is completely different than most dry white wines I encounter and something new because, I had never tasted a wine produced from Torbato before. 

This wine, is possibly the only Torbato you'll find stateside, the Terre Bianche vineyard delivers a complex, mineral driven, dry wine which seems to boast a thousand years of seabed sediment in each sip and slurp, yet it still has abundant weight and a nice mouth feel. A bit of lemon peel rinds on the nose and dried citrus notes on the long, pleasing finish. 

For fans of wines with blazing acid and layers of minerality, this is the wine for you. It sells for $19 most places and can be found here in San Diego, at one thee most diverse wines shops in the city, the place I work on occasion, Bird Rock Fine Wine in La Jolla, Ca.  

As for pairing ideas, this wine got me immediately thinking what I'd pair it with and I, hmm a rich lobster bisque and some crusty bread would do the trick nicely. This wine has freaky high acid, so it should cut through the creaminess pretty easily, making each bite, better then the last. I found a great. quick and easy recipe here. Until next time sip long and prosper cheers!

“A key principle for pairing is to match body with body, so that the wine is not too heavy or light for the dish, and vice versa” ~ Andrea Robinson 

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Pinot Files: Top Ten Central Coast Pinot Noir Producers

"Pinot Noir is a righteous grape, chock full of incredible texture and hedonistic pleasures; it is sex in a glass, so seductive that it is hard to say no to." - Madeline Triffon

It's time to uncork another insiders-look, into the world of high-end Food and Wine, an article written by regular guest contributor; Ilona Thompson. She's the Editor in Chief for Palate Exposure, a self-described believer in the Sustainability of Critical Thinking and Personal Responsibility. She is also a regular contributor to the Brenner Brief.

Last week I spoke of the wonders of the magnetic Pinot Noir grape, as interpreted by an elite group of dedicated Pinot disciples. This week the conversation continues; by showcasing some of my favorite producers from Santa Lucia Highlands (SLH) and Santa Rita Hills (SRH)

The following list of Pinot Noirs hailing from California's Central Coast was as hard, if not harder, to narrow down as the North Coast list. The winemaking talent there is formidable and the wines are just as compelling, albeit, in a different way. These regions are dramatically dissimilar in terms of climate and soil, and to a meaningful degree in terms of clonal selections and farming practices.

The two regions described below, covering vast geographical territories, are home to some of the most profound domestic Pinot Noir. In the Santa Lucia Highlands grape growing history dates back to 1700's. However it wasn't until the 1970's, that premium quality fruit was first produced by the Smith Family, known today for their Paraiso brand. Nicky Hahn (Smith and Hook), Robb Talbott (Talbott Vineyards) and Dan Lee (Morgan) soon followed, and in 1991, a newly formed appellation was established. 

Today, boasting over 6000 acres under vine and over 20 wineries, SLH is known for its extraordinary fruit quality, due in no small part to the efforts of a long established farming dynasty led by Gary Pisoni. As the story goes, Gary approached his dad, who was content growing row crops, with the idea of planting grapes by suggesting that it's a more lucrative proposition. "Have you ever heard of anyone willing to spend $250 on a head of lettuce?" Gary's power of persuasion brought about what are today some of the highest regarded vineyards in the United States.  In EU terms, these vineyards would be labeled “Grand Cru." 

Gary planted his vineyards on the south side, at high elevations and farmed them sustainably, way before it became a trend. He sold fruit to a number of notable producers until his own namesake brand launched in 1998.

His vision brought about an important change. He recognized the confluence of the climate (warm afternoons moderated by cool, ocean-kissed breezy nights) and the soils (sandy loam) that were capable of delivering world class grapes.

SLH wines are known for their expansive palatal range; from intense, rich black/blue fruit, to earthy, fleshy flavor profiles, to tight, borderline austere expressions.  Santa Rita Hills (SRH) Appellation, half the size of SLH at 2800 acres, was established in 2001. It is a decidedly cooler growing area that occupies a part of the Santa Ynez Valley and extends all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Home to 41 wineries, it is known for some of Santa Barbara County’s most coveted Pinot Noir vineyards. 

Richard Sanford is widely regarded as the pioneer of the region. He is credited with the first plantings of Pinot Noir in the 1970s in what's known as Sanford & Benedict Vineyard. Others growers came flocking into the area known for its unique soil structure, largely composed of rare limestone which is ideal for growing Pinot Noir, and Santa Rita Hills AVA was born. However, it took a few decades and an indie film to swing things into high gear.  The famed wine movie, “Sideways”, had an indelible effect [like it or not] on the area and brought about the level of awareness that no large number of publicity campaigns, or copious amounts of money could buy.

The wines are known for high definition, crisp, bright acidity and refined, sophisticated characters. Long growing season typically uninterrupted by rain events allows the grapes to physiologically blossom. The fruit comes in fully ripe, balanced, with generous, well-delineated characteristics.

Born in 1999, a culmination of many years invested in tireless research, Sea Smoke vineyard is a proprietor's (Bob David) vision of all things great about SRH.  If you walk the vineyard, you get an instant sense of why it is so special. Only the south-facing hillsides are under vine and diurnal temperatures are about as perfect as they come; ensuring long maturation process. In the vineyard, meticulously farmed, small batch, and a artisanal winemaking approach, yields wines of integrity, complexity and pure class. Unfortunately, its cult status means a long waiting list. 

Bill Wathen and Dick Dore are industry veterans who have forgotten more about "terroir" than most of us will ever know. They quietly and consistently craft some of the most exciting, delicious, well-priced wines in SRH. The only producer to have access to Sea Smoke fruit, they produce a Foxen Sea Smoke bottling that astounded my senses on a number of occasions.

A true All-American rags-to-riches story, Paul Lato is a Polish-born sommelier, who first came to Central Coast in 1996 with two modest suitcases and one big dream. He counts the late Henri Jayer, Chave and Williams Selyem as his remote mentors. He credits Robert Parker's support as the reason he was able to fulfill his dream. A chance meeting with the famed critic and Parker's generous reviews helped Paul launch the brand, which is now one of the most highly coveted nationwide. Mailing list customers and select upscale restaurants (Thomas Keller of French Laundry was one of Paul's first customers) would quickly snap up the tiny allocations in a matter of days.

For a young winemaker, Gavin's list of accolades is immensely impressive. Named one of the winemakers of the year in 2012 by Food and Wine,  and having gotten glowing reviews from just about every national wine publication of note, not the least of which was the venerable Wine Advocate, Gavin Chanin is one of the most exciting and intuitive winemakers of our time. His quest for old vines, strict organic, sustainable farming regimes, and gentle approach to winemaking, which embraces minimalist intervention, yields wines of purity, integrity, impeccable balance, complexity, style and grace. He is also involved in a project named "Lutum" with vintner/investor Bill Price. Readers are urged to get on the mailing list before it's too late, as the future of both brands looks blindingly bright.

Brewer Clifton is a partnership between Greg Brewer and Steve Clifton. Transitioning from French teacher to a winemaker (and part-time musician), Greg worked with Bruce McGuire at Santa Barbara Winery and Sunstone prior to joining forces with Steve, who has his own brand, Palmina. His terroir-driven approach won sky high praise from Robert Parker Jr., who compared the wines to DRC. Their spectacular Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays are sold primarily via mailing list.

6. Melville
Ron Melville and his two sons work side by side since Ron's dedication to Burgundian wines landed him in Lompoc in 1996. They planted 82 acres of vineyards to fourteen clones of Pinot Noir and sold fruit to such superstars as Bonaccorsi Wine, Brewer-Clifton, Jaffurs, Whitcraft, as well as producing their own brand. Crafted by Greg Brewer who shares Ron's passion for fine Burgundy, the wines are true reflections of the vineyard.

The crowned Prince of SLH Kingdom, minus the annoying entourage, plus a great big [and readily available] hug, Gary Pisoni is to SLH what Andy Beckstoffer is to Napa. Wine makers can't get enough of his grapes (yes, there is waitlist for his fruit). He reigns rather benevolently and has more fun by Monday afternoon than most of us will have in a year. Oh yes, and his own wines invariably rate a 100 on my hedonism scale.

Pisoni's business partner and vineyard manager/grower Gary Franscioni launched his own wine in 2003 to press and consumer accolades.  I’ve observed, that when minimal intervention is combined with careful cellar monitoring a sort of magic takes place. The wines are glorious creatures, boasting depth of flavor and impeccable balance.

James Ontiveros, a 9th generation farmer, crafts this coveted Pinot Noir sourced from his family's 8-acre Rancho Ontiveros Vineyard. Farmed organically and meticulously, his wines are age-worthy, high energy, beautiful beasts. Quality and integrity is the key to his cerebral, multi-dimensional wines.

New Zealand native, Fintan du Fresne, holds degrees in both geology and enology. He is a true steward of the land who cut his winemaking teeth with Calera under the tutelage of the legendary Josh Jensen. He later worked at Adelaida and many other wineries in California and New Zealand.  His winemaking philosophy is rooted in embracing, cultivating and enhancing the natural characteristics of the historic Chamisal Vineyard, located in the Edna Valley.

Every detail, whether it's farming practices, hand harvesting or cellar work, with each block fermented separately, is aimed at achieving a single goal: harnessing brilliant, bold, intense fruit and coaxing the inherent sophistication from this glorious site.

In addition to actively seeking the wines from these rock star wineries, readers traveling to the area are advised to check out the "Lompoc Ghetto." It is quite an epicenter of winemaking activity; with well-established producers such as Fiddlehead, Flying Goat, Loring, Pali, Palmina, Brewer Clifton, and Piedrasassi.  It's also the home of rising superstars such as winemaker, Gavin Chanin, whose name is quickly becoming synonymous with refined elegance in Pinot Noir.

The atmosphere at this winemaking "ghetto" is decidedly casual, simple and vibrant. The spirit of camaraderie reigns and there isn't a whiff of pretense or room for egos.  It's refreshing in a way an old friend makes you feel good the way only he/she can, subtle, yet so comforting. It is also a hotbed of creativity, forward-thinking, self-challenge, information exchange and constant innovation.

In my opinion, readers seeking a stimulating, highly sought after, deeply authentic and unbelievably tasty Pinot Noir experiences really can't afford to miss the above mentioned wines. Cheers!

Monday, May 12, 2014

Wine of the Week: Santa Carolina Reserva de Familia Carménère 2011

"Jump back, what's that sound, Here she comes, full blast and top down, hot shoe, burnin' down the avenue, model citizen zero discipline, Don't you know she's coming home with me?" ~ Van Halen

It's time for another wine of the week, and this one to be very excited about. Why do I say that? Two things really, soon as I popped the corked, sipped; slurped and burped I knew this wine would be crowd pleaser. Second, are you kidding, for the low, low price of $9.99 per bottle, you can uncork some unapologetic hedonistic delight. This wine arrived on my doorstep just a few weeks back, a sample, completely unsolicited straight from Chile, and boy oh boy, do I like those kinds of surprises. 

In the box, was this gem ready to wow you on every twist and turn in the road, it has curves and abundant sex-appeal, it's only goal is seduction. Besides its abundant and apparent [from one look in the glass] hedonistic profile, this wine has some nicely polished tannins and fun verve of minerality to keep things interesting. 

Here comes the tasting note portion of this article [look out]. Those lyrics from Van Halen's 'Panama" perfectly sum up for me, what this wine is all about. Smokey and meaty aromas and flavors jump from the glass, ripe plum, and fig and dried under brush. On the palate you’ll find giving, generous notes of vanilla, toast, a smoky edge, black pepper and ripe dark fruits blueberry, plum and dark cherry; great body and length, balanced acidity, which all fold nicely into the long and generous finish and no, not even a hint of flabbiness on its sleek exterior. 

Carmenère the grateful ex-pat grape which escaped from Bordeaux back in the days when evil Phylloxera was ravaging the countryside, found a safe home in Chile where it remains self-rooted in the sandy loamy soils of D.OValle de Rapel, thumbing its nose at the bug.

Okay, okay you can still find a few plantings of Carmenère in France, and other wine growing regions, but you’ll soon find out that this grape seems to find its best expression in the terrior of Chile. For many years, folks thought these vines were Merlot, and labeled it as such, they later found out via DNA testing in the go-go nineties that it was actually Carmenère and I’d like to believe delightfully so. 

If you'd like to have some very tasty, uber approachable wine, which requires little fuss or muss to be enjoyed than folks this wine is your ticket to ride. Until next time folks, remember as always to sip long and prosper cheers! The suggested retail price is $19.99. My score 90 tasty points!

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Top Ten Nor-Cal Producers Who Redefined Pinot Noir

At their best, Pinot Noir is the most romantic of wines, with so voluptuous a perfume, so sweet an edge, and so powerful a punch, that like falling in love, they make the blood run hot and the soul wax embarrassingly poetic  - Joel Fleischman

It's time to uncork another insiders-look, into the world of high-end Food and Wine, an article written by regular guest contributor; Ilona Thompson. She's the Editor in Chief for Palate Exposure, a self-described believer in the Sustainability of Critical Thinking and Personal Responsibility. She is also a regular contributor to the Brenner Brief.

Pinot Noir a special grape, as any Pinotphile would eagerly tell you. Thin-skinned, fragile, fickle and unspeakably pure, ranging from a single minded focus precision to a seamless, subtle seduction; it has a unique ability to pierce one's emotions and linger in one's heart and mind.

This "heartbreak" grape variety is widely considered to be the source some of the world's greatest wines. For a winemaker, it can be a powerful muse, if he/she is willing to open up and allow it to engage their very soul.

Pinot Noir can be compared, in an artistic sense to a watercolor, a medium that is entirely unforgiving to its creator. In the world of oils and acrylics, many corrections are possible and routinely occur. In the world of watercolor, you only get one shot to get it right. If you make an error, you are finished, no second chances. With Pinot, the winemaker has few tools for fine tuning. With Cabernet and other more robust varietals, errors can be hidden during the blending process.

The following list of Pinot Noirs could easily be titled Pinot Royalty. Highly allocated and quickly snapped up by the adoring fans, they enjoy a great demand and cult status.  That status affords the winemakers exceptional creative freedom. For instance, when sourcing fruit, they enjoy rather strong say in the viticultural practices of their fruit sources. Their growers farm to their exact specifications, thereby ensuring the highest possible quality.

If you haven’t heard of Marcassin it's little wonder. Some would argue that it is an equivalent of DRC of CA. This tiny 100 barrel production winery that sits on a 10 acre vineyard in Sonoma Coast is home to some of the most coveted Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. 

If you haven't heard of Helen Turley, however, you have been living under a wine rock. Arguably the most powerful woman winemaker in the business, she won favor with critics and consumers alike. James Laube of WS never met a wine of hers he didn't like. She was the winemaker of record for some of the most coveted producers such as Turley, Martinelli, Colgin, Blankiet, Bryant Family, to name a few. Her vineyards are meticulously farmed, the fruit is allowed to physiologically ripen, and the yields are minuscule. 

Wines are sold via mailing list with a significant waiting list (rumored to be as long as 15 years) Ordinarily I would strongly encourage you to join the waiting list but it could be a while before you are offered wine, so your second best bet is to seek her wines on the open market where you are likely to pay high premiums. Conversely, it's still a bargain in comparison to DRC!

2. Kistler

Steve Kistler founded the winery in 1978. After an apprenticeship at Ridge he became a winemaker and a vineyard manager, an unusual combination, of his own brand. Mark Bixler, worked at Fetzer prior to joining Kistler Vineyards and been their Business Manager ever since. Kistler has been producing some of the most compelling Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays for 34 years, and has been getting accolades from the renowned critic Robert Parker on virtually every vintage, and rightly so. Arguably the reference point for the varietal, Kistler wines are as authentic as they come and exquisitely crafted.

3. Rochioli

Rochioli Vineyards and Winery was established in 1938, when Joe Sr. bought a 160 acre vineyard in the majestic Russian River Valley. Today it represents three generations of stellar farming and extraordinary wines. When Tom, the current generation, took over in the mid 1980's, it became evident that Rochioli name will always be associated with outstanding Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. High in demand, the minuscule production single vineyard offerings are sold via mailing list, larger production estate wines can be obtained either direct from the winery or at a few select retailers.

4. Kosta Browne 

I wrote about the Kosta Browne "boys" recently, As the story goes, two John Ash Co employees, Dan Kosta and Michael Browne pooled their tip money to start a wine brand. Initially sold from the back of their truck, the waiting list for their wine is now 5000 customers strong and growing. A true American Pinot "rags to riches" story of the wine brand that has perennially scored very high by Wine Spectator and is known for its rich, fruit-forward, unapologetic opulence in both style and substance.

5. Benovia

The name Benovia pays homage to Ben and Novian, fathers of Joe Anderson and Mary Dewane who shared passion for wine led them into both starting the winery and acquiring the highly coveted Cohn Vineyard. The decision to partner with Mike Sullivan, one of California's top winemakers, whose thoughtful and quality-driven winemaking at Hartford vineyards caused for me to fall madly in love with his wines was sheer genius. If you are looking for exhilarating wines made with uncompromising quality standards that represent huge QPR (Quality/Price Ratio) then check them out.

6. Hartford

Nestled in the heart of Sonoma County, just a few miles from the Pacific, Hartford Family Winery was founded in 1994 by Don and Jennifer Hartford. Their current winemaker, Jeff Stewart's passion for winemaking was ignited by a summer spent in France. A UC Davis graduate Jeff is an industry veteran who has made wine for over 25 years at renowned brands such as Laurier, De Loach, Mark West, Kunde, La Crema and Buena Vista. I have had along standing love affair with Hartford Pinots and Chardonnays for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is quality and consistency.

7. Flowers

Originally from PA, Walt and Joan Flowers, fell in love with wine and took many trips to Napa and Sonoma before they purchased 321 acres on the north Sonoma Coast, high above the Pacific, back in 1989. Flowers Winery produces world class Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs from its two estate properties, Camp Meeting Ridge and Sea View Ridge. They also source fruit from a few select and highly regarded vineyards. Their wines are predominantly sold direct to consumer but can also be found in a few upscale restaurants and wine shops.

8. Aubert

Mark Aubert grew up in the heart of Napa wine country, St. Helena, where his parents owned a vineyard. It was his parents cellar that first drew him to wine. After getting a degree from Fresno State in 1985 he worked at Monticello. A chance meeting with renowned winemaker Helen Turley set him on a career path of winemaking legends. It was Turley who hired Aubert to be her assistant winemaker at Peter Michael in 1989. Upon her departure for Colgin Aubert was named head winemaker at Peter Michael at 28 years old. It was deja vu all over again when Turley left Colgin and Aubert became her successor. In 1999 he launched his own brand that became an instant hit. His critically acclaimed Pinot Noir[s] and Chardonnays are sold exclusively via mailing list and are highly allocated.

Williams Selyem Winery is a love child of Ed Selyem and Burt Williams, two amateur winemakers who dream big. Their first vintage was 1981 and the rest, as they say, is wine history. Arguably, they pioneered and set an entirely new set of standards for winemaking, viticulture and distribution of what, back in the 80's, was a rather obscure, enigmatic variety in California.

Although primarily known for the their Bordeaux blends Sir Peter Michael winery makes some extraordinary Pinot Noir from both Monterey and Sonoma Counties. Although the winery is a state of the art facility, outfitted with all every possible resource of modern technology, Nicolas Morlet, the winemaker, has a hands off, intuitive approach. Nicholas's brother, Luc, was one of my Top 10 CA winemakers: 

Pinots often evoke a powerful desire to be consumed with food.  My two favorite pairings that bring out the best in this varietal are:

  1. Beets. I know some of you are cringing right now, but give it a second. Roasted, or fresh heirloom beets with a little goat cheese tossed in can deliver a merry mouthful, paired with bright (especially red fruit dominated) and minerality-driven Pinots.

  1. Mushrooms, preferably wild ones varieties. Add it to any protein, finish the dish with a splash of port-style red wine for extra oomph, and experience your mouth melting in gratitude. There is something wildly satisfying about the perfect marriage of earthy, fleshy, deep flavored, fruit-driven Pinot Noir.
Great Pinot Noir simply spells pleasure. If you are a card-carrying hedonist, you will be hard pressed to find a grape that lends itself so naturally to fulfilling your unspoken palatal desires;  one that seduces senses so effortlessly. The above list represents the apogee for the senses as interpreted by ultra-talented folks on a perpetual, relentless quest of pinot-perfection.

Warning: If you are lucky enough to partake, you will be entirely incapable of accepting any mediocrity in your future when it comes to this variety. You palate simply won't let you. Seek at your own risk.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Size Does Matter: Dining Out With Wine

What is a Corkage fee? It's the fee charged by a restaurant to patrons bringing their own wines to the to enhance their dining experience. The "size" of the fee does appear to be larger or smaller in price in direct proportion to the size of their pepper-mill, as it has been said, size does matter.

The corkage fee is usually minimal in most places and is considered a convenience charge to the restaurant for opening and serving wines from outside their cellar. The use of a corkage fee is widespread in many parts of the United States, especially in heavy wine producing areas such as Napa and Sonoma Counties.

The corkage fee is not designed to be a penalty for the diner and should not be viewed that way. But in the same breath, under no circumstances is the [BYOB] bottles price to become part of the tipping equation.

Wine corkage policies appear to vary state-by-state and even city-by-city. So while visiting another state you may want to call ahead to find out that states or the restaurants policy is regarding BYOB. Like it's often said, it's good to know before you go.

For example; with my experience in Arizona; where BYOB is not permitted, unless you have a very specialized license. It does appear to be frowned upon by restaurateurs there, well at least that was my experience as I inquired by phone and in some cases in person about their BYOB policy. 

What are some of the issues or wine service irritations which motivate folks to want to BYOB or even BYOG in the first place? Good question; here's what I've found out via a bit of research.

Stemware: Most folks I've talked with and some of my own experiences say the desire to BYOG [bring your own glass] is brought on by the fact that far too many restaurants idea of a wine glass is the cast-offs from Medieval Times. I've seen stems so thick and clunky you could potentially take out a mugger, if you need be.

Because this oft-encountered scenario; you may see some wine-geeks with what can only be called a "wine-purse" bringing in their own stems. But please don't laugh too much; as I imagine you would have wished that you too had the good sense [the stones] to do the same.

Wine List Mark-up: This is the one issue which has most folks boycotting buying wine in a restaurant period.  Why, because ordering wine in a restaurant can cost up to six times [400% markup] as much as drinking the same bottle at home. Most folks believe and I also concur that this kind of gouging is beyond the pale. I also believe this issue alone is what has really driven most vino-sapiens to BYOB, when and where they can.

Commodity Wines: Ugh, this issue is driving a lot of folks bonkers. A few vino-sapiens who consider themselves to be somewhat savvy wine drinkers are oh-so tired of only being offered "plonk" wine-list chock full of over inflated prices and adding insult to injury many of those wine aren't even properly stored.

Reasonable Corkage: So what kind of corkage-fees are reasonable? There as many arguments about what "reasonable" is and is not, as stars in the winter nights sky. But if you really want to get down to where the wine bottle meets the linen topped table; I would say that $20 and under is a good place to start. In my opinion that's what I'd call reasonable. Another option [good policy] is having the fee waived if another bottle of wine is purchased from their list. That's what I call good form. 

The fee to simply uncork your wine for you, can vary greatly. Some restaurants charge what I consider an outrageous corkage-fee, so the safe-bet is to always call ahead, before making a reservation. For example, some higher end restaurants [dependent upon the size of their pepper-mills] may charge as much as $50 [IMO rip-off]. But in more reasonable establishments you can expect to pay anywhere from $10 to $20 for a corkage fee [caveat emptor].

More Tips Uncorked:
  • Another trend that I've experienced is that a few restaurants will waive the corkage fee if you purchase an additional wine from the restaurant. Time for some bubbly.
  • This is a refreshing new trend and one I've experienced myself in Paso Robles. Many wine-country restaurants will waive the corkage fee if you bring a wine from the wine region where the restaurant is located. It is my hope that this is a growing trend not only in Paso Robles, but around the country.
  • Whether you're dining in your favorite eating establishment in your hometown or any other restaurant that does not have a great wine list, feel free to bring a wine that is preferably NOT on their wine list, preferably one that's of good quality.
  • If you have brought "anniversary" bottle or maybe just something special, consider offering the "Somm" or perhaps the waiter a taste of the wine, I think it is good form.
  • Let's say you have a bottle of wine that requires chilling before it's served, I would attempt to chill the bottle before hand and once you arrive ask the wait-staff for an ice bucket.
  • Restaurateurs, if you are going have a wine menu, keep it updated and secondly could you store your wine collection correctly, really tired of being served warm red wine.
  • Restaurateurs get steamed when they see someone bring in a cheap bottle of wine just to avoid the restaurant mark-up. I can't say I blame them, it would seem that some restaurant patrons are just cheap, please don't be this guy or gal.
  • One great trend that I've experienced is seeing some restaurants have corkage free nights [yay!] to help increase traffic on slower traffic days.
  • Another trend I've seen; some retailers around town who promote "free-corkage if you bring in a bottle from their store with a coupon.
Okay folks those are the trends I see currently and have experienced in the past. I would love to get some feedback from you all three of the readers. I want to hear about your experiences, the good, bad or just plain indifferent. 

It does not matter if you agree with me or not. I hope you'll think of this as just a conversation, not my soap-box where communication is only one way. So please join in, and I look forward to hearing from you. Until next time sip long and prosper cheers! 

BTW: There are a some great comments below, check them out and/or add a few of your own. 

Thursday, May 1, 2014

NCOTB: New Cab On The (Rockpile) Block


Please excuse the reference to NKOTB (New Kids On The Block) but now may be the time to drift back and remember the frenzied excitement that was lavished on the boy band. “Call it what you want” but I believe Weese Family Winery, Rockpile Cabernet absolutely possesses “The Right Stuff” to be the New Cab On The Block in California.

The winery is the articulation of a vision shared by the Weese brothers, Matt and Will. In email conversation last week, Matt told me that he and his brother (Will) had dreamed of making their own wine since High School days, before they could legally drink the stuff. “We wanted something with our name on, something we could take pride in”, he said. Both brothers studied Agribusiness in college. Out of college, Matt began as a harvest intern with another California winery and eventually worked his way to Cellar Master and then to National Sales Manager. By contrast, Will traveled everywhere, working harvests in New Zealand, Bordeaux, Chile, Napa, and of course Sonoma County.

In pursuit of their dream, they searched for access to vineyards and great fruit in Sonoma and stumbled upon the Glockner-Turner Ranch in Rockpile. Matt had previously worked with Rockpile fruit (Zinfandel) at Mauritson Winery. So when they were told there was Cabernet up there, they knew they had to have it. The brothers worked every angle until finally, they secured a contract on the fruit, although funding remained a challenge.

Initially they had to scramble around, scraping together every penny they had just to buy year one's fruit. Then, Matt said, the moment they had a “drinkable wine” after fermentation they chased down family and friends, begging for the money to pay for a second year of fruit. The guys are confident. They absolutely believe they have California's best Cabernet vineyard. Like capturing lightening in a bottle, it appears to provide a near perfect combination of mountain conditions that lead to an intense and structured Cabernet.

The brothers say they deliberately set out to pick fruit with a higher acid level, setting their sights on a well balanced, age-worthy wine, rather than a monolithic ripe fruity Cabernet. They believe this may have been key during the 2009 growing season. The berries on the vine were really small, meaning that an increased skin to juice ratio would be unavoidable, so they picked slightly early to retain more acid. They expected the wine would be big and bold, necessitating air, and most likely benefitting from a little bottle age, so they did not want it to fall apart when cellared.

By contrast, Matt informed me that the vineyard held a little more water in 2010 and spring was more temperate, resulting larger berries but still with good concentration. In this vintage the brothers also backed off the oak a little further. For the 2009 vintage they used 50% new oak, all French but now they buy 12 month used barrels. “Still plenty of flavor locked inside” Matt says “but we let the Cabernet that sits in there for the first twelve months extract all the harsh tannin”.

2009 Weese Family Winery Rockpile Cabernet, Sonoma, CA – 87% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Cabernet Franc, 4% Petit Verdot. Wow, what a gorgeous mouthful of wine. Let me take a step back. In the glass it is a beautiful opaque, deep ruby – paling but barely translucent at the rim. On the nose an effusive complex aroma of boysenberries, black currant, bitter-sweet chocolate, coffee, vanilla, pepper and spice. It invites you to dive in. Equally complex on the palate the dark blue, black and red fruits meld together, shrouding finely grained fruit tannins. Edged by great acidity and hints of cured meat, this wine is in great balance.  This wine is huge but structured – not a flabby fruit bomb.  These vines have worked hard to gain access to water in the rocky red soil and at the elevation at which they are grown. Their situation, above the fog line, providing a little extra sunlight and warmth. 

When I first tasted this wine (Spring 2013), I scored it 92-94 points – saying my scores may edge to the higher end as it settles down & further integrates it’s fruit and tannin.  I tasted it again in the last few weeks (almost a year later) and I am thoroughly convinced. This is the real deal! The complete package, fruit, acidity and minerality will ensure it’s aging potential.  If the Weese brothers can build upon this in subsequent generations, this wine will not remain at this price point for long.  Buy it while you can – and stock up in strong performing generations. I anticipate it will evolve wonderfully. I look forward to tasting this wine again in 5-10 years think it will drink well in to 2025 and beyond if properly cellared. This (2009) being the first vintage from Weese, it's hard to project what it's evolutionary trajectory will be.

1991 La Jota, Howell Mountain
That said, the 2009 reminded me a little of early releases from La Jota, Howell Mountain. Although I don't necessarily mean all their characteristics overlap, they show some things in common. Indeed, Rockpile (Sonoma) and Howell Mountain (Napa) share some physical characteristics, including their elevation, shallow red, rocky soils.

The sheer power, and muscularity of the 2009 Weese was reminiscent of the 1991 La Jota in its youth. Even better than that, I still had some of that Howell Mtn beauty in the cellar. So I thought, I would pull that one and just see how it was developing.

There are few better reasons to open a great bottle, than Science - an experiment, albeit not a particularly robust one but worth the test. For a wine that was once aggressive, the 1991 La Jota, Howell Mountain is now not only gloriously perfumed but integrated. Still muscular, it is now pliant and offers a stream of spicy plum, black currant, smoke and chocolate on a softer dusty spine.  Now, call me crazy if you wish but this is where I imagine the 2009 Weese Cabernet 15 years out, with a lifespan likely to extend further still. For that reason I bought a handful of the glorious newbie to better test my hypothesis over time.

2010 Weese Family Winery Rockpile Cabernet, Sonoma, CA – 94% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Cabernet Franc, 1% Petit Verdot. The aromatics match those of the ’09 closely, with perhaps the addition of a higher toned black cherry note.  It's clearly young and in need of a little more air-time to open right now. It has not long been bottled after all. (anticipated release date in late summer 2014). I decanted and allowed to breathe for an hour or so, then tasted over the subsequent 24 hours.

On the palate the ’10 kicks into yet a higher gear.  It’s more supple, and perhaps slightly more dense and focused than the '09. The black and blue fruits harmonize without losing their respective identities, offset by a gorgeous savory, meaty undertow.  Boysenberry emerges and intensifies on the mid-palate. Although the 2010 too is muscular. Here lean muscle is set upon a slightly more pliant frame with ripe, dusty tannin and bright acidity.  The finish is long and layered, with black fruit and cherries, chasing pepper and spice in a close paved by cured meat. The greater accessibility is likely, in large part, a result of the astute decision to switch to 12 month, used barrels. 

You can drink it now (decanted with air time) but the 2010 will enter a beautiful drinking window with another 5+ years of bottle age and will drink well in to 2025 and beyond if properly cellared.   Only 400 cases were produced.  Andy, 93-95 points
The scores both edge higher as I begin to consider what one could pay for some well known California Cabernet that does not provide such significant bang for the buck. Both vintages sell for $45/bottle direct from winery. The “Weese Family Winery (WFW)” name is definitely one to remember. 

Warning, you may not be able to buy these wine at this low price for very much longer once the word gets out.  These Weese Family wines really define the term "No Brainer."  I have already reserved my allocation of the upcoming 2010 release.

Note - Weese Family Winery do have a couple of additional small projects, including a Reserve Red Wine (Bordeaux Blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot) - sold directly to their mailing list. This impressive duo give the impression they will not rest on their laurels. It's definitely a case of "watch this space" for new projects as they arise.

You can catch other bottle notes and pictures on my twitter account - please drop in and follow @BruisedGrape

Your comments are always appreciated!

 Disclosure: The 2010 was a pre-release, media sample provided for the review process.

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