If you had asked me in January to tell you what I knew about Vine Hill Ranch, it would have been a fairly short answer: They are an established grower in Oakville who sells Cabernet Sauvignon grapes to Etude and Cakebread who produce vineyard designated wines from the property. That’s about it. I couldn’t tell you exactly where it was, how big or who owned it. However, I certainly could tell you about the wine in the bottle.
For the most part, unless a grower also produces a wine from property they own it is fairly certain that the average wine consumer, or for that matter a wine writer would not have much reason to make a connection with them, at least directly. We would usually only experience what they do through the efforts of winemakers if the label includes vineyard designations such as Alder Springs, Monte Rosso, Larner, Stagecoach, Georges III, Martha’s, To-Kalon, Hyde, Hudson, Shea, Cohn, or Vine Hill Ranch. Generally the way we consider winemakers is the same way winemakers consider growers – The top names are who we want to work with, or in other words follow the winemaker and they take you to the dirt.
In February, I attended the Napa Valley VintnersPremiere Napa Valley, the winter barrel auction. It is to wine as Cannes is to film; everyone in town is either a distributor, broker, retailer, restauranteur, sommelier or writer. Over the past couple years an unofficial trade-only tasting happens the day before in the caves of a winery on Silverado Trail put on by broker, Kimberly Jones whose portfolio of wines is more like a gallery of carefully curated works. If you knew nothing about wine walking in you would leave three hours later having been exposed to wall to wall excellence. Because I expect nothing but the best when I attend, the event is always a pleasure and even more so when I meet a new producer.
People in the wine business are a collegial bunch, and we trade tips freely on what to try. Generally I pay attention when somebody tells me ‘you NEED to taste this or that!” So after I heard several comments about newcomer, Vine Hill Ranch, I made my way to the table which happened to be mobbed by at least a dozen people. Two people were behind the table, I recognized one of them and only then did I understand what the fuss was about – It was the winemaker, Francoise Peschon who has only been associated with the best as long as I have known her; Araujo, where she started in 1993, and Drinkward-Peschon, her own project that was an overnight success, literally, during my time at Dean & Deluca. Instantly, I felt about 70% of what i needed to know was standing in front of me. If I follow her, I will know the rest. The man with her was Bruce Phillips, proprietor of Vine Hill Ranch. He was patiently answering questions posed by a man who to the rest of seemed to be conducting an impromptu interview. Francoise saw me and was able to get a quick pour in my glass and after a few minutes introduced me to Bruce for no more than just a quick handshake.
I got a chance to visit a little longer with both at the Oakville Grower’s Tasting in April. Both tasting opportunities so far indicated very high quality in the bottle. The more I learned about the project on paper convinced me that it needed to be on the short list of places I personally visit before the launch of purely domestic wine report. After a little planning around calendars, the three of us finally got together for a visit yesterday. Francoise suggested that I ‘bring my boots’ since a trip to a vineyard for the first time is more about understanding the different blocks before tasting the wine, which in the case of Vine Hill Ranch is their premiere release of 300 cases. I should point out they do not have a tasting room, nor are they open to the public.
We set out from the farmhouse on foot to transit the entire seven blocks of vines comprising seventy acres whose production, with the exception of a sliver of each retained by the grower, is contracted out to other wineries. Bruce’s family acquired the property in 1959 (through his grandfather) with the focus being toward grape-growing. The history of the property is documented in archival preserved pages of county farm records from as far back as 1884 and that link to to farming heritage is intrinsic in the message of the new winery – “Land is at the heart of the story”. Boundried by neighbors, Dominus Estate to the southeast and Harlan to the northwest, the western perimeter is forested slopes of the Mayacamas range. The well drained soils and eastern exposure along with a flexible, three wire canopy management system make this a textbook place to grow cabernet sauvignon.
After completing the walk we returned to the farmhouse where Bruce shared the inspiration of the label and packaging with me. I look at a lot of labels and realize more than most that in most instances, the story is very short and the collateral material is fairly simple. In this case (literally) you get a sense of the history of the place- a cedar wood box with what looks to be brass nails affixing the lid hold three bottles of VHR, tissue-wrapped with a print of the 1884 farm record. What is very different and reminds of how things were done by hand in another era is the label (shown left) is designed like a farm tax ledger. It contains seven columns representing the distinctive blocks that are available and every year the label will display ‘hole punches’ indicating the blocks used along with the vine count, harvest dates and acreage.
To me there is a tremendous amount of appeal to the packaging, so carefully conceived and executed with a design and quality of finish that I imagine were consistent with 1884, and maybe even 1959.
The success of the premiere release is a given however there are no plans to dramatically increase production from the estate. “We have always been about growing fruit for others”, said Phillips, “we intend that to continue for generations”.
2008 Vine Hill Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville; DW 94 $150.00
14.5% alcohol, 300 cases produced comprised of blocks 4, 6 and 7 from the estate
Color: deep red core with brilliant garnet edges
Aroma: lively pomegranate, red berry, dark cherry, cedar, licorice and blackberry with smooth underlying chocolate
Palate: dense and polished entry with subtle shift in texture as it moves into the mid-palate where chocolate, dusty licorice, moderate tannin and smooth red and black stone fruits are interwoven seamlessly, showing notable body and length
Impression: As testament to the diversity and extraordinary quality of the fruit available to the winemaker, I describe it as classic and complete in every way.
Wine reviewer Doug Wilder announced today that he has created his last blog post reviewing domestic wine.
When asked to explain the reasons for his decision Wilder replied “When I started blogging in 2008, i realized I needed a niche to stand out so I could be relevant”
What were some of your early ideas?
“One of the first things I thought of was to conjure up my Dixie ancestry and play it as a slightly gap-toothed country boy, a real bumpkin and call my blog ‘A dirty white boy from the south’ And before I know it here was this guy, Hardy Wallace, who ripped me off on the name. I had worked the whole persona down to a science, carefully practicing by taking thousands of pictures of myself with the same shit-silly look on my face. Then to make matters worse I had the dream one week too late that the only thing missing from this schtick was me running around with a viking helmet on. It was my idea first…
This put me into a bit of a downward spiral for a bit and I developed an appetite for decently priced wine from California Gold Country and buckets of Colonel Sander’s extra crispy fried chicken. Suddenly, I had this vision of talking about wines from this region and because it wasn’t that well known. I would need some kind of prop, or mascot. What would work best to get people to recognize the wine, A Barbie Doll, a gold miner, a bean-filled beaver, a rubber chicken.After much consideration, I thought I had it in the bag now – wines from Calaveras County and a rubber chicken for a symbol. A 3AM Google search revealed some guy named Jeff Stai had a brand named Twisted Oak, in of all places – Calaveras and dammit! He already used a rubber chicken. I am curious if he, like me, really wanted to use the beaver as his first choice.
I then played around with this idea of being able to take countless pictures of myself with all of the same people at different wine events called Meetups or Tweetups every week. We would all take pictures of everyone else and send them out on Facebook. More research showed me that this was already going on with the same dozen people. Rats!
With all of my good ideas already being done, I had a crazy notion of just writing about the wines I tasted, honestly, with no gimmicks, what was I thinking, who cares about that?
When wineries decide that they need to change their packaging to redefine their market they risk losing, or at least pissing off a portion of their clientele that learned to identify the label with what they admired about the brand.
I used to feel like a therapist during the time I was at Dean & Deluca. In those days, there were over 1300 facings of wine in the department at any one time. Label designers would bring their clients in to look at different styles and would usually engage the staff in conversations about what appealed to us as far as labels went. It was simple to run down the rows pointing out the ones that combined just the right balance between, size, color, shape, font in an aesthetic exclamation point. I recall one prolonged exercise with a designer whose client had wandered off for an espresso. After showing her several dozen bottles and explaining why they stood out on a shelf, she whined “well these are great, but what should my client do about his label?” Knowing that this woman was likely charging her client a sturdy five figure bill to come up with a piece of paper that would translate into marketing brilliance. I simply said “Don’t make any mistakes that you are going to want to change two years down the road”.
What I meant, and what she understood was “Don’t eff-up the first label”
It wasn’t the answer she wanted and she stormed out, never to pick my brain for free again.
As iconic brands go, less is more… If you disagree, think back to the firestorm of backlash heaped on Gap Clothing when they announced they were leaving the very simple, but revered Blue Square behind for something more akin to a logo for a Health Care Center. They quickly reversed their direction and the world of their loyal customers ended their hunger strikes, started showering or shaving their legs again or whatever – You get the idea, consumers have a real affinity and comfort level with products they identify with. For me, when The Body Shop stopped producing their Mint Blue Shampoo, I nearly had a breakdown. If you never tried it. Let me tell you, it was the second most invigorating thing you could do in the morning before getting dressed… Your mileage may vary.
When I first saw a bottle of Auteur wine in 2005, I was immediately drawn to the warmth of the color in the label and the charm of the script. Shelf appeal to me was a secondary consideration since the wines were very small production and would not make it to too many store racks. However, I need to emphasize that no matter what I think of a label, the wine inside is what needs to deliver. For six vintages, Auteur expanded beyond the premiere 2003 vintages of Pinot Noir from Momtasi, and Hyland Vineyards in Oregon to encompass properties that would ultimately place it on a very high plateau for consumers, including Shea, Sonoma Stage and Manchester Ridge. For me these wines reached a zenith in the 2005 vintage, when I scored all three of vineyard designated Pinot Noir perfect 100 point wines. From that point on, I believe many consumers made the connection between that level of quality from this producer, and the indelible image of ‘etiquette orange’.
A new direction for the label
For whatever reason Auteur decided with the 2009 vintage to change the direction of their package, dare I say radically. It is essentially a clean sheet of paper and as I mentioned in the story above, it probably wasn’t cheap.
It isn’t my place to speculate why the change happened as it did except to say the wine marketplace for any brand is a strange place to navigate, especially when you want to grow, which is an inevitable, healthy direction to aspire to as the brand matures. In efforts to reposition yourself, it isn’t uncommon to tweak a label over time but keep it recognizable. Laurel Glen is a fabulous example of a label evolving over 30 vintages, but still having the same ‘feel’.
Label design never figures into a review of the quality of the wine for me, I have enormous respect for Kenneth’s winemaking as I believe he does for my writing. I would be insincere if I said I loved the new label. Kenneth told me he knew I wouldn’t like the package but what he didn’t have to say was he wasn’t concerned it would affect my evaluation of the wines.
Ahh yes, the wines! Kenneth dropped a ‘bakers dozen’ box off for me the other day including all of the new 2009 (nine bottlings), and four 2008, which I had initially tasted and blogged about in Fall 2009.
As these wines have demonstrated in the past they benefit, or should I say demand serious “active neglect” for at least 36 hours. What I mean by that is effectively beat the crap out of them.
Day 1 10AM – Pop all the corks leave the wines in an ambient room for six hours and then start tasting the whites at room temperature.
Day 1 4PM – Cycle the whites (uncorked) into the refrigerator for several hours until well chilled.
Day 1 7PM – Retaste the Chardonnay
Day 1 10PM -Twelve hours into evaluation I pour my first glass of Pinot Noir and form baseline impressions on all of the wines. I then leave everything out on the table overnight (no corks, no gas) and go through everything again the following day. The Chardonnays are the most beguiling – initially attenuated and sharp upon first tasting they develop beautifully with a little abuse. From the standpoint of taking official notes on the wines, I closed it down after 36 hours. One thing to add, as I am writing this blog post (on Day 3) What is in my Riedel Sommelier? 2009 Auteur Pinot Noir Shea Vineyard…
A: saturated nose of black cherry, blueberry and warm spices
P: A massive Shea that has matured since its first tasting 18 months ago. It shows a denser profile of astonishing black cherry with a velvet-like texture. Everything is more integrated, yet lower in amplitude. Within the context of Shea from this producer, it isn’t as breathtaking as the perfect 2005/2006 ensemble but still a solid example
A: Aromas of violet and cherry with hints of root and loam
P: very dense and concentrated, nearly Syrah-like in structure, predominantly red fruit, raspberry, cherry and a spot of cranberry bite
I: A powerhouse wine requiring another year or two to come together
All in all the quality of the wine in the glass shows the unvarying dedication Kenneth Juhasz puts into the brand. I have no pricing, or production numbers. For ordering, please contact the winery at www.auteurwines.com
This is a little bit of a different post than you normally see on my blog, but I assure you there is a very good reason to talk about this AND I promise to get around to wine. If you are like me, you are on your laptop, powered up, dinner on the stove, all cozy in your house and relaxing after a hard day at work. Across the Pacific, things are dramatically different.
The Catastrophe in Japan
Since last Friday, we have all been glued to the web getting updates from Japan, an ancient culture and a first world country suffering a tragedy of unimaginable scope yet through it all, everything I see from news reports shows the Japanese people who have lost everything approaching the unknown with dignity, respect, honor and orderly cooperation. I was struck by a photo I ran across today of a half dozen rescuers standing around the edge of a corpse on a stretcher in the middle of a devastated city – bowing their heads in a Buddhist prayer to honor the dead. It nearly moves me to tears observing images of such humanity in the face of devastation.
There is one aspect of this chaos I can focus on and that is the reactors at Fukushima. Before I entered the wine business in 1990, I worked twelve years for a San Francisco – based engineering consulting firm providing state-of-the-art design, analysis and project management services to the nuclear utilities. I spent many hours crawling through every part of nuclear plants performing inspections or designing new support structures, AND monitoring emergency diesel generator re-qualification. It was actually during some of this travel that I began to form a deeper appreciation of wine when the team would meet for dinner. One I recall was 1974 Robert Mondavi Reserve from Oakville, ordered by an older colleague who knew more than I at a restaurant in Quad Cities, IA. I think it was $38.00 on the wine list.
As the news story of the problems with the nuclear reactors began to form, I found myself draw to conversations on Facebook where I could add something of my knowledge and experience to the conversations people were having and explain equipment and scenarios they were trying to understand. All of it came back to me like it was yesterday, not 30 years ago. I never believed for a second the optimistic outcomes the government was trying to portray about the state of things there.
So what have we got in Japan?
a 9.0 earthquake strikes in the middle of the workday
Fifteen minutes later, a 30 foot tsunami inundates the coastline wiping entire towns from the map
Four nuclear reactors are in different stages of self-destruction (now with a 50 mile evacuation zone)
> four million without power
> one million without food or water
tens of thousands dead or missing
It is winter in Japan with snow and temperatures well below freezing
It is in crisis such as this that the civilized world collectively comes together to assist in easing the burden and hardship of those affected by getting them what they need on the ground to survive. Which brings me to wine.
2011 Taste of Oakville
As a wine writer, I get invited to lots of events and taste some pretty nice wines, but one of the “A List’ events of the year is Taste of Oakville presented by The Oakville Wine Growers, where the likes of Tierra Roja, Detert, Futo, Harlan and Screaming Eagle appear to pour their wines. This year I am also attending the morning Masterclass – Defining Greatness: The Terroir of Extraordinary Cabernet Sauvignon, moderated by Paul Roberts, MS, followed by reception, lunch and then the grand tasting.
And the best part about it is: I can bring a guest of my choice to the whole day. Now I know I could make a number of calls and get a yes in a split second if I offered it to someone for nothing. But I see this as an opportunity for someone to live out a fantasy day at one of the most anticipated wine tastings in America. Plus you get to hang out with me and get to do some good.
Iwanuma, Miyagi Prefecture
If like me, the name above had absolutely no meaning before now, but why now you ask? I learned Iwanuma is a sister city of Napa, CA. Both are medium sized cities situated on oxbow rivers. Here is Iwanuma’s Wikipedia page, and a picture of it last Friday, inundated by the tsunami. It is (or was) located about 70 km N. of the stricken power plants, within the confines of the newly recommended evacuation zones. If any of the 44000 residents survived, it would be a miracle. There may be little anyone can do for this city, or its citizens directly now except to honor their spirit and the plight of all who will endure.
How can you attend the Oakville Growers Tasting with me?
As much as wine industry people covet these invites, it is even more special for guests to get a chance to try these legendary wines, meet the winemakers and owners and be the guest of a writer who will help introduce it to you in all of its facets.
How bad do you want it? I am willing to provide my companion ticket at the Taste of Oakville on April 18th to the person placing the highest bid by April 7th at 10PM PDT. All proceeds will go to a humanitarian charity of your choice.
How to bid: Please respond in the box provided at the top of the right hand column on this webpage. Bids will be posted as responses to this notice. The top bidder, and charity will be announced here on April 7th at 10PM, you may also wish to publicly show your bid at the same time by posting a comment to this post.
A quick note to my colleagues in the trade:
I know many of you received the same invitation I did and I invite you to accept the challenge to consider joining me in this effort to make one of our top events an opportunity to raise funds for humanitarian relief in Japan or where it is needed most. For once, leave the significant other behind and use your extra ticket for the greater good.
I will be creating a logo for my winning bidder to wear on their name tag, and am happy to provide that to others who wish to use it.
I may try to engage a car service and a hotel to provide services in support of this initiative. I have no idea what we could possibly raise, but acting together, it could be a lot.
I’ve been home in bed all day resting from a chest cold and had quite a bit of time to not only do some blogging of my own on 2008 Scarecrow, no less but also catch up on what is going on in the world of wine. One article I ran across caught my eye, Judging Napa Cabernet’s Class of 2007 by Eric Asimov in New York Times. I have linked to the article so that you may read it in its entirity.
The first thing I noticed was the list of “The Class” was fairly short; a total of twenty wines tasted resulting in only ten finalists. Eric sheepishly conceded the brevity of the list wasn’t representative, but I suggest it could have been referred to as something less Spurrier-ish, C Paris 1976. I would have proposed something like “The tasting panel looks at what we found in the bottom of the wine closet” instead. Calling a tasting of 20 producers from Napa a “Judging of the Class of 2007” is like Sports Illustrated publishing an article on the NBA in 2011 and only talking about the Cleveland Cavaliers. Have I made my point, sports fans?
Secondly, I felt the list lacked focus; Setting the price bar at $100 was wise to exclude most of the racy cult wines yet it includes some large producers – names like Mondavi, Newton, Clos du Val – established players owned by huge international companies that hew towards a style that is going to be attractive to a broader market, to small ‘artisinal brands – Covenant, and Keever, who are able to dial in the creative talents of their respective winemakers based on what their vineyards provide in a given year, while Cade, Faust, Cru, Shafer and Hess have developed niche wines in ‘spare no expense’ environments where these wines are essentially gears in a finely tuned machine. All of these wines are technically well made, yet it may have been helpful to the reader to know something about the respective brands (location of source, case production, composition for instance) Metaphorically, this is like talking about Ford pickups, Jaguar convertibles, and Tesla Coupes in the same context.
Apart from this, I found myself nodding in agreement for the first few paragraphs, then I read the following:
…”Yet we were disappointed to find so many uniform, monochromatic wines with little finesse. The fear of making wines that could possibly be termed “green” has led most Napa producers to forsake any semblance of the herbal flavors that were once integral to cabernet sauvignon wines. Instead of complexity, the rule seems to be all fruit, all the time, with power deemed preferable to elegance.
“Most seem made to fit a profile, in a commercially successful style,” Scott [Mayger] said.”
This made me think about more generalizations being made, and more precisely if Eric would talk in any detail about what, if anything creates the characteristics he looks for.
OK, first I want to address the last part –
I can agree with some of Scott Mayger’s comment – but only to a point. Let me start out by saying this: I would guess in this case, Mayger is referring to [a style] meeting a broader, middle-of-the-road acceptance. Something I want to emphasize is this practice didn’t just suddenly materialize in the 2007 vintage…
However, you can’t paint all of these brands with the same brush – I think a small brand turns into a big brand when the imperative shifts from the winemaker passionately making cutting edge wines that might fail, to what I call ‘accountant’s wines’ where the orders from the CFO is “don’t screw it up”. Arguably a “commercially successful style” is defined by goals – Do you want to make 500 cases that stops people in their tracks when they taste with you in a shed, or do you want to make 500,000 cases that stop people in their tracks when they see it for $22.99 in Costco?
There are success stories at either end of the spectrum. Witness the empty warehouses of garagiste producers with complete creative control. Guys like Jamie Kutch, Morgan Peterson, or Abe Schoener, who I am sure wince a little when they pull the plug on something that pushed the creative envelope a bit too much. Yet overwhelmingly they produce wines people clamor for yet are not found everywhere. Then there are larger brands, several mentioned here that are technically well made, have established brand recognition, and are broadly available. For years, I described the vast Robert Mondavi catalog affectionately as “B plus wines” letting my clients know that if they ever opened a wine list in a chain steak house where they didn’t recognize any other names, they could safely choose a Mondavi and the wine would be fine.
Regarding the first part of Eric’s comment referring to the general characteristics of uniformity in the wines and the disappointment in the abscence of herbal characteristics, or ‘greenness”. I realize he isn’t talking about the dreaded ‘bell pepper’, or ‘green bean’ indicative of wines produced from under-ripe fruit, but the subtle provencal verve that can form the punctuation point to a wine. I don’t see it much either in the wines mentioned here, which doesn’t surprise me in the least. In efforts to create a predictable, homogeneous style, factors such as clone, cooperage, and possibly even yeast strain are carefully isolated to produce a style that will sell to people expecting a certain profile. Even on an artisinal scale, as many factors are kept the same so that trials can be efficiently done But quite honestly, as a professional writer, I don’t think an herbal character is “feared”- Cain Five absolutely exults in it, nor do I personally determine a wine ‘lacking’ simply because it doesn’t show a particular secondary, or tertiary nuance. I do prefer wines to be as complex a they can be though. What I don’t do is attempt to extrapolate what a wine would be if it just had ‘this’, or ‘that’.
If I can make a coupe suggestions – I think Eric would have been beyond pleased if he had included the Cabernet Sauvignon from Dyer, Wolf Family, or Diamond Terrace, wines with depth, complexity and finesse, and all within the price range and notably west side estates North of the Rutherford Bench (not represented by any of the wines in Class of 2007 with the exception of Newton).
That brings me to the title of this post and the image at the top. Eric mentions he wished he had some of his favorites in the lineup and mentioned Corison. I had recently opened a box of samples Lulu Parker Roberts had for me in the SF office and I found a 2007 Corison Cabernet so in spite of my depleted condition I decided to get as close to what Eric was searching for and popped it while I was writing this.
2007 Corison Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley
A: bright cherry, brown spice, currants, hints of mineral and beeswax embraced by subtle oak.
P: Clean. primary impressions of red-tinted fruits; cherry and cranberry are the main flavors here supported by bright acidity and good texture with a kiss of warm, blue/black fruits on the finish.
I: The relatively low alcohol sacrifices ripe richness for a somewhat more refined and balanced harmony
I didn’t encounter a specific herbal note in the wine, although the most extracted expression of currant; creme de cassis, does have some secondary characteristics that are herbal in nature, so one with as deep of a flavor vocabulary as Eric could be absolutely right on target.
Over the last twenty years I have been fortunate to be on the front of the wave for more than my fair share of emerging wines that then went on to gain subsequent prominence in the market. Being based in the Napa Valley doesn’t hurt either.
Of all the wines I have written the first reviews for there are two that I seem inextricably linked to – Auteur and Scarecrow. Auteur is somewhat easier because I do in-depth reviews of every vintage they have produced often with the winemaker, Kenneth Juhasz. Also, most people rush through it, missing the magic.
Scarecrow is an entirely different matter, and it isn’t hard to understand why. I vividly recall a Porsche ad campaign in car magazines during the ’70s. It simply stated in large letters “EVERYONE LOVES A WINNER” and its true. You get some good results and suddenly the phone begins to ring from accounts who couldn’t be bothered to see you last month.
In December 2005, at the suggestion of a mutual friend, I was one of a handful of people (all well connected trade people with great palates) invited by proprietors Bret Lopez and Mimi DeBlasio for a blind tasting of some great wines, one of which was their as yet un-released 2003 Scarecrow. made by Celia Welch.
The wine, produced partly from 2 acres of own-rooted vines planted in 1945 by John Daniel on what was then the JJ Cohn Estate in Rutherford is unique not only for the age of the vines but also Joseph Cohn’s (Bret’s Grandfather) connection to the film “Wizard of Oz” during his time at MGM, hence the name.
Following the tasting where the Scarecrow showed quite well I published my notes from a subsequent trade bottle at Vinfolio in April 2006, a full six months before anything else was written about it. Looking back at my notes, published in issue 49 of WSC, the Scarecrow is listed between Dyer and Detert and despite the 97 point rating I gave it was not accorded any more ink than other wines. I thought it might remain my little secret…
Unless you’ve been squashed by a farmhouse, you know the 2007 Scarecrow received a 100 from Robert Parker. When that happened, black and white indeed turned to Technicolor, but unlike what we remember in the Wizard of Oz, the tornado was just getting started. You see, a perfect score is kind of like a twister – You don’t think too much about them when they are not headed in your direction, but it is hard to ignore when it lands on your house; they alter your reality forever. The vortex brings more people knocking on your door than you could imagine and they all want your wine. You learn to say no a lot! I will say that through all of the noteriety, the entire Scarecrow team remain generous with their spirit, and for that I am grateful, but the access has understandably gotten quite limited.
In February, 2010, I was just happy to get a small pouring of the 2007 at the Kimberly Jones tasting on PNV weekend. Within a day or two, my phone and email lit up with slightly different lead-ins, but the crux of the question was clear – What did I think of the 2007 Scarecrow in light of the Parker score? I understood the urgency of the requests – many of the people asking had tasted it at the same event as I, were on the mailing list and expressed what they felt in their bones – this was not a 100 point wine, very good (93 -96) perhaps, but not perfect. Curiously, most of these requests were made in ‘virtual’ whispers with assurances my unpublished opinion would not be cited… yeah, right! If I don’t write about it, I generally don’t discuss it publicly. In the presence of such a score from Parker, my impression wouldn’t have moved the needle one way or another. Fewer people ask anymore, but now I tell them I wrote my impressions about the 2007 Scarecrow on rice paper and burned it on my Celia Welch altar in the desert. That always gets a laugh!
Seriously though, a WA 100 pointer is a great honor for all involved and may come along only once, or in the case of Scarecrow (according to Parker), quite possibly again in 2009 – except he likely won’t be writing about it, it will be the versatile Antonio Galloni tasting the final assemblage, not a 12 month old barrel sample. I will look forward to tasting it in February 2012.
The Tin Man Cometh
Late last year, to the surprise of everyone, the winery announced the release of a second wine called, M. Etain (Tin Man), also a Cabernet Sauvignon that included lots not put into the final Scarecrow wine. Not an uncommon practice anymore.
After what I felt was a respectful interval of time I asked for a sample to taste professionally and was politely, but firmly denied as apparently all other requests from writers were treated the same way. Disappointed, I let it go at that. A recent Google search revealed nothing much beyond some consumer impressions on CellarTracker!. I can’t find anything that looks like a professional review anywhere. But apparently the wine sold out so who needs reviews?
Last weekend (during the unofficial run up to) Premiere Napa Valley 2011, I was happy to to see Bret, Mimi and their PR person, Lisa at the first table I came to during the Kimberly Jones tasting and was able to have a leisurely visit catching up with them and tasted the 2008 Scarecrow. This crew does pay attention to details – Lisa mentioned that she recalled I wanted to taste the M. Etain and told me there would be two bottles at lunch during the auction the following day. I let her know I would make sure I sought it out. Sure enough, I found the ‘Tin Man’ and tried it. I didn’t get alcohol levels on either of the wines nor have a sense of production beyond Lisa’s comment that there “was less in 2008”. What I discovered was I actually preferred the second wine over Scarecrow.
2008 M. Etain Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford
Tasted at PNV lunch out of pretty ordinary stemware, it showed a solid core of black fruit in the nose with a pure seamlessness of flavor and texture on the palate. With aeration, I admired the intensity in this very youthful wine. I wish they had made more of it!
2008 Scarecrow Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford
Tasted at Kimberly Jones Trade event out of B grade stemware, it showed smooth cassis ripeness in the nose with fresh, well integrated blue and black fruit on the palate. What was missing was the concentration and complexity I experienced in 2003 – 2006.
The Scarecrow brand set the bar very high right out of the gate with the 2003 and this is the first time I have felt underwhelmed by any vintage I have published a review on, considering they didn’t budge on the price, which has climbed to more than double that of the premiere release. I expect many consumer comments will be about the $225 price and how that correlates to their expectations.
In this day and age we are experiencing dramatic changes in ownership of winery properties throughout California. The vast majority are those that got carried away on the upward swing of the real estate bubble and imploded in the last 24 months.
As someone who has been in the industry for two decades, I have seen plenty of brands come and go – even when times were good. What survives? Quality, brand identity, careful stewardship, and an iconic terroir. Using those measures, over the last thirty years only a handful of California wines can claim all of those. Chateau Montelena, Spottswoode and Philip Togni come to mind as long established single proprietor estates that have developed devoted followings, yet none of those essentially defined their appellation as explicitly as Patrick Campbell’s Laurel Glen on Sonoma Mountain.
The Beginning of Laurel Glen
With little thought to actually making wine when he planted his first vines on Sonoma Mountain in 1968, Patrick Campbell sold his fruit, once his vineyard was established, to neighboring wineries for seven vintages before the premiere release (R) of Laurel Glen appeared in 1981.
The label seemed to take cues from the fruit crate art from the 1930’s; stylized, vibrant and quite unlike anything else.
The first time I ever laid eyes on a bottle of Laurel Glen, it was in the little library we kept at the first wine shop I worked at in the ’90s. I remember it was the 1984 vintage and I immediately knew it was something special. Subsequent tastings of later vintages confirmed the unique qualities of this estate-grown, single clone Cabernet Sauvignon that illustrated the unique characteristics of Sonoma Mountain, an AVA established in 1985, and championed by Campbell. The artwork on the label continued to evolve through thoughtful iteration as shown below. 1984 and 1992 (L-R)
Over the years, I became enamored of the style from this site with vintage after vintage standing out as something delightfully unique in a sea of sameness. Patrick was very much in touch with the rythym of his sixteen-acre estate and you can sense that in his vineyard notes included below.
TASTING 25 YEARS OF LAUREL GLEN
In early 2007, I was invited to taste the first twenty-five vintages of Laurel Glen with Patrick Campbell in San Francisco along with 1972 Veedercrest Cabernet Sauvignon – the first wine to ever wear the Laurel Glen Vineyard designation. This was a very educational exercise and gave me rare insights into the brand as it went through changes over the years. The wines have always been about the vineyard and never tried to follow the crowd. Early alcohol levels were 12.5% and have only recently edged into the low 14% range, still supported by structure that helps them age marvelously.
TASTING 30 YEARS OF LAUREL GLEN
Fast forward to 2011 and there are momentous changes afoot at Laurel Glen, As of February 28, 2011, Ownership of the vineyard has transferred to Bettina Sichel whose aim is to re-establish Laurel Glen as a leader from the region. Sichel’s background is steeped in wine – The daughter of Peter M. F. Sichel (Blue Nun), Bettina helped launch Augustin Huneeus’ Quintessa brand, where I first met her in 1998. She is the fifth generation of her family to be involved in the wine business. Her winemaker for the project, David DeSante, recently garnered two Top 20 list placements from me for his 2007 Tierra Roja, and Oakville Terraces Cabernet Sauvignon (Oakville), is joined by viticulturist, Phil Coturri, and winemaking consultant, David Ramey. This is about as close to a ‘dream team’ as anyone could assemble. Patrick will remain as a consultant.
Putting thirty years of one wine on a table is a fascinating spectacle; tasting the ones that were supposed to be ‘vintage of the century’ against those that were condemned by the critics as general failures revealed some surprising results. The winery assembled about a dozen sommeliers (several MS), and me (as the lone blogger) in the basement of Boulevard Restaurant (Thank you Wine Director, John Lancaster and your team for a beautiful private venue and a delicious lunch) to go through three flights of a decade each, and discuss our three favorites from each. Amazingly there wasn’t much discrepancy as each individuals top three could easily have been interchanged with a couple other wines. I present my impressions below with my notes from the 2007 and 2011 tastings. It is interesting to see how wines change.
A brief key about the layout of the notes that follow:
Vineyard and Cellar notes (unedited) written by Patrick Campbell appear first in italics
2007 – My notes from January 2007 tasting with Patrick Campbell in San Francisco
2011 – My notes from February 2011 tasting with Bettina Sichel and Patrick Campbell in San Francisco
Some wines were unavailable in either tasting, and comments reflect that. A notation of NR means the wine was not showing characteristics considered measurable. Appellation for all is Sonoma Mountain, Estate Grown
(A moderately good year, devoid of rainfall… good dark colors, vines in fine shape, nice crop) Patrick Campbell vineyard and cellar notes
2007 – Marked by a bit of herb on the nose, the palate initially seemed lean and narrow but fleshed out with some air, still showing decent acidity. DW 85
2011 – Lean, delicate nose showing a little loaminess, the palate thins out to an elegant thread DW 88
1982 Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon
(A difficult year, late harvest which never quite achieved maturity… good viscosity in the grapes, very big crop – too big!!) PC
2007 – Elegant feel pushing through slight earthiness in the nose. The herbal character is nicely integrated into the wine, dry finish. DW 87
2011 – Firm and still full of life, showing a little brettiness – DW 84
1983 Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon MAGNUM
(A really difficult year… threatening skies, front moving in, very acidic tasting, vines are stressed and beginning to shrivel) PC
2007 – A slight mustiness was evident on the nose. The palate is surprising in its depth and vitality. Plenty of acid. A pretty nice wine considering the tough conditions. Mature. DW 90
2011 – Not tasted
1984 Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon MAGNUM
(The first of 3 fine vintages, early ripening under ideal conditions … ripe, full, beautiful, best vineyard flavors since 1978) PC
2007 – A light earthiness on the nose with rich, dark fruit flavors. Smooth on the palate with plenty of balance. Still showing very nicely. DW 92
2011 – Corked sample NR
1985 Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon MAGNUM
(A legendary year in California… beautiful, crisp, rich fruit with zero rot, fine green rachis, spicy and balanced) PC
2007 – Classic Laurel Glen – a nose of red and black fruits, with smooth balanced fruit on the palate. Sublimely elegant throughout. DW 94
2011 – Very pretty aromas, fleshy black fruit with beautiful balance and structure – DW 93
1986 Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon
(My favorite year of the mid-1980’s… mature, soft skins, red juice, green and healthy vines) PC
2007 – Light on the palate with delicate under filled flavors. Seems to be in decline. DW 84
2011 – Excellent nose, deep and complex, mature on palate with a beautiful texture. DW 93
1987 Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon
(I always thought the vintage was over-rated by the pundits… “nuclear winter”) PC
2007 – A sentimental favorite of mine. Earth and olive tapenade in the nose. Dryness seems to dominate the mid palate with much of the fruit gone now. DW 87
2011 – As mentioned, a favorite of mine upon release – Very closed, some underlying character of ripeness with still vibrant tannin but not expressive. DW 87
1988 Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon
(A really tough vintage, but LG was one of the best of the vintage…lowest crop level ever due to very poor and protracted flowering) PC
2007 – Big fruit in the nose and smells very young. Velvet like on the palate with plenty of guts. DW 87
2011 – Light and delicate, this wine will be an eye-opener to anyone who believed the ‘gloom and doom” of the critics upon release. Mature and balanced, this was nearly a unanimous choice on every Top three ballot. DW 90
1989 Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon
(Dodging rainfall throughout harvest. Brett in the cellar… very juicy berries, swelled by rainfall) PC
2007 – Earthy and heavy, in decline. DW 77
2011 – A little brett on the nose, but tasting fresher than 4 years ago; a pleasant wine from a difficult vintage DW 86
1990 Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon
There were no notes from the 2007 tasting. It may have been missing, removed from the flight as flawed, etc.
2011 – Dark fruit in the nose, the palate seems a little flat at first but develops more dimension with air – DW 91
1990 Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve MAGNUM
(A fabulous vintage, trouble-free and with perfect ripeness and balance… pure, delicious, balanced, sweet, very rich, fruit; v.v.v. impressive!! slightly sauvage, meaty, pepper/spice, blackstrap molasses, tannins firm and rich, plenty of acid) PC
2007 – Bold aromatics of black fruit. The palate shows excellent polished black fruits with well-developed acidity. DW 95
2011 – Probably the wine of the day – very polished nose of creamy black fruits showing excellent texture on the palate. In essence this wine hasn’t changed a bit! DW 95
1991 Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon
(A very long, cold year; fine maturity, but not up to 1990 in quality, This is the year many innovative winemakers decided to let brettanomyces run its course in the barrels in order to stabilize the wine and thus avoid a heavy filtration. This was a mistake, as many of the wines from this vintage developed, not surprisingly, brettanomyces which lingered in the resulting wine… excellent balance, maturity, slight tinge of greenness) PC
2007 – Strong acidity, very tightly round Not rated
2011 – A little tobacco and herb in the nose, this wine is more developed than previously, pleasantly delicate on the palate DW 87
1992 Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon
(One of the great vintages in California. Perfect pre-harvest weather, excellent maturity, higher than normal sugars for the time… warm, ripe, full, delicious, balanced fruit; ditto in wine, slightly dry tannins that will need time to resolve) PC
2007 – Dark fruit with plenty of youth. Nice tannins. The fruit is holding up beautifully. DW 91
2011 – Not showing a bloody thing, closed up tight as a drum. DW 80
1993 Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve MAGNUM
(A cooler year with some green tones in the fruit that have taken many years to resolve… good maturity at a lower scale, fine balance, vineyard in good shape, no rot or shrivel; brix may have exceeded maturity; excellent darkness and balance, but without the zing of a great vintage) PC
2007 – The wine is heavy and dull, very dried out. DW 75
2011 – It is like this time around the wine is completely changed; chocolate, red fruits and a hint of plum a nd drinking very young – could be mistaken for an ‘03. DW 92
1994 Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon
(Another great year, the even years of the 1990s were terrific and the odd years more problematic with the exception of 1999…balance, rich, full, dense, complex; wine follows vineyard notes; a terrific vintage) PC
2007 – Nice aromatics followed by excellent flavors, chocolate, black cherry and spice. Very nice bottle of wine. DW 95
2011 – Coffee and fleshy black fruits in the nose. Very harmonious on the palate with great acidity. Hasn’t lost a step. DW 94
1995 Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon
(A wine that has taken years to develop. Originally it was rather hard, like a St. Estephe. Another “nuclear winter” like 1987, due to forest fires…no rot or shrivel; strangely as brix rose above 22 brix, maturity seemed to slip away. Higher than normal acid levels, medium complexity. Weaker vineyards are showing green flavors) PC
2007 – Smooth aromas, the heat seems to a problem in this wine. Ends up quite dry on the palate. DW 84
2011 – This bottle seemed somewhat awkward and borderline flawed – NR
1996 Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon
(A very hot summer and end of season heat wave and subsequent heavy marine layer resulted in a very fine vintage, which has taken a decade to come around… vines in fine shape, no rotor shrivel; very high quality fruit, jammy and intense, thick, delicious, very complex, impressive) PC
2007 – Excellent structure for a 10-year-old wine. Still tastes fresh and youthful. DW 91
2011 – Bright red fruit nose, a very pretty wine with great finesse and structure. DW 92
1997 Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon
(Another year the press rated highly, but which I was never really fond of. The wines of the vintage were, I thought, ample, and fruit forward without the underling intensity to hold the up-front flavors… beautiful ripeness, but a bit cooked and over- the-top flavors. No rot, seemingly not enough time on the vine to allow full maturity; this may be a flashy wine; jammy, full, rich, but a bit simple?) PC
2007 – I think it is holding up remarkably well. Very ripe and smooth aromas, showing a vital richness on the palate with excellent structure and dusty tannins. DW 93
2011 – Still a solid core of fruit in the nose with very well integrated fruit on the palate. Tannins are a little chalky. Maybe needs another ten years! DW 93
1998 Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon
(The latest vintage to date [harvested 10/22 – 10/29] and a year to try the winemaker’s patience. a very long and cool year that took a great deal of editing to make a good Laurel Glen [producing lowest yield ever]… extremely varied maturity levels among the various blocks, some blocks green and scant aromas, others with dark red fruit an perfect maturity) PC
2007 – Bright and delicate nose. A pretty wine that seems to show a bit of elegance but fairly light. DW 89
2011 – Bright nose showing some tea-like character, but creamy and balanced on the palate. DW 90
1999 Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon
(A wonderful year with an Indian summer. The first year we really paid attention to acid levels and just let the sugars rise to the levels necessary to achieve acid balance – around 24.4 brix… extensive green harvest, very late spring, very selective pickings. 5% shrivel, lots of dried and fallen leaves. Very high quality, very rich, huge and delicious) PC
2007 – Dark fruit nose with some earth. Excellent structure to the palate. DW 91
2011 – Showing very well – balanced fruit, nice texture on the palate. One of my favorite vintages of all time. DW 91
2000 Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon
(A modest, but very pretty wine; not a cocktail wine…overall seems quite ripe for the brix level. nice balance, a year to pick at lower sugars? thick skins and small berries; some rain and coolness prior to harvest) PC
2007 – Smooth and creamy showing very nice fruit. Anise, cherry and earth, DW 91
2011 – A little mushroomy loaminess in the nose, but immediate depth is notable on the palate. A very pleasant wine. DW 90
2001 Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon
(One of the all-time great vintages. Elegance and style with a rich underbelly. Avg sugar: 24.6 brix… vines in perfect shape, extensive green thinning; dark red juice, balance, should be a great vintage) PC
2007 – Chocolate and spice box with very pretty fruit. Shows excellent structure. DW 92
2011 – Frm one of the top vintages of the early century, it is uncharacteristically backwards and closed on the nose revealing beautiful, fleshy fruit in the mouth. Does it just need more time? DW 90
2002 Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon
(Another great vintage… leaves drying out, full maturity, many passes through vineyard to remove raisins and sub- standard clusters. great potential) PC
2007 – Rich, bright aromas with a solid flavor profile of ripe balanced black fruits. DW 92
2011 – Somewhat backward right now with very young flavor characteristics. A touch of heat as well. DW 89
2003 Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon
(A good year with very little Laurel Glen made. Rigorous selection of lots in the cellar… lots of vine desiccation, very selective picking. Best lots are thick and delicious. Average harvest brix at 24.6) PC
2007 – Very tight on the nose and palate. Needs time to settle down. DW 88
2011 – It has opened up to be a gorgeous, supple wine. Beautiful throughout with an excellent core of fruit and good tannins DW 93
2004 Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon
(Outstanding year, big sugars, full ripeness, excellent balance) PC
2007 – Excellent, deep rich creamy nose, sweet and ripe on the palate. DW 92
2011 – The nose is a little stunted and dull. The palate has plenty to like with deep, rich flavor profile. DW 90
2005 Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon
(Very fine year, though cooler. Excellent balance and complexity) PC
2007 – Dark tannic nose with some green firmness. Needs time. DW 87
2011 – Rich and ripe on the nose, a very pretty wine with some firm tannin and a little herb. DW 91
2006 Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon
(could be the vintage of the century!!) PC
2007 – Way too young to evaluate. NR
2011 – Still not showing much NR
2007 Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon
2007 – Not tasted
2011 – Beautiful nose, very forward and creamy, polished with spectacular fruit, DW 94
2008 – 2010 Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon
These vintages were available, but as a group we opted not to evaluate them at such an early stage.
These wines illustrate some valuable lessons –
The most obvious one is that California Cabernet Sauvignon, properly made and cared for can easily age for 25 years plus.
1983, 1988, 1993 and 1998 which were widely considered weak, or even failed vintages by critics when released are all tasting remarkably well in 2011
Patrick Campbell’s visionary four decades at Laurel Glen, and his work in establishing the Sonoma Mountain AVA created something precious.
Bettina and her team have some great wines to emulate as they begin creating a new legacy here.
What’s next for Patrick Campbell?
Patrick isn’t ready to putaway his boots just yet. In addition to being retained as consultant to Laurel Glen, he also has projects in Mendoza, and Lodi where his use of heritage sites; farmed by a minimum of three generations will be the focus of his new company, Tierra Divina Vineyards. As always… Patrick digs the dirt.
The Napa Vintners Winter Barrel Auction (February 24-26) s one of my three or four top events I attend annually, along with Pinot Days, Hospice du Rhone and Cabernet Society. Okay, throw Rutherford Dust, Oakville Growers and Rhone Rangers in there two. Suffice to say that PNV is the first of the calendar year and gives me a change to catch up with vintners and friends I haven’t seen since harvest.
Over the last several years, the weekend launches with an unofficial “must attend” event at a winery on Silverado Trail; a catalog tasting put on by Distributor, Kimberly Jones. and is likely the most thoughtfully curated, quality focused, eclectic lineups of wines I experience. This year, the event included a new annex to accommodate her growing portfolio of producers. Where else in the span of three hours can one person taste with the principals:
Scarecrow, Auteur, Buccella, Torrin, Gallica, Meteor, Keever, Altamura, Torrin, Hudson, Favia, Ovid, Forlorn Hope, Big Basin, Bure and Arietta? On top of these wines, I discovered several other producers that I plan to get together with over the next month for more in-depth reviews on this blog. Thanks to my many industry pals for sharing their impressions and suggesting I try Checkerboard, Hayfork and Vine Hill Ranch – you know what I like.
From the Siiverado Trail, I journeyed way south to Shafer, who have added a beautiful, modern attached building to the tasting room, where I blasted through a formidable lineup of four vintages of Hillside, before once again heading north to attend a portfolio tasting of Philippe Melka wines. Highlights here were Roy, Cliff Lede and Vineyard 29.
Then came the snowflakes… They didn’t stick, but it was fun to see. The next stop was the always collegial Appellation St. Helena Tasting organized by Bob and Louise Dye with food by Knickerbocker’s Catering. Among the best wines in the room were Sabina, Salvestrin, Forman, Bresseler, Crocker & Starr and Corison.
Once again I headed South to the majestic Far Niente winery who hosted the Oakville event, with Detert, Harbison, Tierra Roja and Oakville Terraces showing very well. The Harlan and Bond tables were at a dead end and I did my best to avoid the crush of people in there. That is the one aspect of any tasting that I find hard to deal with – standing in a queue while one person essentially monopolizes the table asking questions for at least 5 minutes. The taster doesn’t know any better, but the person pouring needs to take better charge and manage the face time better. I kind of knew who the participants were but it was dark and hard to navigate all of the off shoots and bores. Better lighting and a more efficient layout are my suggestions for next year. Afterwards I attended a small dinner party at the home of David and Susan Sabin of Sabina.
Next morning was the pre tasting for the auction – and I overslept… Luckily, my house is only 15 minutes to the CIA, so I arrived in plenty of time that I didn’t miss anything. As with the Kimberly Jones Tasting the day previous, the first taste was Scarecrow, as they were directly to the right in both venues. Shortly afterwards, I ran into fellow blogger, Alder Yarrow who was taking notes on an Apple iPad. Very spiffy, I thought. I bounced around the room liking what i tasted at Terra Valentine, Charnu, Long Meadow Ranch, Martin Estate, Clark Claudon, Bialla, Tierra Roja, Keever, Vineyard 7&8, Hestan, Ovid, Corison, Blackbird, J. Davies and Spottswoode.
I didn’t stick around for the auction this year since I had a pre-arranged beer appointment with a friend I hadn’t seen in a while. Since I wasn’t bidding it was no big deal. I did snap a few pictures that captured some of my favorites of the day.
It was sometime last year when I received a call out of the blue from a friend on the Parker bulletin board who is very tapped into Bordeaux.
He started the conversation by mentioning he realized I may be the right person to take a look at a new project coming out of Napa Valley from somebody he knew who produced some of the most exciting wines in Bordeaux.
My interest piqued, I asked him to tell me more and when I learned it was named ‘World’s End”, I immediately thought of Captain Jack Sparrow (something I didn’t share with my friend). He continued to explain that the winemaker, Jonathan Maltus, was a garagiste winemaker from Bordeaux producing several different wines which had captured the attention of the wine community. Although I wasn’t familiar with the wines he mentioned, I agreed to taste the samples if they were sent to me solely based on my friend’s reputation.
Fast forward to 2011 – Last week I somehow found myself invited to sit at a table with Jonathan Maltus in St. Helena for a tasting of his new project (bottles displayed in the image) as well as his St. Emilion grand cru wines; the ‘eye-popping’ Le Dome, which casts a shadow on its neighbor, Ch. Angelus, every night, as well as Les Asteries.
The private tasting was a unique opportunity to experience his Napa project within the context of his Bordeaux. I hope you enjoy the video and tasting notes that follow. One item to note is that each of the wines carry a proprietary name which is the title of a song from the ‘70’s or ‘80’s. Rock on!
Few wines have really lit much of a fire under me over the last six months, so imagine my delight when I experienced the pleasure of tasting a pair of very well-made reds from Drew Neiman over the last couple weeks. I have known Drew for nearly as long as I have lived in the valley. I included his 1998 Neiman Cabernet Sauvignon from John Caldwell’s property in Coombsville in one of famous ‘Alphabet Dream Suites I put together at Dean & Deluca in early 2002.
Drew is one of the former Luna Vineyards crew who worked with John Kongsgaard there and went on to craft Arietta for Fritz Hatton. He still produces Bridesmaid; value-packed Cabernet Blend Red, and a Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon, with fellow vintner Pam Starr. His small production of red bordeaux-styled wines fits nicely into his space at Chateau Boswell on the Silverado Trail.
Originally from Ohio, Neiman’s career path had seemed destined for medicine before he decided to make wine instead. His quiet modesty has always been front and center. An attentive, workman-like, under-the-radar aesthetic has kept him invisible to all but a handful of collectors, sommeliers and industry insiders. Being around him for a period of time as he is pulling wine components from barrels to taste do you realize he could talk for hours about winemaking, yet do it a manner where anyone could understand; a trait that would have made him a fantastic doc.
I opened the pair of samples of the 2007 Neiman Cellars, a red bordeaux blend, and a Cabernet Sauvignon last week. A collector friend from the east coast was in San Francisco and I invited him to come by to share the experience. From our somewhat different viewpoints, we were able to agree that there was a lot to like in these wines.
Drew’s red blend, which he has produced for many years, allows him to use several different sources of excellent fruit (characteristically, the percentages, and exact makeup were not disclosed with the samples) and frankly, i could care less what is in it, as long as it is in my glass.
A: Rich, vibrant and youthful nose showing blackberry, blue plum, red cherry, licorice and vanilla
P: Smooth entry, gains more chocolate and dense black fruit character as it is open to air
I: Shows a beautiful, sophisticated texture with supple, interwoven black stone fruit and chocolate with a teasingly vibrant red cherry on the finish
This is likely one of the smallest production, commercially produced Cabernet Sauvignon I have ever encountered – less than a barrel of wine. Sourced from the David Abreu’s revered Thorevilos Vineyard.
A: Deep, intense blackberry concentrate with red cherry, brown spices and blueberry
P: A beautiful, polished mouth entry with an initially compact fruit core that soon develops more layers of dates, licorice and toasted vanilla bean.
I: Powerful and impressive, this powerful wine may be the best I have tried this year. The finish persists for over three minutes!
Here is another vlog tasting filmed in San Francisco over the Thanksgiving break and are scheduled to appear on the site just after Christmas.
Morgan Twain Peterson, is a brilliant talent who is just beginning to be discovered in the wider sense. Six months after I reveiwed his 2008 vintage here, the Wine Spectator recently devoted an entire editorial to him and his brand, Bedrock. In the same issue they bestowed some excellent scores on several of the wines including 95 points on the beautiful 2008 Bedrock Heirloom. As I mention in one of the later videos below, Morgan and Bedrock are no longer a secret. These vlog reviews are for the 2009 vintage, so once again these are very likely the first professional impressions on the wines. The wines tasted are:
2009 Bedrock Cuvee Caritas White
2009 Bedrock Zinfandel Stellwagen Vineyard
2009 Bedrock Red Blend, Bedrock Heirloom Vineyard
Wines were obtained as professional samples from Bedrock
Here is another vlog tasting filmed in San Francisco over the Thanksgiving break and are scheduled to appear on the site just after Christmas.
Morgan Twain Peterson, is a brilliant talent who is just beginning to be discovered in the wider sense. Six months after I reviewed his 2008 vintage here, the Wine Spectator recently devoted an entire editorial to him and his brand, Bedrock. In the same issue they bestowed some excellent scores on several of the wines including 95 points on the beautiful 2008 Bedrock Heirloom. As I mention in one of the later videos below, Morgan and Bedrock are no longer a secret. These vlog reviews are for the 2009 vintage, so once again these are very likely the first professional impressions on the wines. The wines tasted are:
2009 Bedrock Cuvee Caritas White
2009 Bedrock Zinfandel Stellwagen Vineyard
2009 Bedrock Red Blend, Bedrock Heirloom Vineyard
Wines were obtained as professional samples from Bedrock
This is the first of several video tastings shot over Thanksgiving in the San Francisco offices. Capture is a fairly recent introduction to the domestic wine scene but has certainly made an impression in the short term. Made by Denis and May-Britt Malbec, the wines sell out within mere weeks of release. Not a bad thing considering the general malaise we see in the wine industry with unsold wine and very heavy discounting. This is the first Chardonnay they have done, following up on the pair of Capture Sauvignon Blanc reviewed here in July.
It was about this time of the year when I first met Hal and Maureen Taylor in the wine department at Dean & Deluca. The year was 1999 and Maureen told me they were vintners and ‘this was to be their first vintage. It was all she could do to not bubble out of her shoes. Having encountered my fair share of good guys and pretenders over the years, and since, I admired her genuine enthusiasm and noted in my PalmPilot (remember those?) that I should probably taste it when it came out in 2002.
The wine was to be called Diamond Terrace, located on Diamond Mountain, the locale of some excellent Cabernet such as Dyer, Von Strasser, Diamond Creek, Reverie, and Constant. When I reviewed the premiere wine in October 2002, I gave it the equivalent of 94-95 points; a very solid debut, and the first of the wines to be made by Joe Briggs. In 2005, the Taylor’s added a second property on Howell Mountain and made a winemaker change to Thomas Rivers Brown. These changes substantially altered the perception of the wines in the broader market. With Brown’s efforts at Schrader, Outpost and Rivers Marie generating so much positive buzz, Diamond Terrace is part of that playing field. Over the years I remain keenly interested in this producer as they mature and develop. Going through some of the sample bottles received over the past month I decided to try these 2007 Diamond Terrace side by side. Wines were opened, poured in identical stems and allowed 20 minutes to breathe before evaluation.
Color: Dark ruby with saturated dark plum in the core
Aroma: Intense red berry with hints of rosemary warping into licorice, plum and pulverized black olive.
Palate: Concentrated and dense when first in the mouth with a good amount of grip on the front of the palate but not harsh angular tannins, rather like rubbing velvet against the nap. With additional airing, it fleshes out to display black cherry, blackberry, licorice and a spicy, albeit tactile feel on the finish.
Impression: To perform at its best, this wine needs a serious chunk of steer yet the hour it has been opened now show the wine is tasting very nicely on its own. Very nicely crafted, showing solid fruit core, youthful tannins nearly integrated. No mistake – this is a very good wine – decant for 30 minutes and enjoy.
It has been a little over a year since I tasted the wines of Capture, a project headed by Ben and Tara Sharp, and made by another husband and wife team, Denis and May-Britt Malbec. The previous vintage 2008 Sauvignon Blanc received a 93 point rating from me and was one of the first published reviews. In 2009 there are a pair of wines; the Tradition and Les Pionniers. The wines show subtle differences yet both retain a polished and sophisticated quality that makes them notable.
I opened both of the samples at the same time and initially tasted at refrigerator temperature. I revisited approximately 24 hours later with the wines only having the corks replaced and returned to the refrigerator. A glass poured and left overnight on a table showed no serious signs of degradation.
I’m in San Francisco this weekend attending the Pinot Days events at Fort Mason. Last night Steve and Lisa Rigisich, who launched Pinot Days six years ago invited me to a blind tasting of sixteen Pinots from 2006 – 2008 vintages. I shot a little video with the Flip and posted it on Facebook and now have uploaded it all here. There were several new producers, including Thomas George Estates, who I thought had one of the best wines of the night. NOTE: Video is best viewed by using the Firefox browser.
Today’s Grand Tasting of Pinot Noir is shaping up to a marathon of finding the producers who nailed it in a difficult growing year, 2008, which was punctuated by frost in March followed by smoke damage from the fires in August.
Here is some more video of two of my favorite producers of Pinot Noir, Rod Berglund – Joseph Swan, and Ryan Zepaltas, Zepaltas. Both of these winemakers have received excellent reviews from me and placed wines in the Top 25 list in recent years, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at the review section on their websites. Just reams of Spectator, Parker and Tanzer notes six months after the wine is released…
I hope you enjoy the following videos of Rod, who was kicked in the face by a deer in the vineyard that morning and still showed up (hopefully AFTER dressing out a carcass), and Ryan (who plays a great straight man) Who knew!
I will be updating on Facebook today from the event.
Disclosure: I am attending Pinot Days as a writer and received a trade credential for access.
It had been well over a year since Morgan Twain Peterson and I had last spent any time tasting wine together. I distinctly remember the last time as it was the day I launched this blog back in October 2008. During the first Wine Blogger Conference held in Santa Rosa Morgan was a one of the producers pouring their wines sourced from Dick Keenan’s Kick Ranch on the slope of Sonoma Mountain. We have been keeping touch on Facebook and finally decided to get together for an in-depth tasting of his 2008 vintage.
I met Morgan at his tiny winery in Carneros, tucked in the back of a small vineyard off of Arnold Drive. It is a good spot for him at this stage of his brand development. The 500 square foot shed is full of an exotic mix of barrels of different sizes and coopers is small enough for him to manage everything himself and he keeps the overhead low by making wine for the owner of the vineyard in front. As the son of Joel Peterson, the renowned winemaker/owner of the iconic Ravenswood, Morgan was born into wine. Brought up tasting the iconic fruit sources of his dad’s old vine, single vineyard zinfandels instilled a deep appreciation of the history of the site and people involved.
Now 29, Morgan, according to his website made his first wine at the age of five. The wine, known as Vino Bambino was produced from 1986 – 2001 and wound up on some hi profile wine lists – Gramercy Tavern and Aureole, for instance. Fifteen vintages under his belt before he was twenty-one – not bad! He capped that off with stints at Hardys Tintara, and Noon in McLaren Vale as well as Chateau Lynch-Bages (Paulliac).
I must admit I have had limited exposure to Morgan’s wines; an initial introduction to one of his reds in San Francisco in early 2008, and then the aforementioned Kick Ranch tasting. I knew he had more to show me and was happy to see there were close to a dozen wines we would try together.
The one thing I noticed running through all of the Bedrock wines was a strength – essentially a core that the individual wine was built upon; dense in the middle with nuanced layers. As they are all from designated sites, or proprietary blends there is a lot of variety. I was left with an impression that there is a purity of character imbued in all the wines – I found no breathtaking blockbusters, but each had structure… no, let me change that – it is more like a personality that lets you feel comfortable with the wine quickly.
2009 Bedrock Rose of Mourvedre Ode to Lulu, Sonoma Valley; DW 89+ $22.00
13.2% alcohol, 290 cases produced from 120 y.o. Mourvedre yielding 2.5 ton/acre
A: Atypical of what we normally think of when nosing a rose, there is none of the bright, strawberry character, rather find a rich, creamy red cherry and less acidity
P: Rich and densely packed, this is no festive ballerina. It comes across as a serious contender for hearty foods with a nice mineral texture.
There is no truth to the rumor I convinced Morgan to create a wine especially for my Coordinator, and fellow site blogger, Lulu Roberts, but I think she will be quite pleased to see it here.
228 cases produced, from a field blend of eighteen varietals including 40% Zinfandel, 30% Carignane and the balance mixed blacks
From Morgan’s 120 year-old Sonoma Valley vineyard. The wine was fermented using native yeast in open top redwood vats, followed by manual basket pressing into 100% French oak, 35% new (a mix of Rousseau, Cadus and Boutes) with the Zinfandel going into a single, once-used 500 liter puncheon.
A: Very pretty nose, orange citrus rinds, dark cherry and warm stone fruits
P: Essentially seamless without being a lavishly extracted wine, solid fruit, well-integrated tannin
I: This reminds me of Ravenswood’s Mantra of “No Wimpy Wines”
For his Syrah program, Peterson has chosen the venerable Hudson Vineyard to produce three wines, of which i tasted only two. This is a similar program to what Jeff Ames (Rudius) did at Alder Springs Vineyard.
Upon returning from Paso Robles, and HdR, Lulu Roberts and I attended the 20th anniversary of The California Cabernet Society Barrel Tasting in San Francisco. This event holds a special place for me. I attended the inaugural event in 1990, seemingly the same week I started in the wine business. That event was at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, and it is nice to see it back here. The event serves to showcase the barrel samples of the most recent vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Blends.
I can’t think of any other tasting that duplicates the singular mission of this one. Over seventy wineries are members and they were all pouring barrels, or should have been… There were a couple that for one reason or another had not brought a recent barrel sample. Disappointed? Yes. However there was a current release on virtually every table. To cover as much of the room as possible, Lulu and I started fro opposite ends, and I decided to taste primarily the barrel samples only.
Note: As the 2009 wines are largely unfinished and may not represent the final assemblage of what will make it to market I will not assign numerical scores, rather a range of stars ( ** – ***) to denote wines that represented the best in the room.
The general characteristics of the 2009 growing season was that it started early and was marked by rains in late September that came hard and fast. Most of the winemakers I talked to didn’t seem to define the best fruit as coming off before the rains, but being able to manage the crop afterwards that allowed them to harvest grapes that were physiologically ripe. I think overall, the vintage will be of very good quality. Unlike other years, all of the wines have finished their fermentations (at least the ones that were there), and more than a few were excellent.
2009 Arns – Sandi Belcher, winemaker
2009 Ashe – Philippe Melka, winemaker
2009 Carter – Nils Venge, consultant
2009 Cornerstone – Jeff Keene, winemaker
2009 Mario Bazan – Victoria Coleman, winemaker
2009 Martin Estate – Frederic Delivert, winemaker
2009 Robert Craig – Stephen Tebb. winemaker
2009 Rocca – Paul Colantuoni, winemaker
2009 Sherwin – Mike Hirby, consultant
2009 Sojourn Georges III – Craig Haserot
2009 Star Lane (Dierberg) – Nick De Luca, winemaker
2009 Vineyard 7 & 8 – Luc Morlet, winemaker
2009 White Cottage – Rudy Zuidema, winemaker
2009 Diamond Creek
Every tasting I go to, I consider myself very fortunate if I can come across a new producer that pours a wine that stops me in my tracks. Today that winery was Mario Bazan Cellars.
Proprietors, Mario and Gloria Bazan and winemaker, Victoria Coleman impressed me with not only their elegant 2009 barrel sample, but their excellent 2006 as well. Mario arrived in Napa Valley in 1973 from Oaxaca, Mexico and in the ’80s and ’90s worked with Mondavi and Opus One in vineyard management before creating Mario Bazan Vineyard Management in 1997. His relationship with Opus One winemaker Michael Silacci introduced him to Coleman who was his production assistant. When Mario decided he wanted his own label, he asked Victoria to make it.
The second vintage, 2006 was recognized by Robert Parker in a Hedonist’s Gazette post where he scored it 92. I look forward to doing a more formal tasting with the Bazan team soon.
Given that I had had enough of the Duck and Rose lunch, I decided to meander over to the Friday tasting a bit early. To my surprise I got there right at the start time and even a bigger surprise was that I was first in line. I had my friend Jack Edwards, of Miner Winery memorialize the event because I’m sure I had read something wrong. So that I wasn’t alone in this endeavor, I took a picture of Jack too. Peace Jack… (he was actually second in line!)
I was excited to get inside and the first table I came to was the very familiar Eric | Kent Winery represented by the brother and sister team of Kent and Renee Humphrey. I tried their 2007 Eric | Kent Syrah, Dry Stack Vineyard and it was showing nicely; rich, polished aromatics with a velvety mouthfeel.
The next table I visited was one I have been very interested in trying for quite some time. Epoch Estate, made by Consulting Winemaker, Justin Smith. I tried a trio of 2007 wines; Veracity, Authenticity, and Ingenuity. The blends are shown in the image below. Next are pictured the Epoch crew, Eric Smida (L), and Matt Hobbs (R). And yes, Matt looks a lot like his brother Paul.
Initial impressions on these wines were very high across the board. I plan on doing a followup formal tasting of them soon. Already I realized I was first in line for a reason.
Next to taste were the wines from Peter Young, the Greystack Cellars. These wines have always shown well and today was no different. The 2009 Grey Stack Sauvignon Blanc, Marie’s Block; DW 96 is one of the most stunning wines of this varietal available in California – rich and creamy nose, with zesty acidity, herbs, lemon and mineral on the palate. Just amazingly beautiful wine. I wanted another glass, but SB wasn’t why I was here! I then tried a trio of Grenache, and Grenache/Syrah blends.
Another bright spot was the wines from Torrin, made by Scott Hawley. Both wines, the 2007 Torrin Grenache, The Maven, James Berry Vineyard; DW 92 was a densely packed powerhouse with beautifully defined fruit. 2007 Torrin Syrah, Akasha, Torrin Vineyard; DW 92, showed similarly dense, but was more polished and intense on the mid-palate.
Halfway through the event i came to K Vintners, the domain of the storied and larger-than-life Charles Smith. His wines have knocked down just about every serious accolade among print journalists in the last few years, but I had not tasted anything but Kung Fu Girl. Based in Walla Walla, Smith produces nearly a dozen wines and had brought several that were quite interesting.
2008 K Vintners Syrah, Milbrandt, Wahluke Slope; DW 93
2007 K Vintners Syrah, Phil Lane, Walla Walla Valley; DW 93
2006 K Vintners Syrah, Cougar Hills; DW 92
All of the wines showed excellent weight, and texture; a testament to what he coaxes out of each of the vineyard sites he uses.
His one man seminar on Saturday; Washington State, The Perfect Haven for The Ultimate Terroirist”promised to be a showcase for his many offerings, concentrating on 2006.
It is hard to believe that a week ago at this time I was pulling into the driveway of the house in Paso Robles that would serve as the base of operations for my expedition to Hospice du Rhone, known in the trade as HdR. For the last eighteen years, Paso Robles has become synonymous with this event, celebrating the twenty-two Rhone varietals from wherever they grow in the world. France, Spain, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, South Africa and the US were all represented by over 160 wineries. Split between a Friday and a Saturday that includes a pair of morning seminars and a full blown walk around tasting each day, there is a sense that you can pace yourself, but plans quickly unravel when you consider the amount of wines offered during lunch (more on those later).
I want to extend my thanks to Faith Wells, Communications Director of Hospice du Rhone for arranging my media credentials to access all venues, including the exceptional seminars. Ah yes, the seminars… Overall I feel this was an exceptional year of diversity, depth, rarity and in-your-face entertainment.
The first seminar on Friday, entitled We’ve Come a Long Way Baby!, the Past, Present and Future of South African Syrah, moderated by James Molesworth, of Wine Spectator was a treat for me for as little as I know about the wines outside my sphere, i know virtually nothing about South African wines, which is the polar opposite of Joanna Breslin of Bridge2Worlds Wine Agency, likely one of the most knowledgeable specialists in the arena of South African wines in North America. She was the only one of 300 people who raised her hand when Molesworth asked who had tasted all of the wines. I couldn’t even pronounce Boekenhoutskloof, the producer of a pair of Syrah in the eight wine flight.
We began with a 1986 Reserve Shiraz, from Fairview, located in Paarl. This was an important marker as Molesworth, and Fairview winemaker, Eben Sadie, pointed out, this wine was produced during Apartheid which effectively isolated the country from any trade with the rest of the world. Root stock, pesticides, barrels, and other wine making equipment had to be developed from what they had internally, or the winemaker did without. During this period, which ended in 1994, the wines from this part of the world were largely ignored as being of worthless quality while being inextricably linked to a government ostracized and condemned by virtually every other country on the planet for how they ran their country. When Apartheid ended, that vintage served as the marker for the renaissance of the South African wine industry, illustrated by 1994 Stellenzicht Syrah, represented by Chris Mullineux. The first wine had aromas of savory sweetness and a dry sherry-ish entry giving way to more cherry and a rich midpalate. Even with the age this example still maintained some interesting character at 24 years. The Stellenzicht, at sixteen, was holding up well, showing solid, fresh floral aromas with polished cherry and fleshy, polished dark fruits; plum and berries. The standout wine for me however was 2005 Sadie Family Columella 2 Syrah/Mourvedre; DW 93. Made by Eben Sadie, it spends seven weeks on the skins for maximum extraction and relies on 85% used oak for aging. The wine was forward and showed a pretty nose full of plum and blackberry, with excellent weight on the palate, full of silky black fruit and licorice.
The second seminar, Cote Rotie – The Next Generation, moderated by John Alban featured the wines of Domaine Michel and Stephane Ogier represented by Stephane. One of the most obvious aspects of the wines presented to the attendees was the pair of empty glasses, representing the pair of wines still roaming the countryside in a delivery truck, much to the disappointment of all. Apparently these were victims of the ash cloud and what little he had with him would be poured at the table during the tasting later in the day. My favorite wine of the seminar was 2007 Domaine Michel and Stephane Ogier Belle Helene Syrah, Cote Rotie; DW 93 showing an intense nose of pepper and spice box. On the palate, I experienced what Stepane referred to as ‘noble vegetables’, a euphemism for the positive contribution of stem inclusion in the final product, described as adding more ‘freshness’. I agree that the wine was very good, but ‘noble vegetables’ is not likely to catch on in the US as a term to sell wine.
Onto the Rose lunch hosted by Syndicat Tavel and prepared by Chef John Toulzeof The Girl and the Fig. The duck was out of this world and paired beautifully with the plentitude of Tavel offered (left).
Among my tablemates were uber-importer, David Shiverick of Los Angeles and Saxum owner, Justin Smith who was doing his best incognito, behind fancy shades and beard and new friends from New York, Brad and Jim, who were sharing the house I rented. Out of the blue David produced a bottle of 2004 Chave Hermitage which got the attention of everyone at the table.
Anyone offered a taste was honored, David said that even the French contingent of Gangloff, Cuileron and Villard stopped talking in anticipation of the wine when he brought it by. Shockingly, there was one person (who should have known better) when offered a taste of this rarity suggested that he would “come back after he had tasted the Rose”. We were all shocked by the attitude and maintained a mere soupcon for him out of ‘political correctness’. I believe it was ‘spilled’ later.
The weather under the tent was perfect and I went at several of the delightfully fresh and substantial Tavel with interest and gusto.
After lunch, I made it a point to get to the main tasting of the day early. In reality, this is the reason I come to HdR. As interesting as the seminars are in the ‘Education of Doug”, I get the most out of tasting the new producers that may result in a substantial find of a wine that my readers need to know about.
I will get to the highlights of Friday’s Rhone Rendezvous soon.