Pio Cesare Barbera d’Alba 2018

Pio Cesare [pee-oh chez-are-eh] was founded in 1881 in Alba, in the Piedmont region of northwest Italy by Cesare Pio. Alba is known for its white truffles; the Gothic Alba Cathedral with a bell tower that overlooks the city; and the Church of San Giovanni Battista, which contains artworks from the 14th century onward.

Pio Cesare is one of the oldest wineries in the region and one of the first to export their products. Pio, a successful entrepreneur, was inspired to produce a small and select quantity of wines from the hills of Barolo and Barbaresco for himself, his family, friends, and customers. He was dedicated to the terroir of the Piedmont region and to producing wines of the highest quality. The operation is still owned and run by the fifth-generation of the original family, now led by Federica Boffa and her cousin Cesare Benevenuto. “When Pio Cesare began in 1881 there were four or five producers of local wines,” explained Benevenuto. “Now there are over 600 producers in Barolo and Barbaresco, but Pio Cesare is the only one in the city center of Alba.”

Pio Cesare produces five single-vineyard wines, which are only produced in select vintages. There are also more generic offerings of Barolo and Barbaresco, as well as Langhe Nebbiolo wines, Dolcetto d’Alba, Barbera d’Alba, Grignolino, and Freisa. The range of white wines includes a Gavi and one of the best-regarded Arneis wines in Piedmont, and is led by the single-vineyard barrel-fermented Chardonnay Piodilei.

Cesare Pio’s entrepreneurial spirit drive him to travel throughout Europe in the early 20th century to publicize and promote his wines. His passport, which is proudly displayed at the winery in Alba, bears the number 55.

Cesare Pio’s well-used passport.

His son, Giuseppe Pio, was lucky enough to inherit a thriving winery at the turn of the 20th century. He carried on his father’s mission and invested in expansion of the cellars and the business, making Pio Cesare a benchmark brand for the wines of the region.

In 1940, Giuseppe Pio’s only child, Rosy, married Giuseppe Boffa, a young  engineer from Alba, who managed a large company in Milan at the time. When Italy entered the travails of the Second World War, Boffa decided to leave his job in Milan and dedicate himself to the Pio Cesare winery. After the war, the Pio Cesare brand rose in fame and prominence both domestically and internationally, becoming one of the most respected names among Italian wine producers, with a special focus on its renowned Barolo.

Rosy and Giuseppe Boffa named their youngest son Pio, in honor of his great-grandfather. The late Pio Boffa was joined by his cousin Augusto in the early 1990s. Boffa’s sister’s son, Cesare Benvenuto, has been active since 2000 as the fifth generation, and Pio Boffa’s daughter, Federica, is now part of the enterprise as well.

The Vineyards

“In the 1970s my grandfather and father started buying vineyards,” said Federica. “It was a big change.” She said that the strategy they employed was to buy vineyards from which they were already sourcing grapes, which kept a continuity in the wines. They now own a substantial 185 acres [75 hectares] in Barolo and Barbaresco, including holdings in the famous Ornato vineyard in Barolo and Il Bricco in Barbaresco. Fruit for Pio Cesare wines is also sourced from managed vineyards under long-term contracts with local growers.

Italy’s Alba Region.

One of Pio Cesare’s typical vineyard sites.

The location of the vineyards was not chosen randomly, but was determined by a strong belief in blending the different characteristics of each vineyard and region in order to produce wines that represent the styles of each appellation’s terroir as a whole, instead of individual sites. This was the method of producing Barolo, Barbaresco, and the other classic wines at the end of the 19th century, and it still remains the winery’s guiding philosophy today. Production is about 33,000 cases a year from these two regions.

The Barolo region holdings are comprised of 78.5 acres [31.8 hectares].
51 acres [20.7 hectares] are planted with Nebbiolo for Barolo.

The Barbaresco region holdings are comprised of 66.5 acres [27 hectares].
34.75 acres [14 hectares] are planted with Nebbiolo for Barbaresco.

Other vineyards include a total of 25.5 acres [10.25 hectares] in Diano d’Alba, Trezzo Tinella, Roddino, and Sinio.

The farming practices of the winery have become much more modern and sustainable under the current stewardship. “We have moved away from chemicals in the vineyard,” shared Federica. “We consider ourselves almost organic, but my father didn’t want any certification; he didn’t believe in certification as marketing.”

Yields in the vineyards have been restrained to improve quality instead of quantity. No seasonal workers are used in the vineyards, so the same people are immersed throughout the entire growing cycle, from the pruning to the harvest, and interventions are kept to a minimum.

The Cellars

In the cellar, the approach isn’t easily pigeonholed. It’s a sort of fusion between traditional approaches and more modern winemaking. There’s a strong reliance on large-format neutral oak barrels (botti), but most of the top wines also have a portion that goes through small oak barrels for part of their elevage.

The winery at ground level.

The cellars were built at the end of the 1700s, but the main foundation walls are much older,  dating back to the Roman period, about 50 BCE. There are  four different levels, one of which is even lower than the nearby Tanaro River. They feature naturally-occurring constant temperatures and appropriate humidity. Significant renovations have been made over the years to rebuild and restructure the cellars, including a new fermentation cellar with a gravity racking area and a new barrel-ageing room 36 feet underneath the existing facility.

Part of the ancient cellars.

A more modern part of the facility.

Pio Cesare Barbera d’Alba 2018

This reliable Italian is DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) under the Italian rules of appellation classification.  DOC is the main tier, the third highest of four, and covers almost every traditional Italian wine style. There are around 330 individual DOC titles, each with a set of laws governing its viticultural zone, permitted grape varieties, and wine style.

100% Barbera, this selection was sourced from vineyards in the Barolo region in Serralunga d’Alba (Colombaro) and in Monforte d’Alba (Mosconi); in the Barbaresco region in Treiso (Bongiovanni); and also in the Langhe region in Sinio (Val di Croce, Bricco dello Stornello) and in Diano d’Alba (Carzello).

The wine was fermented in stainless steel tanks, followed by a long maceration on the skins for 20 to 25 days.  It was primarily aged in big French oak “botti” for 12 months, but a small amount was aged in barriques as well.

It presents with a transparent purple.  Next come medium aromas of blueberry and blackberry, which repeat nicely on the palate.  It’s supported by tart-cherry acidity and black-tea tannins, and wraps up in a long finish.  ABV is 14.5%.

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Orin Swift Cellars Palermo 2018

Click here for tasting notes.

I have been aware of Orin Swift wines for some time, especially The Prisoner, but had never had the chance to try any of them, so I was intrigued when a friend brought over this selection.  He is adamant that “all wines from California are inferior to any wine from Europe, especially Spain!” so I looked forward to his evaluation of this one, as well as my own.

Orin Swift Cellars is a relative newcomer on the California wine scene, having been established in 1998, but not by “Orin Swift,” as I had long assumed. Rather, it was by the now iconic, and iconoclastic, winemaker David Phinney. Orin is Phinney’s father’s middle name and Swift is his mother’s maiden name.

Phinney, a native Californian, was born in Gilroy, the son of a botanist and a college professor. However, within a week he was in Los Angeles, where he spent his childhood, and finally an adolescence in Squaw Valley. He enrolled in the Political Science program at the University of Arizona, with an eye towards a law degree, but before long became disillusioned with both. At this juncture, a friend invited him on a trip to Italy, and while in Florence he was introduced to the joys of wine, and soon became obsessed.

Back in the States, he began his career by working the night-shift harvest at Robert Mondavi in 1997. Encouraged by Mondavi, remarkably he started his own Napa Valley brand the very next year with the purchase two tons of some Zinfandel, though he wasn’t sure what he was going to do with it. Predictably, there were some false starts. Orin Swift’s first vintage was okay but not noteworthy, with Phinney confessing that he made an error in sourcing average fruit from the ‘wrong part’ of a great vineyard. Eventually he figured it out though, creating a rich, seductive, runaway best-selling wine called, surprise!, The Prisoner (an unusual blend of Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petite Sirah, and Charbono).

Since making his first wine in 1998, Phinney has bee guided by two  criteria; “find the best fruit from the best vineyards and don’t screw it up” and if you do screw it up “experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want.”

David Phinney.  Photo: Margaret Pattillo.

In a controversial move in 2016, E&J Gallo (yes, that Gallo) acquired Orin Swift for nearly 300 million dollars, but Phinney shrewdly negotiated to remain in charge of production and winemaking for them.. “I have access to their amazing vineyards; after the harvest in 2016 – the first year – I threw a barbeque for all the rest of the [Gallo] winemakers, some of who I knew, some I didn’t, to apologize for stealing their grapes because I knew we were getting access to stuff we probably shouldn’t have!”

While some observers saw it as a canny and natural business move, there were also whispers of criticism about Phinney ‘selling out.’ He is sensitive to the complaint, but stands by his decision. “It was a very natural, organic coming together, I’ve known and worked with the Gallos since 2005 and it was just kind of a conversation that was spurned because our growth curve was like a hockey stick, and that’s when you become attractive to bigger wineries,” he says.

Such financial independence has allowed Phinney to also produce wines from vineyards he owns in California and four European countries (France, Italy, Spain, Greece).

Many of the wines Phinney makes are blends. This is by design and not circumstance, so having access to a huge number of vineyards and parcels in sought-after areas of Napa Valley and beyond makes his job more interesting, and his quest for producing great wines arguably easier, as he is always striving for balance in his products. “For me the easiest way to achieve complexity is through geographic diversification, and that can be county-wise, valley-wise, country-wise,” he says. “I was told many years ago, and I believe it, that if you put a lot of good red wine together you often make a great red wine, so having that – and I hate this phrase – ‘spice rack’ of different things to play with can really work. You still have to be a custodian of each wine so that when you add them together the finished wine is better than the sum of its parts, that’s where I think blending really works.” And although he admits it’s a cliché, he believes that 90% of a wine is made in the field, so vineyard selection is the key to success.

Phinney also creates all the of the wine labels, and he is always looking for inspiration, much of which comes from his extensive travels around the world. “They all start and end with me, whether I like it or not. I grew up in LA in the 1980s very much in the punk/skateboarding/surfing scene, so there’s definitely a street art aspect to it. The flipside of that is that my parents were both professors, so we basically travelled the world and wherever we went we always had to go to a fine art museum. so there’s always been this relationship with art either by proxy or by design.”

Orin Swift Palermo Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2018

Instead of a blend, for which Phinney is better known, Palermo is the entry-level Orin Swift Cab (still about 50 bucks, though).  It was aged for 12 months in French and  American Oak, of which 33% was new.

It is a rich, inky purple, with plenty of dark stone fruit and raspberry on the nose.  This is accentuated by cassis, blackberry, and vanilla on the palate.   The presentation is in excellent balance, a Phinney hallmark.  The ABV is a robust 15.5%.

Even my European-leaning friend grudgingly enjoyed it.  Perhaps predictably, since Phinney confesses that although his prestige wines come from California, his heart is in Spain.  As for me, I really liked it.

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Pizza Margherita

I have nine pizza cookbooks, and seven of them have  a recipe for Pizza Margherita.  In part this is because it is a classic, and in part because the story of its creation is clearly known and iconic.  In 1889, the Italian royal couple King Umberto and Queen Margherita paid a visit to Naples.  While there, local pizzaiolo Raffaele Esposito made three types of pizza for them: a marinara pizza with anchovies; a bianca (white) pizza with lard, provolone or caciocavallo cheese, and basil; and a pizza with tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil, featuring the red, white, and green of the Italian flag.  The queen was particularly delighted by that last one, and when Esposito received a note of thanks from her, he dedicated the pizza to her.

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Schug Carneros Estate Rosé of Pinot Noir 2019

Walter Schug was born in 1935, and grew up in Assmannshausen, Germany, on the only Pinot Noir estate in the Rheingau region,  which was originally planted in the 12th century. Although Schug’s father was its manager, Walter never formally worked there. He did work for six years in viticulture and winemaking in Germany and England, and earned a diploma from the Geisenheim institute, Germany’s premier college for the wine industry, in 1954. He was then invited to serve an internship in Delano, Calif., south of Fresno. After five years of that, He returned to Germany in 1961 to marry his sweetheart, Gertrud, who also came from a winemaking family, and a month later they and their Volkswagen Beetle, with skis attached, were on a boat to New York. From there, they drove to California, where Walter had been offered full-time work by winemakers who had visited him and his father in Germany. After toiling for five years for a bulk wine processor in the Central Valley, he was hired by E. & J. Gallo,  Based in St. Helena with his wife and three children, Schug was responsible for managing Gallo’s numerous North Coast grapegrowers. Although the late Julio Gallo is widely credited with discovering great North Coast grapes for Gallo’s wines, Schug was the grower-relations representative, wheeling and dealing, and always looking for new fruit sources.

In the six years Schug worked with Gallo, “He learned all the good spots to plant grapes, and the not so good,” said his son, Axel, now Schug Carneros Estate’s managing partner. Colorado construction executive, entrepreneur, and aspiring vintner Joe Phelps (who died in 2015 at 87) wanted that knowledge when he hired Dad in 1972. Dad would check out the land or vines, tell Joe he wanted it, and Mr. Phelps would write the check. They trusted each other.” Schug selected the site for Joseph Phelps Vineyards and helped plant their first vineyard in St. Helena.

The first wine Schug made for Phelps was a Riesling. Phelps soon allowed Schug to add Pinot Noir, but the U.S. market wasn’t yet ready for it, and Joseph Phelps Vineyards abandoned the varietal after the 1979 vintage. “Joe couldn’t sell the Pinot, so I said, ‘Let me see what I can do,’” Schug recalled. “He said yes and didn’t charge me a cent. So in 1980, I began purchasing the same Pinot Noir grapes that had gone into the Phelps wines.”

As the Phelps winemaker, Schug also bottled the first varietally-labeled Syrah in California, and Napa Valley’s first Late Harvest dessert wines (Gewürztraminer, Riesling. and Schuerbe) that were incredibly popular in his native Germany. In 1974, he produced California’s first proprietary Bordeaux-style blend, Insignia. He also made the legendary vineyard-designated Cabernet Sauvignons from Phelps’ Backus Vineyard and Eisele Vineyard years before such types of wines were common.

Schug worked at Phelps through the 1983 harvest, moonlighting as the winemaker of his own brand, which launched in 1980. “I never planned to leave Phelps, but the winery needed the cellar space I was using for my own wines,” he explained. After a couple of false starts, he moved production to the Sonoma side of Carneros where he bought land, planted grapes, and built his own facility in 1989. “You get a certain feeling in your body of what Pinot Noir needs, where it wants to grow, where it needs more fog,” he said. “I felt that in Carneros.”

The Schugs’ mutual love of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir led to this decision from which they never looked back. The pair of Burgundian varietals have remained at the forefront of Schug’s wine portfolio. They come from 42 acres of estate grapes as well as purchased fruit, and the winery also works with Sonoma-grown Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, a full-bodied yet dry sparkling Rouge de Noirs, and a late-harvest Riesling from Lake County grapes. However, it’s Pinot Noir that commanded Schug’s keenest attention and accounts for 60 percent of the winery’s annual production, which has grown from 2,000 to 30,000 cases a year, according to the company’s website.

At Phelps and later at Schug, German-made equipment was Schug’s choice, a guarantee, he said, that things would work as expected. “All this equipment, it comes from Germany,” Schug once explained. The presses, the pumps, the fermentation tanks, the 669-gallon wood oval casks for the aging of wine — all were manufactured in Germany and shipped to Schug when he began building the winery and planting grapes. “The equipment used in California back then was shit,” he once recalled.

David Graves, who worked for Schug at Phelps in 1979 before co-founding Saintsbury winery in Carneros, watched the man work for years. “There [was] a very sweet side to Walter, an analytical side, a serious side, and a knee-slapping sense of humor. He [was] very proud of his children and grandchildren,” Graves said. “He was well-trained at Geisenheim, and that European perspective informed his entire American winemaking career.” Graves also shared, “Walter pioneered the popular Meritage, and was among the first to recognize the Carneros region. He also was known for his late-harvest wines in addition to Pinot Noir.”

Walter Schug late in life.

After a long and storied career in the California wine industry, Walter Schug died in 2015 from complications of a stroke at the age of 80.

Son Axel as Managing Partner now runs the business side of Schug Carneros Estate; his sister Claudia is also a Partner. “[My father] was a Pinot Noir niche person long before the movie ‘Sideways’ came along and everybody was demanding it,” Claudia said. “He didn’t jump on a bandwagon. He was pushing it from the very start.”

Today. the winemaker is Johannes Scheid. Raised on a small family winery in the Mosel Valley of Germany, Scheid developed a passion for the European style of winemaking from working in the family business as well as summer trips with his parents and sister through the continent’s wine regions. Like Walter Schug, he studied Viticulture and Winemaking at Geisenheim University. In fact, Johannes first met Walter after an annual presentation at Geisenheim, and, after inquiring about the possibility of a harvest internship, was hired for a 2009 position at Schug, and again two years later.

In the summer of 2012 he returned to Germany where he worked in some of Germany’s top wineries, and he traveled around Europe’s wine regions as well. Then he ventured to the Nelson region of New Zealand for harvest jobs. and traveled to Australia and Thailand before returning to California in late 2013.

Scheid accepted a position as Production Manager with Benziger in 2015. In 2016 he became Schug’s Assistant Winemaker, returning to the winery where his California winemaking career began and where he felt most connected. Now, as Winemaker, Scheid is dedicated to preserving Walter Schug’s legacy of terroir-driven and European-style Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Schug Carneros Estate Rosé of Pinot Noir 2019

First off, this wine is sealed with a relatively low-quality plastic cork.  While I am not a priori opposed to synthetic or reconstituted corks, I do like them to be better than this one.

This Rosé of Pinot Noir is crafted in the German style of a Weissherbst or white harvest, a delicate rosé wine made from red grapes. It was hand harvested at night, and then pressed cold with minimal skin contact,  It is a nice, pale pink, and has a light aroma of rose petals on the nose.  The palate reveals flavors of strawberry, lemon, and grapefruit, backed up by vibrant acidity.   The ABV is 13%

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