Reddy Vineyards Field Blend 2017

A fifth-generation farmer, Vijay Reddy came to the U.S. in 1971 to pursue a graduate degree in soil and plant science, and obtained a doctorate in 1975 from Colorado State University. Along with his wife Subada, Dr. Reddy established and ran a soil consulting laboratory for 20 years while also farming cotton, peanuts, and various other produce in the high plains of west Texas near Lubbock (Reddy is a fifth-generation farmer).

In 1997, Reddy’s friends Neil Newsom and Bobby Cox talked him into planting five acres of grapes. Since his property was composed of sandy loam soils mixed with limestone deposits at an elevation of 3,305 feet, it seemed like a worthwhile experiment. Indeed, the grapes thrived.  In short order, Reddy abandoned all but grape farming, and now has 400 acres under vine; the operation sells 38 varietals to a number of Texas wineries.

Reddy Vineyards has been recognized as a leading source of premium grapes by wine producers now for more than 20 years and is considered a pioneer in the Texas Wine industry due to their willingness to experiment with different grapes.

The Reddys

After two decades of supplying grapes, in 2019 the Reddy’s son Akhil launched an estate label with eight wines. The 2020 Reddy Vineyards releases were the first big project for Executive Winemaker Lood Kotze, who hails from South Africa and had worked extensively in Paso Robles, Napa, and Sonoma before being lured to Texas.  “My family has a deep-rooted passion for wine, winegrowing, and the Texas high plains,” said Akhil. “I’m honored to work alongside my parents to bring their lifelong pursuit of estate grown, sustainably farmed, 100% Texan wines to life.”

The estate vineyard on the austere Texas high plains.
This land is considered some of the flattest on earth, as is quite evident here.

Reddy Vineyards have already secured a number of awards. The largest wine competition of North American wine in the world, The San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, awarded Reddy Vineyards’ 2017 TNT Red Blend Double Gold, and the same wine was selected as the Reserve Class Texas Tempranillo Champion at the 2020 Houston Rodeo Uncorked! International Wine Competition.

Reddy Vineyards experiments with grape diversity in their unique ‘The Circle’ vineyard. Seeking to observe how 360° of full sun exposure influences a variety of grapes, Vijay Reddy planted eight varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Petit Syrah, Tannat, Sangiovese, Barbera, and Cinsault) in a 2.1-acre circle. “We take a very minimalist approach to managing this block, letting Mother Nature put her stamp on this area of the vineyard,” explains sommelier Eric Sigmund, Chief Operating Officer of Reddy Vineyards.

The Circle vineyard.

The minimalist approach applies to their winemaking as well. Grapes are harvested and fermented together, and there is a minimal use of new oak.
The Reddys have firmly embraced their status as neo-Texans, from the grapes to the label on each bottle, which features the symbol of Texas, a Lone Star. The star is also a copper arrow, pointing west to honor West Texas where the family’s vineyard is located. The label itself is the shape of the barn that houses Reddy’s state-of-the-art winery. (A tasting room is next on the development agenda.) The colors of the labels represent the rustic terroir of the Texas High Plains AVA. Because the Reddy family is so passionate about their Texas-grown grapes, the vineyard block number is included on each bottle as evidence that each wine is estate grown and produced.

Reddy Vineyards Field Blend 2017

This wine is entirely sourced from the unique Circle vineyard.  COO Sigmund explained that because of the way the vineyard is farmed, accurate grape composition in the wine is impossible to determine. As a field blend, the grapes are all picked and crushed together.  This method has traditionally been practiced in Europe, was once popular in California as well, but is rarely used today.  Because of the ambiguity of field blends, Reddy opts to “embrace vintage variation” with what has become their flagship wine.

The wine was fermented in stainless steel, followed by 18 months of aging in 30% new French oak.  It is a bright garnet in color, rather less opaque than I expected it to be.  The nose offers up leather, a hint of tobacco, and fruit such as blackberry and cherry, followed on the medium-bodied palate with tastes of tart cherry and strawberry, zippy acidity, and restrained soft tannins.  Excellent when paired with tomato-based pizza, for instance.  Awarded a Gold Medal at the 2020 Texas International Wine Competition.  650 cases were made, and the ABV is 14.7%.

Top of page:

Niepoort Dry White Porto

True Ports (now often referred to as Portos) hail from the Douro valley in northern Portugal, and have done so for over three hundred years. The region’s predominant soil is schist, composed of various medium-grained to coarse-grained metamorphic rocks with laminated, often flaky parallel layers of micaceous minerals.  The low annual rainfall makes this probably one of the driest regions of the world where grapes are grown without irrigation. This terroir results in very low-yielding vineyards, with vines bearing only a very few small bunches of full-flavored grapes whose thick skins protect them from dehydration.

Port is a fortified wine. Fortification is the addition of brandy (usually) or a neutral spirit to wine in order to boost the alcohol content. Fortified wines are often sweet, because the alcohol kills the yeast before fermentation completely runs its course, leaving residual sugar. This accounts for Port’s characteristic rich, luscious style and also contributes to the wine’s considerable ageing potential. Fortification also stabilizes the wine, a definite benefit for a product destined for the long sea voyage from Portugal to England, the first large market for it.

There are four basic categories of Port: vintage, tawny, ruby, and white.  Vintage Ports are the rarest (just one to three percent of all Port production), the best quality, and the most expensive, of course.  They are made from grapes of a single vintage and bottled within two years of harvest.  In order to maintain the highest quality standards, vintage Ports are only made in the best years, which are “declared.” These wines can age extremely well; there is an old English tradition where a vintage Port is purchased on a child’s birth year, and consumed to celebrate when he or she turns 21.  (Late Bottled Vintage Port is bottled at either four or six years old; although they have been aged longer, these Ports are often of second-tier quality when compared to a producer’s Vintage offerings.) Tawny Ports are a blend of fruit from many different years, and can be wood-aged for as many as 40 years.  A high-quality tawny Port will always list the barrel age on the label.  The characteristic amber color is the result of this wood aging.  Ruby Ports are made from wines not deemed worthy of vintage classification, and are aged in wood for about two years.  These youthful, fruity Ports are often the least expensive.  White Ports are made like other Ports, just using white grapes.  Although they have been made for as long as red Ports, they are much less familiar to Port drinkers.  Indeed, I’ve been consuming Port for decades, but this is the first white I have tried.  (These white wines run the gamut from sweet to dry, and are usually consumed as an aperitif.

The Douro

Niepoort was established in 1842, and has been owned by five generations of the same family ever since. Eduard Dirk Niepoort and his sister Verena have helmed the business since 2005. Dirk, born in 1964, discovered the world of wine during studies in Switzerland as a young man. In 1987 he joined his father Rolf, who challenged him to innovate while being mindful of maintaining good traditions. The most important step was the acquisition of their first owned vineyards: Quinta [Estate] de Nápoles and Quinta do Carril in Cima Corgo.  This region is centered on the town of Pinhão on the upper Douro. The grapes grown here are primarily used in bottlings of Vintage and Late Bottled Vintage Ports. 37 acres [15 hectares] of vineyards were newly planted, and 25 acres [10 hectares] of 60-year old vines were carefully maintained. The house does continue to buy fruit from producers they have had relationships with for decades.

Map of the Douro river valley.

Eduard Rudolf [Rolf] van der Niepoort was born in 1927.  In 1950 he joined his father Eduard in the family business, helping to steer it through a difficult financial period, and was conservative when it came to the wine making. Rolf presided over the making of their 1970 Vintage Port, considered to be one of the greatest Ports from Niepoort.

Eduard Marius Niepoort, born in 1890 in Porto, was a natural scientist. He joined Niepoort in 1912 due to the unexpected death of his father. Rolf, his son, remembers Eduard as, “Interested in different subjects like chemistry, physics, or mechanics, and a man of fine humour.”

Eduard Karel Jackob Niepoort was born in 1848, also in Porto. The Port house was already a prospering business when Eduard Karel took over the family business, and he continued to honor the work of his father.

The founder, Franciscus Marius van der Niepoort, was born in 1813 in Hilversum in Holland. He came to Portugal to be part of the Port business, starting as a Port seller, formally establishing Niepoort in 1842, with no land or vineyards. He was primarily a negociant of Port wines.

A relatively recent photo of the extensive Niepoort family.

The position of Master Blender has also passed from generation to generation at Niepoort. José Nogueira [r] was the fourth of his family to pursue this art at Niepoort, and worked at the company for over 50 years. His son José Rodrigo joined the team in September 2006, and is currently the fifth generation of the Nogueira family.

In addition to their red and white Ports, Niepoort produces an extensive range of red and and white still wines as well.

Niepoort Dry White Porto

The same native white grapes used to make Douro’s dry white wines are also used to create white Port. However, the style accounts for only about 10% of all Port production. These grapes grow on high ground above the Douro River valley, where the summer temperatures are cooler.

The grapes used in this white Port are:
Gouveio: provides lively acidity and a smooth feel
Viosinho: A low-yield variety that adds structure and intense aromas
Códega do Larinho: An old Portuguese grape with low acidity and tendency toward high alcohol
Rabigato: Adds refreshing acidity to the blend

Niepoort Dry White is made in a traditional style, with the juice from white grapes seeing long contact with the fruit’s skin and seeds.   Because of this, the wine qualifies as an “orange wine,” and this expression is quite orange indeed.  The final blend includes different wines aged in oak casks with an average age of 3-1/2 years.

Fermentation is carried out in lagares, or troughs, occasionally with foot treading, to near dryness, before pure grape brandy is added to stop the fermentation, an essential part of any Port production. Ageing occurs in small old oak casks at Vila Nova de Gaia, Niepoort’s original cellars.

Although labeled as a “dry” wine, there is still plenty of residual sugar at 51 grams/liter, compared to a range of 88 to 104 grams/liter in Neipoort’s vintage Ports, or even 1 or 2 grams/liter in a bone dry wine.  This clear orange nectar presents classic Port aromas of sweetness and nuts (especially almonds).  This continues on the nicely textured palate, but the sweetness is never cloying, in part because of the good supporting acidity.  The body is lighter than a red Port’s would be, and there is a hint of citrus and apple.  Perfect as an aperitif, which is how most white Ports are served, either straight and slightly chilled, or on ice with a very thin slice of lemon and perhaps a splash of tonic.  The ABV is 19.5%.

Top of page:

Sosie Rosé of Syrah Vivio Vineyard Bennett Valley Sonoma 2021

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and it’s a maxim Sosie Wines lives by. “Sosie” [so-zee] is French for twin or doppelganger, and as it says right on the bottle, “We are inspired by the wines of France. So we employ an Old World approach to wine growing that favors restraint over ripeness, finesse over flamboyance. Our aim is to craft wines that show a kinship with France’s benchmark regions. Wines that are their sosie.”

Sosie Wines also pays homage to the French tradition of location, or terroir, believing that the vineyard site is perhaps the most important component of a bottle of wine.

Sosie Wines co-owner Regina Bustamante was introduced to wine at an early age, one of the first being Chateauneuf du Pape. “I remember the shape of those bottles and the crossed-keys of the papal crest. It was a symbol you could trust, my mom used to say. I never forgot that, and as a young adult one of the first places I had to visit in France was Chateauneuf. To this day I still love those wines.”

On a quest to cement that fascination, in 2006 she and partner  Scott MacFiggen took a trip to the Loire in western France, and then in 2008 they spent 10 days traveling the Côte de Nuits, walking the vineyards and tasting the wines. In 2016 they visited both northern and southern Rhone, working their way down from Côte-Rôtie to St. Joseph.

After their travels, Regina and Scott founded their winery on the belief that their wines should stand for something. That they would not just have a style, but a purpose. They wanted their products to be food-friendly, with lower alcohol levels, higher acidity, and made in small batches with minimal intervention and just a bit of oak.

The couple are hands-on vintners. They prowl the vineyards throughout the growing season and are at the sorting table when the fruit comes in. They taste the berries, check the sugars and acids, and call the pick. They supervise every aspect of their barrels – the cooper, the forest, and the toast level. But they can’t do it all, of course. They get plenty of help from winemaker and winery consultant Philippe Melka and his team at Atelier Melka.  Melka has over 30 years of winemaking experience with chateaux and wineries, mostly located in Bordeaux, France and Napa Valley.  This wine is his first effort for Sosie.


At 700 to 800 feet above sea level, this is one of the highest vineyards in Sonoma’s Bennett Valley. Sosie grows Syrah as well as Roussanne on the mineral-rich, volcanic soil here.  The area, near Petaluma Gap, has a strong marine influence, as cool air pours in from three separate directions and settles into the valley’s bowl, which in the summer months turns to heavy fog. Even so, the days can get quite hot, with temperature swings of 40° to 50° F from daytime highs to nighttime lows. This can mean the fruit is very late ripening due to the extended “hang time” on the vines.  The property is sustainably farmed.

Sosie Wines Rosé of Syrah 2021

First thing, I really want to encourage you to try more rosés.   If you are put off by the idea of the ghastly sweet white Zinfandels that were such a fad in the 1990s and remain popular for some folks, very few rosés are like that.  Of course, drink what you like.  I’m not here to judge.  But, good rosés are simply wines made from red grapes with less time in contact with the skins (just three hours for this one), creating a lighter body than a comparable red.  They are usually entirely dry, or just slightly sweet.

This is Sosie’s first rosé since 2017, and well worth the wait.  100% Syrah, it is bone dry and has a lovely salmon color.  The nose serves up a mouthwatering basket of berries and melon.  On the palate, those berries become specifically strawberries, with some green apple and honeysuckle in the mix.  There is excellent structure, especially for a rosé, and just the right amount of acidity.  The wine was aged for five months in neutral oak barrels, so there is no wood influence.  To keep the fruit flavors pristine, there was no malolactic fermentation.  In decades of drinking wine, this is the first one I’ve encountered to list ingredients on the label: grapes, yeast nutrients, yeast, and sulfur dioxide (a component of all wine).  ABV is 13.8%.

This is just the sort of rosé that I think more people should be seeking out and enjoying.  Only five barrels (that’s 1548 bottles or 129 cases) of this wine were produced, so get a bottle while you can.

Sosie also makes a traditional red version of this wine.  Read about it here.

Note: Sosie used a relatively new French technique in making this wine called stabulation, which is used to extract wanted flavors from the gross juice lees (not to be confused with the yeast lees that form during and after fermentation),  but without extracting any bitter flavors. After the desired color is achieved through skin contact, those are removed but the juice is kept in contact with the lees long enough to extract any flavor compounds that might be present. It’s important that fermentation doesn’t start, because once it does then clarifying the juice isn’t possible. So during stabulation the juice is kept cold in an oxygen-free environment.

Top of page:

Lampley Reserve Demi-Sec Sparkling Wine

The founder and proprietor of Lampley Reserve is Illinois-native Chrishon Lampley, a remarkable African American woman, and the first in the Midwest to go national with a wine brand. She is also one of the less than 1% of wine industry negociants, vineyard owners, or winery owners who are black females in the traditionally Euro-centric, white, male-dominated world of wine. A rarity, to say the least.

Building on over 20 years’ of experience in the wine industry, Lampley launched Love Cork Screw wines in 2013 with six varietals. The operation has since sold more than one million bottles of wine. Still not satisfied, Lampley also offers brand extensions like five wine-scented candles, as well as the new eponymous Lampley Reserve label just now coming to market. On a mission to reinvent how we think about and experience wine, Lampley is also passionate about leveraging her platform to mentor budding entrepreneurs and pave the way for more inclusivity and opportunity for women of color in wine and beyond.

Lampley credits her never-give-up mentality to her father’s entrepreneurial spirit and her mother’s tenacity. Now that her Love Cork Screw portfolio of eight varietal wines, which feature bold, untraditional labels like “Head Over Heels” and “We’re Movin On Up,” are firmly established, Lampley is turning to her new collection of wines called Lampley Reserve.

This new venture pays homage to Lampley’s family lineage and black heritage. Lampley sources wines from across the globe, and each label honors a different family member significant to her, with a candid photo of each from their young adulthood. (That’s her mother on the Demi-Sec label.)

Chrishon Lampley

The wines are just part of Lampley’s brand expansion, The Lampley, which is an online marketplace featuring handcrafted soy candles, handmade pillows from African cloth, table linen, kente* placemats, and more, all exclusively made by people of color, 90% of whom are women.

Lampley Reserve Demi-Sec Sparkling Wine NV

The Lampley Reserve collection includes a Sauvignon Blanc, a Riesling, a Cabernet Sauvignon, and this sparkler, a first for the label.

The wine, a blend of 53% Chardonnay, 45% Pinot Noir, and 2% Pinot Meunier from California’s North Coast, presents a pale yellow-rose in the glass.  The bubbles are fairly coarse and the mousse, the foamy head created when first pouring, disappears rather quickly.  It is definitely demi-sec, French for half-dry, but meaning sweet.  The nose offers notes of strawberry and papaya, with those plus vanilla and caramel on the palate.  There is a nice viscous texture and good balancing acidity.  The length is somewhat short.  This is a sweeter wine than I personally would serve with dinner, but I enjoyed it as an aperitif and in a mimosa made with tart cherry juice.  It would work well after dinner also with some apples and blue cheese.  50 cases were produced.  The ABV is 12%.

Be sure to check out my interview with Chrishon Lampley here, where she speaks about her approach to building her two wine enterprises.

* Kente refers to a Ghanaian textile, made of handwoven cloth, strips of silk, and cotton. Historically the fabric was worn in a toga-like fashion by royalty among ethnic groups such as the Ashanti and Ewe.

Top of page:

Pierre Ferrand Ambre Cognac

First, let’s talk about brandy vs. Cognac. Brandy is a liquor distilled from grape wine and aged in wood. (Brandy can be made from fruits other than grapes as well, but that’s a story for another time.) Cognac is brandy that specifically comes from the town of Cognac and the delimited surrounding areas in western France. (The one which has the most favorable soil and geographical conditions is Grande Champagne.) So, all Cognacs are brandy, but not all brandies are Cognac. For more detail on Cognac, click here.

Cognac has been sold under the Ferrand name since the 18th century, spanning 10 generations of producers, beginning with the birth of the first Elie Ferrand in the small town of Segonzac in 1630 (nine more Elies would follow).  In 1989, Alexandre Gabriel partnered with Pierre Ferrand, the living heir of the family, to develop a line of Cognacs.  Once Pierre Ferrand retired in 1993, Gabriel became sole proprietor.

In  short order, Gabriel bought the Logis d’Angeac distillery, built in 1776 and located in the heart of the Grande Champagne region of Cognac. He also purchased the 18th century Chateau de Bonbonnet, once owned by the Martell family, and turned it into his home as well as Ferrand’s state-of-the-art blending facility and offices.

Photo: Alexandre Gabriel

Gabriel was born in southern Burgundy, near the medieval town of Cluny in France. Weekends during his youth were spent working on the family farm with his grandfather, a major influence in his life. “For my grandfather, wealth could only come from the land,” Gabriel recalled.

Gabriel began his higher education by studying economics and  international politics He then enrolled at a business school in Paris, and while there began working on a project where he traveled through France, met small wine producers, and offered his nascent business expertise. It was on one of these trips through Cognac that Alexandre discovered the Maison Ferrand in the heart of Cognac, and where he met Mr. Ferrand.

“Ferrand Cognac was one of the oldest Cognac houses and at the time totally dormant. It was sitting on good stocks of Cognac and Mr. Ferrand had one of the best savoir-faire of the region, but was not selling anything,” said Gabriel. “There was more work to do here that I could have hoped for, and when Mr. Ferrand proposed a partnership, I readily accepted.

“While 90% of the Cognac sold throughout the world comes from four large companies,” Gabriel continued, “we felt our mission was to bring Cognac back to its roots. So we put people in place and even brought the former manager of another Cognac house out of retirement to help advise us. Remember, I was still in business school, and when an assignment I had took me to New York and Tokyo it was a blessing for Cognac Ferrand. When I wasn’t working on the assignment, I would trade in my jeans and T-shirt for a suit and tie and I’d go and meet potential spirit distributors. The Cognac spoke eloquently for itself – it just needed someone who was enthusiastic and driven.”

After graduation, Gabriel decided to devote 100% of his time to Maison Ferrand, distilling and aging Ferrand Cognac and creating distribution channels around the world. When Gabriel’s beloved grandfather visited Bonbonnet, he said to him with great satisfaction, “This is going to be your farm now,” and gave him his ancient wine press for good luck.

The Ferrand estate vineyard. Photo: Chou Tran

Pierre Ferrand Ambre Cognac

Pierre Ferrand doesn’t use VS, VSOP, or XO on its labels, but this flagship bottling has an average age of around 10 years (equivalent to an XO) and is mostly Ugni Blanc (long used for brandy production, and one of the French names for Italy’s Trebbiano) with about 10% Colombard (also historically used for brandy, although it has fallen out of favor with French producers in recent decades). Ambre starts as grapes that are planted in Angeac, considered the Premier Cru de Cognac. Angeac-Champagne is part of what connoisseurs call the “Golden Triangle,” a highly reputed micro-terroir comprising the best parcels of Grande Champagne. The extremely chalky soil of the rolling landscape gives the grapes the qualities and the necessary acidity to make good wines that can produce fine Cognacs.

Distillation takes place slowly in small pot stills with a 25 hectoliters (about 26 gallons) capacity that feature a distinctive onion-shape head, which helps concentrate the aromas and flavors from the wine, which is distilled on the lees.

One of the Ferrand stills.

The fresh “eau de vie” (water of life) is collected from the still and aged in small oak barrels (by law, always oak) kept in seven different aging cellars – some dry, some humid – at Logis d’Angeac. The thick limestone walls, specific location of the cellars, and type of floor (earthen floor in the humid cellars; cement in the dry ones) all help to ensure consistent coolness and moisture. The dry cellars have a humidity of 30 t0 60%, where evaporation results in a loss of water and alcohol content hardly changes. These eau de vie are drier, with more of a spice character. In contrast, the humid cellars have 70 to 100% humidity, where over time the “angels’ share,” or loss of alcohol due to evaporation, can cause alcohol content to drop noticeably. Resulting eau de vie from the humid cellars are more mellow and round. During the aging process, the Cognac spends time in various types of casks, of different ages and “toasted” to different levels, in order to avoid excessive bitterness caused by exaggerated tannins or oak.  Eventually, the spirits from these casks are blended (formal credit goes to Alexandre Gabriel himself), and finally bottled.

Ambre is aptly named, as it is indeed a pleasant amber color.  The nose features aromas of golden raisin, plum, apricot, and vanilla. There is lightly-sweet caramel and vanilla on the palate, with a full texture.  Overall, quite well integrated.

Listen to my podcast about brandy, Cognac, and Armagnac here.

Top of page:

Austin Hope Quest 2017

Chuck Hope and his wife Marilyn came to Paso Robles (which roughly means “passageway of oaks”) in California’s Central Coast in 1978 to farm, and eventually to start what would become Hope Family Wines. This early arrival put them on the forefront of the Central Coast becoming a world-class viticultural region. Initially, the Hopes planted apples and grapes in this then sparsely-populated area. Seeing the property’s potential for grape growing, Hope eventually replanted the apple orchards with grapes. Vine density was increased, and each vine was pruned to limit yield for better-quality fruit.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the Hope family grew grapes for various wine producers. In the 1980s, the Wagner family, owners of Napa Valley’s Caymus Vineyards, turned to the Hope family to source Cabernet Sauvignon fruit for their Liberty School label. Thus began a long-lasting partnership between the two families.

Since that beginning, in Paso Robles specifically and throughout the region generally, Hope Family Wines has built long-standing relationships with over 50 growers. They coordinate with farmers to carefully limit crop yields to ensure concentrated flavors.

In 1995, the Hopes acquired Liberty School from the Wagners. In 1996, they launched Treana Winery with Chris Phelps serving as winemaker.

At about this same time, while studying fruit science at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, the Hope’s son Austin spent some time working in Napa Valley under Caymus winemaker Chuck Wagner. This opportunity solidified his decision to pursue winemaking for his family. He became the head winemaker in 1998, and has held the position ever since. Since taking the lead as president and winemaker, Hope has helped Hope Family Wines grow from producing around 20,000 cases per year to over 300,000 cases per year. Austin’s wife Celeste, a professional photographer, produces all winery-related photography.

Hope shared, “At Hope Family Wines, we believe that it is our job to demystify wine and make it approachable. As a beverage that often accompanies food, we need to get away from the rules and intimidation, and trust our individual preferences. I am excited to see the wine industry becoming more dynamic and approachable as younger generations embrace education through online sources that are right at our fingertips.”

In 2000, the family started a limited-production label, Austin Hope (surprise!), focused exclusively on Rhône varietals grown on the family’s estate vineyard, based on the calcareous loam, marine sediment, and dense clay soil  of the Templeton Gap, which has the coolest microclimate in Paso Robles. It closely matches the climate of the Rhône Valley in France, as well as Napa’s acclaimed Rutherford district. The winery’s now-mature vineyards produce Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Mourvedre, and Grenache.

In 2008, the winery introduced Candor Wines, a multi-vintage label focusing on Zinfandel and Merlot wines with fruit sourced from family-owned vineyards in Santa Barbara, Paso Robles, and Lodi. It introduced its second multi-vintage blend, named Troublemaker, in 2010.

The winery.

The tasting room.

Hope Family Wines is committed to sustainable growing practices that promote vine health, improve wine quality, and ensure that growers remain profitable. Spraying is only done when necessary, and never after August first. The number of tractor passes is kept to a minimum, protecting the integrity of the root structures and avoiding compacting the soil. The winery works actively to promote best practices in the vineyards of the growers they partner with. They use the self-assessment tools put together by the Wine Institute and the California Association of Winegrape Growers to gauge progress and identify areas for improvement over time.

Austin Hope Quest 2017

This slightly transparent red is composed of 53% Cabernet Sauvignon, 21% Petit Verdot, 13% Merlot, 9% Petite Sirah, and 4% Cabernet Franc.  Hope’s goal with this offering was to feature the Cabernets and the American oak used for aging the wine.  It starts with aromas of black currant, bacon,  and cocoa, and adds rich black cherry on the palate.  The tastes are supported by lively acidity and well-balanced mellow tannins.  9,000 cases were produced, and the ABV is 14.5%.

Top of page:

Gran Duque d’Alba Solera Gran Reserva Spanish Brandy

For those who don’t know, brandy is distilled from wine and aged in wood to give it its characteristic flavor and color.  The word brandy comes from the Dutch brandewijin, meaning  “burned (distilled) wine.”  It is usually made from grape wine, but can be distilled from other fruit wines, most often apple, in which case it is called apple brandy or applejack generically, and Calvados in France.  (Calvados is in northwestern France, on the English Channel.)  Cognac, perhaps the best-known type of brandy, specifically comes from the town of Cognac and the delimited surrounding areas in western France.  So, all Cognacs are brandy, but not all brandies are Cognac.  For more detail on Cognac, click here.

Of course, wherever you find wine you will likely also find brandy, and Spain is no exception.  This brandy was first introduced in 1945 by a wine merchant in Madrid at that time. He was a good friend of the Seventh Duke of Alba, Jacobo Fitz-James Stuart y Falcó,  and asked the duke if he could endorse the new brandy he was about to offer for sale by applying the duke’s name to it. After tasting it the aristocrat was pleasantly impressed and suggested that for such a noble product it would be far more appropriate to use the name of his ancestor the Great Duke of Alba, Fernando Álvarez de Toledo y Pimentel, who was a Spanish noble, general, and diplomat, shown here. He was an adviser to two Spanish kings, governor of the Duchy of Milan, viceroy of the Kingdom of Naples, governor of the Netherlands, and viceroy and constable of the Kingdom of Portugal.

He is considered by some to be the most effective general of his generation, and perhaps one of the greatest in military history.  Although a tough leader, he was respected by his troops, addressing them in his speeches as “gentlemen soldiers” (señores soldados), but he was also popular among them for statements such as, “Kings use men like oranges, first they squeeze the juice and then throw away the peel.”  His best-known military exploits were his actions against the revolt of the Netherlands, where he repeatedly defeated the troops of William of Orange and Louis of Nassau during the first stages of the Eighty Years’ War.

All Spanish brandy is produced within the Specific Demarcation of Brandy de Jerez, aka the “Sherry Triangle,” the municipal boundaries of Jerez de la FronteraEl Puerto de Santa María and Sanlúcar de Barrameda, in the province of Cádiz).  This brandy begins with the distillation of wine made from Palomino and Airen, two Spanish white grapes that make unremarkable table wines, but are transformed when used for sherry or brandy.  The distillation occurs in traditional pot stills at 149º F [65º C], which in Jerez are called alquitara. These are used to obtain spirits of relatively low alcoholic content called holandas, which are made from the best wines for the job.  After distillation, the spirits are moved to 500-liter casks of American oak that have previously been used for oloroso (aged and dry) Sherry. These casks constitute a complex and dynamic system known as criaderas and soleras which is exclusive to the region, and is also used in the production of Sherry.

A typical solera.

This system basically involves casks distributed in separate rows, one placed on top of the other, each of which is made up of approximately the same number of casks (known as “butts” in Jerez). The bottom row of casks is named the solera and contains the oldest product, then moving up the rows in order of age comes the first criadara and above this the second criadera and so on. New distillate is added to the top criadera.  When brandy is to be bottled it is taken from the bottom solera row – the same quantity taken from each butt and never more than a third of the total content – in an operation known as the saca. The quantity of brandy taken from the solera is then replenished with the same quantity taken from the criadera immediately above, and this in turn with brandy from the next criadera above, and so on. This cascade of liquid is known as the rocio, and it is this continuous blending that enables the brandy to have the same taste, aroma, color, and quality year after year.

This dark amber elixir features a muted nose of leather and prune.  The flavors are recessive, even brooding, with hints of sherry, caramel, campfire marshmallow, and just a bit of mineral.  On the palate it is smooth and appealing.  The profile is quite dry, and has a good long finish.  Best used for sipping, rather than mixing.  Compares well with Cognacs in the same price range, but with a somewhat mellower profile.

Listen to my podcast about brandy, Cognac, and Armagnac here.

Top of page:

Gibbs Centa Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2016

In 1947, Dr. Lewis Gibbs Carpenter Jr., a farmer and psychologist, moved to Saint Helena from Gilroy and bought land on the Napa Valley floor. He began to work the property by growing walnuts, dates, and a small selection of grapes in the 1950s. Over the next twenty years, he replaced most of the nut and fruit orchards with several Bordeaux varietals of grapes, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc, and Merlot, all of which were beginning to gain international attention following the Judgement of Paris in 1976. It was at this momentous event that Napa Valley garnered international respect as a premier wine growing region. This no doubt helped propel not only Carpenter’s vineyards to esteem, but the entire valley as a whole.

Dr. Lewis Gibbs Carpenter Jr.
Craig Handly
Spencer Handly

Although Carpenter himself never had plans of starting a winery, his sixty-plus years of premium grape-growing set the stage for Craig Handly, his son-in-law, to establish Gibbs Vineyards in 2013. Early in life, Handly was an Alaskan crab and salmon fisherman.  Later he became a print shop owner and a wine label designer, working for such brands as Beringer, Mondavi, and Kendall Jackson, among others.

In 2000 he and his wife Susan began crafting wines from the Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc grapes grown on Carpenter’s property. These first batches, made in a tank in the Handly family’s barn, were the beginning of his new career as a winemaker. Over the next decade, he honed his skills while making wines under his first labels, Terroir Napa Valley and Sentall.

After graduating from the University of San Diego in 2014, the Handly’s son, Spencer Gibbs Handly, joined the family in growing and making wine. He is the third generation of the Handly family working in the vineyards. He got his start in the vineyards when Carpenter taught him to drive a tractor at the age of five.

The Gibbs tasting room in St. Helena.

Centa Vineyard

Eli McLean York arrived at this location in 1865, and promptly planted a vineyard and built a stone winery adjacent to the Barro railroad station. (York’s stone winery, though it stands today, has been converted to a residence.) “Barro,” meaning “clay” in Spanish, describes the abundant clay loam soil in the vineyard as it straddles the Napa River. The clay is mixed with obsidian, a volcanic glass formed when lava cools rapidly with minimal crystal growth, and which allows for optimal soil drainage This property is located at the narrowest point of Napa Valley on Lodi Lane at the Silverado Trail, where Gibbs grows Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon. In this vineyard, where the valley floor is only 3,500 feet wide, heat is reflected off the hills to the east and west, meaning that during summer this area retains much of the heat necessary to ripen classic Napa Valley-style Cabernet Sauvignon.

Gibbs Centa Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2016

This blend of 96% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Merlot, and 2% Petit Verdot was aged 22 months in French oak. It is composed of fruit hand-picked from one low-vigor block in the Centa Vineyard.

This concentrated wine is a correct dark purple in the glass.  It has fairly robust aromas of vanilla and sweet cherry.  The very smooth palate features  dark fruit, particularly cherry and red currant.  The acid and soft tannins are in excellent balance.  216 cases were produced, and the ABV is 14.5%.

Note: the web site of nearly every winery will usually include a mention of the operation’s dedication to “sustainability” and “stewardship.”  Unfortunately, this often seems only to extend to the property they own.  Many “premium” wines like this one come in heavier bottles to denote quality.  This one weighs in at a hefty 1003 grams, one of the heaviest I’ve ever encountered .  That’s a lot of extra weight to be shipping around the country.  By comparison, the wine inside, as always, only weighs 750 grams. (At the other end, Estancia Cabernet‘s bottle comes in at 494 grams.)  Even sparkling wine bottles often weigh less, and those are made to withstand high internal pressure.  Unfortunately, this sort of “bottle-weight marketing” is becoming more common, especially at higher price points.

Top of page:

Graham’s 20 Year Old Tawny Port

True Ports hail from the Douro valley in Northern Portugal, and have done so for over three hundred years. The region’s predominant soil is schist, composed of various medium-grained to coarse-grained metamorphic rocks with laminated, often flaky parallel layers of micaceous minerals.  The low annual rainfall makes this probably one of the driest regions of the world where grapes are grown without irrigation. This terroir results in very low-yielding vineyards, with vines bearing only a very few small bunches of full-flavored grapes whose thick skins protect them from dehydration.

To make Port, a neutral grape alcohol is added to the wine partway through fermentation.  This stops the fermentation before the yeast has eaten all of the sugars, leaving a natural residual sugar of 9 to 10 percent, and boosting the alcohol content to 18 to 20 percent.  This was originally done in the early days of Port production to stabilize the wines for the long sea voyage to England, at one time the biggest market for Port.  There are four basic categories: vintage, tawny, ruby, and white.  Vintage Ports are of the best quality, and the most expensive, of course.  They are made from grapes of a single vintage and bottled within two years.  In order to maintain the highest quality standards, vintage Ports are only made in the best years, which are “declared.” These wines can age extremely well; there is an old English tradition where a vintage Port is purchased on a child’s birth year, and consumed to celebrate when he or she turns 21.  Tawny Ports are a blend of fruit from many different years, and can be wood-aged for as many as 40 years.  A high-quality tawny Port will always list the barrel age on the label.  The characteristic amber color is the result of this wood aging.  Ruby Ports are made from wines not deemed worthy of vintage classification, and are aged in wood for about two years.  These youthful, fruity Ports are often the least expensive.  White Ports are made like other Ports, just using white grapes.  These wines run the gamut from sweet to dry, and are usually consumed as an aperitif.

William & John Graham founded their eponymous company in Porto in 1820.  The Symington family has owned Graham’s since 1970, although their association with the firm goes back as far as 1882.

In addition to Graham’s, Symington owns several brands of Port, Madeira, and Douro DOC wines, including some of the oldest and most well-known Port and Madeira brands. With their extensive vineyard holdings and many Port brands, the Symingtons are often described as ruling over a “Port empire.”

The Symingtons

The Douro


The estates or ‘quintas’ of the Douro with the lowest altitude produce some of the finest Ports of the region. Graham’s sources from five of these.

Graham’s headquarters in the Douro is at the Quinta dos Malvedos, originally purchased by the firm in 1890. Along with fruit from Graham’s neighboring Quinta do Tua, the entire production of Quinta dos Malvedos is made into Port  under the supervision of master blender Charles Symington.

Graham’s also makes wine from three other quintas, Quinta das Lages in the Rio Torto valley, Quinta da Vila Velha just downriver from Malvedos on the south bank, and Quinta do Vale de Malhadas in the Douro Superior.

Graham’s 20 Year Old Tawny Port

If you look closely at the bottle, this wine is labeled as “Porto,” as true ports tend to be these days.  This wine was matured for 20 years in seasoned oak casks, and was made to balance lingering fruitiness and vitality with the structure and longevity that comes with aging.  This lovely amber, crystal-clear tipple opens with a nose of raisin, brown sugar, and a hint of floral notes.  These continue on the palate, complemented with tawny Port’s characteristic nuttiness, baking spice, a rich mouthfeel, and good acidity, which is nicely balanced by the just-right sweetness.  It all wraps up in a long finish.   A really delicious tawny Port.  20% ABV.

Pair with creamy or fruity desserts such as tiramisu or crème brulée, as well as soft cheeses and nuts. Even vanilla ice cream.  Serve lightly chilled in a reasonably-sized Port glass (shown here) or wine glass. (I use Riedel’s* Zinfandel glass; it has a similar bowl but a somewhat longer stem.)  It will stay fresh for four to six weeks once opened, but I doubt you will wait that long to finish it.

Graham’s 20 Year Old Tawny Port

*You can read my post about Riedel’s line of glassware here, or listen to my podcast episode about them here.

Top of page:

A Good Cheap Brandy

For best results, blend your own.

Obviously, I enjoy wine, but I’m a fan of liquor too, especially brandy.  Brandy is distilled from wine and aged in wood to give it its characteristic flavor and color.  The word brandy comes from the Dutch brandewijin, meaning  “burned (distilled) wine.”  It is usually made from grape wine, but can be distilled from other fruit wines, most often apple, in which case it is called apple brandy or applejack generically and Calvados in France.  Cognac is brandy that specifically comes from the town of Cognac and the delimited surrounding areas in western France.  So, all cognacs are brandy, but not all brandies are cognac.  For more detail on cognac, click here.

My favorite brandy of all time is Kelt Tour du Monde.   Just a few years ago, it was selling for $40 a bottle; now it’s $60.   Brands like Martell, Hennessy, Courvoisier, and Hardy have suffered similar inflation.  Capitalism at its finest.  Regardless, all of them are too expensive for me to drink on a regular basis.  For that, I turn to bottles under $20.  American producers include Paul Masson, Christian Brothers, Korbel, and E&J Gallo.  And there are readily-available European offerings such as St. Remy from France, Hartley from Italy, Pedro Domecq from Mexico, and Veterano from Spain.

I gravitated to the St. Remy, which is made by the powerhouse French operation Remy Martin, whose other offerings start at $50 and go up to $4000 per bottle.  The St. Remy VSOP is just $12, however.  (There is a St. Remy XO, but at $24 it is a poor value compared to the basic bottle.)  Although quite drinkable, the St. Remy is a bit hot and not as smooth as what I prefer.  The Americans mentioned above offer some of that smoothness, but too much sweetness.

So it occurred to me: why not blend for the best of both?  After mixing a bottle of the St. Remy with each of the Americans, I settled on Christian Brothers, at $14 a bottle.  Does this make for a remarkable brandy like Tour du Monde?  Of course not.  But, for just $13 I have a custom blend that I can enjoy whenever I feel like it.

Listen to my podcast about brandy, Cognac, and Armagnac here.

Top of page:

Keuka Spring Epic Reserve Finger Lakes Red Wine 2016

Long before California became America’s leading winemaking state, plenty of wine was being made in New York. The Hugeunots, a French Protestant sect of the 16th and 17th centuries, planted grapevines there in the 1600s. The first commercial plantings of native  American grape varieties began in 1862. Shortly thereafter, the area established a reputation for making sweet sparkling wines, and by the end of the 19th century plantings had increased to around 25,000 acres.

In the early 20th century, production declined sharply as a result of phylloxera vine disease, competition from California wines, and Prohibition. After that scourge ended, production resumed but the rebound was moderate. Further limiting production, after World War II Americans began to develop a taste for the drier wines made from the European Vitis vinifera grape varieties dominant in California. Unlike in California, however, it was believed that these grape varieties would not survive in the harsh New York winters.

In 1951 Dr. Konstantin Frank, a Ukrainian immigrant with a PhD degree in Plant Science, came to work at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, New York, with the goal of growing Vitis vinifera varietals in the cold Finger Lakes climate. This was unheard of — and laughed at — back then. Other winemakers predicted failure. “What do you mean?” Frank retorted. “I’m from Russia — it’s even colder there.” With support from Charles Fournier of Gold Seal Vineyards, a sparkling wine producer, he began planting Vitis vinifera vines in 1958. In 1962 Dr. Frank started Vinifera Wine Cellars in Hammondsport, at the far southern end of Keuka lake, where he began to successfully produce Riesling, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Gewürtztraminer, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Rkatsiteli (the most widely-planted white-wine grape in the countries of the former Soviet Union). Plantings of these varieties spread throughout the region and new wineries soon emerged.

The Finger Lakes AVA, established in 1987, is an American Viticultural Area encompassing some 11,000 acres, which makes it New York State’s largest wine growing region. (The state is currently America’s third-largest wine producer.) The area is located in upstate New York just south of Lake Ontario. The Finger Lakes consist of 11 glacial lakes; the four largest lakes, Keuka, Seneca, Cayuga, and Canandaigua, have the majority of vineyard plantings in the AVA. Cayuga and Seneca Lakes each have their own AVA within the Finger Lakes AVA.

The Finger Lakes region.

The severity of the climate is moderated by the influence of the lakes which release heat in the winter and prevent early season frost. Most vineyards are planted on the slopes along the shores of the lakes which provide drainage and good exposure to the sun with a reduced risk of frost. The average rainfall is 30 inches per year and the vineyards are not irrigated. In addition to Vitis vinifera grapes, the region is still home to both native American grapes as well as hybrids.

Len and Judy Wiltberger have been residents of New York’s Finger Lakes wine region since 1973. Wiltberger had a career as a corporate executive, but he and his wife had a dream of making wine. In the early 1980s, they purchased 30 acres of land overlooking Keuka Lake. They planted Chardonnay and Riesling as well as Seyval Blanc (a French/American hybrid) and Vignoles (aka Ravat 51, a hybrid of Vitis vinifera and native vines) at the site with help from their family, and released their first vintage in 1985. Initially, the Wiltbergers intentionally kept production small, to about 2,000 cases per year, hand-bottled and hand-labeled. As the business grew, to meet customer demand they have expanded production to about 8,500 cases per year.

Judy and Len Wiltberger

The Vineyards

All of Keuka Springs’ grapes come from New York State. Roughly 30% of their wine is made from estate-grown grapes, while all the rest are from nearby Finger Lakes vineyards.

Keuka lake.  Photo: John Morris

Keuka Spring’s estate vineyards slope towards Keuka Lake on the east side of the east branch of this Y-shaped lake. The soil is nutrient-rich Honeoye silt* loam. The vines receive plenty of afternoon sun, an extended ripening season, and are protected from early frosts in the fall and late frosts in the spring by the slope of the hill and its proximity to the lake.

Wiltberger Vineyard

This is the original estate vineyard, planted in 1981. Vines include Vignoles, Riesling, Seyval Blanc, Chardonnay, Lemberger, and Cabernet Franc.

Humphreys Vineyard

Harry Humphreys’ vineyard is the source of the Humphreys Vineyard Riesling grapes.

Dynamite Vineyard

Gewurztraminer is sourced from this vineyard, which had to be blasted by dynamite to break up the rocky terrain on the east side of Seneca Lake.

Keuka Spring Epic Reserve Finger Lakes Red Wine 2016

Epic Reserve is a blend of Finger Lakes Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.  During fermentation, the wines are “racked and returned”  —  délestage in French — to increase oxygenation and improve extraction of color, flavor, and tannin.

This medium-transparent garnet wine opens with a delicate cherry aroma.  The juicy cherry continues on the palate, plus blackberry and just a touch of spice on a moderately light body.  The wine is in very good balance, with subdued acidity and tannins. The ABV is 13%.

*The word “Honeoye” is from the Iroquois  “Hay-e-a-yeah.” Legend indicates that a Seneca warrior was bitten by a rattlesnake, had to cut off the bitten finger, and later described the location of the incident as the place “where the finger lies.”

These productive soils occur on about 500,000 acres in New York State. Honeoye soils are fertile, have a high base saturation throughout, and are slightly acid at the surface and neutral in the subsoil.

The Honeoye series consists of very deep, well-drained soils formed in glacial till which is strongly influenced by limestone and calcareous shale. They are nearly level to very steep soils on convex upland till plains and drumlins. The Honeoye soil is in the Alfisols soil order and is classified as fine-loamy, mixed, active, mesic Glossic Hapludalfs.

Top of page:

Dunill XO French Brandy

Is is possible to get a quality XO brandy for $20?  If this bottle is any indication, the answer is no.  (For just one comparison, Courvoisier XO costs $170.  Most XOs cost at least $100, and go up from there.)

First off, this is Dunill brandy, no doubt named to confuse buyers with the Alfred Dunhill luxury goods company of London.  The bottle, with its extravagant design to mimic crystal (it isn’t, of course), and its gold braid around the neck is further intended to convey quality.  But, the faux “aged bronze” seal in the center of the bottle even popped off two days after I got it home.

Sadly, the quality just isn’t there.  This is what the producer claims, “Produced in the South of France, out of the best grapes, and handcrafted in small batches. Distilled in the pure tradition of the region. The cellar master has extracted the most subtle aromas of the brandy through a very slow distillation and aging for 10 years in French oak barrels, to give the taste of an exceptional brandy. Deep amber color. ”  Since this comes from the south of France, it is indeed brandy and not cognac, which can only come from the Cognac region.  I can’t image this was 10 years in barrel.  Who could do that and afford to sell the product for $20?  And, it’s not deep amber color.  It is quite pale, the lightest I’ve seen in any brandy, further belying the idea that it’s 10 years old, since unless caramel color is added, that brown hue comes from time in barrel.

If all of this weren’t bad enough, the nose opens with strong whiffs of acetone, a clear flaw of distillation.  There is more acetone on the palate, which is also hot and one-dimensional.  Dunill has no Web presence, so any further details about this product are nonexistent.

Ignore the XO designation, which like VS and VSOP, although often used for brandies, have no legal meaning when applied to products other than true cognacs.  The only brandy I’ve had that is similarly disappointing is North Wisconsin.

I can only (barely) recommend this brandy for use in cocktails.  If you are stuck with a bottle of this stuff, here’s a classic and simple recipe that may help you use it up:


1 oz. White Creme de Menthe
2 oz. Brandy

Shake well and strain into a martini glass

Top of page:

Byron John Sebastiano Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016

The Sta. Rita Hills AVA is an American Viticultural Area located in Santa Barbara County, California. From its creation in 2001 through 2006, the appellation was officially named Santa Rita Hills AVA. The name change was the result of a protest by Vina Santa Rita, a very large Chilean wine producer that was concerned about the AVA name diluting its international brand value. I’m glad everyone was satisfied, but the change seems rather subtle to me.

Sta. Rita Hills is part of the larger Santa Ynez Valley AVA, located between the towns of Lompoc and Buellton with the Purisima Hills on the north and the Santa Rosa Hills on the south.  The hills run east to west, which allow fog and ocean breezes from the nearby Pacific Ocean to enter the valley and create a cool micro-climate. The Sta. Rita Hills area is well-suited for the growing of Pinot Noir grapes, which tend to do well in cool climates with rocky soil. The region is also known for Chardonnay and Syrah.

The first commercial vineyard in Santa Barbara County was established by Uriel Nielson in 1964. After years of working as a winemaker in Santa Barbara County, Ken Brown (Byron Kent Brown) released the first Byron Pinot Noir from grapes purchased from Neilson in 1984, making 7,600 cases. Brown recognized the Santa Maria Valley’s potential for wines in the Burgundian style, and was the first winemaker to introduce grape varieties such as Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Gamay to the area. Brown acquired the 118-acre Nielsen Vineyard in 1989 and built his winery there.

In 1990, Robert Mondavi Winery bought Byron. Brown became Winemaker and General Manager. He and Tim Mondavi, Robert’s son, set about designing the new Byron Winery as an expression of their shared belief in natural farming, experimental viticulture, and gentle grape handling. They wanted to eliminate pumping, which shears grape stems, skins, and seeds, allows tannins and other harsh elements into the juice, and can make wine bitter.  The resulting 4,000-barrel-capacity, multi-level winery replaced pumping with gravity flow, with the goal of producing more complex, dynamic wines. Byron’s vineyards were also expanded and replanted as Brown experimented with trellising systems, new rootstocks and clones, row orientation, and planting density in his quest for what he considered to be the ideal grape.

The Byron Winery.  It is not open to the public.

A few years later, Ken Brown left to pursue his own label. Ken Volk purchased the Byron Winery and renamed it Kenneth Volk Vineyards. Subsequently Byron passed through the hands of Constellation Brands, the now-bankrupt Legacy Estates Group, and finally Jackson Family Wines who currently own the winery, as well as 39 others.

Byron’s winemaker from 2003 until 2020 was  Jonathan Nagy, a University of California Davis chemistry graduate. He worked with all of the commonly-used Dijon clones, plus Pommard, Wadenswil, and Swan selections from multiple vineyard sources including Nielson Vineyard, Sierra Madre Vineyard, Bien Nacido Vineyard, Julia’s Vineyard, and John Sebastiano Vineyard.

Byron currently sells all of their wines by allocation only. Potential buyers are notified by email when new selections are released.

Byron John Sebastiano Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016

The John Sebastiano Vineyard was first planted along the eastern border of the AVA in 2007. The 100-acre site, just 10 miles from the Pacific Ocean, has soil predominantly of diatomaceous earth and loam.  It enjoys a myriad of exposures and marine influences, which together with premium clonal selection and high-density planting produce exceptionally small clusters and berries.

This 100% Pinot Noir saw 14 months in 100% new French oak. It is transparent brick, with medium aromas of plum jam and dark cherry.  These continue as the flavors, with a bit of brown spice added. The acid is rather low, creating a sense of flaccidness or extra smoothness, depending on your perception.  150 cases were made, and the ABV is 13.2%.

Top of page:

Dow’s Late Bottled Vintage Port 2016

True Ports hail from the Douro valley in northern Portugal, and have done so for over three hundred years. The region’s predominant soil is schist, composed of various medium-grained to coarse-grained metamorphic rocks with laminated, often flaky parallel layers of micaceous minerals.  The low annual rainfall makes this probably one of the driest regions of the world where grapes are grown without irrigation. This terroir results in very low-yielding vineyards, with vines bearing only a very few small bunches of full-flavored grapes whose thick skins protect them from dehydration.

Port is a fortified wine. Fortification is the addition of brandy or a neutral spirit to wine in order to boost the alcohol content. Fortified wines are often sweet, because the alcohol kills the yeast before fermentation completely runs its course, leaving residual sugar. This accounts for Port’s characteristic rich, luscious style and also contributes to the wine’s considerable ageing potential. Fortification also stabilizes the wine, a definite benefit for a product destined for the long sea voyage from Portugal to England, the first large market for it.

In 1798 Bruno da Silva, a Portuguese merchant from Oporto, traveled to London, where he imported wine from his native country, reversing the route of English traders to Portugal. He married an Englishwoman, was rapidly assimilated into London society, and built a reputation for his wines. When the outbreak of the Napoleonic wars in 1803 put his business in jeopardy, da Silva applied for ‘Letters of Marque’ (a Royal Assent to equip a merchant ship with guns) to secure safe passage of his Port from Oporto to England. His became the only Port company to transport its wines in its own armed fleet, a distinct competitive advantage.

Upon his death, the business passed to da Silva’s son John, who in 1862 partnered with Frederick William Cosens. Together with John’s son, Edward, the trio became the active partners in Silva & Cosens. Like his grandfather, Edward da Silva was also a shrewd businessman, and the company continued to prosper. Edward became a highly respected figure in the London wine trade, and was one of the founders of the Wine Trade Benevolent Society, (renamed The Drinks Trust in  2020) the leading British wine trade charity.

George Acheson Warre, whose well-known family had been involved in the Port trade since its earliest years, joined Silva & Cosens as partner in 1868. In 1877, the firm merged with another leading Port company, Dow & Co, whose senior partner was James Ramsay Dow.  Although smaller than Silva & Cosens, Dow & Co had become a very highly regarded Port producer with a particularly fine reputation for its vintage Ports, and when the two companies merged, it was decided to adopt Dow’s as the brand name.

The Vineyards

The Douro

Quinta do Bomfim has provided the main source for Dow’s products since it was acquired in 1896. The property is a classic ‘river quinta (estate)’ with many natural advantages: it is south-facing, ensuring ample exposure to the sun; its stony schist soil affords excellent drainage, allowing water to reach the vines’ deep roots; the annual rainfall is near perfect at 31 inches (15 year annual average); the altitude ranges from 394 to 1,115 feet above sea level, accommodating both gentle gradients lower down and progressively steeper slopes higher up the valley side. A further advantage is the consistent climate.

The principal grape varieties planted are: Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Roriz and old mixed vines. Two-thirds of the vineyard is now over 20 years old, while one third is between 30 to 40 years old.

Another classic river quinta, Senhora da Ribeira is located 15 miles upriver from Quinta do Bomfim. Senhora da Ribeira is set in the remote, hot, and dry Douro Superior and commands a north bank position, overlooking a broad sweep of the Douro. The quinta was built close to an ancient and strategic river crossing, guarded by two 12th century hilltop castles on either side of the Douro. Travelers would pause here to pray for a safe river passage and onward journey at a small chapel dedicated to the ‘Lady of the River’ (literally: Senhora da Ribeira).

The quinta’s high proportion of old vines (45% are over 25 years old) is of critical importance. The old vines are very low-yielding, producing on average less than two pounds of grapes each, giving intense and concentrated musts. As with Bomfim, the consistency of the climate plays a key role, although the rainfall is only about half of that experienced at Bomfim: 18 inches is the 10 year average.

The Symingtons

Andrew James Symington, a Scotsman, travelled to Oporto in 1882 at the age of 18 to work for the Grahams (if you are familiar with Ports, you should be spotting a trend here), another Scottish family long established in Portugal. Young and ambitious, he soon left to work on his own in the Port trade, where he gradually built up a reputation as an expert taster.  By 1905 he had become a partner in Warre & Co, the first British Port company established in Portugal, and in a few years he became the company’s sole owner.

Curiously, at this time the Warre family, who were the principal owners of Dow’s, had no remaining interest in the company that bore its name. In 1912, Dow’s senior partner, George A. Warre decided to return to England and invited Symington to manage the Douro Valley vineyards of Dow, its lodges (wineries) and assets in Gaia. In the same year, a share swap took place whereby Symington took a 30% stake in Dow’s and Warre took, in return, shares in Warre & Co. The successful partnership between the Symingtons as Port producers in the Douro and Gaia and the Warre’s in London looking after sales lasted for half a century until 1961 when the Symingtons finally became the sole owners of Dow’s.

With their extensive vineyard holdings and Port brands, including Dow’s, Grahams, Warre’s, and Cockburn’s, the Symingtons are often described as ruling over a “Port empire.” In addition to their Port holdings, Symington owns several brands of Douro DOC wines.

Dow’s Late Bottled Vintage Port 2016

The Portugese only declare Port vintages in years which they deem worthy.  In the 21st century, these have been 2003, 2007, 2011, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018, a rather more frequent pace than in the 20th century.  These “Vintage Ports” are the top-tier offerings.  “Late Bottled Vintage Ports” are made from grapes of a single vintage, in this case 2016, but of second-tier quality fruit, although they can still be quite good.   

As indeed this one is.  This wine spent four to six years in oak, as all Late Vintage Ports do.  Dark purple in color, it offers subtle aromas of raisin, prune, and baking spice.  The rich mouthfeel carries flavors of ripe berries, particularly blackberry, and chocolate, and a well-balanced and restrained sweetness.

Pour this wine in a wine glass at room temperature, or slightly chilled in warm weather to make it more refreshing.  It works as both an aperitif and after-dinner drink. It does not need to be decanted, is ready to drink on release, and should be consumed within four to six weeks of opening. The ABV is: 20%.

I have also recently reviewed another widely-available and similarly-priced Port from the Symington portfolio, Cockburn’s Special Reserve.  While I enjoyed both, my nod goes to the Dow’s, with its less peppery, more balanced classic Port character.

Top of page:

Penfolds Bin 600 Cabernet Shiraz 2018

Until Yellow Tail precipitated the boom in “critter wines” in 2000, it can be argued that Penfolds was just about synonymous with Australian wine in the U.S.  The label is ubiquitous here, in both grocery stores and fine wine shops. Prices range from about $12 per bottle for the Koonunga Hill Shiraz-Cabernet, to $850 for the legendary Grange, and everything in between.  (That $850 is doubly amazing, because just five or six years ago Grange was “only” about $200.) The selections are mostly reds plus a few whites and even a tawny Port.

Founders Dr Christopher and Mary Penfold immigrated to Australia from England in 1844, bringing their own French vine cuttings. Not long after, their fledgling vineyard was officially established as the Penfolds wine company at the 500-acre Magill Estate in Adelaide.

The Penfolds were believers in the medicinal benefits of wine, and they planned to concoct a wine tonic for the treatment of anemia.  Initially, they produced fortified wines in the style of Sherry and Port for Dr Penfold’s patients. The operation enjoyed early growth, and since Dr Penfold was focused on his medical practice, much of the running of the winery was delegated to Mary Penfold, including the cultivation of the vines and wine blending. On Christopher’s death in 1870, Mary assumed total responsibility for the winery. According to one historical account, by that time the business had “grown to over 60 acres with several different grape varieties including Grenache, Vverdelho, Mataro (aka Mourvedre), Frontignac and Pedro Ximenez,” and the estate was “producing both sweet and dry red and white table wines with a growing market in the eastern Australian colonies of Victoria and New South Wales.” Clarets and Rieslings were especially popular.

During her tenure, Mary engaged in experimentation, explored new methods of wine production, looked into ways of combating diseases like phylloxera, and engaged a cellar master by the name of Joseph Gillard.

Penfolds was producing a
third of all South Australia’s wine by the time Mary Penfold retired in 1884, when the company passed to her daughter Georgina and son-in-law Thomas Hyland.   By 1907, Penfolds had become South Australia’s largest winery (It is still big, but it no longer holds that position. That distinction now goes to Casella winery in Yenda, NSW of YellowTail fame. ) Eventually, the business was passed onto their two sons and two daughters. The company became public in 1962, and  the Penfold family retained a controlling interest until 1976.

In 1948, Max Schubert
became the company’s first Chief Winemaker. A loyal company man and true innovator, Schubert would propel Penfolds onto the global stage with his creation of Penfolds Grange.  (That’s a story for another time, if I can ever get my hands on a bottle.  Hey, Penfolds!  A little help here?)

In 1959, while Schubert was perfecting his Grange experiment in secret, Penfolds’ tradition of ‘bin wines’ began. The first, a Shiraz with grapes from the company’s own Barossa Valley vineyards, was simply named after the storage area of the cellars where it was aged.

In 1988, after three decades of Grange’s  success and growth into a wine world icon, Schubert was named Decanter magazine’s Man of the Year, and on the 50th anniversary of its creation, Penfolds Grange was given a heritage listing in South Australia.

In 1976, control of Penfolds was acquired by Tooth and Co., a brewer based in New South Wales, which in 1982 became part of the Adelaide Steamship Company Group. In 1990, SA Brewing purchased Adelaide Steamship’s wineries. Later, SA Brewing was divided into three separate entities: the wine assets were named Southcorp Wine.

Southcorp Wines became a part of the Foster’s Group in 2005. In 2011, Fosters was historically much more involved in beer than wine, and the wine operation faltered over those six years.  When Fosters decided it was time to divest its wine holdings, they were sold to Treasury Wine Estates, headquartered in Melbourne, and Penfolds current owner. The chief winemaker since 2002 has been Peter Gago.

Penfolds Bin 600 Cabernet Shiraz 2018

In 1998, Penfolds imported a selection of vine cuttings from South Australia’s esteemed Kalimna and Magill Estate vineyards, and planted them in California’s Paso Robles AVA. The original name of what is now referred to the Camatta Hills vineyard was Creston “600” Ranch, reflected in this wine’s name, Bin 600.  It is one of four wines in Penfold’s inaugural California Collection.

For 20 years, Penfolds efforts in California remained experimental, and no wines were released.  However, in 2017, TWE bought up the US holdings of fellow giant Diageo. Suddenly, Gago had access to the prized vineyards of Chateau St JeanAcaciaBeringerBeaulieu VineyardStags’ Leap WinerySterling, and Etude. The new California Collection wines are a blend of the different AVAs from which these wineries draw their fruit.  Despite the location, Gago has made clear that the brand trumps everything. There’s California sun and California soil, “but everything in between is Penfolds,” he said.

This blend of 78% Cabernet Sauvignon and 22% Shiraz includes some fruit from the original Camatta Hills plantings.  It is a dark opaque purple, with moderate aromas of dark stone fruit, vanilla, and a bit of floral undertones.  On the palate there is earth, cocoa, and grippy tannins.  The fruit was more recessive than I usually like, but this wine is well-balanced enough that I quite enjoyed it nonetheless. ABV is 14.5%

Top of page: