August Hill Winery Berlyn NV

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Mark Wenzel

In 2002, Mark Wenzel, his wife Teri, and childhood friend Sean Ginocchio (who sold his interest in 2010) founded August Hill Winery on the hilltop land his grandfather August Engelhaupt had farmed, occasionally with Wenzel’s help. Located in Utica, Illinois, about 90 miles southwest of Chicago, in the ensuing years August Hill has expanded to include caves for aging wine, a tasting room, and a sparkling wine label called Illinois Sparkling Company.

Wenzel is both business partner and winemaker. Although he took a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Florida, he had always had an interest in wine and experimented making small batches through the years.  Once he learned that, unlikely enough, northern Illinois was developing as a viable vineyard region, the Illinois countryside and his farm boy roots beckoned to him.  After seven years as an engineer, Wenzel decided to add a new career and immersed himself in the details of grape-growing climates, varietals, and winemaking while still working in engineering for an additional seven years before he could turn to winemaking full-time. Along the way, he received hands-on experience and support from others in the winemaking industry, from both Illinois and California. When he began the sparkling wine program, he consulted with industry experts as well as an expert from France, with whom he continues to work.

Teri Wenzel is August Hill’s visual taste-maker. She’s the creative eye behind everything from the product packaging to the tasting room environment. Continue reading “August Hill Winery Berlyn NV”

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

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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. Continue reading “Austin Hope Quest 2017”

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. Continue reading “Keuka Spring Epic Reserve Finger Lakes Red Wine 2016”

Pombal do Vesúvio 2018 Douro

In the 1970s, Portugese rosés such as Lancers and Mateus were the height of sophistication to many young wine drinkers: “It’s imported, and comes in a fun bottle!” With age comes wisdom, and these wines were eventually abandoned for the justifiably famous fortified wines of Portugal, Port and Madeira, produced by many ancient and famous houses.

Much less well-known is Portugal’s status as a producer of both red and white table wine, ranking in the world’s top ten in production.  With a population of just 10 million, but top five in per capita consumption, much of that wine is sipped by the thirsty Portuguese.

The Quinta [Estate] of Vesúvio has a long and storied history. António Bernardo Ferreira bought the property in 1823, at that time called Quinta das Figueiras.  The property was mostly covered with wild scrub stretching up the mountainside and an abundance of fig trees, which gave it its name. He felt that this property had enormous potential as vineyards. It took his team of five hundred workers thirteen years to carve terraces out of the steep slopes and plant thousands of vines. Within the boundaries there are seven hills and thirty-one valleys. On the summit of each hill stands a ruined old lookout post, which once guarded the property. The tallest lookout is called the Raio de Luz, The Ray of Light. From there you can survey the full 360º aspect of the vineyards.

Vesúvio is situated far upriver in the Douro Superior, 75 miles (120 kilometers) from Portugal’s Atlantic coast and only 28 miles (45 kilometers) from the border with Spain. Vesúvio has a total area of 806 acres (326 hectares), of which 329 acres (133 hectares) are planted with vines. The rest, almost two-thirds, has been conserved in its natural state. Many other things grow at Vesúvio besides vines: oranges, lemons, figs, almonds, walnuts, grapefruits, pomegranates and many more exotic fruits and herbs.

Vesúvio also has great variations in altitude, from 426 feet (130 meters) at the riverside to 1,739 feet (530 meters) at the top of the tallest ridge. Being so far inland, the Quinta experiences climatic extremes, reaching very high temperatures in summer and very low ones in winter. It is extremely dry, with an average of only 16 inches (400mm) of rain falling each year.

In 1827, Ferreira built the winery, with its eight granite lagares (large, open vats or troughs), in which wine grapes are crushed by foot to this day, and eight chestnut vats, each capable of holding the equivalent of one lagar of Port. This original winery is where all of Vesúvio’s Port is still made. The facility was more than just a winery though; it was a whole community in its own right with orchards, gardens, and a village where the workers lived with their families. There was even a school, which would have been the nearest one for dozens of miles in any direction.

Quinta do Vesúvio

After working with the property for seven years, in 1830 Ferreria decided to rename the estate Quinta do Vezúvio (originally with a ‘z’ as was common in Portuguese spelling at that time). At the time, Ferreria boasted, “All the English have poured praise on my lodge and hold that they cannot find another adega [wine house] to match mine in the Douro … stating frankly that both in Oporto and the Douro, nobody has better wines.” In an unprecedented move, Ferreira exported his wines directly from his winery to the United Kingdom, then the largest market for Port by far. His aim was to persuade the authorities of the great quality of wines from the Douro Superior and hence the need to extend the Denominação de Origem Controlada. It had been established in 1756, almost 180 years before the French established their own similar quality system, but many Portugese winemaking regions were originally excluded.

During his life, Ferreira was involved with many of the most famous Quintas in the Douro Superior. Vesúvio, though, was his showpiece, and the only one mentioned In the memorial marking his death in 1835.

In 1834 Dona Antónia married Bernardo Ferreira II, Ferreira’s son, in the small chapel at her parents’ farm, the Quinta de Travassos. Following his death in 1844, she and their children inherited all of his vast Douro empire, but Antónia was adamant that Vesúvio should remain exclusively her own, and proceeded to extend the fame and reputation of the operation. She was the first to bottle her wines and sell them under the Quinta’s own name, unprecedented in the nineteenth century.

When phylloxera ravaged the Douro, Antónia began to experiment with new grape varieties and new techniques of grafting in her vineyards. Predictably, during these years the Portuguese wine economy suffered significantly. While other producers in the Douro were laying off their employees, Antónia found ways to keep them on, planting orchards, nut trees, cereals, and other crops, as well as grazing flocks of animals.  In the 1870s and 1880s she also renovated and expanded the house and the chapel, which remain today just as she rebuilt them.

Following Dona Antónia’s death in 1896, Vesúvio was held by the Briti Cunha family for many generations until 1989, when the Symingtons, winemakers in the Douro for five generations, assumed possession. In 1882 the first Symington, Andrew James, moved from Scotland to Portugal to work for W & J Graham’s. But their ancestry in Port goes back even further. When Andrew James married Beatrice Leitão de Carvalhosa Atkinson, he married into a lineage that goes all the way back to Walter Maynard, who in 1652 was one of the very first British Port merchants to export wine from Oporto.

Symington Family Estates bills itself as the leading producer of premium-quality Ports in the world, with brands such as Graham’s, Cockburn’s, Dow’s, and Warre’s. SFE is also the leading vineyard owner in the Douro Valley with 2486 acres (1006 hectares) of vineyards across 27 quintas, all of which are managed according to sustainable viticulture standards; much of them are also organically farmed. When the Symingtons bought Quinta do Vesúvio, they decided that the sole objective would be to create outstanding vintage wines, initially focusing exclusively on Vintage Port and later adding dry (Douro DOC) wines, including this one.

Pombal do Vesúvio 2018 Douro

This is Vesúvio’s second-tier wine, a blend of 50% Touriga Franca, 45% Touriga Nacional, and 5% Tinta Amarela. It is named after the estate’s dovecote, a structure intended to house pigeons or doves, or “pombal” in Portugese, which is surrounded by vineyards. Unlike the first-tier fruit, the grapes are transported to the Quinta do Sol winery for processing and fermentation.

The wine is dark purple, with subtle aromas of roasted plum with a hint of thyme. The palate features quite tart red cherry and blackberry, the fruit rather recessive in the Old World style.  It’s all supported by moderate black-tea tannins. 2,000 cases were produced, and the ABV is 14.5%.

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Hedges Family Estate

A winemaker, Nicole Walsh of Ser Winery, recently recommended a wine to me. And I thought, “If a winemaker recommends someone else’s product, it must be worth seeking out.” That wine? Hedges Family Estate Red Mountain Syrah.

In June of 1976, Tom Hedges and Anne-Marie Liégeois married in a 12th century church in Champagne, France, the area where Liégeois was born and raised. This melding of New World and Old World experiences and sensibilities would directly inform them once they entered the world of wine years later.

Liégeois was born near the medieval town of Troyes. Her upbringing was “maison bourgeoise,” where three generations of the family lived and worked together. The family was prosperous, and could afford to enjoy traditional home-cooked meals and the best of the local wines.

Hedges was raised as a “traditional” American, in a home of strong work ethics guided by his father, who had a background in apple growing and dairy farming before becoming an engineer. The younger Hedges was born in Richland, Washington, located at the confluence of the Yakima and Columbia Rivers. It was established in 1906 as a small farming community, but in 1943 the U.S. Army turned much of it into a bedroom community for the workers on its Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb at the nearby Hanford Engineering Works (now the Hanford site).  The B Reactor, the first full-scale plutonium production reactor in the world, was built here. Plutonium manufactured at the site was used in the first nuclear bomb, which was tested at the Trinity site in New Mexico, and in Fat Man, the atomic bomb that was detonated over Nagasaki, Japan. Nuclear weapons development continued here throughout the Cold War. Now now-decommissioned, Hanford leaves behind a grim legacy of 60% of the high-level radioactive waste managed by the US Department of Energy, including 53 million US gallons (200,000 m3) of high-level radioactive waste stored within 177 storage tanks, 25 million cubic feet (710,000 m3) of solid radioactive waste, and areas of heavy technetium-99 and uranium contaminated groundwater

Tom Hedges spent the first ten years of the marriage working for large multinational agricultural firms. He was employed by Castle & Cooke foods from 1976 to 1982 where he headed up four international offices. Next, he worked for Pandol Bros., a small Dutch trading company in Seattle, which at the time was importing Chilean produce and exporting fruit to the Far East and India. In 1984 he served as President and CEO of McCain Produce Co. in New Brunswick, Canada, farming potatoes for export. Then, in 1986, the Hedges created an export company called American Wine Trade, Inc., based in Kirkland, Washington (which is also the home of Costco), and began selling wine to foreign importers, primarily in Taiwan. As the company grew, it began to source Washington wines for a larger clientele, leading to the establishment of a negociant-inspired Cabernet/Merlot blend called Hedges Cellars in 1987. This wine was sold to the Swedish government’s wine and spirit monopoly, Vin & Sprit Centralen, which was the company’s first major client.

During this time, the Hedges discovered the developing wine region called Red Mountain, three hours southeast of Seattle. After buying fifty acres here in 1989, they planted forty acres to Bordeaux grape varieties and transformed American Wine Trade from a negociant and wine trader into the classic model of a wine estate. Today, this Biodynimacally-farmed Red Mountain property continues to be the core of the Hedges family wine enterprise. In 1995, they began construction of the Hedges Chateau.

Hedges Chateau. Photo: Jacob Hughey

The Hedges ‘children, Sarah and Christophe, are now involved in the business, and each has a special set of skills for understanding the terroir.

Sarah attended the University of San Diego and graduated with a degree in business and philosophy. She later attended UC Santa Barbara to study chemistry, and at the same time worked for a Santa Barbara winery managing the tasting room and helping with harvest. From 2003 to 2005 she worked for Preston Vineyards in Healdsburg, Sonoma County, doing wine production work. She became assistant winemaker for Hedges in 2006 under the tutelage of her uncle, Pete Hedges (younger brother of Tom). Pete Hedges schooled Sarah in both terroir and chemistry, believing that each works to show a wine the path to exhibit the truth of its place. Sarah ascended to head winemaker in 2015 after her uncle retired.

The elder of the two, Christophe, is a graduate of the University of San Diego with a Business Degree and minor in Theatre Arts.  In addition to being the general manager at Hedges, he farms his own property using modern Biodynamic techniques, executed by John Gomez, the Hedges Family Estate vineyard manager.  He has been long opposed to the numerical point scores used by several wine critics, and he urges consumers to rely on their own knowledge about a specific varietal or the region from which it came. (I’m with you there, Christophe!)  Ten years ago he created scorevolution.com, an online petition promoting the elimination of 100-point rating scales from wine reviews altogether. “The final decision about a wine is personal, and it belongs to the wine drinker alone,” he explained. (As of this writing, the site is still online, but seems to be closed to any further activity.  I.E. you can’t even read the manifesto, much less endorse it, which I would have been happy to do.  Regardless of where you stand,  you can read a criticism and defense of the point-score system here.)  Christophe is also responsible for the very European-style Hedges bottle labels.

Hedges Cellars eventually transitioned to Hedges Family Estate, and farming practices have become more focused towards being organic and vegan.  Rather than commercial strains, only wild yeast is used, and the wines are neither fined nor filtered.  They are also gluten free.  The Hedges estate vineyard is certified organic by CCOF, nonprofit organization that advances organic agriculture for a healthy world through organic certification, education, advocacy, and promotion. It is certified Biodynamic by Demeter, the only certifier for Biodynamic farms and products in America. While all of the organic requirements for certification under the National Organic Program are required for Biodynamic certification, the Demeter standard is much more extensive.  The vineyard is also rated by Salmon Safe, which works with West Coast farmers, developers, and other environmentally innovative landowners to reduce watershed impacts through rigorous third-party verified certification.

Hedges estate vineyard.  Photo: Jacob Hughey

Hedges Family Estates Red Mountain Hedges Vineyard Syrah 2017

The grapes are from the Hedges Estate Biodynamic vineyard.  After being harvested they were crushed into bins where they underwent indigenous yeast fermentation. After pressing, the wine was aged in barrel where it underwent indigenous malolactic fermentation. The wine was aged in 56% new oak (65% French and 35% American) for 22 months before bottling.

This Syrah pours a nearly opaque dark purple into the glass.  There are full aromas of dark stone fruits accompanied by earth.  On the palate, those flavors are rather recessive, in the European style, but primarily pomegranate, and  blueberry.  Or it might just be that they are being masked by the big, black-tea tannins.  These come with good supportive acidity.  259 cases were made, and the ABV is 13.5%.

Hedges Family Estates C.M.S Cabernet Sauvignon 2018

The grapes were sourced from the Sagemoor, Wooded Island, and Bacchus vineyards in the Columbia Valley AVA and Hedges Estate, Jolet and Les Gosses vineyards in the Red Mountain AVA. The must was pumped-over for eight days and pressed to tank, where it underwent malolactic fermentation. The Columbia Valley portion of this wine (59%) was fermented to dryness in 100% American oak and aged in 100% French oak. It was then barrel aged for five months in 100% neutral oak. The Red Mountain AVA wines (41%)were barrel aged in 100% neutral American and French oak for 11 months.

C.M.S (named for its blend of 76% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Merlot, and 16% Syrah) is a semi-transparent but deep red.  The rich aromatics feature blueberry, blackberry, and black cherry, with support from dark cocoa and vanilla.  These deploy in the mouth as the same flavors.  Both the acidity and tannins are excellent and harmoniously balanced.  5976 cases were produced, and the ABV comes in at 14.0%.

Descendants Liegeois Dupont 2011

This Syrah is an homage to both sides of Anne-Marie Hedges’ French families.  the Liegeoises and Duponts.  The fruit was sourced from the Les Gosses vineyard in the center of the Red Mountain AVA. The juice was pumped over on skins for eight days before pressing to barrel and undergoing malolactic fermentation. The wine was  barrel aged for an average of  12 months in 52% new oak and 48% older oak( 62% American, 31% French, and 7% Hungarian).

The wine pours a semi-transparent dark purple color. It shows full aromas of dark stone fruit, especially plum, bordering on prunes, with hints of maple bacon. leather, and smoked cedar.  The plums plus blueberry are revealed on the palate.  The ABV is 14%, but seems higher due to the wine’s richness.  It’s all supported by strapping tannins and plenty of tart acidity.  1202 cases were made.

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Cape Red Red Blend 2020

When I profile a wine, I like to start with the story of the producer, and then get into the wine itself.  I couldn’t find much about this offering, which is just as well as it is low-quality plonk.

It is sourced from Zidela Worldwide Wines.  Their website states, “Our Company aims to be the prime South African supplier of value-for-money wines in the international private label market.  [We have} the capability to offer a wide range of bulk wines from all the wine regions in South Africa. Our long-standing working relationship with various wineries enables us to get involved in the wine-making process to meet our clients’ specific needs.”  So, no need to look for a winemaker’s personal approach or vision here.

The wine is exclusively distributed in the United States by splashwines.com, where I bought it through a Groupon offer for a mixed case of two bottles each of nine different wines.  The per-bottle price came to $5, much more than this particular wine is worth.

Cape Red Red Blend 2020

The color and clarity of this wine is fine, but then the wheels fall off.  It has thin aromas and a recessive palate of weird, unidentifiable fruit.  The acidity is totally out of balance, plus bitter tannins and an odd funk on the finish.  The only way I was able to get through it with dinner (a delightful grilled pork roast) was by refrigerating the hell out of it.  The packaging is nice; too bad they didn’t put half as much effort into the wine.  I don’t know how many cases were made, but, frankly, any was too much.  ABV is 13%.

https://www.splashwines.com/products/cape-red-2019?_pos=1&_sid=b92ded527&_ss=r

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Vale do Bomfim Red Blend 2017

In the 1970s, Portugese rosés such as Lancers and Mateus were the height of sophistication to many young wine drinkers: “It’s imported, and comes in a fun bottle!” With age comes wisdom however, and these wines were largely abandoned for the justifiably famous fortified wines of Portugal, Port and Madeira, produced by many ancient and famous houses.

Much less well-known is Portugal’s status as a producer of both red and white table wine, ranking in the world’s top ten in production.  With a population of just 10 million, but #2 in per capita consumption as of 2019 , much of that wine is sipped by the thirsty Portuguese.  (The U.S. is 44th out of a total of 167 countries.)

Winemaking in Portugal has a long and storied history. It was the first country to implement an appellation system, the Denominação de Origem Controlada, in 1756, almost 180 years before the French established their own similar system. The DOC established early quality-control standards, but because it has been in place for over 350 years much Portuguese winemaking is tightly bound by tradition; even calcified, some would say. However, this has been steadily changing, and many producers are updating their winemaking equipment and methods and are producing good high-quality wines.

The Vineyard

This wine comes from the Douro [DOO-roh], a wild mountainous region located along the Douro river starting at the Spanish border and extending west into northern Portugal. The grapes for many Ports originate here also, but the vineyards for the table wines are at higher altitudes, where the grapes don’t ripen as fully or produce the higher sugar levels desirable for fortified wines.

The Douro

In the 19th century, the area around the village of Pinhão was known as Vale do Bomfim, which translates as ‘the well-placed valley.’  The specific vineyard from which this wine comes was acquired by George Warre for Dow’s in 1896 (his family had been involved in the Port trade since its earliest years).  In 1912, Andrew James Symington became a partner in Dow’s and made Quinta do Bomfim his family home in Douro.  (Quinta is Portuguese for farm, estate, or villa.)

The Vale do Bomfim vineyard.

Quinta do Bomfim sits in the upper Douro Valley, located in an area of transition between temperate and Mediterranean climates. Predominantly south-facing with ample solar exposure, the terraced vineyards sit on schist, a medium-grade metamorphic rock formed from mudstone or shale.  The total property is 247 acres (100 hectares) with 185 acres (75 hectares) planted to vine.  The elevation varies from 262 to 1,260 feet (80 to 384 meters).

The Lagare Method

Historically, Portuguese wine was pressed by foot in granite treading tanks called lagares on the upper level of a winery, and then gravity sent the juice from the lagar to oak or chestnut vats for fermentation on another floor below.  The original winery at Quinta do Bomfim was modernized beginning in 1964 with the introduction of automated lagars to increase winemaking capacity, as increasing labor shortages made treading in stone lagares impractical and too expensive.   The automated lagar is an open stainless steel vinification tank in which mechanical treaders, powered by compressed air, replace the human foot in treading the grapes. It was designed to replicate the gentle treading action of feet and the configuration of the tank itself recreates the shape and the capacity of the traditional stone lagar.

The Quinta do Bomfim winery.

Vale do Bomfim Red Blend 2017

This wine is made by Dow, one of the premier Port producers in the Douro Valley for over two centuries.   For many years it was only available to the family and their guests.  It is made from a blend of 50% Touriga Franca, 20% Touriga Nacional, and the remaining 30% is a field blend of indigenous varietals.  It was aged in an equal mixture of stainless steel and French oak (30% new for the half of the wine in wood) for six months.

The wine is a medium dark purple in the glass.  It is quite aromatic, wafting of dark fruits.  These continue on the palate, particularly black cherry.  But, it is perhaps predictably lean in the European style, so the fruit is complemented by slate, sage, and a bit of earth.  It is all bound together with racy acidity and moderate tanninsABV is 14%.

Rescue Dog Wines

Founded in 2017 by Blair and Laura Lott, Rescue Dog Wines has an unusual and commendable mission: a generous 50% of their profits go to rescue dog organizations across the country. The Lotts explained that they started planning a new life in wine country around 2015. “We knew that we wanted to embrace sustainable growing practices and create a new, more rewarding lifestyle for ourselves. In addition, we knew that we wanted enough land to grow wine grapes and foster dogs. In addition, we knew that we wanted to create high quality, premium wines. During this period of exploration throughout many of California’s wine regions it dawned on us that we could combine our two passions and Rescue Dog Wines was born,” they reminisced.

As Rescue Dog Wines have been presented at rescue dog charity events around the country, the Lotts have felt an enormous wave of enthusiasm and interest. “The feedback we receive is phenomenal and heart-warming. We love meeting our customers and future customers and discussing our combined love of dogs and wine,” Blair explained. “People are initially drawn in by our mission, but end up leaving impressed with the wines,” he added. Blair and Laura also are ardent supporters of the Lodi growing region.

Laura Lott was born in Wiesbaden, Germany, and she grew up across the U.S. as part of an Air Force family. In the summers she visited her family in Brittany, on the northwest coast of France. Her grandfather was a pastry chef in St. Malo, and Laura has fond memories of spending time in the bakery. She would also visit cousins who were farmers; she remembers dinners being interrupted by having to run outside to take care of squealing pigs. She’d garden with her grandmother, and she would help her make jam from the raspberries she grew. She graduated from Trinity University in Texas with a degree in French literature, and also completed a master’s degree from the Thunderbird  School of Global Management, a part of Arizona State. Her first career path was as an HR specialist for large organizations, including Motorola, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and Sears.

As a young adult, Laura adopted her first rescue dog, a boxer, Daisy, from an animal rescue operation in Atlanta. The experience of visiting the animal shelter made an enormous impression on her; she determined after that visit to make rescue dogs a cause in her life.

Georgia native Blair Lott worked with his father on their 20-acre farm during his upbringing, continuing a tradition passed down by several generations. The family grew vegetables and raised livestock. There were lots of dogs in his life, mostly boxers and Boston terriers. At 17, Lott embarked on a musical career when he formed an alternative rock band. He continued working in the music world, writing and performing in Athens, Georgia, Nashville, and as far afield as Melbourne, Australia. Eventually he transitioned into working as a digital media consultant. During his three years in Australia, he became immersed in the wine and food scene there, and became intrigued with the idea of making wine his vocation. After returning to the U.S. and marrying Laura, they moved to northern California with the intention of pursuing a life in wine.

The couple traveled to wine regions regularly, including a trip they took for a landmark birthday. They spent three weeks traveling through vineyards in France and Spain, further cementing the idea of owning their own vineyard and producing wine.

“We looked everywhere from Paso Robles to Napa Valley for vineyard and winery properties to buy,” said Blair, “and someone suggested, have you considered Lodi?  Check it out, it’s fantastic.” That tip lead them to buy a 19.5-acre property in 2016, complete with a house and old vines (since pulled out and replaced with new, trellised vines planted to to Grenache, Sangiovese, and Mourvedre) on Acampo Road. The winery also sources grapes from around the Lodi growing region which are grown according to Lodi Rules and California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance sustainability protocols.

The Winemakers

Susana Vasquez
The winemakers are Susana Rodriguez Vasquez and Eric Donaldson. “We started with about a barrel of red wine (adding up to just 25 cases),” Blair recalled, “and then we had 10,000 people asking for it. So we asked Susy (Peltier Winery winemaker Susana Vasquez) to help us duplicate the quality with two pallets (over 100 cases), which also flew out the window.” Vasquez next created Rescue Dog Sauvignon Blanc, and then added a dry rosé made from Pinot Noir.  Vasquez got her wine education at the Universidad Mayor de San Simón in Bolivia and UC Davis.   This was followed by about five years each at beverage giants E&J Gallo and Constellation Brands,

Eric Donaldson
“Laura likes sparkling rosé,” said Blair, “and we got Eric (LVVR Sparkling Cellars owner/winemaker Eric Donaldson) to produce a demi-sec [sweet] style sparkler for people who don’t like dry.”  After graduting from Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio. Eric began his wine career in Cincinnati and Cleveland.  Next came jobs in Sonoma County and for Gruet in New Mexico.  He worked on a lot of sparkling wine there, and the experience offered insight into warmer climates and how they impact sparkling wines.  Unfortunately, none of Donaldson’s wines were available for this review.  Maybe next time.

“Both Susy and Eric are great to work with,” continued Blair. “Susy especially will spend any amount of time with you, making sure you get exactly what you want. When she says, ‘I’m your winemaker,’ she really means that.”

Rescue Dog Wines is still very much a boutique operation. “We sold over 200 cases last year [2019],” noted Blair, “and we’ll double that this year. If our roll-out in markets in other states goes according to plan, I’m projecting 8,000 cases in a few more years. Truth be told, we’re not yet profitable, but we’re still keeping our commitment by donating half our revenue to several animal organizations. We’re doing it by not paying ourselves. Someday, though, I hope we’ll be able to donate 100%.”  There are plans for a tasting room in Lodi sometime in the future.

Rescue Dog Predominantly Poodle Lodi Sauvignon Blanc NV

This “”Poodle” pours a very pale, indeed nearly colorless, yellow into the glass.  The nose greets you with aromas of mangoes and coconut.  These flavors continue on the dry palate, aided by green apple, brioche, a good mouthfeel, and well-structured acidity. There is only a touch of grassiness, which is fine with me because I think it mars too many Sauvignon Blancs. Adds winemaker Susana Vasquez, “Stainless steel fermented, skin contact before fermentation, blended with Vermentino.”  ABV is 12.50%.

Rescue Dog Lodi Rosé 2018

This pretty pale pink Rosé features aromas of rose petals and melons.  There is zippy citrus on the palate, especially lemon. and a suggestion of mango, all supported by good acidity.  According to Vasquez, this wine was made entirely from Pinot Noir, and pressed specifically to become a Rosé.  There was no saignée [say-NAY], i.e., it was not made by a partial draw-off of pigmented juice from the ferment, but rather allowed to complete fermentation on its own.  ABV is an approachable 11%.

Rescue Dog Beloved Mixed Red Wine Blend NV

This easy-drinking red is a surprisingly inky, dark purple.  It displays a delicate nose of cherry and strawberry, followed by flavors of blueberry, sweet plum,  and a hint of pepper, The tannins are nicely supportive, paired with well-balanced acidity on the medium body.  From Susana Vasquez’s notes: “Jammy fruit qualities with not too much oak (10% of the blend saw no oak), blending Zinfandel, Teroldego, Petite Sirah, and Cabernet Sauvignon.”  ABV is 14.3%.

https://rescuedogwines.com/

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Austin Hope GSM 2017

Chuck Hope and his wife Marlyn 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 Rhone 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 GSM 2017

This wine is a blend of 43% Grenache, 35% Syrah, and 22% Mourvedre.  These are three important grapes grown in the Côtes du Rhône region of France, but this popular blend is produced throughout the world.  The fruit for this selection was hand-picked from the Hope estate vineyards in the Templeton Gap district of Paso Robles, and then fermented in five-ton, open-top tanks. After extended maceration for up to 60 days, the wine was aged for 25 months in 72% new French oak barrels.

This GSM is ruby-black in the glass, with big aromas of rich, dark fruit.  The subtly sweet palate showcases jammy blackberries, blueberries, currants, a hint of pencil shavings, grippy but balanced tannins, and a long finish.

The label art, by Austin Hope’s youngest daughter Avery, is a linocut titled The Magic Sun.  And the wax seal, although certainly attractive, made opening the bottle rather tricky.  ABV is 15%.

https://www.hopefamilywines.com/

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Italics Winegrowers Sixteen Appellations Red Wine 2013

In 1870 the Carbone family purchased a large parcel on Coombsville Road in Napa, California. They opened a winery, which is long gone, and that was about it for winemaking in the area for the next hundred years.

Around 1970, dozens of wineries started  appearing along Highway 29 in Oakville, Rutherford, and St. Helena, but Coombsville remained largely uninvolved in the burgeoning wine scene. By the 1990s, however, a number of up-valley wineries, looking to expand their production, came looking for additional sources of fruit. They were impressed by the rolling benchlands, moderate temperatures, and volcanic soils of Coombsville.

In 1995, the winery that would eventually become Italics was founded in Coombsville by commercial pilot turned vintner Bill Frazier. Frazier sold the winery in 2011 to a China-based company that renamed it Zhang Winery. The Chinese owners expanded the existing small cave system into what is now 16,000 square feet carved into a hill, and made a number of practical and visual improvements. In 2014, the operation was purchased by Mike Martin of Texas, who once again renamed it, this time to Italics. (The name Italics was chosen because “words in italics are used to emphasize something or to make something stand out.”) He was president of Rio Queen Citrus, Inc., his family produce business, until selling it in 2012. Rio Queen began with a small 20-acre grapefruit orchard in the south part of the state, but grew to become one of the largest distributors of produce in Texas (including citrus, onions, and melons).

Italics’ founding winemaker was Steve Reynolds, who Martin met by chance at a wine dinner in McAllen, Texas.  Martin was particularly interested in one of Reynold’s many ongoing projects, Thirteen Appellations, which began in 2002 when 100 cases were made.  The idea behind the label was to create a wine with fruit from all of Napa’s then extant sub-appellations. The thinking was that, “each wine taken individually has its own unique colors, aromas, and flavors, and blending them results in an arguably richer, perhaps more complex wine.” The wines from each sub-appellation are fermented and aged separately – all coming together when the final blend is made.  Ultimately Martin acquired Thirteen Appellations, a brand that evolved into Sixteen Appellations. As additional sub-appellations were approved in Napa, further vintages were called Fourteen and then Fifteen Appellations. With the Coombsville sub-appellation finally being added in 2011, the wine is now Sixteen Appellations

In 2019, Marbue Marke became Italics’ winemaker. He was born in Sierra Leone, West Africa, and originally studied to become a doctor, enrolling in UC Davis’ Pre-Med program at just 15 years old.  However,  he soon realized that he tended to get woozy at the sight of blood, a definite handicap for a doctor.  Abandoning that career path, he transferred to the UC Davis wine program, and graduated with a degree in Viticulture and Enology. He later earned an M.B.A. from Sonoma State University.  Prior to Italics, he toiled at Caldwell Vineyard, Marston Family Vineyard, J Winery, Cosentino, Benziger Family Winery, and industry giant EJ Gallo Winery. In 2018 he was named U.S. Winemaker of the Year by Bonfort’s Wine and Spirits Journal.

The entire Italics operation resides in caves carved into the hillside.

In addition to the Sixteen Appellations offering, Italics Winegrowers focuses on wines made from traditional red Bordeaux varietals, with a total current production of about 5,000 cases annually.  The fruit for these wines thrives in vineyards not far from the San Pablo Bay.  Breezes that blow in from the bay bring fog by day and cool air at night, moderating extreme temperatures.  Coombsville is surrounded by a partially collapsed caldera, the remnant of a fractured volcanic vent. The caldera’s half-bowl reaches some 1,800 feet in elevation, and acts as a collector for the cool marine air from the Bay.  The grapes grown here can hang longer without dehydrating while retaining their natural acidity.

The film Decanted premiered at the 2016 Napa Valley Film Festival. It depicts what it takes to open a winery in the Napa Valley, and it follows Italics Winegrowers from the inception. Winemaker Steve Reynolds and owner Mike Martin were included in the cast.

Italics Winegrowers Sixteen Appellations Red Wine 2013

This red is composed of 45% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Franc, and 5% Petit Verdot.  Some of the vineyards sourced are owned by Robert Keenan, Blackbird, Annapurna, and Constant, as well as Italics’ estate vineyard (these change every vintage).  After fermentation in 25% new French oak and 75% stainless steel, it was aged for 22 months in French oak barrels, 60% new and 40% used.

This quite dry, dark garnet wine greets you with a heady nose of mouthwatering rich dark fruits.  These are most evident on the palate as somewhat restrained blueberry and blackberry, plus dust and a hint of clove.  The flavors tend to fade as the bottom of the bottle approaches.  The acid and tannins are in excellent balance, complemented by a medium-long finish.  ABV is 14.5% and 1,337 cases were made.

https://www.italicswinegrowers.com

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Brian Carter Cellars

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“I came into the field Brian Carterof wine [at a young age], not because my parents were wine drinkers, but because I was given a microscope when I was 12 years old. I heard about these things called yeast, and I wanted to see what they looked like under a microscope. I was told if you want to look at yeast you have to start a fermentation. So I picked some blackberries, fermented the wine, took a sample, and brought out my microscope — and there they were — the little yeast. I’ve been having those yeast work for me ever since.”  — Brian Carter

A charming tale of a precocious young scientist, no?  There was just one small problem: before he got to actually inspect the yeast, during a robust fermentation that first blackberry wine exploded in his mother’s kitchen.  “There was a big stain on the ceiling for a couple of years, until it finally got painted,” Carter admitted.  History hasn’t recorded whether that chore fell to Carter or someone else.

Born in New Mexico, Carter grew up in Corvallis, Oregon, where his father was a professor at Oregon State University.  Those initial studies with his microscope led to him taking an undergraduate degree in microbiology from that same Oregon State.  While there, he also took an independent study course on winemaking that involved visiting some of the Willamette Valley’s first wineries.  “It was during that time, I decided I had to become a winemaker,” he shared.

The next stop, as it is for many winemakers, was the University of California at Davis.  After completing his studies there, he spent 1978 at Mount Eden Vineyard in Saratoga, California and 1979 and ’80 at the legendary Chateau Montelena in Calistoga, California.  That was followed by eight years toiling for the now-gone Paul Thomas Winery in Sunnyvale, Washington.  During that tenure, Carter made fruit wines (which he didn’t enjoy doing) and classic European varietals (which he did enjoy) under the Paul Thomas label.  Carter’s 1983 Cabernet Sauvignon beat a 1983 Chateau Lafite-Rothschild  at a 1986 blind tasting at Windows on the World restaurant in New York City.

That early move to Washington was decisive, as Carter would go on to become one of the leading lights of the state’s nascent wine industry.  When he started at Paul Thomas, there were only 16 wineries; today there are over 1,000.

In 1988, Carter left Paul Thomas to become a consultant. He helped launch a number of wineries including Silver Lake, McCrea and Camaraderie. He was the first winemaker for Hedges Cellars. And he partnered with Harry Alhadaf to start Apex in 1990.  “At that time, I was really focused on becoming a better winemaker and learning as much as I could about grape growing at our estate vineyards,” said Carter, who lived near Apex for eight years so he could be hands-on in the vineyards.

By 1997 it was finally time to start making wines under his own name, and he established Brian Carter Cellars in Woodinville, Washington.  He released his first wines in 2000 with a production of just 80 cases.  At Brian Carter Cellars, he has exclusively focused on classic European-style blends, taking inspiration from France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal.  Indeed, the vanity license plate on his Prius reads “BLENDS.”  “I still love what I do,” he said. “I’m a very lucky guy.”

Carter’s modest tasting room, about 150 miles northwest of the vineyards themselves.

Accolades (some of them, anyway)

Carter is the only three-time winner of Grand Prize at the (now defunct) Pacific Northwest Enological Society (aka Seattle Enological Society) Competition.  Carter was twice touted as “Winemaker of the Year” by Seattle Magazine. He was the Honored Vintner at the 2007 Auction of Washington Wines, and he received the prestigious Industry Service Award from the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers.   In 2015, Wine Press Northwest selected Brian Carter Cellars as its Washington Winery of the Year,  In 2018, the Northwest Wine Summit named Brian Carter Cellars as the Winery of Distinction. The Washington Winegrowers Association honored Carter with the 2020 Grand Vin Award, recognizing him for “his significant impact and the contributions he has made to the Washington wine industry during the past 41 years.”

The Vineyards

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With his forty years of experience in Washington, Carter knows exactly what vineyards to draw on to help him achieve his vision of wines with balance, dimension, and depth.  These are the eleven most important vineyards and growers from which Brian Carter Cellars currently sources grapes.

Columbia Valley AVA

Stillwater Creek Vineyard  Here, the Alberg family grows Syrah and Mourvedre.

Horse Heaven Hills AVA

Chandler Reach Vineyard  Len Parris grows Merlot and Cabernet Franc with good concentration, balance, and color.

Red Mountain AVA

E & E Shaw Vineyard  Ed and Eve Shaw grow Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot here. Similar to Klipsun, the wines made from these grapes have a lot of structure and are often a bit more fruit forward.

Klipsun Vineyard  This vineyard, farmed by David and Trisha Gelles, provides Cabernet Sauvignon. These grapes provide the strength and ability to age the blends.

Rattlesnake Hills AVA

Dineen Vineyard  Patrick Dineen farms Cabernet Franc, Viognier, and Roussanne on this moderate to warm site that features low yields that can make wine with balance and concentration.

Snipes Mountain AVA

Upland Vineyard  Viognier, Tempranillo, Graciano, Touriga Nacional, Souzao, and Tinto Cao are sourced from this vineyard, overseen by the Newhouse family.

Yakima Valley AVA

Boushey Vineyard  Growers Dick and Luanne Boushey provide Sangiovese, Grenache, and Cinsault.

Lonesome Spring Ranch  Colin Morrell grows Grenache, Sangiovese, Touriga Nacional, Mourvedre, and Petit Verdot that make wines with lively fruit, moderate structure, and good color.

Olsen Vineyard  The Olsen family provides Viognier, Roussanne, Merlot, Malbec, Syrah, and Counoise.

Solstice Vineyard  Owned by Jim and Carla Willard, this vineyard is Carter’s coolest site.  He has been buying the Willard’s grapes for over 25 years.

Wahluke Slope AVA

Stone Tree Vineyard  Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Grenache, Mourvedre, and Syrah are sourced from this  property, worked by Mark Wheeler and Tedd Wildman.

The Wines

Carter asserts that he didn’t set out to be a blender, but rather, the approach came from his knowledge of science and agriculture, and one that grew into a true passion.  In fact, ” A Passion for the Art of Blending” is a trademark of the winery.  He noted, “I find the blending process to be the most artistic part of the winemaking process, and the most fun!” In 2006, Carter released his full line of blended wines, and Brian Carter Cellars became the first winery in Washington dedicated exclusively to producing blends.  Carter enjoys giving his selections whimsical names, which are explained below.

Brian Carter Cellars Oriana 2018

Oriana is a given name, primarily of a female, that is widespread in Europe.  Or, according to the label, Latin for “golden lady.”

This white wine is composed of 49% Viognier (Dineen, Solstice, Olsen), 41% Rousanne (Olsen), and 10% Riesling (Solstice).  A third of the blend was barrel fermented in neutral French oak barrels,  and two-thirds in stainless steel.  Both were kept on the lees and stirred monthly for six months to increase mouth feel and aromatic complexity. No malolactic fermentation (MLF) was conducted.

Oriana pours a pale straw color into the glass.  You are greeted with aromas of grapefruit and honeysuckle.  The silky-smooth mouthfeel carry these onto the palate, along with tangerine and pear.  There is pleasant acidity, and it all ends with a touch of lemon pith bitterness.  The ABV is 13.6%, and 808 cases were produced.

Brian Carter Cellars Byzance 2014

Byzance, aka Byzantium or Byzantion, was an ancient Greek city in classical antiquity that became known as Constantinople in late antiquity and Istanbul today.  Or, the label on the bottle says Byance is French for “luxurious.”  Two translations on the interwebs came up with De Luxe and Luxeux instead.  I don’t speak French, so I will leave it up to you to decide.

Inspired by the reds of France’s southern Rhône Valley, this wine is composed of 54% Grenache (Lonesome Spring), 24% Syrah (Stone Tree), 15% Mourvedre (Stone Tree), 4% Counoise (Olsen), and 3% Cinsault (Boushey).  Both of the latter are often used in French blends.

The blend spent 22 months in large ( 500L) French oak barrels, of which 20% were new and 80% were neutral (used).  It is a semi-transparent garnet, with medium aromas of dark fruit.  The palate features blackberries, dark cherries, and a hint of herbes de Provence, complemented by plenty of acidity and tannins, but all is in excellent balance.  It wraps up with a medium finish.  The ABV is 14.5%, and 316 cases were produced.

Brian Carter Cellars Corrida 2016

Corrida is Spanish, meaning a bullfight.  Ole!

Made of 66% Tempranillo (Stone Tree, Upland), 21% Graciano (Upland), 8% Garnacha (Lonesome Spring), and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon (Stone Tree), this wine was inspired by the noble wines of Spain, and especially those of Rioja, where Tempranillo reigns supreme.   After fermentation, it was aged for 22 months in a mixture of French, Russian and American oaks; 30% new and 70% neutral (used).  It is opaque dark purple in the glass, and opens will a full nose of blackberry and cherry.  These continue on the silky-smooth palate, abetted by cedar, some dust, good acidity, and well-integrated tannins.  It ends in a nice long finish.  ABV is 14.1%, and Carter made 316 cases.

Brian Carter Cellars Le Coursier2014

In French, Le Coursier is “The Steed,” or the messenger that rides one.  The mix of 58% Merlot (Stone Tree, Solstice, E&E Shaw), 18% Cabernet Sauvignon (Solstice, Stone Tree), 12% Cabernet Franc (Solstice), 8% Malbec (Olsen, Stone Tree), and  4% Petit Verdot (Stone Tree) was aged for 22 months in 100% French oak, 40% new & 60% used.   This wine is a semi-transparent but quite dark garnet.  The nose presents dust and recessive fruit, especially blackberry and plum.  This is the leanest, most “European” of the red blends here, with flavors of blackberry and dark cherry.  ABV is 14.3%, and 432 cases were produced.

Brian Carter Cellars Tuttorosso 2016

Tuttorosso is Italian for “all red.”  This “Super Tuscan” style red is composed of  68% Sangiovese (Lonesome Spring, Solstice), 17% Cabernet Sauvignon (Solstice), and 15% Syrah (Solstice).  It spent 24 months in French (80%) and European oak (20%) barrels, of which 20%were new and 80% were neutral (used), before bottling.

This dark purple wine starts with juicy aromatics, particularly cherry and cranberry.  These continue on the palate, with the addition of blackberry and grippy tannins.  ABV is 14.3% and 448cases were made.

Brian Carter Cellars Opulento 2014

Opulento is Spanish and Portugese for opulent.

I’ll admit right up front that I have been a big fan of Port for years.  Carter can’t accurately label this dessert wine as Port, since it comes from Washington instead of Portugal, of course (although plenty of less scrupulous producers do).  Even so, he uses the traditional varietals: 57% Touriga Nacional (Upland, Lonesome Spring), 29% Souzao (Upland, Lonesome Spring), 9% Tinto Cão (Upland), and 5% Tinta Roriz (aka Tempranillo, Lonesome Spring).   Carter first produced this wine in 2008, and uses naturally-occurring yeasts only.  Aging was 20 months in French and American barriques,  15% new and 85% neutral.  This treat pours an inky dark purple in the glass.  The surprisingly subtle nose features currants and dark cherries.  That subtlety disappears on the palate, however, with big flavors of chocolate and plums.  The finish is pleasantly sweet rather than cloying, with nice balancing acidity.  ABV is 19% (fortified with 190 proof Washington brandy), and 842 cases were produced.

https://www.briancartercellars.com/

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Juslyn Vineyards Perry’s Blend

Perry and Carolyn Butler emigrated from England to California sometime during the mid-1980s. Butler was a trained  chef in England, and dabbled with his wife in the emerging high-tech business there as well. It was their growing interest in technology that drew them to Silicon Valley.  Once there, they  purchased Global Dynamics, a struggling IT company that provided IT staffing for American Airlines in San Francisco’s Bay Area.

Once their company was well-established, the Butler’s were able to indulge in weekend trips to nearby Napa Valley. It was there that they soon developed a passion for wine and the wine country lifestyle that Napa Valley offered.

In 1997, the couple sold their quite profitable IT business and relocated to Spring Mountain. They bought a picturesque 42-acre property that was once a small parcel of the 540 acres that California wine pioneer Charles Krug originally acquired as the dowry of Caroline Bale, who he married in 1860.  The Butlers set about having a villa and gardens built, along with a winery facility, which Butler named Juslyn, for daughter Justine and wife Carolyn.

The vineyard on the property was replanted to a field blend of 90% Cabernet Sauvignon plus small amounts of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, reflecting the English preference for those Bordeaux blends they call Claret.

Early on, the Butlers became friends with legendary wine critic Robert Parker, who utilized their villa for many of his Napa Valley wine tasting and rating sessions. Parker was a big fan of Juslyn Vineyards’ early wines, and  awarded them high ratings on several occasions.  I’m sure having access to the villa didn’t influence his assessments in any way.

Without any real experience in the wine industry, the Butlers have relied on the work of their grape and wine specialists.

For the vines, Juslyn takes advice from the Renteria Vineyard management team, led by Salvador and Oscar Renteria. This father-son duo has produced grapes for many prestigious Napa Valley wineries.

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The winemaker is Angelina Mondavi.  She began her career at the age of 10 by assisting the lab manager at Charles Krug.  (She had an in.  Her grandfather Peter Mondavi (who was Robert Mondavi’s brother) owned the place.)  After graduating from Villanova University, majoring in chemistry, she worked lab and harvest positions in Napa Valley and Barossa Valley. While in Australia, she earned a Master’s Degree in Oenology from the University of Adelaide.  Following graduation, she gained experience with stints at Pine Ridge Vineyards and One True Vine where she was responsible for Hundred Acre, Cherry Pie, and Layer Cake to name a few.

Juslyn’s estate vineyard consists of some eight acres on rocky hillside soils with excellent drainage, where the vines are now over 20 years old.  The winery is able to annually extract some three tons of fruit per acre.

Juslyn Vineyards Perry’s Blend 2016

The name “Perry’s Blend” (the wine was originally called Proprietary Red) was conferred by Robert Parker during one of his tasting sessions, and the Butlers took to the designation.

Perry’s is a blend of 66% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Cabernet Franc, 7% Merlot, and 5% Petit Verdot, entirely from the Juslyn Spring Mountain Estate.  The wine was aged for 24 months in French oak, 85% of which was new.

It is a fairly transparent but nonetheless dark purple  The nose offers plenty of dark fruit aromas with a bit of cedar.  These continue on the palate, especially black cherry, black currant, and black raspberry, with the addition of cocoa.  There is medium acidity, paired with zoomin’ and boomin’ tannins.  To be clear, I like my reds young, and I’m not afraid of tannins.  But to temper those here, the wine should be decanted for a couple of hours.  And really, another three to five years of bottle aging would be worthwhile.  If you have the patience, the wine should drink well at least through 2030.  As another reviewer noted, “An odd but awesome juxtaposition of a young California Cab mated with a first production old-world Bordeaux.”   ABV is 14.5% and 480 cases were produced.

https://juslynvineyards.com/

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Brutocao Cellars

Irv Bliss’ early years as a farmer were occupied with growing pears, prunes, walnuts, and a large family garden just outside of Healdsburg, in Sonoma County, California. Although successful, for years Bliss nursed the vision of planting a vineyard in Mendocino, which he believed to be one of the best places around to grow grapes. In 1943, he purchased a plot of land in southern Mendocino County, and immediately planted the vineyard of his dreams. In the early days, in addition to growing grapes on the property, Bliss farmed figs and raised sheep and cattle. At some point in the 1970s, all 100 acres of the land was converted to grape production, mostly Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel.

When Leonard met Martha

In 1910, the Brutocao (pronounced brew’ tuh coe) family emigrated from Treviso, Italy (a small town near Venice), at first settling in Canada. Son Leonard Brutocao was born in 1935 in Fort Erie, Canada and, after the family moved to the U.S., was raised in Covina, Calif.  He met Irv Bliss’ daughter Martha while attending the University of California, Berkeley. After Leonard and Martha married, the families joined forces, and continued to farm grapes which they sold to well-known Sonoma and Napa wineries. Irv and Leonard worked together for over 35 years until Irv’s retirement in 1969, at which point the new ownership was split between Lenonard and Lenonard’s brother Albert (who co-founded with Leonard the Brutoco Engineering and Construction company in southern California which  the Brutocao clan also owned and continued to operate, as well as a number of other entrepreneurial ventures).

For several years, most of the family’s grapes were sold to local area wineries, including Beringer and Mondavi.  Leonard and Albert were interested in more than just farming however, and saw the potential for producing a handcrafted Mendocino wine. Acting on this vision, the Brutocao family released their first wine with the 1980 vintage. Shortly thereafter, they chose as their symbol of family tradition and quality a version of the Lion of St. Mark, the lion on top of St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice, Italy,  (But they flipped the way it faces, for whatever reason.)
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In 1991, the original winery was built, and the first estate vintage was produced. Around the same time, Leonard’s three sons, David, Len Jr., and Steve, joined the family business. (Forth son Dan and daughter Renee Ortiz also share ownership of the winery, but have limited involvement.)  David is Director of Winemaking Operations, and works side by side with Brutocao winemaker Hoss Milone to produce their estate wines. Len Jr., as Director of Vineyard Operations, oversees the cultivation of the land from new plantings to grape harvest.  Following the death of his father in 2010, Steve assumed the role of CEO  after many years of experience in wine marketing and sales.

Brutocao outgrew the first winery by 2003, when a new facility was built, and it was expanded in 2009. The original building has now become an onsite wine storage warehouse.  The more visitor-friendly tasting room is about a mile and a half due west, in Hopland, California.
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The Legacy Continues

The Brutocao operation is now in its fourth generation. Ryan, Director of Custom Label Sales, is tasked with distribution as well as coordinating with Brutocao’s non-profit partner, Wine to Water.  Kevin, a jack of all trades, does a bit of everything, from pouring wines in the Hopland tasting room to managing the winery’s online presence. He also creates many of the designs for marketing materials.

The Winemaker

Hoss Milone became the winemaker for Brutocao in 2009 after spending 18 years toiling for Ferrari-Carano.  Hoss is a fourth-generation winemaker who grew up in his family’s vineyards, and watched his grandfather and father produce their own Mendocino wines. Milone is also a trained cooper, aka barrel maker.  At some point it was discovered that Milone’s grandfather tilled the land for Irv Bliss in the original vineyard. Quite a coincidence.

The Vineyards

The Bliss Vineyard, also known as the Home Ranch, is the original property purchased in 1943 by Irv Bliss. The vineyard is 400 acres, with 177 acres planted to Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel, Merlot, Sangiovese, Barbera, and Dolcetto.

The Feliz Vineyard was purchased in 1994. It is 583 acres in size, with 114 acres planted to Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese, Dolcetto, Barbera, Zinfandel, and Pinot Noir.

The 251-acre Contento Vineyard was purchased in 1997, but not planted until 1999. 90 acres are now under vine, growing Cabernet Sauvignon and Primitivo*. Contento is the site of an old cattle ranch, where purebred Brangus cattle were raised. Some of the ranch was used for research and development of new tractor equipment, resulting in very well-worked soils.  Contento is also the site of an abandoned gold mine.

Brutocao Chardonnay 2019

Made by Brutocao since the mid-1980s, this  pale-straw colored Chardonnay comes entirely from Bliss Vineyard, the original property purchased by Irv Bliss in 1943.  The wine was 100% barrel fermented and sur lies aged for nine months in French oak, 30% of which was new.   Some of the grapes were “whole cluster pressed” for maximum flavor extraction.  It underwent 100% malolactic fermentation, which in this case lead to citrus rather than the more typical buttery notes.

The wine opens with aromas of honeysuckle, pear, and mango.  These  evolve into a full-bodied palate of tropical fruit with just a hint of butterscotch on the finish.  Serve moderately chilled at about 60° F.  ABV is 13.5%, and  3000 cases were produced.

Brutocao Quadriga Red Blend 2017

A quadriga is a chariot pulled by four horses, harnessed side by side, and is an ancient Italian symbol of triumph. This selection, on offer since the early 2000s,  is a proprietary blend of 43% Primitivo*, 31% Sangiovese, 19% Barbera, 6% Dolcetto, and a 1% topping of Syrah, which is reminiscent of traditional Italian field blends.  “Field blending” is the custom of planting different grape varieties together in the same vineyard, harvesting them all together, co-fermenting, and making a wine from the mixture. However, Milone was careful to point out that Brutocao’s varietals are kept separate in their vineyards, and he makes individual wines from each of the grape types before he begins the blending process.  This offers him much greater control over the flavor profile of the wine than the traditional field blend approach would.  The fruit was sourced from the Bliss, Feliz, and Contento vineyards.  After fermentation, it was aged for 18 months in 90% French oak and 10% American oak, of which 25% was new.

This wine is a totally transparent medium purple, but is more boisterous than its color suggests.  The nose features aromas of red berries and cinnamon stick.  These continue on the palate, with additional flavors of blueberries and caramel, complemented by a rich, smooth mouthfeel.  Decant for an hour or two before serving.  The ABV is 14.5%, and 500 cases were made.

www.brutocaocellars.com/

www.goldmedalwineclub.com

*There is ongoing debate about whether or not Primitivo and Zinfandel are the same grape.   However, it is agreed that at the least they both share a Croatian forebear.  Primitivo is mostly planted in Italy, while Zinfandel is almost exclusively American.  Winemaker Hoss Milone insists that Brutocao’s Primitivo can be sourced back to mother vines in Italy.  He also believes Primitivo prefers French oak aging, while Zinfandel is more suited to American oak.

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Lost Eden Red Blend 2018

Georgia, oh Georgia
No, no, no, no, no peace I find
Just an old sweet song
Keeps Georgia on my mind

Of course, that old Hoagy Carmichael tune was about the US state of Georgia.   But this selection is from Georgia the country, in the Caucasus region of Eurasia.  Specifically, Lost Eden is produced at the Vaziani Winery, located in Telavi, Georgia

Little known to most Americans, Georgia is one of the oldest wine regions in the world. The fertile valleys and protective slopes of the Transcaucasia, which spans the southern portion of the Caucasus Mountains and their lowlands, straddles the border between the continents of Europe and Asia.  Here grapevine cultivation and neolithic wine production began at least 8000 years ago. The very word “wine” is believed to have been derived from the ancient Georgian word “Gvino” which means something that “rises, boils or ferments.” Due to these many millennia of wine history in Georgia, and its prominent economic role, the traditions of wine are considered entwined with and inseparable from the national identity.

When Christianity and the Eucharist came to Georgia in the 4th century AD, wine gained further importance in the nation’s culture.  According to tradition, Saint Nino, who preached Christianity in Kartli, bore a cross made from vine wood.  Another old legend tells of how soldiers prepared for battle by weaving a piece of grapevine into the breastplate of their armor. If they fell in battle, a vine would rise not just from their bodies but from their very hearts.

In 1950, vineyards in Georgia occupied 143,000 acres, but in 1985 that had grown to 316,000 acres, primarily due to increasing demand in what was then the USSR.  However, following the dissolution of that alliance and the end of the Cold War, the relationship between Georgia and Russia has often been rocky, if not outright hostile (including a war with Russia in 2008), and production saw  a subsequent decline. Even so, a recent trade agreement with the European Union has brought renewed optimism to Georgian producers.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture, in 2009 Georgia exported about .9 million cases of wine to 45 countries.  By 2019, production and  exports had increased significantly, with total exports of 7.8 million cases to 53 countries.   During those ten years, exports to the US, although still modest,  increased 48%, to 56,512 cases.  The wine is produced by thousands of small farmers (using primarily traditional techniques of winemaking), as well as some monasteries and modern wineries.  In 2006 there were roughly 80 registered wineries, but by 2018, the number had ballooned to 961.

Growing conditions

Extremes of weather in Georgia are unusual: summers tend to be mild and sunny, and winters frost-free. Natural springs abound, and the many streams of the Caucasian Mountains drain mineral-rich water into the valleys. The moist, moderate climate, influenced by the Black Sea, provides excellent conditions for vine cultivating. In many regions of the country the grapevines are trained to grow up the trunks of fruit trees in terraced orchards, a method of cultivation called maglari.

Georgian grape varieties

Perhaps not surprisingly, traditional Georgian grape varieties have been little known in the New World. However, with increasing international awareness of the wines of Eastern and Central Europe, grapes from this region are gaining a higher profile. Although somewhere between 400 and 500 exist, only 38 varieties are officially grown for commercial viticulture, in 21 distinct wine-producing regions (a.k.a. PDO – Protected Designation of Origin).

Traditionally, much like French regional wines such as Bordeaux or Burgundy, Georgian wines carry the name of the source region, district, or village.  They are usually a blend of two or more grapes, and are classified as sweet, semi-sweet, semi-dry, dry, fortified, and sparkling. The semi-sweet varieties are the most popular in the domestic market.

The Winemaker
Lado Uzunashvili is an 11th generation winemaker.  He was raised in Mukuzani, in the largest wine-producing region in Georgia.  He learned oenology in Moscow, France, and Australia.
“When making the Lost Eden Red Blend, it was important to showcase Georgia as the birthplace of wine. To do this I found the perfect balance between modern and traditional Georgian winemaking practices to illustrate the quality and evolution of wine produced in my country. We believe wine is better with less human intervention,” Uzunashvili explained.

Lost Eden Saperavi Red Blend

Lost Eden is a new product, launched in September of 2020.  The producer states, “In partnership with the Georgian Ministry of Agriculture and Partnership Fund, Lost Eden was crafted to build ties with the West and forever pivot Georgia, the birthplace of wine, away from Russian dominance.”

“The Georgian people have suffered many years of Russian oppression and a number of crippling embargoes that have negatively impacted both our current wine industry and our 8,000 year winemaking tradition. To break free from Russia’s grasp, we partnered with an incredible team to create Lost Eden for the United States wine market. This visionary wine project will not only introduce Americans to an exquisite Georgian wine, but also will help us build back a strong, free wine market in Georgia,” said Irakli Cholobargia, of the National Wine Agency, Ministry of Environmental Protection and Agriculture of Georgia.

The Vaziani Winery

Lost Eden harvests grapes
from arguably the oldest vines on earth.  They use the ancient clay pots called qvevris (pronounced kwevr-ees for fermentation and aging.  They are always buried in the ground, and are usually coated on the inside with beeswax, a natural sealant designed to keep undesirable bacteria from seeping through the walls.

The qvevris are buried in the winery floor.

Saperavi, grown in some areas of the Kakheti region, is one of Georgia’s most important indigenous varietals.  It produces substantial, deep-red wines that are suitable for extended aging of up to fifty years.  It has the potential to produce high alcohol levels, and is used extensively for blending with other, lesser varieties.

The bottle of this unoaked blend features a glass stopper, which is rather stubborn to remove, instead of a cork, and the “veins” molded into it invoke the maglari cultivation method.  Although 100% Saperavi, it is considered a blend because a portion of the wine came from the traditional qvevris and a portion from stainless steel.   And, grapes were sourced from several vineyards.

Lost Eden pours a crystal-clear ruby in the glass.  The nose offers light to medium aromas of red and black cherries and mulberries.  These continue on the smooth palate, joined by cassis and some cocoa.  This is a semi-dry wine, with moderate but pleasant acidity, low tannins, and a somewhat short finish.  ABV is 13%, and 4,500 cases were made.

https://losteden.com/

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