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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Kenwood Vineyards

Kenwood

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Author Jack London (1876 – 1916) was an American novelist, journalist, and social activist. A pioneer of unabashedly commercial fiction in both novels and  magazines, he was one of the first American authors to become an international celebrity and earn a large fortune from writing. His most famous works include The Call of the Wild and White Fang, both set during the Klondike Gold Rush.

In 1905, London purchased a 1,000 acre property in Glen Ellen, California, on the western slope of Sonoma Valley which he named Beauty Ranch. He wrote, “Next to my wife, the ranch is the dearest thing in the world to me. I write for no other purpose than to add to the beauty that now belongs to me. I write a book for no other reason than to add three or four hundred acres to my magnificent estate.”

Working with famous botanist Luther Burbank, he educated himself about caring for the land through the study of agricultural manuals and scientific tomes. They conceived of a system of farming that today would be considered “sustainable,” and hoped to adapt the techniques of Asian agricultural practices to the United States as well.

London intended the ranch as a commercial enterprise, but due to a number of factors, including London’s total lack of business acumen, it was an economic failure.  (Indeed, the property was originally up for sale because the owners believed that the land was “played out.”)   London’s workers laughed at his efforts to play serious rancher, and considered the operation a rich man’s hobby.

Although the vineyards have always been, and remain, owned by London’s heirs, today the the forested parts of the ranch are a National Historic Landmark and are part of Jack London State Historic Park. 

Kenwood Vineyards

The financial success that eluded London has been captured by Kenwood Vineyards, which has been the exclusive producer of wines from the vineyards on this historic property since 1976.  Kenwood was established in 1970 when John Sheela and his brothers-in-law, Mike and Marty Lee, bought the former Pagani Brothers Winery, which was built in 1906.  They converted what was a “bring your own jug” wine facility into a modern winery; this was long before the region’s AVAs were created.

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In 1978, local artist David Lance Goines was commissioned to create original artwork to be used for the label of the 1975 reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, the first release of Kenwood’s Artist Series.

In 1996, F. Korbel & Bros., Inc. acquired a 50 percent stake in the winery. In 1999, Korbel acquired the remaining 50 percent and bought out the founders.  Under Korbel’s management, the operation nearly doubled in size, from less than 300,000 cases (still substantial) to more than 500,000 cases.

In 1999, Korbel sold Kenwood to New York-based Banfi Vintners, the makers of Riunite.  Korbel owner and president Gary Heck explained at the time that the rationale for the sale was to prioritize the company’s sparkling wine business, an operation that was eventually completely abandoned.  So much for the best-laid plans, eh?

In 2014, Kenwood ownership was transferred to Pernod Ricard Winemakers.

The Winemaker

Zeke Neeley grew up in Daly City, south of San Francisco.  He studied biochemistry at U.C. Davis, and later worked in the biotech industry as a cancer researcher.  However, during this first career he kept dreaming of making something physical, and was more and more drawn to wine.  To that end, he took an M.S. in Viticulture and Enology, and subsequently worked at wineries in Santa Cruz, Carneros, and Napa.  He joined Kenwood as chief winemaker in 2017.

Neeley shared, “When walking a vineyard near harvest it feels like a conversation between me, the vineyard, and the wild forces of nature, discussing what personality [a] wine will have, and then I do my best to reach that ideal.”

Neeley works with Winemaking Assistant Rachel Gondouin and Enologist Lois Mateer,

The Jack London Estate Vineyards

The 2,400-foot Sonoma Mountain range rises above the town of Glen Ellen at the western edge of the Valley of the Moon. The 130-acre Jack London estate vineyards sit here at 920 feet, with an eastern exposure that catches the fog-free morning sun. The vineyards’ soil is a unique red volcanic type composed  of Spreckles loam and goulding clay loam.

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Following London’s inspiration, sustainability is the order of the day at Kenwood. Farming techniques are employed that utilize as little of the valuable water resources as possible. The biodiversity program supports endangered fish such as Coho and Steelhead salmon by creating habitats along low flow areas. Bird and bat boxes made from reclaimed pallets are placed throughout the vineyards to attract these creatures as they in turn eat pests. The vineyards are entirely worked by hand, a time-consuming and labor-intensive process, as their layout and slopes make mechanization impossible.

The vineyards are Sonoma Sustainable Certified, with the goal of preserving natural resources, improving  air and water quality, and protecting ecosystems and wildlife habitats.  In fact, through the efforts of the Sonoma County Sustainability Program, 99% of Sonoma’s grape farmers have met the criteria, a remarkable achievement attained within just six years.

The Jack London Wines

With a combined total of just 6,833 cases, these four selections from the Jack London Vineyards represent only a small portion of Kenwood’s current annual output of 300,000 cases.

Kenwood Vineyards Jack London Red Blend 2016

This red blend is made of Zinfandel (62%), Merlot (21%), and Syrah 17%), and saw 18 months in oak barrels, of which 65% were new.   (The blend can and does vary each year.)  It is a completely transparent but dark garnet in the glass.  The nose offers subtle aromas of dark fruit, especially plums, which continue on the lush palate, with hints of toasted oak, plus a bit of pepper from the Zinfandel. The medium tannins and acidity are in excellent balance.  If you are a fan of Pinot Noir, this is a red blend for you.  ABV is 14.8% and 833 cases were produced.

Kenwood Vineyards Jack London Cabernet Sauvignon 2016

A blend* of 78% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Merlot, and 6% Syrah, this wine saw 26 months of aging after fermentation in a combination of French, American, and Hungarian oak barrels, 31% of which were new.  It is a dense, dark purple, with a nose of plums and a hint of sweet Bing cherries.  The plums are on the full-bodied palate as well, plus a hint of mint from the eucalyptus trees that surround the vineyards, and a suggestion of cocoa.  The grippy tannins are balanced by good acidity.  ABV is 15.2% and 5,000 cases were produced.

Kenwood Vineyards Jack London Dry Farmed** Cabernet Sauvignon 2018

In order to meet California’s strict “dry farmed” classification, the fruit for this wine comes from a single block in the vineyard, and must be carefully segregated from bud break to bottle.  The wine saw 17 months of aging after fermentation in a combination of French, American, and Hungarian oak barrels, 60% of which were new. This age-worthy 100% Cabernet is a deep, dark purple, with a nose of brooding blackberry.  The palate is super dry, with recessive dark fruit, particularly dried blueberry, paired with flavors of earth and bay leaf.   Jack London himself can be seen on the label, admiring his Beauty Ranch in 1913.   ABV is 14.1% and 500 cases were produced.

Kenwood Vineyards Jack London Wild Ferment*** Cabernet Sauvignon 2018

Zeke Neeley makes this wine “whenever his ulcer will permit.”  Although he claims to be a “control freak,” relying exclusively on wild yeast to ferment a wine is about as risky as it gets.  Visually identical to the Dry Farmed, the barrel regimen was also similar: 17 months of aging in a combination of French, American, and Hungarian oak barrels, 54% of which were new.  The nose presents aromas of raspberries and blackberries.   The soft, rich palate offers that same raspberry, with black cherry and a bit of dust and leather.  The tannins and acidity of this hedonistic wine are in excellent balance.  On the bottle, Jack London can be seen on horseback riding through the ranch in 1915.   ABV is 14.9% and 500 cases were produced.

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https://kenwoodvineyards.com/

* The US Government’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau mandates that in order for a wine to be labeled as a varietal, i.e. Cabernet Sauvignon, a minimum of 75% of that grape must be used. 

** Dry farming, also called dryland farming, is the cultivation of crops, in this case grapes, without irrigation in regions of low precipitation. Dry farming depends on efficient storage of the limited moisture available in the soil. Tilling the land shortly after harvest, keeping it free from weeds, and prevention of runoff are typically done.

*** A wild-fermented wine uses only native yeasts that are found on the fruit and in the winery, rather than commercial yeasts. For winemakers looking to showcase an individual vineyard and vintage, using wild yeasts for fermentation is the most honest reflection of what’s going on at that site, and is another component of terroir.

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Black Willow Winery

Just about everyone knows about the world-famous Niagara Falls, of course, but the area is home to some increasingly serious winemakers as well, on both the Canadian and U.S. sides of the border.

New York State’s commercial wine industry began when its first bonded winery, Pleasant Valley Wine Company, was founded in Hammondsport in 1860, and the state now ranks third in grape production by volume after California and Washington. But 83% of New York’s grape output is Vitis labrusca varieties, mostly Concord, that find their way into grape juice, jams, jellies, and wines such as, ahem, Manischewitz. The rest is split almost equally between Vitis vinifera (the broad vine species that produces 99% of the world’s wines) and select French hybrids.

Black Willow Winery is located on the south shore of Lake Ontario in Burt, New York, a part of  the Niagara Wine Trail and in the Niagara Escarpment AVA.  Because of its northern location, at first glance this region hardly seems suited to quality winemaking.  However, the climate is moderated by lake effect* from Lake Ontario.  Also, the Niagara Escarpment, an approximately 600-foot-high ridge that runs from east to west through the Great Lakes, retards winds coming off the lake. This makes for good air circulation and helps protect the local vineyards from frost and disease. (The escarpment is most famous as the cliff over which the Niagara River plunges at Niagara Falls.)

The Black Willow property is comprised of 43 acres, with soil and drainage well-suited to growing grapes. It was founded by Michael D. Chamberlain and winemaker Cynthia West-Chamberlain in 2010.  West-Chaimberlain received her Enology Degree from VESTA, the Viticulture Enology Science and Technology Alliance.  It is a National Science Foundation funded partnership between the Missouri State University system, two-year schools throughout the Midwest, state agriculture agencies, vineyards, and wineries, with a 21st century vision for education in grape growing and winemaking.

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Black Willow’s estate vineyard is planted with Diamond grapes, which are a cross between Concord and Iona, both native American varieties, developed in the 1880s in New York.  The winery currently sources other grapes from vineyards across Niagara, Erie, and Seneca.  At this time, Black Willow produces 17 different wines, of which I profile six below, including two meads.

Dry Wines

Black Willow Trilogy Red NV

This red blend, made of Cabernet Sauvignon, Marechal Foch, and Chancellor,** shows a rich dark red in the glass.  Next comes a nice aromatic nose of cherry, cola, and a bit of plum.  With 12% alcohol, it’s also less boozy than most other reds, which tend to come in at 14% to 16%.  You might not think just that slight difference matters, but it does, particularly if you’re looking for something a little less powerful. On the palate, the fruit becomes surprisingly lean and recessive.  The acidity is relatively low, and the tannins are mild.  Overall, a pleasant wine, especially if you are just getting into reds. 250 cases were produced.

Black Willow Trilogy White Reserve NV

Made from Chardonnay, Riesling, and Cayuga White,*** this very pale yellow wine is crystal clear. The nose offers aromas of honeydew melons and crème brûlée.  The palate features a smooth, creamy mouthfeel with flavors that include lemons and limes. It’s all supported by good balanced acidity.  12% ABV, and 250 cases were made.

Black Willow Estate Diamond NV

The winery characterizes this white wine as “unique,” and indeed it is.  Very pale straw-colored in the glass, it is made from 100% Diamond grapes. This wine starts with scents of Granny Smith apples, nectarines, and papayas.  These continue on the palate with the addition of canned pineapple, backed up with a zing of lemon.  It qualifies as dry, but I’d say it’s right on the edge of that; the acidity saves it from being pushed over.  11% ABV, and 500 cases were made.

Sweet wine

Black Willow Classic Diamond NV

This sweet wine is also  100% Diamond grapes, and demonstrates how a skilled winemaker can produce remarkably different products from identical ingredients.  It is nearly colorless, and starts with a nose of apricots and lavender.  There is a smooth mouthfeel on the palate, with flavors of Granny Smith apples, apricots, and peaches.  The sweetness characteristic of those fruits is there for sure, but it is nicely balanced by some racy acidity.  The winery suggests this would pair well with “cheese, desserts, Asian, Thai, and Indian cuisine.”  Before tasting the wine, I was down with the cheese and dessert, but was skeptical about the rest. But that acidity certainly makes it doable, especially if you lean towards sweeter wines, or even soft drinks, with meals. Clocks in at an approachable 11% ABV, and 750 cases were bottled.

Meads

“What the heck is mead?” you may be asking.  Good question.  It is an ancient tipple, dating back as far as Biblical times, and was produced throughout Europe, especially early England, Africa, and Asia. It’s very popular on Game of Thrones. Long relegated to the dust bin of history, mead has been enjoying a renaissance over the past few years.  Because its production shares much of the ingredients and equipment of winemaking, it has been embraced by a few boutique producers like Black Willow.  The alcohol content can range from about 3.5% ABV to more than 18%. The defining characteristic of mead is that the majority or all of the beverage’s sugar is derived from honey, which is fermented with water and yeast, plus optional fruits, herbs, spices, or flowers.  It may be made as still, carbonated, or naturally sparkling; and as dry, semi-sweet, or sweet.

Mead has played an important role in mythology, particularly that of Scandinavia. For example, the Mead of Poetry was crafted from honey and the blood of the Norse deity and seer Kvasir, and allegedly turned the drinker into a poet or scholar.

Black Willow Odin’s Nectar Mead NV

One of three meads Black Willow makes, Odin’s Nectar draws on Norse mythology.  According to the winery, “The horns of Odin, father of all Viking gods, are recalled in traditional Norse toasting rituals. Odin uses his wit and magic to procure the magical brew over three days. The three horns reflect the three draughts of the magical mead.”

Odin’s Nectar presents as nice medium gold. The nose has a distinct floral quality, mostly honeysuckle, with aromas of honeycomb and toasted almond as well.  Even though it is made from honey, it is less sweet than might be expected, and definitely qualifies as semi-dry.  It is soft on the palate, with tastes that echo the aromas, plus dried pear and vanilla.  The finish is long and dry.  12% ABV, and 500 cases were made.

Black Willow Valkyrie’s Lure Mead NV

This mead also is connected to an ancient Norse story. Says Black Willow, “Commanded by Odin, the Valkyrie claimed the fallen from the battlefield. They are believed to have welcomed warriors into Valhalla, the afterlife hall of the slain, with a horn full of mead. Lovers of battle heroes and harbingers of death, they are sweet but deadly.”

This mead is a rich, honey gold.  Appropriate, no?  In addition to the honey, it is made with pears and cinnamon. Like Odin’s Nectar, there is distinct honeysuckle on the nose, along with pear, predictably.  The palate features flavors of pear,  a hint of that cinnamon, and surprisingly, some mango and apple.  It has a smooth mouthfeel, and is only semi-sweet, so it would work well both as an apéritif and with cheeses or dessert.  I guess you could call this a wine to die for, eh?  12% ABV, and 500 cases were made.

https://blackwillowwinery.com/

*As the spring growing season begins, the lake’s cooling effect retards the vines from budding until the spring frost season is over. The lake stores daytime heat as the growing season continues. The effect of the warming water lessens the variation between day and night temperatures, which can lengthen the growing season by as much as four weeks. As summer draws to an end, the stored warmth of the lake water delays frost that might damage  the vines or fruit in the early fall. In winter, the lake also causes heavy, moist snowfall, which blankets the vineyards, insulating and protecting the vines from the frigid air.

**Marechal Foch and Chancellor are French-American hybrids widely grown in the eastern U.S. and Canada.  They produce light, Beaujolais-like red wines.

***Cayuga White is a hybrid created by the New York State Agricultural Office by crossing  Seyval Blanc with a native American vine.

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