Freemark Abbey Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville 2017

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Josephine Tychson

In 1881, Josephine Marlin Tychson and her Danish husband, John, traveled from Pennsylvania to St. Helena in the hope of alleviating his tuberculosis and becoming vintners. They purchased 147 acres of property just north of town from a retired sea captain, William Sayward, who had earlier bought the land from Charles Krug. They planted Zinfandel, Riesling, and “Burgundy” vines on the estate. Five years later, Tychson Cellars was established, but not before John’s despair over his affliction caused him to commit suicide.

After this sad event, the undaunted Josephine continued to nurture the vines she and her husband had planted together, and with the help of her foreman, Nils Larsen, she oversaw the construction of an impressive redwood winery, large enough to contain up to 30,000 gallons of wine. She became the first woman in the entire state of California to oversee the building of a winery and one of the first few female winemakers in the state.

However, her stewardship only lasted until 1894, when  she sold the facility to Larsen. He in turn leased the property to Italian immigrant Antonio Forni and sold it to him in 1898. Forni renamed the winery Lombarda Cellars after his birthplace in Italy, and the following year he razed Tychson’s winery and constructed a new building out of hand-hewn stones from nearby Glass Mountain. Workers were primarily Italian; many of their descendants live in St. Helena to this day. This historic winery structure was until fairly recently used for barrel storage and wine making, but both have since been moved off site. All wines are now made at Cardinale Winery in Oakville, part of Jackson Family Wines, the current owner of Freemark.

Forni concentrated his efforts on making Chianti and other Italian-style wines which he marketed to the numerous Italians that had moved to Barre, Vermont, the site of America’s largest marble and granite quarries. Like so many others, Forni was forced to cease most operations when Prohibition began in 1920. He was licensed to produce sacramental wine for the Catholic Church, but that barely kept the operation viable.

Lombarda Cellars on Highway 29 in 1939
The historic building today.

Forni, who never fully recovered from Prohibition, sold the winery and vineyard in 1939 to three businessmen from Southern California, Albert “Abbey” Ahern, Charles Freeman, and Markquand Foster. They renamed the winery Freemark Abbey. (Amusingly, despite the sacramental wine production history, the winery has never been part of a monastery or a religious body; the name is instead a combination which includes a portion of each partner’s name.) The winery opened a “sampling room” in 1949, making this one of the first tasting rooms in Napa Valley. (Incidentally in the 1950s Freemark Abbey was one of the largest up-valley wine grape jelly producers. An article from the September 10, 1952 issue of the Napa Register references at least twelve different types of jellies produced at the winery that year.) Continue reading “Freemark Abbey Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville 2017”

Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2013

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Three decades ago, on my first visit to Napa valley, I stopped by Beringer for a tasting.  I didn’t know much about Beringer at the time, mostly that they had a long history and made some well-regarded wines.  Back then, tastings were free, but a friend had given me a tip to skip that and head upstairs to the Founders room, where you could sample Beringer’s best wines for $10.  As a bonus, there was a crowd downstairs, but I had upstairs nearly to myself. I left that session with a life-long affinity and appreciation of what Cabernets from Napa could be like. (Today, the basic tasting is $45, and the high-end samplings are $125 or $150, depending on which way you go.)

Jacob Beringer

In 1868, Jacob Beringer, enticed by the opportunities of the new world, sailed from his home in Mainz, Germany, to New York. However, after hearing that the rocky hillside soil and fertile valley floor of Napa Valley resembled that of vineyards back home in Germany, Jacob made his way to California in 1869. He became cellar foreman for Charles Krug, one of the first commercial winemakers in Napa Valley. A few years later, in 1875, Jacob and his brother, Frederick, purchased 215 acres next door to Charles Krug in St. Helena for $14,500. This parcel of land, known as Los Hermanos (the brothers), became the heart of the Beringer estate.

Here, the brothers oversaw their first harvest and crush in 1876. With Jacob serving as winemaker and Frederick as financier, they made approximately 40,000 gallons of wine, or 18,000 cases, that first year. In order to house the fermentation tanks, the first two floors of the original winery were built, and Chinese workers began digging a 1,200-foot-long tunnel to store the wine for aging.

The Beringer cave.

Continue reading “Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2013”

Tenuta Vineyards

Nancy Tenuta is one of only six female winery owners in the Livermore Valley, due east of San Francisco. Tenuta and her then-husband Ron purchased a 22-acre lot just east of the Ruby Hill subdivision in Livermore in June 2000 with the vision of immersing themselves in the world of wine. There, 14 acres of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay were being grown in about a 50/50 mix. All of the vines were between 12 and 25 years old at the time. Over the next three years, the Tenutas built a 16,000-square-foot winery and a 5,000-square-foot estate home nearby. In all, they invested more than $5 million in the project, money that Nancy Tenuta collected using a variety of “creative” means, according to her, given that banks aren’t fond of such risky ventures.

Nancy Tenuta graduated from Portland State University in 1981, and spent the next twenty years in the business world. She held a number of sales positions, and in the 1990s she traded stocks. Ron Tenuta was general manager of Protection Services Industries in Livermore, which specializes in commercial security.

With the owner’s extensive business savvy, Tenuta Vineyards quickly became Livermore’s third-largest winery in a valley that has produced wine for more than 150 years. The first and second spots are held by Wente Vineyards (300,000 cases a year) and Concannon Vineyards (200,000 cases a year) respectively. As they began to plan their operation, the Tenutas researched the local market and discovered that many wineries there were small and had no production facilities or space to store their wine. Therefor, they ambitiously built a winery facility much larger than they needed so they could provide custom crushing, sorting, barrel storage, bottling, and even vineyard maintenance to others. Because of this, Tenuta’s own wines are a minority of the operation. Only 3,000 cases of the 30,000 produced annually is released under the Tenuta label. The rest is private labeled for 15 other growers in the area. Continue reading “Tenuta Vineyards”

Robert Hall Cabernet Sauvignon 2019

Located 20 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, Paso Robles is in California’s South Central Coast region. It is one of California’s oldest wine production areas, with a winemaking tradition that stretches back to the 1790s. Known particularly for its rolling hills and valleys, nearly 80% of the wines produced here are red varietals, including Syrah, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. The climate of hot days ripen the grapes, and cool nights help to maintain acidity, complexity, and aromatics. Soils vary from silts to silt loams to clay to limestone.

An entrepreneur out of St. Paul, Minnesota who founded and grew a broad range of innovative businesses, Robert Hall and his family went on a trip to southern France in the 1970s and their passion for wine began. After “retiring” in 1999, he came to Paso Robles to realize his dream of owning a winery, which he did until his death in 2014.

When Hall and his wife Margaret purchased the land “there was nothing there” as she recalled, “but dirt.” The two were hands-on building their dream, designing the production facilities and winery. Twenty-six feet below ground are 19,000 square feet of caves. This cool sanctuary is home to 4,000 premium French oak barrels. Now the fifth-largest winery in Paso Robles, Robert Hall was named “Winery of the Year” by the California State Fair and California Mid-State Fair.

The winery and tasting room.

In August of 2016, Robert Hall was purchased by O’Neill Vintners & Distillers, the seventh-largest wine producer in California by volume. In addition to Robert Hall, the company’s national brands include Line 39, Harken, Exitus, Day Owl Rose, Austerity, and Intercept. Continue reading “Robert Hall Cabernet Sauvignon 2019”

Gibbs Centa Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2016

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

Dr. Lewis Gibbs Carpenter Jr.
Craig Handly
Spencer Handly

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

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

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

The Gibbs tasting room in St. Helena.

Continue reading “Gibbs Centa Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2016”

Penfolds Bin 600 Cabernet Shiraz 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penfolds Bin 600 Cabernet Shiraz 2018

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

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

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

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Keenan Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2016

As a reviewer and source of reliable information, I am supposed to be as objective and unbiased as possible. But not today.  Keenan wines have long been some of my favorites. If you need impartiality, please come back soon.  If not, read on.

After serving in World War II, Robert Keenan worked as an insurance broker and also invested in commercial real estate.  He had been a wine enthusiast for years, including owning a significant collection of Bordeaux wines, and finally decided to have a go at winemaking.  Certain that mountain-side vineyards in Napa Valley could produce world class wines, in 1974 Keenan purchased 180 acres (of which 48 are under vine) in the Spring Mountain District at an elevation of 1700 feet. Located on the eastern slope of the Mayacamas mountain range, (Spring Mountain District was declared an American Vineyard Appellation (AVA) in 1993.) The low-vigor soils unique to the region were known to create a stressful environment for vine growth, setting up perfect conditions to encourage vineyards planted on the steep rocky mountainsides to produce wines of great concentration, structure, and pure varietal flavors.

The original acreage Keenan acquired included the crumbling Peter Conradi Winery, founded in the late 19th century, and one of the first pioneering properties established on Spring Mountain.  Conradi and his family moved here in 1890, planted grapes a year later, and built a simple wooden winery which he later replaced with a winery made of stone in 1904.  Conradi had originally planted the vineyards to Zinfandel and Syrah, but those declined when the property was abandoned during Prohibition, and by the time Keenan arrived in 1974, none of the original vineyards were producing. Keenan cleared the estate of tree stumps and rocks, extended the vineyard acreage, and replanted the property to Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. He built a new winery, using the existing stone walls from the old Conradi building for the barrel room, and brought in Keenan Winery’s first harvest there in 1977.

Like many such operations, the winery is a collaborative affair. Keenan’s son, Michael, after running a residential home remodeling business for years, took over leadership of the estate in 1998 when his father was ready to retire and was looking for a buyer. Even as a young man, Michael was eager to learn about winemaking and honed his winemaking skills under the leadership of his father, as well as renowned winemaker Joe Cafaro. Michael Keenan now works in concert with General Manager Matt Gardner, Cellar Master Aristeo Garcia Martinez, and Assistant Cellar Master Ricardo Segura. Matt has been with the estate since 1995. Together, they establish winemaking protocols, aging, and the finished style of Keenan wines.

 

The Keenan winery.

In the tasting room and winery itself, Michael’s wife and Artistic Director Jennifer Keenan ensures that visitors enjoy the full experience of the winery through her creative and playful interior design and sumptuous event design. She is responsible for the classic Keenan image and created the unique label design for the brand.

The Keenan’s son, Reilly, predictably has been immersed in wine culture from a very early age. He became a member of the team at age sixteen, and works during harvest, hosts tastings for visitors on the estate, pours for wine events, and is the dedicated point person for many consumer and trade events.

Under Michael Keenan’s supervision, the vineyards have been systematically replanted to increase grape quality. The program focused on increasing soil health throughout the vineyards, using superior farming methods combined with organic compost and cover crops. Matching each varietal clone to its optimum location, every acre is sustainably farmed and planted with specially selected rootstock. In addition, close attention has been given to row orientation on each site, combined with efficient irrigation. The winemaking team takes a conservative approach, to encourage the varietal flavors to stand out in each bottle of wine.

 

The estate vineyard.

Keenan Winery produces three wines exclusively from grapes grown on the Spring Mountain Estate: Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, Cabernet Franc, plus a Merlot Reserve from the Mailbox Vineyard. Keenan also offers wines produced from estate fruit blended with grapes grown in carefully selected Napa Valley vineyards: Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, and the Mernet Reserve, which is a proprietary blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. The Summer Blend, an annual spring release, is composed of mostly Chardonnay and blended with small amounts of Viognier and Albarino.

Keenan Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Spring Mountain District 2016

This wine commemorates Keenan’s 40th vintage.  It was produced exclusively from grapes grown on the Keenan Estate located in Napa Valley’s Spring Mountain District, 31% each of the Cabernet Sauvignon clones 337, 7, and 412 along with 7% Cabernet Franc.

It is opaque, dark purple, with moderate aromas of dark fruit, cassis, prunes, and a hint of menthol and earth.  The rich, full body sports lip-smacking flavors of those dark fruits and a little cedar, all supported by bracing tannins and just the right amount of acidity.  This wine should reward cellaring, but I like my California Cabs young, big, and strapping, so that’s the way I drink them.  Hell, I like tannins.  This wine is undoubtedly expensive, but worth it.  900 cases were made, and the ABV is 14.3%.

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Duckhorn Vineyards Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2017

Duckhorn Vineyards was co-founded by Dan and Margaret Duckhorn in 1976. On their first vintage, 1978, they released 800 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon and 800 cases of Merlot. Partly due to a wonderful growing season that year, 1978 turned out to be an excellent first vintage, one that buttressed Duckhorn’s belief that great wines begin in the vineyard, “It was a great year,” he reminisced. “We could have made wine out of walnuts.” Sauvignon Blanc was added to the list in 1982. In 2005, the San Francisco Chronicle proclaimed Dan Duckhorn its “Winemaker of the Year” and named four of his wines to its list of “Top 100 Wines of 2005.”

Dan Duckhorn

Early on, the Duckhorns decided to focus on the production of Merlot. At the time, few Napa Valley producers were exploring the potential of this varietal as a standalone wine. But, Dan Duckhorn became a great fan of Merlot during his travels in the mid-’70s to St. Emilion and Pomerol. He felt that this varietal was underappreciated in North America. “I liked the softness, the seductiveness, the color,” says Dan, “the fact that it went with a lot of different foods; it wasn’t so bold, didn’t need to age so long, and it had this velvety texture to it. It seemed to me to be a wonderful wine to just enjoy. I became enchanted with Merlot.”

Soon after establishing his winery, Duckhorn met up with Ric Forman. He was the winemaker at Sterling Vineyards at the time, and when he heard that Duckhorn was looking for some Merlot, he gave him a call, “I’ve got a vineyard you have to see.” Forman took Duckhorn up to the Three Palms Vineyard in Calistoga. Forman also recommended a winemaker by the name of Tom Rinaldi. When Rinaldi rolled up to the winery on a motorcycle looking like “a flower child,” as Margaret Duckhorn called him, they had no idea what they were in for. But, it worked out because Rinaldi ended up as the Duckhorn winemaker for the next 20 years.

Margaret Duckhorn

From the first vintage, Margaret took an active role in the day-to-day operations of the winery, hand-sorting the fruit and working alongside Rinaldi during blending. Later, she began focusing on marketing and international public relations to promote Duckhorn Vineyards. Over the years, she also helped to articulate Duckhorn Vineyards’ philosophy and core values. “We recognize the importance of taking care of this remarkable place, and of giving back to the community that has given us so much. In addition, we make certain that our practices at the winery and in our vineyards are sustainable.”  After the Duckhorns divorced in 2000, Margaret pivoted to advocating for the Napa Valley wine industry, working both locally and globally to protect and promote the region.

The first few years were simple, with only three stainless steel tanks under a big oak tree and hand-cranked basket presses. For the first vintage in 1978, they only harvested 28 tons of grapes into apple lug boxes, half Cabernet Sauvignon and half Merlot. Everything was hand-picked and sorted extensively. Duckhorn’s trip to France had also introduced him to the Nadalie family who were barrel builders, and he decided that brand new French oak was the way to go. Those first few vintages were cellared exclusively in Nadalie coopered barrels.

The Duckhorn Visitor Center (bottom photo: Zaiya Mikhael)

In 1982, Duckhorn made its first white varietal wine, Sauvignon Blanc. With the expansion of the winemaking program came a need for more fruit; this is when Duckhorn began acquiring some of the properties that are still important today. Two of the first vineyards purchased were Patzimaro Vineyard in 1989 and Monitor Ledge Vineyard in 1992. Today, the winery’s seven estate vineyards are located on 168 acres (68 ha) in alluvial fans of the Napa Valley and on the slopes of Howell Mountain. There are an additional 153 acres (62 ha) of four estate vineyards in the Anderson Valley in Mendocino County.

Two of the valley vineyards (bottom photo: Phil Guertin)

The mountain has distinctly different grape-growing conditions than the valley floor. Often during summer months, the maritime fog seeping into the Napa Valley below will not reach the mountaintop, giving Howell Mountain more sunlight and moderate temperatures.  The shallow and rocky soil drains easily, forcing the vines to send roots deep in search of water. And, the rocks retain the day’s heat, protecting the vines during cold spring mornings and foggy summer nights.

Duckhorn’s current winemaker, Renee Ary, has numerous vineyard blocks to choose from, each offering markedly different flavor profiles. She strives to understand the needs and opportunities presented by each specific terroir and microclimate. By approaching each vineyard block individually, Ary’s goal is to harvest when the flavors have reached their peak and the tannins are at their softest. Grapes are hand-picked and hand-sorted prior to crushing, as they have been since the beginning. In addition, some vineyard sites are even harvested several times, selecting only the ripe fruit with each pass through the vineyard.

In the winery, Ary blends from almost 200 distinctive lots using taste and instinct, not formula. Wines are barrel-aged separately by vineyard lot, utilizing an extensive barrel program that sources 25 different types of oak from 13 separate cooperages. The majority of the barrels are made from French oak in the Bordeaux Chateau style. These barrels breathe easier, encouraging the wines to develop. Duckhorn also employs many water-bent barrels, a process which removes harsh tannins from the wood, bringing about toasty, caramelized flavors.

In July 2007, a controlling interest in the company was sold to GI Partners, a private equity firm, at a price believed to be over $250 million. The company was sold to another private equity firm, TSG Consumer Partners, in 2016. The operation continues to expand under this ownership. In addition to Duckhorn Vineyards, Duckhorn Wine Company also operates Goldeneye [1996], a maker of Pinot noir in Anderson Valley, and Paraduxx, a blend of Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon made at a winery on the Silverado Trail between Yountville and Oakville, California. The company also produces second wines under the names Decoy [1985], made from Alexander Valley fruit not included in Duckhorn, Migration [2001], made with grapes from Anderson Valley and the Sonoma coast, and Canvasback [2012] a maker of Cabernet Sauvignon in Washington state’s Red Mountain appellation.

Duckhorn also controls Greenwing, which makes Cabernet Sauvignon in Washington’s Columbia Valley, and Postmark, a maker of Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from the increasingly reliable Paso Robles region.

Finally, two formerly independent wineries are now also under Duckhorn’s wing. Calera, founded in 1975 by Josh Jensen, is known for their Central Coast Pinot Noirs. Kosta Brown, dating back to 1997, is one of Sonoma’s premier producers of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Duckhorn Vineyards Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2017

A blend of 87% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Merlot, 0.5% Cabernet Franc, and 0.5% Petit Verdot, from Duckhorn’s estate vineyards and top Napa Valley growers, this wine was aged for 16 months in French oak barrels, half of them used, that restrained the oakiness.  This dark purple selection begins with moderate aromas, primarily vanilla and rich dark fruit, especially berries.  These continue in the mouth, backed up by black currant, tart cherry, and an earthy finish that has a hint of bitterness.  1,600 cases were produced, and the ABV is 14.5%.

Orin Swift Cellars Palermo 2018

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

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

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

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

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

David Phinney.  Photo: Margaret Pattillo.

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

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

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

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

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

Orin Swift Palermo Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2018

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

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

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

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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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Kokonor Cabernet Sauvignon 2018

There are many ways to buy wine: at a wine shop or liquor store, at a grocery store, or through a winery’s wine club, among others.  There is another option that I use on occasion.  These are online “flash sites” that offer one or even a few different bottles for sale per day, at discounts of around 15 to 70%, often with free shipping if you place a minimum order, which tends to be three to six bottles and varies with the price.  How do they do this?

  1. The winery approaches the site (or vice versa), looking to sell some wine that the winery has not been able to sell as quickly as they would like.  The winery may be stressed by lack of cash flow, not enough storage space, or some other unknown.
  2. They agree on a price that enables the site to sell the wine at well below retail.
  3. The site buys all (or most) of the available stock.
  4. The site then offers the wine at a discounted price, often substantially so.

Here are a three such sites you might want to try:
www.invino.com
www.lastbottlewines.com
www.wtso.com

This Kokonor came from wtso.com.  It had a listed retail price of $135 (true retail prices are sometimes difficult to verify, but on Kokonor’s web site the 2016 was selling for $125 before the allocation window closed.  The 2017 and 2018 were not available there.)  WTSO sold this bottle for $33, with free shipping on three bottles.  Quite a deal, almost too good to be true, so I contacted the winery for clarification.   This is what their representative had to say, “Due to Covid-19 and wildfires in 2020 all but shutting all of our sales channels down (tasting room, on-premise sales) we released our 2017 and 2018 vintages on Wines Til Sold Out [at] well below our cost.”  So, sometimes when it’s gotta go, it’s gotta go.

Kokonor is owned by a Chinese company, Qinghua Huzhu Barley Wine,* under the subsidiary Koko Nor Corp., which purchased Sundown Ranch LLC in late  2013 for $15 million. Sundown’s main asset was a 1000-acre property in St. Helena at the north end of Napa Valley, of which 100 acres were under vine. Kokonor makes the wine from fruit sourced from this vineyard at the  Maxville Winery in the Chiles Valley AVA east of Napa Valley.  (The CEO of Maxville, Anthony Hsu, was born in Taiwan and spent time there off and on before adulthood.  Coincidental that a Chinese company should make wine at Maxville?  I leave that up to you to decide.)

The Winemaker

George Bursick grew up in Sonoma County, where many of his friends’ families were grape growers and he was exposed to vineyards and winemaking early on. After attending UC Santa Barbara for a while, he was hired part-time at Beringer Winery in St. Helena. His first duty was assembling Christmas gift packs for the tasting room. Soon after however, he graduated to the cellar where in 1970 he was, “…dragging hoses for $5.26 an hour. I was glad to be making such good money.”

“Myron Nightingale [Beringer’s winemaker at the time] was my first mentor, my first serious inspiration to become a winemaker,” said Bursick. “He encouraged me to return to college and finish my undergrad work in plant physiology and to get a Master’s Degree in enology from UC Davis. In the meantime I was learning the winery business from the ground up working in the cellars at Beringer.”

Upon graduation from UC Davis, Bursick began his first solo winemaking job at the now-closed McDowell Valley Vineyards in Mendocino County on the recommendation of John Parducci. One of his most significant accomplishments there was the first varietal release of Syrah in California. This was in 1980 from the 1978 vintage of 100-year-old vines, which had long been misidentified as Petit Sirah, at least in this vineyard. Bursick suspected the mistake and brought in ampelographists to verify his opinion that the vines were in fact Syrah and more than worthy of a special bottling.

After nine years at McDowell, old friend Justin Meyer recommended him to Rhonda and Don Carano. They were in the early stages of their plans for a new winery in Sonoma County called Ferrari-Carano and Bursick joined the team as Director of Winemaking.

“From the beginning, I think we were all what you might call progressive; maybe aggressive,” he said of the early days at Ferrari-Carano. “We wanted to make really great wine and we explored all possibilities. We were among the first to bring in ENTAV clones from the France’s viticultural authority. We experimented with barrels, fermentation, yeasts, we researched everything and we’d try anything, in the winery and in the vineyard. And for the most part, the results were worth it.”

Bursick left Ferrari-Carano in 2006 in order to focus on his expanding consulting business, and later through that work become Vice President of Winemaking at J Winery. He agreed to the take the position with the stipulation that his existing consulting clients would not be affected. Bursick ushered J Vineyards into a new era of wine production focused on cool-climate, site-specific Russian River Valley Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

He produced the Kokonor as a consultant at Maxville.

Kokonor Cabernet Sauvignon 2018

The fruit for this 100% Cabernet Sauvignon was hand-picked from select blocks, hand-sorted, and then whole-berry fermented in micro-fermentation batches.  It was aged for 22 months in 100% French oak.

A predicable dark opaque purple, Kokonor serves up classic aromas of blackberry and cassis, which continue on the palate.  However, the wine is fruit-recessive, in the Old World style.  It is supported by notes of tobacco and cedar, as well as zippy acidity and grippy tannins.  336 cases were produced, and the ABV is 14.5%.

Would I pay $135 for this wine?  Well, no.   Would I pay $33?  Hell yes.  As indeed I did.

* Barley wine isn’t wine at all, but rather a strong ale with between 6 to 12% alcohol by volume.  The beer writer Michael Jackson referred to a barley wine by Smithwick’s as, “This is very distinctive, with an earthy hoppiness, a wineyness, lots of fruit and toffee flavours.” 

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Grieve Family Winery Double Eagle

The Grieve Family Winery is located in a secure and undisclosed location in Napa Valley.  It is not open to the public, and tastings are offered exclusively to wine club members by appointment only. Remarkably, there is no access from Napa Valley itself; the rare visitor must navigate a long, winding dead-end road that begins in Sonoma Valley. The following dossier is the information that agents Mulder and Scully have been able to assemble so far about the operation.

Sonoma / Napa County line in Lovall Valley
Photo: Kelly Mitchell

“Although the exact location of Grieve Family Winery remains a mystery, we have determined that it is located north of Carneros in the Mayacama Mountains in a unique hilltop bowl-like depression called Lovall Valley. An area rich in history and steeped in myth, local lore has it that the name “Lovall” (pronounced “love-all”) originates from a high-class brothel that once existed in this secluded part of the wine country. And during Prohibition, valley bootleggers are said to have run their contraband from here to San Francisco.

“Lovall hosts one of the coldest growing areas in Napa, much like the Sonoma Coast. The cold air and fog from nearby San Pablo Bay settle in from early evening through midday, remaining longer than in any other area in Napa. The soils are a mix of volcanic and sedentary.  A shallow but nutrient-rich top layer is predominately Perkins gravelly loam, with compacted volcanic discharge beneath which causes the vines to struggle.

David and Kathleen Grieve

“As is often the case with the current generation of Northern California winery owners and winemakers, David Grieve first had a different, successful career; in this instance, he was a commercial real estate developer in San Francisco (and still maintains a similar business in Sonoma). But, in 2002 Grieve and his wife Kathleen decided to leave city life behind to settle in the bucolic Wine Country of Napa, and purchased a home on 10 acres in Lovall Valley, next door to a small Sauvignon Blanc vineyard.  In 2004, they purchased the adjacent vineyard property as well.

“Both David and Kathleen were long-time avid wine enthusiasts, but neither had much experience with Sauvignon Blanc.  Once they owned property plated to the grape however, they studied up on the varietal and sampled Sauvignon Blancs from different producers to determine the kinds they liked best. Grieve began touring the surrounding countryside to explore the vines growing nearby, and soon discovered that the Lovall Valley offered unique circumstances for growing these grapes.

“Soon, the Grieves took an even deeper dive and started producing a small quantity of wine from each year’s harvest.  They sold the remainder of the crop to select, high-quality wine producers in the area.  But all of this changed in 2008, when Grieve was introduced to wine-industry veteran and chef Vance Rose at a pop-up 12-course “underground” dinner that Rose would occasionally host. Not long after meeting, the two began making wine under the Grieve Family label, completing a total of eight vintages together, and in the process turning what had been a hobby into a genuine boutique winery.

““In addition to producing wine, David is also an avid golfer.  In fact, the Grieves had a fairway and putting green installed right next to the vineyard.    They christened their inaugural releases as “Double Eagle.”  In golf, the double eagle shot, also known as an albatross, is as rare as a hole-in-one, and the idea was to imply that the wine was just as exclusive.

Photo: Sofia Englund / Sonoma Magazine

Philippe Melka

“The current winemaker at Grieve is  Bordeaux native Philippe Melka.  He is a self-described “soil nerd,” who has always been intrigued by the intricacies and demands of the land. He originally pursued a degree in geology at the University of Bordeaux. However, a winemaking class during his final year pivoted him into a life in the wine world. He learned the craft of winemaking at such prestigious estates as Château Haut Brion, Petrus, Dominus, Silver Oak, and his own Melka Wines. The Grieves were interested in pursuing the potential of their remote vineyard and Melka was interested in working for the first time with Lovall Valley fruit. In 2018,  Melka, along with his Atelier Melka partner, Maayan Koschitzky, took over winemaking for Grieve Family Winery

Grieve Family Estate Vineyard

“The Grieve’s Lovall Valley estate vineyard is organically and sustainably farmed. Due to the site’s unusually cool climate, harvests run at least two weeks behind other Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc vineyards, intensifying flavors by virtue of the prolonged hang-time. Harvest is done block by block, with the goal of  ensuring recognizable sense-of-place flavors in the final wine.”

Grieve Family Winery Double Eagle Sauvignon Blanc 2018

When it’s time to select a white wine for dinner, I usually first search for a Chardonnay in the basement refrigerator.  If none is available, I’ll go for a Savignon Blanc, and failing that, a Pinot Grigio/Gris.   Both of the latter are often reliable but unassuming options.


Photo: Wilson Daniels

The Grieve Double Eagle Sauvignon Blanc demands attention though.   The bottle features a front label made from rather extravagant foil-stamped genuine leather, I assume to invoke an association with old-school leather golf bags. The fruit was sourced from the Grieve estate vineyard, and saw fermentation in a concrete egg* and sur lie aging.  It pours a pale yellow, opening with mild aromas of tropical fruit.  There is also an expected vegetal undernote, in this case green bell peppers rather than grass, which I’m not a fan of in any Sauvignon Blanc.  The tropical fruit and a bit of lemon zest continue on the palate, which also features a soft, round mouthfeel.  There is snappy acidity at the lingering end.  Grieve produced 442 cases.   ABV is 14.2%.

Grieve Family Winery Double Eagle Red Wine 2018**

This blend of 91% Cabernet Sauvignon and 9% Merlot was sourced from vineyards in Oakville and St. Helena. Like the Sauvingon Blanc, the front label is leather. The bottle is sealed with black wax. Although this makes for a nice presentation, the wax was quite hard. So much so that trying to get it off broke the foil cutter on my admittedly cheap waiter’s corkscrew. I had to use my kitchen torch to melt off enough of the wax to get at the cork so I could pull it. Ahem.

Once open, it pours an opaque dark purple in the glass. The nose is mostly dark stone fruit, with vanilla and spice from the 18 months it saw in French oak, of which 67% was new. This carries on to the palate, especially plum, plus a lush mouthfeel and a hint of earth. It’s all supported by nicely balanced acidity and grippy tannins.  The whole show wraps up with a long finish.  661 cases were made.  ABV is 14.6%.

grievewinery.com/

*  Concrete is very good for controlling the amount of oxygen a fermenting wine sees, without adding vanilla oak flavors like a barrel would.  It can also give the acidity in the wine a polished feel, from the minerals present in the concrete.  Finally, some believe that stirring the lees in a vortex during fermentation results in richness and a full mouthfeel.  It certainly did in this selection.

The Grieve Sauvignon Blanc derives from two vine varieties: a French clone vine and a California “clone 3” vine, sometimes known as “the lost clone.”  (97% of California Sauvignon Blancs derive from clone 2; clone 3 vines are rare.)

**A note about wine marketing:  These Grieves are high-end wines, especially the Double Eagle Red.  In keeping with that, it features that hard-to-open wax seal and leather label.  And, this selection is guilty of Bloated Bottle Syndrome, which I’m calling out for bottles that weigh more than the wine they contain. The web site of nearly every winery will usually include a mention of the operation’s dedication to “sustainability” and “stewardship.”  Unfortunately, this often seems only to extend to the property itself.  Many “premium” wines like this one come in heavier bottles to allegedly denote quality.  This one weighs in at a hefty 1007 grams. (As an example of a more typical bottle, Estancia Cabernet’s comes in at 494 grams.) That’s a lot of extra weight to be shipping around the country.  By comparison, the wine inside, as always, only weighs 750 grams.   Even sparkling wine bottles often weigh less than this one, and those are made to withstand high internal pressure.  Unfortunately, this sort of “bottle-weight marketing” is becoming more common, especially at higher price points. But there are other ways to denote quality without weight: unusual label designs, foils, wax dipping, etc.

Plastic bottles have a lower environmental impact than glass, 20% to 40% less, in fact. And, bag-in-box packages are even less than plastic bottles. (Unfortunately, current bag technology will only keep unopened wine fresh for about a year, so they are only suitable for wines to be consumed upon release from the winery; that’s about 90% of all wine sold though.)

The carbon footprint of global winemaking and global wine consumption is nothing to scoff at. The latter, which requires cases of wine be shipped around the world, imprints a deep carbon footprint. Because wine is so region-specific, and only so many regions can create drinkable bottles, ground and air transportation is responsible for nearly all of the wine industry’s CO2 emissions.

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Brutocao Cabernet Sauvignon Vertical

Here at Winervana, I use this disclaimer, “Although you will see vintage dates throughout Winervana, I don’t put too much importance on them. Major producers these days strive for a consistent style, year after year, and largely succeed. For instance, when shopping for a particular wine, if you have a choice between a current release and one that’s a few years old, there will certainly be differences in price and the character of the wine. But upon release, those two examples of the same wine are likely to be quite similar.”

To test that position, I acquired a “vertical” of three Brutocao Cabernet Sauvignons.  A vertical tasting is simply the same wine from different vintages.  These three selections were indeed quite similar.  Sourced from Brutocoa’s estate vineyards in Mendocino county, they all were aged 18 months in oak, 50% French and 50% American, and all have an ABV of 14.5% and .69% acidity.

These wines are a deep garnet in the glass.  Surprising for Cabernet Sauvignon, they are semi-transparent rather than opaque.  They start, predictably, with aromas of dark fruit, particularly blackberry, with hints of cedar.  Those dark fruits continue on the palate, but these wines are restrained instead of fruit-forward, perhaps to be expected from a producer with a strong Italian heritage.  They have a medium-long finish that features black-tea tannins.

There were subtle differences, however.  Nothing that you would notice tasting the wines weeks or even days apart, but they were there.  The 2015 had the highest levels of perceived acidity (all three were bottled at .69%) and tannins.  Very unforeseen, because the common wisdom is that as a wine ages in the bottle both acidity and tannins become softer, rounder, and more balanced.  Go figure.  The 2016 was the most integrated of these selections, with well-balanced acidity and tannins, both less demanding of attention than in the 2015.  Finally, the 2017 fell between the other two, with slightly more acidity but softer tannins than the 2016.

You can read more about Brutocao here: https://winervana.com/brutocao-cellars/

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Lachini Vineyards

Proprietor Ron Lachini’s family hails from the Tuscan town of Lucca.  At some point, his grandfather immigrated to the United States, settling in the large Italian community of San Francisco’s North Beach.  He started making wine with his father and grandfather in their garages as a child.

He and his wife Marianne both attended U.C. Davis, where they were exposed to the world of viticulture and enology.  Travels to some of the world’s esteemed wine regions and wineries cemented their love and collection of fine wines.  After college, Ron began a career in the financial industry in 1997, which he pursued until 2008.  Nearly simultaneously, in 1998, he and Marianne purchased a 45-acre property in Newberg, Oregon, approximately 30 miles southwest of Portland, with the intention of eventually owning a winery.  After clearing and natural site preparation, in June of 1999 they planted their first five acres of Pinot Noir. In the following seven years, additional blocks were planted that now entail just over 30.5 acres of Pinot Noir plus an additional one and a half acres of Chardonnay.  This land is now the Lachini Estate Vineyard.

In 2001, the dream of a winery was finally realized when Lachini Vineyards began producing limited single-vineyard Pinot Noirs.  They do not believe in recipes, and believe that true artisanal winemaking is based on intuition, sensitivity, and passion. They use ‘old world’ methods in concert with small yields, gentle handling, attentive sorting, native yeasts, and fastidious blending.

Sustainability and Biodynamics

The Lachinis are committed to a caring stewardship of the land, believing that great wine is born in the vineyard.  Their philosophy is “Respect the land and treat it well for generations to come.” Farming is done by hand using sustainable agriculture and organic practices. Sustainable viticulture not only protects and renews soil fertility,  but also minimizes adverse impacts on natural biological cycles. Prior to transitioning to Biodynamic farming practices in 2008, the vineyard was L.I.V.E. certified annually.  Farming activities are aligned with the Stella Natura biodynamic planting calendar.  The grape vines are joined by lavender, olive trees, and native plants for diversity. A local beekeeper, Ryan Bringal, maintains up to ten hives on the property. Lachini shared, “Our emphasis is on the meticulous management of each vine through biodynamic farming, while combining state of the art winemaking and old world technique to handcraft wines of complexity, grace, and profoundness – each one, we believe, a reflection of its soul and unique place.”

The Vineyards

Lachini Estate Vineyard

The south-facing gently-sloped estate vineyard is located in the Chehalem Mountains AVA in Oregon’s northern Willamette Valley.   It is in a transition zone between the forests above to the ravines and open plains of the valley below.  On summer and fall evenings, the Coastal range funnels in its cool marine air, which settles along the valley floor as a dense fog.  The  vineyard is comprised of Willakenzie series soils-ranging from 18 to 48 inches in depth. Shallow, fine-silt loam sits over sedimentary rock. This soil’s lower water capacity forces each vine to compete and develop deep root systems.  The vineyard is treated as a unified entity, emphasizing the interrelationship of soils, plants, and animals as integrated self-nourishing systems.

La Cruz Vineyard

Keller Estates began planting the La Cruz (The Cross) Vineyard in 1989. Lachini began sourcing fruit from La Cruz in 2010 with the goal of  producing a Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir.  The vineyard is located  on a knoll overlooking the Petaluma Gap in northern California. It receives cool morning air from the nearby San Francisco Bay to the south, and from the coastal range bordering Bodega Bay directly to the West.  The soils are multi-layered, mineral-ladened clays with a volcanic subsoil that were once San Pablo Bay sea beds.

The Winemakers

Matthieu Gille: Consulting Winemaker

Gille was born in Burgundy’s Nuits St Georges, where his family has been making wine at their estate since the 16th century.  After completing his degree in Estate Management in Beaune, Gille’s love of Pinot Noir, biodynamic viticulture practices, and regional differences motivated him to explore other wine-making regions.  He arrived at  the International Pinot Noir Celebration in McMinnville, Oregon in 2013, where he fell in love with the area.  He began partnering with Lachini in 2014, and he still supervises the winemaking of his family’s estate as well.

Liz Kelly-Campanale: Winemaker

Santa Barbara native Liz Kelly-Campanale joined Lachini as winemaker in 2019.  She has a winemaking degree from the Northwest Wine Studies Center and a BA from Whitman College, followed by nearly a decade of winemaking experience in the Willamette Valley; her most recent previous position was  assistant winemaker for Edgefield Winery.

Ernesto Mendoza: Vineyard Manager

Mendoza came on board in 2018, and brings a wealth of experience spanning over 18 growing seasons in the Willamette Valley. Prior to Lachini, he was with Advanced Vineyard Systems vineyard management company.  He is committed to biodynamic farming practices, and continues to strive for a deeper understanding of long-term stewardship of farmlands and all facets of farm management.

The Wines

Lachini Family Estate Pinot Noir 2018

This wine was sourced from three blocs of the Lachini’s estate vineyard.  Fermentation  was primarily with native yeasts.  It saw 18 months in French oak, 25% new.   It is dark purple, transparent on the edges but nearly opaque in the center.  The nose offers up blackberry and cherry.  These continue as you taste, plus some racy acidity expressed as cranberry.  There are plenty of big, black-tea tannins, and the round, full mouthfeel lingers for quite a while.  1543 cases were made.  ABV is 14%.

Lachini Vineyards La Cruz Pinot Noir 2019

The fruit this wine traveled all the way from the La Cruz Vineyard in a refrigerated truck.  Lachini’s seventh vintage of this 100% Pinot, it saw 14 months in French oak, 50% of which was new.  It is a medium-transparent purple, with just a hint of cloudiness as it was neither fined nor filtered.  My bottle had a bit of sediment, so I recommend decanting.  There is a full aromatic nose, primarily dark cherries.  These continue on the finely textured palate, aided and abetted by raspberries and red currants.  The nice acidity and soft tannins are in excellent balance.   A mere 96 cases were made.  ABV is 14.2%.

Lachini Vineyards Cuvée Giselle 2018

The fruit for Giselle was drawn from three blocks in Lachini’s estate vineyard. It was aged for fourteen months in roughly 50% new French oak prior to bottling.  It is transparent dark purple in the glass.  This wine features a nose of cherry, raspberry, and vanilla.  It is brooding on the rich palate, with flavors of dark fruit, especially sour cherry and more raspberry. (I know. “Brooding” is the kind of adjective you might expect to see in a pretentious wine review, but it is truly an apt descriptor here.)  The energetic acidity and structured tannins are in very good balance.   Lachini made 147 cases.  ABV is 14.3%.

The Grape Republic Pinot Noir 2017

The Grape Republic is Lachini’s relatively new “value” label, with higher production quantities and lower per-bottle costs.  2017 is the fourth vintage of this wine.   The fruit is sourced from the estate vineyard and other selected vineyards within the Willamette Valley.

A worthy addition to the Lachini lineup, this 100% Pinot Noir is a transparent brick red.  It starts with full aromas of plum and cherry.  The bright palate is reminiscent of cherry cola, with hints of raspberry as well.  Although it is completely still, with no effervescence, it has a tingly acidity backed up by silky tannins.   1247 cases were made.  ABV is 13.9%.

Lachini Vineyards Al di La Chardonnay 2018

Al di La translates as “beyond the beyond.”  It was also sourced from Lachini’s estate vineyard.  It was fermented with natural yeast for 11 months in French oak puncheons, a concrete egg, and just a bit in stainless steel.  (A puncheon is equivalent to three regular barrels.  Egg-shaped fermenters, also known as kvevri” or “qvevri, have been around for thousands of years, but are enjoying a renewed popularity among winemakers.)  Bâtonnage and sur lie aging was employed.

This 100% Chardonnay pours a pale yellow with an hint of pink on the edges.  I have no idea where that would come from in a white grape.  The aroma on the delicate nose is predominantly peach with a bit of honey.  Peaches continue on the palate, backed up by pears, honeydew, and a sneaky grapefruit-like acidity.  136 6-bottle cases were produced.  ABV is 13.8%.

Lachini Vineyards La Bestia Cabernet Sauvignon 2017

La Bestia is Italian for “The Beast.”  A blend of 83% Cabernet Sauvignon and 17% Cabernet Franc, this wine saw 22 months in barrel, 75% new and 25% once-used French and American oak.  It is dark purple, and opens with subtle aromas of mint and cassis, plus plenty of jammy dark fruits.  These continue on the rich mouthfeel, especially figs, black plums, dates, and raspberries.  It is all supported by grippy tannins and good acidity.  296 cases were produced.  ABV is 14.9%

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Lobo Wines

Yet another white-collar professional turned winery owner, Randy Wulff was an attorney for 20 years. After graduating from the Honors College at the University of Oregon and Hastings College of the Law, he worked as a successful trial lawyer and mediator at a law firm in  San Francisco. “Even when I was one of the chief mediators during the World Trade Center property damage claims hearings arising from the tragedy of 9/11 that lasted for more than two and a half years, my wife Krys and I had always dreamed of being in the wine business,” Wulff reminisced.

Krys Wulff got her undergraduate degree at the University of San Francisco, and a Masters at Mills College in Oakland, California. She worked as an optical industry consultant for over 25 years while also raising two sons. She has devoted her energies to several philanthropic, educational, and advocacy organizations, including the Piedmont League of Women Voters, the East Bay Junior League, and EdSource, an independent, non-partisan organization that works to engage Californians on key education challenges with the goal of enhancing learning success.

Randy grew up with Krys in California’s Central Valley. “We were high school sweethearts and have been married for over 48 years,” shared Randy. “She is the heart and soul of Lobo Wines, and our success is directly related to her efforts. I can’t think of anything better than sharing our success with the person I love the most.”

As is not unusual for well-heeled San Francisco residents, the Wulffs eventually purchased a second home, in Napa Valley. “We were living in the East Bay and Napa Valley was only an hour’s drive away. Whenever we arrived there, it was like living in another world,” Randy recalled. They soon planted Chardonnay on the property, which is located in the Oak Knoll district. “When the first usable fruit came in, we sold the grapes to Randy Lewis, and he produced a wine that notched incredibly high scores. I thought to myself, this is easy, and we decided to really delve into the wine industry.”

Continuing to expand their efforts as grape growers, a few years later the Wulffs acquired a much larger vineyard about a mile from the first one, where they made substantial improvements to drainage and vine care. In 2007, they acquired a 42-acre property on Atlas Peak, on the eastern ridge of the Napa Valley. With that commitment, the couple established a winery of their own that same year, naming it Lobo Wines. Lobo is Spanish for ‘wolf,’ a play on their last name, of course. The first vintage yielded just 25 cases, but production has gradually increased to around 1,500 cases.

“We want to grow Lobo Wines carefully,” Randy explained. “Our goal is probably around 5,000 cases, and we want everything to be home grown. At this point, we crush some 100 tons of fruit, but we sell around 70 percent to other wineries. Over time, we will sell less and produce more.”

Sadly, the horrendous Atlas Peak fire of 2017 devastated the Lobo winery and the Wulffs’ home site. Undeterred, they immediately set about to rebuild the winery and residence, a project that is ongoing.

The Winemakers

Victoria Coleman
Coleman, a Seattle native, began her winemaking apprenticeship at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars as a production assistant in 1998. While there, she enrolled in a winemaking class at Napa Valley College. As part of that course, she crushed a small amount of Cabernet Sauvignon in a drum with her feet in the time-honored manner. The experience of hands-on winemaking fueled her desire to learn everything she could about it.

She began working with Mario Bazán at Bazán Cellars in 2004 as the winery’s founding winemaker. To further her formal education, she enrolled at the University of California, Davis, (incubator for thousands of winemakers) in the fall of 2006 and graduated in June 2008. She was exposed to classic, Old World winemaking immediately thereafter while working alongside Erick Tourbier at Chateau Mouton Rothschild in Bordeaux. Starting in January 2010, she gained further international experience as winemaker at Jade Valley Winery near Xian, China. She returned to Napa Valley in 2015 and began work at Lobo Wines, where her products include both the Napa Valley and Atlas Peak Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and a proprietary blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah named “Howl.”

Randy Lewis
Lewis came to winemaking via a circuitous route. A native of Atlanta, Georgia, he was a race car driver for more than two decades, first as a Formula Three driver in Europe, where he discovered the wines there and what life as a winemaker could be like. He then raced in America in Formula 5000, Can Am, and finally Indy Cars from 1983 to 1991, competing in five Indy 500s. After retiring as a driver, he helped a friend set up a winery in Napa Valley, and then,
with his wife Debbie, he established his own winery in Napa in 1992.

Lobo Chardonnay 2017

Made by Randy Lewis at Lewis Cellars, this 100% Chardonnay is sourced from fruit grown at  the Lobo Wulff estate vineyard in Oak Knoll.   It is lemon yellow in the glass, and features aromas of lemon, honeysuckle, and melon. The mouthfeel is rich and smooth, and offers flavors of lemon, grapefruit, and more melon.  There is good acidity, restrained oak, and a bit of vanilla on the medium finish.  ABV is 14.7% and 150 cases were produced.

Lobo Atlas Peak Cabernet Sauvignon 2015

This wine, made by Victoria Coleman, was chosen by Great Britain’s Decanter magazine in 2019 as the Top Cabernet Sauvignon in California over 197 other competitors.  It was made from 100% estate grown fruit in the Atlas Peak appellation of Napa Valley, on a rocky, volcanic hillside at 1,350 feet elevation. This is a blend of 98% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1% Merlot,  and 1% Petit Verdot (allegedly for “balance and complexity,” although I can’t imagine how much of that such a small percentage could contribute.)  On the nose, this Cabernet Sauvignon offers aromas of dark fruit and hints of vanilla. There are ripe plum, black currant, and blackberry on the palate.  These harmonize with medium, satiny tannins, nicely integrated acidity, and hint of black tea at the end.  ABV is 14.4%.

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