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%.

Top of page:

Imagery Estate Winery

Imagery EstateMy first career paths as a young man were art and architecture.  I have a Bachelor’s degree in architecture, and got half way through a Master’s in fine-art printmaking.  I ended up traveling neither of those avenues professionally, but have remained keenly interested in both ever since.  So, I was intrigued to learn of Imagery Estates’ commitment to fine art.

In 1973, newlyweds Mike and Mary Benziger drove west and permanently settled in Northern California. Seven years later, Mike and and his brother Bruno Benziger purchased the historic Wegener Ranch on Sonoma Mountain in Glen Ellen, California. Hearing the Sirens’ call of the Golden State, over the next six years the four remaining siblings — Bob, Joe, Jerry, and Patsy, with their spouses — made their way to California.

Joe Benziger

In 1986, winemaker Joe Benziger first partnered with artist Bob Nugent to launch the Imagery Series of wines in a converted brewery. This pairing of wine and art continues to this day, and permeates every aspect of Imagery Winery, including unique artwork replicated on every label.  The winery’s dedicated on-site art gallery features 500 works from over 300 notable contemporary artists. Usually, between 60 and 150 pieces are on view in the gallery at any one time. Contributing artists have been selected from around the world, including: Sol LeWitt of Connecticut, Shoichi Ida of Japan, William Wiley of California, Goncalo Ivo of Brazil, David Nash of Wales, and Judy Pfaff, Pat Steir, and Terry Winters of New York. The artists are specially commissioned by Imagery to create a new and original piece; unsolicited submissions from others are not considered. At any given time, as many as 35 artists are working on pieces that will appear on future Imagery wine labels. Of the 200 or so artists reviewed each year, only five are actually offered a commission. The artists are not limited by size, medium, or content, except for one requirement.  It can be either representational or abstract, but every image must include the Benziger Estate‘s “Parthenon.” it was on the property when the Benzigers first arrived and overlooks the rolling vineyards.

Imagery Parthenon

Imagery ParthenonJamie BenzigerIn December 2017, Joe Benziger retired, and his daughter Jamie took over as second-generation winemaker. She was named the 2019 Best Woman Winemaker in the International Women’s Wine Competition, and was also included on Wine Enthusiast’s list of 40 Under 40 Tastemakers.

Although she studied marketing at Loyola Marymount University, Jamie eventually came to realize she wanted the family wine business to be her future after all. Jamie transferred to Sonoma State University to complete her marketing degree, and added wine business to her studies. She interned in marketing with Gundlach Bundschu Winery during school, but while working her first harvest  at Benziger Jamie realized her heart was really in winemaking.

Since then, Jamie has aggressively pursued her knowledge of wine, working in the wine labs at St. Francis and Bogle, traveling to New Zealand to work harvest at Villa Maria, and getting her hands dirty in the field at Enterprise Vineyards. Mentored by her father and just as adventurous, Jamie says she is, “passionate about taking Imagery to a broader audience.”

Imagery Petite Sirah 2016

The origins of Petite Sirah (aka Petite Syrah) have been shrouded in mystery and confusion.  It was originally thought to be related to the renowned Syrah of France’s Rhône region. Then it was decided it was actually Durif, a minor Rhône varietal now nearly extinct. But then along came pesky science, and a DNA analysis in the late 1990s identified the grape as a cross between Syrah and Peloursin.  It is grown much more extensively in California than France, but can also be found in Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico. Somewhat disparaged at the turn of this century, it is now enjoying a renewed popularity.

Petit Sirah can make big, full-bodied wines, and this selection is an excellent example.  Imagery likes to call this a “toothbrush wine” because of its deep color and bold flavor (although dentists caution against brushing your teeth soon after drinking wine, as the lingering acidity can damage tooth enamel by doing so.)

Made by Joe Benziger not long before he turned the winemaking over to Jamie, the fruit for this wine was sourced from the Shell Creek vineyard in Paso Robles, one of Imagery’s longest-standing grape suppliers. The wine itself is dark inky purple, with a nose of blackberries and plums.  These continue on the palate, with a plush, full body, and big but controlled tannins. This was accomplished by tasting the juice at every pump over, to assure that the tannins did not become excessive. Jammy concentrated fruit comes  through mid palate, with a lingering richness on the finish. The ABV is 14.6%, and 1074 cases were made.
The label artist is Robin Denevan of San Francisco, California.  The image is part of Denevan’s River Series, and is an encaustic painting, a mixed media technique that involves using heated beeswax to which colored pigments have been added. The liquid/paste is then applied to a surface — usually prepared wood, although canvas and other materials are also used. The term is derived from Greek, meaning a burning in. A subtle reflection of the “Parthenon” is shown in the water in the bottom third of the picture.

Imagery Gee eS eM 2017

This too-cutely named (for my taste anyway) blend is made from 35% Grenache, 35% Syrah, and 30% Mourvèdre sourced from a number of North Coast vineyards. GSM, as it’s more commonly referred to, is a mix traditionally produced in the Côtes du Rhône region. It is also a favorite of the so-called “Rhône Rangers,” a group of American winemakers who promote the production of wines containing at least 75% of the 22 Rhône grape varieties. This is Jamie Benziger’s first solo effort.

Dark garnet in the glass, this wine starts with aromas of figs and roast plums and a bit of vanilla. These are followed by flavors of strawberries and tart cherries. There is just the right amount of acidity, and the soft tannins are restrained. The silky structure all wraps up in a nice long finish. The ABV is 14.9%, and 558 cases were produced.

The art adorning this bottle is by Santa Rosa artist Sami Lange. ​It is one of her paper collage “quilts” that are created by hand cutting, dying, and stitching thousands of circles to create intricate meditative patterns. The fuchsia “Parthenon” arises from a field of orange.

Return to blog posts:

Lasseter Family Winery

Lasseter Family WineryUn Travail d’Amour

John and Nancy Lasseter are long-time francophiles, and over the years have traveled extensively in France. It was there that they developed their appreciation of and fondness for Old-World style wines.

It was with some irony then that in 1993 they moved to Sonoma (with Napa, the very heart of “New World” style wines) and began dabbling in amateur winemaking. In 2002, they went all-in when they purchased a badly neglected local winery and 27-acre vineyard property.

This sad state of affairs allowed them to start from scratch, however. The land was restored to natural habitat and good health. The vineyards were converted to 100% organic farming practices, supported by a natural eco-system that includes beehives, owl boxes, and insectaires. A new eco-friendly winery building was completed in 2011.

In addition to wine, the Lasseters have a passion for the arts, and they try to bring an artistic sensibility to the winemaking. They commissioned local painter Dennis Ziemienski to create the label art. They consider their winemaker, Julia Iantosca (one of only a handful of female winemakers), to also be an artist in the way she uses her skills to handcraft the signature blends favored by the Lasseters.

Lasseter Family Winery is a genuine boutique operation. The total production of the four wines currently available is just 1445 cases. It is truly a labor of love.

Lasseter Enjoué 2011

None of my friends like rosés, but I’ve never understood why. What’s not to like? They routinely offer delightful color, plenty of flavor, and great versatility. And so it is with this Lasseter Enjoué (meaning joyful, playful, etc.)

The pale salmon-pink color comes from using red grapes (in this case, Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvédre, the classic Rhone GSM trio, sourced from the seven-acre Justi Creek Block) in a white-wine style. Both the nose and the taste suggest strawberry, ruby grapefruit, and lime. There is plenty of acidity, so it will work with a wide variety of foods.

Dine al fresco and enjoy a bottle of Enjoué with Coquilles St. Jacques, Tuna with Wine, Tomatoes, and Herbs, or Pork and Veal Pâté.

 Lasseter Chemin de Fer 2010

All aboard! ‘Chemin de Fer’ is French for railroad, and the name recalls a memorable train trip the Lasseters took through southern France many years ago. Although in different proportions, this wine is made with the same Justi Creek Block GSM as is the Enjoué, showing just how varied winemaking can be.

In the glass, Chemin de Fer is transparent ruby in color. The nose features aromas of dark cherry and spice. True to the Lasseters’ preference for an Old-World style, on the palate the wine is dry and lean, with flavors of dark fruit. Structure is provided by plenty of acid and tannins, and the wine has a long smooth finish. Be sure to decant this wine and give it up to two hours to breathe.

Couple Chemin de Fer with Chicken Sautéed with Herbs and Garlic, Coq au Vin, or Pan-broiled Steak.

Top of page: