California

The History of Hanzell

When it comes to heritage, Hanzell Vineyards and Winery carries some of the deepest in California. It’s chardonnay and pinot noir serve as a hallmark of excellence in the United States,  its vineyards among the finest.

The winery proves historically important too for its history of innovation.

Ambassador James Zellerbach worked with viticulturist, Ivan Schoch, to establish Hanzell, purchasing the property in 1948 with the goal of planting vineyards that could grow wine among the best in the world. At the time, pinot noir and chardonnay were rarely planted in California.

Today, vineyards at Hanzell include blocks established in 1953, home to the oldest continuously producing Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay vineyard in North America. The Hanzell clone of each are considered among the important heritage clones of California.

Hiring winemaker-scientist Brad Webb in 1956, Zellerbach’s vision evolved in the winery as well. At Hanzell, Webb would become one of the first in California to use French barrels to age Chardonnay. More remarkably, he also established controlled malolactic fermentation by identifying the bacteria involved, and then went on to invent temperature controlled stainless steel fermentation tanks. Both inventions would change winemaking worldwide.

In 1973, Bob Sessions succeeded Brad Webb in winemaking. Having worked previously with Webb, Sessions work at Hanzell would begin congruent with the style established by the original winemaker. Through his tenure, however, Sessions slowly evolved the iconic Hanzell style.

Today, Michael McNeill serves as winemaker, having taken the helm after a brief tenure by winemaker Michael Terrain. McNeill regards himself as a guardian of the Hanzell style, wishing to maintain its unique signature while continuing to grow its quality.

Earlier this month I met with Michael McNeill curious to better understand how he sees his role as winemaker in a heritage house. We have tasted together previously but this meeting was an opportunity to converse in depth about McNeill’s work as winemaker.

Following is a transcript of our conversation split into two installments — the second will be shared here Thursday. As the original conversation lasted almost three hours, the transcript has been edited for length, and in a few places for clarity.

A Conversation with Michael McNeill, Hanzell Vineyards

Looking out over Hanzell Vineyard with Michael McNeill

looking out over the historic Ambassador’s Vineyard, inside the historic Hanzell Winery with winemaker Michael McNeill, April 2014, photo courtesy Kate McKay

Elaine: Hanzell has had a few winemakers, including one that seems like a distinct style shift from what was established by Bob Sessions, and what you’re doing now. Part of what I find interesting in talking with you is how you describe your role as winemaker. You’ve said you’re job is to remain consistent with the Hanzell style. I’m curious how you worked to identify that style considering the various shifts and changes in winemaking here?

Michael: Well, initially it was a lot of information gathering when I got here in 2008. And unfortunately at that point in 2008, Bob’s dementia was setting in. So what I tried to do was really look back at what was being done in the late 90s, through the 90s, and essentially emulate that. But looking at the wines, tasting the wines, trying to in a way project how we would make those wines today.

I was looking through the records of what had been done, to get a sense of how things were done. I’ve had many conversations with Jose Ramos [Director of Vineyard Operations], Ben Sessions [Bob’s son who also works at Hanzell]; there is some living history here that I have been able to reference. I describe the way I see my role here as being guardian of the style of wine that we’re making here. But, being a winemaker, you always want to push the boundaries of quality. You always want to make it as best you can, or better than it was before. And how do you go about doing that while still respecting the style? It’s a challenge.

So, I view it very much like steering a tanker, with a real eye looking way ahead, making small, careful, thoughtful adjustments, so that you’re not changing things drastically, but you’re doing small-scale experiments to see how those changes might work, and carefully evaluating them over time.

Looking at Bob’s career here, 30+ years as a winemaker, if you look at where he started and where he finished, there were some pretty radical adjustments. We went from no barrel fermentation to 25 percent barrel fermentation. That’s a jump, but it took 20 years to get there. I see my role as kind of the same. We have planted new vineyards. We’re integrating those new vineyards into what we’re doing here. The Hanzell Sebella Chardonnay has been something for me to sort of – if I need to have my own ego stroke or my own project – Sebella has been very much something that I’ve brought here. But I strongly feel that Hanzell is really about this place and about the style that we’ve developed over many, many years.

Elaine: In some ways, it’s easy to guess the answer to this, but just to make sure I understand where you’re coming from: What about that period in the 90s makes you choose that as a concentration of focus?

Michael: One, those wines were spectacular, and have certainly shown their ageability; they have stood the test of time. And I really feel that those wines really showed what Bob was doing at his best. There was a real clarity, a real transparency to the wine that really is uncommon.

Elaine: That makes sense.

Michael: One of the nice things about being the Winemaker here at Hanzell is that it’s already here. It’s already established. It already has a style so I don’t have to wave my hands to get attention. So many young winemakers have to make a real bold statement to get attention now just because of how the wine industry is. I learned to make chardonnay and fell in love with pinot noir when I was at Chalone Vineyard back in the early 90s, so I think that I was uniquely qualified to come to Hanzell.

I spent six years at Chalone. It was a very, very special place to me personally. And back then, when we talked about age-worthy Burgundian-style chardonnay and pinot noir in California. It was Chalone, Calera, Mount Eden, and Hanzell. Chalone is no longer what it once was; and I really felt that — it really saddened me deeply. I don’t want to see that happen again. I don’t want to see it happen here.

Chalone was my winemaking finishing school. That’s where I really feel I was developed as a winemaker. At Chalone there was an established house style, so the challenge was making the wine better, but still, respecting the style of the house has been something that I’ve been brought up with.

I’ve done the opposite as well – after leaving Chalone, making wines in Oregon, up and down the state of California, having to make impact wines. But coming here felt very natural. I really and truly felt like the prodigal son coming home. Hanzell is a perfect place for me, and I hate to say I’m perfect for it, but I think I bring a unique set of sensibilities that most others wouldn’t. I certainly think that there are probably better winemakers out there. But I think to be successful here requires you to subvert your own ego, and really be able to take the back seat.

The historic Hanzell winery with Michael McNeill

standing in the historic Hanzell winery next to the original temperature control tanks, with Michael McNeill, April 2014

Elaine: I’m curious where you find satisfaction in this work.

Michael: Every time somebody tastes one of these wines, or makes the comment like, “Gosh, I really don’t like chardonnay, but I really like this wine,” it gives me a tremendous sense of satisfaction. It was funny – every year we do library tastings with the entire staff, prior to offering a selection of library wines to our Ambassador’s Circle collectors. We – Lynda Hanson [Associate Winemaker] and I, started at the same time, we had one of our wines in the Library offering. We just looked at each other and said, “We’ve arrived.” We’ve been here long enough where we have a library wine now. That was very, very rewarding.

[At an event] last night, I took a magnum of ’98 chardonnay. I had a lot of people coming up to me, “This is the wine of the night.” And even though obviously, it was Bob’s wine, I’m still proud of its place. I’m proud of the style, it’s something that I really believe in. You know, that’s really satisfying. When people say, “Oh. Hanzell, this is fantastic,” … for me, just being associated with the property and the legacy here is very satisfying.

And the other thing is when I started, and we still do, we have tasting panels. The first few tasting panels, included myself and Lynda,  Jean Arnold, and Bob — who would still taste with us then because he had a lot of clarity — but also Kim Giles who was Bob’s predecessor. Kim Giles still sits in on tasting panels. And Michael Terrien sat in on them as well. In that I had access to the experience of Hanzell from 1967 until that day. So we were tasting through various blends and such, as Ben Sessions likes to say, there was a lot of constructive disagreement. But at the end of it, they all said, “McNeill, good luck with that.”

It’s great because I get a lot of input from people who have been so closely associated with the wines and the making of the wines on the property to bounce ideas off of. That’s the kind of thing I think is rare today, to have that kind of depth of history that’s still a part of the current day. Does that make sense?

Elaine: Yeah. That definitely makes sense. It seems like even those relationships, and bringing all of that to fruition would be rewarding; being the one that continues the legacy that means something to you. What made you want to shift back to a more heritage approach for your career after that period in Oregon and other parts of California?

Michael: Well, I guess I went from Chalone up to Oregon, and that was in 1996 and 1997, beginning of 1998. But I was there for the ’96 and ’97 vintages. The winter of ’96-’97 was a record year up there for rain. And the way the winery was set up, I walked in, in August, and I was handed a stack of two-dozen contracts, and told, “Go make wine.” And so I was driving from vineyards all the way from Eola Hills in Willamette Valley all the way down to Ashland in the Southern part of the state. I put 7000 miles on my truck in six weeks.

Then I went from making wine there to Savannah-Chanelle in the Santa Cruz Mountains. There I was doing similar things. I was making wine from vineyards from the Russian River all the way down to the Arroyo Grande Valley. There’s something kind of fun about seeing all these different vineyards and working with all this different fruit. But then I got the job at Keller Estate in 2003, and I really enjoyed working with the vineyard, and I got much more involved with grape growing. I guess my career started in the lab, my degree is in chemistry, so that’s a natural thing. It started there and went to general winemaking, and then I kept going farther out into the vineyard. That’s been great for me, because it’s been a constant learning experience because I hadn’t been in agriculture or a farmer before.

Tasting Hanzell

Elaine: So then you went from Keller to here?

Michael: Um-hm.

Elaine: Yeah. Was it just too exciting an opportunity not to come here? How did that happen?

Michael: It’s a great story, actually. I had been at Keller for five years. It was interesting. Jean Arnold was president here at Hanzell, and I had actually interviewed with Jean twice before. Once at Chalk Hill; when Dave Ramey left Chalk Hill, I interviewed there for the job. That’s when I first met Jean. I didn’t get the job. And then in ’98, I had just come back from Oregon and I started at Savannah-Chanelle, and I got a call from the same headhunter, and it was for the job at Williams Seylem. And Jean was then the president, and I didn’t get the job.

But Jean really made an impression on me, and I made it a point to maintain a relationship with her. Every time I saw her at a tasting, I made a point to go say hi. And if I hadn’t seen her for a long time, I would just call her up out of the blue just to say hi. But I’d never actually come here. I would just say, “Hey, Jean, how are you? How are things?”

So in April of 2008, it was a Thursday, I had an epiphany that I had pushed the rock as far as I could up the hill at Keller, and I was like, “God, what am I going to do? All I’ve done is chardonnay and pinot noir. Where would I go? What kind of winery would want me?” And I said, “Well, it doesn’t matter. This weekend, I’m going to clear my calendar and spiff up my résumé and get ready to look for a new job.” And when I came back from lunch on Friday, there was a message on my voicemail: “Hey McNeill, it’s Jean Arnold. How are you? Hey, we’re looking for a new winemaker. Maybe you know of someone. Give me a call.”

Elaine: Oh wow.

Michael: So yeah.

Elaine: That’s remarkable timing.

Michael: I still get goose bumps telling that story because it was one of those perfect storms. I just thought, “My god, that’s the place I need to be. I’m perfect for this job. It’s the perfect place for me. I have to get this.”

Elaine: That’s cool. So then you started in 2008?

Michael: Yes, I started July 1.

***

The remainder of the conversation with Michael McNeill will post Thursday. In it we discuss McNeill’s views of whole cluster fermentation in pinot noir, the idea of starting your own wine label, and what it means to capture site expression as a winemaker.

Copyright 2015 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.

Andy Smith in the Vineyards of West Sonoma Coast and Green Valley

Andy Smith in Jentoft VineyardAndy Smith walking through Jentoft Vineyard, West Sonoma Coast, Jan 2015

“It’s okay to blend,” Andy Smith, winemaker and partner of DuMOL Wines tells me. It is morning and we are walking through the rolling hills of Jentoft Vineyard, a site near Occidental DuMOL planted specifically for blending.

Smith has agreed to spend the day driving me through DuMOL vineyards. We’re discussing the region but also his evolution as a winemaker.

Jentoft is unique for DuMOL in that it is one of only a few sites they farm in the rolling hills off Occidental Road.

Beginning in the mid 1990s, DuMOL made a name for itself making Pinot Noir and Chardonnay of the Russian River Valley. More recently, the team has expanded further into sites hugged by the hills mere miles from the Ocean.

The addition of these cooler climate vineyards also reflects the winery’s shift towards a leaner style over the last decade.

But for Smith, the winery’s move into sites near Occidental is not just about climate.

“People talk about climate, but, for me, the soil makes the flavor. Soil is the building blocks of the flavor, and the climate is the vintage variation.” Together, Occidental vineyards have something unique to offer.

“To me the wine [in this area] always has a sense of air-oir, not just terroir, a conifer-spicy element.” Smith says.

Blending DuMOL 

Andy Smith in Wild Rose Vineyard

Andy Smith in Wild Rose Vineyard, Green Valley, Jan 2015

I ask Smith if he’d ever make a single vineyard bottling from Jentoft.

“I think the single vineyard thing,” he says, pausing briefly, in the midst of answering, no. “There has to be something distinctive, and agreeable, and verifiable, and repeatable. I am sure this site can make a distinctive wine that is a distinctive part of a distinctive blend.”

DuMOL bottles a number of single vineyard sites, but has developed and farms even more. The goal for DuMOL is to bottle excellent wines rooted first in their own farming. Some sites, in Smith’s view, offer that beautiful component within a multi-site blend, while other sites carry their own sense of completeness.

The point is that high quality vineyards sometimes best serve as components in a blend rather than on their own.

Developing a site’s character, be it is for blending, or single bottling, takes time. Jentoft, for example, was planted in 2007.

“This site is just starting to come into its own for us.” Smith explains. “The first year a vine gives fruit can be quite nicely structured and well balanced. Then, the next few years the vines are like unruly teenagers. Around eight years a vineyard starts to find its balance. Then around fourteen years there is another plateau, and vines become much more self regulating.”

What that means today has changed from viticultural views of even ten years ago.

“That is the fun part of the change in the last ten years,” Smith says. “From the idea that we need to tell the vine what to do. Today farming includes beautiful cover crops, insectiary rows, and then seeing the results. For me, that is the exciting part. You can taste the results as well. The wines taste better at lower alcohol.”

Evolving the DuMOL Style

I ask Smith about his evolution as a winemaker. We are discussing Smith and his contemporaries from the early days of DuMOL.

“We were young guys in the late 1990s,” Smith says. “Starting out making rich wines. Now many of us are making lighter wines, with aromatic perfume. You know everything is different.”

But the change in style, Smith points out, occurred as part of a larger context, not driven by wine alone but the overall food culture.

“In the late 1990s, the scene was booming. Restaurants were booming. Chefs were going on with pork fat, and the wines reflected that.” Big flavor was not just a Parker fancy, but a cultural fascination.

“Some of my wines, I go back, and taste, and wonder, what was I thinking?” Smith laughs. “But, you know, it was the taste of the day. Now we have less new oak, and less toast. We have really moved to a more ethereal style with more perfumed aromatics. If you want more honey in your chardonnay, or more cassis and black fruit in your pinot noir, you pull leaves and expose clusters. Now we avoid sun exposure on the fruit.”

Smith’s reflection on sun exposure gets to the core of how DuMOL has shifted its style from bold flavor to graceful richness – DuMOL’s wines today a dance of movement and flavor.

“We’ve pulled back the wines as the farming has improved too.” Smith points out. “You can’t just go on and say, I am going to pick at 21 brix. You have to take a few years getting in tune with the farming, the soil health, and all that.”

DuMOL Today

Andy Smith in Heintz Vineyard

Andy Smith in Heintz Vineyard, Green Valley, Jan 2015

DuMOL’s focus on farming has helped the label grow at a judicious rate, focusing on quality as it allows for growth. It’s maintained such an approach by expanding its volume only as its farming allows. As a result, quality remains in the hands of the DuMOL team, relying on fruit they’ve cultivated to match the house style.

“That’s part of our philosophy.” Smith explains. “I don’t like any extremes – no extreme pruning, no extreme exposure to the grapes, not too much, if any irrigation. Vines are a crop we maximize, and you maximize that by making the vine work hard, not stressed but hard.” I ask Smith to say more about how he maintains that middle line in the vineyard, avoiding extremes.

“The soil health is, of course, really important.” He responds. “Water is available for the vine. The roots are really deep now but because they haven’t been force fed water, they don’t binge on it. Vines are self regulating. They take what they need, and don’t take too much. When you over irrigate, you force the vine to take what you give it, and it takes and takes and takes, then collapses and ripens through dehydration.”

Then there is the architecture of the vine.

“The way we farm with tight spacing, we are looking for grapes that are bright and fresh, with thick skins though we are achieving that without exposing the clusters to sun. It gives more herbal complexity, dense deep tones, and bright fruit.”

The result shows through beautiful integrity from bottling to bottling.

DuMOL wines offer concentrated flavor and structural density with bright fruit, and delicious acidity across varieties thanks to the farming, while cellar choices preserve the wines’ pleasing texture and freshness. The combination Smith describes as his winemaking goal.

“I like texture, but I also like freshness. Any texture or density,” Smith clarifies, “should come from the vines.”

***

DuMOL makes Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, and a small amount of Viognier from Sonoma County.

DuMOL Wines: http://www.dumol.com

Copyright 2015 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.

Jr Films Paul Sloan of Small Vines

Jr films bud break with Paul Sloan of Small Vines

Jr films bud break with Paul Sloan of Small Vines

In Sonoma County, Paul and Kathryn Sloan have been practicing high density viticulture since the late 1990s. Thus, the name of their company, Small Vines.

Devoted to honing their ability to grow healthy, well balanced vineyards, they have studied the viticultural practices of some of the best vineyards in the world, and worked to translate those practices to the unique conditions of Sonoma.

In 2005, they launched their own label (also named Small Vines) selling Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay primarily from the Green Valley subzone of the Russian River Valley.

Walking a Small Vines vineyard with the pair has repeatedly proven to be one of the most fascinating, educative experiences I’ve had in my visits with producers.

I asked if they’d be willing to let me follow them through a full year in the vineyard and winery covering each major stage of a vintage. They agreed.

For the first stage, I asked Jr to accompany me to create her own interpretation of the visit. First filming Paul and I through the vineyard, she then interviewed him on her own to edit and produce the video below. (I’m pretty psyched with the work she did.)

Bud Break and Green Pruning

With an early vintage in 2015, bud break is well under way throughout Sonoma County. As a result, vignerons are starting to look to the next step, shoot thinning, also known as green pruning or suckering.

The process of shoot thinning proves to be one of the most crucial steps of the vintage. When done well, it establishes balanced vine growth, determining how many clusters the vine can support for the year, and setting up the vine’s production for the following vintage as well.

I’ll let Paul, via Jr’s video, explain the rest.

Here’s the direct link to the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pniINtYL9Qg

Please feel free to share the video with interested friends and family. Jr would also be thrilled to read your comments on it below.

For more on Small Vines: https://smallvines.com

Copyright 2015 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.

Tips from Celebrated Bartender, Christopher Longoria

Christopher Longoria

Christopher Longoria, photo courtesy of 1760

“It depends on what you want from a cocktail.” Christopher Longoria, celebrated Bar Program Manager at the ingredient-driven restaurant 1760 in San Francisco, tells me. “Are you trying to showcase the aperitif, or using a characteristic of it to make something else?”

Known for his creative approach, Longoria relies less on recipes for cocktail classics when behind the bar, and more on a culinary style, thinking first in terms of aromas and textures, to mix drinks. He is advising me on the art of mixing cocktails made from aperitif wines.

Recent years have brought a small boon in California artisanal aperitifs made by small-scale wineries. Longoria has found that these fortified wines, such as vermouth and chinato, offer an advantage behind the bar. Cocktails made from spirits tend to be less aromatic while also higher in alcohol but aperitif wines are able to offer a lot of character at lower proof.

A California Product

Matthiasson 2011 Flora Vermouth

Vermouth in particular has garnered recent attention. Vya and Sutton Cellars hold the spot as two of the most significant examples of American vermouth. Vya makes a range of styles from sweet, to dry, and extra dry, while Sutton Cellars gives a sweet version carrying both citrus and bitter elements.

More recently other small-scale examples have come out of Napa. Last year, Matthiasson released a sweet vermouth tasting of blood orange and coriander, while Massican has now released several vintages of dry vermouth offering a lighter body with citrus and floral notes.

“I use vermouth for different characteristics,” Longoria explains. “It tends to be good for aromatics, and depending on the vermouth, I will use it to make a silky texture.” The type of vermouth makes a difference in how to approach it, Longoria explains. The style – sweet to dry – also relates to the aperitifs weight on the palate.

“A sweet vermouth,” Longoria explains, “acts as the foundation of a drink. It gives it body, earthiness and sweetness.” When mixing with sweet vermouth you want your other ingredients to be lighter bodied, while also complementing the vermouth aroma and flavor. A bit of dry vermouth mixed with sweet can help focus the character of the final beverage.

“Dry vermouth is good for finishing a drink, tightening it up without drying it out,” Longoria tells me. “I use just a touch of dry vermouth to pull the body back in if I use something that would be too rich on its own.” As a result, the drink finishes clean in the mouth, leaving your palate ready for a different experience with the next cocktail.

More unusual aperitifs perfect for mixing have also cropped up in California.

Palmina Chinato

In Santa Barbara County, Palmina delivers a small production chinato made with the winery‘s Nebbiolo, and flavored with locally grown ingredients.

In Sonoma, Vivier Wines has created what might be the only Pineau des Charentes in the United States under the name Sexton-Vivier – made in honor of both the winemaker’s grandmother and his wife. By fortifying pressed juice, rather than already fermented wine, the drink retains a sense of freshness along with a sweet, herbal element.

Cocktails at Home

Sexton Vivier 2012 Pineau des Charentes

How to use artisanal aperitifs at home? Start simple, and play, Longoria says.

“You can take a classic cocktail, and switch up a key ingredient.” Longoria suggests. “Chinato can be used to make a black Manhattan. It works in mixed drinks like a darker, more herbaceous amaro.”

Similarly, Matthiasson vermouth works well in a negroni bringing out a blood orange element that gives the drink a new twist. The Massican or Sexton-Vivier, on the other hand, offer each a decidedly different take on a martini.

“When it comes to gin and vermouth,” or other mid-weight aperitifs, like the Pineau, Longoria explains, “consider the aroma. Gins tend to be really aromatic. If you want to play that up, go with an apertif with complementary aromatics. Or if you want the gin to be the focus, go with a milder one.”

The viscosity also comes into play. In the case of the Sexton-Vivier, its fuller body brings a sweet note to a gin martini, while the Massican keeps a lighter bodied focus on lifted aromatics.

“Making mixed drinks at home,” Longoria says, “it’s all about playing with the ingredients, and getting the palate attuned to it. Start with small portions, and get familiar with your components before you mix them. Figure out what you like, and mix from there.”

Christopher Longoria offered the following tips to get started making mixed drinks from artisanal aperitifs at home, and a recipe for Massican, an off-dry vermouth with a focus on delicate citrus and floral elements.

Massican 2012 Vermouth

Tips for Mixing Aperitif Cocktails at Home

  • Get Familiar with your aperitif on its own – it’s aroma, viscosity, and level of sweetness
  • Mix small portions first
  • Think of a sweet aperitif as the body of your cocktail, then mix with lighter bodied aperitifs or spirits with complementary aromas to accent it
  • Think of a dry aperitif as a way to tighten the body and finish of other ingredients
  • Don’t be afraid to mix different aperitifs together for a low-proof cocktail

Here’s a recipe from Christopher Longoria using the Massican Vermouth.

Aperitivo

Apertivo by Christopher Longoria

Apertivo without ice, photo courtesy of Christopher Longoria

.75 oz Massican Vermouth
.75 oz Bertina Elderflower
2 dashes orange bitters

Add ice, if desired. Stir.

Top with 1 oz. Marotti Campi Brut Rosé.
May also be topped with a Blanc Brut Cava for slightly less fruit flavor.

Enjoy!

Copyright 2015 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.

1

Visiting Gist Ranch Vineyard

Nathan Kandler and Tommy Fogarty at the top of Gist Ranch VineyardNathan Kandler and Tommy Fogarty standing at the top of Gist Ranch Vineyard, Oct 2014

Spin the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA on your finger like a basketball, and the spot where it balances is Gist Ranch Vineyard, owned and farmed by Lexington Wines. The site sits on the Pacific plate in the Skyline subzone of the appellation. Gist Ranch grows Bordeaux varieties.

“There are not a lot of Bordeaux varieties on the Pacific plate,” Lexington winemaker Nathan Kandler explains. We’re standing at the top of the vineyard looking west. Through a low point in the mountains you can see the ocean. “David Bruce is just over the next ridge to the south. Big Basin is due west. We’re 13 miles from the ocean.” David Bruce and Big Basin are two wineries known for their Pinot Noir.

Risking a Site

The Santa Cruz Mountains AVA proves one of the most geographically varied in California. From above it appears like folds of cloth undulating in a series of north to south ridges, vineyards all aspects and slopes of varying degree and elevation.

One of the first truly mountain-based appellations in the state, the region rests between two moderating influences — the Pacific at its west, San Francisco Bay to its east. As a result, its lowest points are defined by the reach of fog — 800 ft on the eastern side, 400 ft on the west. The highest peaks climbing over 3000 ft.

The region rises from a conjunction of tectonic plates. Soils vary widely from ridge to ridge, and slope side to ridge top, thanks to the persistent activity of the plates. Gist Ranch stands atop the Pacific plate, an unusual spot for Cabernet.

“We started planting [Thomas] Fogarty [Vineyard] in 1980,” Tommy Fogarty, GM and son of the winery founder Thomas Fogarty, explains. Thomas Fogarty Vineyard and Winery rests in the Skyline subzone of the Santa Cruz Mountains, known for its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, while also making quality Gewürztraminer, and Nebbiolo.

“The site clearly wanted to grow Pinot Noir and Chardonnay,” Fogarty continues, “but dad and Michael [Martella, founding winemaker of Fogarty] love and knew Cabernet so always wanted to work towards that. Then they found the Gist site, and Michael thought it could grow Cab.”

The idea proved controversial.

“Even fourteen years ago,” Kandler points out, “it was hard to get temperature and atmospheric info.” No one knew for sure the growing conditions for the site. At the time it was planted as a Christmas tree farm with no need for temperature monitors. Neighbors Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards, and David Bruce of his eponymous winery weighed in. “Draper agreed it could grow Cab. David Bruce said it would never ripen.”

“We bought the property,” Fogarty adds. “We put in temperature monitors. Two years later we started planting. We have real time weather reporting here on the site now, and have for a couple years, so it’s interesting to see the impact storms have here compared to up there [at Fogarty.]” Though the two locations are only a few miles apart they host markedly different meso climates.

Seeking Cabernet

“Dad always wanted to do Cabernet.” Tommy explains. “His reference to start was Napa until he found Ridge.”

Michael Martella, and Thomas Fogarty, the co-founders of the winery, loved Cabernet. In the 1980s it was generally understood that California Cabernet’s natural home was in Napa. Ridge would bring attention to Bordeaux varieties in the Mountains, but even so, it was too hard to source Cabernet from Santa Cruz.

As such, Thomas Fogarty Winery would purchase fruit from the Stag’s Leap district of Napa Valley beginning in 1981, then turning to Yountville from 1986 to 2006. It was an unusual choice for a Santa Cruz winery known for Pinot Noir to make Napa Cab but it was a matter of affection.

Tasting one of the mid-1980 Cabernets with Kandler and Fogarty it’s a lovely, quaffable wine with the giving complexity of an older Napa Cab, but it also feels stylistically distinct from the other Fogarty wines of the same time period.

“We bought Napa Cabernet until 2006,” Kandler says. “Then it didn’t make sense anymore to make Napa Cabernet as a Santa Cruz Mountain winery.” By then the Gist Ranch Cabernet was also available.

The Fogarty team could turn their attention to local fruit but Santa Cruz Cabernet turned out to need a total rethink in approach from Napa Valley fruit.

Getting to Know Gist

Lexington Wines

“Gist is its own project.” Fogarty explains. “We realized it’s not just Fogarty Cabernet, so we started a different label, Lexington.”

Getting to know the Gist Vineyard over several years allowed a new sense of exploration for the Fogarty team. Though Gist Ranch sits mere miles from the Fogarty site, and in the same subzone as well, the Gist vineyard has its own style and perspective. Over time, then, the Fogarty team realized Gist was thoroughly distinct from Fogarty wines.

“We have done a few vintages of vineyard designate Cabernet from Gist for Fogarty but it’s not just Fogarty Cabernet.” Kandler says. “This fruit gives me a whole new energy in the cellar.”

A few years of getting to know Gist Ranch fruit after having worked with Napa Valley Cabernet gave Kandler the advantage of perspective.

“I’ve learned a lot in ten years or so of making wine from Gist Ranch. What my friends do with Napa Cabernet doesn’t translate.” Santa Cruz Mountains offer a distinctive structure and fruit expression from its North Coast cousin.

“When I made wine from Gist like I would with fruit from Napa, Cabs from the site would end up seeming more tannic.” Kandler describes. But Gist Ranch Cabernet turns out to be a great lesson in perception versus actual composition.

“Actually though it’s the acid levels more than that it’s more tannic.” Kandler continues. “The wines taste more tannic than Napa Cab, but if you do analysis the numbers tell you the opposite. It’s more about tannin management. It’s about tannin-acid balance.” To find that proper balance, the Fogarty team went deeper into the vineyard.

Farming Gist

Julio Deras, Vineyard Manager

Julio Deras, Gist Ranch, and Fogarty Vineyard Manager, August 2013

“I don’t know if it is just my Pinot Noir background,” Kandler says, describing his work with the Gist Ranch Vineyard. “But I am really trying to wrap my head around these blocks to understand them. So we micro farm, and micro ferment, and try to learn from the vineyard. As a winemaker you only have limited time and energy. Spend your time thinking about the vineyard, and the vines. The more time you spend thinking about the site, rather than thinking about barrels and yeast in the cellar, the better.”

In recognizing the contrast between different blocks, Kandler’s most important guide rests in Julio Deras, vineyard manager for both the Gist Ranch, and Fogarty sites.

“That’s one of the things that is so great about working with Julio as vineyard manager.” Kandler explains. “He really understands about variability of ripening in one vineyard, and picking based on that. He walks the vineyard and tastes looking for that. Julio has farmed here from the beginning. He has been with Fogarty for 20 years.”

As he continues, Kandler speaks with a deep intimacy of the various vineyard blocks. “We have four Cabernet blocks,” Kandler says. There are four and a half acres of Cabernet planted in the midst of thirteen total planted acres. “Thinking about the two southern blocks, they are more about power and strength. The two northern blocks give more the cassis and the fruit. The thing about these Bordeaux varieties, is it is so much more about blending.”

Tasting through previous vintages of Gist Ranch Cabernet bottled under the Thomas Fogerty label shows Kandler and Deras’s increase in understanding. The wines are delicious but show a more seamless focus, greater structural balance, and a greater sense of easy integrity as they progress. It’s a mastery that comes from greater health in the vineyard, and also a stronger understanding of its peculiarities.

Growing Bordeaux Varieties

By the 2011 vintage, Fogarty and Kandler felt they’d found their clarity with Gist Ranch, and were ready to release them as their own Lexington wines. The first, current release includes three varietal wines — Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot — as well as a tête de cuvée, the Apex. (Though in 2011 the Apex turns out to be predominately Cabernet Sauvignon.)

The other Bordeaux varieties of Gist Ranch prove unique as well. “The top portion where the Cab Franc, and Merlot are planted are a little less vigor, and a little more challenged.” Kandler says.

“We have this Merlot growing in sand,” Kandler continues. “It’s really all about structure, so I think it’s pretty unique for Merlot.” Tasting the Lexington Merlot gives pretty red fruit and flower, with loads of structural integrity coupled with a lifting freshness.

The Cabernet Franc too pours unique. “The Cab Franc here actually ripens after the Cabernet,” Kandler says. “We had a stagiaire this year from Bordeaux, and he said, ‘that’s impossible! You pick Merlot, then Cab Franc, then you pick Cabernet.'” The Gist Cab Franc gives just a hint of bell pepper mixed through a melange of dried herbs, hints of chocolate, and electric purity.

Though we couldn’t taste it on its own, Kandler and Fogarty report they’re happy enough with the Malbec that they hope to bottle some on its own eventually too.

I ask Kandler to describe the process of finding his footing with such a unique vineyard site after having worked with the same variety from other locations.

“It’s interesting, in making Cabernet, letting go of Napa as a benchmark,” he responds. “It’s completely different making Cabernet here than in Napa. Then you turn to Ridge because that’s your neighbor, but that is such a specific site, and again really different from here. At some point you have to just turn to your site, and have faith in what you’re doing. That takes some time. I didn’t just come with it.”

***

Tasting Lexington Wines

Lexington 2011 Wines

Lexington 2011 Cabernet Franc Gist Ranch Estate 14.4% 173 cases. Wonderful purity, with an electric hum. Flavors of mixed dried herbs, ground cacao, and just a hint of bell pepper and earthiness. This wine has easy tannin presence, and nice balancing acidity with an ultra long finish. Great for food. Delicious.

Lexington 2011 Merlot Gist Ranch Estate 14.5% 98 cases. Nice brightness, and a sense of brawn without aggressiveness. Concentrated red fruit with an exotic red floral lift and conifer forest accents. Easy, persistent tannin, nice balancing acidity, a saline crunch throughout with graphite accents lingering into a long finish. Intriguing and delicious.

Lexington 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon Gist Ranch Estate 14.1% 1223 cases. Lots of freshness, and layers of complexity. Nice concentration, and purity. Light herbal amaro notes mixed through fresh berry, and hints of cassis. Creamy mid palate, nice balance, with a long drying finish.

Lexington 2011 Apex Gist Ranch Estate 14.1% 193 cases. Seamless with a sense of lightness. Mixed herbal lift, with cocoa accents, and fresh cherry with cassis. Nicely done acid to tannin balance on a long drying finish. Will develop beautifully with age, and age a long time.

***

Lexington Wines: http://www.lexingtonwineco.com

Copyright 2015 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.

Di Costanzo Wines

Jr and Massimo Di Costanzo getting ready to film an interview

Jr + Massimo Di Costanzo getting ready to film their interview

Massimo Di Costanzo has been making delicious Cabernet from Farella Vineyards in Coombsville since 2010.

This past weekend, Jr and I met with Massimo, and his wife, Erin Sullivan, to discuss his winemaking, and taste a vertical of his work. I asked Jr to accompany me to interview Massimo herself and create a video from her perspective.

I’m pleased to share it with you here. 

Massimo Di Costanzo, Di Costanzo Wines

The video url: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2cGCN7sqhuM

Keep an eye out for more work from Jr in the future. 

***

Coombsville Cabernet

Looking up Napa Valley from Farella Vineyards in Coombsville

looking up Napa Valley from the top of Farella Vineyards

“Coombsville is so distinct,” Massimo Di Constanzo tells me. We’re standing at the top of the Western facing slope of Farella Vineyard in Coombsville looking North up Napa Valley. “Coombsville definitely has a signature. That is kind of what drew me to it. People can tell [when they taste the wine].”

Di Costanzo has been making his eponymous Cabernet Sauvignon from Farella Vineyard since 2010, having fallen in love with the site through older vintages of the Farella label.

“The age-ability of the older Merlots, and the other [Farella] wines,” Di Costanzo tells me drifting off for a moment as if remembering the taste of the wines. Then he continues. “I loved that style. It inspired me to want to make wine here.”

Since the late 1970s Napa Valley has steadily built an international reputation on its quality Cabernet. Soil variation, and microclimates of the region offer a range of styles for the grape’s strong frame giving consumers a choice of interest, and winemakers the opportunity to hone their signature through distinct subzones.

In the southern reach of the Valley, Coombsville offers a cooler zone compared to the steady warmth of the Rutherford bench, or the day time highs of Calistoga. The shift impacts the fruit presentation.

“In Coombsville,” Di Costanzo explains, “the wines are more finesse driven. There is good acidity because we are closer to the Bay.”

Though Carneros is regarded as the coolest part of Napa Valley, Coombsville steps just slightly inland from that San Pablo-to-San Francisco-Bays-and-Ocean influence. In Coombsville, the fog still makes its mark but to less degree, allowing enough warmth to ripen Cabernet, enough shift to keep acidity. The difference also impacts soils.

“What’s interesting about Coombsville,” Di Costanzo says, “is a lot of volcanic ash deposits. That’s pretty unique to this area.” The resulting rock serves Cabernet well, giving not only a pleasing ash and mineral cut to the wines, but supporting its viticulture. “Cabernet wants well drained soils.”

So, in 2010, when some Farella Cabernet became available, Di Costanzo took the chance.

“In 2009, I was trying out fruit from a few different vineyards,” he explains. “Then, in 2010, an opportunity for Farella fruit came up. It meant I could do a vineyard designate, which I hadn’t had the opportunity to do before, and I had fallen in love with Coombsville. It meant I could pick the grapes, and do less to it to make the wine I wanted to make, which is very cool.”

So, in 2010 Di Costanzo started making Di Costanzo Farella Vineyard Cabernet, able too to launch his wine in the first vintage approved for designation with the then-new Coombsville AVA.

Making Cabernet

Di Costanzo Cabernet

tasting a four vintage vertical of Di Costanzo Cabernet, 2010, 2012-2014

“The only path I saw was to make my own wine,” Di Costanzo explains. “I saved money. I felt inspired to make my own brand. The brands I really loved [and wanted to work with] were too small [to be able to hire someone]. Being an entrepreneur has its ups and downs though,” he continues, “and Cabernet is a slow process.”

More tannin driven red wines, like Cabernet, demand time in barrel to age and resolve, but, even with necessary wait, fruit bills still arrive after harvest. Barrels have to be purchased to store multiple vintages, and storage space must be secured. The cost is high, and it takes years before you have wine to release a first vintage.

“You look at the big picture,” Di Costanzo says. “You learn patience. It takes a few years but then once you get there it’s great. You have wine every year.”

The wine Di Costanzo has proves simultaneously prudent and giving, delicious and elegant. His Cabernet shows Coombsville to its advantage offering ample cool fruit flavors, with mouthwatering generosity – perfect for food while still about pleasure.

* Di Costanzo 2010 Farella Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 14.3% $85 Wonderfully fresh, and savory, full of mouthwatering length, and supple tannin. This wine offers vibrant aromatics and plush flavor with a focus on acidity. Notes of ash and anise, fresh red fruit, and a dark plum finish. Good structure for aging.

* Di Costanzo 2012 Farella Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 14.2% $85 Showing darker fruit expression with fresh floral and herbal accents, the 2012 Di Constanzo Cabernet gives a creamy mid palate with just a bit richer expression than the 2010 ushered forth in a frame of great acidity, movement, and lift. Delicious.

***

Di Costanzo Wines: http://www.mdcwines.com

Copyright 2015 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.

1

Grimm’s Bluff Vineyard, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara

Grimm's Bluff olives + vines looking into Grimm’s Bluff Vineyard & olive grove from the hilltop above, Nov 2014

Before he and his wife Aurora planted it, “this was all native grasses,” Rick Grimm tells me as I step onto their ranch, Grimm’s Bluff. Grimm’s Bluff stands at the southern most boundary of the Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara AVA in Santa Ynez Valley. At 859 ft, the property lifts above the Santa Ynez River to the south, the rest cupped by the rolling hills of Happy Canyon.

We pass a large-ish personal garden as we head towards the vineyard. It looks to be a mix of flowers, and vegetables — aesthetic and produce plantings. A comical mix of spotted hens cluck after us briefly as we walk but stop before we reach the vines.

Establishing a New Vineyard

“We knew what type of wine we liked,” Rick Grimm explains, “but not how to grow it.” Happy Canyon itself proves one of the younger zones for vines in the county and includes an array of aspects, and elevations thanks to the varied hills and peaks that surround the canyon. Prior to establishing their site, the Grimm’s subzone of Happy Canyon had no vineyards.

Even vineyard companies through the region “didn’t know what would grow best,” Grimm explains, “since they hadn’t grown in this area.”

The Grimm’s reached out to celebrated winemaker Paul Lato for winemaking. His own label, Paul Lato Wines, has earned him regard from critics and wine lovers alike. Then they also connected with Philippe Coderey to help establish the vineyard. Coderey’s well-respected work in biodynamics includes tenure at sites ranging from Domaine M. Chapoutier in France, to Grgich Hills Estate in Napa, Tablas Creek in Paso, and Bien Nacido in Santa Maria Valley, among others.

Together, the team discussed their goals for style and expression while studying the property. They chose Sauvignon Blanc, and Cabernet Sauvignon as their varieties — two grapes that have done well in the appellation — then researched to best match clones and rootstock to site and intention.

“Paul had been tasting different clones,” Grimm says. “We researched what rootstocks would do well here. Then, it was, head trained, or, VSP? We chose both with some clones of each, and both rootstocks on both sides.” By diversifying planting within the property vintners mitigate their risk while also increasing knowledge of the site over time.

Biodynamic Farming 

Wishing to create the highest potential for quality through the health of the vines, the team established Grimm’s Bluff using biodynamics. While other vineyards in the region are farmed biodynamically, Grimm’s Bluff remains one of the few done so from the start. Integral to biodynamic principles is biological diversity.

“We have chickens.” Grimm says, referencing the hens that greeted us when I first arrived. “They’re part of our biodiversity element, but then Aurora turned them into pets so we’ve been considering other birds,” Grimm laughs. “Birds are like a walking insecticide.”

Besides vineyard, the Grimm’s have also planted olives, a personal garden, and wild flower insectariums. “Aurora does a lot of gardening,” Rick tells me. “She is good at seeing every part, and how it will fit into the big picture.” Her vision has helped guide the overall design for the property and their family home.

They’ve also kept both untouched and pasture land. By leaving uncultivated, and wild plant zones including forest, and natural transitions of scrub brush and grasslands, greater insect, and animal stability is held through greater plant diversity. The increased health of insect and animal populations helps balance the health of the vines as well. It’s a focus on the biology of not just the vine but its surrounding environment.

Pasture land with cattle helps the team’s need for organic compost. “We make all our own compost.” Grimm explains. “We started from day one making our own. It is difficult to make sure [purchased] manure is all organic with no antibiotics.”

The Stages of Light

RickGrimmsBlufflooking north into Happy Canyon from the top, with Rick Grimm, Nov 2014

Exploring the property with Rick Grimm, gives glimpse into intimacy with a special site. We stand now on the highest point of the site on a hill looking over the vineyard to our east, and the rest of Happy Canyon to our north. The view leaves us dumb for a time. Then, reflecting, Grimm slowly names four stages of the Bluff’s day.

“There is early morning mist on the lake, animals and birds everywhere,” he says, describing the ranch as the sun comes up. “Then, low morning light. The animals have left. There is still a lower, clear light but no mist.”

Finally we come to afternoon when the direction of everything switches in the Santa Ynez Valley. Thanks to the transverse mountain range that defines the valley with an open mouth to the ocean, the region’s wind moves in and out in regular daily rhythm. You can almost set a clock by when the coastal influence reaches your portion of the valley.

“Around 1 PM,” he says, “it’s the heat of the day, and the wind picks up. Then, there is evening. It’s totally clear. There are tons of stars. At night we’ll build a bonfire and just see the clear sky.”

The Wine the Site Gives

Rick and Aurora’s time with Grimm’s Bluff has begun to give fruit. The Grimm’s Bluff 2013 Sauvignon Blanc marks the first release for the project. They have also harvested and vinified their first Cabernet Sauvignon in 2014, yet to be released.

Descending the hillside back towards the vineyard, I ask Rick how he enjoyed bringing in the Cabernet for its first fruit.

“I’d never tasted Cabernet right after it’s been pressed, before it goes into barrel. Is it supposed to taste good?” He responds smiling. “When Paul offered me a taste, I thought he was joking. Then I tasted it and I thought, you know what? I could drink this.”

Grimm’s Bluff 2013 Sauvignon Blanc


Grimms Bluff 2013 Sauvignon click on image to enlarge

Grimm’s Bluff
Sauvignon Blanc
Grimm’s Bluff Vineyard, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara

13.8%
3.27 pH
0.696 TA

all organic & biodynamic farming
clone 1 & musque clone, first fruit

$40
90 cases

Grimm’s Bluff 2013 Sauvignon Blanc delivers lifted aromatics, and a palate of mixed citrus — kefir lime, grapefruit, and hints of mandarin — in both fresh fruit and blossom all carried on a nice backbone of mouthwatering acidity, crushed oyster shell, and saline accents. Winemaker Paul Lato weds crisp focus with a creamy midpalate for a beautifully balanced wine — both refreshing and giving, lithe and supple. Ultra-long finish. Nicely flexible with food. Recommended.

***

To read more about Paul Lato, check out my previous interview with him: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2014/01/15/living-courage-paul-lato-wines/

I had the most striking photos of Grimm’s Bluff — it is a beautiful site — and of Rick and Aurora. Then my computer crashed and I lost them. Remember to back-up, dear ones.

Copyright 2015 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.

2

Coriston Cabernet 25 Vintage Vertical Tasting

Cathy Corison celebrates 25 years of her eponymous Napa Valley Cabernet with her current release of the 2011 vintage. In a special event hosted at the Corison winery some of us were able to taste all 25 vintages. 4 of the first 5 vintages were poured from magnum. The remaining 21 wines came from 750s.

It’s truly a special occasion to taste the complete portfolio of an iconic wine such as Corison Napa Valley Cabernet. To commemorate the tasting and Cathy’s work, an illustration of the 25 vintage vertical…

Congratulations on 25 beautiful years, Cathy!click on image to enlarge

Congratulations to Cathy Corison and the entire Corison team on 25+ years of excellence!

***

Post Edit:

By request, suggested drinking windows for the various vintages. At the time I did not record specific drinking windows but instead have just drink or hold impressions.

1987 – 1991: Drink
1992 – 2006: Drink or Hold
2007 – 2011: Hold

I would recommend drinking anything in the first five vintages now, and the next five vintages either now or within the next two to three years. Corison Cabernet readily ages well 18-20 years from what I can tell, and longer by vintage. The youngest five vintages are actually quite lovely currently but of course are young Cabernet. I like their expression quite a bit with all its freshness and taut focus but you’ll get much more out of holding them, if you have that option.

The original of the above image is drawn as a 19″x22″ wall piece.

Copyright 2015 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.

 

1

La Clarine Petit Manseng 2013click on image to enlarge

La Clarine Farm
Petit Manseng 2013
Fenaughty Vineyard, Placerville, California

13.5%
dry
2.9pH
14.1 g/L acidity

six months ambient yeast fermentation
rested on lees until bottling in August

Aromatics and flavors of almond, apricot, pineapple juice and dried lemon with touches of anise, and a long sea salt finish. Screaming acidity, delicious fleshy texture, endlessly mouth watering. All about freshness. Pairs well with chicken, chicken pho, hard cheeses, grilled salmon, or black-eyed peas with pork belly.

31 cases bottled

p.s. Happy New Year! Cheers! See you back here Wednesday. Je suis Charlie.  

Copyright 2015 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.

Considering California Sparkling Wine

Michael CruseMichael Cruse at Cruse Wine Co. smelling his pet-nat Valdiguie, November 2014

“We really want to make a California sparkling wine with all that entails,” Michael Cruse of Cruse Wine Co, and Ultramarine sparkling wine, tells me. All it entails includes the ripe fruit flavors characteristic of California’s sun, a feature that historically has tended to work against quality sparkling wine in the state.

California sparkling wine remains a difficult category. The California conundrum of too much sun and not enough acidity has so far largely kept it from achieving the balance and brightness in the glass wine geeks love. It’s never achieved the respectability Champagne immediately garners, and wine lovers rarely brag about it.

However, in recent years a shift has been happening. Boutique size wineries all over the state have begun popping open small scale sparkling projects. Last year the Pet-Nat craze coming from France began taking over California wineries.

Pet-Nat style sparkling wine seems more do-able for small production wineries. The approach offers the advantage of far less intervention, little equipment, and far less time to get those bubbles in the bottle than methode traditionnelle style wines. You can turn around a pet-nat wine in as little as a year, versus the several years required by the other approach. But most pet-nat bottlings remain incredibly hard to find. One of the tastiest versions to come from California last year, J. Brix 2013 Cobolorum sparkling riesling, for example, only had 17 cases made. It’s hard to start a quality revolution with such small numbers.

At the other side of the category, methode traditionnelle (that is, the same method used to make champagne) examples rely on far more input from the producer. Thanks to the work and expertise required, many of today’s champenoise style sparkling wines found in the state are made by large scale wineries. Such wineries do successfully churn out bottles but most California examples blend grapes from multiple locations producing wines with the state’s clear fruit expression but little character.

In reality, California has had little of its own sparkling tradition. The closest we’ve come was with the work of Paul Masson on the cool slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Masson’s work with California sparkling wine brought international attention to the category. He was able to continue his work through Prohibition selling his wines for sacrament and medicinal purposes, but after Masson’s retirement, his vineyards shifted to still wine production.

The difficulty with sparkling wine rests in its technical elements. Elevating the category truly to the level of fine wine depends upon an expertise grown not just from transferring knowledge but also in hands on experience. Even the apparently approachable style of pet-nat suffers at the same point it gains popularity. While it seems far easier to make, in truth making clean pleasurable versions depends upon yeast health, numbers, and viability that doesn’t consistently come from simply throwing wine in the bottle.

The improvement of any craft depends on a sense of critical mass intersecting with critical brilliance. Critical mass offers the foundation of interest to support development of knowledge and maintain its momentum. Critical brilliance brings together creativity with the backbone of experience to give it traction. For California sparkling wine, the coalescing of all these elements brings the opportunity of elevating the category to a level that truly means fine wine.

Enter Michael Cruse.

Tasting with Michael Cruse

Michael CruseDiscussing Methode Traditionnelle w Michael Cruse in front of his 2010 Ultramarine Sparkling Wine, Nov 2014

Though it’s only just starting to be released this month, Cruse’s sparkling label, Ultramarine, has already achieved a kind of cult status. That’s saying something as he explains not more than twelve people have even tasted it yet. From those twelve, however, its secured distribution through California, as well as within the tricky New York market.

Cruse’s cult status rests not only in the wine itself, but also his perhaps still hidden influence. Thanks to the underdeveloped history of California sparkling, few in the state could be considered consultants in the category. Those few with the knowledge tend to be secured by larger houses. With Cruse’s experience and custom crush facility, Cruse Wine Co., he’s become the go-to sparkling winemaker for several well-respected clients throughout the state. Over the next several years, sparkling projects Cruse has helped give focus will begin appearing across California.

Finding a Passion for Sparkling

Cruse’s path hasn’t always pointed towards sparkling wine. With an undergraduate degree in Molecular and Cellar Biology, emphasizing Biochemisty, from UC Berkeley, Cruse was certain he’d continue to a PhD. Stepping into research through labs at Berkeley, and UCSF, while also publishing, his path to graduate work seemed certain. Then something changed. He began to recognize others he met doing post-docs in science proved unhappy. Over time, the shift in perspective meant he began wondering if he could apply his love for lab work in another field.

“It took into my mid-20s to realize I could get paid for a real job.” Cruse laughs. Working through a formal education includes its disadvantages. Students rarely or barely earn money during their degree training. Then continuing into academic life, researchers learn to sustain themselves through minimal pay while doing loads of unpaid research under the umbrella of advancing their expertise and education. But for the curious, that same environment supports their passions.

“What I love about academia is that no one is ever telling you that isn’t how you should be spending your time,” Cruse explains. “People are always studying, writing, researching, working on something. I had a lot of kinship with that kind of work.”

When Cruse did make the leap out of academia, the transition wasn’t immediately easy. “Moving into a regular job as a lab oenologist,” Cruse tells me, “I would have night terrors because I didn’t know what to do with my brain.” The continuous problem solving of a research laboratory differed from the more repetitive work in a wine lab but the challenge of the transition eventually led him to his work with sparkling wine.

The mechanics of Cruse’s research work rested in reviving lab techniques established in the 1980s, but forgotten by the end of the last century. “I was in the library,” Cruse says, “looking at transcripts and papers from the 1980s figuring out how they were doing their work so we could apply it.” The library research provided solutions where lab knowledge otherwise failed. Such a lesson eventually became the salve for his night terrors as well.

While transitioning from oenologist, into cellar work, and then to assistant winemaker for red wine wineries, Cruse got curious about sparkling wine. Doing library research on old methods, then applying them to sparkling home wine experiments became his after work project.

“I was in the library looking at books from the 1880s, from before people had these [contemporary winemaking] machines to see how they made sparkling wine.” He explains. In 2010, he would make his first bonded California sparkling wine, the current release Ultramarine.

Natural and Sparkling?

Michael CruseMichael Cruse discussing site and technique, Nov 2014

Through his still table wines, and pet-nat Valdiguie for Cruse Wine Co., it looks easy to describe Cruse’s work as happily fitting with the family of natural wines. He avoids additives, doesn’t cold stabilize, and minimizes or avoids sulfur when the wine will remain stable.

His unsulfured Cruse Wine Co. 2014 Pet-nat Valdiguié is made with an interest in affordability put alongside admirable vineyards. Tasting it, the wine proves to be the cleanest example I’ve tasted of a new world pet-nat, all rose blossom aromatics cut with a leafy, herbal freshness that fills the palate through a delicate foam.

Indeed, with Ultramarine too, relying on older texts as he did, also bolstered his more minimalist approach to winemaking. But there he becomes reticent to describe his approach as natural.

“Sparkling wine is a very techniques driven wine,” he explains. He’s referring to making wine through methode traditionnelle. “Whether you agree with a natural wine approach or not, you’re going to use the same technique.” For Ultramarine, Cruse avoids additives, cold stabilization, and innoculation as well.

“But am I going to use a riddling aid? Yes. Will I add dosage? Yes. A dash of sulfur at disgorgement? Yes. Trying to claim sparkling is a natural wine becomes a stretch.” Still, the wine is undoubtedly unique — single vineyard, single vintage with each bottle hand riddled, and disgorged. When I push him he finally responds, “I guess you could say we’re minimalist.”

Finally, I ask him to further explain his earlier comment about California sparkling wine with all it entails.

“For me, I want the wine to be noticeably California. That doesn’t have to be flamboyantly fruity.” He explains. “It is intense, and flavorful, and strong. That is the site.” He says. It’s an answer that exemplifies the quiet humility he somehow couples with certainty.

Inspired by the grower producers of Champagne, Cruse focuses Ultramarine production on fruit only from the Charles Heintz Vineyard. It’s a site he believes offers exceptional farming for sparkling wine.

The lemon curd and pastry elements of the bubbles resemble flavors found in still chardonnays familiar to lovers of the vineyard. But the graceful long finish, and cut mineral edge speak to a fine wine elegance brought by the hands of its producer. And there we discover the California balance of Michael Cruse.

***

To sign up for the Ultramarine mailing list: http://www.ultramarinewines.com/joinus/

For more on Cruse Wine Co.: http://www.crusewineco.com/

***

Next Wednesday‘s column here: “In Defense of Natural Wine.” Post update: Wednesday Nov 12 article will post Thursday Nov 13 due to travel delays.

Copyright 2014 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com