California

Petaluma Gap – A windy AVA on hold 

harvest at McEvoy Azaya Ranch, courtesy of Doug Cover

Sonoma’s proposed Petaluma Gap AVA – known for its Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah – is all but approved but, due to slow-downs under the Trump administration, its final authorisation is currently on hold for an unknown period of time. The proposed AVA has gone through every stage of public commentary and consideration required by the TTB, and has thus fulfilled the requirements to become an official American Viticultural Area under federal law. However, the final step – the official endorsement signature from the Office of the Treasury – is unavailable thanks to several empty appointments in that office.

Within the US government, the president appoints top positions of major departments and federal offices. As a result, it is normal to see some delay in rulemaking during the transition from one presidential administration to another as new administrators are nominated and approved. The Trump administration, however, has had a higher rate of delay than typical as Trump fired an unusually high proportion of federal officials immediately upon taking office, came in with an unusually low number of appointments already in place, and the appointment of new administrators has been slowed by the current presidency’s numerous distractions such as the ongoing special investigations.

While the top position of the Office of the Treasury, the Secretary of the Treasury, has been confirmed, the second level, Deputy of the Treasury, has no nominee. The TTB falls specifically within the Treasury Office of Tax Policy. There, the President also appoints the top position, and while an official was nominated for the..

To keep reading this article, including tasting notes, head on over to JancisRobinson.com

Here’s the direct link: https://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/petaluma-gap-a-windy-ava-on-hold

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Adventures in Pie Club, Sonoma Edition

As some of you will recall, several of us formed an International Pie Club with members from New Zealand (of course), Australia, Sweden, Venezuela, the UK, Netherlands, Germany, and the United States. It’s serious. As such, we take our duties very seriously. Though proper savory pie shops are present most prolifically in New Zealand, Australia hosts a bevy of them as well. Outside the Antipodes the pie sources begin to run dry with only a trickle appearing occasionally across a vast pie desert. Gratefully, an oasis appeared in Sonoma County.

A Kiwi family relocated to Windsor, California, in the northern part of Sonoma County just off the 101, and opened a New Zealand inspired shop, BurtoNZ Bakery. In truth that means they make a lot of various baked things you could expect to find at a relatively Anglo-Saxon-descent bakery, but they also fit in a host of savory pies, and this weird Kiwi-Australian dessert I never have liked so don’t recall the name of either. But, as I said, THEY HAVE PIE.

So, a couple of us Pie Club members got together and did a proper tasting in two different visits. For one of the visits potential pie club members were invited to submit their application to pie club and demonstrate their pie club tasting and review skills. They were being vetted for their potential pie tasting prowess. In the other, actual founding members furthered the investigation. Two visits also means more pie, and the time to try a greater range of pie flavors as well.

Following are notes from the tastings.

Notes from Pie Club

BurtoNZ Bakery
9076 Brooks Rd S, Windsor, California

Pies Tasted: Mince & Cheese, Steak & Cheese, Vegetarian, Steak with Potato Top
Served: White Bag Take-Away, Eaten Outside
Tasting Notes:
Mince & Cheese tasted first. Good reliable standard crust. Reasonable mince & cheese filling. Cheese well dispersed and integrated. Mince far paler than that seen in a classic Mince & Cheese served in New Zealand. In a proper Kiwi Mince & Cheese pie one would expect the mince to be finely chopped and the details of the ingredients largely unrecognizable as a result, save for the occasional addition of light tomato. No tomato found here. No secrets either. All components of the mince were visibly recognizable due to larger chop size. Even so, solid workable pie. Good enough to cope with being away from New Zealand though no prize winner when back home.

Steak & Cheese. Good reliable standard crust. Cheese a bit more apparent alongside the steak than alongside the mince. Avoids dryness while also going light on the gravy. An okay pie. Mince & Cheese, however, is preferred here to Steak & Cheese.

Vegetarian. It is good and cute and friendly and nicely Californian of them to serve a vegetarian option. Way to integrate quickly into your newly adopted culture! However, as savory pie without meat seems a misnomer it is hard to take this pie too seriously. Nevertheless, one of the potential pie club members less indoctrinated into classic Kiwi pies felt the vegetarian pie was the best of the selections and chose it as his favorite. His application to pie club is unlikely to be accepted.

Steak with Potato Top. This is a damn good pie. Excellent steak filling with just enough gravy. The absence of cheese works to the advantage of this particular pie. Very good use of potato top. As everyone knows, a perfectly delivered potato top makes every one happy. It also offers a beautiful opportunity for alliteration when eaten in the proper location.

Behold!

Potato pie poised in my paw beside the Pacific!

I’ll be back to BurtoNZ for road pie next time I’m heading north. Steak with potato top was the clear winner.

For previous notes from Pie Club, Central Otago Edition:  http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2017/04/21/adventures-with-pie-club-for-david/

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Dan Petroski, photo courtesy of David Bayless

In 2009 Dan Petroski launched the entirely white-wine-focused brand Massican, sourcing fruit from iconic Napa Valley vineyards. In 2012, fruit from Russian River Valley was added to ensure adequate quantities for the various cuvées. Although Massican relies on fruit from California’s North Coast, the inspiration for the brand rests in the fresh, aromatic whites of north-eastern Italy. Petroski lived in Italy making wine for a year after leaving a publishing position with Time magazine, and fell in love with the high-acid whites of the country. Massican’s core blend, Annia, recalls the classic white wine blends of Friuli, bringing together the Italian grapes of that region with Chardonnay.

Since 2006 Petroski has also served as the winemaker for Larkmead Vineyards, one of north Napa Valley’s heritage wineries. There the wine programme centres more typically for Napa on red bordeaux blends, although it is also a source of old-vine Tocai Friulano. (In the United States the TTB still requires the variety be called by the full name, Tocai Friulano, even though international labelling laws demand it be called simply Friulano – see Farewell Tocai Friulano.)

Petroski’s decision to produce white wines only under the Massican label is unusual for Napa Valley. It hints at the potential diversity in a region that has so strongly aligned itself with Cabernet Sauvignon and structured reds. While Massican’s blends focus on Friuli’s characteristic white wine varieties, Petroski’s Sauvignon Blancs are also a stand out. His 100% varietal expression offers an example unique for the region, using just enough oak to give it pleasing palate texture, while in the end delivering a harmony of savoury notes, balanced by just enough sweet stone fruit, and just enough spice. The result is a serious but delicious example of Sauvignon that avoids its excesses or stereotypes.

At the end of April, Petroski opened complete verticals of every wine he has made for Massican. It provided a unique opportunity to taste his current 2016 releases and to revisit previous vintages to see how they have aged. While the earlier vintages of 2009 through 2011 show a sense of…

To keep reading this article, including tasting notes, head on over to JancisRobinson.com

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Acumen – the importance of the human factor

looking across Acumen’s Edcora Vineyard – photo used with permission from Acumen

The exceptionally heavy and much-appreciated rains seen in California this winter have people through the region feeling as though California’s recent drought is at least temporarily over. While vineyards throughout the lower-lying areas of California’s North Coast were under water in places, vines were dormant and there should be no negative effect during the growing season. On the positive side, water stores are refilled, and the aquifer is presumably at least partially replenished. Most of all, vines have access to natural groundwater in the soils again, which is a benefit as it serves overall vine health more readily than irrigation usually does. How the 2017 vintage goes will depend on the weather during the upcoming bloom and fruit set period, and then of course during ripening.

Because of the rains I had to postpone my scheduled visit to Acumen estate in the Atlas Peak AVA of the Vaca Range on the eastern side of Napa Valley. Though its high-elevation vineyards and well-draining volcanic soils meant flooding was of no concern on site, for some time roads throughout the region were underwater, and landslides were an issue in places as well. Travel through the valley was so difficult that I put off my meeting on the estate with Acumen president Steve Rea (pictured below) until a dry day in March by which time the roads had cleared and the vineyards were dry enough to walk.

Acumen may be a new project for the region – with its 2013 vintage their first and current release – but the wines are built from a much older site, the Attelas Vineyard, planted in 1992 by Dr Jan Krupp. Krupp is known throughout Napa Valley for having had a considerable influence on the Pritchard Hill and Atlas Peak subzones. Although Antica was the first to plant in Atlas Peak, Krupp established one of the region’s most famous sites, the Stagecoach Vineyard, sold just last month to Gallo. Krupp began planting Stagecoach in 1995 having already planted Attelas.

Part of what makes Atlas Peak unique as an appellation, besides its high elevation (reaching 2,663 feet at its highest), is its sizeable amount of…

To keep reading this article, including tasting notes on all of their 2014 wines, continue to JancisRobinson.com

Here’s the direct link: http://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/acumen-the-importance-of-the-human-factor

Subscription to JancisRobinson.com is £8.50 a month or £85 per year ($12.20/mo or $122 a year for you Americans) and includes searchable access to the new 4th edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine ($65) and the 7th edition to the World Atlas of Wine ($50) as part of the subscription costs, as well as interactive discussions on the Purple Pages. Click here to sign up.

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Larkmead Block Designate Cabernet Sauvignon

Larkmead winemaker Dan Petroski

In 2013, winemaker Dan Petroski helped shift the winemaking program at Larkmead Vineyards to include what are essentially block designate Cabernet Sauvignon wines. Continuing to make the recognizable white label wines, the new program has added an additional black label tier with three Cabernet Sauvignons differentiated by block. Importantly, what differentiates the three blocks is the soil.

Until 2013, Larkmead Vineyard was dealing with relatively young vines thanks to a massive replant in the second half of the 1990s. The replant was a move common throughout Napa Valley as many sites faced uneven vineyard architecture thanks to the relatively young region sorting out its own best techniques and practices. Much of the Valley had also been hit by phylloxera thanks to the notoriously vulnerable AXR1 rootstock.

When Dan began his winemaking career at Larkmead in 2006, then, he was working with vines generally under 10 years of age. For the variety, younger vines tend to produce more tenacious, angular wines. For overall balance of structure to flavor, mouthfeel and pleasure, then, it can be necessary to allow young-vine fruit to hang longer on the vine to soften up the structure and create a more approachable wine. Bigger wines, then, are often arrive the result, especially in warmer subzones like north Napa Valley.

By 2013, however, vine age at Larkmead had surpassed the ten-year mark and the winery was ready to start getting to know the unique expression of their heritage site. With this in mind, Dan also instigated a winery expansion increasing the number of tanks in the cellar to allow for block specific fermentations. Prior to the winery expansion blocks were blended in the cellar and bottled as a general Larkmead Cabernet. By expanding the winery tank count it became possible to translate the honed block-by-block farming in the vineyard into tank-by-tank fermentation in the cellar. The change allowed greater synchronicity between vineyard focus and winemaking execution. In late 2016, the effort uncurled into the release of Larkmead Black Label Cabernet Sauvignons.

While the 2013 vintage of Larkmead’s black label Cabernets capture the soil specific blocks from the North Napa site, it also marks a larger shift in expression for the house. 2013 across the region carries the hallmarks of both a warmer, early harvest and the drought effect. Wines simultaneously express fruit and structure – a combination missing from the comparatively lighter tannin, more up front fruit and hollow-bodied 2012 vintage seen throughout California’s North Coast. At Larkmead, the 2013 wines carry the purity of the new block-designate practice while also delivering the thrust of the vintage. It means intriguing and attractive wines distinctive from each other with character that feels expressive of site. By 2014, the block-designate wines are very slightly lighter bodied and fresher. Barrel and then tank tasting with Dan through the 2016 wines, the trend continues lighter until by 2016 the Cabernets feel as though they show a purity and lightness for the variety delicious, while unexpected from Calistoga.

The lightness being unexpected, however, comes, perhaps, less from the innate long-term characteristics (or terroir, if we must) of North Napa Valley than the lumbering weight of young vines that have dominated many sites of the subzone. Additionally, until recently, it has been far too easy for Cabernet of Napa Valley to come in big, even sweet, and dominated by oak as the market allowed, or even encouraged, such a stylistic approach – not that Larkmead was expressing that stereotype.

With the increasing complexity in stylistic interest happening in the global wine industry – there is not just a greater interest in lighter bodied wines that many people talk about but instead an increasing plethora of stylistic interests – it has become more and more necessary for wineries to get clear on what stylistic interests are driving their winegrowing and winemaking choices. To stand out in the wine industry today, stylistic choices must be intentional. It is harder to just meet market demand when market demand has bifurcated into multiple styles. All of this is to say, the shift in style that Dan is executing at Larkmead speaks to a bold, while necessary choice, as well as one that is well executed. He and the Larkmead team have chosen to take this particular moment when their vineyards have finally come on line with necessary age to capture a level of freshness both admirable and timely in Napa Valley.

The new Black Label series from Larkmead includes three block designate wines – The Lark, Dr Olmo and Solari. The Lark takes a four year release cycle, placing 2012 as its current release vintage, while both Dr Olmo and Solari are currently 2013. Soil differences in the three blocks stand as important because of the textural and palate weight differences they bring to the wines.

The Lark grows from white rock, bale loam soils that offer a seductive textural palate resembling the fine-grained tannin of benchland soils that stretch from Oakville through St Helena. It is comparatively a more luxurious wine with the elevated presence of the best sites of Napa Valley. It also does justice to the vintage capturing the purity possible from a year with a more upfront profile while harnessing a greater seriousness through its aging regime.

Dr Olmo grows from gravel dominated soils with the high tone and fresher aromatics and style common to that soil type while also delivering comparatively more rustic tannin – I love the freshness combined with distinctive elevated black floral character of this wine. It feels like hallmark Calistoga with its overt black notes – black herbs and black rocks lifted by anise. The block behind Solari carries a mix of gravel and loam. It’s a combination that brings a natural density and power to the wine still lifted by aromatic, built to age and yet able to deliver in its youth.

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WiVi Central Coast

Phil Markert speaking at WiVi Central Coast 2017

Wine Business Monthly hosted a day long conference yesterday on winemaking and viticulture WiVi here in Paso Robles. The day included a series of sessions on all aspects of the wine industry. In vineyard care there were sessions on canopy management or vine diseases. In the cellar they looked at managing phenolics and then later focused in on winemaking choices in Pinot noir. For hospitality side there were sessions on creating a unique customer experience and then later tips on managing the tasting room. Krush radio, 92.5 fm, was even on site all day doing live on-air interviews with some of the speakers. Mixed throughout the day were also tasting trials focused in on winemaker experiments with side-by-side tastings looking at the effect of particular techniques in contrast to others.

One of the seminars that was particularly exciting to hear was a presentation by Phil Markert who spoke on trends in wine sales through the retail sector. Phil oversees wine and liquor sales for the retail grocery conglomerate Albertsons/Vons/Pavillions overseeing all of Southern California. Prior to the sale of Safeway to the larger group he was a Vice President for that company overseeing merchandising for non-perishables (that is, wine sales here too). He has been in wine buying for these stores for over 30 years, 22 of which he has been buying in Southern California, and 8 years buying nationally. As Phil explained, the wine sections of these grocery stores are managed essentially as a wine store that happens to be within a grocery store. Phil has taken a brilliant approach at building connections between these Southern California locations and wineries, as well as with winemakers and restaurants. He shared a wealth of insight on both actual sales trends happening regionally and nationally, and on tips for promoting sales that benefit all sectors.

Phil Markert at WiVi

As Phil explained, the health of the wine business in Southern California is strong. There has been an $85 million increase in wine sales, an 18% 2 year bump (dude. That’s huge.). The stores within the Albertsons/Vons/Pavillions group are organized individually, while still interconnected nationally, in order to promote connections to the local community both through events and offers specific to the local community, and also through the promotion of local products. For this approach to work effectively, he said, stores need to be managed by local districts in which stores share general trends and locale. In the case of wine this strongly benefits regional wineries. In the Paso Robles store, for example, of the 50 top selling items 42 are from Paso Robles. He has seen a huge trend towards local products in stores across the country. The interest in local wine purchases in Sonoma, for example, even outpaces that of Paso.

In designing the buying strategy for wine, Phil described the core guiding principles. As part of these guiding principles, they had to define what it means for a product to be local. First of all, the product must come from within a relevant radius of distance to the store. But, in this sense there are two different senses of local – the broad definition is simply within the state, so in our case, California. Second is what they call hyper-local, referring to products ultra close to the actual store – within 5 miles, 20 miles, 30 miles, etc. Secondly, for the product to count as local it has to illicit an emotional response where the customer feels as though the product is part of their identity, or part of the regional identity, or almost as if the product belongs to them somehow. He further commented that for the millennial customer there is a strong interest in knowing where the product comes from, who makes it, and if it has a unique history or legacy. Most of all, the customers’ sense of bond or connection with the product or company drives sales. In selecting brands to feature, then, the wine sections of the grocery store like to look for wineries that have an intimate connection with the community through community activities, donations, partnership, etc.

In current retail trends, the focus on localization has been the most effective strategy for promoting retail sales. While there are overarching trends across the country, markets more strongly show micro-trends that demand local management and planning. Phil clarified that in tracking these in wine sales he actually turns to the sommelier community as a predictor for forming trends. By looking at wine lists from restaurants within the neighborhood or town (depending on size of the area) surrounding the store he has been able to predict appropriate buying strategies. Later in the Q&A we also discussed the role sommeliers have as table side educators and guides for customers who are already known to have the expendable income to spend on wine and how this drives sales outside the restaurant as well. (Restaurant goers are already a self-selected group of people willing to spend money on food and beverages.) What this means for wineries too, then, is that if they can penetrate the restaurant market of their extended community they can naturally increase their customer-interest base for retail or DTC sales as well.

In looking at specific trends happening more broadly – there has been a huge increase on sales for premium splits, 375 ml bottles. He believes this is primarily driven by two buying sectors. Millennial are more experimental in their buying habits wanting to try both premium and oddball wines. The 375 ml bottle allows experimentation more readily than a full-size bottle. The Boomer population has also been buying more premium splits. Currently around 60% of the Boomer population is single, so they are buying more premium splits to drink on their own. He said there is also an increase in sales for 375s in picnic communities.

At the same time, there is an increase in sales for premium magnums. To make this economically feasible the wine sections of the grocery stores are focusing primarily on magnums that are $75 or less. They have also seen an increase in wine sales sold in tetra packs, or cans.

At the same time that local sales are increasing, there is also an increased interest in international wines. For the Millennial population this supports the interest in experimentation. For the Boomer population, international wines are still associated with premium branding.

In terms of overall styles, rather than regionality, there has been a massive increase in interest in crisp, clean whites, higher acid rosés, and to some degree also fresher reds (though more especially high acid whites and rosés). The increase in retail trends in these styles of wine, Phil explains, was predicted in the restaurant sector first by tracking the increasing interest in these categories from the sommelier community. Importantly rosé sales have become a year round phenomenon. There were significant rosé sales for Thanksgiving, as well as Valentine’s Day, for example. In the last 52 weeks alone there has been a 292% sales increase in rosé alone. (DID YOU SEE THAT MAKE SURE YOU SAW THAT BECAUSE WHOA.) The greatest increase has been in French rosé but there has been a proportional increase in local rosé sales as well.

(As an interesting side note: the increase in retail sales of rosé happily correlates with production trends happening in California as well. There has been a steady increase on wineries making rosé, though I don’t have those numbers – this point came up from conversations later in the day. It is a happy coincidence this turns out to be true as there is also need for this increased interest. The increase in red blotch in vineyards through the state has led to more producers picking for rosé, for example, as well. Red blotch impacts leaves more severely later in the season making it more difficult to ripen red varieties. By picking early before the leaves are as impacted growers can guarantee they are able to use the grapes and simply make another style of wine from it instead, rosé instead of red. This is not insignificant, however. Rosé is usually not sold for the same price as red so there is still economic loss in this solution though not as severe as simply being unable to harvest.)

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Hyde de Villaine

Born of a collaboration begun in 2000 between Napa Valley grower Larry Hyde and Burgundy winemaker Aubert de Villaine, Hyde de Villaine (HdV) produces premium Chardonnay (as well as a range of red wines) from one of the region’s most coveted sites for the variety. Hyde Vineyard grows Chardonnay in the clay soils of Carneros, that, combined with the site’s older vines, offer incredible innate power to its wines. The oldest section of Chardonnay at Hyde was planted in 1979, established with Wente cuttings. With the wish to stay entirely in California heritage selections, in the 1990s a portion of the vineyard was planted to Calera cuttings as well, though the majority continues to be Wente. Vine age has proven an advantage not only for the quality of the wine but also the health of the vineyard coming through the California drought. As the vines have continued to age, cellar choices have also shifted. The older the vines the longer the wines are held in barrel before bottling, for example.

Stephane Vivier leads the winemaking for HdV, working with the Hyde and de Villaine families to adjust the expertise of Burgundy’s long heritage to the particular character of Napa fruit. The house style, for example, has included full malolactic (ML) conversion since 2004. The cool character of the Carneros vineyard’s microclimate make preserving a sense of intense freshness while still doing full ML possible. The HdV team chooses to innoculate for ML with a strain that delivers ultra clean flavors, while also going through ML in a relatively shorter time. As Stephane explains, while many producers in much cooler climates choose to go through ML slowly to bring greater depth of flavor to otherwise steely fruit, warmer climate Chardonnay can benefit from the opposite approach – maintaining balance from a shorter ML process. While Hyde Vineyard is cool for Napa Valley, the wealth of sun brings greater flavor development, and overall temperatures are warmer compared to more genuinely cool climates like Burgundy.

The goal for HdV is to produce what Stephane calls restrained opulence. As he explains, in Burgundy, Chardonnay is understood as the Queen of Grapes, simultaneously sturdy, serious, and even imposing, with a noticeable presence. Respect for the fruit, then, comes with recognizing that natural stature of the variety. The view makes sense when tasting the HdV style – nobility comes with an innate opulence without excess as it is shaped by poise and control at the same time. Thus, HdV respects the fruit expression of California while crafting viticultural with a focus on freshness and cellar choices to maintain that integrity.

In the cellar, winemaking techniques are kept simple. Fruit is harvested to capture acidity. Then, in one of the most distinctive winery choices, the fruit is pressed at profoundly low pressure and slow speed. Pressing lasts a rather long time, as a result, outstretching industry norms for the region by more than half a day. In taking the long, slow approach, handling of the fruit is minimized through a gentle touch that invites a subtle frame and a range of understated flavors in the resulting wine. As Stephane explains, the idea is to keep things simple but to make complex wine. During aging there is no racking and before bottling no fining of filtration. It is not necessary with full ML. Barrel choices are kept consistent. Aubert has a long standing relationship, since the 1950s, with the Francois family and so those barrels are used for HdV as well.

Tasting Vintages: 2014 and 2011

Last week Stephane and I were able to taste the 2014 and 2011 vintages of HdV Chardonnay. The record cold temperatures of 2011 were outstanding for the variety. In 2014, the third year of drought brought a surprising combination of bright acidity and ample flavor at lower brix.

As Stephane describes, the 2011 vintage for Hyde Vineyard was fairly wet at the beginning and then turned cold. Big rains came at the end of the season, impacting harvest for many people, though HdV brought in fruit prior to the biggest storm. The weather conditions reduced fruit set and slowed ripening bringing a lot of innate concentration and producing a very focused and bright wine with an utterly persistent finish. The 2011 Chardonnay remains mouthwatering and focused while carrying a bit more richness of age compared to the utterly youthful 2014.

The 2014 harvest came with the impact of three years of drought. Vines were just beginning to show drought stress but vineyards throughout the region dealt with it by creating one more push for large yields, a hopeful last chance to reproduce. Yields were large throughout Northern California. At the same time, vines created a surprise reaction – vines had significant crop but with concentration comparable to that coming from cold 2011, also offering acidity and ripe flavor at lower than usual brix. The 2014 wine is savory and lightly spiced in a focused, mouthwatering frame. Opening lean and concentrated, it continues to evolve significantly with air pointing to good aging potential and plenty of interest through the palate.

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Hanzell Chardonnay

Any time I can taste Hanzell Chardonnay – older or current release – it is a treasure. Their whites are among my favorites from California. Included in their wealth of vineyards are the oldest continually producing Pinot and Chardonnay vines in the state, planted in 1953. The original vines were established from cuttings of Stony Hill. In the Spring Hill District of the Mayacamas Mountains, Stony Hill was the first Napa Valley vineyard and winery established post-Prohibition. The rest of the Hanzell Chardonnay vineyards, including blocks from 1972, 1976, 1992 and 2001, are established with cuttings from those first 1953-vines as well as heritage selections from Hyde and Robert Young, and, in small sections, Dijon clones.

Hanzell sits within the broad Sonoma Valley appellation, on the eastern side of the county, set against the Mayacamas Range that divides Napa from Sonoma, while also open in the South to the cold, moist influence of San Pablo and San Francisco Bays, and the Pacific Ocean via Carneros. More recently it has been included in the sub-appellation of Moon Mountain, the slope on which it sits, but, as Hanzell grows low on the Southern side, it greets fog and a cooling influence that in those ways surpasses much of what the rest of that sub-region entertains. It is cooler than the rest of the Moon Mountain sub-zone.

While Hanzell has seen a handful of winemakers and viticulturists since it’s late-1950s inception, most of all it has held consistency. Where there have been brief interludes of shifting style it has quickly returned to respect for the vineyard and house focus. Winemaker Bob Sessions, of course, carried defining influence on the winery but, just as much, the commitment of its family ownership, currently the part of the Brye family, to doing what it takes to keep such continuity has guided the style, not in an outside sense of ownership as much as an internal question of respect for the vineyard. Today, Michael McNeill serves as Director of Winemaking guiding the ship, so to speak, to respect the heritage Hanzell carries while continuing to seek perfection in small incremental improvements met over time. It’s a compliment to Sessions, the Bryes, and McNeill, as well as the founders – Zellerbach, Webb and the Day family – that Hanzell has such a strong signature to surpass any of its particular viticulturists, proprietors, or winemakers, an indication of how willing any of them are to act in service to the larger history of the site and house.

Today, Hanzell Chardonnay is known most of all for its palate stimulation and age-ability. The volcanic soils of the site create a particular sort of sapidity – lingering through the finish, tightening at the back of the mouth, dusty-iron-like in the finish – while also offering the opportunity for the winemaking to respect the opportunity for wines to age long in the bottle. The wines, as a result, generally, when young, require decanting to show what they may, while also evolving over not only hours but days. Most of all, what I appreciate about the Hanzell Chardonnays is not only that evolving character in the bottle and glass but also the mouthfeel, a sense of weight and viscidity that carries persistent presence and weft without heaviness or any cloying finish. The aged Hanzell I am sipping on now continues only to be a pleasure.

Recent History

Michael McNeill became winemaker in 2008. Within only a couple vintages after the winemaking team decided to reduce their new oak footprint on the wines to return closer to the house style of the late 1990s. The 2009 vintage is a wonderful example of the transition. In 2008, Hanzell Chardonnays were made with about 33% new barrel fermentation, with those barrels going through malolactic (ML) conversion and sur lie aging for 12 months. Afterwards, those barrel fermented Chardonnays were put to tank and aged for an additional 6 months in stainless steel. The remainder was tank fermented, without ML conversion, for 6 months, and then put down to older barrel for 12 months. After 18 months, both the barrel and tank fermented lots were blended.

In 2010, Hanzell decided to reduce the portion of barrel fermented Chardonnay to 25%, thereby effectively reducing the proportion of new oak, and also of ML fermented Chardonnay as well. As Michael explains, doing so brings the Chardonnay regimen closer to that of what Hanzell was doing in the 1990s at the height of its then-stature.

Today, Hanzell has also shifted to what it calls “thoughtful, integrative farming” utilizing biodynamic methods and relying on organic farming while focusing primarily on the health of the soil and the biodiversity of the farm – including 60 chickens, 4 American Guinea pigs, baby lambs and an edible garden.

Historic Vintages

A week ago I was able to taste three vintages with winemaker Michael McNeill – 2009, 2011 and 2013.

As Michael explains, the Hanzell Chardonnays are in high form from 5 to 8 years of age in bottle. They move into another phase of aging from 8 years on that takes on further depth and tertiary character while the fresh tension of youth also slowly falls away. In that 5 to 8 year window the fruits begin to show with a more savory and, on the palate, saline quality, with a wealth of subtlety. Hanzell Chardonnays continue to age well, depending on vintage, for as much as two decades.

2009

The 2009, as I taste it over several days, just keeps getting better with air. It’s initial richness and freshness are met by ever increasing energy and palate stimulation, a fantastic tension through the finish that is enlivening and hard to ignore. As it sits open the palate actually tightens and gains greater focus, losing some of the baby fat it has upon initial opening.

The 2009, at this point, is more developed and complicated than the 2011 with a savory element, a bit more breadth through the palate and especially the finish than the 2011, but that seems obvious in comparing the warmth of 2009 to the cold of 2011, even if the yields of 2009 were not terribly large compared to 2011. The 2009 has always been a well knit and structured wine, with a lot of balance to it inherently. There is a grand piano element to the 2009 – the nose gives hints of cedar and hand-rubbed metal string followed by a high tone, golden harmonic that strums through the palate with a long finish. The 2009 gives the complete harmony of high tone notes with the mid range and a deep tenor all together.

2011

Initially, the 2011 seems narrower both nose and palate, tightly focused, but at the same time feels more age worthy. The 2011 carries a real beam of acidity and pretty aromatic that will flesh out with a little air. The cold of 2011 served Chardonnay well and the wine will be among Hanzell’s long aging vintages but at the same time it has less breadth currently than other vintages right now. It has power of presence across the palate with concentration and length, most especially thanks to acidity, to last through age.

The palate of the 2011 is wonderfully savory and subtle while focused. The savory and subtle aspects across the nose call for both decanting and air, showing a faint petrol quality that, as Michael explains, is more commonly an indicator of a cooler vintage.

As it is, the 2011 Hanzell, as mentioned, will be one of their longest lived vintages and should be enjoyed with such longevity and accompanying freshness in mind.

2013

The 2013 vintage of Hanzell Chardonnay is immediately stimulating, both bright and impressive, a wine that demands attention while still fresh, bringing fruit notes and concentration from the natural power of the vintage.

The 2013 carries a particular mix of pure fruits alongside the signature savory component carrying the salty edge of cured meats through the finish in a refreshing way. There is a purity here that runs the full length of the palate with nice density through the mid palate. Delicious.

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Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir Redwoods & Isolated Ridges
Elaine Chukan Brown

that’s me in cartoon thanks to Wine & Spirits Magazine

A few years ago, a 2007 Anthill Farms pinot noir from Peters Vineyard in western Sonoma shocked me with its energetic combination of earthy depth and high-toned aromas. That, I think, is when I really caught the Sonoma Coast bug. Since then, I’ve visited Sonoma’s coastal vineyards again and again, hoping to better understand the intricacies of these mountains.

The west Sonoma coast fascinates me partially because of the unique growing conditions of every site. From the steep, redwood-dense slopes of the north, mere meters away from the Mendocino border, to the exposed high-elevation peaks of Fort Ross–Seaview, all the way south to the fog-dripped slopes near Freestone and Occidental, each vineyard feels like its own isolated sovereignty. Thanks to the ruggedness of the region, many vineyards grow in remote reaches of the mountains out of sight of any other. Most of all, my fascination stems from the way this region’s pinot noirs express that diversity.

Sonoma’s coastal range draws a line between the warmer inland temperatures of the county on one side and the cold Pacific air mass on the other. Canyons and low points in between allow fog and cool air to sneak into the inland side of the county. Those two forces—the warmth of the continent and the chill of the ocean—interact to create unique microclimates tucked into the folds of the mountains.

The San Andreas Fault also contributes to the region’s viticultural diversity. The mountains here formed over millennia as the Pacific and continental plates crashed against each other, creating a complicated mineral quilt: shale and sandstone sometimes reduced to a powdery topsoil, volcanic rocks, and incursions of serpentine, quartz, greenstone and chert.

It’s a complex region. The six wines below only begin to scratch the surface, but they’ve become some of my most reliable signposts.

The Cool Southlands

The Freestone Valley—a particularly cool spot in the coast range—sits just north of the low valley of the Petaluma Gap. Here, vineyards are often inundated with dense fog and cold temperatures even in…

To continue reading, head on over to Wine & Spirits Magazine’s website where the article is available to read for free. As it continues it gives an overview on the unique growing conditions of Sonoma’s coastal mountains and also describes six wines that help understand the region. 

Here’s the link to the article: http://www.wineandspiritsmagazine.com/news/entry/sonoma-coast-pinot-noir-redwoods-isolated-ridges

Making Vermouth:
How one winemaker turned “failure” into a successful product

Elaine Chukan Brown

winemaker Dan Petroski

VERMOUTH TENDS TO BE thought of as an apt blender in a martini—a second thought to making a fine cocktail. Its history as a modern beverage dates back to the 1800s and is celebrated on its own, as well, and as an integral part of a robust food and wine culture in Europe. Recently, the beverage has gained some notoriety as part of the craft spirits boom in the United States. Small-batch vermouth has cropped up across the continent with domestic examples appearing from wine regions in New York, Oregon, California and elsewhere.

In Napa, Massican Winery’s vermouth has become a beloved staple of the wine-geek community and has found its way into bars in California and New York. Massican owner and winemaker Dan Petroski brought his love for Italian culture, food and wine to making his dry, white wine-focused brand. Several years ago, however, a mishap in the cellar led to him adding dry vermouth to the portfolio.

As Petroski explains, as an aromatized wine, vermouth offers an interesting opportunity for the vintner unsure of what to do with a less desirable wine.

Wine Mishaps

“The vermouth started out as a trial with Tocai,” Petroski said. “The vermouth was never meant to be. It was purely a wine trial, but in failure we saw an opportunity.”

Though the white wine variety Tocai Friulano has been legally renamed Friulano to avoid international naming confusion, it is still affectionately referred to simply as Tocai in Northeastern Italy. In Friuli, Friulano is one of the signature grapes of the region. In California, Petroski has been able to work with hundred-year-old vines of the cultivar first established by Italian immigrants farming the variety for their own use. Such fruit serves as an integral component of Massican’s flagship white blend, the Annia. It also ended up providing the base for his vermouth.

In working with Friulano for Annia, Petroski wanted to investigate different methods of clarifying the juice prior to fermentation, but the trial led to an off-wine.

“Tocai is a very reductive variety,” Petroski said. “It is important to clarify the juice prior to fermentation in order to ensure clean aromas and flavors. We wanted to test this process. After whole-cluster pressing the Tocai to tank, we mixed the tank and immediately barreled down one barrel—55 gallons—of wine. We cold settled the juice at 50° F for two days and racked off the clean wine. The remaining heavy lees and sediment…

To keep reading this article turn to the February issue of Wine Business MonthlyThe rest of the article looks at Dan’s process in formulating his own vermouth, the basic process for making your own vermouth, and key lessons Dan thinks anyone wanting to experiment should keep in mind.

In the print edition the article appears on page 118. However, you can also view it for free online by either downloading the entire February issue as PDF, or using their online click book option. The article appears on page 118 in each of the electronic versions as well. 

Here’s the link to download the February issue or use the click book: 

https://www.winebusiness.com/wbm/?go=getDigitalIssue&issueId=9023