Red Wines

Talking with Michael McNeill

On Tuesday, I shared the first half of a conversation with Michael McNeill, Winemaker of Hanzell, one of California’s heritage houses.

Though we had tasted together before, we agreed to meet in order to dig more deeply into McNeill‘s views on winemaking, and how he understands his role at Hanzell.

McNeill’s position is unique in California. Hanzell makes wine from their own vineyards, which include the oldest continuously producing chardonnay and pinot noir sites in North America, each planted at a time when the grapes were rare on the continent. Add to that the fact that McNeill describes his job as a “guardian of the Hanzell style,” and you can see he carries a unique position.

The transcript of our conversation is presented here, edited for length, and in a few places for clarity. In the first half of the conversation (readable here), McNeill and I spoke on what he values about working for a heritage house, his previous winemaking experience, and how he came to work at Hanzell.

The following portion of the conversation picks up immediately following his story about interviewing with Jean Arnold, President Emeritus of Hanzell, for the job as winemaker. In this half of the conversation, we discuss McNeill’s views of whole cluster fermentation, how land ownership changes your winemaking choices, and whether he’s ever wanted to start his own label.

The following photos are each courtesy of Hanzell.

A Conversation with Michael McNeill, Hanzell Vineyards

Michael McNeill, 2013

Michael McNeill, Winemaker Hanzell

Elaine: With the change you were facing, some winemakers would have thought, “Well okay, it’s time for me to start my own label.”

Michael: Yeah. I have kicked that around from time to time. But I have a son, and felt it really important to be part of his life. I didn’t want to have two jobs, which is what it really requires to have your own label. And my deal at Keller would not have allowed me to start my own label, so that would have been messy.

It could have turned out where I started consulting with multiple labels, and maybe at that point, I would have said, “Well I might as well start my own as well,” but I don’t know. I have enough friends that have started their own wineries and labels, and it’s challenging. It’s really challenging. Most of them still work two jobs and don’t have kids. I’m sure that there are examples of people that have done it, but I don’t want it. I’ve seen how hard people work and how challenging it is.

Elaine: Did you ever feel compelled to?

Michael: Sure. I think every winemaker worth his salt, at some point, wants to do their own thing because we all think we know all the answers, and would do it the right way. Of course, you find out how challenging it is and how many compromises you wind up having to make that you don’t think of prior. It’s kind of like when you’re the assistant winemaker, you always question the winemaker: why are we doing it that way? I would have done it a different way…

And then the first time you’re making the decisions, you’re making the picking calls, how incredibly nerve-wracking it is, how you wring your hands over the decisions you make. Am I making the right decision? I always look back at what Michael Michaud did at Chalone, and have so much added respect for what he did.

Elaine: The analogy that comes to mind is raising my daughter. It completely changed my perspective on my parents, and in ways I couldn’t have predicted. Just like silly things, like when Rachel was two or three, I suddenly recognized all these things my mom did when I was growing up were actually because she was tired all the time. I just thought of them as parts of her personality and maybe they frustrated me, but actually I suddenly recognized them as fatigue. It brought more compassion, more understanding.

Michael: Right. They were just tired.

I tell people that parenting changes your life in ways that you would have never expected. And you can’t explain that to someone — I always say, “Welcome to the club.” You’re here now.

Elaine: And you never leave the club. No matter what else happens.

So, anyway, you started at Hanzell that July, what are some of the things you focused on to start? I’m sure you tasted a lot of Hanzell wine initially. You mentioned you had tasting panels with multiple Hanzell winemakers, and you’d gathered a lot of information. So you started in July, and with harvest only a few months later, you had to pretty quickly get ready.

Michael: Yeah. Michael Terrien stayed on in a consulting role. He was available to me to talk to and figure things out. I could bounce things off of him.

Elaine: How long did he stay on?

Michael: Six months.

Elaine: Okay. So, through that harvest.

Michael: And that was very helpful. I appreciated having that, for sure. But all the picking and such was my call, but it was great to have him there to bounce it off of, and ask, “What do you think?” That, and looking at the old records.

Michael McNeill Hanzell Harvest 2014

Michael McNeill bringing in Hanzell chardonnay, harvest 2014

Elaine: When you look back through your vintages to 2008 in relation to the Hanzell library, how do you see your progression?

Michael: It’s still early, I guess, in the grand scheme of things here. I would say that for the chardonnay, I think we’re keeping it very consistent. We made some adjustments, but I think by and large, they’re pretty subtle. They’re the small corrections or adjustments down the road, looking down the road.

The pinot noir, I think things have changed fairly – not dramatically, but definitely in 2008, I was making the wine kind of the way Michael Terrien was making it. Once fermentation ended, we were doing an extended maceration. We were warming it up to 30 C, which was pretty warm.

Elaine: After or during, you were warming it up?

Michael: After fermentation, during the extended portion. Or, allowing it to peak at 30 C, and then we put the lids on holding it there. And also everything was completely destemmed. I thought at the time it was a pretty extreme thing to do, and so we started backing off in terms of temperature that we were holding the wines at and then the temperature we were allowing the fermentation peak to get to do.

Elaine: You mean in subsequent vintages?

Michael: Yeah.

Elaine: So that initial vintage was consistent with Michael?

Michael: Yes, it was. Just because, you walk in, and you’re at “Well, I have to have a starting point.”

The other thing, too, was that everything was destemmed. And again, a lot of the wines that Bob was making in the 90s – what he had started doing in the 90s is including some whole cluster. It was getting to a point where, it was like 30% whole cluster. But he was doing it, and it is fairly counterintuitive – he was adding whole clusters to soften the wines, which is not what most people think of with whole cluster. But the reason is that the old de-stemmer that he was using was extremely aggressive. I refer to it as a grape grinder. And so they were getting all the extraction up front, so they didn’t have to do these extended macerations. They were very short, quick fermentations.

So he was doing whole cluster to soften the wine by not putting it through the grape grinder. And I love the aromatics and the qualities of those wines. So we have been looking at how to reintegrate some of the whole cluster with the equipment that we have and using the extended maceration.

Elaine: Right. Because you can’t just do it the way he did it since you have different equipment.

Michael: No we can’t. And we don’t really want to. So we’re really making adjustments on the pinot noir. We’re bringing in whole cluster now. And the other thing too is we have the Sessions Vineyard, the site planted in 1999, that Bob was not working with then, and that’s now a fairly large portion of our pinot noir.

So there’s a lot of change that has come into the pinot noir program without deciding to change it. We have new vineyards, we have new equipment; now what do we do? And how do we work these elements in while maintaining our style, and how to best showcase this ground and the style? It’s a lot more difficult, or I guess a lot more, in a way, intellectual, than just simply saying, “We have a house style we follow each year.” It’s not that way at all.

Elaine: There are some winemakers that say in order to show the terroir of a place they use exactly the same techniques every year, and across every vineyard, with the view that that means the only difference you see is the vineyard, or the vintage. But then there are other winemakers that say that kind of approach is a way of not listening to the specific needs of a particular vineyard and its tendencies; that some winemaking techniques work against the conditions of a site, or make a disjointed wine in a way that covers up some of the site character. So, what works for one site might actually obscure another site.

Michael: Absolutely. I feel that way. I think that your role as a winemaker is to listen to the vineyard. That’s a cliché. But really, paying attention to the vineyard and getting it to express itself in its fullest form – that’s our role. Maybe it’s a bit, in a way, egotistical to think that the one way that you’re making pinot noir is the only way to make pinot noir.

Elaine: Right, but if you’re trying to give them the benefit of the doubt, you could say that they’d respond, “Oh no, I don’t mean this is the only best way to make pinot noir; I mean I’m just trying to remove all the variables to show the various sites, and I picked this way because I like it but, I’m not saying it’s the only way.”

Michael: I think that is, in a way, more of a marketing decision. Right or wrong. I don’t think that doing it that way is necessarily the wrong thing to do, but I don’t think that you’re getting the most out of each site. But, I think it certainly makes real good sense in terms of marketing and business, because you have delineated all of these different vineyards. And if you have a clientele that’s interested in what you’re doing, and they want to try all these different …

Elaine: They have to buy a six-pack.

Michael: Yeah, exactly. I think that’s brilliant from a marketing perspective, but I don’t think it necessarily is the best for each site. But then again, most winemakers are doing things like that in a sense. They aren’t invested in the site. They just buy the fruit.

Michael McNeil Pruning Ambassadors Vineyard

 

Michael McNeill pruning Ambassador Vineyard, Hanzell 2013

Elaine: That’s the thing. Having a wine industry that is so focused on sourcing fruit – like much of California, or much of the United States, just because of how hard it is to own and farm your own land now – rather than owning the land, or even a negociant approach where you buy wine and make blends, like in France – making wine primarily through sourcing the fruit significantly changes the values you can bring to the winemaking, but then also some of the techniques, and the marketing.

Michael: Right. If you own the piece of ground, would you use those same techniques then? If you own each of those vineyards, would you make them the exact same way?

Elaine: And also, like some of the things you’ve said indicate, how might your approach change over time as you get to know your site better?

Michael: Right. When I first got here, there were a couple of people who had been long time collectors here. I had only been here for like two weeks. I was introduced. They were in a beat up pickup truck. They looked like farmers. And they said, “Yeah, we’ll know if you’re any good in about ten years or so.” I love that.

Elaine: That’s great.

Michael: Right. That’s fair. Bob thought in terms of decades.

I look back at the wines from the 90s just in terms of the overall style and transparency. There’s a real lithe quality about them. Not that they aren’t powerful, because they are. But they just seem to be — transparent is the best way to put it. You can see all of the elements within it that make up the total, and yet are still very harmonious. I think that I look to that as more of an inspiration, if you will.

Elaine: That transparency with harmony.

Michael: Yeah. You want to have some power and intensity, but you want all of the elements to be in balance, which every winemaker is going to say the same thing, that they want that. So, it’s a matter of what — how they view balance; what parts of the elements they find as important.

I think that’s ultimately the role of the winemaker on a property like this, while trying to make wine. You’re translating. You’re translating from the vineyard, and what that property, what that terroir is offering. And our job as winemakers is to translate that into wine. It is to deliver that. How do you deliver it?

And I think that that’s the difference in terms of being a winemaker and having one set of winemaking protocol, and one size fits all. You’re not doing the translating. You might have one program that that fruit is going through. You’re not allowing that specific place to be fully translated in what it can express.

Elaine: You mentioned doing small-scale experiments to investigate whether you want to incorporate them into the overall winemaking. What are you seeing with your whole cluster experiments?

Michael: Liking it. We like the element that it brings to the overall quality, especially in terms of mouth feel and aromatics. One of the other things we’re looking at is with the whole cluster, do we want to start pressing that off early instead of giving the extended maceration? So that’s another variable that we’re looking at as well.

And this place, Hanzell, is a pretty unique spot. There’s a particular energy that this property has.

Elaine: It doesn’t feel like anywhere else.

Michael: I saw Jacques Lardiere, he used to be the winemaker at Jadot speak at IPNC [The International Pinot Noir Celebration in Willamette Valley, Oregon] in 2012, and we were all laughing because he was so over everyone’s heads in the way he spoke about biodynamics. But when he was talking about a specific Premiere Cru vineyard, he said, “There is something about this place that is special. It has a special energy.” And I immediately got it. I understood that. I think this place, Hanzell, has a very special energy that, I don’t know, I honestly think I could grow damn near anything on this piece of property and it would be great.

***

In another portion of our conversation I asked Michael McNeill what he thought had allowed Hanzell to persist so well, and maintain its quality as a heritage house of California. He credited the history of excellent ownership from now all the way back to its beginning.

For the first half of our conversation: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2015/05/26/a-conversation-with-michael-mcneill-hanzell-vineyards-part-1/

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

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.

For the second half of our conversation: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2015/05/28/a-conversation-with-michael-mcneill-hanzell-vineyards-part-2/

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

1

Portraits of Bardolino

At the end of the 1970s, Sergio and Franca Nerozzi decided to move their family from the city to the countryside between Lake Garda and Verona. In 1980, they moved into the home on the moranic hill of San Pietro that would become Le Vigne di San Pietro.

Though the family originally had no intention of making wine – both father Sergio, and son Carlo were architects – the property included an old field blend vineyard. Carlo would begin making wine.

Over time, the family would replant the vineyards. Today they produce classic wines of Bardolino – Custova, Chiaretto, and Bardolino – as well as a Cabernet-Merlot blend called Refola that is made by partially drying the Cabernet, and keeping the Merlot grapes fresh.

Following is a portion of the story that Carlo Nerozzi shared with us on our visit. He now owns Le Vigne di San Pietro. He spoke to us in English.

Carlo Nerozzi, Le Vigne di San Pietro

Carlo Nerozzi, Le Vigne di San Pietro

Carlo Nerozzi, Le Vigne di San Pietro, March 2015

We are on a moranic hill. There is a mix of stones, clay, sand, everything. Some stones from the Dolomites are in the ground here. They are all well draining soils. The area used to be a field blend, white and red.

We use no herbicide. We use cover crop – oat, peas – to feed nutrients to the soil. Our vines are all hand tend, and harvest.

If you think I am a producer, you are wrong because I am an architect. Making wine, it is a little different, but they say the wine is not bad. [smiling]

I don’t like to buy, only grow, so I make wine with only my grapes.

I am not a wine producer, as I told you. But it is not a joke. I am making wine. I come from another skill [architecture] but I have been doing it [making wine] for 35 years.

The style of San Pietro, from the beginning, is to be elegant, to age quite a long time, and with a good relation with the food. So, I am not looking for muscles, or sweet wine.

I prefer wine that can express itself slowly and deeply. I don’t know if I can do it but it is what I try to do for all the wines.

We ask him what type of architecture he used to do. 

My architecture was to restore old buildings, and also I started a group with the young people to do this skill.

Carlo has served as a mentor to many young people interested in architecture, and working in architecture, to help retain the skills of restoration in the extended community. 

Le Vigne di San Pietro Refola

He pours us his Chiaretto.

Of course Chiaretto is the most delicate wine, but we make it to have this mineral salty character. I think it is good to pair wine with food.

We begin tasting the Bardolino. 

With age, Corvina deepens in tone. It takes on treble notes, while keeping its light frame, and freshness.

He pours us the Refola. We ask him to discuss the wine. He decides to also pour us an early vintage, so we can better understand the wine, then he responds. 

It is special. When you dry the grapes, you need perfect grapes. We do not make it every year.

We begin tasting the wines with food. Carlo brings out a bottle of olive oil, and a bottle of vinegar for the salads. Then he explains that he made the vinegar. 

Some years ago, I made Pinot Noir. I don’t anymore. The last year, it was so good, I put all of it into vinegar. Good vinegar was better than bad vinegar was my idea.

The Pinot Noir vinegar is delicious. We all comment on it. 

We are enjoying the food, and spend time discussing where the ingredients are from, and how the food was made.

Wine writer, Paul Balke, comments, “In Italy, the most important cooking school is at home.” 

***

To read all five portraits of Bardolino:

1. Gianni Piccoli of Corte Gardonihttp://wakawakawinereviews.com/2015/04/23/portraits-of-bardolino-1-gianni-piccoli-corte-gardoni/

2. Matilde Poggi of Le Fraghehttp://wakawakawinereviews.com/2015/04/27/portraits-of-bardolino-2-matilde-poggi-le-fraghe/

3. Carlo Nerozzi of Le Vigne di San Pietrohttp://wakawakawinereviews.com/2015/04/30/portraits-of-bardolino-3-carlo-nerozzi-le-vigne-di-san-pietro/

4. Contessa Maria Cristina Rizzardi of Guerrieri Rizzardihttp://wakawakawinereviews.com/2015/05/04/portraits-of-bardolino-4-contessa-maria-cristina-loredan-rizzardi-guerrieri-rizzardi/

5. Angelo Peretti, Director of the Bardolino DOC, and The Internet Gourmethttp://wakawakawinereviews.com/2015/05/07/portraits-of-bardolino-5-angelo-perreti-the-internet-gourmet/

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

Portraits of Bardolino

The depth of a wine region inevitably hangs on its people. Traveling, then, I am listening as much to those we meet as I am tasting the wine.

March took me to the Lake Garda region of the Veneto to get to know Bardolino.

Gianni Piccoli of Corte Gardoni stands as a highly respected vintner in the Bardolino region. His work has focused on fighting homogenization of flavor and quality in the region’s wine.

While his grapes were sold for a few years to a local cooperative, Gianni was never satisfied with the wine they produced.

Additionally, cooperatives tended to push for the planting of international grape types. Until the end of the 1970s, vintners were legally forbidden from growing and selling Italian varieties. The push for international grape types was seen as a necessary economic strategy by the government.

Gianni was determined to retain the already established indigenous varieties. So, to keep his vines from disappearing into a morass of uninteresting wine, he began making wine himself in 1980.

Following is part of the story he shared with us on our visit. It has been translated from the Italian.

Gianni Piccoli, Corte Gardoni

Gianni Piccoli, Corte Gardoni

Gianni Piccoli, Corte Gardoni, March 2015

We are in the Southern most portion of the Bardolino DOC. It is less rocky. We have moranic soils.

The [white wine] Custova is a blend. It can have Trebbiano, Garganega, Tocai, Cortese, Chardonnay, Malvasia, Riesling. I was on the wine counsel. Trebbiano is not a very interesting grape, so I worked to reduce the portion. Now it can have more of the others.

Then, I found Tocai [Friulano] in the vineyard. It was in the garden. I had a discussion with a professor of the Wine Institute, and they said it is not Tocai. They have not found the DNA yet. We do not know what it is. It still grows in the garden.

I was the first one to do the sustainable system of farming in this region. It is almost organic. It is almost organic because we tend to do everything organic, but just in extreme cases, if it is needed, we might use low impact non-organic methods.

My wines have a tendency to improve with age. The minerality of all these wines is due to the moranic soils, and specifically in this location, and possibly also the methods of vinification.

The wines are all consistently around 12% alcohol. We work very hard for that.

With Bardolino, people talk about only up to 5 years of aging. That is because people used to focus too much on quantity and not on quality.

Gianni and Mattia Piccoli, Corte Gardoni

Gianni and Mattia Piccoli, Corte Gardoni, March 2015

Mattia, Gianni’s son, begins to add to the story.

My father started the winery in the 1980s, and he thought if he did not have a Cabernet, Merlot blend he would not survive. It was impossible.

My father started with 3000 bottles [of the Cabernet, Merlot blend], and now we produce 3000 bottles. Just like that – even. [He moves his hand in a flat motion through the air, then holds up 1 finger.] Just 1 hectare. The rest is local wines.

We grow 25 hectares total. 200,000 bottles.

Gianni returns to telling us his story. 

My parents and grandparents, my ancestors, were here and for them the fruit was the most important, not the wine. It went to the cooperative. I started the winery. The first year was 1980.

They had potatoes, corn for the livestock, and some vines. Even 50 years ago, it was like this. Sometimes they would have to postpone harvest of the grapes because they had to take in the corn for the livestock.

Many years ago, another winery, asked me if they could sell some of my Chiaretto. Their winery was well-known. I was not well-known. They did not have any rosé. So, I made it, and they sold it as theirs, but I also sold it as mine.

A famous enologist came and tasted my Chiaretto, and he said, I think there is a flaw in this Chiaretto but I cannot tell you what it is. 

So, I brought him to the other winery. They were embarrassed because they knew it was the same. I said, I think this man would like to taste your Chiaretto.

[laughing]

The enologist, he tasted it, and he said, ah! this is a good Chiaretto! but it was the same.

I did not tell him.

***

To read all five portraits of Bardolino:

1. Gianni Piccoli of Corte Gardonihttp://wakawakawinereviews.com/2015/04/23/portraits-of-bardolino-1-gianni-piccoli-corte-gardoni/

2. Matilde Poggi of Le Fraghehttp://wakawakawinereviews.com/2015/04/27/portraits-of-bardolino-2-matilde-poggi-le-fraghe/

3. Carlo Nerozzi of Le Vigne di San Pietrohttp://wakawakawinereviews.com/2015/04/30/portraits-of-bardolino-3-carlo-nerozzi-le-vigne-di-san-pietro/

4. Contessa Maria Cristina Rizzardi of Guerrieri Rizzardihttp://wakawakawinereviews.com/2015/05/04/portraits-of-bardolino-4-contessa-maria-cristina-loredan-rizzardi-guerrieri-rizzardi/

5. Angelo Peretti, Director of the Bardolino DOC, and The Internet Gourmethttp://wakawakawinereviews.com/2015/05/07/portraits-of-bardolino-5-angelo-perreti-the-internet-gourmet/

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.

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.

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.

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The Vineyards of Eyrie

With the 2012 vintage, Eyrie Vineyards bottled separate Pinot Noir cuvées from each of their five vineyards for the first time. They have previously bottled Sisters, and Daphne in select vintages, and consistently offer the Original Vines Vineyard on its own as well.

The warm ease of 2012 in the Willamette Valley brings fruit to the fore of Pinot Noir in a region that readily celebrates notes of cedar and earthiness. It was a year that winemakers easily could have gone for riper, plush styles. For Eyrie, president and winemaker Jason Lett, kept the focus on the vibrant fresh acidity Eyrie is known for, thus allowing the fruit of 2012 to carry liveliness, and show in concert with earth elements, silky texture and ultra long finish.

Refined rhubarb and earth in a mouthwatering and lean presentation describes how I think of the hallmarks of Eyrie Pinot. The combination first drew me to following their wines. Seeing the vineyard designates of 2012 side-by-side layers in fascinating surprises.

Citrus elements lift from the glass in many of these wines, ranging from hints of lime blossom, into grapefruit, and all the way to the nose tickling pith of pomelo. The red fruit includes cherry blossom in some cuvées, and mixed red with white cherry fruit in others. The hallmark rhubarb resonates in some sites with berry fruit, and in others just with cherry.

The great secret of Eyrie wines rests in them staying open for as much as a week, if you can last that long, getting better in the glass as time goes on. The third day sings where the first day is still waking up. I hold high admiration for the life Eyrie shows through in the glass. It’s a shame more wine tastings, or tasting notes don’t allow such time with a wine, to celebrate this side of wine.

The Individual Wines and Vineyards

Eyrie Pinot Vineyard Bottlings click on image to enlarge

In tasting these wines together, it is the energy and muscle that changes most clearly between them. In August, my sister Melanie and I walked the Dundee Hills with Jason, visiting each of the Eyrie vineyards. Following are notes on each cuvée bringing tasting and walking notes together for each.

The Original Vines Reserve

*** The Original Vines Reserve brings such complexity, energy, and pleasing palate tension thanks to those gorgeously knarled, own root vines planted in 1965. The Original Vines Vineyard was the first to be planted by Eyrie founder, David Lett, at 220′-400′ elevation. Hidden mid-hill near the center of the Dundee Hills, the site stands along the bathtub ring of the Missoula flood. As a result, the site shows the greatest soil diversity of the Eyrie vineyards.

Near the top of the hill (where the oldest vines grow, and the greatest varietal variation as well — all the first Eyrie plantings are there) the red volcanic Jory soil that defines the Hills puts a red dust patina on the wines. At the bottom of the slope, in what is called the South Block, it is more of a taupe colored sedimentary earth deposited from the Missoula floods. The vineyard as a whole comes with chunks of Jory coupling alongside sedimentary in a patchwork of color.

The Original Vines Reserve carries lithe ease of strength — neither sinewy nor muscular, neither soft nor too tight. Aromas and flavors bring together rose petal with white cherry, rhubarb and raspberry, and light cedar through a wonderful energizing palate tension, and ultra long finish.

Outcrop Vineyard

* The newest of the Eyrie vineyards, Outcrop Vineyard grows around 250′ elevation planted between 1982 and 2000 by the Eason family, then purchased by Eyrie in 2011. It grows a little under 5 acres entirely of Pinot Noir and stands adjacent to the lower portion of the Original Vines plantings. The Outcrop Pinot brings the most masculine structural presentation of the wines, while at the same time showing the most apparent pink and red berry notes. There is a lot of complexity here with layers of cedar and forest, alongside red cherry and berry, coupled with lime and grapefruit accents. The Outcrop carries an almost sinewy leanness, that expands into incredibly focused length with air.

Sisters Vineyard

*** Sisters Vineyard has consistently offered a beautiful delicacy in its single vineyard bottlings. There is a gracefulness to the fruit from this site that at the same time offers great persistence on the palate. The vineyard itself stands at 200′-360′ elevation, and is the most unique of the Eyrie sites, growing not only Pinot Noir but also a range of varieties not otherwise associated with Eyrie. First planted in 1987, the site originally was known as Three Sisters for its first vines of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Pinot Gris. As the varietal collection expanded, the name shifted to just Sisters.

Sisters Pinot is one of those wines I want to enjoy through the course of a day — a languid afternoon with just one bottle. There is so much sapidity here, coupled with floral elements, and that refined rhubarb, all touched by a volcanic patina, and refreshing evergreen accents.

Rolling Green Vineyard

* Up the road, Rolling Green Vineyard was established at 6 acres to Pinot Noir, with a small portion of Pinot Gris in 1988 at 540′-700′ elevation. The sloped site grows from more iron rich Jory soil than seen at the Original Vines site, with worn stones of basalt throughout producing a lean profile of lithe strength, with some of the masculine structure of Outcrop, but more pine, citrus, white and red cherry tension followed by a long saline crunch mineral finish. It tastes like that satisfying moment after a hike, drinking a citrus and cherry margarita on the porch of a cabin in the middle of a pine forest.

Daphne Vineyard

** Established in 1989, at the top of the hill, Daphne Vineyard grows Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Meunier in even darker iron rich Jory than Rolling Green, at an elevation of 720′-820′ elevation. The Pinot Gris from Daphne serves as the core of Eyrie’s Estate bottling. For the Pinot Noir, Daphne vineyard, with its slightly rounder, though still gracefully focused palate has been bottled on its own in select vintages.

Here the vines offer a bit fuller flavor, and exuberance than the quieter grace of Sisters. The flavors come in as mixed red fruits and citrus alongside a touch of cedar and pine cascading into an ultra long, stimulating finish. It’s a wine that can’t help but light you up.

Oregon Pinot Noir

* Bringing together a blend of Pinot from each of the sites, the Oregon Pinot Noir bottling is effectively Eyrie’s Estate Pinot. A little snug on first opening, this wine loves air, showing better with time open. It brings together rose petal with ripe cherry and lime powder accents, on a body of wet rock, light saline, and a red volcanic patina for an ultra long finish with lots of focus.

The 2012 Oregon Pinot Noir is available now. Eyrie is planning a late Fall/early Winter release for the Vineyard designates.

***

Thank you to Jason Lett.

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Tasting Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet with Alder Yarrow

As part of the VH1 Storytellers series, Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson record an acoustic album together. For classic country fans, like myself, it’s a beautiful moment bringing two of the greats together. In the liner notes Cash explains how sitting side-by-side with Nelson on stage, Cash couldn’t help but envy Nelson’s picking ability. He plays fine guitar.

In the world of wine blogging, I’m no Johnny Cash (he’s one of the best, most soulful that ever was) but I do think it’s fair to call Alder Yarrow our Willie Nelson — prolific writer, writes notes for the best (Jancis Robinson as the wine world’s Patsy Cline-one of the finest country voices in history?), one of the longest blogging careers at the top.

Still, why the comparison?

The Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers’ Association invited Alder Yarrow to participate in an exclusive appellation tasting of Cabernet. He was kind enough to extend the invitation to me. So, this past weekend the two of us sat side-by-side tasting through 53 Cabernet library wines from the Santa Cruz Mountains. Sitting there side-by-side with Yarrow, I couldn’t help but admire his wine note ability.

Keep an eye out for Alder’s write-up on the tasting at his site Vinography (here: http://vinography.com/). He is likely to post thorough-going notes for the wines, as well as his overall assessment of quality for the variety in the region. Speaking with Alder after it was clear our views overlapped around a number of aspects, and diverged in others. I’ll let him share his own thoughts when he chooses to post them.

The Santa Cruz Mountains AVA

Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernetclick on image to enlarge

An AVA since 1981, the Santa Cruz Mountains was one of the first appellations to be defined by its mountain topography. The San Andreas fault carves the region running roughly diagonal up the middle north to south. Acreage within the appellation rises to the highest peaks around 2600 ft. but, importantly, not all acreage within the overall area count as part of the AVA. Instead, the boundaries descend to around 800 feet on the Eastern side, and 400 feet on the coastal, with valley floor properties falling outside the region. Fog articulates the limits of the lower elevations — the appellation grows above it.

The Santa Cruz Mountains count as their own unique region. The AVA stands below what we call the North Coast, and above what the TTB describes as the Central Coast. Though they often get lumped into the Central Coast in wine review discussions, the mountains technically, and climatically prove separate. The Mountains also fall outside the San Francisco Bay appellation. Effectively, then, the Santa Cruz Mountains rise as islands on their own above the fog — from the Bay to the East, from the ocean to the West, between the North and Central Coasts.

Historically, the area has produced some of the most important wines of California. Paul Masson began growing sparkling wine on the western slopes, eventually inspiring Martin Ray to produce the first varietally specific still wines at what would become Mount Eden. Later, in the 1960s, Paul Draper would help rediscover what we now call the Ridge Monte Bello site, growing wines that would compete against the best of Bordeaux.

Variety in the Santa Cruz Mountains

The Santa Cruz Mountains wine growing region includes around 1300-planted acres. The vineyard totals separate into fairly even quarters, with Cabernet, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay encapsulating three, and mixed other varieties taking the fourth.

After our tasting we enjoyed lunch with Paul Draper. As he explains, historically houses with vineyards on the eastern side of the San Andreas fault such as Ridge, Woodside, and Kathryn Kennedy grew Cabernet, while domains on the western side such as Thomas Fogarty or Varner grew Pinot. Chardonnay has done well throughout. Mount Eden, along the center line of the AVA, has long grown all three.

Overall temperatures certainly factor in to the historic placement in plantings. Generally the eastern side tends to be warmer. However, thanks to the folds and faults of the mountains, an incredible variability of microclimate dominates the appellation. More recently people have begun identifying warmer pockets on the western side as well so that today Cabernet is planted throughout the AVA.

Tectonic activity produces soil richness. With its multiple plates, the Santa Cruz Mountains offers a lot of soil diversity as well. Ridge, for example, sits atop some of the only limestone in California, while Varner rests in mixed loam over rock, and other areas depend upon decomposed rock, or clay.

Thanks partially to its remoteness — its harder to build direct roads in mountain terrain — the Santa Cruz Mountains have predominately held smaller producers. One of the effects of size, however, includes greater variability in wine quality. In an area not dominated by large name houses, it becomes easier for anyone to enter the industry, buying a few grapes to try out making wine. That sort of situation also often means producers with less connection to overall trends or styles of the wine world. So, while some of the best of California owe their heritage to the mountain AVA, the region as a whole does not currently meet that benchmark.

Cabernet Tasting from the Santa Cruz Mountains

Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet

the line-up of 53 Santa Cruz Mountain Cabernets

The library tasting consisted of 53 Cabernets (blend and varietal) from the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA. The producers were invited to select bottles from their library collection in order to show their wines across vintages, and with some age. Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyards selected four wines from the mid-1980s. With the exception of two newer projects, all other producers selected wines from the mid-2000s. Left Bend, and Lexington are both younger projects, and as a result presented wines since 2010. During lunch Draper also opened a 1985 Ridge Monte Bello.

Because I expect that Alder will likely present thorough-going notes for the wines, I am going to share overall impressions from the tasting. Alder’s insights through wine notes are reliably good.

Post Edit: Alder Yarrow’s write-up on the Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet tasting has just gone live. It’s excellent. Check it out here: http://www.vinography.com/archives/2014/10/bay_area_bordeaux_tasting_sant.html

Overall Impressions of Santa Cruz Mountain Cabernet

Throughout, the wines carried a sense of persistent and vibrant acidity, with a stimulating presence. The Cabernets also consistently held a line of aromatic, oily-tree forest ranging from eucalyptus, to pine, to cedar, often showing pine alongside one of the other two. The fruit notes varied through a range of dark fruits and creamy violet in the younger wines, or red currant and rose in the older wines, however, the wines throughout showed a note of sour or bing cherry.

Faults appeared in around a handful of wines, though never through an entire portfolio. In each case we opened a backup bottle to check whether or not it reduced to bottle variation, or a winemaking issue. In a few portfolios where there were not necessarily faults, cellar quality was problematic. Due to proximity to fog, disease pressure can be an issue within the Santa Cruz Mountains. However, the loose bunches of Cabernet tend to mitigate such issues for that variety.

Considering that the overall fruit quality was good in more than half the wines, it was disappointing to discover a predominance of oak that cloaked or obscured the fruit. In many cases, oak use in the wines was difficult. It is clear that there are high quality sites within the appellation for Cabernet. With the amount of work that goes into farming such fruit, it is a shame to see site quality obliterated by woody character. The issue tended to be a matter of over-oaking wine, but in some cases appeared to be also a question of oak type with wood spice standing disjointed to the fruit.

Stand Out Examples of Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet

Five individual wines in particular stood out for quality in the tasting.

* The Santa Cruz Mountains Vineyard 1985 Bates Ranch Cabernet, 12.5%, showed nice vibrancy with a lot of life, offering floral and berry aromatics alongside a pleasing mid-palate through finish of red and dark berry, eucalyptus, and pine with hints of molasses and tobacco. The wine carried still strong, though not aggressive tannin, and a long lightly drying finish.

* The Santa Cruz Mountains Vineyard 1986 Bates Ranch Cabernet, 12.5%, offered wet tobacco, eucalyptus, and floral aromatics, followed by a creamy mid-palate of violet cream, and integrated berry with eucalyptus and pine. The tannin to acid balance was pleasant and well executed, coupling with pleasing subtlety of flavor throughout.

* Ridge 2005 Monte Bello, 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Merlot, 6% Petite Verdot, 2% Cabernet Franc, 13.4%, while still quite young, offered a nicely integrated wine of strength with elegance. Sour cherry comes together here with both red and black currant alongside Monte Bello’s characteristic eucalyptus, and still apparent oak baking spice. The wine wants a lot more time to develop and deepen, but is structurally beautiful now.

* Mount Eden 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, 83% Cabernet, 14% Merlot, 1.5% Cabernet Franc, 1.5% Petite Verdot, 13.5%, carried creamy aromatics of cedar integrated with dark fruit, carrying forward to a creamy mid-palate of black currant and cassis, cedar, hints of butterscotch, and a pop of hot pepper heat through a long drying finish. I’d love to taste less wood here, but for the most part the spice knits well with the wine.

* Kathryn Kennedy 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, 14.2% proves to be riper in style than the other stand out wines of the tasting, but carries a seamless presentation. Graceful aromatics of creamy spice, and violet carry forward into elegant tannin with flavors of sour cherry and dark fruit accents, creamy ginger, and violet. I believe this wine will continue to increase in elegance as it ages.

I am also interested in keeping an eye on the two newer projects — Lexington, and Left Bend.

Lexington offers good quality right out of the gate, which is no surprise considering its pedigree. Tommy Fogarty, and Nathan Kandler have been developing the site for quality fruit, and make beautiful wines through their other label Thomas Fogarty. They poured both the Lexington Gist Ranch 2011 Estate Cabernet, and their blend, the 2011 Apex (which in 2011 proved to be almost entirely Cabernet). Both wines are nicely done, and Apex carries a lightness, with less woody character to it I find exciting.

The Left Bend wines currently show a lot of new oak, which is challenging. However, I mention them because the 2010 and 2011 wines appeared to have pleasant fruit quality. My hope is that new label==new barrels, and that as the winemakers develop they will shift to letting the fruit more clearly shine through.

***

Post Edit: Alder Yarrow’s write-up on the Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet tasting has just gone live. It’s excellent. Check it out here: http://www.vinography.com/archives/2014/10/bay_area_bordeaux_tasting_sant.html

If you are interested in tasting more Santa Cruz Mountain Cabernets, Premier Cruz will be happening in early November, and this year focuses on Cabernet. Tickets are already on sale.

For more information: http://scmwa.com/event/premier-cruz/

***

Thank you to Megan Metz, Marty Mathis, and Alder Yarrow.

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