White Wines


Willamette Valley Rediscovers Chardonnay

Jason Lett

While Chardonnay was established among the very first vines of Willamette Valley in the 1960s, it has spent most of the region’s history relegated to underachiever status. With Pinot Noir as Willamette Valley’s signature grape, Chardonnay was long regarded as a side project. But recently winemakers throughout the Valley have turned their attention to the white burgundy grape, working together to better understand its distinctiveness in their region. Changes in the overall consumer climate have helped smooth the path.

As consumer interest has shifted towards lighter wines, room for distinctively Willamette Valley Chardonnay has expanded. As Jason Lett of Eyrie explains, ‘Wines with minerality, structure, and healthy acidity are much more widely accepted now than 10 to 15 years ago.’ Willamette Valley’s extended growing season and longer days offer a subtlety to the fruit that was less apparent with excessive new oak. Jason, pictured above right, has lived with a unique perspective on the wines of the region and its relation to the global market. His father David established the first vines in Willamette Valley in the mid 1960s in the original Dundee Hills vineyard shown below, bringing with him a mix of cultivars inspired by the wines of Alsace. Among them were Chardonnay cuttings hand-selected from the best vines of a cool mountain site in California. The drive for riper styles with more oak influence that dominated the wine industry 20 years ago worked against Oregon Chardonnay.

To continue reading this article head on over to JancisRobinson.com where the article appears in full. You will need to have a subscription to read the article as it appears behind a paywall. Here’s a link to the article in full: http://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/willamette-valley-rediscovers-chardonnay

The article is accompanied by tasting notes on 44 examples of Willamette Valley Chardonnay. To read the tasting notes: http://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/willamette-valley-chardonnays-reviewed

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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.

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.


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.


The Wines of Ca Lojera

In March, Cathy Huyghe and I were lucky enough to enjoy dinner with Ambra and Franco Tiraboschi of Ca Lojera who produce beautiful wines from Lugana using only estate grown grapes.

The Lugana DOC sits directly south of Lake Garda straddling the Veneto and Lombardy regions of Italy. It is a small DOC that grows a little over 1000 hectares of vines.

Lugana white wines must be at least 90% Trebbiana di Lugana, also called Turbiana locally. This is the Verdicchio grape grown in Lugana’s chalky soils. It should be noted that Trebbiana, also known as Ugni Blanc, is a different grape variety. (The original post left that ambiguous. It has been clarified below.) Each of the Ca Lojera whites are 100% Turbiana.

Dinner at Ca Lojeradinner at Ca Lojera from left: Angelo Perreti, Fillipo Fillipi, Franco Tiraboschi, me, Ambra Tiraboschi, Paola Giagulli, photo taken by Cathy Huyghe, March 2015

Aged Ca Lojera wines are wonderful – full of life, freshness and viscosity both, with a mineral drive that ages towards infinity. The young wines masquerade as simply approachable. They can trick your palate into thinking the wine is merely quaffable, but there is subtlety to them worth investigating, that also fleshes into a special wine with age.

Even more, the people. It’s dinners like this that make everything else worthwhile. Angelo Peretti, the Internet Gourmet, kindly arranged the dinner for us. Fillipo Fillipi of Fillipi winery, and Paola Giagulli also joined us. A perfect group.

Following is a glimpse of the Ca Lojera story as told to us by Ambra and Angelo, who also served as our translators for the others, with snapshots from the evening.

Franco Tiraboschi, Ca Lojera

Franco Tiraboschi, March 2015

Ambra: Franco sold real estate. I was a hotel keeper there in Verona. We didn’t know anything about wine. in 1992 we bought the property to resell. The grapes were ripe but they sold for too little so Franco decided to make wine. Then he fell in love with wine.

Angelo: So they had no need to make wine. They could do what they wanted. It was a second career with much luck.

We begin dinner with a 2008 Turbiana Spumante.

Ambra: The 2008 Turbiana had too much acid so Franco made sparkling with it. He made all of it sparkling. Franco is incapable of doing anything small. Only a small wife. Nothing else. [laughing]

The sparkling wine does not say Lugana on the label. Cathy and I ask about it. There is laughing all around as they answer. 

Ambra: Franco does not like regulations. Bureaucracy he does not like. He must make things when he wants to.

Angelo: The spumante is not registered Lugana. Franco forgot to do the paperwork.

sitting with Franco Tiraboschi

sitting beside Franco Tiraboschi, photo by Cathy Huyghe

We begin to discuss what wines we will open.

Angelo: They are the only producer in Lugana that can offer a lot of vintages of Lugana because they did not sell it. They did not realize how to sell it at first.

Ambra: We needed a lot of time to realize how to sell.

Angelo: So now they have a lot of old vintages and people come here to buy because white Lugana ages in a wonderful way.

Ambra: 1992 our first commercial vintage. 1999 the oldest we sell now.

The food begins to be served. We begin with mixed salumi and vegetables. One of my favorite moments with Angelo happens as a result. The simple passion of it gives window to his character. With it I also learn something about cured meats that makes sense as soon as he says it but I wouldn’t have realized. 

Angelo: It is very important to have salumi by hands. You can feel how sweet it is by your hands. The smoother it is, the sweeter it is. You must try it with two slices. One with your hands. One with a knife. And they will taste different.

I follow Angelo’s advice. The creamy salt of the salumi goes perfectly with the fresh chalkiness of the sparkling wine. We return to discussing Ca Lojera history. 

Ambra: I worked in the fields with Franco for 17 years. Then it was necessary for someone to sell the wines. So, we decided he would stay here in the winery, and I travel to sell the wine. I do not like it but it is necessary. Usually once a month, I go somewhere.

Ca Lojera wines

We open several vintages of Ca Lojera. A 2002 Superiore, a 2003 Riserva del Lupo, alongside a 2011 Superiore, and a 2011 Riserva del Lupo. 

Angelo: Old Lugana are very mineral. They have a smell of petrol. They are lighter in structure. Young Lugana are more fruity. In my opinion, the 2003 is the best Lugana ever produced but I do not say I love the wine. It is not love that I have for the wine because love can end.

I taste the 2003. It is wonderful. Emotionally overwhelming with beautiful balance of fresh fruit and petrol, a persistent spice. Notes that are almost waxy with mixed yellow fruit, star fruit and a fresh lake breeze finish. There is a hint of sweetness but only a hint. This is a wine that has a lot to say. I agree with Angelo that it is beautiful.

Angelo: The 2003 describes this land, this territory in a better way. In the 2003 Lupo, I identify Lugana. It was a horrible vintage. A hot vintage. But It tastes Lugana. In the worst vintages, Crus emerge.

Franco nods and explains the 2002 of the older wines is his favorite but he really likes the younger wines. He likes the freshness and the fruit. He believes the 2011 Riserva del Lupo is a special wine that will have a lot to say. I comment that the wines are full of life. Angelo agrees.

Angelo: I love humanity behind wines. I taste that here.

Cathy asks Franco how his winemaking has developed since he started. 

Angelo translating for Franco: My way of making wine has not changed. Something has changed and it is in the vines. There are better practices taking care of the vines.

Angelo: He changes. He has a wider oenological and agricultural culture. Now he knows the temperatures he prefers.

Angelo translating for Franco: Yes, the cooler the better. I like to have very slow fermentation so I decline the temperature. Because the lower the temperature, the slower the fermentation, the better the wine.

Sitting next to Ambra Tiraboschi

sitting beside Ambra Tiraboschi, March 2015, photo by Cathy Huyghe

Ambra agrees. She used to make the wines with Franco and comments on what she learned from 17 years in the vineyard and cellar.

Ambra: We had a consulting winemaker for a while. He said, fermentation is the most difficult part of winemaking. It’s true. If you do not know how to hear the fermentation, if you cannot hear the music of the fermentation, you will never make a personal wine.

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.


Grimm’s Bluff Vineyard, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara

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

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

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

Establishing a New Vineyard

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

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

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

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

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

Biodynamic Farming 

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

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

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

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

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

The Stages of Light

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

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

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

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

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

The Wine the Site Gives

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

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

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

Grimm’s Bluff 2013 Sauvignon Blanc

Grimms Bluff 2013 Sauvignon click on image to enlarge

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

3.27 pH
0.696 TA

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

90 cases

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


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

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

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


La Clarine Petit Manseng 2013click on image to enlarge

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

14.1 g/L acidity

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

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

31 cases bottled

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

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


Respect for Pinot Gris

Pinot gris, aka. Pinot grigio, proves to be one of the most under celebrated of grapes. Thanks largely to a trend towards light touch, or sweet style mass produced wines from the variety, the grape now is often thought of as bland, or lifeless.

Master Sommelier Bobby Stuckey, however, disagrees, naming Pinot grigio one of the noble varieties, capable of transporting direct expression of its site through its wine. Travels through Friuli support Stuckey’s view. Heritage houses in the region respect the grape. With the local tradition of Ramato style wines, for example, a little skin contact can go a long way to carrying not only copper toned colors, but richer flavor, and stimulating mineral expression. Or, a little lees time, and greater complexity with richness appears.

In Oregon, David Lett of Eyrie Vineyards too believed in the value of Pinot gris, establishing the first plantings of the variety in the new world in 1965, and the first vintage in 1970. In 1976, and then again in the late 1980s, Lett established further plantings of the grape. Lett’s belief was that when grown well, and vinified to allow varietal expression, Pinot gris could produce fresh, flavorful wines.

Eyrie 2012 Estate Pinot Gris

Eyrie’s Estate Pinot Gris consistently offers ridiculous value. Part of its secret rests in vine age, with a huge portion of the fruit coming from vines planted in the 1970s, giving flavor concentration and complexity. Lett’s vision placed Pinot gris as the perfect pairing for salmon, rather than Chardonnay, illustrating Eyrie’s ability to combine flavor with fresh acidity, and mineral length through the variety.

The Eyrie 2012 Estate Pinot gris offers the expressive fruit liveliness of the vintage, with lots of freshness, and mineral crispness at only $15-19 per bottle. It’s sick. Expect fresh melon, accents of lily with greenery, and a hint of rhubarb on tons of crunchy mineral length. This wine is all about palate stimulation, and making your mouth water without gouging your pocket book.

Eyrie 2012 Original Vines Pinot Gris

Eyrie Pinot Gris Original Vines 2012click on image to enlarge

In 2011 Eyrie President and Winemaker, Jason Lett, launched a special bottling of Pinot gris made only from fruit of the original Eyrie Pinot Gris planting established in 1965. It proved to be one of my favorite wines of last year.

For 2012 he continued the project, again vinifying juice from only the original vines for their own cuvée. The wine is aged in old, large wood casks, or tun, remaining on lees for a year, with slow malolactic fermentation to bring a mid-palate creaminess to the intense vibrancy of the fruit.

The 2012 Original Vines proves to be ultra stimulating, offering thrilling acidity and freshness coupled with loads of flavor. The fruit forwardness of the vintage shines here on the wines pink-lightning structure. This wine has definite perspective. No questions asked. Just fresh fruit, mineral-zing truth. I am in love.

If you’re near Oakland, Bay Grape on Grand carries the Original Vines Pinot Gris. It’s a super secret, ultra limited stash so get there quickly and shh…

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



Growing the Vinho Verde: The Wines of OLO

In the Basto zone of Vinho Verde, Jorge Quinta of OLO at Quinta de Val-Bôa grows white wines that bring together lifted texture–all lightness and length–with rich flavor. It’s a young project that has already garnered international attention, carrying distribution in the UK, and being regarded as one of the best wines of Portugal for 2014.

Basto Region of Vinho Verde  view from the front of Quinta dd Val-Bôa in the Basto zone of Vinho Verde

The project brings together long-standing friends Jorge Quinta and Dirk Niepoort. Prior to his venture into winegrowing, Quinta owned one of the top restaurants of Oporto, through which he and Niepoort’s father, Eduard, developed their most popular dish, pepper steak served with young vintage port. Sitting to lunch at Quinta’s table with the two men–Jorge and Dirk–feels like I’ve been invited into a great intimacy. I don’t glimpse all the details of its history, but I can feel the comfort between them.

Jorge Quinta pouring his brutoJorge Quinta pouring his OLO 2012 bruto, sparkling white Vinho Verde

Outside we begin the meal with Quinta’s 2012 bruto–a fully dry sparkling white Vinho Verde that carries a textural richness and purity refreshing alongside the salty meats and fish we’re eating. We’ve been served charcuterie, and what Quinta calls fried sardines though they look and taste just like smelts, small fish I grew up eating in Alaska.

The joke there has always been that you know you’re family if you’re invited to share smelts. The little fish are eaten whole like a breadstick from head to tail with the guts and bones intact. Cooking them smells up the house so much you have to be comfortable alongside the person you share them with.

Niepoort explains he wants Quinta to hold the 2012 bruto, and not release a sparkling wine until the 2013 is ready. The 2012 is delicious but Niepoort believes it will be insightful to see how the wine develops over time.

1906 beer casks at Quinta da Val BoaAs we snack through the foods outside, Quinta describes a sort of experimental traditionalism. He wants to make wines of his region, but avoid knowing in advance exactly how they’ll be made. It’s a balance of making crucial decisions in advance, while avoiding a formula. “One of the most important things,” Quinta tells us, “is the point of the harvest. Without that there is no point, you have to adjust to it.” Each vintage, he explains, puts differing demands on the grower-winemaker. You decide what to do in response to those demands, rather than deciding in advance the wine you’ll produce.

As Quinta describes his goals, he excitedly points out his newest acquisition for the winery — two large casks he will use to make rosé. As he explains, five of the casks arrived in Portugal from Denmark in 1910 full of beer. He has no idea how old the casks were at the time. His father-in-law acquired them next to make red Vinho Verde. In the last year, Quinta received two of the five. They’ve been without wine in them now for six years, so he’s been soaking them to prepare the wood for next year’s rosé. After finishing the bruto, we move inside for a sit down lunch.

Val Boa whiteVal Bôa 2013 Vinho Verde

We begin with soup made half of wild mushrooms, and half wild asparagus, both harvested from Quinta’s 3.5 hectare vineyard. Quinta’s VAL-BÔA Vinho Verde pairs beautifully. It is a wine Niepoort describes as all about harmony — the kiss of sweetness balances the high acid so well the two appear together as simply light refreshment on the palate. It would be perfect too alongside spicy Thai food in the place of Riesling.

The VAL-BÔA opens a point Niepoort has come to believe strongly in winemaking. “It is more important to get the acidity right than to get the alcohol right.” He explains. That said, the VAL-BÔA comes in at 11%, the OLO wines at 12.5%. Niepoort’s point is on deciding when to harvest. He makes picking decisions now almost ignoring sugar levels in favor of the preferred acidity. The alcohol will take care of itself. It’s an idea he believes supports the ultimate aging of the wine, and, more importantly, it’s pleasure now. “The point of it is the lightness” of the wine, he says.

OLO Mondim de BastoOLO 2012 Mondim de Basto

We move to the main course. Quinta has chosen to serve us a traditional Portuguese dish, bacalao, of dried cod, and potatoes. That morning though he was also able to take a fresh white fish from a river that runs through the vineyard. They’ve baked it covered in herbs, alongside lightly minted rice. We enjoy both with the core wines of the OLO portfolio — Alvarinho, and Mondim de Basto, a Vinho Regional Minho white blend. The Basto brings together traditional Portuguese varieties–Trajadura, Pedernã, Alvarinho, Avesso e Azal–in a branco (white) blend.

The Mondim de Basto has recently received the country’s top attention. The news is to be released the day after our visit, and Quinta is very pleased. Jaoa Paulo Martins named it one of the top white wines of Portugal for 2014 in his book Vinhos de Portugal, considered the top wine review text for the country.

It’s a beautiful wine that offers incredible lightness amidst intensity of flavor and a creamy midpalate followed by tons of length. When it was first bottled, Niepoort explains, it was one of the best white wines he’d ever tasted from Portugal. Then it refermented in the bottle.

Jorge Quinta showing off his button hole napkin invention“It refermented in the bottle.” Quinta tells us. “I slept on it for three nights.” He points at his eyes. He’s actually saying he barely slept. “I have to either [dump it] or go forward. I decide I go forward, so I had to reopen 17,000 bottles.” To correct the problem they had to open every bottle to filter the wine, then rebottle everything. “Unbelievable amount of work.” Quinta says. The wine is beautiful, but Niepoort clearly misses the magic of what it had been before. For Quinta it’s still a wine to be proud of. Martins’s regard simply affirms it.

OLO AlvarinhoWe pour the OLO 2013 Alvarinho. I smell the wine and am immediately dumbfounded. It’s unlike anything I’ve smelled before, not a typical Alvarinho. It’s as if Quinta anticipates my thoughts. “There is no other Alvarinho like this,” he says. “You can like it or not but there isn’t.”

The wine is confounding but pleasing. It’s all lightness and pungency on the palate, simultaneously strange and attractive. The nose almost spiced, almost sweet, then both disappear. The palate almost hints oak, then stretches through the midpalate into a minutes-long and lifting finish. It’s a wine of contradictions–spicy but not, sweet but not, woody but not, intense but light–held through Niepoort’s idea of harmony.

Jorge QuintaLeaving the restaurant business to open the Quinta de Val-Bôa, Quinta carries what feels like realistic pride in OLO, as well as a new sense of inspiration. His wines are beautiful, and he keeps the achievement in larger perspective. “What I know about wine,” he explains, “is 15%. In that 15% I know a lot. I still have 85% to learn.”


Quinta de Val-Bôa does not currently have, but is interested in representation in the United States.

Thank you to Dirk Niepoort, Jorge Quinta, and Joao Pires.

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