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What Makes a Cool Climate? Keynote from Ian D’Agata, i4C+ 2016

Ian d'Agata

i4C+ 2016 Keynote Speaker Ian d’Agata

Ian D’Agata opened this year’s International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration with greetings in Italian. The venerable wine writer heralds originally from Canada and has devoted his life since to understanding Italian wine. Most recently, in 2015 his book Native Wine Grapes of Italy was awarded wine book of the year by the prestigious Louis Roederer International Wine Writers’ Awards. At, D’Agata serves as Senior Editor and Head of Development for Europe & Asia. He has stands as a self-described champion of Canadian wine.

In his keynote address, D’Agata considered the notion of a cool climate, asking what the nomenclature means without formal definition. As he pointed out, regions that count as cool climates in the world of wine “get just as hot at the peak of the season” as other warm climates of the world but, importantly, cool climate temperatures drop more quickly approaching harvest. Grapes at harvest, then, are picked at a different point in the arc of ripening “insuring the wines taste differently” than those from fruit selected at higher temperatures.

He pointed out that growing degree days and mean temperature indexes offer only rudimentary insight into the growing conditions of a region. Instead, a latitude index also being integrated into degree day measurements offer additional insight. D’Agata emphasized the challenges of classifying cool climate regions as no single measurement can discern them from other climate types. He pointed out that factors such as diurnal shift, solar radiation, soil type and its drainage, the average length of a growing season and the demand to plant for heat conservation are all relevant considerations. Cool climates, as he pointed out, limit grape ripening and include the sincere threat of damage to the vines in the winter due to weather.

When considering the wines themselves, D’Agata explains that “the hallmarks of cool climate wines” include high perceived acidity, brightness, freshness, crispness, minerality and that these characteristics “tend to be achieved naturally without excessive intervention.” Flavors, D’Agata mentioned from cool climate wines tend to include notes like citrus, melon, minerality and salinity. He also pointed out that to some degree cellar interventions can adulterate otherwise cool climate wines. In his view excessively apparent oak and overall flabbiness to the wine tend to hide cool climate character.

As he continued, D’Agata questioned the degree to which these hallmarks of a cool climate can be achieved in otherwise warmer regions. The implication was that generally speaking it is harder to capture the constellation of qualities common to cooler climates simply by picking earlier (for example) in a warmer one. At the same time, he acknowledged that no growing region is homogenous. In any region there may be specific mesoclimates with unique soil, drainage, aspect, and temperature etc that when all in balance deliver cooler character in an otherwise warmer clime.

With all of this in mind, D’Agata noted that truly understanding cool climate regions depends on considering latitude, growing degree days and expression in the wines themselves.

Finally, and in recognition to our event hosts, D’Agata emphasized that in his view Chardonnays from Canada really are world class. He pointed out that he can speak to how wines of the region have improved and the industry has grown since the late 1980s and early 1990s when “it was much harder going” tasting the wines. At the time, “I was very proud to bring back Ontario wines to my wine snob friends in Italy,” he joked. He continued, “and they would laugh me out of the room.” But when he brings back wines of Canada to taste with his friends in Rome today, he says, “I tell you, they’re not laughing anymore.” The wines today are good.

Copyright 2016 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to



Australian Pinot

Mac Forbes

Mac Forbes

Several years ago a trip to Victoria, Australia renewed my faith in Pinot noir. I’d gotten lost in a sea of overly squishy, indistinct wines while doing mass tastings and lost site of the precision and energy that can be found in a truly excellent glass of Pinot. Then, at the start of 2013, David Fesq and Mike Bennie were kind enough to tag-team plan an incredible trip for me through some of Australia’s cool climate regions and the distant reaches of Victoria. David got me to Geelong and Great Western while making sure I tasted wines from the Mornington Peninsula, Macedon Ranges and beyond, then Mike took me about the Yarra Valley for a couple days. With them I rediscovered my love for Pinot noir – the grape that originally grabbed my attention for wine. The two of them hand-selected some of the best vintners of the region and while in the Yarra Valley, with my nose in the glass of a vineyard select Pinot by Mac Forbes, I found that nervy, energizing, sapidity, purity and length I love from a really good wine.

Mark Davidson has spent years now helping to re-educate the North American wine community on the virtues of Australian wine. North American imports of overly extracted, and low cost wines from that Southern hemisphere continent had incorrectly taught us to believe all Australian wines were of those styles. In reality the continent has always been more diverse. More over, in recent decades the wine industry there has undergone an evolution shifting to lower volumes of production with a greater focus not only on hand-crafted wines but also more delicate styles. The results are beautiful and intriguing.

Mike Symons of Stonier Wines

Mike Symons of Stonier Wines

Yesterday, Mark brought together a few of us in the Bay Area for an intimate tasting of some choice Australian Pinots. There I was again with Mac Forbes wines and the man himself renewing my faith in Pinot noir. In good time too as tomorrow the world converges on Willamette Valley’s annual International Pinot Noir Celebration with the largest contingent of Australian Pinot producers ever seen there. I’m looking forward to it. Mark’s tasting also included vintner Mike Symons of Stonier wines from the Mornington Peninsula. It was my first time meeting Mike and his wines were also excellent – full of purity and a lovely balance of fresh red fruit with a savory belly of sapidity.

Here’s a look at some of the wines from yesterday’s tasting. All prices shown are SRP for the US market.

Stonier and Mac Forbes Wines

Stonier and Mac Forbes Wines

Stonier Pinot Noir 2015 Mornington Peninsula, Victoria $30
Meaty aromatics flooded with red fruit carry into a palate of bracing acidity, cascading flavor and a honed structure somehow at the same time delicate and without heaviness. Bright, stimulating and lengthy. It opens to notes of cherry blossom and prosciutto with air. Lovely purity.

* Mac Forbes Yarra Valley Pinot Noir 2015 Yarra Valley, Victoria $32
Savory and multi-layered aromatics carry into a palate of complexity and textural layers. Simulating with intense minerality, tons of sapidity and length. Full of savory, red fruit with ferric accents and natural spice, this wine washes the palate with flavor while retaining freshness and lightness throughout. I love the purity and palate stimulation of this wine.

* Stonier Reserve Pinot Noir 2015 Mornington Peninsula, Victoria $50
Meaty and lightly spiced with a mix of flowers and powdered (but not sweet) cherry ride into a long savory finish. A deft combination of power and delicacy with a full mouthful of flavor that shows dance-y and fresh across the palate. Full of purity.

Mac Forbes Woori Yallock Pinot Noir 2015 Yarra Valley, Victoria $75
Really nice freshness and lovely subtlety throughout. Notes of red cherry with a faint pop of nectarine and tangerine on the nose and a refreshing lift of evergreen throughout. This wine is both delicate and lacy with power, filled with a crunchy, fresh minerality, tons of sapidity and lots of length. All about purity of expression and nuance.

Australian Pinot: Flight 2

Flight 2

Giant Steps Applejack Vineyard Pinot Noir 2014 Yarra Valley, Victoria $42
Just a hint of funk on the nose transforms into a persistent, lifting jalapeño that carries into the palate alongside stony fresh, spiced red cherry and peppered meat. Showcasing ferric accents throughout, lightly tactile tannin and lots of sapidity through a moderate finish. It offers a nice pinch of baby fat right now that will no doubt dissipate with more time in bottle as the wine also further integrates. Hold for a few more years.

Ocean Eight Pinot Noir 2013 Mornington Peninsula, Victoria $52
Fresh throughout with notes of cherry powder (not sweet) and a long savory line lifted by fresh evergreen notes. There is a feral wildness to this wine that is at the same time lithe and wirey. Give it a bit more time in bottle to integrate. Nice sapidity and a fresh wash of acidity that will no doubt develop nicely.

Kooyong Estate Pinot Noir 2012 Mornington Peninsula, Victoria $56
A bit muted and tucked in currently, the wine opens with savory aromatics that follows into a palate with still plenty of power and spiced red fruit. Accents of iron and saline. A plush palate with a bit less complexity currently than the other Mornington wines but might unfold with a bit of time in bottle and air upon opening.

Australian Pinot: Flight 3

Flight 3

Dalrymple Estate Pinot Noir 2014 Pipers River Valley Tasmania $44
Nuanced, concentrated, and at the same time delicate aromatics lead to a concentrated core of flavor not from over-extraction but natural fruit density. Rocky and textural with a mix of cherry and currant flavors and a refreshing evergreen lift. The wine feels simultaneously delicate and dense like a swath of handmade embroidered lace gathered into a ball of intricate fabric. There is a lovely textural quality as well as an almost chewy element I find appealing. I look forward to seeing this wine again in a few more years as the fabric has begun to uncurl.

* Tolpuddle Pinot Noir 2014 Coal River Valley Tasmania $75
A fresh pop of nectarine and just underripe red cherry couple with a hint of clove spice that twists into a persistent lift of jalapeño from nose through palate. A bit simple compared to the other wines but in a pleasing and delicious sense. Distinctive with massive aromatics throughout the long finish.

Bindi Dixon Pinot Noir 2015 Macedon Ranges Victoria $65
Fresh aromatics and a savory, rocky, almost perfumed palate. Flavors of a freshly split open cherry tasted close to the pit with savory and spiced notes throughout and a dry finish. A full round mid palate without heaviness or over-extraction finishes snug for a moderate finish.

Australian Pinot: Lunch Wines

Lunch wines

Over lunch we enjoyed several other wines. I did not take notes on these but they are listed as follows.

Si Vintners Halcyon Pinot Noir 2012 Margaret River Western Australia $46

Artisan by Murdoch Hill Phaeton Pinot Noir 2014 Adelaide Hills South Australia $45

Eden Road The Long Road Pinot Noir 2013 Tumbarumba New South Wales $27

Kooyong Massale Pinot Noir 2014 Mornington Peninsula Victoria $38

Holm Oak Pinot Noir 2015 Tamar Valley Tasmania $30

Thank you to Mark Davidson, as always, for including me. 

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Throwback Thursday

In honor of Ribolla Fest 2016, which just happened last night, I’m re-posting the start of a series I did on Ribolla Gialla in California starting back in 2012. The end of the post offers links to the entire series. Ribolla Fest originally began as Friuli-fest by the late George Vare, though the focus from its inception was on Ribolla. George fell in love with the variety at the start of the millennium and saw bringing (read: sneaking) it into the United States and fine-tuning its growing conditions here in California not only as a passion project but also a spiritual one. He believed it was some of the most important work he’d done in wine.

Meeting George in 2012 and receiving his encouragement in my writing, my interest and views of wine, and sharing with him a passion for Friuli and Ribolla, as well as acquaintance with the vintners that took up his torch in working with the Vare Vineyard, was a primary source of inspiration for me. It helped build my personal investment in my work in wine and served as part of the groundwork for venturing forth as a wine writer. He and several others in that first year I credit for my doing what I do now. 

Due to family and travel demands I missed this year’s Ribolla Fest but here’s a look back at some of the early work I did on the event, beginning with meeting George Vare. By this first meeting I’d already traveled Friuli, fallen in love with Ribolla, and met with numerous vintners there in Italy working with the variety. Seeing its translation in California gave me a way to imagine that even with a love for Italian wine myself perhaps I could find a home in wine here in the United States. 

At the bottom of the post links to the rest of the series are included. Subsequent installments in the series include George’s story as he told it to me, in-depth look at the growing demands for the variety, and other sites that it has since been planted. Having just left my academic career but treating wine with the seriousness I had as a graduate student I named the series, tongue in cheek, Attending Ribolla Gialla University.

I also wrote about George in the context of another series found here on the rise of skin-contact whites in California

Attending Ribolla Gialla University: Part 1: Meeting George Vare

Thank you to Eric Asimov for recommending this post in the July 20, 2012 edition of The New York Times, Diner’s Journal What We’re Reading.”

The following was originally published here on July 19, 2012.

Meeting George Vare

“Go make Ribolla Gialla popular.” –George Vare

the berries turn a full rich yellow at ripeness.

the first vintage with consistent berries.

the plant carries a virus that causes the leaves to yellow under stress.

barrel with a window

Ribolla Gialla left on skins for 1-year, then barrel aged for 3

a gift to take home, hand labeled and capped by George Vare

Ribolla Gialla with 48 hour skin contact

sparkling Ribolla Gialla that has not been disgorged

we’ll drink it at the Ribolla Gialla party

an earlier vintage

Friuli style white: Sauvignon Blanc, Tocai Friulano, Chardonnay, Ribolla Gialla

This is why I came back to Napa Valley so quickly.

Because in doing so I could talk to more people about George Vare. I’ve made my visit about so much more than just this one lucky meeting, so much more I love to do. But I came back now so I could meet more people that had worked with Vare, never presuming to ask if I could meet him too. Then, it turned out a meeting was arranged, and I got to hear his story, walk through his 2.5 acre Ribolla Gialla vineyard (the only one producing fruit in California, there are other plantings–more on that to follow), and taste his wines too. Here are photos from the visit. Write up to follow, along with photos from a grand Ribolla Gialla tasting here in Napa Valley.


Thank you to George Vare.

Thank you to Dan Petroski.

Attending Ribolla Gialla University, Part 2:

Attending Ribolla Gialla University, Part 3:

Attending Ribolla Gialla University, Part 4: Harvest of the George Vare Vineyard with Steve Matthiasson:

Attending Ribolla Gialla University, Part 5: Russian River Valley Ribolla Gialla, The Bowland’s Tanya Vineyard:

Attending Ribollat Gialla University, Part 6: The Vare Vineyard Tasting, Arlequin Wine Merchant:

Attending Ribolla Gialla University, Part 7: The Matthiasson Vineyard, Napa:

Copyright 2012 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to


Looking southwest from Farella Vineyard in Coombsville

Coombsville just south east of the town of Napa (see this map) became an official appellation in 2011 and since then has received steadily increasing attention. Even so, this subzone of Napa Valley is still one of the sleepier, less developed parts of the valley. Being well off the main arteries of Highway 29 and Silverado Trail means that Coombsville continues to be somewhere primarily for those in-the-know. Its relatively low-key status is consistent with its winemaking history.

Contemporary vineyards in the subzone reach back to the mid 1960s and the planting of the Haynes Vineyard. While the winery Ancien now farms the property and makes wine there as well, the site has also been a fruit source for wineries such as Failla and Enfield Wine Co who seek its cooler-climate Syrah and older-vine Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Ancien has been able to preserve some of the Burgundian varieties planted at the site’s inception. The rise at the centre of Haynes offers a central perspective on the region. Just up the hill stands the warmer Caldwell Vineyard, planted just over 10 years later when Farella Park Vineyard was planted just north east of Haynes. Around the corner, Tulocay winery was also founded in the mid 1970s.

Nearby, well-known Meteor Vineyard was established in the late 1990s. Such sites helped establish the insider view of Coombsville as a source for good-quality grapes. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that vineyard-designated wines from Coombsville sites began appearing occasionally. Producers as well known as Paul Hobbs, Phelps Insignia, Vineyard 29, Quintessa, Pahlmeyer, Far Niente and Dunn, to name just a few, have all relied on fruit from the subzone to bring a unique blending component to their wines. This is thanks to a combination of soils and unique microclimate.

To keep reading, heading on over to where the article continues accompanied by tasting notes from the region. This article appear behind a paywall. 

Here’s the direct link:

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


Spending the Day at Frog’s Leap with John Williams

John Williams was kind enough to meet photographer Stephen Smith and myself to spend the day sharing and showing us the Frog’s Leap story.

The three of us met first thing in the morning to walk the vineyard and winery in the heart of the Rutherford Bench, then drove north through Napa Valley to see Frog’s Leaps other estate vineyards. Frog’s Leap is known for its Bordeaux varietal wines – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc – and Chardonnay and also makes a succulent, fresh Zinfandel inspired by California’s old field blend style. At the vineyard near his home, Frog’s Leap recently planted an experimental block testing to see what new varieties respond well to the specific conditions of Rutherford. In a different block of the same site they also farms a collection of mixed-black old vines that go into the Frog’s Leap Heritage blend.

Frog’s Leap doesn’t just grow vineyards though. John has brought his focus to sustainability in farming practices such as dry farming while also focusing on sustainability of overall estate management. To preserve the economic health of the Frog’s Leap team, the winery established year round food gardens that are used on-site for winery meals and by winery employees. The gardens are also maintained by the winery and vineyard staff so that in the months when vines need less tending the garden keeps them busy and employed.

John’s inspiration for California’s old style can also be found in his restoration of the historic winery building from the 1880s that serves as part of the structure for his own contemporary winery, as well as his love for old trucks and cars.

We drove up the valley together in his 1969 Chevy. It was the fulfillment of a dream I’d had to cruise Napa Valley backroads in John’s iconic pick-up truck. That truck is an important part of Napa Valley history, full of Frog’s Leap stories. Incredibly, the three of us had so much fun that the day culminated finally in this…

Over the course of the day, while I interviewed John, Stephen documented our time together in photographs. He’s been generous enough to let me share his photos from the day here. I love the way they tell the story on their own.

Visiting Frog’s Leap in Photographs by Stephen Smith

Frog's Leap Winery

Frog's Leap Winery

Flowers at Frog's Leap

Starting the Garden at Frog's Leap

The Orchard

The Vineyard

The Vineyard

Bottling Frog's Leap

The Historic Winery

The Historic Winery

The Historic Winery

Inside the Winery

Entering the Winery

John Williams

Discussing Winemaking

Inside the Winery

Driving in the 1969 Chevy Pick-up Truck

The Old Vines

Inside the Old Winery

Dinner with John

Thank you to John for the great day and to Stephen for the fantastic photos.

Check out more of Smith’s photography at his own site: and follow him on Instagram: I really enjoy following his photographic travelogs online.

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I’ll be writing more here on my trip to Okanagan and Semilkameen Valleys, as well as judging the finals for the National Wine Awards of Canada. It really was a fantastic week. There are some really good wines coming out of BC. The professionalism of the National Wine Awards really impressed me too – it’s a smartly run wine competition.

In the meantime though I wanted to share this video from Jr.

Wei Chi Semillon

Erin Pooley started making Wei Chi Semillon in 2012. The next year a bunch of us were able to taste the early bottlings at our Semageddon celebration (it broke the internet: here, here, here, and here) and I was immediately impressed. The 2012 is a delicious wine but the 2014 vintage (yet to be released) is my favorite – nervy, fresh and nutty both, with the vivacity to age.

To share some of what I love about Wei Chi wine, and Erin’s philosophy behind it, I asked Jr, aka Rachel, and Erin if they’d get together and make a video.

Erin invited us to her home for dinner and the two of them discussed Erin’s appreciation of the meal, her love of Semillon and her winemaking approach for Wei Chi wines.

Dinner with Erin Pooley

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The Judgment of BC

View from the Judges Seat, Judgment of BC

This week I’ve been touring wine country of the Okanagan Valley with Jamie Goode and our trusty (and patient) tour pilot, Laura Kittmer. We’re hosted by the BC Wine Institute and welcomed by WineAlign to help judge the annual National Wine Awards of Canada looking at wines from across Canada at the close of our visit.

One of the highlights of the trip so far was participating in the 2nd Annual Judgement of BC. The tasting brought 29 top tasters from across Canada, as well as Jamie and myself, to blind taste and rank 12 wines from BC against 12 wines of the world. It was arranged in two flights, one pinot noir, the other riesling, both evenly split between BC and International wines. The event was sponsored by the BC Wine Institute and organized by Canadian wine educator DJ Kearney.

The inaugural event last year celebrated Steven Spurrier visiting British Columbia wine country for the first time and looked at Syrah and Chardonnay. As DJ Kearney explained, the goal for the Judgment of BC is not to ask who is best in the world but rather to investigate how BC wines rank against standard bearers from around the world. It’s an opportunity to investigate how well a relatively young wine region is doing on the world stage in terms of quality.

It was an honor to become part of the group present for the tasting. It’s a group that includes top writers, sommeliers, and buyers from across the country. Jamie also served as a judge last year. This year they decided to include a second international judge as well and kindly invited me.

DJ did a masterful job selecting wines. The international wines were all chosen purposefully to offer wines known as standards from their region meant to both push the local industry towards quality and give the judges insight into how local wines are actually doing currently. Wines were also selected to be in a relatively comparable price range.

As a taster one of the things I found most insightful was that when it came to quality the wines of BC were on par with the international selection. It was profoundly difficult for judges across the board to accurately select the BC contingent from their international counterparts.

Here are the final rankings. Judges were asked to taste each of the two flights and rank wines 1 to 12. Judges’ results were then added together and averaged to determine the final rank for the wines.

Pinot Noir

1. Bouchard Pere Premier Cru Beaune Clos de la Mousse Monopole 2012 Burgundy, France 13%
2. Bachelder Oregon Pinot Noir 2012 Willamette Valley AVA Oregon USA 14%
3. Felton Road Bannockburn Pinot Noir 2014 Central Otago, New Zealand 14%
4. Haywire Canyonview Pinot Noir 2014 Lenswood, Adelaide Hills, South Australia 12.5%
5. Meyer Family Reimer Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012 Okanagan Valley, BC 13%
6. Quail’s Gate Richard’s Block Pinot Noir 2013 Okanagan Falls, BC 12.5%
7. Blue Mountain Vineyard Reserve Pinot Noir 2013 Okanagan Falls, BC 12.5%

Two wines tied for 8th place:

Thibault Liger-Belair Bourgogne Les Grands Chaillots 2012 Burgundy, France 13%
JoieFarm Reserve En Famille Pinot Noir 2012 Naramata, Okanagan Valley, BC 13.6%

10. BK Wines Skin n’ Bones Pinot Noir 2013 Lenswood, Adelaide Hills, South Australia 12.5%
11. Moraine Pinot Noir 2013 Naramata, Okanagan Valley, BC 13.1%
12. Meomi Pinot Noir 2014 California, USA 13.7%

Though I was disappointed to see Meomi in the tasting (yes, I did score it 12 as well in my personal ranking of the wines), DJ was smart in her explanation of why it was included. Meomi is the number one selling Pinot Noir in all of British Columbia by a large margin and she felt it was important for judges to be aware of what that market share looks and tastes like in the context of global wine. Not all judges ranked it in last place.


1. Max Gerd Richter Grazer Himmelreich Riesling Kabinette 2013 Mosel Valley, Germany 9%
2. Cedar Creek Platinum Block 3 Riesling 2014 Okanagan Valley BC 12.2%
3. Wild Goose Stoney Slope Riesling 2013 Okanagan Falls BC 13.3%
4. Chateau Ste Michelle & Dr Loosen Eroica Riesling 2013 Columbia Valley AVA Washington 12%
5. Leeuwin Art Series Riesling 2012 Margaret River, Australia 12%
6. Synchromesh Storm Haven Vineyard Riesling 2015 Okanagan Falls BC 8.9%
7. Culmina Decora Riesling 2015 Okanagan Valley BC 13.5%
8. Pewsey Vale Eden Valley Riesling 2014 South Australia 12%
9. Robert Weil Kiedricher Riesling Trocken 2012 Rheingau, Germany 11.5%
10. Tantalus Old Vines Riesling 2013 Okanagan Valley BC 13.1%
11. Orofino Hendsbee Vineyard Riesling 2013 Similkameen Valley BC 12%
12. Trimbach Riesling 2012 Alsace, France 12.5%

It was interesting to judge both flights blind partially because of the mix of styles and sugar levels for both sets of wines. Ranking them was very much an exercise in looking for harmony and quality regardless of style.

Before results were announced judges had the opportunity to judge amongst themselves and beyond the judging, just in terms of personal interest, some expressed a strong preference against the sweet styles while others notes that the RS in some cases brought the balance to the wine.

In my own case I noticed I was more willing to allow RS in the Rieslings than the Pinots and did feel that in the case of the Rieslings the high acidity levels sometimes benefited from a bit of sweetness. In other words, my views here remained consistent with how I’d viewed tasting Riesling previously.

It’s been a ton of fun to investigate BC wines and get to know the people of the region. I’m looking forward to tasting wines from across Canada when Jamie and I join the final rounds of the National Wine Awards.

If you want to read more about the event, this article offers some additional information from one of the other judges:

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Paso Robles: Wine versus Water

Paso Robles Eastside Vineyard

While El Niño this year brought ample rains to northern California, overall rainfall was less than originally predicted (see Alder’s recent report) and southern California saw far fewer winter storms. Of wine regions in the state, hardest hit by lack of rain has been Paso Robles. Paso’s challenges with weather are not insignificant. It has become one of the best-known wine regions of the Central Coast, as well as a leader in California’s Rhône movement. Most famously, the Perrin family of Château du Beaucastel has affirmed the value of Paso Robles by investing with the Haas family in the Tablas Creek project. The work Tablas Creek has done to import Rhône varieties and clones to their site in Paso’s Adelaida district has been of benefit to Rhône producers throughout the United States.

During California’s winter rainy season this year, northern storms failed to reach as far south as Paso Robles, and the few warmer storms from the south did not reach over the mountains separating Paso’s county of San Luis Obispo from its southern neighbor Santa Barbara County (see the brown hilltops in this picture of an East Paso vineyard). The Central Coast region received so little rain this winter, reservoirs are only 30% full. The reservoirs are primarily for the townships of San Luis Obispo such as Paso Robles, Templeton and Atascadero. Land within the county but outside town centres has to depend for water on residential and commercial wells in the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin.

Lack of rainfall these last several years has failed to replenish the Basin’s water level. Water issues in the area, however, are only partially due to the recent California drought. There has been a sizeable increase in overall water use from a significant rise in county residences as well as from the expansion of irrigated agriculture. This surge in demand for water has led to wells throughout the county being severely depleted. In the most affected areas, wells are down as much as 80 to 100 ft (24-30 m) from their original levels. As a result, small home-ranch owners (generally single-dwelling one-acre properties) face the possibility of losing homes they can no longer keep hydrated. Many have resorted to trucking in water. Even so, water use in the region continues to be unregulated although it is one of the very few in the state where well use is unmonitored and uncontrolled.

To keep reading, heading on over to where the article continues accompanied by tasting notes for 24 vintages of the Mondavi Cabernet Reserve rather evenly spread from 1966 to 2013. This article appear behind a paywall. 

Here’s the direct link:

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

Mondavi Retrospective

The Robert Mondavi 1966 Cabernet Unfiltered

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Robert Mondavi Winery on the Oakville bench of Napa Valley. To celebrate, the winery put together a two-day event for 25 journalists from throughout North America, offering us the opportunity to taste 24 vintages of Mondavi’s flagship Cabernet Reserve, as well as spending time with many of the key winemakers and viticulturists of the winery’s history.

It is difficult to think of any other Napa Valley Cabernet of which such a historic vertical would be possible. Wineries with a longer history such as Beaulieu and Inglenook have nothing like the continuity evident at Mondavi. There have been subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle changes of direction in winemaking here but in essence the team and intentions have remained the same, and the ownership has changed only once when in 2004 the Robert Mondavi Winery was sold to the giant Constellation. Its founder died four years later at the age of 94 (see Jancis’s appreciation of Robert Mondavi).

When Mondavi started his eponymous winery in 1966 the goal was to show that California could make wines to compete with the very best in the world. A mere 10 years later two of Mondavi’s original winemakers – Warren Winiarski, who helped start the wine programme at Mondavi, and Mike Grgich, who soon took over – would go on to win the famous 1976 Judgment of Paris in red and white categories respectively that did so much to establish the region’s reputation for world-class wines.

To keep reading, heading on over to where the article continues accompanied by tasting notes for 24 vintages of the Mondavi Cabernet Reserve rather evenly spread from 1966 to 2013. This article appear behind a paywall. 

Here’s the direct link:

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Michael Mara Chardonnay

The Michael Mara Vineyard Tasting

from left: Jill and Steve Klein Matthiasson, Richard and Susan Idell, Birk O’Halloran, Abe Schoener, Chris Brockaway in the Michael Mara Vineyard, Sonoma, April 2016

Last week Richard and Susan Idell hosted a producer tasting at their vineyard along with Steve Matthiasson, who farms the site. The Idell’s Michael Mara Vineyard hosts six acres of Chardonnay, clone 4 grafted to de-vigorating rootstock in an already de-vigorating site. The rocky soils, with their high drainage, not only keep vines from over-producing but minimize growth to such a degree as to create intense concentration in the fruit. Wines from the site consistently offer a glimpse of that stony character.

Planting the Michael Mara in 2006, Matthiasson helped design the vineyard, and continues to farm it, adjusting rootstock and techniques over time as characteristics reveal themselves through the vines. Within a vintage or two of first fruit, Matthiasson believed it to be a special site offering the kind of density through the palate and mineral expression, in his view, usually characteristic of older vine sites.

The concentrating power of the site can be glimpsed through surrounding foliage.

Michael Mara stands in the midst of a mini-plateau elevated by four feet when compared to surrounding properties. Throughout the earthen-swell trees reach almost half-size compared to those growing on lower grounds. Matthiasson believes the minimizing effect on plants comes from the low water retention of the soils, coupled with their mix of closely-packed rocks and volcanic earth.

Vines too grow smaller through Michael Mara, with not only less size increase year-to-year, but also less canopy compared to other vineyards. The combination of reduced growth and lessened natural shade again lead to concentration of the fruit. At the same time the juice-to-skin ratio is changed. Smaller clusters and smaller berries mean more skin to less pulp in the fruit. With the heightened phenolics from the skins, even wines put straight to press from the site carry a stimulating sapidity that washes the mouth with mineral freshness.

Flavors of the Vines

Growing up in Alaska, friends and I would sometimes spend an entire day just running through the mountains. A parent would drop us off an hour or so down the road on the Seward Peninsula at the entrance to a high elevation valley, then we would take the next several hours to simply run North through the belly of the Chugach mountains. Eventually we’d arrive near the edge of Anchorage, where another parent would pick us up. Along the way, if we grew thirsty, we learned to throw a rock in our mouths. The pebble would stimulate our palate making it water as we ran through the still snow-soaked summer range. The experience always tasted just a touch earthy, not quite salty but almost, with the flavor of fog lifting from the wet upland valley. In portions the resin scent of pine or evergreen blended in with the fog.

The stoniness of Michael Mara wines across producers and vintages reminds me of those runs through the mountains with a rock in my mouth – a mouthwatering wash of stones through the midpalate with a bit of earth and a flavor that’s almost salty but not – coupled with a bit of fog, a profound density of fruit, the flavor of which varies by picking time and cellar technique, and hints of forest resin.

The Idell family’s Michael Mara serves as source fruit for a range of producers making wine across a diversity of styles. Still that fruit density and stony wash remain consistent.

Following are tasting notes on the wines tasted at the event last week presented in the order tasted.

* Broc Cellars 2011 Michael Mara Chardonnay 12% $42

With delicate aromatics and a stimulating texture, the broc 2014 showcases a midpalate burst of fresh, clean fruit washed through with a mineral stimulating rush of acidity, and a savory finish. Refreshing, a hint funky, delicious.

* Matthiasson 2013 Michael Mara Chardonnay 12.9% $55

Offering a fresh fruit lift of pear and clementine touched by hints of honey and amber, the Matthiasson 2013 spins simultaneously with fresh and rich accents. Pleasing acidity carries almost lacy flavors married to a sense of lushness. Nice length and complexity. Delicious.

YoungInglewood 2013 Michael Mara Chardonnay 13.7% $60

Floral spiced aromatics followed by a palate of spiced wax, pear, and citrus rind with hints of savory forest-resin, the mid palate weight of the Younginglewood 2013 carries through a long finish. I would prefer a little less oak spice and a little less ripeness here but the wine offers a coherent expression of its style.

Idell Family Vineyard 2013 Michael Mara Chardonnay 13.2% $35

Tight aromatics and a subtle flavor profile with accents of oak spice throughout, the Idell Family Vineyards 2013 is not overly expressive currently but carries the promise of more. Showing light notes of pear and orange rind with a savory finish and persistent acidity, this wine would be worth checking-in on again in a year or two.

* Scholium Project 2014 Michael Faraday Michael Mara Chardonnay 13.49% $80

Savory aromatics and palate with a distinctive, animalistic energy brought into focus, the Michael Faraday from 2014 carries lacy flavors with a savory strength. With an almost implacable core, this wine will age through the apocalypse. It might be the only wine left standing after the Resurrection. (Does that make it heathen wine? If it is, I don’t want to be right.)

Scholium Project 2015 barrel sample Michael Faraday Michael Mara Chardonnay

Still in the fresh-wine phase, the 2015 Michael Faraday shows flavors still in evolution but carries nice energy and persistence worth investigating again later in bottle.

Iconic 2014 Heroine Michael Mara Chardonnay 12.8% $TBD

Subtle and savory aromatics with a fleshier mid palate and a softer finish (that is not to call it either soft or unfocused) than the other vineyard examples, the 2014 Heroine appears to have a little more influence of malolactic fermentation than some of the other wines poured. Carrying a subtle palate of flavor with still good density and a punch of zestiness spun through the finish. Hints of verve, pith, and savor.

Kesner 2013 Rockbreak Michael Mara Chardonnay 13.72% $55

My favorite of the three Kesner vintages poured, the 2013 feels the most cohesive with potential to age. Showing notes of wax-nut burnished by spice the flavors here are rich though nuanced with density and length carrying into a long savory finish. Allow plenty of air upon opening.

Kesner 2012 Rockbreak Michael Mara Chardonnay 14.3% $55

With subtle aromatics and palate, the 2012 is currently showing less complexity than the 2013 or 2011, as well as a softer finish.

Kesner 2011 Rockbreak Michael Mara Chardonnay 14.2% $55

While the 2011 feels more disjointed than the other vintages – simultaneously offering fresh fruit notes with a bit of ripe heat through the close – it also carries a burst of fresh flavor at the front of the palate that is pleasing, before falling into a softer finish.

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