Tags Posts tagged with "cabernet sauvignon"

cabernet sauvignon

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Visiting Gist Ranch Vineyard

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

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

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

Risking a Site

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

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

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

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

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

The idea proved controversial.

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

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

Seeking Cabernet

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting to Know Gist

Lexington Wines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Farming Gist

Julio Deras, Vineyard Manager

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

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

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

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

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

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

Growing Bordeaux Varieties

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tasting Lexington Wines

Lexington 2011 Wines

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

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

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

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

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

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

Di Costanzo Wines

Jr and Massimo Di Costanzo getting ready to film an interview

Jr + Massimo Di Costanzo getting ready to film their interview

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

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

I’m pleased to share it with you here. 

Massimo Di Costanzo, Di Costanzo Wines

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

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

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Coombsville Cabernet

Looking up Napa Valley from Farella Vineyards in Coombsville

looking up Napa Valley from the top of Farella Vineyards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making Cabernet

Di Costanzo Cabernet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Coriston Cabernet 25 Vintage Vertical Tasting

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

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

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

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

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Post Edit:

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Truchard Vineyards & Winery

Truchard Vineyardslooking towards the fault line that runs through Truchard Vineyards
— each hill contains a different soil type, and grows a different grape variety

One of the first to plant in North Carneros, Tony Truchard began establishing his Truchard Vineyards in 1974 at a time when others thought growing vines in Carneros might be crazy. Even more unusual, his thirst was for Cabernet. He remains to today one of the few people growing the variety in the area. Consistently 10 degrees cooler than the heart of Napa Valley where Cabernet thrives, people at the time believed Carneros wasn’t warm enough to ripen grapes.

Planting his first vines on his own by hand, Truchard persisted thanks partially to the inspiration of his neighbor, Frank Mahoney, who had already established Carneros Creek Vineyards near by. Mahoney was among the first to bring drip irrigation to the area, a technology developed for reclaiming the deserts of Israel, and today used through California wine country.

Beginning first on a 20-acre parcel, the disadvantages seen by others in Carneros would become an advantage for the Truchards. With the lack of agricultural promise, neighbors offered their parcels to Truchard for purchase. Buying land as he could afford it, today Trucard Vineyards grow over 200 planted acres on 400 contiguous acres all north of the Carneros Highway.

While South Carneros proves flat and entirely clay pan, North Carneros rolls with hills and fault lines. The fault line that cut through Truchard Vineyard has pushed such a range of soil types that along the retaining pond each hill includes a different soil type, and thus also a different grape variety. In volcanic ash they’ve planted Syrah, in clay Merlot, clay with limestone a mix of both Bordeaux and Burgundian varieties, in sandstone they also grow a mix of grape types.

Today Truchard is considered one of the premium growers of Carneros, with 12 different planted varieties including Zinfandel, Tempranillo, and Roussanne most unusually, but also each of the 5 Bordeaux reds, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Sauvignon Blanc. Most of their fruit sells to quality producers, but they also produce their own wines under the Truchard label.

Truchard Wines

Truchard WinesMost incredibly, Truchard has avoided raising wine prices. Today, Truchard offers some of the best quality for cost in Napa Valley. While the label does include two reserve level wines (available to wine club) coming in around $75, the remainder of their portfolio ranges between $25-38. Finding a quality North Coast Pinot Noir, or a Napa Valley Cabernet at those prices is almost unheard of.

Truchard wines offer nice mouth watering acidity, vibrant flavor, and pleasant clean fruit throughout. They are wines with easy presence — nicely balanced, well integrated, stimulating and never forceful. The standouts in yesterday’s tasting include the 2013 Roussanne, 2010 Tempranillo, and 2011 Zinfandel. That said, any of these wines would do well at the table. Following are notes on the current portfolio.

* Truchard 2013 Roussanne, Carneros Napa Valley $25
Pretty, lifted aromatics are followed with vibrant acidity through a creamy palate of light (not sweet or heavy) almond paste, citrus blossom and curd with a delicate white pepper finish. The 2013 Roussanne will age nicely, but is beautiful and yummy now.

Truchard 2012 Pinot Noir, Carneros Napa Valley $35
Offering pretty, bright red aromatics the 2012 Pinot Noir carries forward with a nicely focused, mouth watering palate of raspberry bush and cranberry. This is a nicely balanced wine with a taut, lean, and pleasing palate.

* Truchard 2010 Tempranillo, Carneros Napa Valley $30
Both nose and palate here carry red, and red violet fruit alongside pretty rose and violet elements, and a hint of molasses throughout. The palate is wonderfully mouthwatering and fresh, with polished tannin, and an ultra long finish.

* Truchard 2011 Zinfandel, Carneros Napa Valley $30
A unique Zinfandel offering high tone red fruit and mixed exotic spices, the Truchard Zinfandel offers wonderfully mouth watering acidity, easy tannin, and an ultra long finish. This is a yummy pizza and pasta wine.

Truchard 2010 Merlot, Carneros Napa Valley $30
Keep an eye out for the 2011 Merlot as the 2010 is already almost sold out. The Truchard Merlot carries the recognizable blue fruit and flower midpalate of Merlot filled out and lengthened with nicely the integrated herbal traction of Cabernet Franc. It’s a nicely balanced, and surprising combination for California Merlot.

Truchard 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon, Carneros Napa Valley $38
Giving screaming good value, the Truchard Cabernet hits that balance of doing well with age on it and drinking well now. Carrying black currant, a touch of pine, and refreshing red and green bell pepper this wine has tons of flavor without over extraction on a nicely structured frame.

Truchard 2012 Syrah, Carneros Napa Valley $30
Wanting the most time in bottle, and the most air upon opening, the Truchard Syrah brings inky dark aromas and flavors through a perfumed musk and pine lift. The same carries into the palate touched throughout by an ashen patina carrying through an ultra long taut finish.

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Want to read more on Truchard Vineyards?

Check out Tom Riley‘s article for the San Jose Mercury News here: http://www.mercurynews.com/eat-drink-play/ci_26078260/napas-truchard-caves-goats-winning-chardonnay

Thank you to Mathew Fitch. CHEEEESSSSE!!!

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

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Tasting Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet with Alder Yarrow

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

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

Still, why the comparison?

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

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

The Santa Cruz Mountains AVA

Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernetclick on image to enlarge

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

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

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

Variety in the Santa Cruz Mountains

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

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

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

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

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

Cabernet Tasting from the Santa Cruz Mountains

Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet

the line-up of 53 Santa Cruz Mountain Cabernets

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

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

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

Overall Impressions of Santa Cruz Mountain Cabernet

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

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

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

Stand Out Examples of Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

4

Five Decades of Mayacamas, PBFW

Mayacamas Panel, PBFW

from left: Kim Beto, Andy Erickson, Antonio Galloni, D’Lynn Proctor, Brian McClintic

At Pebble Beach Food & Wine, Antonio Galloni moderated a panel celebration of Bob Travers’s tenure at Mayacamas presenting a five decade vertical of the famed Cabernet beginning with Travers first vintage on the estate, 1968, and closing with his last, 2012.

New Mayacamas winemaker, Andy Erickson, included Travers’s own notes on the vintages tasted, and discussed the history of the property along with the recent shift in ownership. To comment on the individual wines presented through the panel were also Kim Beto, D’Lynn Proctor, and Brian McClintic. From the audience, Joel Peterson, winemaker of Ravenswood, also offered valuable insight to the discussion.

At the end of April 2013, it was announced that Charles and Ali Banks had purchased the property through their investment group, Terroir Capital. The purchase arrived after years of discussion over the possibility between Banks and Travers. Banks’s long term respect for the property, and Travers’s work there drew Banks’s interest in the purchase.

Since the change in ownership, Erickson has spent extensive time speaking with Travers, reading his notes, and studying previous vintages to smooth the change in winemaking.

In fielding questions from the audience, Erickson was pushed to consider the contrast in style between the winemaking he’s shown through other labels, such as his own Favia, and that historically housed at Mayacamas. It was clear from the tenor in the audience that there is trepidation over whether the new team can maintain Travers’s style of site expression. Most revealing of Erickson’s responses, he closed the panel by admitting his work with Mayacamas in 2013 has pushed him to rethink his previous understandings of ripeness. Mayacamas Cabernet picks at lower brix levels than other sites, and ages beautifully.

Attending the Mayacamas tasting and panel discussion was a genuine honor. Receiving a vertical that carved the complete arc of Travers’s tenure from first to final vintage at the site gave an extra sense of elegance and respectfulness to the experience. To say the wines are special is an understatement.

The Cabernet of Mayacamas, 1968 to 2012

Mayacamas Cabernet Vertical 1968-2012click on image to enlarge

Travers’s iterations of Mayacamas Cabernet give a beautifully organic sense of seamlessness. The vintages I’ve been lucky enough to taste celebrate sophisticated rusticity — the dustiness of mountain fruit with tobacco and earth components carried through sometimes rugged, while well-executed, tannin balanced by juicy length. Even the riper vintages aren’t afraid of earth components, refreshing green pepper accents, or tannin born of a view. They’re wines that come with a real sense of life in the bottle.

Joel Peterson commented on the Cabernets of Mayacamas pointing out that with their greater acidity, structural tannin, and rose/floral aromatic line they can readily be compared to Barolo, and perhaps even more appropriately than the stereotypical Napa Cabernet. He continued by noting that Mt Veeder, with its unique environment and expression, really needs to be considered on its own, rather than encapsulated simply as part of the Napa Valley.

In describing the winemaking, Erickson laughed, describing it as “wilderness winemaking.” Travers accomplished his purity of expression with decades old wooden vessels housed in an even older rock building, a road that was sometimes impassable, and very little electrical technology.

Tasting through the Vertical

The vertical began with 1968, Travers first vintage, and a wine made of 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Though Traver’s notes expected that the wine “should age until the late 1980s” the wine was still drinking beautifully with energetic structural integrity, and beautiful mineral length. The wine had aged into a delicate flavor presentation with lovely floral aromatics and lift, well integrated with leather and earth components. Erickson shared with us that Travers’s notes stated “suggestion retail $4.50.” The 1968 vintage was primarily Mt Veeder Cabernet from the Mayacamas site, but included some fruit from the Alexander Valley.

The 1973 offered impressive structural integrity, and youthful strength. In a single word, this was a wine of purity. Aromatics of lavender and tobacco flower are joined by light cigar and rose petal, freshly opened green pepper and hints of jalapeno. The palate carries elegant juiciness with a focus on smooth tannic brawn.

The 1981 vintage offered the only wine that showed a sleeping phase, wanting time in bottle to show itself. Still, it carried recognizable kinship to its brethren giving lavender, cherry blossom, and light jalapeno aromatics rolling into an especially tannic focus on an earthy (though not fully showing) palate with a light menthol edge.

By the late 1980s, Travers was incorporating Cabernet Franc and Merlot into his Cabernet Sauvignon. The aromatics of the 1989 offered leather and light cigar accents coupled with creamy, delicate earthiness and light rose. Through the palate, the wine brought a vibrant, lifting red with silky, strong tannin, and a juicy crunch. This is a wine with lots of power that fills the palate giving a pert and vibrant lift.

With 1992, the wines began to shift from the fully integrated, while lively earth and leaf, flower and mineral elements of the first half of the tasting, into more apparent youthfulness of fruit still coupled with earth and flower accents. The red fruit focus of the 1992 married itself to the grounding elements of white truffle and oregano oil accented by evergreen carried through silken tannin, and a pleasing plush mouthfeel.

Beginning with light aromatics, the 1999 gave incredible juiciness on still such a young wine. The wine carried beautiful balance, long long lines, red fruit and redwood forest with less apparent flavor differentiation. The wine showed as less varied in that sense than earlier vintages but with the structural verve that will keep it developing well beyond Bob’s typical predictions.

With 2007 youthful red cherry perfume, red plum, and rose potpourri began to carry too the darker berry elements of young Cabernet. The vintage showed a beautiful purity of fruit expression on a body of fresh, juicy elegance and silken tannin. It’s a yummy, luscious wine with a bit riper fruit and a lot of structural focus.

The Mayacamas vertical was completed with a barrel sample of Travers’s last vintage, 2012. The dark berry focus of young Cabernet swirled through aromatics and palate here alongside fresh smashed cherries married to the lift of licorice blossom, redwood forest, and wet gravel on a body of plush tannin focus.

***

To read more on Mayacamas in the last year:

From Eric Asimov: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/07/dining/calming-words-from-a-vineyards-unlikely-new-owner.html?_r=0

From Jon Bonné: http://www.sfgate.com/wine/thirst/article/An-improbable-guardian-takes-over-at-Mayacamas-4703491.php

***

With enormous thanks to Bob Travers for his dedication to Mayacamas.

Thank you to Antonio Galloni, Andy Erickson, D’Lynn Proctor, Kim Beto, and Brian McClintic.

Thank you to Charles and Ali Banks.

Thank you to Sarah Logan.

***

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

 

18

A Day with Tyler Thomas, Winemaker Star Lane + Dierberg

Tyler Thomas

Tyler Thomas, January 2014

Winemaker Tyler Thomas stepped into leadership of the wine program at Star Lane and Dierberg in Santa Barbara County during Summer 2013. Prior to his new position he headed winemaking at Donelan Wines in Santa Rosa, after having assisted winemaker Stéphane Vivier at HdV in Napa.

During his tenure at Donelan, Thomas and I were able to taste and interview on multiple occasions. I have been impressed by his thoughtfulness as a winemaker, and his attention to vine physiology as the root of his winemaking. His background in botany under girds his thinking. One of my interests, then, in visiting Santa Barbara County was in returning to Star Lane to see it under Thomas’s leadership, and to speak with Thomas about his work in the new-to-him vineyards and winery.

After tasting extensively through the cellar with Thomas and assistant winemaker, Jeff Connick, I am excited to keep following their development. Thomas spoke gratefully about his work with Connick. As Thomas explained, Connick’s knowledge of and attention to the wine program at Dierberg and Star Lane significantly advanced the process of getting to know the unique expression of the vineyards for Thomas as the new winemaker.

Thomas and I were also able to taste some older vintages of wines from the Dierberg and Star Lane vineyards. While the winemaking style was different from that expressed through the barrel tasting with Thomas and Connick, a distinctiveness and age-ability showed through. Thomas credits that sense of site expression with age worthiness as part of what convinced him there was something well-worth investing his time in at the Dierberg and Star Lane properties.

After touring the Dierberg Sta Rita Hills, and Star Lane Vineyard sites, we spent several hours in the cellar tasting through wines from both locations, as well as the Dierberg Santa Maria vineyard. Thomas and I spoke extensively about how he’s approaching his new position. Following is an excerpt from our conversation considering how Thomas thinks about and explores ideas of site expression in the context of various varieties, and also the controversial topic of ripeness levels.

Tyler Thomas

near the top of the mid-slope of Dierberg Sta Rita Hills, with Tyler Thomas discussing block expression, January 2014

“Part of our focus is on capturing opportunity by capturing variability. For example, how do we make a Cabernet Franc that is representative of Cabernet Franc of Star Lane, and then find a way to work with that. We work a little harder to capture variability in the vineyard so that we can add a little more nuance and complexity to the wine.” Thomas and Connick vinify small vineyard sections separately as a way of getting to know particular site expression. “We want to make Cabernet Franc as Cab Franc, rather than as the Cabernet Sauvignon version of Cab Franc so that we can see what Cab Franc from here is all about, while also recognizing it might later add to the complexity of our Cab Sauvignon. I don’t mind embracing ripe, rich flavors, but I don’t believe in doing it artificially by picking late and then adding water back.”

We taste through a wide range of Cabernet and Cab Franc from a range of picking times, and vineyard sections and then begin talking about what the unique character of Cabernet at Star Lane is about. “There are some ultra early picks on Cab from here that still don’t show pyrazines [green pepper notes], so I think the conversation, at least in this area, around Cab expression is on texture and mouthfeel rather than on pyrazine level.”

Thomas explains that we are tasting through the range of barrel samples around the cellar to show off the diversity of Star Lane that he is excited about. “This is all to show off the diversity of Star Lane. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about a conversation you and I had before [referencing a conversation Thomas and I had previously about asking yourself what you want to love in your life through how you choose to spend your time].

“I’ve been thinking about how we can ask, what do you want to love in wine? There is a question of how elements play out in a wine, rather than if wines taste of terroir or not. There is a lot of conversation around how a wine best expresses terroir. The truth is, riper wines can still show terroir or site expression. Of course Chardonnay raisins and Cabernet raisins still taste like raisins so one must admit there is a limit. Conversely, underripe grapes all taste like green apples so you can pick too far that way too.

“I don’t know if I can elaborate on it more than that. Sometimes you’re standing in a site and you feel like trying something but you don’t know if it’s just because you think you can or if there is something about the site that asks you to. But other times you can taste something there in the wine that you can’t explain, but at the same time can’t deny.

“In thinking about overly ripe wine, just because something is veiled doesn’t mean you can’t know what it is. On a good site, a riper style winemaker can still show site expression, the winemaking won’t completely obscure the site, even if it veils it some. Sometimes things are more veiled in a wine than others. Sometimes our role as winemaker ends up being unveiling the terroir.

“To put it another way, if everyone was picking at the same level of ripeness shouldn’t site be the difference that shows? Ripeness doesn’t necessarily obscure site, it just changes our access to it. In the end, it becomes a matter of what we value, of what we want to love in wine.”

***

To read guest posts from Tyler Thomas that consider his winemaking philosophy, and views of wine further:

A Winemaking Philosophy: Guest Post by Tyler Thomas: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2013/01/29/a-winemaking-philosophy-guest-post-by-tyler-thomas-donelan-wines/

The Humanness of Winemaking: Faith, Hope, and Love: Guest Post by Tyler Thomas: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2013/01/28/the-humanness-of-winemaking-faith-hope-and-love-as-the-core-of-life-and-wine-guest-post-by-tyler-thomas-donelan-wines/

***

Thank you most especially to Tyler Thomas.

Thank you to Jeff Connick. Thank you to Sao Anash.

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

 

2

Traveling Chile

This trip through Chile’s wine countries has taught me something valuable. I could have learned it years ago from the melodic stylings of the early-90s rock band Extreme, but I was too young at the time to really *get* the notion.

Here is the simplest version of the point. Hopefully it is obvious once said. Whether you love a wine doesn’t show from saying again and again, you love a wine. It shows in whether or not you want to drink it. To put it another way, if a friend comes over for dinner with a bottle of wine, is it one you open right away?

(Full disclosure (and Kelly forgive me for confessing this publicly): having Kelly Magyarics bust out of no where with acapella stylings of Extreme lyrics at the end of a late night in Argentina forever changed my view of this song–it actually makes me tear up now in a way it never did when I still thought it was merely a romantic ballad.)

Root: 1 Wines

Root: 1 offers a small portfolio of varietally focused value wines that give three of the things I want in drinking wine: wonderful juiciness, clean fruit presentation, and good balance. They also give savory complexity, concentrated while light flavors….

The trick behind Root: 1 though is giving these characteristics at extreme value, without the Yellow Tail headache the next morning. Root: 1 retails around $12 in the United States. I enjoyed drinking each of these four wines and was blown away most especially by the quality of the Pinot Noir offered at such a low price.

On our trip through Chile we were able to spend time tasting with and interviewing Root: 1’s winemaker, Sergio Hormázabal.

Root: 1 Wines portfolioclick on image to enlarge

“The responsibility of Root: 1 for each bottle, each glass, is to express the soul and personality of the variety without any fireworks.” -Sergio Hormazábal

The Environment of Root: 1

The Root: 1 plantings occur in two major wine regions of the country. The Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir grow North of Santiago in the cool climate area of Casablanca (more on the region in a future post), giving fruit tight focus, savory flavor, and a finish into tomorrow. Carmenere and Cabernet Sauvignon grow a few hours south of Santiago in the steep slope niche of the Colchagua Valley called Apalta.

Chile, as a country, has celebrated an absence of phylloxera to this day. Original cuttings were brought to the region prior to the phylloxera outbreak that devastated Europe, rooting many of its current day vines back in direct lineage to those earlier expressions of a variety. Additionally, today the country continues to plant primarily on own-root. Some wineries, however, plant portions grafted alongside ungrafted in order to track the quality differences.

The advantages of growing own-root varieties occurs in the direct route of transmission from soil to fruit for water, and nutrients. Without the thickening affect of grafting within the veins of the vine, fluids move more directly. According to Hormazábal, based on tracking the results from grafted versus ungrafted vines, “grafted vines always change the balance of the wine. Any planting done with grafting in Chile is to experiment and try changing the balance.”

One of advantages of having the technology to graft vines rests in being able to intentionally adapt a vineyard to its environment. Roots can be found to increase or decrease vigor and water usage, and to modify the relationship to soil, as examples.

The Winemaking and Growing of Root: 1

Asking Hormazábal to discuss his views on the growth of Chilean wine, he offers an example from his ideas of quality Pinot Noir. “One of the main problems at the beginning as a winemaker, or a country’s wine industry is to try and make a wine, a varietal wine, like another grape. To try and make a Pinot like a Cabernet.” Quality expression of the two grapes are not made in the same fashion. Hormazábal explains, “You must taste a lot of Pinot Noir” to understand how to make it.

Hormazábal, then, recommends the value of tasting a range of wines from all over the world. The tasting experience is like a winemaking class for the winemaker honing recognition of how best to express ones own fruit. “You need to be very careful with use of wood in Pinot Noir. We want to show the clean fruit side of Pinot Noir with a touch of spice.”

Tasting wines from around the world, however, also gives insight on where best to grow. Different varieties have different needs. Where some grape types give their best in impoverished conditions, according to Hormazábal, Carmenere acts differently. “Carmenere needs the deepest soils with more fertility and water retention versus Syrah, which can grow in shallow, very rocky soils.”

Within Chile, Carmenere holds a unique position. In one sense the grape stands as the Flagship of the country. Chile is the one place globally where the variety remains in any real quantity. At the same time, Cabernet Sauvignon arises as the country’s most important and widely planted variety, followed closely by Sauvignon Blanc. Both grapes do well in Chile, and sell well internationally too.

Carmenere, as a variety (more specifically on the character Carmenere in a future post), readily tends towards herbal, green, bell pepper and hot pepper expression. Such flavor components, however, are seen as unpopular for some consumers. Within the country, then, there is debate on whether or not allowing for or eradicating such personality is the best expression of the grape. That is, do the herbal-pepper notes occur as a fault of grape growing then shown through the wine, or as part of the fruit’s personality?

The Root: 1 expression of Carmenere is meant to showcase the best-at-value of the grape within the unique environs of the Colchagua Valley. It carries fresh dark and red fruit notes danced through with light jalapeno lift on the nose, and red bell pepper breadth on the palate.

We ask Hormazábal about the pepper accents on his Carmenere. He responds, “The spice is the soul of Carmenere. A Carmenere without it has no interest.”

***

post update: MW Mary Gorman-McAdams was a fellow write also on my recent trip to Chile. To read her write-up of the Root: 1 wines head on over to The Kitchn here: http://www.thekitchn.com/root1-delicious-varietal-wines-from-chile-for-just-12-196404

***

Thank you to Sergio Hormazábal.

To see photos of the incredible sub-zone of Apalta in the Colchagua Valley in which Hormazábal grows the Carmenere and Cabernet: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2013/10/18/the-steep-slopes-of-apalta-colchagua-valley/

Thank you to Marilyn Krieger, David Greenberg, and Alfredo Bartholomaus.

WIth love to Marilyn, David, Kelly, Mary, Mary, Alyssa, and Alfredo. Miss you.

***

Extreme continues to make new music. According to their website, band member Pat Badger is currently recording a solo album in which he sings lead vocals for the first time. To read and hear more: http://extreme-band.com/site/pat-badger-is-recording-his-debut-solo-album/

Copyright 2013 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com

Thank you to Eric Asimov for recommending this post in the Friday, June 21, 2013 edition of The New York Times Diner’s Journal “What We’re Reading.”

***

The History of Smith-Madrone

Stu Smith inspecting Chardonnay, March 2013

Stu Smith inspecting Chardonnay, April 2013

Smith-Madrone began on a Santa Monica beach at the end of the 1960s, where two brothers, Charles and Stu Smith, grew up. It was a time when an otherwise middle class family could afford vineyard land in Napa Valley, and start a winery fresh becoming owners that produce their own wine, a phenomenon rare in the region today.

Stu Smith worked as a summer lifeguard while completing a degree in Economics at SF State. His brother, Charles, earned his undergraduate at the same institution with a focus on English Literature, also taking a lot of Philosophy classes.

In the midst of his undergrad, Stu developed the idea of studying viticulture, and buying land in the Napa Valley to grow wine. While defending swimmers, he got to know a beach regular that expressed interest in the vineyard idea, offering to help with the purchase. Though the man ultimately had no connection to the future of Smith-Madrone, never paying for any property, the suggestion of a potential investor gave Smith the gumption to move north and begin looking.

In Fall of 1970, then, Stu Smith began the Masters program at UC Davis, while also seriously looking for land. Charles had an interest in wine as well, and so began commuting to Davis, sitting in on Stu’s courses. Though Charles was never enrolled in the program, he completed a portion of the training alongside his brother.

Spring Mountain was largely undeveloped in the early 1970s. As Stu describes it, the hillside was covered in trees, mainly Douglas Fir at least 2 1/2 feet in diameter. “The land was completely over grown, but it had lots of good aspects for sun, and obviously had good soils.” Stony Hill Winery had established itself a little down the mountain from what is now Smith-Madrone, so he had a sense the region could support vines. Then, while hiking the forested property he looked down and found old grape stakes there on the forest floor. The hill had once been planted to vineyard. Though the original investor fell through, in 1971, Stu gathered support from a small group of family and friends to purchase and start what would become 38 vineyard acres.

Cook's Flat Reserve, Smith-Madrone

2007 Cook’s Flat Reserve, Smith-Madrone’s inaugural reserve wine

The brothers now know their hillside property had been planted entirely in vines in the 1880s. The original deed, signed under then president Chester A. Arthur, establishes George Cook as owner on December 5, 1884. Prohibition would later end the life of the Cook Vineyard, but on December 5, 1933, the anniversary of Cook’s purchase, the Volstead Act would overturn Prohibition. In the midst of Prohibition, however, the property returned to forest until Smith-Madrone began. Though Stu instigated the project, thanks to its size and mutual interest, Charles became part of it within a year. Today, as the brothers describe, Stu manages everything outside, while Charles takes care of everything inside. The two are the sole full-time employees of their 5000 case winery.

Touring the 1200-2000 ft elevation site, the landscape reads as a history of Stu’s genuine curiosity and drive for experimentation. Its hillsides weave a range of planting styles, and rows at differing angles to sun. Asking Stu to talk me through the changes, we begin at one corner where own-rooted Chardonnay planted in 1972 has just been pulled. “In the early 1970s,” he explains, “heat treated, certified virus free plants were just coming out. We had the opportunity to get the certified vines, but we couldn’t get appropriate rootstock so we planted on own roots. We brought in non-vineyard equipment [to lessen the chance of phylloxera], and we got 40 years out of those vines.”

Moving across the different plots, Stu shares a history of viticultural knowledge. The age of the vines matches the viticultural insights of their birth year expressed through their planting style. Between plots, vines change spacing, and height, training styles, and angle to sun, all in an attempt to learn what best suits the needs of the site. After traveling the 40 years of site development, we go inside to Charles for lunch and wine.

Smith-Madrone’s Evolution in Wine

Charles Smith

Charles Smith tasting a 1983 Smith-Madrone Riesling

We turn to discussion of Smith-Madrone’s wine history from its first vintage in 1977. Today they are known for Riesling, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon but they have played with their winemaking. From 1977 to 1985 Smith-Madrone also produced Pinot Noir. “The best wines we ever made were Pinot Noir.” Charles tells me, “but the worst wines we ever made were too. Our 1980 was one of the best Pinots ever made in the United States. We just couldn’t do it again.” The grape is often referred to as a heart breaker for the challenges presented in vineyard. Finally, the brothers decided to pull their Pinot and focus on the other grapes instead.

Stu nods. “The reason we did it was to experiment. We wanted to try making Pinot Noir. If you only ever do the same thing, you get stuck in a rut, and don’t improve.” What is consistent in Smith-Madrone is the intention Stu calls “get the best of the vintage into bottle.” Their focus is less on style and more on responding to the conditions given that year.

In their view, it is Chardonnay that most readily shows the effects of such an approach. The structure and flavors shift year to year, from the ultra fresh, citrus and saline presence of the 2010, to the slightly more candied, chalky, lean-lined body of the 2011, as examples.

Charles clarifies further, “we do pay attention to style on Riesling because style in Riesling is largely determined by sugar level.” Smith-Madrone makes theirs dry. “You can’t bounce around on sugar level with Riesling or no one knows what you’re making.” Even within their dry Riesling, however, the brothers have explored the best approach. A particularly busy vintage in 1984 led to their Riesling getting left overnight on skins. “It was a blistering hot harvest,” Charles explains. “We just kept processing grapes like crazy, just the two of us. If we told our harvest guys to leave, we didn’t know when we’d get them back so we just kept going. We did 127 hours in one week, the entire harvest in one week.” As a result, they simply couldn’t process all the fruit fast enough, and some Riesling got left overnight in the bin. After vinification they liked the increased aromatics and mouthfeel of the wine, and stuck to the practice through the rest of the 1980s. However, after about 8 years they realized something.

Excited by the conversation Charles has run downstairs to grab a 1985 Smith-Madrone Riesling so we can see how it’s drinking. Stu continues to tell the story. “We did overnight skin contact on our Riesling from the mid-80s. The flavor held up well with age but the color changed after 8 years or so. The wine turned orange.” When Charles arrives again with the bottle I’m thrilled to see its darker color and can’t wait to taste it but Stu is unimpressed. The wine tastes wonderful, a fresh juicy palate with concentrated while clean flavors, drinking far younger than its 18 years. Charles and I are agreeing on the virtues of Riesling and its ability to go on forever while Stu is still facing his discomfort with the color. “If I close my eyes and pretend it isn’t orange than I agree it’s a good wine,” he finally tells us.

lunch with Charles and Stu

part of the aftermath of our lunch together

After 41 years of winemaking, to inaugurate the anniversary of the original Cook’s purchase, and the repeal of Prohibition, the Smith brothers released their first Reserve wine on December 5, 2012. We’re drinking the first Cook’s Flat Reserve vintage, the 2007, along side its sister 2009.

In 2008, smoke from wildfires in Mendocino settled into the valley North of Spring Mountain and covered the grapes in smoke taint. Going straight to press, the whites were unaffected, but fermenting on skins the reds never did lose the smoke flavor. The brothers decided, then, to sell the 2008 reds off in bulk and release only whites from that year.

Short of knowing it took 41 years before they launched the Cook’s Flat Reserve, the wine itself would answer the question of why make a reserve wine–both vintages offer the dignity and graceful presence genuinely deserving of the title. Where the 2007 offers lithe masculine presence, the 2009 flows in feminine exquisiteness. The ’07 gives impressive structure and darker earthier flavors, to the core of tension and mid-palate lushness of the 2009. Keeping to their best of vintage commitment, what changes the shape of the 2007 versus the 2009 on the palate is the success of the fruit each year. Both wines are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc blends, but the proportions changed.

In an industry where reserve wines are common (made even within the first few years of a new winery’s inception), I ask the brothers both what made them wait so long, and why now. They explain that they started studying the reserve market and tasting through wines at different price points to make sure they understood what was available. They only wanted to make the wine if “we could do this and still give value,” Stu says.

After several years of consideration, Charles tells me, they were clear. “We resolved we could” make a wine truly distinct from their Estate Cabernet while still Smith-Madrone. To describe the intention behind their Reserve, the brothers compare it to their Estate. The Estate pays heed to old school, California mountain Cabernet relying entirely on American oak. The Reserve, on the other hand, is a nod to Bordeaux pulling only from a particular section of their property that they’ve always felt gave distinctive fruit, then aged in French oak.

The Romance of Wine

The romance of Smith-Madrone

a gift from a friend in the winery

The conversation turns finally to the change in the wine business from when Smith-Madrone began. The Smith brothers represent the last generation of winemakers in the region that could also own their own vines. Today, by contrast, getting into the industry, Stu explains, looks more like a sacrifice. “If you want to go into winemaking now and be pure, you have to give up something.” He says. Most people end up making wine for someone else because it’s such an expensive industry.

“Part of why I got into the wine business,” Stu continues, “was Hugh Johnson and his book talking about the romance and magic and business of wine.” Charles is quietly nodding. “And you know,” Stu continues, “Hugh Johnson would eat his heart out to be here today.” He’s referring to our conversation over wine with lunch. We’ve tasted through multiple vintages of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Riesling at this point and fallen into as much discussion of my life in Alaska as their life in wine. The whole day all I’ve felt is happy.

We’re sitting at a table in the winery tasting wines with lunch and talking. Beside Charles hangs a placard that reads, “We are all mortal until the first kiss and the second glass of wine.” He explains that a friend bought it off the wall of a bar in St. Louis then sent it to the brothers as a gift. Charles painted several coats of shellac over the saying written in chalk and hung it in the winery. The quotation reflects a feeling about wine that got the brothers into their profession. “As far as I’m concerned,” Charles remarks, “this is what wine is all about. It’s not all business. You sit down, enjoy conversation, and eat food.”

***
Thank you to Charles and Stu Smith for sharing so much time with me.

Thank you to Julie Ann Kodmur.

For Michael Alberty, Steven Morgan, and Fredric Koppel.

Copyright 2013 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.

We were able to gather 11 wines total from South Australia for a tasting bringing together a few of the smaller boutique labels, with a few of the more established ones. The vintages also varied between 2003 and 2012.

This Monday several of us got together to taste, enjoy, and talk through the wines. I retasted everything again the next day, and then once more the day after. The wines were not tasted blind because part of the interest was talking through the different regions and age of the wines. Here are the tasting notes.

Tasting South Australia

Much of South Australia has warmer temperatures bringing wines with a softer structural presentation. However, Clare Valley is one exception represented in the tasting, offering a moderate continental climate with cool nights. It is also one of the oldest wine regions in the country, and with its cooler nights and elevation is known for its Riesling.

General insight states that South Australian wines age less long than those from cooler climate areas, such as Victoria or Tasmania. However, to give us some glimpse at exceptions, Torbreck sent two older vintage wines, both also made partially from older vines.

The whites presented strongest overall in the tasting with the Kilikanoon Riesling, and the Torbreck Semillon showing best to the group in the tasting overall. The Torbreck Steading, and Ochota Barrels Grenache Syrah blend were the most pleasing of the reds. Details follow.

Flight 1: The Whites

South Australian Whites

Kilikanoon Clare Valley 2009 Mort’s Reserve Watervale Riesling, Kanta Egon Muller 2010 Riesling, Torbreck Barossa Valley 2004 Woodcutter’s Semillon

* Kilikanoon Clare Valley 2009 Mort’s Reserve Watervale Riesling 12.5%
Opening with classic petrol in nose and palate, that lifts to some degree with air, the Kilakanoon gives green apple notes with gritty texture coming through on a distinct mineral tension through the throat, vibrant acidity, and a tang finish. The wine starts high and lifted in the mouth, with lots of juiciness, followed by a grabbing finish full of tension and length. I vote yes.

Kanta Egon Muller 2010 Riesling 13.5%
Where the Kilakanoon comes in fresh and lifted, the Kanta has more weight. The nose is floral, and more candied, moving into a tart opening on the palate with a driven apple tang rise that grips the mouth for a gritty tart close all with a polished sand texture. The acidity here is juicy. If you prefer more of a fruit focus and slightly wider palate to your Riesling, you’ll like the Kanta better. It’s a nicely made wine but not my style. The weight of the wine and breadth of the palate work against me.

* Torbreck Barossa Valley 2004 Woodcutter’s Semillon 14.5%
The Woodcutter’s Semillon was my favorite of the entire tasting. It gave delicacy with depth, drinking (interestingly enough) like a nicely aged Rhone white. The nose was pretty and light, balanced with both a floral-herbal lift and a mid-range breadth of light marzipan on the nose. The palate carried through without sweetness, offering clean delicate flavors adding in light beach grass notes and a long saline finish. This wine offered good presence, with a delicate presentation, and nice weight.

Flight 2: Grenache Reds

South Australia Grenache Reds

d’Arenberg the Derelict Vineyard 2009 McLaren Vale Grenache, Ochota Barrels 2012 the Green Room Grenache Noir Syrah

These two wines come from starkly different styles giving an interesting contrast on treatment of Grenache.

d’Arenberg the Derelict Vineyard 2009 McLaren Vale Grenache 14.5%
d’Arenberg offers a rich focused presentation that is comfortable using oak to integrate spice with the fruit. The Derelict Vineyard Grenache serves as a nice example of a wine committed to this style and doing a fine job of it. It gives a layered presentation of flavors including lightly sweet fruit, lightly sweet baking spice, primarily clove and ginger, and an earthy groundedness. The fruit is juicy without being overly extracted. The wine shows best on its first day as it showed its oak more than its fruit as it stayed open longer giving stronger pencil elements–both the wood and graphite–as it got more air. It did not drink well on day 3.

Ochota Barrels 2012 the Green Room Grenache Noir Syrah 13.8%
The Ochota is quaffable and fresh, all about lifted fresh drink-now fruit. It drinks like a cool climate grenache with those slightly under-ripe elements alongside fruity varietal expression. The wine is fun, and lively, meant to be enjoyed while cooking and laughing with friends. It gives pink flowers, strawberry, orange peel, cardamom, and fennel seed on the finish. There are stem chewing elements that provide interest on what would otherwise be an ultra light fruit driven wine. This wine is pleasing and very much about varietal character, rather than about showing off the soil or site in which it’s grown.

(I was joking with Amy during the tasting that where the Ochota is meant to be gulped with friends at the start of a bbq while the meat is cooking but not yet ready, the d’Arenberg is the wine a slightly old school man would pour for you in front of a fire at night when he’s getting up the guts to make his first move.)

Flight 3: Shiraz and blend

South Australia Shiraz and blend

Adelina 2010 Clare Valley Shiraz, John Duval Entity 2010 Barossa Valley Shiraz, Torbreck 2003 The Steading Barossa Valley GSM

Properly speaking the Torbreck should have been placed in the previous flight. The Shiraz didn’t impact the flavor of the Torbreck. It would simply have suited the Grenache flight better.

Unfortunately, both the Adelina and the John Duval Wines were not pleasing here. Based on the texture and flavor composition of the wines I believe the bottles had been heat effected. With that in mind I cannot provide proper notes here as I believe what we tasted does not represent how the wines were made.

* Torbreck 2003 The Steading Barossa Valley 14.5% Grenache 60% Shiraz 20% Mataro 20%
The wine opens with a bretty sense that blows off and becomes animal musk on forest floor. The nose carries into the palate layering in an enlivening iodine element alongside porcini and seaweed umami with a long tingling finish and polished tannin. The alcohol is lightly hot here but palatable. The wine holds strong on day 3 bringing in a smoked cherry element and a touch more of the alcohol heat. This wine may be a year or so past its prime but that said I enjoyed it and was impressed by how well it showed on day 3.

Flight 4: Other Reds

South Australian Reds

Alpha Box & Dice 2007 Blood of Jupiter, Samuel’s Gorge 2011 Tempranillo McLaren Vale

Alpha Box & Dice 2007 Blood of Jupiter 15.5% Sangiovese 85% Cabernet 15%
The label Alpha Box & Dice is known for their commitment to experimentation and trying new blends to see what works. That is the sort of interest I appreciate, and in trying such wines some levity has to be allowed in the risk. This is all by way of saying I appreciate the work done here while at the same time am not a fan of this particular blend. The wine is drinkable while singular. It focuses primarily on fruit and spice without enough layered flavor.

Samuel’s Gorge 2011 McLaren Vale Tempranillo 14.5%
This was one of the harder wines for me as it comes in with big fruit and collapses into leather. The structure is soft collapsing in quick stages on the palate with a semi-long finish. There is more fruit than this wine’s spine carries. The varietal character does not show.

Flight 5: Dessert

South Australian Pedro Ximenez

Dandelion Vineyards Legacy of the Barossa 30 year old Pedro Ximenez

Dandelion Vineyards Legacy of the Barossa 30 year old Pedro Ximenez 19%
The Pedro Ximenez enters with a fresh, delicate nose that is lightly nutty, turning into black walnut and baking spice on the palate with a long juicy finish. The flavors are pleasing but I’d prefer more acidity to help wash the palate. Without the higher acidity it gets heavy in the mouth. This wine demands cheese.

***

Thank you to each of the importers that provided these wines as samples.

Copyright 2013 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.