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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 Vinous.com, 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 WakawakaWineReviews.com.

 

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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: http://www.iamstephensmith.com/ and follow him on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/iamstephensmith/. I really enjoy following his photographic travelogs online.

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

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.

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

Why I Love Smith-Madrone

Charles Smith

I have a horrible big crush on Charlie Smith (shown above). He and his brother, Stu (shown below), express pretty much all of the desirable aspects of masculinity a girl born-and-raised in Alaska now living in California (and in love with wine) could possibly want.

Stu Smith inspecting Chardonnay, March 2013

The affection I feel for them parallels the qualities I enjoy in their Smith-Madrone wines – decidedly California flavor bred through a farmer’s tenacity, beautiful fruit wed to wry minerality with herbal deftness. Layer in the poetry Charles hangs in the winery (shown below), and I’m done for.

The romance of Smith-Madrone

Smith-Madrone Vineyards – farmed by Stu while Charles mans the winery – sit near the top of the Spring Mountain District between 1400 and 1900 ft in elevation, in a mix of volcanic soils and sedimentary rock. The site’s knit through by a forest of deciduous and evergreen with a single, historic alley of olive trees. In 1970, when Stu launched what would become the brothers’ project, Spring Mountain held few vineyards.

A small outcrop community from the Swiss-Italian Colony had previously settled the hillsides, dotting the landscape with vines. Others would follow. The Beringer family expanded its holdings to the Eastern slopes of Spring Mountain in the 1880s. The Gold Rush brought new investors to the region. But with the onset of first phylloxera and then Prohibition, the vines of Spring Mountain vastly diminished. Stony Hill and School House Vineyards were among the first to plant again in the region in the 1950s. Then at the start of the 1970s, Smith-Madrone served as part of the lead pack of young winemakers along with Keenan, Yverdon, Spring Mountain Vineyard and Ritchie Creek, planting the Spring Mountain District hillsides before the value of Napa Valley was widely known.

Today, Smith-Madrone celebrates 44 years, one of the treasures of Napa Valley. Their wines are entirely estate made, the fruit grown in blocks spotted about the site’s steep slopes and hillsides in 34 acres of vines. The property is dry-farmed. They have recently released their 2013 Chardonnay, and 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon. Notes below.

Smith-Madrone 2013 Chardonnay

Smith Madrone 2013 Chardonnay

Simultaneously racy and succulent, friendly and focused, the Smith-Madrone 2013 Chardonnay offers fresh aromatics with notes of lemon curd and crisp melon set on a toasted oat cracker. Delicious and pretty with a long finish.

Smith-Madrone 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon

Beautiful aromatics of cedar and herbs carry into a palate of iron and spice with mixed dark fruit. The Smith-Madrone 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon carries a surprising composure – ample flavor on a moderate body with a supple-while-snappy backbone of tannin. Mouthwatering acidity balances through a long finish. This is a young, taut wine today that would benefit from a few years in cellar.

Alternatively, it opens significantly on the second and third day with the fruit that sits behind the herbal elements on the first day stepping decidedly to the fore. For those familiar with Smith-Madrone’s green and lean 2011 Cabernet, the 2012 is a completely different animal. The brothers tout the by-vintage character of their winemaking and the Cabernet serves as a perfect illustration of that truth.

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Happy New Year!

To read more about Smith-Madrone, you can see one of my previous write-ups from a lunch I shared with them in 2013 that was recommended by Eric Asimov for NYTimes.com: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2013/06/19/a-life-in-wine-stu-and-charles-smith-smith-madrone/

For more recent looks at the Smith brothers’ work, Eric Asimov asks them how Smith-Madrone has handled the drought here http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/26/dining/wine-california-drought.html?emc=eta1 and Esther Mobley of the San Francisco Chronicle considers Cabernet from beyond the hillsides of Napa Valley here http://www.sfchronicle.com/travel/article/Venture-beyond-the-valley-floor-in-Napa-6584745.php. Both articles have paywall restrictions.

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

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Willamette Valley Rediscovers Chardonnay

Jason Lett

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

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

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

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

Subscription is £6.99 a month or £69 per year ($11/mo or $109 a year for you Americans) and includes searchable access to the Oxford Companion to Wine ($65) and 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.

A Search for Radiance

Bob Varner

It’s evening in March. We’ve just finished barrel-tasting 2011 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir with Jim Varner. The conversation has focused on a calm but passionate exploration of the principles expressed behind the wine. Listening to Jim’s account, what becomes clear is that the focus is one of supreme gentleness. The subtle power of such an approach echoes through the wines as we taste them. Twins Jim and Bob Varner have now celebrated 18 vintages making wine from their Spring Ridge site, though they began planting it 34 years ago. From it they produce wines under the Varner and Neely labels, Bob managing the vineyard and winemaking, and Jim running the office and business. Spring Ridge rides the rim of Portola Valley, on undulating slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains. The Valley had not been cultivated to vines when the brothers began their project.

Through much of the Santa Cruz Mountains, vineyards grow out of sight from each other, giving winemakers a sense of isolation from outside influence that is rare to most wine country. The region still echoes today with solitude, though it also carries in it some of the deepest, most respected heritage of California wine.

In the 1870s, Paul Masson, a Burgundian winemaker, found his way on to the elevated slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains and established vineyards for sparkling wine. The fog and cooling influence of two bodies of water-the San Francisco Bay to the east, and Pacific Ocean to the west -combined to offer the structural assets of a cooler climate needed for sparkling wine. In the 1940s, Masson’s enterprise led local entrepreneur Martin Ray to establish even higher vineyards and to begin making varietally specific wines from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and later Cabernet Sauvignon, an enterprise essentially untried in the state before. The site would come to be known as the historic Mount Eden.

To continue reading this article continue over to the World of Fine Wine website where the article appears in full for free online. Here’s the link: http://www.worldoffinewine.com/news/a-search-for-radiance-varner-and-neely-4678090/

West Sonoma Coast: A Guide

Near Sebastopol

If you were following along on Instagram, you already know I spent a ton of time visiting vineyards and winemakers throughout the mountains of the West Sonoma Coast. I’ve turned that several months I spent studying and tasting the region into a six-article series over on JancisRobinson.com.

Here’s the link to a guide for all six articles. http://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/west-sonoma-coast-a-guide 

The articles are pay-to-read but subscriptions at JancisRobinson.com are pretty straightforward and affordable. The site offers excellent articles every day about wine all over the world, as well as news events as they happen.

Subscription is £6.99 a month or £69 per year ($11/mo or $109 a year for you Americans) and includes searchable access to the Oxford Companion to Wine ($65) and 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.

Cheers!

Talking with Michael McNeill

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

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

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

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

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

The following photos are each courtesy of Hanzell.

A Conversation with Michael McNeill, Hanzell Vineyards

Michael McNeill, 2013

Michael McNeill, Winemaker Hanzell

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

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

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

Elaine: Did you ever feel compelled to?

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

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

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

Michael: Right. They were just tired.

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

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

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

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

Elaine: How long did he stay on?

Michael: Six months.

Elaine: Okay. So, through that harvest.

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

Michael McNeill Hanzell Harvest 2014

Michael McNeill bringing in Hanzell chardonnay, harvest 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Elaine: You mean in subsequent vintages?

Michael: Yeah.

Elaine: So that initial vintage was consistent with Michael?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elaine: They have to buy a six-pack.

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

Michael McNeil Pruning Ambassadors Vineyard

 

Michael McNeill pruning Ambassador Vineyard, Hanzell 2013

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

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

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

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

Elaine: That’s great.

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

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

Elaine: That transparency with harmony.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elaine: It doesn’t feel like anywhere else.

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

***

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

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

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

The History of Hanzell

When it comes to heritage, Hanzell Vineyards and Winery carries some of the deepest in California. It’s chardonnay and pinot noir serve as a hallmark of excellence in the United States,  its vineyards among the finest.

The winery proves historically important too for its history of innovation.

Ambassador James Zellerbach worked with viticulturist, Ivan Schoch, to establish Hanzell, purchasing the property in 1948 with the goal of planting vineyards that could grow wine among the best in the world. At the time, pinot noir and chardonnay were rarely planted in California.

Today, vineyards at Hanzell include blocks established in 1953, home to the oldest continuously producing Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay vineyard in North America. The Hanzell clone of each are considered among the important heritage clones of California.

Hiring winemaker-scientist Brad Webb in 1956, Zellerbach’s vision evolved in the winery as well. At Hanzell, Webb would become one of the first in California to use French barrels to age Chardonnay. More remarkably, he also established controlled malolactic fermentation by identifying the bacteria involved, and then went on to invent temperature controlled stainless steel fermentation tanks. Both inventions would change winemaking worldwide.

In 1973, Bob Sessions succeeded Brad Webb in winemaking. Having worked previously with Webb, Sessions work at Hanzell would begin congruent with the style established by the original winemaker. Through his tenure, however, Sessions slowly evolved the iconic Hanzell style.

Today, Michael McNeill serves as winemaker, having taken the helm after a brief tenure by winemaker Michael Terrain. McNeill regards himself as a guardian of the Hanzell style, wishing to maintain its unique signature while continuing to grow its quality.

Earlier this month I met with Michael McNeill curious to better understand how he sees his role as winemaker in a heritage house. We have tasted together previously but this meeting was an opportunity to converse in depth about McNeill’s work as winemaker.

Following is a transcript of our conversation split into two installments — the second will be shared here Thursday. As the original conversation lasted almost three hours, the transcript has been edited for length, and in a few places for clarity.

A Conversation with Michael McNeill, Hanzell Vineyards

Looking out over Hanzell Vineyard with Michael McNeill

looking out over the historic Ambassador’s Vineyard, inside the historic Hanzell Winery with winemaker Michael McNeill, April 2014, photo courtesy Kate McKay

Elaine: Hanzell has had a few winemakers, including one that seems like a distinct style shift from what was established by Bob Sessions, and what you’re doing now. Part of what I find interesting in talking with you is how you describe your role as winemaker. You’ve said you’re job is to remain consistent with the Hanzell style. I’m curious how you worked to identify that style considering the various shifts and changes in winemaking here?

Michael: Well, initially it was a lot of information gathering when I got here in 2008. And unfortunately at that point in 2008, Bob’s dementia was setting in. So what I tried to do was really look back at what was being done in the late 90s, through the 90s, and essentially emulate that. But looking at the wines, tasting the wines, trying to in a way project how we would make those wines today.

I was looking through the records of what had been done, to get a sense of how things were done. I’ve had many conversations with Jose Ramos [Director of Vineyard Operations], Ben Sessions [Bob’s son who also works at Hanzell]; there is some living history here that I have been able to reference. I describe the way I see my role here as being guardian of the style of wine that we’re making here. But, being a winemaker, you always want to push the boundaries of quality. You always want to make it as best you can, or better than it was before. And how do you go about doing that while still respecting the style? It’s a challenge.

So, I view it very much like steering a tanker, with a real eye looking way ahead, making small, careful, thoughtful adjustments, so that you’re not changing things drastically, but you’re doing small-scale experiments to see how those changes might work, and carefully evaluating them over time.

Looking at Bob’s career here, 30+ years as a winemaker, if you look at where he started and where he finished, there were some pretty radical adjustments. We went from no barrel fermentation to 25 percent barrel fermentation. That’s a jump, but it took 20 years to get there. I see my role as kind of the same. We have planted new vineyards. We’re integrating those new vineyards into what we’re doing here. The Hanzell Sebella Chardonnay has been something for me to sort of – if I need to have my own ego stroke or my own project – Sebella has been very much something that I’ve brought here. But I strongly feel that Hanzell is really about this place and about the style that we’ve developed over many, many years.

Elaine: In some ways, it’s easy to guess the answer to this, but just to make sure I understand where you’re coming from: What about that period in the 90s makes you choose that as a concentration of focus?

Michael: One, those wines were spectacular, and have certainly shown their ageability; they have stood the test of time. And I really feel that those wines really showed what Bob was doing at his best. There was a real clarity, a real transparency to the wine that really is uncommon.

Elaine: That makes sense.

Michael: One of the nice things about being the Winemaker here at Hanzell is that it’s already here. It’s already established. It already has a style so I don’t have to wave my hands to get attention. So many young winemakers have to make a real bold statement to get attention now just because of how the wine industry is. I learned to make chardonnay and fell in love with pinot noir when I was at Chalone Vineyard back in the early 90s, so I think that I was uniquely qualified to come to Hanzell.

I spent six years at Chalone. It was a very, very special place to me personally. And back then, when we talked about age-worthy Burgundian-style chardonnay and pinot noir in California. It was Chalone, Calera, Mount Eden, and Hanzell. Chalone is no longer what it once was; and I really felt that — it really saddened me deeply. I don’t want to see that happen again. I don’t want to see it happen here.

Chalone was my winemaking finishing school. That’s where I really feel I was developed as a winemaker. At Chalone there was an established house style, so the challenge was making the wine better, but still, respecting the style of the house has been something that I’ve been brought up with.

I’ve done the opposite as well – after leaving Chalone, making wines in Oregon, up and down the state of California, having to make impact wines. But coming here felt very natural. I really and truly felt like the prodigal son coming home. Hanzell is a perfect place for me, and I hate to say I’m perfect for it, but I think I bring a unique set of sensibilities that most others wouldn’t. I certainly think that there are probably better winemakers out there. But I think to be successful here requires you to subvert your own ego, and really be able to take the back seat.

The historic Hanzell winery with Michael McNeill

standing in the historic Hanzell winery next to the original temperature control tanks, with Michael McNeill, April 2014

Elaine: I’m curious where you find satisfaction in this work.

Michael: Every time somebody tastes one of these wines, or makes the comment like, “Gosh, I really don’t like chardonnay, but I really like this wine,” it gives me a tremendous sense of satisfaction. It was funny – every year we do library tastings with the entire staff, prior to offering a selection of library wines to our Ambassador’s Circle collectors. We – Lynda Hanson [Associate Winemaker] and I, started at the same time, we had one of our wines in the Library offering. We just looked at each other and said, “We’ve arrived.” We’ve been here long enough where we have a library wine now. That was very, very rewarding.

[At an event] last night, I took a magnum of ’98 chardonnay. I had a lot of people coming up to me, “This is the wine of the night.” And even though obviously, it was Bob’s wine, I’m still proud of its place. I’m proud of the style, it’s something that I really believe in. You know, that’s really satisfying. When people say, “Oh. Hanzell, this is fantastic,” … for me, just being associated with the property and the legacy here is very satisfying.

And the other thing is when I started, and we still do, we have tasting panels. The first few tasting panels, included myself and Lynda,  Jean Arnold, and Bob — who would still taste with us then because he had a lot of clarity — but also Kim Giles who was Bob’s predecessor. Kim Giles still sits in on tasting panels. And Michael Terrien sat in on them as well. In that I had access to the experience of Hanzell from 1967 until that day. So we were tasting through various blends and such, as Ben Sessions likes to say, there was a lot of constructive disagreement. But at the end of it, they all said, “McNeill, good luck with that.”

It’s great because I get a lot of input from people who have been so closely associated with the wines and the making of the wines on the property to bounce ideas off of. That’s the kind of thing I think is rare today, to have that kind of depth of history that’s still a part of the current day. Does that make sense?

Elaine: Yeah. That definitely makes sense. It seems like even those relationships, and bringing all of that to fruition would be rewarding; being the one that continues the legacy that means something to you. What made you want to shift back to a more heritage approach for your career after that period in Oregon and other parts of California?

Michael: Well, I guess I went from Chalone up to Oregon, and that was in 1996 and 1997, beginning of 1998. But I was there for the ’96 and ’97 vintages. The winter of ’96-’97 was a record year up there for rain. And the way the winery was set up, I walked in, in August, and I was handed a stack of two-dozen contracts, and told, “Go make wine.” And so I was driving from vineyards all the way from Eola Hills in Willamette Valley all the way down to Ashland in the Southern part of the state. I put 7000 miles on my truck in six weeks.

Then I went from making wine there to Savannah-Chanelle in the Santa Cruz Mountains. There I was doing similar things. I was making wine from vineyards from the Russian River all the way down to the Arroyo Grande Valley. There’s something kind of fun about seeing all these different vineyards and working with all this different fruit. But then I got the job at Keller Estate in 2003, and I really enjoyed working with the vineyard, and I got much more involved with grape growing. I guess my career started in the lab, my degree is in chemistry, so that’s a natural thing. It started there and went to general winemaking, and then I kept going farther out into the vineyard. That’s been great for me, because it’s been a constant learning experience because I hadn’t been in agriculture or a farmer before.

Tasting Hanzell

Elaine: So then you went from Keller to here?

Michael: Um-hm.

Elaine: Yeah. Was it just too exciting an opportunity not to come here? How did that happen?

Michael: It’s a great story, actually. I had been at Keller for five years. It was interesting. Jean Arnold was president here at Hanzell, and I had actually interviewed with Jean twice before. Once at Chalk Hill; when Dave Ramey left Chalk Hill, I interviewed there for the job. That’s when I first met Jean. I didn’t get the job. And then in ’98, I had just come back from Oregon and I started at Savannah-Chanelle, and I got a call from the same headhunter, and it was for the job at Williams Seylem. And Jean was then the president, and I didn’t get the job.

But Jean really made an impression on me, and I made it a point to maintain a relationship with her. Every time I saw her at a tasting, I made a point to go say hi. And if I hadn’t seen her for a long time, I would just call her up out of the blue just to say hi. But I’d never actually come here. I would just say, “Hey, Jean, how are you? How are things?”

So in April of 2008, it was a Thursday, I had an epiphany that I had pushed the rock as far as I could up the hill at Keller, and I was like, “God, what am I going to do? All I’ve done is chardonnay and pinot noir. Where would I go? What kind of winery would want me?” And I said, “Well, it doesn’t matter. This weekend, I’m going to clear my calendar and spiff up my résumé and get ready to look for a new job.” And when I came back from lunch on Friday, there was a message on my voicemail: “Hey McNeill, it’s Jean Arnold. How are you? Hey, we’re looking for a new winemaker. Maybe you know of someone. Give me a call.”

Elaine: Oh wow.

Michael: So yeah.

Elaine: That’s remarkable timing.

Michael: I still get goose bumps telling that story because it was one of those perfect storms. I just thought, “My god, that’s the place I need to be. I’m perfect for this job. It’s the perfect place for me. I have to get this.”

Elaine: That’s cool. So then you started in 2008?

Michael: Yes, I started July 1.

***

The remainder of the conversation with Michael McNeill will post Thursday. In it we discuss McNeill’s views of whole cluster fermentation in pinot noir, the idea of starting your own wine label, and what it means to capture site expression as a winemaker.

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

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

Andy Smith in the Vineyards of West Sonoma Coast and Green Valley

Andy Smith in Jentoft VineyardAndy Smith walking through Jentoft Vineyard, West Sonoma Coast, Jan 2015

“It’s okay to blend,” Andy Smith, winemaker and partner of DuMOL Wines tells me. It is morning and we are walking through the rolling hills of Jentoft Vineyard, a site near Occidental DuMOL planted specifically for blending.

Smith has agreed to spend the day driving me through DuMOL vineyards. We’re discussing the region but also his evolution as a winemaker.

Jentoft is unique for DuMOL in that it is one of only a few sites they farm in the rolling hills off Occidental Road.

Beginning in the mid 1990s, DuMOL made a name for itself making Pinot Noir and Chardonnay of the Russian River Valley. More recently, the team has expanded further into sites hugged by the hills mere miles from the Ocean.

The addition of these cooler climate vineyards also reflects the winery’s shift towards a leaner style over the last decade.

But for Smith, the winery’s move into sites near Occidental is not just about climate.

“People talk about climate, but, for me, the soil makes the flavor. Soil is the building blocks of the flavor, and the climate is the vintage variation.” Together, Occidental vineyards have something unique to offer.

“To me the wine [in this area] always has a sense of air-oir, not just terroir, a conifer-spicy element.” Smith says.

Blending DuMOL 

Andy Smith in Wild Rose Vineyard

Andy Smith in Wild Rose Vineyard, Green Valley, Jan 2015

I ask Smith if he’d ever make a single vineyard bottling from Jentoft.

“I think the single vineyard thing,” he says, pausing briefly, in the midst of answering, no. “There has to be something distinctive, and agreeable, and verifiable, and repeatable. I am sure this site can make a distinctive wine that is a distinctive part of a distinctive blend.”

DuMOL bottles a number of single vineyard sites, but has developed and farms even more. The goal for DuMOL is to bottle excellent wines rooted first in their own farming. Some sites, in Smith’s view, offer that beautiful component within a multi-site blend, while other sites carry their own sense of completeness.

The point is that high quality vineyards sometimes best serve as components in a blend rather than on their own.

Developing a site’s character, be it is for blending, or single bottling, takes time. Jentoft, for example, was planted in 2007.

“This site is just starting to come into its own for us.” Smith explains. “The first year a vine gives fruit can be quite nicely structured and well balanced. Then, the next few years the vines are like unruly teenagers. Around eight years a vineyard starts to find its balance. Then around fourteen years there is another plateau, and vines become much more self regulating.”

What that means today has changed from viticultural views of even ten years ago.

“That is the fun part of the change in the last ten years,” Smith says. “From the idea that we need to tell the vine what to do. Today farming includes beautiful cover crops, insectiary rows, and then seeing the results. For me, that is the exciting part. You can taste the results as well. The wines taste better at lower alcohol.”

Evolving the DuMOL Style

I ask Smith about his evolution as a winemaker. We are discussing Smith and his contemporaries from the early days of DuMOL.

“We were young guys in the late 1990s,” Smith says. “Starting out making rich wines. Now many of us are making lighter wines, with aromatic perfume. You know everything is different.”

But the change in style, Smith points out, occurred as part of a larger context, not driven by wine alone but the overall food culture.

“In the late 1990s, the scene was booming. Restaurants were booming. Chefs were going on with pork fat, and the wines reflected that.” Big flavor was not just a Parker fancy, but a cultural fascination.

“Some of my wines, I go back, and taste, and wonder, what was I thinking?” Smith laughs. “But, you know, it was the taste of the day. Now we have less new oak, and less toast. We have really moved to a more ethereal style with more perfumed aromatics. If you want more honey in your chardonnay, or more cassis and black fruit in your pinot noir, you pull leaves and expose clusters. Now we avoid sun exposure on the fruit.”

Smith’s reflection on sun exposure gets to the core of how DuMOL has shifted its style from bold flavor to graceful richness – DuMOL’s wines today a dance of movement and flavor.

“We’ve pulled back the wines as the farming has improved too.” Smith points out. “You can’t just go on and say, I am going to pick at 21 brix. You have to take a few years getting in tune with the farming, the soil health, and all that.”

DuMOL Today

Andy Smith in Heintz Vineyard

Andy Smith in Heintz Vineyard, Green Valley, Jan 2015

DuMOL’s focus on farming has helped the label grow at a judicious rate, focusing on quality as it allows for growth. It’s maintained such an approach by expanding its volume only as its farming allows. As a result, quality remains in the hands of the DuMOL team, relying on fruit they’ve cultivated to match the house style.

“That’s part of our philosophy.” Smith explains. “I don’t like any extremes – no extreme pruning, no extreme exposure to the grapes, not too much, if any irrigation. Vines are a crop we maximize, and you maximize that by making the vine work hard, not stressed but hard.” I ask Smith to say more about how he maintains that middle line in the vineyard, avoiding extremes.

“The soil health is, of course, really important.” He responds. “Water is available for the vine. The roots are really deep now but because they haven’t been force fed water, they don’t binge on it. Vines are self regulating. They take what they need, and don’t take too much. When you over irrigate, you force the vine to take what you give it, and it takes and takes and takes, then collapses and ripens through dehydration.”

Then there is the architecture of the vine.

“The way we farm with tight spacing, we are looking for grapes that are bright and fresh, with thick skins though we are achieving that without exposing the clusters to sun. It gives more herbal complexity, dense deep tones, and bright fruit.”

The result shows through beautiful integrity from bottling to bottling.

DuMOL wines offer concentrated flavor and structural density with bright fruit, and delicious acidity across varieties thanks to the farming, while cellar choices preserve the wines’ pleasing texture and freshness. The combination Smith describes as his winemaking goal.

“I like texture, but I also like freshness. Any texture or density,” Smith clarifies, “should come from the vines.”

***

DuMOL makes Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, and a small amount of Viognier from Sonoma County.

DuMOL Wines: http://www.dumol.com

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