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Talking with Michael McNeill

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

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

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

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

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

The following photos are each courtesy of Hanzell.

A Conversation with Michael McNeill, Hanzell Vineyards

Michael McNeill, 2013

Michael McNeill, Winemaker Hanzell

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

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

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

Elaine: Did you ever feel compelled to?

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

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

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

Michael: Right. They were just tired.

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

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

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

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

Elaine: How long did he stay on?

Michael: Six months.

Elaine: Okay. So, through that harvest.

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

Michael McNeill Hanzell Harvest 2014

Michael McNeill bringing in Hanzell chardonnay, harvest 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Elaine: You mean in subsequent vintages?

Michael: Yeah.

Elaine: So that initial vintage was consistent with Michael?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elaine: They have to buy a six-pack.

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

Michael McNeil Pruning Ambassadors Vineyard

 

Michael McNeill pruning Ambassador Vineyard, Hanzell 2013

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

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

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

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

Elaine: That’s great.

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

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

Elaine: That transparency with harmony.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elaine: It doesn’t feel like anywhere else.

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

***

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

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

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

The History of Hanzell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Conversation with Michael McNeill, Hanzell Vineyards

Looking out over Hanzell Vineyard with Michael McNeill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elaine: That makes sense.

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

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

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

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

The historic Hanzell winery with Michael McNeill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tasting Hanzell

Elaine: So then you went from Keller to here?

Michael: Um-hm.

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

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

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

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

Elaine: Oh wow.

Michael: So yeah.

Elaine: That’s remarkable timing.

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

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

Michael: Yes, I started July 1.

***

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

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

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

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.

Considering California Sparkling Wine

Michael CruseMichael Cruse at Cruse Wine Co. smelling his pet-nat Valdiguie, November 2014

“We really want to make a California sparkling wine with all that entails,” Michael Cruse of Cruse Wine Co, and Ultramarine sparkling wine, tells me. All it entails includes the ripe fruit flavors characteristic of California’s sun, a feature that historically has tended to work against quality sparkling wine in the state.

California sparkling wine remains a difficult category. The California conundrum of too much sun and not enough acidity has so far largely kept it from achieving the balance and brightness in the glass wine geeks love. It’s never achieved the respectability Champagne immediately garners, and wine lovers rarely brag about it.

However, in recent years a shift has been happening. Boutique size wineries all over the state have begun popping open small scale sparkling projects. Last year the Pet-Nat craze coming from France began taking over California wineries.

Pet-Nat style sparkling wine seems more do-able for small production wineries. The approach offers the advantage of far less intervention, little equipment, and far less time to get those bubbles in the bottle than methode traditionnelle style wines. You can turn around a pet-nat wine in as little as a year, versus the several years required by the other approach. But most pet-nat bottlings remain incredibly hard to find. One of the tastiest versions to come from California last year, J. Brix 2013 Cobolorum sparkling riesling, for example, only had 17 cases made. It’s hard to start a quality revolution with such small numbers.

At the other side of the category, methode traditionnelle (that is, the same method used to make champagne) examples rely on far more input from the producer. Thanks to the work and expertise required, many of today’s champenoise style sparkling wines found in the state are made by large scale wineries. Such wineries do successfully churn out bottles but most California examples blend grapes from multiple locations producing wines with the state’s clear fruit expression but little character.

In reality, California has had little of its own sparkling tradition. The closest we’ve come was with the work of Paul Masson on the cool slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Masson’s work with California sparkling wine brought international attention to the category. He was able to continue his work through Prohibition selling his wines for sacrament and medicinal purposes, but after Masson’s retirement, his vineyards shifted to still wine production.

The difficulty with sparkling wine rests in its technical elements. Elevating the category truly to the level of fine wine depends upon an expertise grown not just from transferring knowledge but also in hands on experience. Even the apparently approachable style of pet-nat suffers at the same point it gains popularity. While it seems far easier to make, in truth making clean pleasurable versions depends upon yeast health, numbers, and viability that doesn’t consistently come from simply throwing wine in the bottle.

The improvement of any craft depends on a sense of critical mass intersecting with critical brilliance. Critical mass offers the foundation of interest to support development of knowledge and maintain its momentum. Critical brilliance brings together creativity with the backbone of experience to give it traction. For California sparkling wine, the coalescing of all these elements brings the opportunity of elevating the category to a level that truly means fine wine.

Enter Michael Cruse.

Tasting with Michael Cruse

Michael CruseDiscussing Methode Traditionnelle w Michael Cruse in front of his 2010 Ultramarine Sparkling Wine, Nov 2014

Though it’s only just starting to be released this month, Cruse’s sparkling label, Ultramarine, has already achieved a kind of cult status. That’s saying something as he explains not more than twelve people have even tasted it yet. From those twelve, however, its secured distribution through California, as well as within the tricky New York market.

Cruse’s cult status rests not only in the wine itself, but also his perhaps still hidden influence. Thanks to the underdeveloped history of California sparkling, few in the state could be considered consultants in the category. Those few with the knowledge tend to be secured by larger houses. With Cruse’s experience and custom crush facility, Cruse Wine Co., he’s become the go-to sparkling winemaker for several well-respected clients throughout the state. Over the next several years, sparkling projects Cruse has helped give focus will begin appearing across California.

Finding a Passion for Sparkling

Cruse’s path hasn’t always pointed towards sparkling wine. With an undergraduate degree in Molecular and Cellar Biology, emphasizing Biochemisty, from UC Berkeley, Cruse was certain he’d continue to a PhD. Stepping into research through labs at Berkeley, and UCSF, while also publishing, his path to graduate work seemed certain. Then something changed. He began to recognize others he met doing post-docs in science proved unhappy. Over time, the shift in perspective meant he began wondering if he could apply his love for lab work in another field.

“It took into my mid-20s to realize I could get paid for a real job.” Cruse laughs. Working through a formal education includes its disadvantages. Students rarely or barely earn money during their degree training. Then continuing into academic life, researchers learn to sustain themselves through minimal pay while doing loads of unpaid research under the umbrella of advancing their expertise and education. But for the curious, that same environment supports their passions.

“What I love about academia is that no one is ever telling you that isn’t how you should be spending your time,” Cruse explains. “People are always studying, writing, researching, working on something. I had a lot of kinship with that kind of work.”

When Cruse did make the leap out of academia, the transition wasn’t immediately easy. “Moving into a regular job as a lab oenologist,” Cruse tells me, “I would have night terrors because I didn’t know what to do with my brain.” The continuous problem solving of a research laboratory differed from the more repetitive work in a wine lab but the challenge of the transition eventually led him to his work with sparkling wine.

The mechanics of Cruse’s research work rested in reviving lab techniques established in the 1980s, but forgotten by the end of the last century. “I was in the library,” Cruse says, “looking at transcripts and papers from the 1980s figuring out how they were doing their work so we could apply it.” The library research provided solutions where lab knowledge otherwise failed. Such a lesson eventually became the salve for his night terrors as well.

While transitioning from oenologist, into cellar work, and then to assistant winemaker for red wine wineries, Cruse got curious about sparkling wine. Doing library research on old methods, then applying them to sparkling home wine experiments became his after work project.

“I was in the library looking at books from the 1880s, from before people had these [contemporary winemaking] machines to see how they made sparkling wine.” He explains. In 2010, he would make his first bonded California sparkling wine, the current release Ultramarine.

Natural and Sparkling?

Michael CruseMichael Cruse discussing site and technique, Nov 2014

Through his still table wines, and pet-nat Valdiguie for Cruse Wine Co., it looks easy to describe Cruse’s work as happily fitting with the family of natural wines. He avoids additives, doesn’t cold stabilize, and minimizes or avoids sulfur when the wine will remain stable.

His unsulfured Cruse Wine Co. 2014 Pet-nat Valdiguié is made with an interest in affordability put alongside admirable vineyards. Tasting it, the wine proves to be the cleanest example I’ve tasted of a new world pet-nat, all rose blossom aromatics cut with a leafy, herbal freshness that fills the palate through a delicate foam.

Indeed, with Ultramarine too, relying on older texts as he did, also bolstered his more minimalist approach to winemaking. But there he becomes reticent to describe his approach as natural.

“Sparkling wine is a very techniques driven wine,” he explains. He’s referring to making wine through methode traditionnelle. “Whether you agree with a natural wine approach or not, you’re going to use the same technique.” For Ultramarine, Cruse avoids additives, cold stabilization, and innoculation as well.

“But am I going to use a riddling aid? Yes. Will I add dosage? Yes. A dash of sulfur at disgorgement? Yes. Trying to claim sparkling is a natural wine becomes a stretch.” Still, the wine is undoubtedly unique — single vineyard, single vintage with each bottle hand riddled, and disgorged. When I push him he finally responds, “I guess you could say we’re minimalist.”

Finally, I ask him to further explain his earlier comment about California sparkling wine with all it entails.

“For me, I want the wine to be noticeably California. That doesn’t have to be flamboyantly fruity.” He explains. “It is intense, and flavorful, and strong. That is the site.” He says. It’s an answer that exemplifies the quiet humility he somehow couples with certainty.

Inspired by the grower producers of Champagne, Cruse focuses Ultramarine production on fruit only from the Charles Heintz Vineyard. It’s a site he believes offers exceptional farming for sparkling wine.

The lemon curd and pastry elements of the bubbles resemble flavors found in still chardonnays familiar to lovers of the vineyard. But the graceful long finish, and cut mineral edge speak to a fine wine elegance brought by the hands of its producer. And there we discover the California balance of Michael Cruse.

***

To sign up for the Ultramarine mailing list: http://www.ultramarinewines.com/joinus/

For more on Cruse Wine Co.: http://www.crusewineco.com/

***

Next Wednesday‘s column here: “In Defense of Natural Wine.” Post update: Wednesday Nov 12 article will post Thursday Nov 13 due to travel delays.

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

Wine & Spirits Sommelier Scavenger Hunt

Sommelier Scavenger Hunt Somms15 Sommeliers for Wine & Spirits Sommelier Scavenger Hunt

To open their Top-100 festivities this year, Wine & Spirits hosted their inaugural Sommelier Scavenger Hunt on Monday of this week. The event was designed to seek out, and celebrate the new classics of domestic wine.

As Wine & Spirits editor, Joshua Greene, explained, the last six months have been spent preparing for the Sommelier Scavenger Hunt event. Towards that end, five teams of three sommeliers each from around the country were selected. Each team was then assigned to visit a different domestic wine region tracking a particular varietal expression for that region. In traveling the region, they were meant to study the region’s specific viticultural conditions, and then select six wines to represent a coherent picture of the breadth and typicity of their region’s unique terroir. Along with each region’s flight, the sommeliers offered a ten minute informational presentation.

Joshua Greene introduced the event. Following are notes from his introduction, followed by a brief look at each of the flights.

Introducing the Sommelier Scavenger Hunt 2014

“Sommeliers like competition. They often test themselves, whether in sommelier exams, going to Tex-Somm, or otherwise. We wanted them to do something collaborative. Rather than battle on their own, we decided we would have them work together, and then compete in groups. To win, they would have to work together.

“[In this context,] what does winning even mean? Rather than finding a wine that would be hardest to guess in a blind tasting, [for the Sommelier Scavenger Hunt] it is about finding a wine that would be the easiest to guess [as from its region] in a blind tasting. We asked them to go out and find the future classics, that really describe the place the wine is from.

“[The Sommelier Scavenger Hunt] is also about travel, and getting to know the place. I got into [wine] because I like to travel. A lot of wine travel you see is more about lifestyle, and expensive. We decided we wanted them to do something more like The Amazing Race.

“While there they would select six wines meant together to be broad, and precise, [expressive of its region]. We’re asking them to show you a really specific connection between the place and the wine. We want them to show you that connection so that when you taste the wine you really feel that connection. We asked them to really think, what is terroir? and what is a great wine?

“Our staff got together and chose five sommeliers we really enjoy working with, and asked them to choose a team of two more, and then choose a specific region and varietal focus.

“We’d like you to think about these wines as you taste, as to where it is from, not do I like this wine?, but where is it from? how it communicates to you as a drinker, as a taster.”

Joshua Greene then introduced the first group from the Finger Lakes. Following are brief notes on the five group presentations.

Tasting the Sommelier Scavenger Hunt 2014

The quality of wines throughout was impressive. It was a pleasure to be able to taste these, to see the selections chosen to represent each region, and to be included in seeing the work each group had done together.

Sommelier Scavenger HuntJoshua Greene and 15 sommeliers from around the country fielding questions about domestic wines at the end of their Wine & Spirits Sommelier Scavenger Hunt presentations

TEAM FINGER LAKES: RIESLING

Matthew Kaner of Covell in Los Angeles, Pascaline Lepeltier MS of Rouge Tomate in NYC, Steven Morgan of Squire Wine Co in Chicago

While viticulture in the Finger Lakes has historically focused on hybrid varieties made into quaffing sweet wines, more recently winegrowing through the area has turned towards crafting serious quality wines in a range of styles. With the oldest bonded winery in the United States, newer producers have the benefit of a wealth of already established geological and viticultural knowledge to draw on in exploring quality wine production. Riesling has risen to prominence as the signature grape for serious wine with a range of possibilities for the region.

The Finger Lakes flight showed good consistency of quality over the broadest range of styles of any of the flights. Due to the vast range of winemaking goals or style choices occurring in the region, this group had the greatest challenge in striking the balance between expressing regional typicity and coherence with breadth. Producers of the Finger Lakes are still exploring the region’s unique signature. That said, the wines all offered distinctive personality, and very good quality at mind blowing value.

* Tierce 2012 Finger Lakes Dry Riesling
all stainless steel, no malolactic fermentation. a wine with nice clarity, lots of length and “extraordinary personality.” very small production.

* Bellwether 2013 Finger Lakes A&D Vineyard Dry Riesling
ultra small production. captures a nice balance of weight to acid without residual sugar. great mouth watering length.

* Kemmeter 2012 Finger Lakes Sheldrake Point Vineyard Riesling
nice precision, juiciness, and length. clarity, focus, and balancing breadth.

Ravines 2011 Finger Lakes Argetsinger Vineyard Dry Riesling
one of the stand out wineries of the region — available, affordable, bring out its personality with food

Hermann J Wiemer 2012 Finger Lakes HJW Vineyard Dry Riesling
one of the founders of quality in the region. nice overall balance, with a changeable finish. place along side food for additional balance.

Bloomer Creek 2012 Finger Lakes Auten Tanzen Dame Second Harvest
the wild card of the tasting, a very slow fermentation for additional richness and complexity, with an oxidative style, and a bit of residual sugar. pair with clam chowder to match the fleshiness of the wine, and give the acid something to cut into.

TEAM SANTA BARBARA COUNTY: CHARDONNAY

Ian Becker of Absinthe and Arlequin, Haley Guild Moore of Stock & Bones Group, and Gianpaolo Paterlini of 1760 and Acquerello all in San Francisco

Chardonnay proves to be one of the greatest quality varieties in the incredibly diverse growing region of Santa Barbara County. Though Pinot Noir from the region receives more consistent attention, the potential for quality on its white cousin is very high. The wines selected offered a very linear focus with lots of flavorful fruit expression and mouthwatering acidity.

The team for this flight chose to focus on a very specific style of chardonnay for the region. Within the competition, the Santa Barbara County flight was most expressive of the team’s preferred style, when considering the breadth of styles in the region as a whole. That said, the region’s signature clearly showed through the wines selected, and the quality was very good. This was also the most pleasing, tasty flight of the tasting.

Qupé 2011 Santa Maria Valley Bien Nacido Block Eleven Chardonnay
the outlier of the tasting, the Qupé was the only Santa Maria Valley chardonnay selected, and was chosen out of regard for the heritage it expresses of the region. giving nice citrus curd mixed with olive, this wine offers a oceanic creamy waxy quality familiar of the Santa Maria Valley with tons of mouthwatering length.

Au Bon Climat 2012 Sta Rita Hills Sanford & Benedict Vineyard Chardonnay
flinty mixed citrus, with a creamy palate. this wine strikes the balance of restraint, focus, and rich flavor, with tons of juicy length.

Chanin 2012 Sta Rita Hills Sanford & Benedict Vineyard Chardonnay
clean, crisp mixed citrus fruit, with a moderately creamy palate and a focus on length

* Tyler 2012 Sta Rita Hills Zotovich Family Vineyard Chardonnay
pleasing reductive tension brings a taut focus to the mouthwatering mixed citrus flavors. nice mineral length

Sandhi 2012 Sta Rita Hills Rita’s Crown Chardonnay
the most linear, and taut of the chardonnay’s shown. all about structure. mouth watering and lightly drying both.

Pence 2013 Santa Barbara County Chardonnay
delicate citrus blossom coupled with expressive citrus fruit layered with clay accents on a nervy taut mouthwatering line

TEAM ANDERSON VALLEY: PINOT NOIR

Vanessa Trevino Boyd of 60 Degrees Mastercrafted, Steven McDonald of Pappas Bros. Steakhouse, Christian Varas of River Oaks Country Club all in Houston

Ranging from a genuinely zone 1 cool climate close to the ocean just into a zone 2 climate a bit inland, Anderson Valley carries the most definitive signature of the region’s tasted. Pinot Noir has risen to prominence as the area’s trademark variety.

The Anderson Valley flight had the tightest, most recognizable expression of regional typicity giving a wash of red fruit, and buckets of mouthwatering acidity throughout. It was the flight in which the region offered the most apparent expression before cellar technique. It was also clear that this is largely due to the area, rather than simply from the group selection, for example.

Drew 2011 Anderson Valley Morning Dew Vineyard Pinot Noir
light carbonic elements on nose, a wash of red fruit through the palate, long mouthwatering finish. wants air to open

LIOCO 2011 Anderson Valley Klindt Pinot Noir
high tone, lifted aromatics, spiced palate. red fruit throughout. lots of length.

Copain 2011 Anderson Valley Kiser ‘En Haut’ Pinot Noir
lots of clarity, tight focus with lots of precise structure but soft red berry and open midpalate

Lichen Estate Anderson Valley Solera Volume 2 Pinot Noir
unique of the flight yet still expressive of the region. red berry fruit with layers and folds of concentration, vintages 2011, 12, 13 blended in solera-type method

Elke 2011 Anderson Valley Donnelly Creek Vineyard Pinot Noir
bright, crisp red fruit both nose and palate, accents of forest and herb, lots of mouthwatering length

Phillips Hill 2011 Anderson Valley Two Terroirs C&R Pinot Noir
nice cut of red fruit with structural strength, and spiced oak accents throughout

TEAM WASHINGTON: BORDEAUX-VARIETY REDS

Lindsey Whipple of Charlie Palmer Group in New York City, Will Costello of the Mandarin Oriental in Las Vegas, Mark Hefter of Crush Wine Bar MGM in Las Vegas

The Washington wines selected carried dusty mineral and saline crunch throughout. Five of the six wines grew from Red Mountain, and one originated from Walla Walla. We were also able to taste an older vintage on the final wine. Unfortunately, one of the wines was unavailable for tasting due to unexpected distribution issues.

This was the most challenging flight for me as several of the wines were intensely concentrated, inky dark on the palate. Still, the quality was good throughout.

Avennia 2011 Columbia Valley Sestina Red Wine
funky unusual nose, dusty mineral crunch through palate, bell pepper throughout

* Delille Cellars 2011 Chaleur Estate
nice acidity, opens and lengthens significantly with air, elegant finished, balanced concentration

àMaurice 2011 Walla Walla Estate Red Night Owl
intense concentrated palate, good tension, lots of length, inky dark

Upchurch 2011 Upchurch Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon
highly concentrated, inky dark, challenging intensity

Fidélitas 2011 Red Mountain Optu Red Wine
unfortunately, do to a mix-up with distribution we were unable to taste this wine.

* Cadence 2001 Red Mountain Ciel du Cheval Vineyard
nicely balanced, aged wine with the dancy feet to balance the fruit concentration and dusty tannin. pleasant, beautiful.

TEAM NAPA VALLEY: CABERNET SAUVIGNON

Michael Madrigale of Boulud Sud in New York City, Josiah Baldivino of Bay Grape in Oakland, Michelle Biscieglia of Blue Hill in New York City

Team Napa Valley balanced their presentation of Napa Valley Cabernet with both valley floor, and differing mountain expressions of the fruit. The wines selected also paid tribute to a range of historic houses well respected for their quality contributions to the development, and sophistication of the region’s wine.

This flight was most successful in hitting the balance of the three elements requested of the sommelier team in choosing their wines — coherence, breadth, and typicity of the region.

Robert Sinskey 2009 Stag’s Leap District Napa Valley SLD Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
concentration, intensity, dark polish

Robert Mondavi 2011 Oakville Napa Valley To Kalon Vineyard Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
considered the 1st growth of Napa Valley, Mondavi owns the largest portion of the historic To Kalon Vineyard. this is a wine of concentration, polish

* Corison 2010 Napa Valley Kronos Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon
offering characteristic floral aromatics, and nicely balanced, mouthwatering palate

* Mayacamas Vineyards 2008 Mt Veeder Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
still ultra nervy youthful wine, pleasing mouth watering length and nice palate tension

* Smith Madrone 2011 Spring Mountain District Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
the most distinctive of the cabernets selected, the Smith-Madrone shows refreshing bell pepper aromatics, and ultra mouthwatering length

* Diamond Creek 2008 Diamond Mountain District Napa Valley Volcanic Hill Cabernet Sauvignon
pleasing mountain tannin and dustiness, nice acidity, want to revisit

***

The winning team of the Sommelier Scavenger Hunt will be announced at the Wine & Spirits Tuesday evening Top-100 tasting.

Post Edit: It was announced tonight that Team Napa Valley won the Wine & Spirits 2014 Sommelier Scavenger Hunt. Congratulations Team Napa Valley!

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

1

Visiting School House Vineyard

John Gantner, JrJohn M Gantner at School House, July 2014

It’s a hint of old Napa — a vineyard far up Spring Mountain set down a slope behind an old house. There are no signs inviting visitors, or announcing the name. It’s the site of School House Vineyards.

What is now School House Vineyards began as an 1800s 160-acre homestead, the School House just at the top, including tens of acres of vineyards. By the late 1930s, the last generation of the original homestead was ready to be closer to healthcare in town. Electricity didn’t reach the site until the late 1950s.

“My father purchased this in 1940. He wanted land in the Mayacamas Range.” Owner John M Gantner explains of his father. “It took him three years to find this place. He believed to make good red wine you should be in the mountains of the Mayacamas, not on the valley floor. At the time, acreage up here wasn’t worth anything. No one could afford to keep hillside vineyards in operation so it went to forest.”

Some of the original vines would be recovered on the property after establishing deer fencing, and clearing extra growth. The vines would prove to be an old vine mixed-blacks Zinfandel planting that has since served as the School House Mescolanza Red Blend.

Nancy Walker and John M GantnerNancy Walker and John M Gantner

School House Pinot began thanks to the experimental history of the Valley floor. Friends of Gantner, the story goes, had established Pinot vines with cuttings brought back from Romani-Conti in Burgundy. Valley floor temperatures proved too high for the fruit, however, so the vines were pulled out. John’s father believed, however, the mountain’s cooler temperatures would do well hosting the variety. In 1953, John’s father took cuttings before the vines were removed to plant on Spring Mountain.

“I dug many of the holes,” John explains. “My dad put me to work.” He laughs quietly. “I didn’t have much to say in it.” The Pinot remains to this day dry farmed.

IMG_1504“He made the first wine in 1957,” John says of his father. “We’ve made a Pinot Noir every year since.”

School House Pinots age beautifully. Earlier this year over dinner with friends we enjoyed a 1974 with still-vibrant, focused red fruit and forest. Over lunch this summer, Gantner and his wife Nancy Walker shared both a 1998, and 2002, both expressive of vintage with pure mountain fruit.

Chardonnay would be established in 1968 with cuttings from Stony Hill, though it wouldn’t be labeled and sold as a School House wine until 1991 when Gantner and Walker would take over the property from his father. Before that the family would make the white only for themselves.

Nancy laughs briefly as we discuss the Chardonnay. “The thing you learn from making wine,” Nancy tells me, “is you don’t place blame. Everybody makes mistakes.” The couple decide to share an example.

Gantner had traveled previously in China, but in the early 1980s decided he needed to return to the region. He wanted to see Tibet. Harvest had finished but Chardonnay was still finishing in barrel for home wine. Living in San Francisco at the time, Walker drove up the mountain to check on the wine only to discover the bungs had been pounded in too tight, and the wine had exploded over the entire garage.

IMG_1503In 2006, they would also establish Syrah, these vines in partnership with Pride Mountain who takes half the fruit. Gantner would break the rules, establishing the vines with irrigation, but then returning to dry farming once the roots were established. School House keeps the few rows of Grenache and Mourvedre mixed in to bottle as a Syrah blend.

Gantner hands me a bottle to take home and sample. It’s a beautiful, lean while expressive, fresh and savory Syrah, lightly grippy, and mouth watering with the long finish of pure mountain fruit.

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

 

0

Antica Terra with Maggie Harrison

Maggie Harrison in Antica TerraMaggie Harrison in the Antica Terra Winery, visit August 2012

Two weeks ago, Jamie Goode and I spent the evening visiting with Maggie Harrison, tasting her Antica Terra wines after walking the vineyard. Jamie writes up her Antikythera 2011 Pinot Noir here. A write-up on our time in the vineyard is here.

Two years ago, Maggie and I met and discussed her views of Chardonnay, among other things. An evolution in the Antica Terra Aurata Chardonnay has been developing since, including a site change on the fruit. In the recent tasting, I couldn’t get enough of the 2012. It carried expressive, plush fruit with defined edges, and great focus — such an example of the potentials of ripeness kept in balance by precise lines and steady margins. The image I kept getting was of wine with burnished edges, a polished liquid, as if the fruit itself had gold leaf.

Maggie speaks with a similar voice as her wines — plush passion, with precise lines and lots of focus. Following are a few insights from Maggie about wine, and winemaking, specifically focused on her Chardonnay, gathered from the time tasting with she and Jamie.

Maggie Harrison, Jamie GoodeMaggie Harrison and Jamie Goode in Antica Terra Vineyard, visit July 2014

“I didn’t go to school [for winemaking]. All of it is just intuition, just deciding what the most beautiful thing that can be done is, and then going for it.” Jamie asks Maggie to comment on her previous work at Sine Qua Non. In responding, she further develops her point on intuition. “The thing that Manfred and Elaine [Krankl] gave me is, you look at what is in front of you, and you decide, what is the most lovely thing you can do?, and you go after it without compromise.”

She then further explains by describing her relation to the fermenters during and after harvest. “Having large tanks, for me, would create a level of remove that would mean I wouldn’t know how to make decisions any more. A temperature number? I don’t know what do do at that temperature by its number. The only rule here is that the fermenter can’t be taller than 50″ because I need to be able to walk around, and see everything, and, if I need to know the temperature, put my arm in it in seven different places.”

When Maggie and I met in the summer of 2012, the fruit was not yet in. It was unclear how the vintage would show in the cellar, let alone finish on the vine. At that time she spoke of Chardonnay in relation to the colder vintages of the years prior. She commented then, “The year we’re able to get too much from the fruit… well, I hope I’m here to see that. I welcome it.”

2012 would turn out to bring a sense of warmness not seen in the previous two years in Willamette Valley. The 2012 wines of Oregon are all about up-front fresh fruit. It’s a vintage character across the Valley that comes front and center to the glass such that right now the vintage shows first before site or the cellar. (I’m curious to see how this will shift in three to five years to reveal more of the underpinnings of the wines but for now its a vintage with fresh fruit and baby fat compared to the very cold years prior.)

Sitting down at the table this visit, we begin our tasting with the Chardonnay. Maggie describes her views to us. “I take a little bit of a different approach to Chardonnay. I feel Chardonnay is a total monster. It is so incredible, interesting, and monstrous even in the vineyard. It wants to give so much. When you grow it in a place with sun, it can get weird and tropical. I get it. But everyone is leaning against it. Maybe I am just whipped, or smug coming from California. But I feel we can do things differently to make it really beautiful here in Oregon. In 2010, and 2011 [when it was so cold in Oregon], it was easy to talk like this. 2012 was the year we could have totally eaten our words.”

We turn to discussing the Aurata specifically. “What I want in Chardonnay is that feeling of goldness, of being illuminated from within, without the wine itself in fact being golden. This wine is Shea Vineyard fruit. We had to change sites, and so spoke with Dick Shea. [The fruit] It goes to a place in our cellar where we see real intensity. I wanted to see what that felt like, to go there and see what that’s like in Oregon.”

The 2012 Aurata takes advantage of the vintage’s fresh fruit quality bringing Harrison’s sense of polish to it. After we discuss the vintage, and Aurata’s relationship to it, Harrison responds. “I might not go there every year, but it’s a wine that carries that vintage.”

***

Thank you to Maggie Harrison.

Thank you to Jamie Goode, and Michelle Kaufmann.

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

Considering Changes at Mayacamas

Mayacamas WIneryMayacamas Winery, June 2014

In 2013, Charles and Ali Banks, in partnership with Jay and Joey Schottenstein, purchased Mayacamas Vineyards and Winery from Bob Travers, the man who had shepherded the wines since the late 1960s. Though vine growing had been established on the Mt Veeder site in the late 1800s, Travers work there brought the label to iconic status, a representative of pioneering Napa Valley, and the rustic purity possible in a wine region that had become known for blousy red wines.

After the purchase of Mayacamas was announced, worry immediately whispered through the wine community. Would we lose Mayacamas? But any complete change in ownership ushers in a new era for a winery — new ownership, new Mayacamas. Now that the site has been sold and a year been given to the new team, the question is to what degree will it alter the icon?

Travers’s wines of the site, from 1968 to 2012, offer a signature of rustic elegance, with juiciness and sense of concentration that demands time in bottle. In Cabernet, for example, five years before release was standard, aging it three years in neutral wood, two in bottle.

The distance between vintage and release sheds light on the meaning of the recent change. We won’t see Travers’s last vintage, 2012, for another three years. Nor will we be offered the new winemaker, Andy Erickson’s first, 2013, until 2018. There is no way to know, then, what the change from Travers to the new team will taste like for at least four years. In reality, it will be more than a decade before a multi-vintage picture starts to form of the new Mayacamas.

There is already, however, a lot that can be known. Interviews with Banks, and Erickson, when compared to the actual updates already put into the winery, and vineyards shed light on where we can glimpse the new Mayacamas.

The Move from Travers to Banks, Erickson, and Favia

Looking South from the top of Mayacamasfrom the top of Mayacamas looking due South into Carneros and Hudson Vineyard below, June 2014

The change in ownership struck a painful note for many lovers of the site, who have been attached to the distinctively mountain expression of Mayacamas. As recently as four years ago, Travers’s sons and extended family involvement in the winery gave wine lovers confidence the style would carry forward with a sense of continuity. With the realization the site would not remain in family ownership, the break in continuity appeared.

The wine community has carried a persistent skepticism of the new team leading the site, and what it means for the long-term style of the wines. Banks earlier partnership in the cult Napa Cabernet, Screaming Eagle, is often raised as illustration of the concern. As Eric Asimov pointed out in his 2013 look at the change in ownership, Screaming Eagle is “the cult cabernet that seems in so many ways the antithesis of Mayacamas.

Banks’s involvement in Screaming Eagle, however, might prove a red herring. His ownership there, after all, was comparatively early in his move into wine investments. Its easy to imagine a person new to the wine world assuming more expensive wines must be better, whether for their assumed quality or cachet. Banks himself describes it as a change in his knowledge as well as his palate. His investment practices prove consistent with the statement as what he’s partnered in since are labels known for a lighter, more affordable style — Sandhi, Wind Gap, and Qupe, as lead examples from California.

The Screaming Eagle worries though seem more justifiable in Banks’s choice for leadership in the new Mayacamas wine team. With Banks choosing Andy Erickson and Annie Favia as directors of the winery, and vineyard respectively, the skepticism grew stronger, thanks largely to the seeming disjunct in style between their winegrowing history and that of Travers.

Banks has repeatedly stated in interviews that he respects Travers’s work at Mayacamas, and intends to maintain its style. Erickson’s and Favia’s success, however, has come through production of wines known as both riper, and more interested in new oak than Mayacamas has ever been.

For a person interested in maintaining the Mayacamas style, selection of a management team known for wines that run counter to the mountain winery’s, then, seems a contradiction. Why not hire a winemaker known for mountain fruit? Looking at Banks’s history as an investor might give insight into the choice.

In a 2013 interview with Alder Yarrow, Banks highlights the importance of who he works with over simply choosing based on style. “[W]hat I’m doing now in the wine world is influenced by the people I want to be in business with and like working with.” Banks said. “I like these people, what they’re doing, and their vision.” From that perspective, Banks’s choice of a winemaker starts to find a context. Banks and Erickson have a long-standing history of working well together.

For many, though, the concern remains. As said, Erickson’s vision has always coincided with the execution of a different style than that known for Mayacamas. Asked about the issue, Banks defends against this worry. To Yarrow he said, “That’s what Andy’s done [before] but that’s not what he’s about. We are absolutely not going to change the style of the wines.”

Banks, and Erickson have both given numerous interviews discussing their intentions for the site. Interviews can give insight into intention, but don’t always show how ideas will be executed, whether because of the relevance of a larger context, or change in need. This week, Fred Swan and I were able to visit Mayacamas, tasting the 2013 Cabernet from barrel with Andy Erickson, and touring the site as it looks now with Estate Director, Jimmie Hayes. With that in mind, a look at the winery today, the teams views of Mayacamas wine, and the vineyards themselves can shed light on what is changing at Mayacamas.

A Look at the Winery

Andy Erickson checking the progress on Mayacamas winesAndy Erickson checking the progress of 2011-2013 vintages of Mayacamas, June 2014

Without doubt Mayacamas is a special and moving site. The basic construction of the 1880s winery has remained, with fermentation occurring in open top cinder-block fermenters, and aging starting in large decades-old wood casks, before then moving into smaller older barrels. At the back of the winery a small cave was dug decades ago until it struck a stream. After rains, the winery floor now flows with water.

Erickson himself admits, its a winery style that pushes against what he’s used to. In 2013 when it came time to move wine into the 70-year old wooden casks, he says, he had to call Travers to get reassurance the wood would really hold. “Travers said, Andy, you just have to go for it.” Erickson laughs.

In 2013, Erickson tested aging some wine from the site in new wood, and discovered the practice simply didn’t work at Mayacamas. In interviews, Travers account of the role of new oak in his wines moved between 2% and 10%. It wasn’t an approach he relied on. New wood appeared as it was needed. In Erickson’s experiment, the fruit hated new barrels. The team cancelled their 2014 order for new barrels, and plan to bring them in only as replacements are needed.

Within the fermentation room, Travers had rigged a high-maintenance cooling system. During harvest, ice had to be brought daily to the winery, then held in a handmade tank at the side of the room. Tubes with water cooled by the ice then ran from the tank to each of the fermenters to act as temperature modifier. The practice was an economical choice for Travers, as well as one likely kept by habit. In an interview for the June 2014 issue of Wine & Spirits by David Darlington, Travers explained. “I didn’t even think about modernizing. It would have been very expensive, and I thought what we were doing was satisfactory.” Before the 2013 harvest Erickson had internal cooling installed in each of the fermenters. It’s an update that seems reasonable from the perspective of both work load and ease.

Bottling for Travers was another technological hold over. It occurred over several months. As Banks explains, bottling now will occur over hours. Such a change, again, seems reasonable. Bottle variation proves a real concern when bottling occurs over such an extended time. The wine going into glass at the start of the cycle simply isn’t the same as the wine at the end. Fine tuning bottling time, then, means getting a handle on a detail that can help capture quality at Mayacamas.

The Pillars of Mayacamas Style

Jimmie Hayestouring Mayacamas with Jimmie Hayes, June 2014

The new team has spent extensive time discussing the hallmarks of Mayacamas style in an attempt to hone in on their role carrying it forward. “We’ve had a lot of big conversations about what it means to keep the style here, and what can change or not,” Hayes says.

As Hayes explains, these discussions led them to identifying pillars of Mayacamas style that prove so definitive as to not be changed. “We decided there are some pillars to the style you have to keep to keep from changing it.” He names some of them. “Short macerations for the reds is an example, and you don’t start picking later. The age-ability is another one.”

Honing in on these mainstays, the team can then also test through the details to see what can be adjusted for the sake of improving quality. As Erickson discovered, incorporating new wood was not a reasonable detail to change. But shortening bottling time is an easy way to eliminate bottle variation, for example. In reality, issues like early oxidation on whites, and a bit of funk on reds, show up on some vintages of Mayacamas. Hayes points out that is the sort of thing that can be improved upon. “That slight funk that shows up in some vintages we can tend to. We can clean it up by watching the details.” He says.

Looking at the tools present in the winery, it’s clear many of Travers’s choices came from simple pragmatism, rather than a pre-conceived romantic ideal of wine. If Travers needed fermentation space, he wasn’t going to be able to let the wines soak. At the same time, he also kept extensive notebooks, which he then gave to the new team. Picking around 23-24 brix proved consistent through the years.

Part of people’s worry in Erickson acting as winemaker rests in his consistent history of making riper wines rather than the ultra juicy, higher acid style of Mayacamas. Arriving at the site, Erickson admits he was skeptical of what he thought of as earlier picking numbers. He picked fruit from the Valley floor at higher brix levels. Through the extensive team conversations, however, as well as talks with Travers, Erickson realized he had to trust the notebooks, and pick according to site history. At Pebble Beach Food & Wine in April 2014, Erickson said the experience with Mt Veeder fruit has made him rethink some of his ideas on ripeness. He’s picking Mayacamas fruit consistent with Mayacamas history. Tasting the 2013 Cabernet, it carries all the mountain minerality and structure of a classic Mayacamas.

The Relationship of Vineyard to Winery

The remaining parcels, Merlot and Cabernetlooking from the top of Golden Hill towards blocks Fletch and Coyote, which grow Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon

A view of Mayacamas Vineyards today brings the greatest shock of change. In interviews over the last year, Banks has repeated the point that they will replant slowly. In an article by Elin McCoy in July 2014 for Bloomberg, for example, Banks explained, “We’ll need to spend millions slowly replanting. It’s not a crazy redo.

It’s also been clear all along such replanting would be necessary. In her tour of the vineyards, McCoy mentions the sight of dying vines around the property. The Mayacamas plantings averaged in age between 30 to 60 years old, a condition uncommon for Cabernet Sauvignon in particular. In addition, many of the blocks were planted on AXR rootstock, which proved vulnerable to phylloxera. The reduction of productivity found in older vines, then, was in many cases exacerbated by disease. As Hayes explained, the worst of the blocks on the site gave only 1/4-Ton per acre.

Travers himself admitted that the average volume on Mayacamas as a whole was less than 1-Ton per acre. At the same time, it was a reality he didn’t seem to have issue with. In a 2006 interview with Alan Goldfarb for AppellationAmerica.com, Travers described his affection for the reduced production. “There’s no question that the higher you get on the mountain, the rockier, the shallower, and the less fertile the soils become. We average less than a ton per acre. That’s why I’m up here. That’s why I picked this spot.

As Travers continues, he emphasizes that the quality and condition of the vineyard is what gave Mayacamas its style of wine. “Producers realize that if they’ve got a good vineyard, the vineyard can do all the talking. If you don’t do too many winery techniques, you can let the grapes be the master. These [winery] techniques reduce the vineyard effect.” Travers’s reticence in updating the winery, then, begins to make sense. For Travers, the vineyards themselves appear to be a hallmark of Mayacamas style. He valued what he had in the vines.

It’s also simply expensive to invest in replanting when your focus is on a family operation of a winery where what you’re already doing seems to work. For a new owner, however, to purchase a site and maintain less than 1-Ton per acre seems unreasonable.

As Favia explained to Jon Bonné in an article looking at the change of hands last summer, the replants at Mayacamas were necessary but a long-term process. After vines are pulled, the ground is left to rest to allow phylloxera to die out. Once the replants are initiated, at such high elevation vines take closer to five years to establish. The team’s plan is to follow Travers’s previous example. They’ll use irrigation to establish vines in the first five years, then dry farm. (They’ve also moved entirely to organic farming.) After vines are established, it’s another decade before plants are more adjusted to their site. In the meantime, clusters offer something like the distinctively fruit focused character of young vines.

It’s shocking, then, to discover that the slow replant Banks promised actually amounts to all but two blocks of Mayacamas being pulled. Viewing the site Monday, the replanting project amounts to what looks like between 80% and 85% of the vines at Mayacamas removed. Do older vines not prove to be a pillar of style? One Merlot, and one Cabernet block at the far Western side of the property remain. (At the time of this posting, I do not yet have confirmation on the acreage of the two remaining blocks.) The empty blocks will rest this year. Replantings will begin in 2015, and continue into 2017. Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Noir will not be reestablished on the site.

Considering the level of disease, and age of the vines, perhaps it was necessary, or easier, to remove all of the vine issues together, rather than block by block. The situation still means it will be decades before Mayacamas returns to being predominately estate fruit.

Looking at the history of Mayacamas, Travers relied heavily on sourced fruit from the beginning, and throughout his tenure. The previous Mayacamas vineyards were about 50% Chardonnay, with the remainder split between Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc (for blending), Merlot, Pinot Noir, and Sauvignon Blanc. The site’s famous Cabernet Sauvignon, then, has always relied on a large portion of sourced fruit. Keeping with Travers’s seeming pragmatism, these sources varied. He did not always rely solely on Mt Veeder either. The new team has maintained Travers’s long-term Mt. Veeder fruit contracts, and added two more. In 2014, all of the fruit for Mayacamas will come from Mt Veeder.

***

Thank you to Jimmie Hayes, and Andy Erickson.

Thank you to Fred Swan.

***

To read more on Mayacamas (All articles in order by publication date):

* For a glimpse into Bob Travers, check out these older articles.

An interview with Alan Goldfarb, 2006: http://wine.appellationamerica.com/wine-review/272/Mayacamas-Vineyards-Interview.html

A visit from Evan Dawson: http://www.drvino.com/2010/01/27/visiting-mayacamas-vineyards-napa-valley/

Eric Asimov considering old school Napa Cabs: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/20/dining/20pour.html?_r=1&adxnnl=1&pagewanted=all&adxnnlx=1404328112-sjc6VC03CfJ6P6TsMtsljQ

* For a look at the new ownership:

Alder Yarrow talks with Charles Banks: http://www.vinography.com/archives/2013/05/charles_banks_the_new_man_behi.html

Elin McCoy visits Mayacamas: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-07-15/private-equity-wake-up-kiss-for-mayacamas-elin-mccoy.html

Eric Asimov talks with Banks and Erickson: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/07/dining/calming-words-from-a-vineyards-unlikely-new-owner.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Jon Bonné looks at the change, including viticulture with Favia: http://www.sfgate.com/wine/thirst/article/An-improbable-guardian-takes-over-at-Mayacamas-4703491.php#page-1

David Darlington considers Old Napa turned New Napa: http://wineandspiritsmagazine.com/pages/2014/0514/0514_oldnapa.html

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

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This write-up appears as a follow-up to a previous article on Santa Barbara County wine growing.

Santa Barbara Wine Country

For more information on over-arching growing conditions for the region, such as climate and weather patterns, please see that article, which appears here: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2014/05/20/understanding-santa-barbara-county-wine/

Santa Maria Valley

Driving South through California on Highway 101 the sand dunes begin to appear as the road comes closer to the ocean. By San Luis Obispo (SLO) county (home to Paso Robles, San Simeon and its famed Hearst Castle, as well as Morro Bay) ocean succulents, and cypress dot the roadway, growing from sandy loam of the seascape. The highway hugs ocean through Pismo Beach, then cuts inland again lifting over a slight climb in elevation, through the drop on the other side. You’ve arrived in Santa Maria Valley.

Santa Maria Valley proves the second oldest appellation in California, after Napa Valley, and includes some of the oldest contemporary vineyards in Santa Barbara County (SBC), as well as some of the most distinctive Chardonnay plantings in the state. However, the area has received historically less attention for wine than its Southern siblings such as the Sta Rita Hills.

The Agricultural Richness of Santa Maria Valley

The Northern most appellation in Santa Barbara County, the land formation as well as the appellation of Santa Maria Valley include sections of San Luis Obispo county. From the North, it is the San Rafael Mountains that circumscribes the Valley floor, and the intersection of the Santa Maria River with the water flowing through North Canyon from Twitchell Reservoir that marks the SLO-SBC border. Bien Nacido Vineyards, for example, sits just inside the North-western edge of SBC while its strawberry fields on the flats sit just inside the South-eastern rest of SLO.

Santa Maria Valley proves one of the most agriculturally diverse, and active regions of North America hosting a range of berries, avocado, spinach, beans, squash, broccoli, cauliflower, and even a cactus nursery. With avocado entering the region in the 1870s, this section of California quickly became the primary supply for North America. It still hosts (one of) the largest groves in North America.

Grape growing through the region reaches back to the 1830s, with more contemporary vineyards being established beginning in the 1960s, many of those early own root vines still giving fruit. As a result of such agricultural diversity, the area includes one of the more residential farming communities in the country, with farm workers able to remain year round as they rotate between crops.

Local cattle ranching and indigenous beans find focus through the tradition of Santa Maria BBQ. It appropriately claims the title of Best BBQ in the West, offering a local-oak fired tri-tip that proves more spice-rubbed than sauced, coupled with a side of pinquinto beans. The beans stand as a reminder of the relevance of land formations in agricultural development. The small pink morsels originate from and grow only within this area of the Central Coast.

Winegrowing Santa Maria Valley

SMV map

click on image to enlarge

Santa Maria Valley AVA offers the only valley in North or South America with unhindered ocean influence. No hillside formations rise within the center line of the appellation to shade or shield portions of the valley floor. The mouth of the valley opens to the Pacific, with the West-East narrowing funnel of the region cut by the San Rafael Mountains to the North, and the Solomon Hills to the South squeezing together near Sisquoc. The center of the valley is defined by the open pull of the Santa Maria-Sisquoc river bench.

The shape of the valley generates a clockwork regularity of fog at night through morning, then wind by afternoon. It is the wind that balances disease pressure from the ocean humidity. Open valley floor also means temperatures average one Fahrenheit degree warmer per mile driven East. Some slight nooks along the river bench, or canyon formation along the Northern mountain and Southern hills offer variation.

Considering Soils

Soil variation within the valley can broadly be cut into four types. Along the Northern portion of the Santa Maria-Sisquoc River colluvial soils cover slope sides giving rocky freshness to grapes grown throughout. Moving towards riverside, soils become unconsolidated as mixed alluvial soils appear from old wash off ancient mountain rains.

Bien Nacido, for example, grows vines from hilltop, through slope-side, and into the rolling flats approaching Santa Maria Mesa Road. The absolute flats they reserve for other crops. Walking the midslope vineyards of Bien Nacido offers a mix of rocky soils rolling into Elder Series, and then finally sandy loam near the bottom. Bien Nacido, and Cambria (growing directly beside Bien Nacido to the East) both contain a mix of colluvial and Elder Series soils, with some dolomitic limestone appearing near the tops of slopes, and shale in mid-slopes further East in the Valley. By riverside, soils are entirely unconsolidated giving a mix of some Elder series, and some sandy loam.

Across the street from Bien Nacido, the soils change, becoming unconsolidated alluvial soils. Rancho Viñedo grows in entirely unconsolidated soils, Pleasanton Clay Loam. In broader context these sorts of unconsolidated soils are often treated critically when it comes to grape growing. After rains soils like Pleasanton Clay Loam act like cement, as the soils do not absorb water easily crops grown in such ground tend to flood. However, in a region where rain is rare, thanks to the rain shadow effect of the San Rafael Mountains, such concerns become almost irrelevant. The rare cases when flooding does occur in the region come from ocean storms hitting so hard and fast the question of soil has little to do with the result. Flooding would have happened anyway.

On the Southern portion of the Santa Maria-Sisquoc River soils dramatically change. The Western portion of the appellation rises from ancient sand dunes, once part of the sea floor. Sections of the valley, then are almost pure sand mixed through in areas with silt from mountain erosion. The South-western quadrant of SMV moves from almost pure sand, into sandy loam as you travel North-east, or silty loam as you move into the Solomon Hills.

Sections of the newer Presqu’ile Vineyard, for example, appear as incredibly sandy giving a sense of suave tannin to red wines. By the time you reach the Dierberg planting a touch closer to the river, however, it has become more sandy loam. On the plateau of the Solomon Hills North of Cat Canyon, overlooking the valley, Ontiveros Ranch grows in unconsolidated silty soils.

Moving East along the Southern side of the river, the valley squeezes closer to the river bench, and the ground changes to predominately mixed cobbles and rocky loam. Riverbench Vineyard, for example, includes blocks on rocky clay loam, approaching Foxen Canyon, or more rocky plantings approaching the riverside.

While the North-eastern section of Santa Maria Valley contains a predominance of colluvial soils and Elder Series from the Mountains, sandy soils appear mixed throughout Santa Maria Valley with some sections of these vineyards including sandy loam.

Though the valley’s soils can be described through four major types, and the region’s climate has an overall sense of regularity, throughout the appellation there are subtler distinctions within sites that must be expected. As examples, thanks to the ocean influence salinity plays unexpected while sometimes significant role in vine vigor. Slight rolling character in what might seem an otherwise flat vineyard site can create slight air pools that change growing temperatures for vines in those sections. Individual vineyards, then, have significant internal variation.

Establishing Santa Maria Valley Wines

Modern day viticulture appeared in Santa Maria Valley in 1964, with the planting established by Uriel Nielsen in what is now the Byron Winery and Vineyard facility. The area benefits from the cool climate of SMV while hosting the slightly warmer day time temperatures that give darker red fruit in comparison to plantings on the Western side of the Valley.

In 1972, Louis Lucas and Dale Hampton would establish what would become the famous Tepusquet Vineyard, simultaneously pronouncing the great viticultural promise of the region shown through the cool climate, the ocean influence, and the water availability even in desert conditions. The Tepusquet Vineyard now stands in the Cambria Winery and Vineyard facility at the Northern side of the Sisquoc River.

Soon on the heels of the Nielsen and Tepusquet plantings, in 1973 the Miller brothers would begin one of the most influential vineyards of the valley, Bien Nacido. The site would establish itself as what was at the time the largest certified nursery-service-plus-vineyard in the state. By maintaining soil testing on a regular basis and ensuring the health of the vineyard through FPMS certification, Bien Nacido could not only generating crop for area winemakers, but also vine material for future regional vineyards.

These three early vineyards served as what were essentially viticultural test plots surveying what grape varieties, clonal types, and rootstocks could prosper in the region. Figures such as RIchard Sanford, while known more for his original plantings in Sta Rita Hills, also played key roles in helping to identify the appropriateness for Pinot Noir in the region, the valley’s signature variety.

Other vineyards, such as SIerra Madre originally planted in 1971, would prove influential for their later replants. Santa Barbara County includes a long history of influence on the more well-known Napa and Sonoma counties. Well established winemakers known for their North Coast wines utilized grapes grown in SBC to blend and bring added dimension to their North Coast wines. Off paper, then, SBC’s grape quality has been long established.

In the 1990s, however, that reputation was backed up by a series of purchases from big name wineries such as Robert Mondavi, and Jackson Family. In the 1990s, Robert Mondavi took interest in the Sierra Madre site, and decided to use portions to graft newer Pinot and Chardonnay clones in order to study their viability. The unique quality of the site became inspirational force for a range of winemakers both within the region and without. Mondavi’s clonal changes predominately remain within Sierra Madre, some of which offer fruit unlike that seen anywhere else in the state.

Newer vineyards such as Solomon Hills, or Dierberg both planted in the 1990s, and Presqu’ile in the 2000s, expand insight on ripening in SMV. Set near or on the Western boundary of the appellation, each receives cold air, and afternoon ocean wind bringing ultra cool climate focus to their fruit development.

Pinot Noir of Santa Maria Valley

Pinot Noir proves Santa Maria Valley’s signature grape. The valley’s signature marks its Pinot with red fruit character integrated through with the classic blend of Chinese Five Spice and tons of juicy length. The subtle complexity of this flavor study, coupled with the region’s mineral tension, and juiciness give it a profile distinctive from its Pinot Noir neighbors to the North and South.

Within the appellation, soil and temperature changes give fine-tuned distinctions to wines grown from different vineyards. Fruit from the South-western quadrant, for example, consistently carries the suave tannin of sandy soils, and a brighter red profile than the wines of the warmer North-eastern section. The sandy soils have also shown the ability to manage a high portion of whole cluster during fermentation to good effect.

With older vineyards such as Bien Nacido still showcasing own-root original plantings of Pinot Noir, now inter-planted with comparatively younger grafted vines of the same vine material, SMV also offers unique opportunity for winemakers to experiment with fruit from older and younger vines grown side by side. At Byron, sections of the original clonal and rootstock experiment planting are maintained allowing winemakers there the opportunity over decades to separately vinify fruit by clone-to-rootstock combination.

The best Pinot Noir from Santa Maria Valley has also proven its ability to age well. The subtlety of the valley offers its Pinots what is an almost brooding even while red fruit character, that turns outward again as it ages giving slightly older examples a beautifully surprising energy and lift.

Chardonnay of Santa Maria Valley

While Pinot stands as Santa Maria Valley’s best known variety, some of the most distinctive Chardonnays of California herald from the region. Unique clonal material grows through SMV offering distinctive flavor profiles from vineyards such as Sierra Madre.

The underlying Santa Maria Valley Chardonnay character shows up as Meyer lemon curd on toasted croissant with a long ocean crunch finish. Depending on area of the valley you can imagine that profile dialing down towards more mineral at the Western-reaches, or up towards riper in areas like Cambria. The ocean influence often gives a distinctively pleasing saline crunch or slurry to the white wines, in some of the cooler and sandier vineyard sites it verges into olive.

The mineral presence plus ample juiciness of the fruit give a lot of room for successful oak integration, and/or more reductive character. The two techniques give breadth and length of presence to the juiciness of the region’s fruit without having to dominate its flavor.

Other Varieties of Santa Maria Valley

Rhone varieties appear in small but successful portion through Santa Maria Valley. Most famously, Syrah has done well through the Northern-middle portions of the appellation with producers like Qupe bringing attention to the quality possible from the grape grown in the valley.

At the furthest Eastern side of SMV, Rancho Sisquoc grows a range of grape types successfully producing the range of Bordeaux varieties in warmer pockets near the close of the SMV funnel, as well as unexpected successes such as Riesling and Sylvaner.

***

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Salon Champagne: A 6 Vintage Vertical

Pebble Beach Food & Wine culminated in a panel of 9 wines from Salon and Delamotte moderated by Antonio Galloni, and featuring Didier Depond, president of the sister houses. The wines poured from Delamotte blanc de blancs included the non-vintage, 2004, and 1970 out of magnum; from Salon the 2002, 1999 from magnum, 1997, 1995 from magnum, 1988, and 1983 from magnum. To comment on the wines the panel also included Rajat Parr, Shane Bjornholm, and Emily Wines.

Salon Champagne, A Verticalclick on image to enlarge

The Value of Salon and Delamotte

Salon Champagne has long held a special fascination for me. I admire the innovation of Eugène Aimé Salon that originates with his idea to create the world’s first chardonnay-only champagne, age it minimum 10 years, and create it only in the very best vintages. The first Salon vintage began in 1905. Since, only 45 vintages total have been made — 37 of those in the 1900s. A Salon has not been made since 2008 as the vintages since have not stood up to the quality demands held by the house.

Though blanc de blancs appears as a common option in sparkling wine now, champagne’s tradition and history rests more deeply in blending grapes. Salon was the first to imagine chardonnay on its own could offer enough sophistication for the best champagne. Incredibly, Salon champagne utilizes not only chardonnay-only, but also only 100% Grand Cru fruit from a single village within Cote de Blanc, the heart of quality for chardonnay grapes within Champagne. In aging the wine a minimum of 10 years, the silky texture and flavor development of chardonnay deepens. By creating the wine only in steel tank (no barrel usage), the focus remains on purity and freshness.

Delamotte stands as a true sister house, rather than simply a second label, to Salon. Four cuvées are made by Delamotte in order to keep the focus on quality — blanc de blanc non-vintage, blanc de blancs vintage (only in good years), brut non-vintage, and a rosé. Delamotte originates as one of the oldest champagne houses, created in 1760 utilizing only 100% Grand Cru fruit from the Cote de Blanc.

The wines are utterly beautiful. Younger vintages, such as those into the 1990s right now, carry wire-y tension focusing almost entirely on juicy citrus components with light earthy notes. As the vintages age, the flavors deepen bringing the earth elements slightly more to the fore, alongside refreshing saline or olive notes and chamomile tea or bergamot. Throughout, the wines carry a seductive silkey texture and utterly long, mouth watering finish.

The Salon and Delamotte vertical tasting included some of the most special wines I’ve been lucky enough to taste. We were also the first people outside Salon to taste the newly released 2002 vintage. Depond clarified that in the Salon cellars only twenty-three magnums of the 1983 vintage remain. Two of those were opened for our PBFW tasting. Antonio Galloni is widely known as one of the world’s leading wine experts. He described the 1983 from magnum as “one of the most extraordinary wines I have ever tasted.”

Notes from Didier Depond

It was an honor to meet Didier Depond, and taste through the Delamotte and Salon vertical led by his knowledge of the wines.

Rather than interpret his comments, following are quotations from Depond through the tasting.

“The size of bubbles is the elegance of the wine.”

“To make Salon, we want a perfect balance between sugar and acidity. The most important factor is the acidity and pH in the wine.”

“It may be very difficult for you to understand. It is very pleasant right now to drink this wine but tasting vin clair is very difficult for us, even painful.” Vin clair is the still base wine that will then go through a secondary fermentation to become sparkling. The acid levels of vin clair are very high and can literally hurt the mouth as a result. “We have to imagine the wine in 15 to 20 years. It is very difficult to imagine. We keep this wine [Salon] a minimum of 10, 11, 12 years in cellar.”

“We use only steel tank. I don’t like barrel for champagne. It is my opinion. I share my opinion with myself. Champagne is about the freshness, the pleasure, the happiness. I love the cleanness, and the freshness of the wine. For me, it is the definition of the wine.”

“It is easy to drink a magnum. It is the best size for me. It is better if you drink it as two [people], rather than only one.” (laughing)

“Salon is a unique situation. It is a mono-cru. We are chardonnay, and chardonnay from only one vintage, and only one village.”

“It is a very open discussion on disgorgement. For myself, sometimes I open a bottle with a very open disgorgement, and it is very beautiful, a 30-year disgorgement, and no oxidation. Sometimes, I am disappointed, yes? But, the wine is alive. [Explaining] Sometimes, I am disappointed with myself, to see this morning, I am older. But I am rarely disappointed with Salon.”

“All dosage for Salon is at the limit of a brut wine [next to brut nature–that is, very low sugar but still present]. Dosage is very important. Sugar is a preservative. It helps the wine age. If you want to do low dosage, you have to pick your grapes a little later to balance the sugars. It is very easy to make good champagne. If you make a good dosage, you make good champagne.”

“Dosage is like a beautiful woman with just a touch of makeup.”

“Today I know exactly how many bottles we have in our cellar [at Salon] for the next 20 years.”

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