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Spending the Day at Frog’s Leap with John Williams

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visiting Frog’s Leap in Photographs by Stephen Smith

Frog's Leap Winery

Frog's Leap Winery

Flowers at Frog's Leap

Starting the Garden at Frog's Leap

The Orchard

The Vineyard

The Vineyard

Bottling Frog's Leap

The Historic Winery

The Historic Winery

The Historic Winery

Inside the Winery

Entering the Winery

John Williams

Discussing Winemaking

Inside the Winery

Driving in the 1969 Chevy Pick-up Truck

The Old Vines

Inside the Old Winery

Dinner with John

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

Check out more of Smith’s photography at his own site: http://www.iamstephensmith.com/ and follow him on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/iamstephensmith/. I really enjoy following his photographic travelogs online.

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


The following is the second of a two-part series, guest posts written by Tyler Thomas, winemaker of Donelan Wines.

To read the first of Tyler’s guest posts: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2013/01/28/the-humanness-of-winemaking-faith-hope-and-love-as-the-core-of-life-and-wine-guest-post-by-tyler-thomas-donelan-wines/


Donelan Wines

tasting Donelan Wines, summer 2012

It is a privilege that Wakawaka Wine reviews has invited me to post as a guest.  Elaine and I have spoken much of philosophy and approach to winemaking, partly because of the very important role I place on “wine worldview”: i.e. how we think about wine informs actions of the way we end up producing that wine.  What follows is somewhat of a personal winemaking philosophical statement that I apply to our efforts at Donelan Family Wines where we make Syrah, Grenache, Roussanne, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir.


While obtaining a B.S. and M.S. in Botany and Plant Molecular Biology, I was fascinated with plant physiology: how a static organism could adapt/interact so well to its environment. Winemaking is a wonderful professional avenue to enjoy the fruits of such interaction in a way that brings pleasure to so many people. In this industry my focus has almost exclusively been with producers who sought to maximize wine quality (and hence, your pleasure) by maximizing our understanding of any particular place and bringing forth that expression with deft work in the cellar. My desire is to produce wines of great and special character consistently and efficiently each vintage.

I’ve learned in my tenure as a winemaker that unique vineyards, great equipment, proper education, and excellent cellar techniques are only part of the story.  First and foremost I believe that one must develop quality leadership, a quality team of people, and a quality winery culture to produce peerless wine vintage in and vintage out.  My experience in winery upheaval and transition has emphasized the importance of leadership, philosophy, and vision combined with patient communication in order to develop substantive change.  We must cultivate wine, but also people.

With an excellent team in place, making great wine vintage after vintage is a result of two places: the vineyard and the mind.  While inimitable wine presumes inimitable fruit, the role played by the mental juggling of variables involved from vineyard to glass are less easily delineated.  I’ve read once “don’t learn the tricks of the trade, learn the trade.”  Knowing how to clean a barrel doesn’t necessarily make me a better winemaker, but knowing the language of winemaking (another way of saying the science and art) and understanding how people handle different challenges might.  Deciphering how another individual thinks about wine – their philosophical approach to making a wine, to balance, to quality; understanding these elements from one person or culture can be integrated into handling the fruit from your own region, climate, and vineyards.

This is exactly what I have taken away from each opportunity in the industry.  Experiences in the Santa Rita Hills, Sonoma, Napa, New Zealand, and across Europe were paramount to developing my own perspective on wine production.  These experiences evolved my mental approach to wine production.  Concepts like balance, importance of extraction, emphasis on mouth feel over flavor, the tool of patience, and perhaps most importantly: how wine was esteemed in each culture.

I will always remember having a candid discussion about acid and bubbles with a winemaker in Champagne when a light bulb went off about the greater role of acid in texture and wine let alone great Champagne.  That informed my time as an Assistant Winemaker with HdV Wines in Napa and altered the angle of my view of California wines ever since.  Who knew the halls of a corporate cafeteria in France could be so informative for a boutique winemaker!

Across cultures the purpose of wine is pleasure.  My goal is to make wines that please by their compelling nature.  That is you find yourself both hedonistically and intellectually compelled to go back to the wine over and over again.  It calls to you, and you answer.  Many wines can draw your first glance, but can they sustain your desire?

I find that both cuvees and single vineyard wines can achieve this goal.  The hope of any cuvee is to utilize all the parts, all the colors, to paint a picture or present an offering that is greater than any of the individual parts.  Vineyard designated wines ought to stand alone as complete wines (complexity, depth, length, structure) but generally offer a certain unique something that is sine qua non.  They ought to have a unique, intriguing aroma profile as a result of their place, but also a balanced texture and complexity to deliver both pleasure and distinction.

I believe that the greatest wines (cuvees or single vineyards) are not made but discovered.  While many say that great wine starts in the vineyard (and it does), my goal is also to discover and distill what truly makes an impact to the governing components of wine and only do those things (okay, that’s also because I’m a little lazy and don’t want to create extra work for myself!).  For example, by segmenting vines as a result of natural variation within even the smallest of sites we can capture only the best of the best in a vineyard.  This assists in learning more about small sections of vineyards, and about essential and nonessential parts of the production that influence how a wine tastes from that site.

Perhaps this is disappointing.  Perhaps you would prefer a recipe or some other secret to our vineyard and winemaking approach.  Well, maybe I make it out to be simpler than it is, but as my old mentor used to say: “don’t forget, it’s just wine.”  We look for good people, create good culture, make wines we enjoy, and hope you will esteem them.

I’ll sum it up this way.  Just the other day I was telling Joe Donelan that I found a vineyard that would make the best Mourvedre in the state.  We could make one acre, 4 barrels, and drink it all ourselves!  Wouldn’t that be great!  People, passion, pleasure.

The foundation to achieving this is laid on the quality and knowledge of the team corralled.  Establishing a quality vision and culture, and uncompromisingly executing the details will in the end produce the most satisfying of all the beverages: transcendent wine.


Thank you to Tyler Thomas for his work writing these posts to share here. I am grateful for the opportunity to share his ideas, as conversations with him have consistently proved insightful and engaging. I also admire the quality of his wines.

To read more from Tyler, you can follow the Donelan Wines blog here: http://www.donelanwines.com/blog/



This summer I had the privilege of meeting winemaker Tyler Thomas. We talked for several hours about the intersections of science and faith, winemaking as art versus craft, as well as philosophy and what it means to be human. It’s a conversation I’ve returned to again and again in mind since. Tyler Thomas is head winemaker at Donelan Wines in Santa Rosa, California, producing high quality Rhone and Burgundy varieties from Sonoma County. Previously, he also served as assistant winemaker alongside Stéphane Vivier at HdV.

After continued conversations with Tyler about minerality and plant health, making Chardonnay, and the 2012 vintage, I asked if he would be willing to write a guest post to share here. I am grateful to share two. The first, is Tyler Thomas’s reflection on faith in winemaking; the second, tomorrow, elucidates his winemaking philosophy.


Tyler JN Pic (2)

Tyler Thomas (photo courtesy of Donelan Wines)

One of the elements of winemaking I enjoy is how its production employs our humanness.  This topic is difficult and very broad so I’ll try to remain on task.  We could start by discussing wine’s transcendence.  Wine transcends its original material.  It points to – no – engages the imbiber into an experience of enjoying flavors other than what would be expected from tasting its original components.  Cherry wine tastes like cherries, but grape wine doesn’t taste of grapes.  And while I think, just as NYU President John Sexton argues, that baseball implies a larger transcendence and the same could be said of wine, here we’ll leave that windy path for someone else to travel.  But there are plenty of other reasons beside wine’s transcendental nature that invoke our human experience, not the least of which is the way it draws our pleasure and gladness of heart.

Wine is incredibly complex yet simple, regal yet rustic, crushed for goodness, real and ethereal (at times), known and mysterious, physical and transformed.  Its purpose seems primarily set toward pleasure.  For me, wine is analog for life…and Life; and not only in wine’s final state but in its production too.  “Analog for life,” you might think, “did he just write that?”  Yes!  One of the reasons is because my worldview has led me to feel that faith, hope, and love are core elements of life.  And in wine production we exhibit elements of faith, hope, and love; and we do so frequently.  I’d like to examine how wine can help one gain an understanding of the faith elements of life.  To do this I’ll presume that faith, hope, and love are indeed integral to our humanness.  I’ll also assume winemakers care about wine, and just as we live life as if our decisions have meaning, we interact with our grapes with a similar passion and verve for their meaningful outcome: yummy vino.

Certainly faith has strong religious connotations.  So much so that many people consider the word faith synonymous with the qualifier blind faith.  Perhaps some have already stopped reading as a result!  I like this definition: a confident belief in the truth, value, or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing.  Do we employ faith when definitive explanations fail us and quality and artisan greatness beckon us?  Not blind faith, blind to historical experience and science, but real faith that incorporates experience and science.

For a winemaker like me the scientific knowledge we’ve gained over time is critical in that it gives us a confident trust in a specific cellar or vineyard practice.  However there is also an interesting narrative that leads many to refer to winegrowing as art, and us as artists.  Empirical knowledge provides confident trust, but there are also quite a few creative gut calls that I believe require faith, or the confidence in knowledge beyond ourselves.  Winemakers don’t often admit this but – here’s the news flash – we don’t know everything about producing inimitable wine, yet we hope our decisions have tremendous importance.

It’s true!  While we may not know things exhaustively, we can still “know” even amidst the mystery.  We strive to obtain more knowledge about winegrowing so we can use it to optimize our viticulture and enology and ensure we make the best wine possible each vintage.  But without a complete road map to how this flavor in that concentration responds to an 83 degree (not 86!) ferment with 3 punch downs a day and then bounces into another compound to produce a given sensory effect…you can see it gets complicated.  Without knowing all that definitively, producers often hope in their intuition and then examine the result asking: “do I like this?”  This often leads wine producers to rely more on faith developed over time.  Or can I say we employ a confident trust in the truth of a particular practice to give us the desired result?

OK skeptics call it intuition mixed with science if the word faith sends shivers down your spine and your eyes rolling.  But if you have an aversion to a word because it conjures too much religious context (which would be a guilt by association fallacy), I encourage you to take what you know from your production techniques and reexamine what it means to employ faith.  Can we admit we make decisions without full knowledge of how our desired outcome is achieved?  Can we admit that we deeply hope those decisions have meaning?  “No Tyler,” you might say, “you are talking about intuition.”  Fair enough.  I admit it is difficult to separate faith from intuition in the discussion of wine.  But I would maintain that there is something about the passion with which we pour ourselves into the process, something more personal and emotive about it, some part of our sincere desire for this decision to be right and true that takes these decisions beyond mere intuition.  Intuition is visceral and doesn’t involve the same hope.  Intuition is not as supremely pleased when right or devastated when wrong.  If we were to consult the Bible (don’t hate me for it!), it offers an alternative definition of faith: the assurance of things hoped for, the convictions of things not seen.  Do we not often feel assured in the hope we have that the decisions we make improve our wines?

When we are enjoying a wine 5 years removed from its production and pat ourselves on the back for handling a challenging situation for which we had yet to have a reference and glow in the pleasure of the sips.  When we do that, do we simply say “nice gut call”?  Isn’t there something more?  More of an expectation, more hope, more risk, more reward, more meaning?

Clearly my presumption is that faith and hope are core human elements.  Perhaps you disagree.  But if you grant me that presumption I think it difficult to deny that winemaking employs elements of our humanness and this should be recognized and embraced.  The challenge is to distill what is really true, what really worked, from an anecdote associated with success.  How do we wade through knowledge and embrace the mystery?  Is faith, the confident trust in the trust worthiness of a practice the answer?  The goal of any lifelong pursuer of peerless wine should be to find good answers.  And this takes time, effort, and…a little faith.  I submit that those who can embrace the science and the mystery will have the greatest opportunity to make the best wine.  Those who love and understand empirical knowledge and belief have – I believe – the best chance to discover something great and be a part of producing an inimitable wine.  It requires faith in certain actions that transcend your current understanding of the winemaking world to provide meaning to your final goal: a wine that produces a glad heart.


Thank you to Tyler Thomas.

To read more about Tyler’s work with Donelan Wines: http://senelwine.com/wine-interviews/tyler-thomas-of-donelan-wines/

Donelan Wine Website: http://www.donelanwines.com/index2.html

Tomorrow will host another guest post by Tyler Thomas on his winemaking philosophy.


The following is a guest post written by Abe Schoener, winemaker of The Scholium Project, and one of the founders and winemakers of Red Hook Winery, Red Hook, Brooklyn, New York. The text of this post has also been shared with his Scholium Project mailing list.


A Report on Tragedy and Comedy, by Abe Schoener

Dear Correspondents–

I am writing you from Red Hook, Brooklyn, on a beautiful warm sunny day. I wish that I could send a hundred photos. There is so much tell you and words are not enough. I am writing from a pier with water on both sides– the south side looks across the Red Hook Channel of the Upper Bay of New York Harbor to Staten Island and Bayonne, New Jersey; the north side looks across the Buttermilk Channel to Governor’s Island and the Statue of Liberty. Wild ducks live near the breakwater shore; ferries, tugboats and their charges ply the water constantly. These days, we see a lot of police boats and Coast Guard cutters racing across the water. This is because we are at the center of a zone of water-born devastation.

I work at a winery here on this pier. I helped to found a winery in Red Hook in 2008, and I have spent many wonderful days here, making wine from New York grapes. I have learned so much from and with my friends and colleagues and have treasured both the experience and our accomplishments. It is not enough to say that there is a world of difference between making wine in Brooklyn and in Napa. I will leave it to your imagination. But what you must know is this: we have found some amazing vineyards sites in the warm, fertile soils of Long Island, and we have made some wines as good or better than anything I have made in California. I will save details for another message. When the storm hit New York, Red Hook was like a breakwater. No zones in the storm’s path in NY suffered worse damage from the raging waters. On the morning that the waters receded, my colleagues reported to me that the winery had been destroyed and that all was lost. Within another day, I got a somewhat more studied (and optimistic) report. We had no power, no doors to close, no working equipment. But very few of the wines, fermenting or in barrel, had been been flooded by water or swept away. It was a miracle. We are still not sure how much might have been contaminated indirectly (through the barrels staves, by swirling vapors), but we knew that we had a new task: no matter what the final result, we must work to save everything that we could.

I flew out as soon as I could. Meanwhile, Mark and Christopher and Darren and Ben and 20 volunteers cleared the tumult of barrels and swept away the fruit spilled everywhere onto the floor. On the fourth day, we began working on the wines again, in the dark, using headlamps and flashlights. We tasted everything and made a triage chart. Some wines still needed pumping over; most were at the end of their fermentations and needed to be drained away from the skins and seeds. We began work draining the tanks of red wine by gravity, into large open vessels that we would then bucket out of to fill barrels. Over the next couple of days, we drained the puncheons of white wine by gravity, bucket, and eventually by a tiny generator-powered pump. Yesterday, we finished draining the puncheons of red. Except for one still active Cabernet fermentation, every wine is now safely down to barrel. We don’t know how much wine is spoiled, how much contaminated– but in a certain sense we do not care. We had work to do.

Why am I telling you this? I learned an important lesson, reflecting on my colleagues and friends working tirelessly in the cold, dark stone warehouse that is our winery. Among us for three days was a winemaker from Piemonte who had originally come here to promote his wines to the important New York market. Instead, he showed up one morning at the winery and could not stay away. For three days, he held hoses, swept the floor, filled barrels. He could not stay away and nor could we– even though none of us had any assurance that we could finally save anything. Our work was in a certain sense an end in itself.

Winemaking is an act of devotion: devotion to the wine in front of you, still young and needing your husbandry to reach its best completion; devotion to the grapes, the grapes harvested to make wine at your hands; but most of all: devotion to the vineyards and the people who own and farm them. None of us had any doubt: we had a natural and irrevocable responsibility to make sure that the grapes grown by Ron Gerler and Joe Macari, by the Matabellas and by Sam McCulloch, that the fruit of their vines, harvested at length, after months of tilling, pruning, thinning, mowing– that these did not go to waste. Storm, hurricane, flood, absence of power, a forklift that would never lift again– no excuse, no impediment: we had a responsibility to make the very best wine and make sure that a whole year’s life in the vineyard was not in vain.

Our devotion flows from the fact that the essence of winemaking is not something silly like blending or ordering the right barrels: the essence of winemaking is preservation and transformation. Both of these can take place with the least of our intervention or supervision; this in turn emphasizes that we are not creators but shepherds.

We were in that cold, dark building for four days– Luciano, from Monforte d’Alba, with other responsibilities in an important market; Talia, a writer with deadlines; Allison and Matt with restaurants to run- we were all there for the same reason. No shepherd would abandon a flock on a stormy hillside. Not his flock, not his neighbor’s. When you take on certain tasks, you accept certain charges and responsibilities and they take residence in your bones. It is wonderful to feel that charge, so deep and so viscerally; and wonderful to respond to it.

This is a report on the close of harvest. Normally, I would not report on Brooklyn– it is another venture, not Scholium. But I rushed from California to come here, leaving my noble and precociously wise interns in charge of the Scholium winery. And my mind has been forced to reflect on two places at once, but one truth. The harvest in California has been my best ever, in every respect. The quality of the fruit, the quality of the wines, the youthful interest of the wines (some of them are already fascinating!), the happiness and efficiency of our work– never have I had a year like this. And my friends and colleagues who grow grapes and make wines– all of them are celebrating. This year, there was no suffering in Napa or Sonoma or Lodi or Suisun– only gratitude and elation.

And then a winery in Brooklyn is demolished and a whole year’s harvest threatened. It made me think right away of the two sides of a coin, inseparable. And made me think of the emblem of the Theater: two masks together, Tragedy and Comedy, inseparable. And this in turn made me think of a very important line in Plato’s Symposium, a beautiful dialogue about love, but also about drinking. The story ends with Socrates compelling his two remaining drinking companions (they had drunk the others under their couches) to agree that “it is in the power of one and the same man to know how to write both comedy and tragedy.” This line has always mystified me and spurred me to thinking, but I never felt that I understood it fully, or knew why this question brought the dialogue to a close. I still do not; but I feel somewhat closer, brought closer by my recent experiences in agriculture, in winemaking, in working in a harbor: in other words, by having my hands and my feet, and my heart and my head, in the physical, unbending world of Nature– not in the filmy, pliable world of books. I learn every year how close the wedding-celebration of comedy is to the funeral march of tragedy. Winemaking– like farming– is shepherding, but it is always no more than a breath away from spoilage.

Thank you for reading such a long message. Just let me know when you want to hear less from me.

With very best wishes


Red Hook Winery is offering “Survival Packs” — collections of their wine, still intact, available for sale. To find out more visit their site here: http://redhookwinery.com/

To read more on the history of Red Hook, and the impact of Sandy on the area plus the winery, check out this thoughtful post by Allon Schoener: http://the-reluctant-angeleno.blogspot.com/2012/11/channeling-destruction-wrought-by-super_14.html

To hear more from Abe on the state of things at Red Hook Winery, check out this podcast with Levi Dalton on _I’ll Drink to That_. Episode 42: http://illdrinktothatpod.com/