Tag pinot noir

Tasting Wine w the Historic Vineyard Society: Pebble Beach Food + Wine

Heritage Wines of California at Pebble Beach Food and Wine

Pebble Beach Food + Wine Heritage Wines of California panelfrom left: Morgan Twain-Peterson, Gillian Balance, Ray Isle, Tegan Passalacqua

Ray Isle, Executive Wine Editor for Food & Wine Magazine celebrated heritage wines of California on a panel at this year’s Pebble Beach Food and Wine. Bringing together Morgan Twain-Peterson and Tegan Passalacqua of the Historic Vineyard Society, with Master Sommelier and wine educator, Gillian Balance, the discussion offered an introduction to terroir specific vineyards of California through ten wines of Northern California.

Attending the Heritage Vineyard Society panel was a lucky treat. The event was one of the first to sell out for Pebble Beach Food & Wine this year, and the crowd waiting to get into the panel was not only early but pushed against the door waiting for it to open. It was a fantastic panel discussion bringing out not only the value of the ten individual wines (shown below) featured, but also of the importance of historic vineyards more broadly. Following is a look at the discussion and the wines.

The Value of Older Vineyards

To open the conversation, Isle highlighted the point that older vineyards are not just old vines, but plots of land that offer cultural value beyond their simple economic value. Twain-Peterson and Passalacqua have worked with vineyards throughout the Northern part of the state for decades.

Twain-Peterson grew up with the interest through work in wine with his father, Joel Peterson of Ravenswood. However, he began his own passion for the work at a young age making his first wine thanks to grapes from a family friend at the age of 5. Though he must have had assistance at such a young age, he selected the type of fruit he wanted himself–Pinot Noir. He now has his own label, Bedrock Wine Co.

After work with wine in South Africa, Passalacqua has spent the last decade with Turley Wine Cellars driving between vineyards throughout Northern California and into the Central Coast, scouting new sites, and managing vine health to then make wine for the label. More recently he has also launched his own already celebrated label, Sandlands.

The depth of experience with older vineyard sites shared by Passalacqua and Twain-Peterson is some of the deepest in the state. Again and again, however, the duo witnessed brilliant older vineyards being ripped out for merely economic reasons. The experience was repeatedly devastating.

Older sites offer more direct insight into any sense of California terroir. As vines age they adapt to the conditions of their site. The adaptation means that their growth and fruit production are unique to the place in which they are grown, not replaceable by simply getting fruit from another site. Younger vines can offer abundant fruit but tend to be more expressive of their variety and clone. As vines age, however, clonal distinctions fade to the backdrop and site expression steps to the fore.

As Isle pointed out, however, older vineyards don’t just contain older vines. Sites in California planted prior to Prohibition still produce beautiful fruit, offering a link through the state’s otherwise broken viticultural history. Many of these vineyards are also still owned and farmed by the families that planted them. Grandchildren that first walked the rows with their now deceased relatives thus maintain a connection with their own history. As the panel emphasized, agriculture reflects culture, rather than just being agri-business.

Many of the older sites that Twain-Peterson and Passalacqua valued were unknown, however. So, when faced with the destruction of one of these vineyards few people even realized what had been lost. Frustrated with the trend, the pair got together with several others, including Mike Officer, of Carlisle Winery, and David Gates of Ridge, to found the Historic Vineyard Society, a non-profit that registers, maps, and raises awareness of older vine sites in an effort to preserve them.

Heritage Wines of California

Heritage Wines of California panelthe ten wines of the Heritage Wines of California, PBFW panel
from top left: Hanzell Ambassador 1953-planting 2007 Pinot Noir; Bedrock Wine Co Gibson Ranch 120-yr old 2013 Grenache; Idlewild Testa Vineyard 2012 Carignane; Neyers Evangelho Vineyard 2012 Mourvedre; Turley 1880s-planted Library VIneyard 2012 Petite Sirah; Turley Kirchenmann Vineyard 2012 Zinfandel; Limerick Lane 1910-planted 2011 Zinfandel; Carlisle Winery Carlisle Vineyard 2012 Zinfandel; Ridge 2012 Geyserville

In choosing the ten wines for the panel discussion, the group selected examples made from vineyards legally established more than 50 years ago, with more than 33% of the planting still containing original vines. Farmers of older sites will individually replace vines with cuttings of the originals as issues develop in particular vines. As a result, older vineyards often reflect a patchwork of ages but with a predominance of original vines, and a root in original vine material.

The first challenge for older vineyards existing today rests in surviving the fancy of economic trends. However, being established at a time with less potential intervention means such sites were also, by luck or intention, established in locations that can genuinely support healthy vines. As Passalacqua pointed out, because of the lack of technological intervention previously possible, older sites represent land genuinely good for grapes. If it was too hard to grow healthy grapes there, the site was going to be pulled out for farming an easier, more lucrative crop.

As the panel explained, vineyards older than 50 years represent access to an older paradigm “before a more recent intellectual and technical shift in vineyard technology.” More than 50 years, ago sites were planted dry farmed with older (pre-trellising) techniques. Such sites, as a result, reflect not only older vines but sites brilliant for vineyards.

The Wines of the Panel

The wines as a whole were impressively vibrant, with complex expression and flavor concentration. The ten panel selections showed a predominance of elegance, with just a few examples of winemaker experimentation or a touch of vineyard funk. Following are notes on the individual vineyards and wines.

Hanzell, Ambassador Block, 2007 Pinot Noir, Sonoma Valley
In the 1953-planted Ambassador block, Hanzell grows what is believed to be the oldest continuously producing Pinot Noir vineyard in North America. As Gillian Balance explained, the site is “one of the most spectacular vineyards ever seen” offering incredibly low yields and “a benchmark for what great California Pinot Noir should be.” The 2007 carries a beautiful, easy purity of expression offering layers of fruit, earthy-herbal elements with stimulating while delicate tannin, built around a graceful backbone.

Bedrock Wine Co, Gibson Ranch, 2013 Grenache, McDowell Valley
Bedrock sources fruit from the historic Gibson Ranch McDowell Vineyard, featuring Grenache trees more than 120 years old. The vines on the site are head trained but having been largely left to their own devices over the years, vine height is often taller than people. Harvesting the fruit includes ladders, or standing inside the body of the vine itself. As Twain-Peterson explains, he loves the wines of Gramenon, and from Beaujolais, and so chose to use some whole cluster fermentation to call on the characteristics of those wines. The Bedrock Gibson Grenache carries lots of fresh red fruit lift, moving into a purple and violet palate with tons of mineral crunch and pleasing texture.

Idlewild, Testa Vineyard, 2012 Carignane, Redwood Valley
Though Zinfandel often takes credit as California’s historic grape, Carignan established itself through the same regions as its spicy cousin. The two varieties complement each other in the glass with Carignan bringing a meaty earthiness to Zinfandels fruit spice. Examples of Carignan can be found on its own as well. The Idlewild Testa Carignane brings elegant richness to juicy dark fruit integrated with a deeper spice and ginger accents. Isle laughingly described it as “bright, zingy, like tap dancer wine.”

Neyers, Evangelho Vineyard, 2012 Mourvedre, Contra Costa County
As Passalacqua explains, the Evangelho stands as a rolling vineyard of blow sand — decomposed granite literally blown down from the Sierra Nevadas. It can be a challenge moving through the site to sample fruit, like walking long distances on a beach. One of the advantages of growing vines in sand, however, rests in phylloxera’s inability to prosper in such an environment. As a result, vines can grow on their own roots giving more direct expression, and greater balance in the final wine. The Neyers Evangelho Mourvedre gives dark fruit, dried maple (no sweetness), and natural spice concentration lifted with clean, fresh fruit and melting tannin.

Turley, Library Vineyard, 2012 Petite Sirah, Napa Valley
The Library Vineyard grows in the heart of St Helena wrapping the back sides of the town library. Planted in the late 1880s, more than 24 different varieties, including some unidentified, grow in the site. In this way, the Library Vineyard is not only adjacent to the town library, but is in itself a library of historic cuttings from around the Napa Valley. The Turley Library Petite Sirah wine is full of concentrated complexity beginning with opaque aromatics and violet perfume, then carrying the perfume into the palate with layers of sarsaparilla, mandarin zest, dark fruit, and natural (not barrel) coffee accents.

Turley, Kirschenmann Vineyard, 2012 Zinfandel, Lodi
Growing in what is known as the Peninsula section of the historic Mokelumne River AVA of Lodi, the Kirschenmann Vineyard showcases the lighter fresh fruit profile offered by the sands of the Lodi region. Passalacqua himself now owns the Kirschenmann Vineyard, having purchased it with his wife directly from the family that farmed it for generations. The Turley Kirschenmann Zinfandel carries perfumed red aromatics, rolling into a fresh palate of white and red cherry accented by pink grapefruit spice, white pepper midpalate accents, and suave melting tannin.

Limerick Lane, 1910 Zinfandel Block, 2011 Zinfandel, Russian River Valley
In the Northeastern section of the Russian River Valley, Limerick Lane owns their historic Estate vineyard, originally homesteaded and planted in 1910. From the site some of the most respected names in California wine history have made wine, including Davis Bynum, and Ravenswood. Maintaining a block of the original vines, Limerick Lane produces a field blend Zinfandel. The 2011 carries redwood, earthy, and savory black olive notes through a drying midpalate and long finish. Note: though the panel papers named this the 2012 vintage, the wine poured was actually the 2011.

Carlisle Winery, Carlisle Vineyard, 2012 Zinfandel, Russian River Valley
Growing on the Eastern Bench of the historic river floodplain in the Russian River Valley, the Carlisle Vineyard proves one of the most varietally diverse sites in Northern California. Thirty-eight different varieties prosper in the site. Carlisle Winery produces a field blend Zinfandel featuring the mix. Carlisle Vineyard is owned by Mike Officer, one of the board members and founders of the Historic Vineyard Society. The Carlisle field blend Zinfandel gives red fruit lift and refreshing pink grapefruit accents carrying forward into a creamy palate with layers of rich maple (no sweetness), cocoa powder, cracked pepper, and touches of loam.

Bedrock Wine Co., Bedrock Vineyard Heritage Wine, 2012 Sonoma Valley
Founded in 1854, Bedrock Vineyard carries rich heritage including the attention of U.S. Generals, a state Senator, survival through Prohibition, and now ownership by what Twain-Peterson refers to as the The Peterson-Deininger-Kenworthy-Burney Braintrust. The Bedrock Wine Co Bedrock Vineyard blend brings together Carignan and Zinfandel with 20% mixed field blend from the property’s historic vines. The wine gives lifted fresh purple fruit integrated with fresh herbal, earthy elements and light pine through creamy flavors on a lean, drying palate.

Ridge 2012 Geyserville, Alexander Valley
Another historic field blend site, Ridge’s Geyserville wine brings fruit from the Geyserville vineyard featuring vines more than 130 years old. The field blend includes Carignan, Zinfandel, and Mataro (aka Mourvedre), a combination classic to the warmer areas of Northern California. Ridge has been making wine from the site since 1966. The Ridge Geyserville spins with perfumed floral notes of cherry blossom, dried rose petal, and forest violet, moving into a touch of forest floor, cocoa, and savory soy elements through the ultra long finish.


For more on Heritage Vineyards in California, read Ray Isle’s excellent article: http://www.foodandwine.com/articles/the-battle-for-americas-oldest-vines

Thank you to Ray Isle, Gillian Balance, Tegan Passalacqua, and Morgan Twain-Peterson.

Thank you to Sarah Logan.

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

World of Fine Wine Issue 43

Varner and Neely Wines in World of Fine Wine

World of Fine Wine

The current issue of World of Fine Wine, Issue 43, has been released. Included is an article by me on Varner and Neely Wines of the Santa Cruz Mountains. I couldn’t be happier.

I have massive respect for the magazine, and its editor Neil Beckett. The publication consistently produces top quality work from the best writers around the world. To be able to go in depth on the work Bob and Jim Varner are doing with their Chardonnay and Pinot Noir labels, Varner and Neely, is a huge honor for me. I have so much admiration for them as people, and for what they’re doing in wine.

In a bit of synchronicity, one of the pivot stones of my philosophy career, Charles Taylor, turns out to have an article in the issue as well. He’s written there on Heraclitus and Kant in relation to the aesthetics of wine (to think I believed I couldn’t joy-geek any harder…). It’s a strange surprise to travel the distance from writing my undergraduate honors thesis on his work, to then being at the same professional institution as him (McGill), to now sharing the table of contents in a wine magazine. God has a good sense of humor.

If you don’t know World of Fine Wine, check it out. It really is an excellent magazine. I’m thrilled to say I’ll have more upcoming work in their pages as well.

If you have the chance to read the article, I’d love to hear from you.


Carla Rzeszewski, Jr, and I first visited Varner together, thanks to the introductory efforts of Dan Fredman, and a further recommendation from Jon Bonné. She and I spent a lot of time talking about their wines after, and those conversations came with me through the other visits and tastings I was able to do with the Varners. In many ways I wrote the article for Carla–she was the original motivation–to celebrate those conversations we shared. Love to you, Carla.

Thanks to Kate McKay for the magazine photo.

Thank you to Steven Morgan, Kelli White, and Nick Antignano.


Varner Wines: http://www.varnerwine.com/

To read more on Varner:

Jon Bonné’s article in Decanter, 2011: http://www.varnerwine.com/varner_press_2/Decanter_September_2011.pdf

Jon Bonné’s article in SF Chronicle, 2008: http://www.sfgate.com/wine/article/Bob-and-Jim-Varner-3268043.php

Richard Jennings, 2012: http://www.rjonwine.com/chardonnay/varner-santa-cruz-mountains/

and my personal favorite: RH Drexel’s interview with Varner in Loam Baby: http://www.loambaby.com/v1.html



A Visit to Haute-Saône, France: Drinking wine with the Captain at Chateau La Barre

This interview originally appeared here April 1, 2013. Because of recent events it seemed appropriate to repost it today.


Touring the Vineyards of Chateau La Barre

for Annemarie, and Jeremy


climate meter at Chateau La Barre Vineyards

It’s warm when I arrive for the visit of Chateau La Barre. The weather is a relief for the region after fog and cold for several weeks. The area is known for its continental climate but can also get hit with bouts of severe chill due to the mountain influence from the North. Though the Vosges range is in the distance, it still weighs influence on the vines.

My visit to the winery is unusual, as the Chateau owner is known now for his privacy. He’s resistant to interviews but offered to meet me finally in recognition of his family winery’s up coming tricentennial. Owner and vigneron, Jean-Luc Picard, treats his vines now as an homage to his ancestors.

His invitation to meet arrived with a short but direct explanation: We’re not going to talk about his previous career. It’s the Chateau we’re there to discuss, and, though he’d rather avoid interviews, he respects the work of his family and wishes to celebrate their accomplishments. Prior to retiring to his homeland of France, Picard had had a distinguished career as a fleet Captain, but now he sees that recognition as a distraction from the work he’s trying to do for the region.

Meeting the Picards


inspecting the vines with Jean-Luc Picard

Before I have the chance to sit, Picard ushers me out to the vineyard. It’s the vines he wants to show me. The Estate’s recent developments are exciting, thanks in part to Picard’s archaeological and historical interests as well.

Winemaking hadn’t been part of Picard’s imagined retirement. He’d grown up in the vineyards with his father Maurice teaching him vine maintenance but Picard’s passions took him away from home. With his older brother Robert devoting himself to oenology, Picard felt free to follow the decision of a different path. The traditions of the Picard estate would rest in his brother’s family.

Then, almost three decades ago tragedy struck when a winery fire killed both Picard’s brother, and nephew, Réne. The loss was devastating, and the future of Chateau La Barre seemed uncertain. Robert’s widow, Marie, was able to keep the winery operating successfully until a little less than 10 years ago when she fell ill. Around the same time Picard was first considering the possibility of retirement. With the news of Marie’s illness, and clear counsel from his friend, Guinan, Picard decided to take some time in France. Then the visit led to an unexpected discovery.

We’re standing in front of a special section of vineyard Picard wants to show me. What’s unique is that the grapes are entirely pale and green skinned, an ancient variety known as Savagnin. The region has been dominated by red wine production for centuries, more recently practicing in traditional techniques of wild yeast fermentations, and aging in neutral oak barrels. As Picard explains, the style is one resembling one of the oldest winemaking styles in France, with the most delicate of grapes, Pinot Noir.

Generations ago Chateau La Barre was instrumental in helping to restore the style, once called Burgundy, through the work of Picard’s great grandfather, Acel. Though the approach was met with resistance initially, ultimately, the family was lauded for their efforts to return to less interventionist winemaking based on the grape types that grew best on the land, requiring less use of fluidized treatments, and more reliance on the vines own unique ecosystem.

Prior to Acel Picard’s efforts, it was more common for wine to be made with the use of replicated nutrient intervention. Acel’s view, however, was that such an approach created less palatable, and less interesting wine. So he scoured the historical records for evidence of older techniques. In doing so, he found ancient texts left from devotees of an ancient religion known as Christianity in which it was believed that God spoke to them through the vines. Though Acel refused the more mystical aspects of the religious views, he found the vineyard practices of the texts insightful, and adopted the technique of tending and selecting individual vines, followed by simple winemaking. Chateau La Barre’s wines soon became known for their earthy mouth-watering complexity.

Picard’s own work builds on the efforts of his great grandfather to return to older techniques but in researching archaeological sites of the region, as well as ancient texts, Picard discovered a subtle mistake in Acel’s efforts. While Acel worked to restore red winemaking traditions known to Haute-Saône, he actually restored techniques native to an area of France slightly afield from the region. La Barre, it turns out, does not rest within the old boundaries of the ancient wine region of Burgundy, but instead a political shire of the same name. Picard himself does not believe this historical reality lessens the importance of Acel’s efforts, it just changes their tone slightly, but he does want to see what can be done to explore the winemaking traditions that really were found closer to La Barre centuries ago.

Enter Vin Jaune and the Ancient Varieties

Jean-Luc Picard standing in his Eline Vineyard

Through archaeological work Picard preformed a sort of miracle. He was able to locate still intact seeds from ancient vine specimens known once to have covered this region of France, Savagnin, as well as seeds for the red variety that had once covered the wine region of Burgundy, Pinot Noir.

Before the destructive effectiveness of the technology was properly understood, Thalaron radiation was tested as a soil cleaning technique during the last agricultural age. The bio-effects were irrecoverable with vineyards throughout the Vosges zone being destroyed and then unplantable for a generation. As a result, a collection of indigenous grape varieties were believed to be lost, including Savagnin, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Noir. Once the soil recovered well enough to replant large interests in inter-global varieties took over and any attempts to recover the original grapes seemed over.

During the Restoration period scientists attempted to re-engineer Savagnin as well as other ancient varieties such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay but Savagnin proved too susceptible to geraniol instability to engineer. When funding for the project was cut, efforts to restore Chardonnay were deemed the least advantageous and ultimately only Pinot Noir vines were genetically manufactured.

Through intensive research Picard was able to find a cave in the Vosges range containing ancient wooden vessels that proved to have a few small seeds inside. Through similar research he also located similar containers in the area of Gevrey-Chambertin within which he located Pinot Noir. Chardonnay and Cabernet remain extinct.

With the seeds Picard was then able to develop new plantings of both Savagnin and Pinot Noir, and restart sections of his vineyard with them. It is the area with these plantings he has named Eline. It is this he wants me to see.

Thanks to Picard’s efforts we now know there is significant difference in the flavor and aging potential of wines made from the engineered Pinot Noir versus the naturally grown variety. Picard has also discovered evidence from old electronic documents known as The Feiring Line: The Real Wine Newsletter of unique vinification techniques known as vin Jaune that were once used for the grape Savagnin. Through further study he has already discovered the steps to make vin Jaune and is five years into the aging of his first vintage.

I ask if we can taste his Savagnin but he explains it has only been under veil for a little over five years, and needs at least another year before he’s willing to show it. The veil, he explains, is how vin Jaune is made. It’s a film of yeast that covers the surface of the wine and helps it age slowly. When the wine is done it will be named Ressick, he tells me, for a planet that aged too fast.


Thank you to Jean-Luc Picard for giving so much of his time.

Thank you to Annemarie for suggesting the interview.

Thank you to Jeremy Parzen for having the background to hopefully get it.

Happy April 1, Everybody!

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

A Taste of Nagy Wines

Tasting Nagy Wines with Clarissa Nagy

Nagy Portfolio

click on image to enlarge

Focusing on two whites and two reds, Clarissa Nagy offers wines with a focus on fresh aromatics, clean fruit presentation, with tons of juiciness. Nagy’s touch as a winemaker is wines with a lot to give through a delicate presentation moving with a heart of strength.

While also making Syrah from Los Alamos, her Nagy Wines showcase the style of Santa Maria Valley — pretty and feminine floral fluit notes carrying an integral spice element on a body of juicy mineral length and easy, while present, tannin. The wines throughout are beautifully clean, and fine, with lovely concentration, expressive while retaining that delicate touch.

Giving crisp and fresh floral aromatics with a hint of wax, Nagy’s 2011 Pinot Blanc moves into crisp, fresh length through the palate. The wine offers a vibrant stimulation of citrus through the mid-palate rolling into touches of wax and white pepper on the finish, with a seaside mineral crunch throughout.

Nagy’s 2012 Viognier carries mixed floral notes coupled with a present and mouthwatering citrus element and mineral crunch that bring a dynamic balance to the wine.

The reds from Nagy are my favorite. The 2010 Pinot Noir gives nicely open, pretty aromatics with wild edges touched by sea sand. The palate carries a pretty balance of juiciness and length to light tannin traction, giving the integrated spice room to touch the mouth. The fruit here is clean and juicy.

I really enjoy Nagy’s 2010 Syrah from White Hawk Vineyard. The site produces incredibly tiny berries and low yield, with Nagy taking fruit from a hillside section. The combination leads to an inky, almost brooding Syrah lifted by Nagy’s utterly clean, fresh fruit focus. The wine hits the balance of lightness with genuine concentration on the nose brought into lots of juiciness and length on the palate. This Syrah is all red rose with mountain violet, dark rocks, and sea sand texture with a Shawarma core, that touch of bbq crackle spice that brings something to chew on. It’s a natural spice integral to the fruit itself.


The Nagy Wines website: http://nagywines.com/


Thank you to Clarissa Nagy.

Thank you to Sao Anash.

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

The Taste of Sta Rita Hills: Tasting with over 200 years of winemaking experience

Tasting Sta Rita Hills with over 200-yrs of Winemaking Experience

On my recent visit to Sta Rita Hills, Greg Brewer and Chad Melville were kind enough to organize and host a round table with a few other winemakers of the appellation for me. As a result, I spent several hours tasting and talking with Richard Sanford, Rick Longoria, Bryan Babcock, as well as my hosts. Jenne Lee Bonaccorsi was also included, and unfortunately unable to attend at the last minute. She sent wines in her stead.

To say the occasion was a genuine honor for me would be an understatement. The figures sharing their wines represent the very founders of wine in Santa Barbara County both in terms of literal first plantings, as well in being the sculptors of its development and future since. It would be impossible for me to overstate the importance of this group’s presence in the region. To prepare to meet with them the thing it was most pressing for me to do was take a moment alone to calm the hell down. I was excited, and deeply grateful. Once there they were, of course, one of the warmest groups I’ve ever had the pleasure to taste with.

One of the special aspects of the tasting was that every person sharing their wine was also a grower-winemaker, making wines from Sta Rita Hills while growing their own vineyards, and having worked with many locations throughout the region. Such an approach offers unique insight into the qualities of a place.

Babcock Winery

Babcock WInesclick on image to enlarge

Bryan Babcock grows along the Highway 246 corridor of Sta Rita Hills, while also sourcing fruit from the appellation’s edge in the Southern Sweeney-to-Santa-Rosa-Road stretch. For the tasting he brought a Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from a band just inside the Southwestern AVA boundary where Radian Vineyard (within the Salsipuedes Vineyard) carves the slopes of the Western line. “I like tasting that expression of edginess as you venture to the Western edge [of the Sta Rita Hills],” Babcock explains. Radian Vineyard pushes as close to the Pacific Ocean, and its cooling influence, as the appellation allows. Fruit, then, grows at the boundaries of ripeness with Chardonnay not always developing enough to turn into wine. Wines from the region, as a result, carry the incredible tension and mineral focus of such an oceanic influence, while still offering the undulating flavors from so much solar radiation. Cooler climates that still show higher UV levels can ripen their grapes’ flavor while keeping the structure taut.

Babcock’s “The Limit” Chardonnay carries an intriguing interplay of elements with there being no question of flavor ripeness, and round lifted aromatics, on a wine showing a persistent palate presence without heaviness. There are also long mineral lines throughout that give the wine a sense of crunch and complexity. “The Limit” was also my favorite Chardonnay of the tasting.

As Babcock explains, he has a sort of prejudice for the Western Edge of Sta Rita when it comes to Pinot Noir, as he believes the extremity of the location gives its wines a marked sense of provenance — a windy, climactic extreme. Babcock’s “Appellation’s Edge” Pinot Noir shows off the red fruit and flower-black tea character that speaks of Sta Rita giving a juicy, jaw-pinching acidity to open followed by that pleasing drying black tea finish.


Longoria Wineclick on image to enlarge

With his own vineyard planted along the Santa Ynez River on Sweeney Road, Rick Longoria has been making wine in the Sta Rita Hills since the 1970s, beginning his Longoria label in the early 1980s. He also sources fruit from other older vine locations in the appellation. In selecting wines for the tasting, Longoria brought an elevation Chardonnay from the famous Rita’s Crown location — a low vigor stretch at the top of the South-facing slope above Mt Caramel — as well as a Pinot Noir from his Fe Ciega Vineyard.

Rita’s Crown shows a different version of Babcock’s notion of appellation’s edge, not due to literal map boundaries, but instead growing conditions. The vineyard perches along the top ridgeline in what is otherwise the map-center of the AVA at an elevation between 650 and 900 ft, making it one of the highest plantings in the appellation. Longoria’s Chardonnay carries delicate sea fresh aromatics with cedar accents on nose and palate overlaying light toasted croissant, lemon blossom mid-palate, and a lemon marmalade finish. The wine shows that classic Sta Rita Hills character possible with a deft hand — strength of flavor with still a sense of delicacy.

Longoria’s Fe Ciega Pinot Noir came in as one of my favorites of the tasting showing an even more distinctive expression of wine with an intense strength housed in elegance. The wine still comes in taut as 2011 is right now young for the region, but is readying to open to nice flavor.

Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards

Alma Rosa Wineclick on image to enlarge

Richard Sanford has witnessed the full arc of Sta Rita Hills, planting the first vineyard in the area along with Michael Benedict, the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard. “From a regional perspective seeing a lot of younger winemakers dedicate themselves to the region is very cool. It’s an indication of a new wave of quality development,” he comments. In considering the strengths of Sta Rita Hills he emphasizes too that while the area is touted for its quality Pinot Noir, it was originally the quality of its Chardonnay that brought people to the area.

Sanford’s wine selections showcased a sense of refined delicacy with genuine presence that resembles his own calm character. His Alma Rosa El Jabali Vineyard grows near the Western edge of the appellation, planted by Sanford in the early 1980s. The Chardonnay gives a smooth mouthfeel moved through with delicately attenuated flavor into a long finish, coming after equally subtle aromatics.

Sanford’s Pinot Noir comes from his other Alma Rosa vineyard, La Encantada, which stands as one of the cooler sites in the region. The Pinot Noir hovers through layers of flavor offering light herbal aromatics moving into raspberry and blackberry bramble. The palate carries forward with a nice balance of juiciness-to-grip and a real sense of persistence and concentration.


Brewer Clifton Wineclick on image to enlarge

Together Steve Clifton and Greg Brewer began Brewer-Clifton in the mid-1990s, helping to preserve and improve the health of various vineyards around the appellation as a result. In the more recent trajectory of their venture, the duo have chosen to devote their efforts solely to vineyards they own or on which hold long-term lease. The difference affords them control over farming and clonal choices, as well as the opportunity for them to keep year-round employees. The economic sustainability of this approach is one of the impressive aspects of their business.

Brewer brought a Chardonnay from their own 3-D Vineyard, planted in 2007 by Brewer-Clifton to a mix of clones and California heritage selections. (In the Brewer-Clifton program as a whole, 2011 represents the last year of any purchased fruit, as with 2012 they were able to step entirely into relying only on their own vineyards.) The 3-D Chardonnay carries Brewer’s attention to letting a region’s assets speak through a sort of point-counterpoint interplay. With the ripe flavor readily given through California sun, Brewer keeps a structural tension on the wine to bring precision, and a nipped edge to the fruit. The wine comes in richly flavored, while simultaneously tight, opening finally to a softened feminine lushness.

The Machado Vineyard represents Brewer-Clifton’s devotion to stem inclusion. Planted by the pair in 2008, the clonal selection was chosen based on Brewer’s decades of experience experimenting with whole cluster on vineyards throughout the Sta Rita Hills. Thanks to his previous experience, they were able to plant Machado entirely to vines he has seen easily carry the benefits, without the overt challenges, of stems during fermentation. The Pinot shows of vibrant red and dark red character on a lean, mouth watering black tea palate with mixed floral, hints of citrus, and a touch of Italian herbs with lavender offered throughout.

Bonaccorsi Wine Company

Bonaccorsi Winesclick on image to enlarge

As we talked through the Bonaccorsi wines, the group celebrated founder Michael Bonaccorsi’s dedication to winemaking through the region. He was devoted to exploring the appellation, and learning quality winemaking alongside those that had established their knowledge of the area. After Mike’s death in 2004, his wife Jenne Lee has continued making the Bonaccorsi wines while exploring the wine potential of the region. Originally, the Bonaccorsi’s intent had been to make wine in the Russian River Valley, but after getting to know the wines of Santa Barbara County in the 1990s they recognized an intense quality potential to the lesser known region that compelled them to invest instead in the Sta Rita Hills.

Jenne Lee offered two vineyard select Pinot Noirs for the tasting. The Bentrock Vineyard rises from a rolling Northfacing bench on the Western side of the appellation, offering a cooler sun exposure to benefit the Pinot Noir. The wine carries intensely mineral focused strength and concentration that opens to red and black red fruit with roasted black tea notes throughout. The wine is powerful while accented by delicate juicy flavor and rose petal lift. Intriguing complexity.

The Fiddlesticks Vineyard, along Santa Rosa Road, shows off a more open presentation in comparison carrying red fruit and rose focus showing up in a mix of potpourri and fresh floral elements alongside raspberry leaf and black tea, with a mineral crunch through the finish.


Thank you most especially to Chad Melville, Greg Brewer, and Sao Anash for organizing the tasting.

Thank you very much to Richard Sanford, Rick Longoria, Jenne Lee Bonaccorsi, and Bryan Babcock. It truly was my honor to have time with you and your wines.

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

In the Spirit of Collaboration: Paris Popups

Attending a Paris Popup at Penrose in Oakland

Laura Vidal

Laura Vidal preparing the team on wine selections, Penrose, Oakland

Last week Laura Vidal and Harry Cummins were kind enough to invite me to their Paris Popup at Penrose in Oakland. The duo began the events while working together in Paris at Frenchies, taking over restaurants around the city. What would be a regular night off for the business would become a special treat for the owners — seeing their facility through the eyes of another team. The Paris Popups would open for one night only to a range of guests within an already established restaurant space, and provide dinner to the owner in exchange for using the space.

Laura Vidal and Harry Cummins

Laura Vidal and Harry Cummins

Originally from London, Cummins had returned home to visit friends and saw that a new style of food event — popups — were happening around the city. Returning to Paris he realized he hadn’t heard of them taking place on the French side of the Channel. He and Vidal decided to design their own, and Paris Popups were born. The venture developed organically. After their first successful occasion, restaurants around Paris began reaching out to the team offering to host. Paris Popups popped up all over the city, until the pair decided to take a year to both share and learn food and wine culture all over the world, beginning what would become a Popup world tour.

Harry Cummins

Harry Cummins

Unleashed from the team that was integral to their work in Paris, Cummins and Vidal have found their world tour defined by collaboration. The duo selected their route, then reached out to venues, wine distributors, and chefs in cities around the world. In each location they have sought to work intimately with area chefs to develop the menu with consideration for local ingredients, and bring in winemakers or distributors whose work they wish to support. Part of the point is to celebrate the unique offerings of a particular area. In selecting wines too, the people behind the wines are invited to participate, offering guests direct contact not easily afforded elsewhere. Evan Lewandowski of Ruth Lewandowski wines, Raj Parr of Domaine de la Cote, and Anthony Lynch of Kermit Lynch wines all poured, for example, in Oakland.

Paris Popup

Halibut, clams, blood oranges

The menu development occurs as a kind of ongoing conversation. Vidal selects wines in advance allowing for a progression through a multi-course meal. By this point, the chefs have already begun to brainstorm ideas, but now coordinate in concert with consideration of the wines as well. Vidal’s and Cummin’s expertise shows in listening to their process. Their skill in designing a meal in advance of an event reflects their experience with flavor and pairing. For the Penrose event, Cummins and Vidal were able to work with Bones Restaurant’s James Edward Henry and Austin Holey, as well as Charlie Hallowell, the chef of Penrose in the kitchen and to develop the menu.

Paris Popup

Sweetbreads, poached egg, Périgord black truffle

Each city’s food culture comes with a different infrastructure and dynamic. Where New York relies on ordered formality in a restaurant team, California’s Bay Area approaches evening meals with a more relaxed service style. Recognizing and working with the different styles of service for each location, then, becomes integral to the world tour.

Paris Popup

Uni, fermented squash, kumquats

The Oakland popup included two nights in Penrose, serving a seven course meal including wine pairings. The team accomplished an impressive, and well-executed menu showcasing the experience of pairings at their best. My favorite of the night rests strongly in the second course. We were greeted with a glass of Raveneau 2001 1er Cru Chablis then coupled with a dish of Dungeness crab, grapefruit, and artichokes. The pairing gave a beautiful example of how flavors can synthesize. While one of my favorite wines, Raveneau carries incredible strength, approaching the edge of pleasurable intensity on the palate. Similarly, the dish carried a strength of flavors with the richness of the crab absorbing the force of the grapefruit. The food followed by the wine, however, created a sense of elegance through the mouth that was truly beautiful.

Paris Popup

Oysters (served alongside the Rib eye)

Paris Popup

Rib eye

My other favorite pairing brought Les Palliéres 1999 Gigondas alongside a course of Rib eye with a side of oysters, and a green salad of citrus dressing. Rib eye is a classic suggestion for Gigondas, but the oysters nicely celebrated the sea-air freshness I find in the nose of older Les Palliéres, and the citrus note brought out the bright red elements of the wine on the palate, showing off the youthful vibrancy of the 1999. The combination was beautifully done.

Paris Popup

Apples, Penrose tonic ice served with Neige 2011 Apple Ice Wine

The other pairings throughout the night showcased differing approaches to marrying food and wine. Where the two courses mentioned celebrated an approach of complementing flavors, others focused on contrast. The sweetbreads, poached eggs, and black truffle dish brought a real richness to the palate that was cut through, and refreshed by the red fruit and black tea spine of the Domaine de la Cote 2011 Bloom’s Field, an elegant expression of what Sashi Moorman calls the Heart of Sta Rita Hills. Throughout the courses, I was impressed with the focus on texture. Each dish showcased a blend of varying levels of firmness, and push so that the pleasure of the palate was more than just taste. Such attention to texture showed in the way the wines paired as well. The light grip from skin contact maceration in the Ruth Lewandowski 2012 Fox Hill Vineyard Chilion Cortese Zero, for example, brought a vibrant citrus flavored texture alongside the slippery give of the uni and fermented squash with kumquat dish.


The Penrose Paris Popup had a collaborative menu developed by James Edward Henry, and Austin Holey from Bones, Harry Cummins from The Paris Popup, and Charlie Hallowell from Penrose. Wine Selection was done by Laura Vidal.

Rajat Parr, Eric Railsback, Anthony Lynch, and Evan Lewandowski helped with wine service, while the Penrose team provided floor service.

La Face Cachée de la Pomme has sponsored the Paris Popup since its arrival in Montreal.


All photos in this post are the work of Diane Yoon, and used with her permission.


Thank you to Laura Vidal.

Thank you to Anthony Lynch.

Thank you to Diane Yoon.

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

Value Bubbles from Limoux

Drinking Bubbles from Limoux

An under-celebrated while reliable source of value sparkling wine rests in the Southern France region of Limoux. In the foothills of Languedoc’s Pyrénées, near the historic city of Carcassonne, stands the original Abbey of Dom Perignon, the legendary cultivator of the wine that would later come to be known as Champagne.

As the story goes, the Dom practiced his methods first in Limoux, before carrying them North to Champagne to popularize the drink there. In its elevation, Limoux offers the vibrant acidity needed to give focus and length in the Méthode Traditionelle. One of the pleasures of Limoux rests in its common use of grapes such as Chenin Blanc, and Mauzac alongside the more familiar Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Chenin Blanc gives an earthy-herbal-floral depth and richness with mineral length to its sparkling wines, while Mauzac brings a unique pert-apple with cut grass character.

Crémant de Limoux AOC

Sparkling wine from Limoux shows as two distinctive styles, Crémant de Limoux, and Blanquette de Limoux. Crémant de Limoux celebrates Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc primarily, with no more than 90% together forming the wine. The final portion brings in Pinot Noir and/or Mauzac.

Crémant de Limoux offers a great source for bubbles at a screaming value. With the long standing history of the region it’s easy to find bubbles well below $20 that are also a pleasure to drink.

Domaine Collin

Domain Collinclick on comic to enlarge

Domaine Collin produces two Brut Crémant de Limoux sparkling wines — a Chardonnay, Chenin, and Pinot white blend, as well as a rosé of the same grapes. Both wines offer nicely subtle complexity with depth. The white came in as my favorite of the Limoux wines presented here. It’s a wine for people that want palate tension placed alongside richness, juicy mineral length coupled with depth of flavor. At $13 it’s a screaming deal. The rosé is a beautifully made balance that’s a touch softer, and more approachable than the white with its cherry elements dancing through the citrus and floral notes.

Gérard Bertrand

Gerard Bertrand 2011click on image to enlarge

Gérard Bertrand offers a crisply focused, clean, and elegant Chardonnay, Chenin, Mauzac 2011 white blend coming in around $16. It’s a nice balance of dried flower-herbal notes coupled with delicate fruit creams, biscuit accents, and a long mineral finish. There is a nice balance of complexity to value here.

Blanquette de Limoux

Limoux holds the primary source of Mauzac in the world. The grape is required at minimum 90% of the Blanquette de Limoux — a Méthode Ancestrale style sparkling wine. However, in recent years Mauzac plantings have been replaced by Chardonnay, leading to a decline in the unusual variety.

Blanquette de Limoux is one of the gifts of the region. Though Méthode Ancestrale originates as the first approach to champagne method sparkling wine, it is uncommon today. The style offers a creamy palate with low alcohol as wine is generally not fermented entirely dry. Since the style originates with the monks of Limoux, it has been treated to its own controlled appellation with Mauzac determined as the dominate grape. 10% of the wine may be blended to Chardonnay and/or Chenin Blanc.

Cote Mas

Cote Masclick on image to enlarge

Cote Mas offers great value in their brut Crémant de Limoux, both coming in between $13 and 16, depending on the retailer. The white blend brings all four grapes together for a clean, meyer lemon cream-on-a-biscuit nose followed through to dried jasmine, hints of kumquat, white grapefruit pith, and orange blossom on the pert, juicy palate. Chardonnay, Chenin, and Pinot Noir blend into the pert, refreshing rosé giving floral citrus alongside cherry blossom to round the juicy palate.

Cote Mas also offers their Blanquette de Limoux celebrating their love for Mauzac through a 100% rendition of the wine. The jasmine and mandarin aromatics roll into a giving creaminess on the palate spun through with ginger flower. With its ultra low alcohol, and touch of sweetness this is a wine to enjoy slowly through the evening. At $13, the Méthode Ancestrale makes this a special, ultra-affordable wine.

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

A Glimpse of Sta Rita Hills: The Highway 246 Corridor + Melville Estate Pinot

The Highway 246 Corridor, Sta Rita Hills

The Highway 246 corridor of Sta Rita Hills acts as a funnel pulling fog and cool air from the open mouth of the ocean into the length of the Santa Ynez Valley. It’s a unique spot for California. A place where the continent turns, creating uplifts of rock, and also the only East-West running valleys on the Western coast. The relevance of that occurs in differing diurnal and weather shift than the rest of the country, where fog must curl over the peaks of a mountain range to reach the inner valleys. Sta Rita Hills sits exposed.

The pivoted orientation coincides with geological variation as well, not just in the sideways valleys and mountain ranges, but in the rock and soil formations throughout. Sta Rita Hills itself stands unique for US AVAs, distinctly differing bands of soil side-by-side within a coherent climactic zone. While the Southern portion of the appellation brings together marine shale and diatomaceous earth, the Northern part, along the Highway corridor, couples ocean sands with clay, blending in tumbled rocks, and dashes of white calcium.

The Melville Vineyards and Winery

Chad Melville

Chad Melville recounting his family’s vineyard history

Melville Vineyards and Winery grows along the Highway corridor producing wine through an entirely Estate fruit program of 120 planted acres. The property unites three vineyards that together represent the variations of the corridor — vines reaching through gritty ocean sands in portions, then rising from more nutrient rich and water holding sections mixed with clay and pebble, finally too growing along the lift to, and top of a mesa.

The Melville project operates as a family enterprise. The family had been farming in Knight’s Valley near Calistoga when they found the opportunity to move to an about-to-be established Sta Rita Hills. The possibility afforded them the chance to create a fresh project, bringing with them the knowledge gained from previous experience, and access to a newer range of clonal material for California. In establishing what would become an Estate-only program, the family decided to plant a range of vines, bringing together California’s heritage selections with the new-for-then Dijon clones, establishing 16 clonal types across the property. The blend would afford greater range in the eventual winery.

From the Melville Vineyard and Wineries inception, Greg Brewer has served as winemaker for the project, working alongside the family to develop the Estate wines. Chad Melville, who along with his brother Brent planted large swaths of the vineyards by hand, and Greg Brewer met with me to tour through portions of the vineyard property, and then taste through the Estate Pinot Noir.

Stems and Oak: Talking with Greg Brewer and Chad Melville

Greg Brewer

Greg Brewer discussing his work with a cohesive vineyard and winery team

In working with Melville fruit, the team focuses on micro-fermentations designated by clone and block, allowing for greater awareness of site particularities, and a fine-tuned sense of blending potential. They also integrate stem inclusion throughout developing ferments with a range of percentages from no stems to all stems in order to secure a pleasing textural, structural balance in the final wine. As Brewer explains, stems give architectural security for a region that offers clear fruit. Melville tends to hover around a 1/3 stem percentage in their Estate Pinot, and over time has removed use of any new oak.

Asking Brewer about these choices in winemaking, he explains it in terms of priorities. “When we really commit to an Estate program, that brings the attention to how we make wine in the vineyard.” Brewer tells me. With all the fruit coming from its own vines, an Estate program has to rely on its own vineyard practices. There is no opportunity to supplement their fruit. Brewer continues, “To do that, it’s important to not commit to our own prejudices on how the wine is treated in the winery. Instead, the fruit should all be treated through an equal lens, to get an equal interpretation, to really show what the fruit is.”

Brewer explains that over time, they realized that use of new oak, even in small percentages, was covering over the fruit expression. So, they switched to only neutral oak. He is careful to point out, however, that their decision is not a dogmatic or political claim. “The question of oak is not a priority in our scheme,” he explains. “The Estate is a priority. The vineyard is a priority. Our decision about oak just comes from those.”

At the time Melville began, ideas of stem inclusion were less overtly discussed than they are today. With that in mind, I asked Brewer and Melville to discuss what led them to taking the approach, something that could have seemed a bold move in the mid-1990s. Brewer had worked with mentors already at the time that relied on stem inclusion in their Pinot Noir. In meeting with the family to develop the house winemaking approach he brought samples of wines ranging in stem use. It turned out that tasting blind they all preferred about one-third stem inclusion.

Melville nods then elaborates. “In this area we have more opportunity to get stems ripe because we have a longer growing season, more exposure to the elements, and well-draining soils. Our house philosophy really is ‘use what you have.’” He explains. In thinking through a wine, one can consider the idea of flavor, on the one hand, and its architecture on the other. Between flow expressions of tension, texture, and mouthfeel. Use of oak offers one possible way to create an architecture-flavoral link in a wine, generating oak-tannin structure but also oak flavor. If your goal, however, is to use what you have, apparent oak would show as something imported from the outside. Stems become a different way to generate a similar linkage but offering a different sense of structure, mouthfeel, texture, and flavor often more integrated into the fruit than oak.

Tasting with Greg Brewer and Chad Melville: Melville Estate Pinot

Melville Estate Pinot Tastingclick on image to enlarge

After touring portions of the vineyard, getting dirty digging in sand, then clay loam (god, I love dirt), we return to the winery and begin a tasting focused first on six components of the 2013 Melville Estate Pinot Noir, then on three vintages of the Estate Pinot — 2012, 2008, 2004.

The first flight separates wine by clonal material, and vineyard location. The stem percentage stays the same across at one-third. The soil and clone changes. The common factor turns out to be a sense of bright redness, the wines hum at a higher register, hitting the soft palate with lifted red fruit. As we move from more clay (in Logan’s block) to more sand (in Anna’s and Sandy’s), however, the wines also become more structural, more taut.

The second flight keeps the vineyard site — atop the mesa in a sandy-clay loam with rocks — and clonal material — clone 114 — constant, while the stem inclusion changes moving from de-stemmed, to one-third, to 100% percent. The wines each contain clear architecture, but where the destemmed fruit carries a lightly syrup belly, the wines with stems offer more movement, filling the mouth with flavor while simultaneously cleansing the palate. Unexpectedly, the destemmed fruit feels darkest in the mouth, with the wine becoming progressively brighter the greater the stem percentage. The final wine, with all stems included, integrates flavors, architecture, and tension so thoroughly my mouth feels simultaneously desirous and confused. I want to drink it. I have little ability to describe it.

Finally, we taste through three vintages of the Estate, each separated by four years of age — the 2012, 2008, and 2004. The exercise has worked. Unsurprisingly, the components can be recognized as echos through the Estate bottles, along with other elements not tasted through the samples. The contrast shows off the skill of wise blending, while also the necessity of developing a balanced Estate. Where the components offered focused moments of energy and interest, the Estate pours as expressive, dynamic, complete.

The 2012 comes in sea fresh, with clean and lifted aromatics of red cherry and pure fruit, followed by black tea, and a nip of dry (not sweet) caramel in the mouth. It rolls through with a calm, comfortable tone carrying notes of roasted rice tea, and pepper integrated through cherry and berry followed by orange peel and darker fruit accents.

The 2008 drinks almost trembling on the palate, a kind of expressive delicacy with persistence to the wine. The flavors are clean, aromatic, there are accents of fermented cherry through the fruit, and accents of mandarin peel with a long savory, and black tea line.

The wines age easily, the 2004 still so vibrant and young in its energy it could readily age for years. It is my favorite of the three showing the most obvious mineral edge, along with dried plum blossom, dried lemon peel, and a blend of colored fruits–plum, blue, purple, and red berry–centered around a red cherry core that hums savory throughout.


Thank you to Greg Brewer and Chad Melville.

Thank you to Sao Anash.

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

A Glimpse of Sta Rita Hills: Climbing the Mountain w Sashi Moorman

Touring with Sashi Moorman

“In order for the region to grow, I think we need to really look at what makes Sta Rita special.” I’m sitting in the passenger seat of Sashi Moorman’s Toyota. We’re heading out Sweeney Road to drive up the side of a mountain that is vineyard Domaine de la Cote, the site Moorman started working first for Evening Land, then later purchased with friend Raj Paar. He’s telling me what sets Sta Rita Hills apart. “We need more discussion about the soils here. It’s a very unique and special part of the appellation. It distinguishes the AVA from others in California. Understanding the soils really elevates this region.”

On the way out Sweeney, Moorman stops the car. There is a sort of split a little inland along the canyon road. It’s a place where the soils change and looking first left, then right you can see it. Along the North-Western entrance to the canyon the soils are brown, loose, and full of small rocks — mineral rich sands from old sea beds. “This is the soil along the Highway 246 corridor,” Moorman points out. “Over here, the soils change.” He points Southeast in the direction we are headed.

“It’s difficult to find a region in the new world where you have cool climate, and also have geological diversity as varied as some of the great regions of France.” Moorman is referencing the Sta Rita Hills. “This Southern half of the appellation contains diatomaceous earth. It’s not celebrated. There isn’t much of it. But it’s a very very special part of the AVA.” I look up along a wall of the highway. The wall is glowing white.

Diatomaceous Earth, Sta Rita Hills

diatomaceous earth, Sweeney Road, Sta Rita Hills, Jan 2014

Diatomaceous earth stands at the top of mountaneous peaks in the Southern portions of Sta Rita Hills above mid-zone bands of marine shale. The lowest elevations are alluvial. The diatomaceous formation deceives the eye, as its silica structure glows of hard white rock, but almost flies from the hand lifting it. It is so light. The rock formed under water from silica based, single-celled life forms dying, then descending to the bottom of the ocean, and compressing over time into rock. It’s a challenging ground for plant life to grow in, but even so roots can penetrate it.

“I love diatomaceous earth,” Moorman tells me, “and marine shale. They are both permeable, so roots can penetrate them. Marine shale though, with a nice layer of clay mixed in to hold some organic material, and some water….” Moorman drifts off for a moment. He seems to be imagining the vitality of the roots in such ground. He continues. “I love diatomaceous earth, but it’s really hard to grow in.”

We’ve driven almost to the top of Domaine de la Cote, and Moorman’s stopped. He wants me to get out so he can show me some rock, and the view.

Sashi Moorman and marine shale, Sta Rita Hills

Sashi Moorman showing me marine shale, Sta Rita Hills, Jan 2014

Moorman picks up a couple handfuls of marine shale and shows me the material. It’s an easily breakable rock, and sets itself here on the hillside surrounded by earth with clay. “Diatomaceous earth does well for chardonnay. It doesn’t need as much clay. The Cote de Beaune,” he tells me, “it’s hard rock. They grow chardonnay. The Cote de Nuits? More clay. Pinot Noir loves clay.” Moorman is explaining to me why the mid-slope of their Domaine de la Cote vineyard grows Pinot. The marine shale-clay combination supports the health of the red. At the very top, the portion of the vineyard he and Paar named Siren’s Call, is all diatomaceous earth exposed too to wind. There they grow Chardonnay. “The higher the elevation in Sta Rita, the more we like Chardonnay.” He explains.

For Moorman, the stretch from Domain de la Cote on Sweeney Road, up the canyon to Santa Rosa Road, where the very first plantings at Sanford and Benedict sit, carve the heart of the Sta Rita Hills. Moorman finds there the highest quality vineyards of the appellation. He warned me too, when I first climbed in his Toyota, that his is a view not everyone shares. Quite a number of vineyards sit along the passage that is Highway 246. There is no question that stretch presents a different expression of the Sta Rita, but it is also one that many people value. For Moorman, however, his attention is on this section he calls the heart.

looking up the heart of Sta Rita Hills from Domaine de la Cote

looking up Moorman’s heart of Sta Rita Hills from almost the top of Domaine de la Cote

In the midst of Moorman’s explanation for the region is an account too about ripeness levels, balance, and site expression. “Making balanced wines is not a fad. It’s actually traditional. More alcohol in a wine makes it less expressive of the site, and more expressive of the winemaker.” We stand looking down the valley for a moment, then he continues. “On the other hand, if you pick at a potential alcohol of 13%, then you can taste the site differences — if a section is planted in diatomaceous earth, or planted in chert.” Chert is a sedimentary rock, more compressed and dense than diatomaceous but also made of silica. It occurs on the Southern most stretch of Santa Rosa Road buried into the mid-slope of Rinconada Vineyard, right next to Sanford and Benedict. That section of the appellation Moorman also works for the label he and Paar started, Sandhi.

For Moorman, organic farming also brings site expression even closer to the surface, more available to a glass of wine. “If you want to make great wine, you have to respect the terroir.” Moorman says. “You have to plant grapes that will work in that terroir.” His early reference to the differing needs of Chardonnay versus Pinot are an example. “If you don’t have terroir for a particular grape, you don’t have the terroir. Plant what is going to work there,” he repeats.

But Moorman’s point about balance doesn’t just rest in alcohol levels. He wants to think about a cohesive process from vineyard through cellar. “The word balance gets thrown around a lot but really it’s something that has to be thought about all the way through. Balance in the field. Balance in the winery. Balance in punchdowns, in racking, in cellar work.” He waves his hand for a moment indicating he means to list every time our hands touch what will be the wine. “Balance is a question of how you make the most elegant wine, not the most powerful, the most elegant.” He smiles for a moment remembering something. “There is a saying,” he continues. “You can have too much of everything, but not elegance. You can never have too much elegance.”

As we hop in the car to drive further into Moorman’s heart of Sta Rita we begin to think on other areas planted in diatomaceous earth. Neither of us can think of any. We turn down slope through Domaine de la Cote. Moorman is smiling. “Look how healthy the vineyard is. All the bugs, and the birds.” They’re dancing in the sunlight.


Sashi Moorman makes the following wines.

In Sta Rita Hills:

Domaine de la Cote: http://domainedelacote.com/

Sandhi Wines: http://sandhiwines.com/

In Ballard Canyon:

Stolpman Vineyards: https://www.stolpmanvineyards.com/

From Around the Central Coast:

Piedrassasi New Vineland Winery: http://newvineland.com/


Thank you to Sashi Moorman.

More on Sta Rita Hills, and tasting with Sashi in future posts.

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


Living Courage: Paul Lato Wines

Meeting Paul Lato

In Santa Maria, Paul Lato makes vineyard designate wines — Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Grenache, and Syrah — from Santa Maria Valley, Sta Rita Hills, Santa Ynez, Paso Robles, and Santa Lucia Highlands. We meet to first sample his about-to-be-bottled 2012 Pinots, then enjoy his other wines over food. In the midst of our meeting, I receive a message from a friend long in the wine industry about Lato — “that guy’s cooking skills are as legendary as his winemaking.” The dinner demonstrates it. During dinner, I can’t get enough of his Chardonnays.

Lato originates in Poland during communism. He explains that while there the overwhelming passion of writer-artist Kandinsky Kosinski, who Lato was able to meet in Poland, helped inspire his willingness to leave home. After, he lived for a year in Spain, before moving to Canada. Driven by a love of food, he became a sommelier in Toronto selling the best wines from around the world.

Eventually, Lato found inspiration in the early achievements and quality of Robert Mondavi. Mondavi’s story, and wine helped spark a dream for Lato of making his own wines, leading to his move to Santa Maria, California. He arrived with almost no resources except his willingness to learn and work, and by now has created a brand celebrated by Robert Parker, Thomas Keller, and international wine lovers as well. At the hardest moments, Lato explained, he found courage in Mondavi’s philosophy that it is less important if you fail at what you try to do than it is that you go ahead and do it.

As some of you know, when a figure has a clear, and distinctive story, I prefer to let them speak for themselves. Following are portions of my conversation with Lato. This represents only a small hint at everything we were able to discuss, but gives an interesting glimpse into how Lato handled the transition of becoming a winemaker.

Becoming a Winemaker

Paul Lato

Paul Lato

“I came to Santa Maria in 2002. I was a sommelier in Toronto for 12 years, and began here [in CCWS (a custom crush facility)] as a cellar rat with a dream of making my own wine.

“In 2002, I like to say, the CCWS was the Woodstock of winemaking because of the labels that were in here making wine. Some of them don’t exist any more. But it was a bee hive in here, a happening place, with everybody making wine. I was in the best position though because there I was cleaning everything, and watching what everyone did, and I could ask all of them, why are you doing this? What are you doing? We had interns too, from Spain, Australia, New Zealand, from all over the world. They would have oenology degrees. And all I did was ask everybody questions.

“To talk to a winemaker that has been making wine for 25 or 35 years, and hear what he was doing… and to stand there and also taste, and listen to what he says, but also watch how he works… Hmm… This wine has a bit of VA and he comes in late and doesn’t clean his barrels. Or, this one tinkers his wine all the time, always adding something, and I see that. I would taste the wine, and learn what techniques.

“I started with 6 barrels, with no partners and no investors. I have 160 barrels now in this vintage. I constantly would work for the other guys. Someone would live in Fresno but have wine here and ask if I could watch it. I would say, don’t pay me, just buy me another barrel. I had about five jobs, working here, watching projects. It all added up, and then suddenly someone would buy me a new barrel or new equipment and it would build like that.

“So, now, here, essentially I have my own winery, the tanks, equipment, you see here. The way I operate, I have to have everything paid in half a year. I own everything, no leases. This is my bonded space. [We enter a cordoned off section of the CCWS space.] And back here is the kitchen space I have. [He shows me a gorgeous grill, a machine for making homemade fries, an espresso machine, and more.] Every harvest I cook for my guys every day.

We walk by the dining table of the space. Beside it hangs a photograph of a fine dining restaurant in Paris, Lapérouse.

“This is my philosophy. What we make here has to end up there (pointing to the restaurant photo). What we make here, when we take it and put it on a white table cloth environment ends up bigger there. This is a worker’s environment, it feels different here. You can forget. The picture reminds us to do our work for a wine made for that environment. I tell my guys, don’t punch down so hard. The wine is for there, not here.”


Thank you to Paul Lato for so generously hosting me.

Thank you to Pierre LaBarge, and Sao Anash.


Post edit: In my hurry to get the post up this morning I typed Kandinsky instead of Kosinski. Lato was able to meet novelist Kosinski. Please excuse the typo. Cheers!

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