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pinot noir

A Search for Radiance

Bob Varner

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

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

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

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

Sonoma’s Far Coast: A haven for pinot noir

Wine & Spirits pinot noir

We step out of the forest into a glade where light pours through. Ted Lemon has guided me to the top of a hill at 1,200 feet of elevation in The Haven. He has been farming half of this tenacre property since 2001, using biodynamic methods, and he left half of the land wild.

“This is why it’s called The Haven,” he says of Littorai’s estate vineyard. The surrounding forest and coastal scrub provides animal habitat to foster biodiversity. Behind us, pinot noir, chardonnay and chenin blanc grow from a mix of shale, iron sands, compressed clay and serpentine.

These hills are part of Sonoma’s coastal mountains, most of which remain covered in conifers, too steep for cultivation. Vineyards have only arrived in the last 30 years, almost all planted in the 1990s or later on the gentler slopes and hilltops. (Until 1994, when Williams Selyem, Kistler and Littorai came knocking, even David Hirsch’s now sought-after fruit was going to Kendall-Jackson for blending.)

To read the rest of this article click on over to the Wine & Spirits Magazine website. It’s currently free-for-all there. Here’s the link: http://www.wineandspiritsmagazine.com/S=0/news/entry/sonomas-far-coast-a-haven-for-pinot-noir

West Sonoma Coast: A Guide

Near Sebastopol

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

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

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

Subscription is £6.99 a month or £69 per year ($11/mo or $109 a year for you Americans) and includes searchable access to the Oxford Companion to Wine ($65) and the World Atlas of Wine ($50) as part of the subscription costs, as well as interactive discussions on the Purple Pages. Click here to sign up.


Talking with Michael McNeill

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

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

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

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

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

The following photos are each courtesy of Hanzell.

A Conversation with Michael McNeill, Hanzell Vineyards

Michael McNeill, 2013

Michael McNeill, Winemaker Hanzell

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

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

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

Elaine: Did you ever feel compelled to?

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

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

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

Michael: Right. They were just tired.

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

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

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

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

Elaine: How long did he stay on?

Michael: Six months.

Elaine: Okay. So, through that harvest.

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

Michael McNeill Hanzell Harvest 2014

Michael McNeill bringing in Hanzell chardonnay, harvest 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Elaine: You mean in subsequent vintages?

Michael: Yeah.

Elaine: So that initial vintage was consistent with Michael?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elaine: They have to buy a six-pack.

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

Michael McNeil Pruning Ambassadors Vineyard


Michael McNeill pruning Ambassador Vineyard, Hanzell 2013

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

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

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

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

Elaine: That’s great.

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

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

Elaine: That transparency with harmony.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elaine: It doesn’t feel like anywhere else.

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


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

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

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

The History of Hanzell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Conversation with Michael McNeill, Hanzell Vineyards

Looking out over Hanzell Vineyard with Michael McNeill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elaine: That makes sense.

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

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

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

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

The historic Hanzell winery with Michael McNeill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tasting Hanzell

Elaine: So then you went from Keller to here?

Michael: Um-hm.

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

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

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

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

Elaine: Oh wow.

Michael: So yeah.

Elaine: That’s remarkable timing.

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

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

Michael: Yes, I started July 1.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blending DuMOL 

Andy Smith in Wild Rose Vineyard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evolving the DuMOL Style

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DuMOL Today

Andy Smith in Heintz Vineyard

Andy Smith in Heintz Vineyard, Green Valley, Jan 2015

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

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

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

Then there is the architecture of the vine.

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

The result shows through beautiful integrity from bottling to bottling.

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

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


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

DuMOL Wines: http://www.dumol.com

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

Wine & Spirits Sommelier Scavenger Hunt

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

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

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

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

Introducing the Sommelier Scavenger Hunt 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tasting the Sommelier Scavenger Hunt 2014

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Truchard Vineyards & Winery

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

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

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

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

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

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

Truchard Wines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Want to read more on Truchard Vineyards?

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

Thank you to Mathew Fitch. CHEEEESSSSE!!!

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


Visiting School House Vineyard

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

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

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

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

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

Nancy Walker and John M GantnerNancy Walker and John M Gantner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



The Vineyards of Eyrie

With the 2012 vintage, Eyrie Vineyards bottled separate Pinot Noir cuvées from each of their five vineyards for the first time. They have previously bottled Sisters, and Daphne in select vintages, and consistently offer the Original Vines Vineyard on its own as well.

The warm ease of 2012 in the Willamette Valley brings fruit to the fore of Pinot Noir in a region that readily celebrates notes of cedar and earthiness. It was a year that winemakers easily could have gone for riper, plush styles. For Eyrie, president and winemaker Jason Lett, kept the focus on the vibrant fresh acidity Eyrie is known for, thus allowing the fruit of 2012 to carry liveliness, and show in concert with earth elements, silky texture and ultra long finish.

Refined rhubarb and earth in a mouthwatering and lean presentation describes how I think of the hallmarks of Eyrie Pinot. The combination first drew me to following their wines. Seeing the vineyard designates of 2012 side-by-side layers in fascinating surprises.

Citrus elements lift from the glass in many of these wines, ranging from hints of lime blossom, into grapefruit, and all the way to the nose tickling pith of pomelo. The red fruit includes cherry blossom in some cuvées, and mixed red with white cherry fruit in others. The hallmark rhubarb resonates in some sites with berry fruit, and in others just with cherry.

The great secret of Eyrie wines rests in them staying open for as much as a week, if you can last that long, getting better in the glass as time goes on. The third day sings where the first day is still waking up. I hold high admiration for the life Eyrie shows through in the glass. It’s a shame more wine tastings, or tasting notes don’t allow such time with a wine, to celebrate this side of wine.

The Individual Wines and Vineyards

Eyrie Pinot Vineyard Bottlings click on image to enlarge

In tasting these wines together, it is the energy and muscle that changes most clearly between them. In August, my sister Melanie and I walked the Dundee Hills with Jason, visiting each of the Eyrie vineyards. Following are notes on each cuvée bringing tasting and walking notes together for each.

The Original Vines Reserve

*** The Original Vines Reserve brings such complexity, energy, and pleasing palate tension thanks to those gorgeously knarled, own root vines planted in 1965. The Original Vines Vineyard was the first to be planted by Eyrie founder, David Lett, at 220′-400′ elevation. Hidden mid-hill near the center of the Dundee Hills, the site stands along the bathtub ring of the Missoula flood. As a result, the site shows the greatest soil diversity of the Eyrie vineyards.

Near the top of the hill (where the oldest vines grow, and the greatest varietal variation as well — all the first Eyrie plantings are there) the red volcanic Jory soil that defines the Hills puts a red dust patina on the wines. At the bottom of the slope, in what is called the South Block, it is more of a taupe colored sedimentary earth deposited from the Missoula floods. The vineyard as a whole comes with chunks of Jory coupling alongside sedimentary in a patchwork of color.

The Original Vines Reserve carries lithe ease of strength — neither sinewy nor muscular, neither soft nor too tight. Aromas and flavors bring together rose petal with white cherry, rhubarb and raspberry, and light cedar through a wonderful energizing palate tension, and ultra long finish.

Outcrop Vineyard

* The newest of the Eyrie vineyards, Outcrop Vineyard grows around 250′ elevation planted between 1982 and 2000 by the Eason family, then purchased by Eyrie in 2011. It grows a little under 5 acres entirely of Pinot Noir and stands adjacent to the lower portion of the Original Vines plantings. The Outcrop Pinot brings the most masculine structural presentation of the wines, while at the same time showing the most apparent pink and red berry notes. There is a lot of complexity here with layers of cedar and forest, alongside red cherry and berry, coupled with lime and grapefruit accents. The Outcrop carries an almost sinewy leanness, that expands into incredibly focused length with air.

Sisters Vineyard

*** Sisters Vineyard has consistently offered a beautiful delicacy in its single vineyard bottlings. There is a gracefulness to the fruit from this site that at the same time offers great persistence on the palate. The vineyard itself stands at 200′-360′ elevation, and is the most unique of the Eyrie sites, growing not only Pinot Noir but also a range of varieties not otherwise associated with Eyrie. First planted in 1987, the site originally was known as Three Sisters for its first vines of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Pinot Gris. As the varietal collection expanded, the name shifted to just Sisters.

Sisters Pinot is one of those wines I want to enjoy through the course of a day — a languid afternoon with just one bottle. There is so much sapidity here, coupled with floral elements, and that refined rhubarb, all touched by a volcanic patina, and refreshing evergreen accents.

Rolling Green Vineyard

* Up the road, Rolling Green Vineyard was established at 6 acres to Pinot Noir, with a small portion of Pinot Gris in 1988 at 540′-700′ elevation. The sloped site grows from more iron rich Jory soil than seen at the Original Vines site, with worn stones of basalt throughout producing a lean profile of lithe strength, with some of the masculine structure of Outcrop, but more pine, citrus, white and red cherry tension followed by a long saline crunch mineral finish. It tastes like that satisfying moment after a hike, drinking a citrus and cherry margarita on the porch of a cabin in the middle of a pine forest.

Daphne Vineyard

** Established in 1989, at the top of the hill, Daphne Vineyard grows Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Meunier in even darker iron rich Jory than Rolling Green, at an elevation of 720′-820′ elevation. The Pinot Gris from Daphne serves as the core of Eyrie’s Estate bottling. For the Pinot Noir, Daphne vineyard, with its slightly rounder, though still gracefully focused palate has been bottled on its own in select vintages.

Here the vines offer a bit fuller flavor, and exuberance than the quieter grace of Sisters. The flavors come in as mixed red fruits and citrus alongside a touch of cedar and pine cascading into an ultra long, stimulating finish. It’s a wine that can’t help but light you up.

Oregon Pinot Noir

* Bringing together a blend of Pinot from each of the sites, the Oregon Pinot Noir bottling is effectively Eyrie’s Estate Pinot. A little snug on first opening, this wine loves air, showing better with time open. It brings together rose petal with ripe cherry and lime powder accents, on a body of wet rock, light saline, and a red volcanic patina for an ultra long finish with lots of focus.

The 2012 Oregon Pinot Noir is available now. Eyrie is planning a late Fall/early Winter release for the Vineyard designates.


Thank you to Jason Lett.

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