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Thank you to Eric Asimov for recommending this post in the Friday, June 21, 2013 edition of The New York Times Diner’s Journal “What We’re Reading.”

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The History of Smith-Madrone

Stu Smith inspecting Chardonnay, March 2013

Stu Smith inspecting Chardonnay, April 2013

Smith-Madrone began on a Santa Monica beach at the end of the 1960s, where two brothers, Charles and Stu Smith, grew up. It was a time when an otherwise middle class family could afford vineyard land in Napa Valley, and start a winery fresh becoming owners that produce their own wine, a phenomenon rare in the region today.

Stu Smith worked as a summer lifeguard while completing a degree in Economics at SF State. His brother, Charles, earned his undergraduate at the same institution with a focus on English Literature, also taking a lot of Philosophy classes.

In the midst of his undergrad, Stu developed the idea of studying viticulture, and buying land in the Napa Valley to grow wine. While defending swimmers, he got to know a beach regular that expressed interest in the vineyard idea, offering to help with the purchase. Though the man ultimately had no connection to the future of Smith-Madrone, never paying for any property, the suggestion of a potential investor gave Smith the gumption to move north and begin looking.

In Fall of 1970, then, Stu Smith began the Masters program at UC Davis, while also seriously looking for land. Charles had an interest in wine as well, and so began commuting to Davis, sitting in on Stu’s courses. Though Charles was never enrolled in the program, he completed a portion of the training alongside his brother.

Spring Mountain was largely undeveloped in the early 1970s. As Stu describes it, the hillside was covered in trees, mainly Douglas Fir at least 2 1/2 feet in diameter. “The land was completely over grown, but it had lots of good aspects for sun, and obviously had good soils.” Stony Hill Winery had established itself a little down the mountain from what is now Smith-Madrone, so he had a sense the region could support vines. Then, while hiking the forested property he looked down and found old grape stakes there on the forest floor. The hill had once been planted to vineyard. Though the original investor fell through, in 1971, Stu gathered support from a small group of family and friends to purchase and start what would become 38 vineyard acres.

Cook's Flat Reserve, Smith-Madrone

2007 Cook’s Flat Reserve, Smith-Madrone’s inaugural reserve wine

The brothers now know their hillside property had been planted entirely in vines in the 1880s. The original deed, signed under then president Chester A. Arthur, establishes George Cook as owner on December 5, 1884. Prohibition would later end the life of the Cook Vineyard, but on December 5, 1933, the anniversary of Cook’s purchase, the Volstead Act would overturn Prohibition. In the midst of Prohibition, however, the property returned to forest until Smith-Madrone began. Though Stu instigated the project, thanks to its size and mutual interest, Charles became part of it within a year. Today, as the brothers describe, Stu manages everything outside, while Charles takes care of everything inside. The two are the sole full-time employees of their 5000 case winery.

Touring the 1200-2000 ft elevation site, the landscape reads as a history of Stu’s genuine curiosity and drive for experimentation. Its hillsides weave a range of planting styles, and rows at differing angles to sun. Asking Stu to talk me through the changes, we begin at one corner where own-rooted Chardonnay planted in 1972 has just been pulled. “In the early 1970s,” he explains, “heat treated, certified virus free plants were just coming out. We had the opportunity to get the certified vines, but we couldn’t get appropriate rootstock so we planted on own roots. We brought in non-vineyard equipment [to lessen the chance of phylloxera], and we got 40 years out of those vines.”

Moving across the different plots, Stu shares a history of viticultural knowledge. The age of the vines matches the viticultural insights of their birth year expressed through their planting style. Between plots, vines change spacing, and height, training styles, and angle to sun, all in an attempt to learn what best suits the needs of the site. After traveling the 40 years of site development, we go inside to Charles for lunch and wine.

Smith-Madrone’s Evolution in Wine

Charles Smith

Charles Smith tasting a 1983 Smith-Madrone Riesling

We turn to discussion of Smith-Madrone’s wine history from its first vintage in 1977. Today they are known for Riesling, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon but they have played with their winemaking. From 1977 to 1985 Smith-Madrone also produced Pinot Noir. “The best wines we ever made were Pinot Noir.” Charles tells me, “but the worst wines we ever made were too. Our 1980 was one of the best Pinots ever made in the United States. We just couldn’t do it again.” The grape is often referred to as a heart breaker for the challenges presented in vineyard. Finally, the brothers decided to pull their Pinot and focus on the other grapes instead.

Stu nods. “The reason we did it was to experiment. We wanted to try making Pinot Noir. If you only ever do the same thing, you get stuck in a rut, and don’t improve.” What is consistent in Smith-Madrone is the intention Stu calls “get the best of the vintage into bottle.” Their focus is less on style and more on responding to the conditions given that year.

In their view, it is Chardonnay that most readily shows the effects of such an approach. The structure and flavors shift year to year, from the ultra fresh, citrus and saline presence of the 2010, to the slightly more candied, chalky, lean-lined body of the 2011, as examples.

Charles clarifies further, “we do pay attention to style on Riesling because style in Riesling is largely determined by sugar level.” Smith-Madrone makes theirs dry. “You can’t bounce around on sugar level with Riesling or no one knows what you’re making.” Even within their dry Riesling, however, the brothers have explored the best approach. A particularly busy vintage in 1984 led to their Riesling getting left overnight on skins. “It was a blistering hot harvest,” Charles explains. “We just kept processing grapes like crazy, just the two of us. If we told our harvest guys to leave, we didn’t know when we’d get them back so we just kept going. We did 127 hours in one week, the entire harvest in one week.” As a result, they simply couldn’t process all the fruit fast enough, and some Riesling got left overnight in the bin. After vinification they liked the increased aromatics and mouthfeel of the wine, and stuck to the practice through the rest of the 1980s. However, after about 8 years they realized something.

Excited by the conversation Charles has run downstairs to grab a 1985 Smith-Madrone Riesling so we can see how it’s drinking. Stu continues to tell the story. “We did overnight skin contact on our Riesling from the mid-80s. The flavor held up well with age but the color changed after 8 years or so. The wine turned orange.” When Charles arrives again with the bottle I’m thrilled to see its darker color and can’t wait to taste it but Stu is unimpressed. The wine tastes wonderful, a fresh juicy palate with concentrated while clean flavors, drinking far younger than its 18 years. Charles and I are agreeing on the virtues of Riesling and its ability to go on forever while Stu is still facing his discomfort with the color. “If I close my eyes and pretend it isn’t orange than I agree it’s a good wine,” he finally tells us.

lunch with Charles and Stu

part of the aftermath of our lunch together

After 41 years of winemaking, to inaugurate the anniversary of the original Cook’s purchase, and the repeal of Prohibition, the Smith brothers released their first Reserve wine on December 5, 2012. We’re drinking the first Cook’s Flat Reserve vintage, the 2007, along side its sister 2009.

In 2008, smoke from wildfires in Mendocino settled into the valley North of Spring Mountain and covered the grapes in smoke taint. Going straight to press, the whites were unaffected, but fermenting on skins the reds never did lose the smoke flavor. The brothers decided, then, to sell the 2008 reds off in bulk and release only whites from that year.

Short of knowing it took 41 years before they launched the Cook’s Flat Reserve, the wine itself would answer the question of why make a reserve wine–both vintages offer the dignity and graceful presence genuinely deserving of the title. Where the 2007 offers lithe masculine presence, the 2009 flows in feminine exquisiteness. The ’07 gives impressive structure and darker earthier flavors, to the core of tension and mid-palate lushness of the 2009. Keeping to their best of vintage commitment, what changes the shape of the 2007 versus the 2009 on the palate is the success of the fruit each year. Both wines are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc blends, but the proportions changed.

In an industry where reserve wines are common (made even within the first few years of a new winery’s inception), I ask the brothers both what made them wait so long, and why now. They explain that they started studying the reserve market and tasting through wines at different price points to make sure they understood what was available. They only wanted to make the wine if “we could do this and still give value,” Stu says.

After several years of consideration, Charles tells me, they were clear. “We resolved we could” make a wine truly distinct from their Estate Cabernet while still Smith-Madrone. To describe the intention behind their Reserve, the brothers compare it to their Estate. The Estate pays heed to old school, California mountain Cabernet relying entirely on American oak. The Reserve, on the other hand, is a nod to Bordeaux pulling only from a particular section of their property that they’ve always felt gave distinctive fruit, then aged in French oak.

The Romance of Wine

The romance of Smith-Madrone

a gift from a friend in the winery

The conversation turns finally to the change in the wine business from when Smith-Madrone began. The Smith brothers represent the last generation of winemakers in the region that could also own their own vines. Today, by contrast, getting into the industry, Stu explains, looks more like a sacrifice. “If you want to go into winemaking now and be pure, you have to give up something.” He says. Most people end up making wine for someone else because it’s such an expensive industry.

“Part of why I got into the wine business,” Stu continues, “was Hugh Johnson and his book talking about the romance and magic and business of wine.” Charles is quietly nodding. “And you know,” Stu continues, “Hugh Johnson would eat his heart out to be here today.” He’s referring to our conversation over wine with lunch. We’ve tasted through multiple vintages of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Riesling at this point and fallen into as much discussion of my life in Alaska as their life in wine. The whole day all I’ve felt is happy.

We’re sitting at a table in the winery tasting wines with lunch and talking. Beside Charles hangs a placard that reads, “We are all mortal until the first kiss and the second glass of wine.” He explains that a friend bought it off the wall of a bar in St. Louis then sent it to the brothers as a gift. Charles painted several coats of shellac over the saying written in chalk and hung it in the winery. The quotation reflects a feeling about wine that got the brothers into their profession. “As far as I’m concerned,” Charles remarks, “this is what wine is all about. It’s not all business. You sit down, enjoy conversation, and eat food.”

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Thank you to Charles and Stu Smith for sharing so much time with me.

Thank you to Julie Ann Kodmur.

For Michael Alberty, Steven Morgan, and Fredric Koppel.

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

Thank you to Eric Asimov for recommending this article in The New York Times Diner’s Journal “What We’re Reading”, February 19, 2013.

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Circling George Vare: One Way White Maceration Ferments Came into California

George Vare, an investor with decades of experience in Napa wine, celebrates the work of experimental winemakers. For Vare, the passion of young people trying new approaches exemplifies the future of the California wine industry.

Operating outside the mainstream appears as a theme in Vare’s own history with the industry. In early 1995, Vare and Michael Moone decided to step outside the Cabernet and Chardonnay focus of 1980s and 90s Napa Valley and established a new company, Luna Vineyards. Vare had worked for decades already at scouting and expanding the commercial success of now historic Napa wine labels, including Geyser Peak Winery, Beringer Wine Estates, and others. In 1995, however, after considering the pulse of Napa wine, Moone and Vare realized there was room for taking their business in a different direction.

George Vare in his Ribolla Gialla vineyard

George Vare in his Ribolla Gialla, Friulano vineyard

Though Italian immigrants had helped establish the original wine industry through the valley, by the end of the last century, little interest in Italian varieties could be found rooted in the area. Together, Moone and Vare decided to take advantage of that missing piece by making Sangiovese and Pinot Grigio.

The original goals of Luna were to make Italian varietals to rival old world quality. Early vintages were described as carrying “old world austerity and terroir, bolstered by new world fullness and verve” (Boca Raton News 16 March 2003).

In March 1995, Vare and Moone’s Luna purchased a Chardonnay vineyard at what were then the Southern reaches of the Silverado trail. What is remarkable about the story is that soon after buying the 82 acre vineyard they replanted most of the site to Pinot Grigio, establishing 44-acres of the variety by 2000, and increasing from there. At the time, the idea of pulling out Napa Valley Chardonnay and replacing it with Pinot Grigio, was surely crazy. So, the group renamed themselves the Luna-tics. Where Oregon had begun the Pinot Gris experiment as early as the mid-60s, Luna stood as one of the leaders of the grape in California. In this way, the intention to do things differently defined the beginnings of Luna. As John Kongsgaard once explained, the self-named Luna-tics even used to play classical music to the vines.

John Kongsgaard Starts the University

After 20 years of success in the Napa Valley wine industry, Kongsgaard was brought in to Luna in 1996 to establish the house’s winemaking style. Konsgaard had started his career making wines in 1980, side-by-side with Doug Nalle at the now defunct Belvedere Winery. By the mid-1990s, however, Kongsgaard had proven himself as an influential winemaker through his 13-years of work with Newton Vineyards.

In 1997, Kongsgaard and Vare began making regular trips to Italy, originally searching for “the holy grail of Pinot Grigio.” As Vare explained, they searched first in Alsace, and though they liked those wines, the climate didn’t suit Napa. Alto Adige also proved too cold. Finally Friuli gave a closer parallel, and a wealth of influence through small scale and experimental winemakers of the region.

Kongsgaard worked with Christopher Vandendriessche, of White Rock, as assistant winemaker initially. Together they helped establish what Abe Schoener calls a university environment in Luna’s winery. Schoerner had begun working with the team at the end of the 1990s, gathering data on their vineyard sites, but also learning from Kongsgaard as Schoener’s mentor. Schoener makes clear too that Vare supported and encouraged the winery’s university methodology.

By allowing interns to make their own barrels of wine, while also doing their work for Luna, the facility trained a number of young wine enthusiasts that would go on to influence the area’s wine industry. But the approach also effectively expanded the experimentation witnessed by the mentors as well. Kongsgaard has stated that he fine-tuned some techniques he’d go on to use for his own label through the early investigatory period of Luna.

Schoener explains, Kongsgaard had a talent for standing back to let his mentees explore their interests in wine, while being there to facilitate a successful project at the same time. Vandendriessche operates with a similar approach in his work today at White Rock as well. The site served as Schoener’s first winery in establishing Scholium Project, and today facilitates the work of other new winemakers getting ready to release their work.

Learning from Radikon and Gravner

After Vandendriessche chose to move his attention to the White Rock facility, Kelly Wheat was brought in as the new assistant winemaker to Kongsgaard. Wheat began traveling to Friuli with Kongsgaard and Vare, who had already established strong relationships with the winemakers through Friuli and Slovenia. Wheat benefited, then, from the friendships already started with the likes of Stanko and Sasa Radikon, Josko Gravner, and others.

Radikon had begun experimenting with making his wines with extended skin contact in 1994, utilizing open top wood fermenters. Stanko Radikon’s father had talked about techniques used in Oslajve prior to the onset of more contemporary pressed wine techniques. Eventually Stanko decided to invest in using them.

Previously, Radikon explained, wines were made using all of the fruit, rather than removing the skins. The result was to develop wines with greater texture, aroma, and flavor, that also kept longer after being made. The skin contact style of winemaking, then, was historically situated–a normal approach for the technology of the time–but it was also economical–it made the wine last.

Drawing on Georgian winemaking history, Gravner began using extended maceration fermentation in clay anphora in 1996. He had helped introduce the focus and freshness of temperature controlled stainless steel vats to Friuli, thus introducing the winemaking changes associated with newer technologies. But after a friend brought Gravner a kveri (Georgian anphora), the winemaker experimented with the winemaking techniques of that region, known to be thousands of years old.

With both Radikon and Gravner there was an adjustment period while moving to the historical-but-new-to-them techniques. Each winemaker had developed expertise with their previous styles, and were known for making quality, terroir-driven wines. In shifting to the use of extended maceration, however, they also needed time getting to know the effects of the approach. In 2001, Gravner released his first fully anfora based portfolio (though bottlings as early as 1998 are still available for purchase in the United State). In establishing friendships with both Radikon and Gravner, the Luna-tics were able to learn new techniques both through direct witness at the Italian wineries, and through on going consultations had by phone.

Kongsgaard and Vare had befriended Radikon as early as their first trip to the region, meeting Gravner a few trips later. On one visit with Gravner, a barrel with a plexiglass side stood in the corner. Grapes were inside aging not only on lees, but skins, with the wine in such a state for over a year. The Americans were able to taste the wine from the experiment and were pleased at the result, not having heard of such an approach previously. As Vare described it, the wine had a nice weight and texture, without any bitterness.

Showing Skins: the practice moves to California

After returning from a visit with these winemakers in Friuli in 2000, Wheat decided to try the techniques himself and make extended skin contact lots for some of the white wines at Luna.

In 2000, Wheat began making a Pinot Grigio blend that sent 40% of the grapes straight to press before fermentation, while the rest were put through a crusher to allow more aromatic and textural contribution from skins.The technique loosely resembles the impact of older technology that broke up grapes more than simply pressing them, causing more skin and stem influence (and thus both more aromatics and more body) on the juice.

Wheat experimented further however, making small lots of white wine left to ferment like a red. Inspired by his time in Friuli, Wheat located some Friulano in 2001, sourced from the Hollister area (and grown in limestone) and fermented to dryness on skins, working similarly as well with Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay grown in or closer to Napa. The most successful of these, Schoener believes, was the Fruilano.

Having worked with Luna in various capacities for several years, Schoener became winemaker there after Wheat’s departure in 2002. Witnessing Wheat’s trials with skin contact, Schoener encouraged the Luna label to make some skin contact bottlings. Having become more mainstream by that point (Vare was also no longer acting president), the board was resistant to investing in wines without more proven market success. Schoener stayed in the role at Luna long enough to help winemaker Mike Drash take up the reins in 2003, only ever intending to secure a smooth transition from Wheat to the new person. After Schoener dove into his Scholium Project, beginning to make a skin contact Sauvignon Blanc, the now oft mentioned Prince in his Caves, in 2006.

Luna would not be bottling skin-contact only white wines. However, drawing on Wheat’s experience with the approach, Drash continued making what Luna called their Freakout White blend. The wine included extended maceration of Sauvignon Blanc, as well as Friulano left to ferment to dryness on skins.

Looking for Texture: Pax Mahle experiments

Over in Sonoma County, independently of the work being done with the Luna-tics, Pax Mahle had started Pax Wine Cellars in 2000. The label had a central focus on Syrah, but made Rhone whites as well. Working against the norm at the time, Mahle was committed to making low alcohol white wines, without the influence of new oak. One of the downsides of whites made in this approach, however, is a textural change in the wine’s mouthfeel–they become lighter, with less weight, and to some people, less interest. Searching for a way to offer more textural interest without reliance on new wood, while keeping alcohol levels low, Mahle began experimenting with skin contact lots in 2003. Just like the adjustment period between a new technique and quality wine necessary for Radikon and Gravner, Mahle explains it wasn’t until 2007 that he bottled a skin contact wine. He wasn’t willing to put a label on something he couldn’t get behind. It took those several years to find a barrel he believed in as a stand alone wine. Prior to 2007 the experimental lots were blended back into other white blends.

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To read part 2 in this series: The Butterfly Effect: How the death of a fad gave birth to beautiful color in wine, Part 2: Variety, Terroir, and Mind Scrambling

Part 3: The Butterfly Effect: How the death of a fad gave birth to beautiful color in wine, Part 3: The Craft of Wine Tasting, and the Question of Responsibility, Conversation with Two Sommeliers

To read last year’s series explaining Orange Wines beginning with how they’re made, then their presence in Georgia, Italy, and California, begin here: Understanding Orange Wines Part 1: A Quick and Dirty Look at How They’re Made and What Their Tannins Do To Our Saliva

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Over the next weeks I’ll be exploring the work of contemporary skin contact wines from California and Oregon winemakers, both varietals and blends. I’ve been lucky enough to taste several dozen examples both bottled and barreled from a range of grape types in both California and Oregon, and to interview a range of people on the subject.

I’ll be traveling in Sydney, Melbourne, and Geelong as well, however, and so my posts here will be mixed in with updates from Australian adventures.

Cheers!

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