I taste a bunch-o-wine (technical term for more than most people). So each week, I share some of my wine reviews (mostly from samples) and tasting notes in a “mini-review” format.
They are meant to be quirky, fun, and (mostly) easily-digestible reviews of (mostly) currently available wines (click here for the skinny on how to read them), and are presented links to help you find them, so that you can try them out for yourself. Cheers!
Apéros are back in Paris It's been a few days (since 11 may) the lockdown has been lifted in France, people can now leave home without a printed self-declaration Attestation de Déplacement Dérogatoire listing the allowed motive, which was very...
Hello, and welcome to my periodic dig through the samples pile. I’m pleased to bring you the latest installment of Vinography Unboxed, where I highlight some of the better bottles that have crossed my doorstep recently.
This week included one of the better renditions of Albariño that I’ve had from California in recent memory. Only about 300 acres of Albariño are planted in California, making it about as common as Grenache Blanc, occupying less than a third of the acres dedicated to Gewürztraminer in the way of another comparison. This variety, which is best known in the racy, lean white wines of northwestern Spain and Portugal, in California often lacks the searing acidity found in its European forbears. I’ve always chalked that up to a combination of the Californian tendency to pick the variety far too late and the grape being planted in inappropriate places. In its arguably most famous incarnations, the wines of Rias Baixas and Vinho Verde, Albariño is grown in rocky, often sloping vineyards with alluvial or primary rock soils and is often harvested to achieve somewhere between 11% and 12% potential alcohol by volume.
Rosemary Cakebread has made her Albariño in that style (if slightly riper), sourcing grapes from Matthew Rorick’s eclectic, rocky vineyard in Calaveras County in the Sierra Foothills. She’s managed to preserve some of the raciness of the grape despite having barrel fermented it after some extended skin contact.
I’ve also got her rosé this week, which is worth a look as well, made from an unusual combination of Petite Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Chappellet is a well-known name in Napa, having made wines up on Napa’s famed Pritchard Hill for decades. In 2017 they launched a series of wines known as the Grower Collection, along with a tasting room dedicated to these “cool climate” wines in the town of Sonoma. The wines are made by the long-time Chappellet winemaker Phillip Titus and feature grapes sourced from some of Sonoma’s best growers. The wines are made in what I might consider a more conventional or mainstream California style, leaning towards the riper end of the spectrum of flavors, and featuring significant use of oak in flavor and texture. This week I’m featuring both a Chardonnay and a Pinot from their collection.
The rest of the wines this week are Pinot Noirs as well, with the latest estate Pinot from Eden Rift, which continues to rise in quality, as well as a wine from Argyle winery in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
I’ve got a couple more wines from Merry Edwards Winery (recently purchased by Champagne Louis Roederer), with my favorite of the two being her Olivet Lane Pinot Noir from one of the sweet spots in the Russian River Valley.
Lastly, I’ve got two wines from the original cult Pinot Noir label Williams-Selyem. They sent me their 2018 Pinot Noir lineup recently and it’s a humdinger of a selection. This week I’m featuring two of their regional wines, the Central Coast Pinot made down near Chalone, and their Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, both of which are excellent, with the Sonoma Coast bottling drinking like some of their wines that are twice the price.
2019 Gallica “Rorick Heritage Vineyard” Albariño, Calaveras, Sierra Foothills, California Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of steely green apple and white flowers. In the mouth, very lean and racy green apple and lime zest flavors mix with pomelo pith and a touch of honeysuckle. One of the more varietally correct Albariños from California I’ve ever tasted. Excellent. Contains a tiny bit of Muscat Blanc. 13% alcohol. Grown at 2000 feet elevation, certified organic. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $38. click to buy.
2018 Chappellet “Grower Collection – El Novillero Vineyard” Chardonnay, Carneros, Napa, California Pale greenish gold in color, this wine smells of apples, white flowers and melted butter. In the mouth, white flowers, melted butter, popcorn and vanilla flavors have a very nice, juicy acidity and a hint of toasty wood that lingers in the finish. 14.1% alcohol. Score: around 8.5 . Cost: $49. click to buy.
2019 Gallica “Estate” Rosé, St. Helena, Napa, California Pale peachy pink in color, this wine smells of the rind of an orange fleshed melon and a touch of redcurrant. In the mouth, brisk citrus peel and redcurrant flavors have a nice bite to them thanks to excellent acidity. There’s a SweetTart note to the citrusy finish and a touch of chalky bitterness on the palate. A blend of 76% Petite Sirah and 24% Cabernet Sauvignon. 13% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $28.
2018 Merry Edwards “Olivet Lane” Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, Sonoma, California Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of raspberry and cranberry fruit. In the mouth, bright raspberry and cranberry fruit is bouncy and bright thanks to excellent acidity. Citrus and raspberry notes burst bright in the finish with mouthwatering effects. 14.2% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $65. click to buy.
2018 Merry Edwards Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, Sonoma, California Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of sweet raspberry, and cherry fruit with a hint of potting soil behind the fruit. In the mouth, raspberry and cherry notes mix with that darker earthier tone as a touch of citrus peel lingers in the finish. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $48. click to buy.
2018 Chappellet “Grower Collection – Dutton Ranch” Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, Sonoma, California Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cedar and raspberry. In the mouth, cherry and cranberry fruit has a nice sweetish complexion and hints of cedar and herbs. More wood influence than I would like. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $49 . click to buy.
2018 Eden Rift “Estate” Pinot Noir, Cienega Valley, Central Coast, California Light to medium garnet in color, this wine smells of cranberry and raspberry with a hint of herbs. In the mouth, cranberry and raspberry fruit flavors are backed by a faint bitterness that lingers with a citrus peel tinge into the finish. Bitter orange and cedar and winter savory. 13.8% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $52. click to buy.
2018 Argyle Winery “Grower Series” Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, Oregon Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of juicy cherry fruit. In the mouth, bright cherry and raspberry fruit flavors have a slightly candied quality, but also feature a hint of herbs to back them up and keep them from being too confectionary. There’s a deeper black tea note to the wine that lingers in the finish. 14% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $27 . click to buy.
2018 Williams Selyem Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of raspberries and candied redcurrants. In the mouth, wonderfully bright raspberry and redcurrant and hibiscus notes are juicy and bouncy and wonderfully boisterous on the palate. Excellent acidity with notes of citrus peel and dried flowers in the finish above well-integrated oak. Outstanding. 14.1% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $79. click to buy.
2018 Williams Selyem Pinot Noir, San Benito County, Central Coast, California Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of sweet cranberry and raspberry fruit. In the mouth, cranberry and raspberry fruit is bright with juicy acidity and touched by the faintest gauzy tannins that linger with hints of citrus peel and dried herbs in the finish. Excellent. 13.3% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $50. click to buy.
Half Light SANTA YNEZ, CA: Shadows lengthen across a vineyard surrounding a lone oak tree near Santa Ynez, California. The Santa Ynez Valley is the largest of Santa Barbara County’s AVAs, with the highest concentration of vineyards. The valley hosts diverse microclimates along its east-west run, ranging from the highly fog-influenced coastal end to the warmer foothills on its eastern end, making it possible for the AVA to grow everything from Pinot Noir to Cabernet Sauvignon.
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It’s the unofficial start to “summer” here in the northern hemisphere this weekend. But what even is summer in these pandemic times? My plans for everything are cancelled, but I’m healthy and thankful.
And the annual arrival of new rosé wines offers some sense of normalcy amidst the chaos. I’ve been receiving a lot of new pink wines from France and America, new and old (to me) wines that offer some solace in these strange times, which are reviewed below.
These wines were received as trade samples and tasted sighted.
2019 Domaine De Cala Rosé– France, Provence, Côteaux Varois SRP: $17
Pale copper color. Bright aromas of lemon, peach, red apple peel, with mint, nettle and chalk dust. Crisp and zippy on the palate on a medium-bodied frame with white cherries and tangy strawberry fruit. Notes of mint, dandelion, herbal tea, perfume. Salad-friendly, bright, tangy, fun. A blend of Grenache, Cinsault, Rolle, Syrah, Carignan and Grenache Blanc. (87 points IJB)
2019 Château de Peyrassol Rosé – France, Provence, Côtes de Provence SRP: $29
Very pale copper color. Super bright on the nose with white cherries and watermelon rind, topped in dandelion, wild herbs, chalk, saline. Zippy and crunchy on the palate with a bright and steely feel, lemon and grapefruit pith fruit. Light and fun but shows some complexities in terms of chalk, mint, lemon oil and saline. Fun, summery, but deep stuff. Cinsault, Grenache, Syrah, Rolle and Ugni Blanc from 35-year-old vines. (89 points IJB)
2019 Hahn Pinot Noir Rosé– USA, California, Central Coast, Monterey SRP: $15
Medium pink color. Nose shows plump white peach and papaya, tangy red apple, with white tea, clove and sweet red flower notes. Juicy, medium-bodied wine with medium acidity and ripe peach and apricot, drizzled with lime and topped in orange peel. Notes of honey, clover and sliced cucumber add some complexity. Plush yet fresh, fun but showing some depth, especially for the price. (87 points IJB)
2019 Steele Wines Cabernet Franc Rosé– USA, California, North Coast, Lake County SRP: $18
Light cotton candy color. Nose of nettle, white pepper, with watermelon, white cherry and raspberry fruit. Crisp and vibrant on the palate with brisk acidity, creamy texture, and juicy but crisp fruit (watermelon, white cherry, raspberry). Fresh and bright with notes of honeysuckle, basil and white pepper. Crushable but showing significant complexity as well. All Cabernet Franc from the Silva Vineyard. (88 points IJB)
2017 Castello di Amorosa Spumante del Castello Brut Rosé – USA, California, Napa Valley SRP: $49
Light strawberry color. Nose shows chalk, honey, white pepper, clover, on top of strawberries and white cherries. Fine bubbles, a zippy frame with white cherry and raspberry fruit. Notes of fresh mint, verbena, chalk dust add complexity. No deep, bready notes, this is a light, bright, salad and fruit-friendly sparkling wine, but shows complexity and depth. Champagne method Pinot Noir. (88 points IJB)
2019 Gamble Family Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé– USA, California, Napa Valley, Oakville SRP: $20
Light salmon color. Bright and floral on the nose with white cherries, lemon, white peach, with chalky, white tea tones. Creamy texture with a crunchy strawberry, wild raspberry and red apple peel fruit. There’s a pleasant chalky, herbal tea, nettle and honeysuckle feel. Lots of depth and personality. A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot. (89 points IJB)
2019 Ehlers Estate Cabernet Franc Rosé Sylviane– USA, California, Napa Valley, St. Helena SRP: $32
Deep watermelon color. Gorgeous aromatics of watermelon, juicy cherries, strawberries, open and inviting, quite ripe, but shows complex hay, rhubarb and white pepper elements, too. Plush texture on the palate with lovely depth, ripe and juicy but bright acidity keeps it tight. Watermelon and strawberry fruit on a bed of cut flower stems and cinnamon sticks. Flinty, mineral, salty tones, this is a juicy but racy and complex rose. Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. (91 points IJB)
2018 Castello di Amorosa Pinot Noir Rosato Cresta d’Oro– USA, California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley SRP: $39
Pale copper color. Bright, steely, floral nose with strawberries and white cherries, topped in nettle, honeysuckle, sliced cucumber. Bright and vibrant on the palate with sweet strawberry and white cherries, mixed with notes of chalk, verbena, honeysuckle and mint. Juicy but stays light, fresh, salad and summer-friendly stuff. All Pinot Noir. (89 points IJB)
2019 Cenyth Cabernet Franc Rosé– USA, California, Sonoma County SRP: $30
Light watermelon color. Aromas of white cherries and raspberries, with rose petals and white pepper. Bright, vibrant and clean on the palate with raspberries, white cherries and watermelon. Creamy but fresh, complex notes of white pepper, clove, white tea. Such a delightfully balanced and focused rose. All Cabernet Franc. (90 points IJB)
As humans, we’re evolutionarily engineered to fear change. And for good reason. It often presages hardship in some form, whether social, emotional, physical, or economic. Certainly, we’re all experiencing both fear and hardship in many ways at this moment, even if (and I count myself among the number of extremely fortunate) we’re simply working from home in our pajamas with a well-stocked kitchen and wine cellar. Watching the economic toll the pandemic takes on the entire economy has been heartbreaking, and in particular its effects on the wine business and hospitality industry.
Where the wine industry is concerned, much has been made of the realities that were forced upon 95% of American wineries almost overnight when tasting rooms, restaurants, wine bars, and retailers all closed their doors to the pandemic. To those of us watching from afar, that was a kneecapper. To those in the industry, it seemed a slash across the jugular.
In every major crisis, there is the moment where it is upon us, in which we often freeze in fear. Then there is the moment we react, driven (often by adrenaline-fueled desperation) to compensate for the change. And then there is the moment, where we first have a slight bit of perspective on just what it is we are going through, regardless of whether the crisis itself is over.
For the American wine industry, that first brief moment of perspective may have been yesterday, when Rob McMillan, Executive Vice President and Founder of the Wine Division of Silicon Valley Bank hosted a video conference entitled “State of the Wine Industry – Special Edition.” McMillan is perhaps one of the foremost analysts of the American Wine Industry and his annual State of the Wine Industry report is required reading for anyone interested in American wine. He brought several expert guests along to spend an hour analyzing the first real tranche of data that exists about the actual effects of the pandemic on the industry.
Reports of Our Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated
The data presented offers a somewhat startling picture that, at least on the surface, suggests that rather than the bottom dropping out of the wine industry as many of us feared, in fact, the wine industry is doing better than it was projected to do before the first news of COVID-19 hit the airwaves.
But let’s unpack that a little before we get too excited. The data presented on this video conference by Danny Brager, Senior Vice President of the Nielsen Group’s Beverage Alcohol Practice came from the scan data collected at grocery stores, chain liquor stores, and other larger retailers who report sales data to Nielsen. That means of course, that unless a winery’s wines are sold in such outlets, they are not included in any report of sales.
And what do those sales data say? That instead of the basically flat (zero) growth projected for American wine sales this year so far, sales are instead up 28% in volume and 31% in value over the past 9 or 10 weeks. Panic buying of wine was a real thing, folks. Of course, ask your average 6ooo-case-production winery in Dry Creek Valley if their sales are up 28% in the last 8 weeks, and you’d be thankful you’re forced to do so from six feet away, lest you get a fist in your facemask.
Succumbing, Surviving, or Thriving in the Pandemic
The fate of smaller wineries in this time of upheaval depends, and will continue to depend on just how digitally savvy they were, or how digitally savvy they are becoming in the face of the new realities being thrust upon us all.
Beyond the shocking increase in wine sales numbers, perhaps the most interesting single slide presented in McMillan’s conference was his analysis of the direct-to-consumer channel mix of smaller winery sales before and after the pandemic thanks to data from VinSuite (an e-commerce provider that powers e-commerce and back-office systems for the wine industry). Or in less business-speak, where and how smaller wineries are managing to sell wine to their customers in this crazy time.
The green box on the left is pre-COVID-19 and the green box on the right is post COVID-19. Pay attention to the size of the blue and purple areas in particular. Blue represents POS (Point-Of-Sale — i.e. Tasting Room), purple represents e-commerce sales and green represents phone sales. What you see is that in the space of two weeks, most wineries dramatically shifted their sales channels to e-commerce, phone, and their wine clubs. That is, those who had the capability to do so.
Here’s another look at the same data, but this time as gathered through a survey conducted by McMillan and Silicon Valley Bank:
The above graphic demonstrates the truly remarkable shift that some wineries were able to make under extreme circumstances.
The Lessons That Need To Be Learned
You see, you can’t shift business to your e-commerce channel unless you have one. You can’t call your customers and sell to them on the phone unless you know who they are. You can’t send promotions and drive sales into your wine club unless you run it with something other than pencil and paper.
During the webinar, McMillan showed this devastating, but not particularly surprising chart:
More than half of the wineries that McMillan spoke with don’t have anyone, even part time, whose job it is to answer the most basic questions about that winery’s customers — who they are, what they care about, when they buy, what they buy, etc.
This pandemic has made concrete the adage of desperate times and the desperate measures that become required. If you can believe it, in desperation, many wineries actually picked up the phone and called their customers (in addition to customers calling them, of course). They knuckled down and (gasp) sent promotional e-mails to their winery club members (and maybe even the thousands of people who were lapsed winery club members). Maybe they gritted their teeth and offered up free shipping on their web site.
And what happened? They drove 50% more sales from their wine clubs. They took phone and e-commerce sales from 3% of their business to 26% of their business. Yes, some of these numbers might represent more of what “happened” to wineries rather than their ability to effectively execute, but the lesson to take from it remains unchanged: many of the things that wineries were forced to do in the pandemic they could have been doing all along.
Which brings me around to the question in the title of this piece. Will wineries learn from this pain and the extremity of today’s circumstances, or not? Here are some (not all) of the crucial lessons that this pandemic has to teach.
You must have a modern, functional, mobile-friendly, e-commerce web site
Selling online is the new normal and is non-negotiable. When customers show up on your web site to buy your wines or join your wine club, they have to be able to do so quickly and easily.
You Must Know Who Your Prospects Are: Get An E-mail From Everyone
You can’t build relationships with people you can’t talk to, and you can’t sell wine to people you can’t reach. For most of the wine industry, the only list of e-mails that seems to matter day-to-day is the list of people who are actively buying wine off their mailing list. That’s because many wineries don’t make an effort to get contact information from different types of customers — those who stop by a tasting room, for instance. Even worse, many wineries have huge lists of customer e-mail addresses that they do nothing with. As if somehow when someone decides to cancel their club membership they can never be contacted again. And these days, it’s not just e-mail addresses. You want phone numbers, too.
You must know who your customers are, what they’ve bought, and how to contact them
A spreadsheet of customer names doesn’t cut it. You need a database that lets you do that voodoo-like thing called CRM, Customer Relationship Management. It’s a pretentious, business-y term, but what it means is keeping track of as much information about your customers as you can so that you can answer questions such as: which customers are most valuable? Which customers are most in danger of going away? Which customers are most likely to buy the latest offer? Which customers are your best advocates?
You Must Actually Build Relationships With Customers
You really find out who your friends are in a crisis. Most wineries have a purely transactional relationship with their customers. They make offers, customers buy, they say thanks, and maybe offer some perks for loyalty. But how many wineries ever communicate to customers without something to sell? How many actually reach out to get to know their customers better beyond their preference for white over red? Very few indeed. Which is why it felt strange as hell to be getting e-mails for the past few weeks from wineries expressing “best wishes for my health and safety in these trying times” along with an offer for free shipping on half cases. Relationships are the currency of today’s world and the basis for building long-term value in any business. For any winery that needs to sell direct-to-consumer they are essential.
You Must TURN Customers INTO Advocates
There’s nothing in the world of marketing with higher ROI than word-of-mouth. Most wineries have scores, even hundreds of loyal fans who can easily, happily be conscripted to spread the word. Amy Hoopes, President of Wente Family Estates, shared an anecdote during the webinar about getting a branded postcard from a friend during her shelter-in-place. It was a postcard that a winery had given to its most loyal customers with the hopes that they’d send it along to friends to connect from a distance. In addition to a pretty picture of the winery, it contained an offer for her to use that friend’s member-only price to try a bottle of wine, and her friend happened to be recommending the Sauvignon Blanc. She bought a couple of bottles, liked it, and bought a case. For the price of a printed postcard and postage, they sold 14 bottles of wine and started a new relationship.
You Must Provide Value
One of the biggest conundrums presented by the pandemic surrounds the idea of lowering prices. What should wineries be willing to do in order to get a sale in the most trying of times? “Don’t discount if you can afford it, you will be much happier on the other side of this pandemic,” suggested Paul Leary, Founder and Principal at Assemblage Consulting Group, during the discussion. Once people have paid $45 for your Cabernet, they are not that excited to pay $55, no matter the circumstance. Yet this crisis is a buyer’s market. Just look at some of the comments on the list of winery DTC deals I posted here on Vinography. Some consumers feel that a single-digit discount simply wasn’t enough, and unfortunately Amazon has ruined us all against paying for shipping. There are no easy formulae for creating a perception of value, but economics teaches us that it is required to make a sale.
You Must Stay On The Dinner Table
“We have an opportunity here that we will never have again in our lifetimes,” said McMillan towards the end of the session. “Our entire country has been forced to have family dinners. And guess what, they want to have wine with it.” Earlier in the session Max Heinemann, Wine & Spirits Client Manager at Nielsen shared statistics showing that for those consumers who have ordered alcohol to go with their takeout meals, 60% have also purchased red wine and 50% have also ordered white wine.
“We’ve established new habits,” continued McMillan, “and guess what? They’re not going to go away. Companies have figured out that working from home works. We’re going to have 2 income families with both people home by 5 PM, without the time required for a commute.”
Those people are going to sit down to a family dinner together with far more regularity than ever before. Our job is to make sure they’re drinking wine.
* * *
It is not, in fact, true that the pair of Chinese characters that make up the word crisis also include the character for opportunity, despite a nearly infinite number of English-language motivational speeches to the contrary.
But even though we fear change, it can still be the best thing for us. Especially if we’re willing to learn from it.
In PUNCH, Megan Krigbaum looks at the growing number of restaurants around the country that have closed during quarantine only to reopen as de facto wine shops. “For the consumer, this new brand of retail means that wines that were once only available via a restaurant wine list—whether cellared and with age or just highly allocated—are now up for grabs, and takeaway, and reduced prices.”
“By all accounts, the 2019 [Bordeaux] harvest went well… But the en primeur campaign, when these young wines are sold as futures, has been rudely disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.” In Wine Spectator, James Molesworth ponders Bordeaux’s fracture futures campaign.
Alder Yarrow offers an updated profile of the wines of Jamie Kutch. “He has become more focused than ever on the combination of site and vintage, as he tunes both in his winemaking and his farming regimens to allow the characteristics of each to play a larger role in the character of his wines.”
Baer has released their first EVER Rosé. It’s a 2019 Rosé of Cabernet Franc. There are only 77 cases available and has been getting great reviews from customers who added it to their spring shipment. The aromas are of kumquat and blood orange, smarties candy, and white gummy bear. In the mouth, it is very tangy and mouthwatering, bright, fresh, and crisp.
Introducing the 2019 Chateau Ste. Michelle Limited Release Le Rosé, Yakima Valley
“The Chateau Ste. Michelle Limited Release Le Rosé transforms the ordinary to extraordinary. Sip and savor the elegant aromas of light citrus and sweet red berries and be instantly transported to luxury. Enjoy!” -Lacey Steffey, Winemaker
Gard Vintners 2018 Rosé Grand Klasse Reserve received 91 pts and Editor’s Choice from Wine Enthusiast and they are offering a 6-pack Special:
Regular price: $144; Club: $100; Non-Club: $115
Case Special (12 bottles):
Regular price: $288; Club: $160; Non-Club: $180
“Very pale blush-pink color. Lovely floral lift to the aromas of strawberry, raspberry and citrus fruits. This round, dense but dry rosé delivers terrific intensity and concentration and finishes with palate-staining length.” – Stephen Tanzer, Vinous
Spring has sprung, and they have a delightful pink deal for you. Starting in May and going through June you can buy two bottles of either TruthTeller or Miscreant Project rosés for only $20 (retailed at $29)!
2019 “Unleashed” Sparkling Rosé – We’re in LOVE with this zesty wine. It boasts bright fruit flavors such as grapefruit, strawberry, raspberry, and a hint of rhubarb. The first sip feels like a sunburst on the palate.
2019 Rosé – This fruit forward wine has an intoxicating nose with notes of strawberry, grapefruit, and cranberry. It is light on the palate with a vibrant finish.
Zerba Cellars has the 2019 Sangiovese Rose in stock. It’s barrel fermented with hints of grapefruit, melon, strawberry and cream. It’s a bone dry treat!
If you’d prefer a sweeter rose, there’s their 2019 Dad’s Vineyard Wild Pink Rose. They pressed whole clusters of all 7 red varietals from Dad’s Vineyards to produce a delicate, sweet, vibrant, crisp Rose.
I have written about the wines of Jamie Kutch several times here on Vinography. This is due, in part, to the fact that I have closely watched Jamie’s career as a winemaker from the moment it began as merely the dream of a young finance guy in New York who fell in love with Pinot Noir.
“For a long time, we had a schtick. I had my story. It was about lifestyle, a story of me following my dream,” Kutch says at the cluttered kitchen table of his modest San Francisco home where we sat down to talk late last year, not long before the global pandemic set in. “But all along in the back of my mind, I was focused on something more serious than that story. I want to make great wines that can play on the world stage. It’s fine to have a lifestyle narrative, a dream of a lifetime to introduce people to the wines, but that’s not enough for me. I think about people like Adam Sandler or Mark Walberg, underneath their public image, they’re hustlers. They’re serious professionals who work hard and produce.”
Having observed his fairly meteoric rise from enthusiastic, first-time winemaker to what passes for (at least according to critics’ scores) mastery, I find myself thinking about how the stories of wineries evolve and change. It seems quite clear that Kutch has in both literal and figurative ways outgrown his origin story. Now in his mid-40s, he’s filled out a little on what was once a wiry frame, his close-cropped hair graying noticeably. While he still shows hints of his trademark frantic energy in bursts of ideas and speech, time and fatherhood seem to have exerted something of a mellowing influence.
Returning to Kutch’s Hollywood metaphor, he has clearly moved beyond being typecast as the Doogie Howser of California Pinot Noir. The man, and his winery, have clearly passed an inflection point where the narrative can cease to be about where he came from, and now must focus on what he, as one of California’s current virtuosos of Pinot Noir, intends to do with the rest of his career as a winemaker. After many consecutive vintages of scores in the low and mid-90s from the notoriously tough grader Allen Meadows at Burghound, Kutch’s wines display the meticulous, nuanced work of someone who thinks deeply and carefully about what he is trying to express. He has become more focused than ever on the combination of site and vintage, as he tunes both in his winemaking and his farming regimens to allow the characteristics of each to play a larger role in the character of his wines.
I’m just more confident now at letting wines be what they are. I have more confidence in my vineyards.
WINEMAKER Jamie Kutch
“I continue to learn that less is more with wine in general,” continues Kutch. “For several years now I’ve used no new oak at all. Now it’s fewer punchdowns, less extraction, and less heat. Every year is another experience, of course. I’ve been on a journey of observation. Learning to watch and see how, if Mother Nature throws a ball on the outside, I can see that pitch coming and step out a bit too hit it a little better. I’ve learned to manage my extraction techniques in the winery to adapt to the fruit.”
“Some of these wines,” he says, gesturing to the set of 2018 wines we have in front of us, “have had maybe two punchdowns. We used to do that twice a day over a 14-day fermentation. That could mean 12 to 18 punchdowns for each wine. We’re now down to two or three. And guess what? The wines show a better sense of their place. There’s more distinction of where they were grown, what type of soil they were grown in. That has been joyous to see and gives me more confidence. I’m just more confident now at letting wines be what they are. I have more confidence in my vineyards.”
It’s going to be epic, actually, to the point that I hope it doesn’t eclipse my other wines.
Winemaker Jamie Kutch
To that end, Kutch has been making changes to the lineup of his wines, essentially dropping vineyard contracts for sites in which he lacked faith for how they would perform long term or in which he struggled to get the farming done to increasingly exacting specifications, including as close to dry-farming as possible. That has meant dropping vineyards such as the Savoy Vineyard in Anderson Valley, and focusing his portfolio of Pinot Noirs on the Sonoma Coast AVA, with single-vineyard designates from the Bohan Vineyard, The Falstaff Vineyard, and McDougall Ranch. In 2014 Kutch also recently began making a Chardonnay from the Trout Gulch Vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and began making commercial quantities of his rosé, something of a closely guarded secret wine for several years.
In the course of our conversation, Kutch let drop that he will be adding a new single vineyard designate wine to his lineup in the 2019 vintage. “I’m always hunting and searching for sites that really stand out. In 2019 I made a wine from Mindego Ridge Vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains. It’s in the rock-star upper elevations in the northern part of the site. A husband and wife bought the property and have been organically farming it to make their own wines, but they’ve been selling some of their fruit and I got some in 2019. I tasted it out of barrel the other day and I can say without a doubt it is every bit as good as any of my other single-vineyard wines. It’s going to be epic, actually, to the point that I hope it doesn’t eclipse my other wines.
Kutch continues to save his pennies towards his ultimate goal of having his own estate vineyard. He’s come close a few times. “I bid on a property near Falstaff, but I got outbid by Bill Price [cofounder of the TPG group, a $30 billion hedge fund] so, what are you going to do,” shrugs Kutch. “I’m always looking for a spot. I guess I need a recession or a big hiccup to get into the game. The time will come.”
We always have to be careful what we ask for, but perhaps there will be a silver lining in this pandemic for Kutch.
Until he finds the patch of land that will become his first estate bottling, however, Kutch seems quite satisfied that he has gotten to where he wanted to go with his wines, and spends his time and focus on the minute details that lie between that satisfaction and perfection, a task which seems a lifetime’s work.
“I’m going to make wine until I’m dead,” quips Kutch, almost-but-not-quite self-consciously saying something that he and I have both heard vintners twice his age utter as they stand over a barrel in their centuries-old family cellar. Kutch has accomplished so much and progressed so fast as a winemaker in 15 years, it’s hard to imagine where he will be in another 15 years, let alone 30.
Luckily, we’ll all have the pleasure of watching, and drinking, as he moves along.
The following are notes on some of Kutch Wines recent past releases, provided as press samples or opened for tasting during a visit.
2017 Kutch Wines Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, California Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon pith and a hint of apple. In the mouth, apple and a touch of citrus pith mixes with stony wet chalkboard. Fantastic bright acidity, and nice linearity. 12.25% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $39. click to buy.
2017 Kutch Wines “Trout Gulch Vineyard” Chardonnay, Santa Cruz Mountains, California Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of wet chalkboard and citrus pith with a hint of floral overtones. In the mouth, gorgeous bright lemon zest and lemon curd have a bright zingy quality thanks to excellent acidity. Gorgeous minerality and a hint of pith on the finish with floral overtones. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $54. click to buy.
2018 Kutch Wines Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California Light to medium garnet in the glass this wine smells of bright raspberry and cherry fruit with a background of herbs. In the mouth, juicy and bright flavors of raspberry and cherry fruit mix with floral and herbal notes. Faint tannins add a bit of muscle to the wine and linger with hints of herbs in the finish. Excellent acidity. 13.2% alcohol. A blend of Bohan, Falstaff and McDougall. Which means very expensive fruit, in a not-so-expensive bottle. Score: around 9. Cost: $39. click to buy.
2018 Kutch Wines “Bohan Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of crushed stones, red fruit and dried flowers. In the mouth, muscular, supple, fine grained tannins wrap around a beautiful crystalline core of raspberry and wet chalkboard. Hints of dried herbs linger in the finish. Fantastic acidity. I would give this a year in the bottle, and watch out! 13.4% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $54. click to buy.
2018 Kutch Wines “Bohan Vineyard – Graveyard Block” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of raspberry and cherry fruit with amazing sweet floral overtones. In the mouth, powdery but powerful tannins wrap around a core of pure raspberry fruit tinged with cherries and flowers. Gorgeous acidity and wonderful rocky depth, this wine comes from a specific block of the Bohan Vineyard that is solid sandstone rock, where the own-rooted vines dig deep and yield smaller, according to Kutch “gnarlier” clusters. As a result and quite uncharacteristically for Kutch, the wine is 100% destemmed. Kutch felt the wine needed it, despite his typical focus on 100% whole cluster fermentation. 13.1% alcohol. 100 cases made. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $56. click to buy.
2018 Kutch Wines “Falstaff Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of bright raspberry and redcurrant fruit with a hint of sour cherry and chopped dried herbs. In the mouth, gorgeous sour cherry and redcurrant fruit mixes with raspberry pastilles under a gauzy blanket of tannins accompanied by wonderfully green wood and fresh herb flavors. Gorgeous acidity brings in faintly bitter notes of citrus peel into the finish, where the tannins add grip.12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $64. click to buy.
2018 Kutch Wines “McDougall Ranch” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and floral notes that soar away. In the mouth, gorgeous acidity enlivens and gushes flavors of cherry and wet chalkboard draped in suede-like tannins. Notes of herbs and earth and pure raspberries linger in the finish. Gorgeous. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $64. click to buy.
2017 Kutch Wines “Bohan Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of earth, dried flowers, and raspberry fruit. In the mouth, beautifully mineral flavors of raspberry, cherry and wet earth are wrapped in a muscular skein of tannins that speak the language of stone. Gorgeous fruit, outstanding acidity. Utterly delicious. 12% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $54. click to buy.
2017 Kutch Wines “McDougall Ranch” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of raspberry and cherry and wet earth. In the mouth, beautiful cherry and raspberry flavors are wrapped in a gauzy blanket of tannins even as bright acidity makes them gush across the palate. Deeper bass notes linger in earthy tones through the finish. Delicious. 13% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $64. click to buy.
2017 Kutch Wines Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of raspberry and raspberry leaf. In the mouth, flavors of berries, herbs, tree bark and a touch of dried flowers have a nice brightness to them thanks to excellent acidity. A faint herbal bitterness lingers in the finish along with scents of raspberries. The faintest of tannins add texture to the wine. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $39. click to buy.
2017 Kutch Wines “Falstaff Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of raspberries and cranberries. In the mouth, faint tannins dust the edges of the palate while intense raspberry and pomegranate flavors mix with aromatic herbs and flowers. Gorgeous citrus acidity makes the wine vibrant and mouthwatering, while the floral and berry notes linger long through the finish. Outstanding. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $64. click to buy.
2017 Kutch Wines “Bohan Vineyard – Graveyard Block” Pinot Noir, California Light to medium garnet in color, this wine smells of raspberries, dried flowers, and dusty earth. In the mouth, fantastically bright flavors of redcurrant and raspberries mix with dried herbs and a touch of potters clay. Faint, powdery tannins hang in a cloud above the palate while the wine finishes with a touch of red apple skin and sawdust. 12.9% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $56. click to buy.
2017 Kutch Wines “Signal Ridge Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Mendocino Ridge, Mendocino, California Light to medium garnet in color, this wine smells of camphor wood, forest floor and raspberries. In the mouth, powdery tannins dust the edges of the palate while raspberry and redcurrant flavors dance with brilliant acidity on the palate. Gorgeous incense and exotic wood notes mix with floral components as the wine lingers through a very long finish. Distinctive and outstanding. 12% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $54. click to buy.