When Stones Speak: The Wines of Domaine des Ardoisiers

Some truly great wines sneak up on you, sip after sip, taste after taste—deepening, resonating, and ultimately resolving into your own realization that you are experiencing something profound. More commonly in my experience, however, great wines hit you like a lightning bolt, with a silent detonation that snaps every iota of your attention to the wine itself.

That’s what it felt like the first time I tasted the wines of Domaine des Ardoisiers, perhaps more than 10 years ago. I remember the moment well. I was sitting at a dinner table on the lawn at the International Pinot Noir Celebration in McMinnville, Oregon, and two seats away from me sat the famed importer Martine Saunier, to whom I had been introduced a few minutes before. As we settled into our table, Martine retrieved two bottles from her oversized handbag and plunked them on the table.

The labels intrigued me from the very start, with their slightly amateurish label design and funky fonts. At the time, I had no idea where they came from. IGP Vin des Allobroges meant nothing to me. “Where the hell is Allobroges?” I thought to myself. Eventually, our attendant sommelier came by and opened them up, and then, at my first sip, the heavens themselves opened up, and I was hopelessly smitten for life.

Yes, I am a sucker for wines that taste like liquid stone. And few wines in the world manage to taste and smell more like pulverized stone than these, which are unquestionably among the very best that are produced in the little region of France known as the Savoie.

A classic U-shaped glacial valley in the Savoie

Nemesis of Ice

Few things can resist the power of a glacier that knows where it’s headed. When ten million tons of ice are headed your way, even at the creeping pace of a few centimeters per day, you get out of the way or you are ground to dust. Some of the world’s most spectacular u-shaped valleys are testament to this incredible power. Yosemite. The Fjords of Norway. Lauterbrunnen in Switzerland.

Occasionally, however, there are times when instead of obliterating, the ice embraces, flowing around and over a bit of stone instead of wreaking its slow pulverization.

Often, these snags of stone will become the sites of recessional moraines, buildups of soil and glacial effluvia that are left behind as the ice melts and the glacier seems to retreat back up the valley it has carved towards the cirque of its birth.

The glaciers that carved the Tarentaise valley started their grinding about 2 million years ago, and finished their retreat only about 10,000 years ago, leaving behind the beautiful valleys of the French Alps, and stunning lakes such as Geneva and Annecy.

And in a place that would eventually be called Cevins, in an otherwise beautifully scoured u-shaped glacial valley, as a glacier turned to water a small spur of solid schist gathered the stones and soil that the ice would no longer hold. Over time, a village sprang up in the shadow of the hill that rock and earth created, and the local residents, likely citizens of the Roman Empire at the time, planted grapes in the fractured schist soils. The vines were tended, some for better some for worse, and eventually, the townspeople placed a small chapel at the summit, dedicated to Notre Dame des Neiges, “Our Lady of the Snows.”

When Stones Speak: The Wines of Domaine des Ardoisiers

The Organic Visionary

Like many small-scale vignerons of his generation, Michel Grisard grew up on his family’s mixed farm, which produced wine as well as produce, eggs, and meats. The Grisard family, though, was perhaps a little deeper into wine than most, as they also ran a vine nursery, providing plants for new vineyards in their area.

 After studying Agriculture at university, Grisard joined the family business only to have his father pass away a year later, leaving Michel to run the nursery and winery. Once joined by his brother in the family business, Grisard decided his future lay elsewhere, and in 1982 he left to work with the small acreage of Mondeuse he had planted himself, renting the St-Christophe Priory in the village of Fréterive to use as a cellar.

Grisard’s approach to viticulture was quite traditional at first, in keeping with his university education, replete with herbicides, fungicides, pesticides, and fertilizers galore. However after meeting biodynamic consultant François Bouchet in 1994 through Michel Chapoutier, he quickly became the first biodynamic producer in the Savoie region and was certified organic three years later, and never looked back.

Soon after, thanks in part to having sold his wines to restaurant Paul Bocuse in Lyon, Grisard’s wines became quite sought-after.

As part of his explorations of nearby terroirs, Grisard eventually came across a tiny little town with a hillside full of derelict vineyards and crumbling stone terraces. The precarious slope over the little town of Cevins had been left out of the Savoie AOC region, in part because the narrow valley receives less sun than other areas of the region, and was thought to offer too much challenge in ripening grapes.

For Grisard, the unusual schist soils, steep southerly exposure, terraced plots, and a seemingly ancient history of wine growing were too much to resist.

Grisard created a company, solicited investment, bought or rented the majority of the land on the hillside, and between 1998 and 2002 he planted nearly 13 acres across the hillside with Mondeuse, Persan, Altesse, Jacquere, and perhaps some of the region’s first plantings of the little known Mondeuse Blanche.

As the first plantings began to yield fruit, Grisard made the wines under his Prieuré St-Christophe label, but as this unique hillside matured, it became clear that it needed its own identity.

When Stones Speak: The Wines of Domaine des Ardoisiers
A steep bowl near the top of the Cevins hillside

The End of a Journey, Beginning of a Calling

In the early 2000s, winemaker Brice Omont was working at a big production facility in Champagne, but while his hands were busy, his heart was somewhere else. He was both spiritually and literally searching for somewhere to make wine. He thought he might eventually end up in the Loire, given his interest in organic and biodynamic winemaking, but he made several trips to Anjou the surrounding areas and didn’t find what he was looking for.

Then some friends suggested he look at the Savoie. “I said ‘oh, you mean vin de raclette? I don’t think so,’” recalls Omont, referencing the Savoie’s (unfortunately still lingering) reputation for cheap, ski-resort swill. “I was prejudiced. But eventually, I took a vacation in 2003 and came to the region, thinking that I would just have a look.”

During his visit, he stopped off at the local Ministry of Agriculture office and explained that he was interested in organic winegrowing. “They said to me if that’s what you’re interested in, there is only one person for you to speak with. His name is Michel Grisard.” 

“I called Michel Grisard and I visited,” continues Omont. “I tasted his wines and…” he shrugs. “Wow. The Mondeuse, the Altesse. I realized immediately the brilliance of his approach. His wines were superior to every Savoie wine I had ever tasted. So I talked with him, I told him I was looking for a place to make wine, and he told me that a young vigneron he had been working with had recently left.”

Grisard then went on to describe a small hillside of schist in the Tarentaise valley.

“I came back to Champagne, and I told myself, ‘This is it. It’s not the Loire, it’s the Savoie.’ And I knew that if I didn’t do this that I would regret it for the rest of my life.”

One week later, Omont was back in the Savoie, gazing up at the little hill of vines with a tiny white chapel at its summit.

When Stones Speak: The Wines of Domaine des Ardoisiers

Ardoisiers Against All Odds

“On my first day,” says Omont, “I thought that this was no problem. The second year I realized what kind of a hill it was that we had to climb. It was very high, and very difficult, and I wasn’t sure we were going to be able to do it. We didn’t have the means at our disposal to achieve our ambitions.”

The bank agreed. When Grisard and Omont went looking for more money, no one was willing to give them a loan. “I told Michel it was a shame, but it looked like we needed to win the lottery in order to make it work,” says Omont. “Three years later we were completely out of money.”

Omont describes calling their first and best customer and breaking the news that the banks had turned them down. “He said to me, ‘What is the plan?” And I told him we didn’t have one. That we were done.”

Click the images in the gallery below for larger views.

But that customer called 10 other customers—some retailers, some restaurateurs and some consumers—and as a group they came back to Omont and told him to open a bottle of wine, and when he did, they said they would collectively co-sign for a loan, and that they would all come to help whenever the winery needed a hand.

“I pinched myself because I couldn’t believe what was happening,” says Omont. “The bank did not understand, but these people did. They had a passion for wine. Many people told me we were crazy to do this, that we’d lose control and that these people would run everything. But these people wanted no salaries, no investment returns. They just said, ‘take your time, don’t worry, do it the best way. We are just happy to drink it. If you want to give us some bottles, we’ll be happy,’ but no more than that. It’s the opposite of this kind of jungle economics you hear about. There are times when you’re scared of humanity. And then there are times like that where you just shake your head and say, ‘Fantastic.’”

Most of the investors remained silent partners, but eventually, two became advisors to Omont and Grisard, helping them think through the structuring of a healthy business, to plan for expansion, and in 2010 helped them secure the somewhat ramshackle building with a rare underground cellar that Omont located in the village of Freterive,

Around this time, Omont and Grisard had a falling out, and Grisard, who would retire from winemaking altogether in 2014, stepped away, leaving Omont solely in charge.

Soon after Omont joined, the wines were given their own identity, named after the slate (ardoise) roofs of the small vineyard huts that dot the hillside.

When Stones Speak: The Wines of Domaine des Ardoisiers

A Song of Schist and Clay

Ardoisiers farms 38.3 acres of vineyards located in two primary places, the fractured schist hill of Cevins and several plots surrounding the villages of St-Jean-de-la-Porte and St-Pierre-de-Soucy, which feature the typical Savoyard mix of clay and fractured limestone tumbled from the cliffs of the Combe de Savoie. From these two areas, the domaine has historically made five wines, named primarily for the soils in which they grow.

The Argile Blanc is a blend of Jaquère, Mondeuse Blanche, and Chardonnay farmed from 4 different locations around the village of St-Pierre-de-Soucy, some of which include some schist in addition to limestone. Some newly acquired vineyard plots that include some Roussanne plantings mean that a fourth grape may soon join the blend.

Its red counterpart, Argile Rouge, is mostly Gamay, with Mondeuse Noir and Persan, and comes mostly from around St-Jean-de-la-Porte.

The Schiste white wine, an unusual blend of Jaquère, Roussanne, Pinot Gris, and Mondeuse Blanche comes from the hill at Cevins, as does the 100% Altesse wine named Quartz.

The red blend named Amethyste is also overseen by Our Lady of the Snows, and features a blend of Mondeuse Noir and Persan.

When Stones Speak: The Wines of Domaine des Ardoisiers
The mica-schist stone of Cevins.

The simplicity of Ardoisiers winemaking will come as no surprise to fans of biodynamic and organic wines. Harvests by hand proceed slowly, and the variety of exposures across his sites means that a month or more can pass between the first grapes harvested and the last.

I thought wines that were so good meant I had to know a thousand things to get them right. But in the end it’s just easy. You just have to take care of your grapes.

Omont uses whole clusters, presses his whites gently, and ferments with ambient yeasts, adding no sulfur until just before bottling. If the wines take 3 months or even 6 months to finish their fermentation, Omont is happy to let them do their thing. Malolactic conversion occurs naturally, and the wines age in enamel tanks or in used oak barrels. After the 2004 vintage didn’t go through malolactic, Omont has worked to reduce his use of sulfur to a minimum.

“I take my time. You have to let fermentation construct the layers of aromas in the wine. And the wines need time,” says Omont. “In the end, it is not complicated. When I started I told Michel that I wanted to do pump-overs. ‘No,’ he said. ‘Let it go.’ I thought wines that were so good meant I had to know a thousand things to get them right. But in the end, it’s just easy. You just have to take care of your grapes.”

Omont farms without pesticides or herbicides, applying compost to the vines, occasionally some copper and sulfur, and some (though not all) of the biodynamic preparations, choosing to pay more attention to his vines than any particular regimen of treatment.

But no matter how well he cares for his vines, there’s one thing Omont can’t control.

When Stones Speak: The Wines of Domaine des Ardoisiers
A steep section of the hill at Cevins

Climate Insurance

“Ten years ago, we had nine good years, and then one bad year,” says Omont. “Since 2018, we have had one bad, one good, one bad.”

Indeed, the week before I arrived in the Savoie in mid-July, the region had been hit by serious rainstorms, not to mention some frost in the spring, leading Omont and many vintners to estimate mildew-driven crop losses approaching 50%.

“We need to make sure that if I invest to make improvements to the building, and if we continue to sell our wines overseas, that we are OK. If tomorrow we lose 80% of our production, we are dead,” says Omont. “We have to prepare for the worst.”

In formulating his strategy for climate survival, Omont took inspiration from some winemakers in the Jura, where he saw small established players going to other parts of their region and leasing vineyards as a hedge against weather calamities.

“In the next ten years, we will for sure have more difficulties,” says Omont, “so I am preparing now to make more stock.”

In 2018, Omont debuted a Jacquère named Silice Blanc, and in 2020, he made a Silice Rouge from Mondeuse Noir. Both are labeled with the name “Maison des Ardoisiers” and are made with grapes purchased from organically farmed vineyards that Omont has identified and contracted around the Savoie.

As the wines of Ardoisiers have seen increased demand, these new wines are an attractive proposition that allows more people to try Omont’s wines, but without him feeling like he is sacrificing quality for the sake of commercial scale.

More importantly, the diversification of his vineyard sites has already proved out Omont’s strategy. “With this year’s rain and frost, we’d be dead without Maison des Ardoisiers.”

Custodian of a Voice

At 45 years old, and with just over 17 harvests at Ardoisiers, Omont is in the prime of his winemaking career, and the wines reflect his confidence and the understanding of both the grapes and the sites he has to work with.

One day I will die, and this terroir will continue. Have I listened correctly to the terroir? Have I expressed correctly the terroir? I am lucky enough to have the chance to do that.

“My biggest regret is that we didn’t build a library of these wines,” he says. “I know these wines will last 10 or 15 years or more, but at the beginning, I had no choice. When someone called and asked for more bottles, I was happy to help them.”

Altesse in particular, says Omont, has the capacity not only to age but to develop and improve with time. Like Riesling, Semillon, Assyrtiko, or Catarratto, Altesse begins with chiseled acidity and deep stony qualities, but it gains a fleshy weight and an attractive buttery, saline richness over time, undergoing a transmutation that seems almost magical.

Persan and to a lesser extent, Mondeuse Noir, also have the ability to develop attractive secondary and tertiary characteristics with age. “People say Persan ages like Pinot, and Mondeuse ages like Syrah,” says Omont.

Eventually, perhaps, Ardoisiers will be able to hold some bottles back, but with a production of only a few hundred cases for its top wines, that will be slow going.

In the meantime, Omont seems content with his progress, and quite comfortable with the direction he is headed.

“We are just messengers,” says Omont. “One day I will die, and this terror will continue. Have I listened correctly to the terroir? Have I expressed correctly the terroir? I am lucky enough to have the chance to do that.  Each vintage, I ask myself, did I do a good job expressing what this place has to say?”

For those of us who love to hear the whispers of magical places and taste the majesty of a landscape in the glass, the answer is an unqualified yes.

* * *

I am particularly indebted to Wink Lorch and her tremendous book Wines of the French Alps for some of the background information about Michel Grisard that I have included above.

Tasting Notes

In case it is not obvious from the above, or the scores below, these are some of my absolute favorite wines in the world, and (at the risk of making them harder to get for myself) they come with my highest recommendation.

2020 Maison des Ardoisiers “Silice Blanc” Jacquère, IGP Vin des Allobroges, France
Palest gold in the glass with almost no color, this wine smells of green apples and grapefruit pith. In the mouth, green apple, grapefruit, and a hint of white flowers are bright and juicy with fantastic acidity. Great wet chalkboard minerality. These grapes come from the limestone studded soils of Apremont. 11% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $26. click to buy.

2020 Domaine des Ardoisiers “Argile Blanc” White Blend, IGP Vin des Allobroges, France
Palest greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of green apples, wet stones, and white flowers. In the mouth, deep stony flavors of green apples, white flowers, and citrus pith are welded to wet pavement. Incredibly stony and delicious. A blend of Jacquère, Mondeuse Blanc, and Chardonnay. Comes from 4 locations around the village of Saint Pierre de Soucy which feature limestone studded clays referenced by the wine’s name. 11.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $45. click to buy.

2019 Domaine des Ardoisiers “Schiste” White Blend, IGP Vin des Allobroges, France
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of star fruit and a bit of unripe greengage plums, and wet chalkboard. In the mouth, gorgeous star fruit, wet chalkboard, lime flower, and lime zest flavors are wonderfully mouthwatering with faint salinity. Mouthwatering and stunningly mineral. Like drinking stone. Comes from the vineyard on the hill below the Our Lady of the Snows chapel, along the Rue des Ardoisiers in Cevins. A blend of Jaquère, Roussanne, Pinot Gris, and Mondeuse Blanche. 12% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $60. click to buy.

2019 Domaine des Ardoisiers “Quartz” Altesse, IGP Vin des Allobroges, France
Light greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of citrus pith, warm hay, dried herbs, and wet chalkboard. In the mouth, grapefruit pith, dried herbs, and wet stones swirl in a wonderfully deep stony cistern of flavor and mineral expression. The crushed rock quality continues in the finish with some pithiness and a hint of lemongrass. These grapes are also from the Cevins vineyard. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $120. click to buy.

2012 Domaine des Ardoisiers “Quartz” Altesse, IGP Vin des Allobroges, France
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of melted butter and wet chalkboard. In the mouth, saline flavors of lemon oil, wet pavement, and seawater take on a shimmering ethereal quality that is simply and irresistibly mouthwatering. Rich on the one hand, and then also light and zingy on the other, this wine is utterly compelling. This bottle demonstrates what happens to Altesse with some age: it fattens up and to the searing liquid stone minerality it adds a layered buttery caramel quality. Boom. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $120. If you can find it, buy it.

2020 Maison des Ardoisiers “Silice Rouge” Mondeuse, IGP Vin des Allobroges, France
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of boysenberry and aromatic herbs like lavender and pennyroyal. In the mouth, stony bright flavors of boysenberry and dried sage are suffused with a cloud of powdery tannins that fill the mouth and leave a chalk-dust minerality lingering on the palate. Fantastic acidity. This is the only wine at Ardoisiers that is destemmed. After a week of maceration, this wine is fermented and aged in steel tanks. 10.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $30. click to buy.

2019 Domaine des Ardoisiers “Argile Rouge” Red Blend, IGP Vin des Allobroges, France
Light garnet in the glass, this wine smells of berries and bramble, green herbs, and a hint of sawdust. In the mouth, gorgeously bright acidity makes flavors of mulberries, redcurrant, and plum mix with the faint bitter sourness of plum skin. Wonderful tangy flavors and faint herbal notes are welded to wet pavement minerality and a long finish. Whole bunches of 65% Gamay, 25% Mondeuse Noir, and 10% Persan macerate for 10 days before fermentation. Ages in large oak foudres for about 9 months before bottling, and then released the following year. 11.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $45. click to buy.

2018 Domaine des Ardoisiers “Amethyste” Red Blend, IGP Vin des Allobroges, France
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of mulberries, and aromatic green herbs. In the mouth, saline flavors of mulberries, sour cherry, and herbs swirl and crackle with phenomenal acidity and stony minerality, with the saline notes making for a mouthwatering finish for minutes. Incredibly delicious. Stony faint tannins. A blend of Persan and Mondeuse Noir that I could drink all day long. 11% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $105. click to buy.

2016 Domaine des Ardoisiers “Amethyste” Red Blend, IGP Vin des Allobroges, France
Light garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dried sage and other herbs with sour cherry, mulberry, and dusty road notes. In the mouth, deeply mineral flavors come through a haze of chalk-dusty tannins and a core of sour cherry and mulberry fruit tinged with hints of citrus peel crackles with mouthwatering acidity. Wonderfully long, juicy finish. Outstanding. 12% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $105. click to buy.

When Stones Speak: The Wines of Domaine des Ardoisiers
Winemaker Brice Omont and the lineup of Ardoisiers wines

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The Soul of Refinement: Recent & Upcoming Releases from Corison Winery, Napa

There most definitely was a time, not so long ago, when you couldn’t begin an article about one of Napa’s greatest winemakers with the phrase “Cathy Corison needs no introduction.” But now, I wonder. The combination of interest in women winemakers, an increasing emphasis on balance in California wine, and the decline of the ParkTator hegemony have resulted in Cathy Corison finally getting the attention she so rightly deserves, both in terms of media mentions and increasingly high scores for her wines.

Regular readers will know I’ve been a fan of Corison and her wines for a long time, and since I’ve written extensively about her (most recently after a 25-year retrospective of her wines) I’m not going to tell her full story today. Instead, I’m going to share my thoughts on some of her recently released wines, specifically the 2016, 2017, and 2018 vintages.

Three Excellent Vintages

The 2016 growing season started early in Napa, with a very warm April and after some typical heat in June, the season almost seemed to get cooler as time went on, with no serious heat spikes. And then, as is sometimes typical, things got warmer as harvest approached but without extremes. It’s something of a fleshy vintage for Napa in general, though with Corison picking earlier than most of her peers, it simply means a lovely vintage for her wines.

The winter preceding the 2017 growing season was quite wet, especially relative to the drought conditions that set in between 2012 and 2015. After a relatively uneventful Spring, the weather began to warm considerably as August transitioned to September, and then some serious heat settled in and made for a highly compressed harvest for Corison to avoid losing the acidity that she seeks to retain in her fruit.

Corison describes the 2018 vintage as perhaps the “darkest, inkiest” vintage she can remember, as moderate weather stretched from a perfectly undisturbed flowering in spring to a leisurely harvest, with cool nights all along retaining acidity and allowing a smooth and slow maturation of the fruit. Of course, when other people say “inky” you might start to imagine 15.5% alcohol, opaque wines that slip across the palate like olive oil. Corison’s 2018 wines clock in at 13.7% alcohol with fantastic acidity.

The Barn at Corison Winery

Patience is a Virtue

I tell most people that they should really drink Corison’s wines after a minimum of five years, but optimally after about 10 years. The old-school style of these wines deeply rewards time in the bottle. That’s not to say these wines aren’t delicious out of the gate. As you can see from the tasting notes below, they absolutely are. But the real magic with Corison Cabernet comes from the secondary and tertiary aromas and flavors that can only come with time in the cellar. I wouldn’t necessarily make the same recommendation for a lot of Napa Cabernets, many of which (especially the higher-alcohol wines) I find drink at their best within the 2-5 year timeframe when you can revel in their richness of fruit.

With Corison’s wines, though, it’s the refinement of fruit over time with dried flowers, pencil shavings, aromatic herbs, cedar, and cigar box flavors and aromas that truly demonstrates the potential of the vineyards that Cathy farms, and the style with which she crafts her wines.

So if you’re going to buy these wines, I recommend buying them in multiples of three. Drink one if you have to in the next 2 years, drink one between 5 and 7 years later, and save the last one for 10 years or more. You can thank me later.

If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of tasting Corison’s wine, you’re missing out on one of the most consistently excellent wines made in Napa.

Here’s a photo I took of Cathy amidst her oeuvre, so to speak.

The Soul of Refinement: Recent & Upcoming Releases from Corison Winery, Napa

Tasting Notes

2016 Corison Winery “Kronos Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena, Napa, California
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dusty earth, dried herbs, and dried flowers. In the mouth, gorgeously refined notes of black cherry and cassis mix with dried flowers and road dust. The texture here is lovely, with delicate, fine-grained tannins that billow like gauze in the mouth, as the juicy berry flavors get a tinge of citrus peel brightness as they finish but also a savory, salinity that adds an umami kick to this wine. Fantastic acidity. Delicious now but in 5-10 years, watch out. 13.3% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $210. click to buy.

2016 Corison Winery “Sunbasket Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena, Napa, California
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherries, blackcurrants, dried flowers, and dried fennel seeds. In the mouth, juicy blackcurrant and black cherry flavors have a tangy sour cherry note as hints of dried flowers and herbs creep into the mouthwatering finish. Fantastic acidity and the faintest of fleecy tannins. 13.4% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $200. click to buy.

2017 Corison Winery “Helios – Sunbasket Vineyard” Cabernet Franc, St. Helena, Napa, California
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of plum and plum skin with hints of dried green herbs. In the mouth, juicy plum skin, sour cherry, and dried flowers are bursting with bright acidity and shot through with dried green herbs. Lovely faint powdery tannins give some structure to the wine, but this is largely just mouthwatering juiciness. Very light on its feet and easy to drink. 13.9% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $115. click to buy.

2017 Corison Winery Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena, Napa, California
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry and blackberries. In the mouth, juicy black cherry and blackberry fruit is shot through with lightly muscular tannins and fantastic acidity that leaves a sour cherry, mouthwatering quality to the wine. Young yet, and likely to improve for the next 10 years. 14.2% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $99. click to buy.      

2018 Corison Winery Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena, Napa, California
Dark purple in the glass, this wine smells of dried herbs, black cherry, blackcurrants, and lavender. In the mouth, intense blackcurrant and dried herb notes are juicy with fantastic acidity and savory with hints of dried flowers. A hint of salinity creeps into the finish along with a dusty earth note. Powdery tannins flex their muscles on the edges of the palate. While this is tasty right now, I’d leave it alone for 5 years to start getting the true magic here. 13.8% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $99. (this wine is due to be released on 9/1/21 – click to buy.      

2018 Corison Winery “Helios – Sunbasket Vineyard” Cabernet Franc, St. Helena, Napa, California
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dusty earth, black plum, and black cherry. In the mouth, incredibly juicy flavors of black plum, cherry, and citrus oil pucker the mouth with fantastic, mouthwatering acidity. Faint tannins and hints of dried herbs and flowers add texture and complexity to this wine. This is young and quite primary at the moment but will blossom even more with time. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $110. This wine is due to be released on 10/1/21 – click to buy.    

2018 Corison Winery “Sunbasket Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena, Napa, California
Dark purple in color, this wine smells of black plum and black cherry. In the mouth, muscular tannins wrap around a core of black cherry and blackcurrant with the tangy brightness of plum skin that makes the mouth water. Hints of dried flowers and licorice linger in the finish. This one definitely needs some time in the bottle, but I predict it will be fantastic in a few years. 13.7% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $200. This wine is due to be released on 11/1/21 – click to buy.      

Some images courtesy of Corison Wines.

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The Forest Dreams of the Savoie Vine: The Wines of Domaine Curtet

Can you taste integrity? Spend enough time thinking and talking about wine, especially great wine, and inevitably you have to move beyond the merely tangible. Wine is more than just geology, chemistry, and botany. Like any human craft, honed over lifetimes and generations, it begins to contain something of us, to reflect something of the human spirit behind it.

All of which is why my answer to my opening question is unquestionably yes, just as you can taste honesty or love in the bottle as well. Sometimes subtle, sometimes electric and deeply powerful, the sensation of these (things? forces? principles? ideas? energies?) isn’t extremely common in my experience, even for those who drink selectively with deliberation and care. Their perception in wine, like a psychedelic experience, depends heavily on set and setting. We easily bring as much to wine as we get from it.

I recently got a deliciously heavy dose of bottled integrity on my visit to the Savoie region of France. On a crystalline-bright morning, I found myself wandering one of the more remarkable vineyard sites I have ever visited, listening to a very young man speaking (and acting, and farming, and winemaking) with a level of conviction and vision that are rare in winemakers twice his age.

On every wine trip I take, I hope to encounter at least one producer whose story and wines make the whole trip worthwhile. My visit to Domaine Curtet, was definitely one of those moments.

Florian Curtet hasn’t been in the world of wine for long. At a mere 30 years of age, he’s basically just a few years out of school. A local Savoyard, originally from Annecy, he studied enology in Beaune before returning to Annecy to continue his studies of Agriculture, in part with an internship that found him working with the well-known organic producer Jacques Maillet.

Florian Curtet in the vineyard.

Maillet was good friends with fellow Savoie producer Gilles Berlioz and with different harvest dates between their estates, Berlioz and Maillet were in the habit of helping each other out occasionally during harvest. One day Berlioz brought with him a young woman named Marie who had recently come to two important realizations. The first was that she wanted to make a life for herself in wine. The second was that the Savoie was where she wanted to make her home. And after meeting the young man working alongside Maillet, she would soon come to a third realization.

As they say, one thing led to another. Florian and Marie fell in love, and George Maillet decided he wanted to retire. Lacking any interested heirs, Maillet asked Curtet if he wanted to take over his property. Being handed 12.3 acres of perhaps the most immaculate organic vineyards in the area was more than fortuitous for the Curtets, who leaped at the chance to pursue their dream of a domaine to call their own.

Their first vintage was 2016, the same year their first child, Lily was born.

Both Florian and Marie believe strongly in their approach to winemaking and winegrowing, which is remarkably clear-sighted and unique, given their youth.

The Forest Dreams of the Savoie Vine: The Wines of Domaine Curtet

The Forest Vine

Curtet believes strongly in the synergy between grapevines and their surrounding ecosystem. Having purchased a set of what most people would have considered pristine organic vineyards, he is busy returning them as close as is practically possible to what he believes is their natural state. But instead of anchoring on the concept of a holistic farm with animals, plants, and people working without outside inputs (as biodynamics often does), Curtet chooses to focus instead on something that might best be described as… wilderness.

“My philosophy is not organic or biodynamic,” explains Curtet. “It is the philosophy of the green place. Green is carbon, it’s nurturing the soil. If you nurture the soil, you will have good fruit. My work begins with and continues constantly to understand how nature functions. It’s important to see how a forest [ecosystem] functions, and when you see that, you realize that agriculture, as we practice it now, is crazy. It’s the opposite of the forest. In the forest, you have leaves and branches and plants all falling to the earth and it’s never turned over. You see the fertility, you smell the mushrooms. The soil is dark. It is soft. The soil of the [average] farm is not like this, it is very poor, and yet we’re eating this poor fertility all around the world. Geology doesn’t create soil, vegetation does.”

I started by doing the opposite of what I was taught in school.

Curtet prunes during the winter, but other than that, he does no canopy management. Not content to have his vineyards merely surrounded by trees, Curtet has planted hundreds of trees in between the rows of his vines, around and among which he expects his vines to eventually climb and twine. In the meantime, he’s cobbled together branches in places to make what can only be described as arbors that he hopes the vines will climb. The vines are encouraged to sprawl, creep, and flop to the point that they can be difficult to distinguish from the chest-high mix of cover crops that populate the rows. He plans to keep the fruit in the 3- to 6-foot zone, while letting the vines wander where they will, fulfilling what he says is his obligation to let the plant express itself.

The Forest Dreams of the Savoie Vine: The Wines of Domaine Curtet
Tree seedlings planted mid-row in the vineyard.

“For me, it is important each year to produce and protect a lot of leaves,” says Curtet. “The field must be green. Green is diversity, a sign of life, energy, and growth. Green means roots are at work down in the soil, which will bring balance to the grape.”

When I asked him where these ideas came from he shrugged. “I started by doing the opposite of what I was taught in school,” he says. “I tried to do it my own way. No one told me or taught me to do this. I read some books, I visited some organizations, went to visit some winemakers some farms who were doing things differently.”

“It’s all about how you think,” he continues. “For me, plants, if you respect them, they will respect you. If you understand nature, you don’t have problems. But in school, they teach you that you will have problems, and then you come up with expensive solutions. School, for me, was not objective. Schools depend upon the money of the people who are selling you products or the tractor. There are forces at work there that are about harnessing people into a commercial culture, making them slaves of that culture.”

A Personal Vision

Standing in Curtet’s vineyards, it’s a little hard not to feel a sense of joy and delight, perhaps not unlike watching a group of very young children at play with their imaginations and nothing more than the random items they find around them. The vines and their surrounding vegetation are bursting with life and simply doing what they do, blissfully growing as best they know how. Not being particularly given to mystical, metaphysical, or spiritual expressions, I nonetheless can’t deny the vibrant energy evidenced by the riot of green life on display.

Dry farming is, like many places in France, de rigueur in the Savoie, and surrounding vegetation plays a key role for Curtet in ensuring his vines have enough to drink throughout the year on his unusual (for the Savoie, which is mostly limestone and glacial till) decomposed sandstone soils.

Things have become very commercial, and now there’s an industrial organic culture, where basically all you have to do is not use systemic pesticides or herbicides and you qualify

“Plants create moisture,” says Curtet. “Without vegetation, there is no morning dew. You don’t have water returning from the air to the soil. Trees also pull water up from into the shallower parts of the soil, nurturing plants with shallower root systems. I believe most water problems in the vineyard can be fixed with vegetation.”

The Forest Dreams of the Savoie Vine: The Wines of Domaine Curtet
The “molesse” sandstone soils of Curtet’s Le Cellier des Pauvres Vineyard.

Curtet farms roughly what might be considered biodynamically, with no herbicides or pesticides, and up until recently he has maintained his Organic/Bio and Demeter certifications as a way of generally signaling what his wines are all about. But with the coming vintage, he says he has decided to drop the Demeter certification.

“These labels and certifications are less and less restrictive these days,” he says. “Things have become very commercial, and now there’s an industrial organic culture, where basically all you have to do is not use systemic pesticides or herbicides and you qualify. And now with biodynamics, Demeter says they want a farm to be autonymous but then they allow people to buy treatments from outside. If you’re biodynamic, for instance, you can go in the vineyard with a tractor whenever you want. It’s crazy. I don’t respect this philosophy, so I don’t use the name biodynamics anymore.”

Interestingly, Curtet doesn’t believe in compost piles, which he says heat up to the point that it kills some of the life within the compost.

“They’re sterilizing life,” he says, “if you’re putting that compost on the vineyard then you’re putting something not very dynamic in the soil.”

Place Not Variety

In the two vineyard plots that he works, Curtet has planted or grafted a massale selection of Jacquere that he has gathered from what he considers all the best sites in the Savoie, along with a number of other white varieties including Gringet, Altesse, Mondeuse Blanche, Molette, and Savagnin, many of which will be harvested for the first time in 2021. These are all planted in a 7.4-acre vineyard named Le Cellier des Pauvres (The Cellar of the Poor). In a 4.9 acre vineyard named Les Vignes de Seigneur (The Vineyard of the Lord), he also has some very old Mondeuse (a number of vines more than 100 years old) as well as Gamay and Pinot Noir.

Curtet says that at some point he’s interested in farming all the immediate genetic relatives of Mondeuse, as if there’s something about having a complete family tree growing in one place that provides a sense of completeness and harmony. At the moment, the scientific jury is still out as to whether Mondeuse Noir is the child or the parent of Mondeuse Blanche.

Despite making several single-varietal bottlings in his first few vintages, Curtet says he has decided to make only two wines moving forward, a white field blend (he feels confident harvesting all his white varieties simultaneously and co-fermenting them) and a red blend assembled after fermentation (as Mondeuse and Gamay ripen at very different times).

The Forest Dreams of the Savoie Vine: The Wines of Domaine Curtet
Curtet’s two wines

Curtet says he never plans to make more than the roughly 2000-2500 cases he produces each year, though some of the trees that he has planted in the vineyards are heritage apples, and he has plans to make cider, in part a nod to his wife’s Brittany heritage.

Simple but not Natural

When it comes to winemaking, “I don’t use any artifice in the cellar,” says Curtet. “I only use sulfites at bottling. I don’t want mouse [taint], it tends to make customers not happy.”

Curtet ferments with whole clusters (preferring what he says is a slower, “less dynamic” fermentation that way) and ambient yeasts in large concrete tanks, where the wines age without racking until they are ready for bottling.

“I don’t have oak, I don’t want oak,” says Curtet. “I want the expression of soil and grape, not the ‘style’ of oak. I prefer the wine to live in larger volumes, too. I think it produces more harmony, diversity, and balance.”

For purely economic reasons, Curtet’s first few vintages have aged for only 9 months in tank on the lees, but Curtet says he will be moving to 18 months of elevage soon, as he feels two winters in the cellar will make the wines “more finished.”

At first, Curtet was making his wines in a rented facility while keeping his eye out for a property reasonably close to his vineyards. A couple of years ago, he spotted one, and now he and Marie have a small farm in the town of Châteaufort where they have built a modestly functional winery, remodeled a stone cellar into a little tasting room, and are busy rebuilding an old farmhouse for their family to live in.

Small is Beautiful

“Our philosophy is to be small,” says Curtet. “If you are big, you have a lot of people working for you, and you don’t know your own work. My work is to be in the vineyard and in the cellar, to meet my customers or journalists like you. We take time to do that, and to reflect on our system of culture.”

In addition to Florian and Marie, the estate’s workforce consists only of Florian’s sister, who has been working with them for the past couple of years, and an occasional additional harvest hand. While his sister helps out in the vineyards when there is work to be done, Curtet says her main job is to “develop the commerce within 100 kilometers.”

Part of Curtet’s “small” philosophy involves an attempt to sell 50% of his wine close to home. “There’s a lot of carbon and pollution involved in selling farther,” he says. “Now with all the problems in the world we are trying to sell differently in addition to working differently.”

Paying off the Philosophy

I walked the vineyards, explored the cellar, and heard all of this before I had ever had a single sip of Curtet’s wine. And I must say, that when I finally did sit down opposite Florian in the little whitewashed, vaulted stone room they use to welcome guests, I was nervous. After being so impressed with Curtet’s clarity of thought, so dazzled by the vitality of his vineyards, and so charmed by the scale and dedication of his operations, I was dreadfully scared that the wines might not measure up. Or simply that they might not be to my taste.

But I am happy to say that they both handsomely paid off my anticipation while deepening my appreciation for Curtet’s vision. Were they the most amazing wines that I tasted while in the Savoie? No. But they were really damn good. And as an expression of Curtet’s ideas and skill they were an incredible beacon suggesting possibly profound things to come from this little family estate.

I’ll put it bluntly. I don’t think I’ve met 30-year-old vigneron with more promise or conviction in my life, and I can’t wait to see what Curtet and his wife will have managed to produce in 10 years, when their vineyards look more like wild orchards, and his new plantings have some more complexity that comes with maturity.

Mark my words, this is just the beginning of something truly great. And if, indeed, you want to know what integrity tastes like, just go find yourself a bottle of Domaine Curtet.

The Forest Dreams of the Savoie Vine: The Wines of Domaine Curtet
Florian and Marie Curtet

Tasting Notes

2019 Domaine Curtet “Tonnere de Gris” White Blend, Savoie, France
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of apples and chamomile and bee pollen. In the mouth, bright lemon and apple and grapefruit flavors have an electric, dynamic quality with bee pollen and lemon oil and gorgeous acidity. There’s NOT a heavily mineral core here, which is what you might expect from these grapes grown on limestone. A roughly equal blend of Jacquere and Altesse. 11% alcohol. Tonnere means lightning. Gris refers to the soil. Bottled lightning, indeed. Score: between 9 and 9.5.  

2019 Domaine Curtet “Frisson des Cimes” Red Blend, Savoie, France
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of wild berries and herbs, with a floral perfume resembling something like walking through a flower garden in summer. In the mouth, gorgeously bright berries, herbs, and flowers make a seamless whole that is remarkable. Faint, velvety tannins hang in the background and caress the palate while fantastic acidity keeps the berries, herbs, and flowers vibrant and juicy on the palate. A blend of Gamay, Mondeuse, and Pinot Noir. Fermented in concrete with 1 month of maceration of whole bunches, no pump-overs or punch-downs. 11% alcohol. Cime is the outline or shape of the mountain. Frisson is the “sensation of being on the crest,” according to Curtet. Score: between 9 and 9.5.

Unfortunately, these wines are not yet available in the United States, and earlier vintages are all but sold out. The US importer for Domaine Curtet is Martine’s Wines.

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Three Men, One Shovel: The Single-Vineyard Cabernets of La Pelle

Earlier this year, I wrote up an extensive report on many of the new (to me) producers of Napa Valley wines. One of the most interesting of those was a new wine brand called La Pelle, which also (as I noted in the original piece) has some of the most stunning visual branding I’ve ever seen from a winery.

La Pelle is a collaboration between Maayan Koschitzky, a partner in the winemaking consultancy Atelier Melka, and Miguel Luna and Pete Richmond, who are partners in the Silverado Farming Company.

The company started almost as a joke, resulting from Luna’s experience working a harvest in Bordeaux at Chateau de Fieuzal as an intern fresh out of winemaking school.

“When you go to work at a winery in France you think it’s going to be romantic but it’s really hard work,” says Luna. “All I did all day long was dig out tanks,” referring to the messy and backbreaking work of shoveling the must (leftover skins and seeds) out of the fermentation tanks after they have been drained.

“I asked them how you say ‘shovel’ in French,” laughs Luna, “and then I told them one day I’m going to start a winery called Domaine de La Pelle.”

While it was a fun joke with his French bosses, the name lodged somewhere in Luna’s head and was there waiting for the perfect opportunity. That opportunity turned out to be a 2016 conversation between Luna and Koschitzky who, after two years of deepening friendship were kicking around the idea of doing something together.

“If you think about it,” says Koschitzky, “the shovel is the only tool that you use both in the vineyard and in the winery.”

The Team

The three founding partners represent an unusual synthesis of experience. Luna is a first-generation child of immigrants who worked his first harvest at age 14, the year after his father brought the family from Mexico in 1996. Luna’s father had been working the harvest in Napa since 1968.

Luna graduated from St. Helena High School, like many children of immigrants, while simultaneously working in the vineyards. After his girlfriend pushed him to continue his education, he went first to junior college (which took 5 years while working full time in vineyards), and then transferred to the Viticulture and Enology program at UC Davis. After graduation, Luna got his first jobs working in cellars, but also went back to work part-time for Silverado Farming, where he had done some previous work before heading to Davis.

“Pete eventually asked me to come on full-time,” says Luna, who faced the tough decision of whether to focus on winemaking or viticulture. “His pitch was that if I came back full-time, he’d support me with a label.”

So Luna started as a full-time vineyard management employee at Silverado Farming Company in 2015, and Richmond came on as a partner when La Pelle launched in 2016. Luna was made a partner at Silverado in 2017.

From left to right: Maayan Koschitzky, Pete Richmond, and Miguel Luna of La Pelle Wines.

Maayan Koschitzky is an Israeli-born winemaker who comes to his job with a degree in viticulture, rather than enology.

“It’s crazy,” says Koschitzky, “Miguel and I are always laughing about how he has a degree in enology and I don’t, but I’m the winemaker with a degree in viticulture.”

Koschitzky, who also has a background in Engineering, worked his first harvest in Israel in 2004 and spent 7 years there before moving to Napa and landing assistant winemaking jobs at some big-name wineries, such as Screaming Eagle and Dalla Valle.

In 2014, he was hired as an Assistant Winemaker for superstar winemaking consultant Philippe Melka’s company, Atelier Melka. Melka would go on to make him Director of Winemaking in 2016, and a full partner in 2019.

A Perfect Solution

Starting a Napa wine brand is pretty tough for non-billionaires. Especially if you want to make top-tier, single-vineyard wines.

“Maayan and I both have similar day jobs with high-end clients,” says Luna. “We get to do exactly what we think is best in every way. That’s what you get to do with an estate-model winery.”

“We’re both earning a living,” continues Luna, “but if we want to have our own project with similar levels of freedom it’s pretty hard. If you’re just buying fruit, you’re trusting the farming company. But since we own the farming company, we know exactly what’s being done.”

“We’re sort of modern-day vignerons,” chuckles Luna, “We’re doing everything from the farming to the winemaking, but we can do it affordably with our day jobs.”

Three Men, One Shovel: The Single-Vineyard Cabernets of La Pelle
The Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon

Boutique, ‘Affordable,’ Classic

The La Pelle lineup began with a Napa Cabernet, a Reserve Napa Cabernet, and the Sauvignon Blanc. It then expanded to include the three single-vineyard-designate Cabernets, as well as a Chardonnay from Bien Nacido Vineyards, after the trio managed to get ahold of fruit from the 1973-planted, own-rooted Chardonnay.

Koschitzky says there will soon be a “Block X” Syrah from Bien Nacido in the lineup as well.

“Our goal is to be about 2000 cases, and to sell somewhere between 50 and 70 percent DTC [direct-to-consumer].”

So far, so good. The 2018 single-vineyard Cabernets which I review below sold out to their mailing-list customers within 2 weeks.

Despite the pedigrees behind the partners and the vineyard sites (which could command far higher prices), prices for the La Pelle wines look quite attractive, at least for Napa.

“A lot of the wines we make for our clients we can’t afford to buy ourselves,” says Luna.

Their Napa Valley Cabernet sells for $75, the Reserve for $175, while the single-vineyard Cabernets are $125 apiece (sold primarily in 3 packs of either the same wine or all three different wines).

From a winemaking perspective, Koschitzky has taken a decidedly classic approach, threading the needle between truly old-school and the rich styles of modern luxury Cabernet. The grapes are picked for moderate alcohols (their entry-level and single-vineyard Cabernets are 14.5% or less, while the Reserve is made in a slightly richer style and ends up around 14.8%).

The farming is a mix of organic and sustainable, depending on the vineyard, though Luna and Koschitzky would love for it to be 100% organic. Luna says Silverado stopped using Roundup three years ago on all of their vineyards, and has bought 2000 sheep to help with weeds.

The wines are excellent across the board, but the single-vineyard Cabernets are quite fantastic, especially at prices that are below many of the lower-priced or second-label Cabernets from upper-echelon producers in Napa.

This is a brand to watch for sure. And not just because it’s hard to stop staring at those stunning labels.

Three Men, One Shovel: The Single-Vineyard Cabernets of La Pelle
The three-pack of single-vineyard Cabernets, with their textured photo labels, each showing the soil of the vineyard in the bottle.

Tasting Notes

2018 La Pelle “Red Hen Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, Oak Knoll District, Napa, California
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry, tobacco, dusty road, and dried flowers and herbs. In the mouth, juicy black cherry, cassis, and a touch of citrus peel are dusted with muscular but extremely fine-grained tannins. Gorgeous, supple, balanced, and bright. With a long finish of dried sage and dusty road. Organically farmed. 14.5% alcohol. 150 cases made. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $125. click to buy.

2018 La Pelle “Alluvium Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, St Helena, Napa, California
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells of sweet black cherry, cassis, and cola. In the mouth, rich black cherry and blackberry flavors are bursting with acidity, wrapped in a thin, gauzy skein of tannins that flexes its muscles over time. Bright cassis and black cherry linger with the earthy tannins long in the mouth. Powerful and broader shouldered than the Red Hen. Planted in 1981. Expansive. 14.5% alcohol. 150 cases made. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $125. click to buy.

2018 La Pelle “Ceniza Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, Coombsville, Napa, California
Inky opaque garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry, chopped green herbs, and cola. In the mouth, rich and bright cola and black cherry flavors are enclosed in a thick fist of tannins. Excellent acidity, hints of dry herbs on the finish, massive, with a touch of heat. Chewy tannins linger. Most heavily structured of the three, and needs some time. The vines were planted in 2001. 14.5% alcohol. 150 cases made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $125. click to buy.         

And just as a bonus, here are my notes on the very unusual Sauvignon Blanc that the team makes, which will be released for sale on August 5, 2021, after quite a bit of time aging on the lees (read the note and you’ll see why).

2019 La Pelle Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley, California
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of white flowers, lemon pith, and a touch of pastry cream and grapefruit. In the mouth, the wine is…. positively screaming with acidity. Amazing lemon pith and lemon juice profile mix with some crushed shell and seawater. Mouthwatering and unbelievably bright. This ain’t your standard Napa Sauvignon Blanc. It’s waaaaay better. Some will find it austere, but others, a breath of fresh air in the universe of largely unremarkable California Sauvignon Blanc. Made from a vineyard planted in 1981, and farmed to keep the fruit lean and ready for an early pick. Spent 18 months in barrel, 30% of which were new. A mere 11% alcohol. 275 cases made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $45. To be released on August 5th, 2021.

Three Men, One Shovel: The Single-Vineyard Cabernets of La Pelle
The Sauvignon Blanc

Images courtesy of La Pelle Wines. Shovel image and the portrait of partners by photographer Suzanne Becker Bronk.

The post Three Men, One Shovel: The Single-Vineyard Cabernets of La Pelle appeared first on Vinography.

Cold Soul, Warm Heart: The Wines of Alma Fria

There’s one type of article I write here on Vinography that produces equal parts exhilaration and anxiety: when I decide to review some of my favorite wines that very few people have ever heard of.

The temptation to keep these under-the-radar wines under my hat, so to speak, is significant. Invariably these wineries produce minuscule amounts of wine, and without trying to overstate my influence as a writer, it is nonetheless likely that by writing about them I will make them harder for me and anyone else to get ahold of.

But the pleasure of telling readers about truly fantastic wines always triumphs over any self-serving hesitancy I might have. So it is with great delight that I introduce you to what I think are some of the best Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays being made on the western Sonoma Coast, not to mention California as a whole.

Driving in the Fast Lane

I’ve been trying to remember when I first met Carroll Kemp and tasted his Red Car wines. It was likely at one of the earliest In Pursuit of Balance wine tasting events around 2012. While I don’t remember the specific occasion, I do remember how impressed I was with the chiseled acidity, bright flavors, and, yes, impeccable balance of his wines. In particular, I was a huge fan of Kemp’s Pinot Noir rosé, which debuted in 2013 and for several years was my go-to bottle of pink.

Carroll Kemp preparing to bottle his sparkling rosé.

I wasn’t the only one who noticed those wines. Quite deservedly, Red Car quickly became very successful and began to grow rapidly.

It was during this period of significant growth that Kemp met an entrepreneur named Jan Holtermann who wanted to start a boutique, cool-climate Pinot Noir label, and who hired Kemp as his winemaker. They decided to call the project Alma Fria (literally “cold soul” or “soul of the cold” in Spanish). Starting small with their first vintage in 2012, they slowly grew it to a few hundred cases over the next few years.

Alma Fria started just as a side gig for Kemp, and one that offered a certain level of calm compared to the frenzied chaos of Red Car’s success.

The Deal that Wasn’t

When a winery grows quickly, it invariably needs to take on investment (and/or debt), and Red Car brought on a set of investors during that time. This is a tricky time for most winery founders, who are used to having complete control of their small businesses. When investors come on board, they become (often outspoken) stakeholders in future decisions.

And when wineries are successful, opportunities come knocking that are sometimes hard to ignore.

Without getting into the details of private business dealings, suffice it to say that an opportunity came along to sell Red Car that was too good to pass up, but for various reasons, the transaction was not consummated.

Kemp got over his disappointment pretty quickly, as it would have likely turned his world upside down in a fairly significant way, but his investors and fellow shareholders decided that the growth plan put forward by their potential acquirer was the right strategy to pursue even in the absence of a sale.

“I knew we didn’t really have the capacity to do that on our own,” says Kemp, “and I told them so.”

But his investors couldn’t be swayed.

“Finally I said, ‘I don’t want to stop you, but I cannot execute this. If you want to do this I would rather take a buyout and make space for you to do what you want to do,'” says Kemp.

Cold Comfort

In some ways, Kemp’s amicable exit from Red Car was fortuitous timing.

“I was going through a divorce after 20 years of marriage,” says Kemp candidly, “and cash is a lot easier to divide than an asset called a business.”

At the same time, his partner Holtermann, who had increasingly relied upon Kemp to not only make the wine but also run the business, moved back to his home country of Costa Rica and was happy to transition his own role to one of passive investor.

I don’t want to say one thing and do another. We’re always saying let the vineyard make the wine but I said to myself, ‘what would it really mean to do that?’

“Alma Fria was the perfect landing pad,” says Kemp. “I had made every wine since its inception, I had personally leased the Holtermann vineyard to farm for it, and I could go from having 40 employees to having 1.”

Cold Soul, Warm Heart: The Wines of Alma Fria

The Holtermann Vineyard

Choices that Matter

As the newly single, sole proprietor of a tiny wine brand, Kemp found himself reflecting on what he really wanted from his career as a winemaker and from life in general, and found that he could forge the answers to both sets of questions in the bottle.

It’s a bit like walking down the street naked. The underlying material can’t be too bad. You don’t want to look horrible.

“I think one of the things that bothers me the most in life,” says Kemp, “is deceit. When people say one thing, but do another. In our industry people think of marketing not as truth but as what it takes to sell their shit. My aversion to this eventually started to seep into my winemaking. I don’t want to say one thing and do another. We’re always saying let the vineyard make the wine but I said to myself, ‘what would it really mean to do that?'”

Kemp finally decided that he wanted to practice a sort of strict personal integrity when it came to his winemaking.

“What I eventually came around to was simply to make no additions, no alterations, no changes in the cellar whatsoever,” says Kemp. “It’s a bit like walking down the street naked. The underlying material can’t be too bad. You don’t want to look horrible.”

Cold Soul, Warm Heart: The Wines of Alma Fria
Fog over the hills of Annapolis

Kemp feels like after 17 years or so of an intense focus on the western reaches of the Sonoma Coast that he truly knows what some places taste like.

“Not what the wines taste like,” he makes a point of saying, “but the place.”

His winemaking regimen at Alma Fria is designed to preserve a transparency of place. This means picking early, and not being overly extractive in the winemaking. The Pinots ferment to dryness with a little bit of stem inclusion and are pressed when dry. The Chardonnays are whole-cluster pressed, settled, and then go into barrels. Kemp uses only a little bit of new oak, lets the wine naturally go through malo, and never adds any yeast, water, or acid along the way.

“I add a little bit of sulfur after malo,” says Kemp, who takes pains to make it clear he’s not trying to make natural wines.

“The wines aren’t natural, they’re just good,” he says. “The fruit flavors that the American palate might be trained to focus on aren’t the first things you taste in the wine. They’re there, but you don’t get blown over by fruit. You taste other things.”

Cold Soul, Warm Heart: The Wines of Alma Fria
Artwork from Obi Kaufman, who designed the Alma Fria wine labels.

One Step At a Time

Alma Fria is the culmination of roughly 20 years of Kemp’s study of the western reaches of the Sonoma Coast, and his deepening understanding and conviction over the same time period for what really matters when it comes to farming.

“Ultimately, if it’s not organic, I won’t be doing it long term,” he says with finality. The Holtermann Vineyard has been farmed organically since 2013 and Kemp utilizes some biodynamic preparations and techniques there, and has been working hard with his other growers to move them towards organic certification.

The Alma Fria wines are made at the Grand Cru Custom Crush facility, which Kemp describes as nothing short of fantastic—”it’s like living at my rich uncle’s house.”

Cold Soul, Warm Heart: The Wines of Alma Fria
Sunset over the Sonoma Coast

In 2019, Kemp made just shy of 1000 cases of wine. In 2000, due to the fires he opted not to buy additional fruit, and so his production will drop to about 500 cases.

My goal is to maybe be 3000 cases of the absolute best Pinot and Chardonnay, and frankly, that’s the rest of my life as a winemaker.

“I picked the [Holtermann] Pinot a couple of days before the fires started, and the Chardonnay a week or so later,” says Kemp, “and all the lab tests are clean.”

The lineup of wines has been shifting over the last few years, as Kemp’s options for fruit contracts (outside of his long-term lease of the Holtermann Vineyard) are subject to competition and changes by growers.

“I don’t want to get too big, too quick,” says Kemp, and it’s hard not to hear the echoes of his experience at Red Car in those words. “My goal is to maybe be 3000 cases of the absolute best Pinot and Chardonnay, and frankly, that’s the rest of my life as a winemaker.”

While he may have a little ways to go in terms of volume, in my estimation, Kemp is pretty damn close to his goal when it comes to quality. The Alma Fria wines are frankly some of the most dynamic and delicious wines being made in the Western Sonoma Coast today, and can easily hold their own among the most sought-after Pinot Noirs in the state, some of which cost nearly double what Kemp is charging. His “Plural” wines, which involve various purchased fruit sources and include grater percentages of press fractions are so good it’s almost impossible to think of them as entry-level or second-tier wines, despite costing merely $35-$40 per bottle.

But Also Some Bubbles

Kemp has also started a tiny traditional-method sparkling rosé project, whose first release, the 2020 vintage, I review below.

“I didn’t feel like I could make a straight rosé without competing with the Red Car rosé, which I didn’t want to do out of the gate,” he says.

In addition (shhhh, this is seriously insider info here) there will be another sparkling wine in the lineup eventually. It turns out Kemp has been building a solera of Chardonnay base wine for 7 out of the last 10 vintages in old oak barrels.

“I’m thinking it will be probably 2/3 solera, 1/3 new vintage, non-dosage, and I hope to keep it on the lees for 18 months at first, and then eventually for 2 years,” says Kemp, “but I gotta work up to that. In the meantime, I gotta feed my kids.”

So now we all have something to look forward to in 2023.

In the meantime, however, we’ve got the opportunity to drink some of California’s best Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, by a guy who has finally figured out what matters to him and decided to bottle it for us to experience.

Tasting Notes

2016 Alma Fria “Plural” Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, California
Yellow gold in the glass, this wine smells of butterscotch and lemon curd. In the mouth, flavors of lemon curd, butterscotch, pineapple, and white flowers have a wonderful brightness to them thanks to excellent acidity. There’s also a pretty, stony minerality underneath that lingers in the finish along with citrus pith. Fermented with native yeasts, no fining or filtering. 13.2% alcohol. 195 cases made. Score: around 9. Cost: $35. click to buy.

2016 Alma Fria “Campbell Ranch Vineyard” Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, California
Light yellow-gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon curd, white flowers, and cold cream. In the mouth, silky flavors of cold cream, lemon curd, and a hint of pastry cream have a lovely filigreed acidity and crystalline purity. Gorgeous, and sensual, this wine lingers with a mouthwatering saline note on the palate. The Campbell Ranch Vineyard sits in the hills above the Pacific near the town of Annapolis, at an elevation of 750 feet. Fermented after a bit of skin contact with native yeasts and aged in 10% new French oak. No fining or filtering. 13.3% alcohol. 115 cases made Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $50. click to buy.

2016 Alma Fria “Plural” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Medium ruby in color, this wine smells of red apple skin, cedar, cranberry, and dried flowers. In the mouth, cranberry, raspberry, and dried floral flavors are surrounded by an ethereal cloud of dusty tannins that only makes a ghostly impression on the palate. Gorgeous acidity accompanies notes of citrus peel and dried herbs in the finish. Fermented with native yeasts. No fining or filtering. 13.2% alcohol. 280 cases made. Score: around 9. Cost: $40. click to buy.

2016 Alma Fria “Doña Margarita Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Medium ruby in the glass, this wine smells of forest floor, mulling spices, and raspberries. In the mouth, raspberries, redcurrant, and citrus peel flavors are positively mouthwatering thanks to incredible juicy acidity and a faint saline quality that makes this wine very hard to spit out. Faint tannins are all but imperceptible along the edges of the palate, as redcurrant and citrus linger for a long time in the finish. Outstanding. The Doña Margarita Vineyard is outside the town of Freestone at an elevation of around 550 feet. The wine is fermented with about 15% whole cluster with native yeasts, and then ages in 30% new French oak. No fining or filtering. 13% alcohol. 145 cases made. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $70. click to buy.

Cold Soul, Warm Heart: The Wines of Alma Fria

2016 Alma Fria “Holtermann Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Medium ruby in the glass with hints of garnet, this wine smells of raspberry, flowers, and crushed stones. In the mouth, beautifully crystalline flavors of raspberries, redcurrant, and floral notes are juicy with fantastic acidity. Gorgeous minerality and a touch of earth underlie the very pretty, very fragrant fruit that lingers with citrus-peel brightness in the finish. The Holtermann Vineyard is near the town of Annapolis in the hills above the Pacific at an elevation of around 750 feet above sea level. This wine ferments (about 15% whole cluster) with native yeasts and ages in 25% new French Oak. No fining or filtering. 13.3% alcohol. 140 cases made. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $70. click to buy.

2017 Alma Fria “Plural” Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, California
Light yellow-gold in the glass, this wine smells of white flowers, lemon curd, and candied grapefruit. In the mouth, gorgeously bright lemon curd, lemon pith, and grapefruit flavors also have the sweet white floral notes of honeysuckle as lemon pith and grapefruit juice linger in the finish with the barest hint of toasted bread and seawater. Mouthwatering and delicious. Fermented with native yeasts, and no fining or filtering. 13.3% alcohol. 175 cases made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $35. click to buy.

2017 Alma Fria “Campbell Ranch Vineyard” Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, California
Light yellow gold in color, this wine smells of lemon blossom and lemon oil with a hint of grapefruit. In the mouth, silky lemon curd and lemon pith flavors are shot through with white flowers, cold cream, and grapefruit juice. Pithy saline notes linger in the finish. Mouthwatering and delicious with fantastic acidity and wet stone minerality. The Campbell Ranch Vineyard sits in the hills above the Pacific near the town of Annapolis, at an elevation of 750 feet. Fermented with native yeasts and aged in 25% new French oak. No fining or filtering. 13.1% alcohol. 100 cases made Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $50. click to buy.

2017 Alma Fria “Plural” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of forest floor along with cranberry and raspberry fruit. In the mouth, bright flavors of raspberry, cranberry and the herbal tones of raspberry leaf mix with a touch of cedar and earth. Notes of citrus peel and redcurrant linger in a mouthwatering finish. Excellent. 13.5% alcohol. No fining or filtering. 250 cases made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $40. click to buy.

2017 Alma Fria “Doc’s Ranch” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of cherries and cranberry and a touch of dusty road. In the mouth, bright cherry and raspberry fruit have a citrus brightness thanks to excellent acidity. Notes of cedar and chopped herbs accompany the citrus peel through the finish. Mouthwatering and juicy. Doc’s Ranch is near the town of Occidental, and sits at an elevation of 850 to 1000 feet above sea level. The wine is fermented with native yeasts and ages in 10% new French oak. About 10% of the wine is fermented with whole clusters. No fining or filtering. 13.4% alcohol. 195 cases made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $70.

2017 Alma Fria “Holtermann Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Medium ruby in the glass, this wine smells of incredible floral notes along with raspberry, forest floor, and a touch of peeled willow bark. In the mouth, silky, gorgeous floral flavors mix with raspberries and a wet chalkboard minerality that is quite compelling. Fantastic acidity and a faint salinity make this particularly mouthwatering. Subtle, complex, and compelling. The Holtermann Vineyard is near the town of Annapolis in the hills above the Pacific at an elevation of around 750 feet above sea level. This wine ferments (about 15% whole cluster) with native yeasts and ages in 30% new French Oak. 13.5% alcohol. No fining or filtering. 185 cases made. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $70. click to buy.

2018 Alma Fria “Plural” Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, California
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon pith, lemon blossoms, and lemon curd. In the mouth, Meyer lemon juice and pith mix with grapefruit and a touch of white flowers all layered over a crackling mineral backbone and fantastic acidity. Hints of lemon pith linger in the finish along with the freshness of melted snow. No fining or filtering. 13.3% alcohol. 150 cases made Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $35. click to buy.

2018 Alma Fria “Campbell Ranch Vineyard” Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, California
Pale greenish-gold in color, this wine smells of lemon pith, lemon blossoms, and grapefruit pith. In the mouth, gorgeously saline flavors of lemon pith, lemon juice, and grapefruit have a fantastic crystalline quality that is gorgeous and alluring. Notes of grapefruit pith linger in the finish. Outstanding acidity and balance, and impressive intensity for only 13% alcohol. The Campbell Ranch Vineyard sits in the hills above the Pacific near the town of Annapolis, at an elevation of 750 feet. Fermented with native yeasts and aged in 25% new French oak. No fining or filtering. 110 cases made Score: around 9.5. Cost: $50. click to buy.

2018 Alma Fria “Plural” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of raspberries, chopped herbs, and flowers. In the mouth, gorgeously bright raspberry and herb flavors mix with a touch of earth and redcurrant tang as the wine finishes with a hint of citrus peel. Excellent acidity and a faint salinity make for a mouthwatering package. 13.3% alcohol. 415 cases made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $40. click to buy.  

2018 Alma Fria “Doña Margarita Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of bright raspberry pastilles and wildflowers. In the mouth, raspberry, redcurrant, and cranberry flavors swirl with a mouthwatering salinity across the palate. Gorgeous citrus peel and cedar notes emerge through the long finish. Fantastic acidity, sensual texture, and only the faintest kiss of tannin texture along the edges of the mouth. Outstanding. The Doña Margarita Vineyard is outside the town of Freestone at an elevation of around 550 feet. The wine is fermented with about 15% whole cluster with native yeasts, and then ages in 25% new French oak. No fining or filtering. 13.1% alcohol. 60 cases made. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $70. click to buy.

2018 Alma Fria “Holtermann Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Medium ruby in color, this wine smells of floral notes and bright raspberry fruit. In the mouth, gorgeous raspberry and forest floor flavors mix with floral notes and dried herbs. Fantastic acidity and a touch of salinity make the mouth water as citrus peel and flowers linger in the finish. Positively stunning. The Holtermann Vineyard is near the town of Annapolis in the hills above the Pacific at an elevation of around 750 feet above sea level. This wine ferments (about 15% whole cluster) with native yeasts and ages in 20% new French Oak. No fining or filtering. 13.2% alcohol. 100 cases made. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $70. click to buy.

2020 Alma Fria Sparkling Rosé of Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
A pale peachy color in the glass with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of citrus peel, berries, and a hint of stone fruit. In the mouth, gorgeous citrus, berry, and floral flavors are borne on a light mousse across the palate. Excellent acidity and a tangy sour cherry and citrus note linger in the finish that turns a bit towards egg cream at the last. Delicious. Fermented using native yeasts to dryness and goes through malolactic conversion in an old oak barrel. The sparkling fermentation took place in bottle, with aging on the lees for a short 6 weeks before disgorgement, and was on sale a few weeks later. Zero dosage added before a final seal with a crown cap (though future vintages may see a more traditional cork and cage closure). Think of this as a nouveau sparkler, in some ways, but without the funk and fuss of pet-nat. 11.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $35. Sold out.

Cold Soul, Warm Heart: The Wines of Alma Fria
Artwork for the label of the sparkling rose by Obi Kaufman

The wines above were received as press samples. Images courtesy of Carroll Kemp.

The post Cold Soul, Warm Heart: The Wines of Alma Fria appeared first on Vinography.

A Stellar Season: Tasting the 2019 Vintage Through Premiere Napa Valley

As we have all been experiencing, the pandemic changed everything. So it was no surprise when the Napa Valley Vintners Association postponed their annual fundraising event known as Premiere Napa Valley, which usually takes place in February each year. It also wasn’t much of a surprise that when they finally did hold it last weekend in Napa, it bore little resemblance to the usual seething crowd of trade and media wandering through the barrel room at the Culinary Institute of America’s Greystone Castle.

Instead, this year was an intimate, outdoor affair reserved for the most successful past bidders, and the only tasting of the barrel samples available at auction were at a few small events around Napa and sets of half-bottles that the Vintners and their winery members painstakingly assembled to send to prospective bidders.

Long-time readers will know that the Premiere barrel tasting is something like my annual blood-sport ritual, where I attempt to taste all 200+ wines before the annual auction gets underway.

That was not an option this year, but I did manage to taste a number of the lots, many from the comfort of my own dining room, which afforded me the opportunity to spend more time with each wine and make much more complete tasting notes than usual.

The Basics of Premiere Napa Valley

For those unfamiliar with Premiere, it is not to be confused with the other star-studded charity auction that Napa throws each spring known as Auction Napa Valley (pandemic-related changes to which are expected to be announced at some point).

Premiere Napa Valley is a more focused event than Auction Napa Valley. It is a barrel tasting and auction, in which the wines on offer are all unique creations made specifically and only for this event, offering purchasers the opportunity to own an incredibly rare wine that often represents the very pinnacle of a winemaker’s efforts in that vintage. All the invited bidders are ostensibly in the wine trade (retailers, distributors, etc.). The proceeds from the auction of the usually more than 200 unique lots of wine go to help fund the Vintners Association itself.

The auction action at Premiere always serves as something of a barometer for California wine, measuring both the strength of the Napa brand in the marketplace, as well as the interest in the upper echelon of fine California wine (many auction lots sell for well over $1000 per bottle).

Changed Times, Changed Approach

This year, of course, was far from normal, and most of the bidding took place online, with only a few people attending the live event itself.

A Stellar Season: Tasting the 2019 Vintage Through Premiere Napa Valley

No one knew precisely how the massively changed event would affect the annual fundraising effort. With prospective bidders only able to taste a tiny fraction of the overall number of barrel lots, would they be confident enough to pay big bucks for the wines?

Much to everyone’s surprise and pleasure, it turned out that many people didn’t actually need to taste the wines in advance in order to snap up the 149 lots on offer.

The hybrid online-in-person auction brought in $2.7 million dollars, certainly less than the $3.9 million raised just before the pandemic hit, but with 60 to 70 fewer auction lots and the other extenuating circumstances, it’s hard not to look at this as something of a triumph. The wine trade came ready to spend, and spend they did, many from international locations such as Hong Kong and the UK.

A Stellar Season: Tasting the 2019 Vintage Through Premiere Napa Valley

The Allure of a Great Vintage

It’s hard to know how much of this year’s successful haul was about the wines themselves, and how much was an industry showing its support under the most unusual of circumstances. But we can’t rule out the fact that most of the wines on offer were from the 2019 vintage.

One of the primary reasons I attempt to taste widely at Premiere each year is that it affords an opportunity to take a look at what you might characterize as the pinnacle of the vintage. Most producers attempt to offer if not their absolute best, certainly one of their highest quality wines made each year. Consequently, these wines show the best of what is possible given the conditions of the vintage, sparing no expense.

The 2018 vintage was an extremely hard act to follow: generous yields, perfect weather, no heatwaves. It was a superstar year and it resulted in some truly phenomenal wines.

And what about 2019? Well it was basically the same, if just ever-so-slightly cooler than 2018.

Just as with 2018, it was a year in which you’d have to try pretty hard to make a bad wine.

After a surprisingly heavy amount of rain in May (more than 3 inches in some places) the remainder of the spring and summer unfurled calm and untroubled. Mild weather, the lack of heat spells, and the good amount of soil moisure made for a growing season that was as long as anyone wanted it to be, at least until the start of the Kincaid Fire in Sonoma County on October 23rd. Anyone in Napa who hadn’t gotten their fruit in by that time was able to do so in quick order and without incident, making for an astonishingly good harvest.

Just as with 2018, it was a year in which you’d have to try pretty hard to make a bad wine. Having said that, looking at my scores for the 19s and collecting my impressions after tasting a bunch of them, I’m still going to give the edge to the 2018 vintage in terms of my preference.

Yields were down a bit from the very generous 2018, and I think that made, in some cases, for some more concentrated wines in 2019. That may sound great to some wine lovers, but for those of us who prefer a bit more finesse and elegance to go along with the raw power of our Napa wines, it may be that the larger yields offered just a bit more juice to skin ratio, and therefore wines that were slightly less heavy than their 2019 siblings.

Really, I’m splitting hairs here, and it may well be that with a little more time the 2019s will show that they are superior, but if they are, it won’t be by much.

The best of the 2019 wines, like those of 2018, show incredibly fine-grained tannic structure, and fabulous acidity to complement perfectly ripe fruit. Some of my favorites have a lift and a juiciness that was simply breathtaking. I’ll occasionally give my wife a sip of a particularly good sample that I’m tasting if she happens to walk through the room. As I was tasting some of these Premiere samples, I gave her a taste of the wine made by Rosemary Cakebread, Cathy Corison, Dawnine Dyer, and Diana Seysses. Her eyes lit up and she grabbed the little half-bottle, hugged it to her chest, and ran out of the room yelling, “Buy some steaks for dinner!”

While almost all of the wines below will be out of reach for even typically spendy Napa fans, you can still use my scores as a buying guide. Anyone who made a rockstar wine below for $300+ a bottle will likely have done a pretty damn good job with their standard $80 wine, so keep your eyes and ears out for the 2019s when they hit the market in late 2022 or early 2023.

Here are my scores for everything I tasted.

A Stellar Season: Tasting the 2019 Vintage Through Premiere Napa Valley

Tasting Notes

Specific details about the wines below are summarized from the information supplied by the producers to the Napa Valley Vintners Association.

WINES WITH A SCORE BETWEEN 9.5 AND 10

2019 Corison Winery, Dyer Vineyard, Gallica, Snowden Vineyards “In Concert” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley – Lot# 23
Dark garnet in the glass, this barrel sample smells of dried sage and thyme, flowers, and cherries. In the mouth, gorgeous flavors of cherry and herbs and plum mix with floral notes and fine-grained tannins. Notes of licorice root and dried flowers linger in the finish. Fantastic acidity and wonderfully balanced between savory and fruit flavors this is a gorgeous wine. Ladies, FTW! Rosemary Cakebread, Cathy Corison, Dawnine Dyer, and Diana Seysses, who together have more than 150 years of collective winemaking experience, worked with wines from each of their vineyards across St. Helena, Oakville, Diamond Mountain, and Spring Mountain.

2019 Ovid Napa Valley “MMXIX” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley – Lot# 85
Very dark purple in color, this barrel sample smells of black cherry, black pepper, and blackberry. In the mouth, the wine is incredibly juicy thanks to fantastic acidity that seems to burst forth from black cherry and plum flavors tinged with cola nut and cassis. Expansive and rich but without heaviness. Fine-grained tannins gain muscle as the wine lingers through a long, floral finish. Outstanding. Sourced from the organically farmed OVID estate vineyard, perched on the western reaches of Pritchard Hill at 1,400 feet, this barrel sample is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, fermented with native yeasts and bottled unfined and unfiltered.

2019 Spottswoode Estate Vineyard & Winery “Spottswoode Clone” Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena – Lot# 114
Very dark garnet in color, this barrel sample smells of dried flowers and cherry fruit. In the mouth, gorgeously aromatic black cherry and dried flowers mix with plum and hints of herbs as fantastic acidity assures juiciness throughout. Fine-grained, athletic tannins give structure and texture to the wine, while notes of dried fennel seeds and flowers linger in the finish. Outstanding. This wine is 100% FPS 51 Cabernet Clone, which has become known as the Spottswoode Clone of Cabernet. Planted by the Novaks in 1974, the Spottswoode Clone is recognized as a clone of exceptional quality. The vineyards have been organically farmed since 1985 and biodynamically farmed since 2008.

WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 9.5

2019 Ashes & Diamonds “V.1” Red Wine, Napa Valley – Lot# 8
Medium to dark garnet in color, this barrel sample smells of cherries, dried flowers, and tobacco leaf. In the mouth, wonderfully bright flavors of cherry and tobacco mix with green herbs and dusty earth. The tannins, too are dusty, fine-grained, and fill the mouth adding texture and depth to a very pretty wine. Excellent acidity and length. A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot made jointly by Steve Matthiasson and Diana Snowden Seysses.

2019 BRAND Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley – Lot# 16
Inky, opaque purple in the glass, this barrel sample smells of rich black cherry and black plum aromas. In the mouth, wonderfully juicy black cherry and plum flavors are bright with fantastic acidity. Plush velvety tannins and wonderful length and balance. Opulent but not over the top. 100% “See Clone” Cabernet Sauvignon, organically farmed. Fermented in an upright Hermitage oak tank, aged in French oak, and bottled unfined and unfiltered.

2019 Dana Estates “Hershey BDX Blend” Red Wine, Napa Valley – Lot# 28
Inky opaque purple in the glass, this barrel sample smells of black plum and blackberries. In the mouth, wonderfully savory herb flavors mix with cherry and cedar, and cocoa powder. Dried sage notes linger in the finish with licorice root and road dust. Fine-grained tannins hang like a haze in the mouth as the wine lingers through a long finish. Quite elegant and sophisticated, with a nice sense of restraint. Fruit from the estate’s Hershey Vineyard, high up in the Howell Mountain AVA at 1,800 feet. A blend of 62% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Cabernet Franc, 12% Merlot, 9% Malbec and 1% Petit Verdot.

2019 Davies Vineyards “J. Davies Estate, Aguirre/Lower McEachran Blocks” Cabernet Sauvignon, Diamond Mountain District – Lot# 30
Inky garnet in the glass, this barrel sample smells of bright cherry fruit. In the mouth, sweet cherry fruit mixes with the vanilla of oak and bright plum flavors. Fantastic acidity keeps the wine juicy and bright, and moderate extraction makes for a limber, energetic expression on the palate. Juicy as all get out, with the faintest whisper of tannins giving texture and structure. Delicious. Originally planted in 1862, this fruit comes from the first hillside vineyards planted in Napa Valley. Winemakers Jessica Koga, Sean Thompson, and Celia Welch.

2019 Farella Vineyard “Coombsville Divide” Merlot, Coombsville – Lot# 37
Dark garnet in the glass, this barrel sample smells of plum and green herbs and a touch of crushed nuts. In the mouth, juicy and bright plum and green herb flavors are wrapped tightly in a suede blanket of tannins. Excellent acidity keeps the mouth-watering as sour cherry flavors linger in the finish along with plum skin. Delicious, with a faint salinity. Made from the first Merlot planted in Coombsville.

2019 Favia “The Rabbit Hole” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley – Lot# 40
Dark garnet in color, this barrel sample smells of sweet black cherry and blackcurrant. In the mouth, black cherry, plum, and blackcurrant flavors are shot through with a hint of gunpowder and dried sage. Muscular tannins wrap around the core of fruit, increasing their squeeze over time. Excellent acidity and length. The Rabbit Hole Vineyard is planted on arguably the steepest slope in Coombsville. 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, aged for 20 months in French oak barrels with minimal racking.

2019 Kerr Cellars “La Gallina” Cabernet Sauvignon, Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley – Lot# 64
Dark purple in the glass, this barrel sample smells of lush black cherry fruit and cola. In the mouth, gorgeous black cherry and plum flavors mix with a touch of earth and licorice. Excellent acidity and a very fine haze of tannins carry plum and plum skin flavors through a long finish. Delicious, and wonderfully lithe in the mouth. A fantastic wine. Predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from the Red Hen Vineyard in the Oak Knoll District AVA. This represents the best barrel made by Cristie Kerr and Helen Keplinger. Aged for 2 years in 100% new French Oak.

2019 PATEL – Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Coombsville – Lot# 90
Inky, opaque purple in the glass, this barrel sample smells of violets and black cherry. In the mouth, intense black cherry and blackcurrant flavors have a juicy brightness thanks to fantastic acidity. There’s a silky seamlessness to this wine, with fine-grained, supple tannins that coat the mouth as notes of violets and black cherry linger in the finish. Aromatic and intense but without being too massive. Quite pretty. Winemaker Julien Fayard selected the best barrel of Cabernet from the Bennett Vineyard in Coombsville. 100% new French oak.

2019 Viader Vineyards & Winery “Block B7” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley – Lot# 138
Dark garnet in the glass, this barrel sample smells of cherry and cedar and dried flowers. In the mouth, gorgeous cherry and cedar notes mix with dried flowers and herbs. Fine-grained tannins wrap like a fleece blanket around the bright core of the wine. Excellent acidity keeps the mouth-watering. This is quite delicious. This was a small hand-selected group of vines grown in rocky, red volcanic soils separated at harvest from the rest of the lot. Clusters were destemmed and the fruit was placed directly into a new Sylvain French oak 500L fermenter barrel. Skin contact was extended over 14 months and the wine is aged in a 500-liter French oak barrel. Mother and son winemaking team of Delia and Alan Viader.

2019 Volker Eisele Family Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Chiles Valley District – Lot# 142
Inky purple in the glass, this barrel sample smells of black cherry, earth, and black plum. In the mouth, rich and resonant flavors of black cherry and black plum are nestled into pillowy velvet tannins that coat the mouth with a fine, powdery quality. Juicy and bright with acidity, though it’s hard to escape the depths of dark cherry fruit that resonate on the palate. Notes of cola linger in the finish. A wonderfully powerful, but not overwhelming wine. Outstanding. 35-year-old vines in a vineyard that has been organically farmed since 1974 at an elevation of 900 to 1,100 feet in the Chiles Valley District. Aged in 100% French oak.

WINES WITH A SCORE BETWEEN 9 AND 9.5

2019 Blackbird Vineyards “Premiere Napa Valley Cuvée” Merlot, Napa Valley – Lot# 15
Dark garnet in the glass, this barrel sample smells of black plum and licorice and cedar with a hint of cocoa. In the mouth, sweetish black plum and cedar flavors are wrapped in a thick quilt of plush tannins. There’s a hint of tangy purple SweetTart to this wine that makes the mouth water, along with excellent acidity. Excellent length. Well-integrated oak. 100% Merlot sourced from the Stagecoach and Star vineyards. Blackbird made its name with Merlot wines, so this is a tribute to those beginnings.

2019 Cakebread Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville – Lot# 19
Opaque purple in the glass, this barrel sample smells of rich blackcurrant, black cherry, and sweet oak. In the mouth, black cherry, oak, and blackcurrant flavors have a wonderful juiciness to them thanks to fantastic acidity. Exquisitely fine, powdery tannins hang in a gauzy haze across the palate. Other than slightly more oak influence than I’d like here, this barrel sample is excellent. This wine is from a small Cabernet Sauvignon block at the winery featuring Clone 337, with 22 months aging in French oak, of which 60% are new barrels.

2019 Chappellet Vineyard “Pritchard 52” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley – Lot# 20
Inky, opaque purple in color, this barrel sample smells of black cherry and plum, and cola. In the mouth, plum and cola flavors are juicy and positively bursting with excellent acidity. Fine-grained tannins and a touch of new oak linger in the finish. Polished and elegant. 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from the winery’s best blocks on Pritchard Hill. Aged in 100% new French oak.

2019 Chimney Rock Winery “An Ode to AJT Part II” Cabernet Sauvignon, Stags Leap District – Lot# 21
Very dark garnet in the glass, this barrel sample smells of cherry, chopped green herbs, and cola. In the mouth, cherry, green herbs, and cola flavors mix with earth and dried flowers. Excellent acidity and fleecy tannins round out a very pretty, wine, with just a touch of wood showing in the finish. The fruit was sourced from the Tomahawk Vineyard and the wine is unfiltered. Aged for 18 months in unique French barrels, derived from 300-year-old oak trees. The wine is in tribute to Anthony J. Terlato.

2019 Covert Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Coombsville – Lot# 25
Very dark garnet in color, this barrel sample smells of rich cherry and cocoa powder. In the mouth, cherry and plum flavors are bright and juicy with excellent acidity. Powdery tannins gain muscle over time and linger with flavors of cola in the finish. Quite tasty. 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from Covert Estate winemaker Julien Fayard, representing the best barrel from the Coombsville estate.

2019 Grace Family Vineyards “Grace Family Blend” Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena – Lot# 49
Very dark purple in color, this barrel sample smells of licorice and black cherry. In the mouth, black cherry and licorice flavors are bright with excellent acidity. Tacky, muscular tannins grab hold of the palate as the wine finishes bright with blackcurrant and black plum. Powerful, but not overly rich. 100% Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from the Grace Family Estate and Cornelius Grove vineyards. A unique blend of the very best barrels from these two St. Helena Vineyards, made by Helen Keplinger. Bottled following 22 months of aging in 100% new Sylvain and Taransaud barrels.

2019 HALL “Sacrashe Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley – Lot# 52
Dark garnet in the glass, this barrel sample smells of black cherry and a meaty olive note. In the mouth, that olive quality continues, as saline black olive flavors mix with black cherry and blackcurrant for a mouthwatering, umami-rich expression on the palate. Fine-grained tannins add some texture to the silky path the wine takes through the mouth. There’s a tiny bit of heat on the finish, and I wish for just a bit more acidity to give the wine some lift, but this is pretty damn tasty as it goes. The Sacrashe Vineyard features volcanic tuff soils and sits atop the eastern ridge of the Vaca Mountains in Rutherford.

2019 Inglenook “The Hearth” Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford – Lot# 57
Dark garnet in color, this barrel sample smells of struck match and roasted meats. In the mouth, cherry, tobacco and savory roasted meat flavors mix under a fleecy blanket of tannins that stiffens with some musculature as the wine finishes with hints of crushed nuts and herbs. Very good acidity and length. Seems like this one needs some aging time. A blend of 79% Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% Cabernet Franc, and 8% Petit Verdot. The fruit was sourced from 11 carefully chosen vineyard blocks on the 235-acre, organically farmed Inglenook estate.

2019 La Jota Vineyard Co. Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain – Lot# 66
Inky, opaque purple in color, this barrel sample smells of grapey black cherry and cassis. In the mouth, plush and lush flavors of blackcurrant, black cherry, and blackberry have a bright acidity and powdery, supple tannins. There’s a nice tangy note in the finish, and the oak is very well integrated here. Still somewhat primary in quality, but going to develop into a nice wine. 100% Cabernet Sauvignon grown in the estate’s historic Howell Mountain vineyard, which dates to 1888. Native-yeast fermented, aged in French oak, and bottled unfined and unfiltered.

2019 Matthiasson “Phoenix Vineyard ” Cabernet Sauvignon, Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley – Lot# 72
Medium garnet in color and by far the lightest hue of any non-Pinot red wine among the Premiere lots, this barrel sample smells of wet earth and chopped green herbs layered over red fruits. In the mouth earth and herbs mix with cherry and plum flavors that have a bright juiciness thanks to excellent acidity. Elegant and gentle on the palate, this is not what most people expect from Napa Cabernet, but is nonetheless quite delicious. Hints of blueberry and herbs linger in the finish. Certified Organic, dry-farmed, estate-grown, vineyard planted in ancient sea-floor shale soils on a steep east-facing hillside. Aged in a large Demi-Muid vessel.

2019 Merus Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley – Lot# 75
Very dark purple in color, this barrel sample smells of sweet blackcurrant and black cherry. In the mouth, bright and delicious flavors of black cherry and blackcurrant are juicy with excellent acidity. Fine-grained tannins flex their muscles as the wine soars through a long finish. Excellent. 95% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Petit Verdot from Coombsville. Aged for 28 months in 100% new French oak barrels.

2019 O’Shaughnessy Estate Winery Malbec, Howell Mountain – Lot# 84
Very dark purple in the glass, this barrel sample smells of blackberries and blueberries and a hint of gunsmoke. In the mouth, blueberry and black cherry flavors have a faint struck flint quality to them, as well as a lovely saline character that, along with excellent acidity, gives the wine brightness and lift. Intense and powerful but not brawny. Fine-grained tannins. The first time that this producer has made a 100% Malbec. This wine comes from a single block on the Howell Mountain estate where soils are a hard, volcanic ledge, that is very challenging to farm. It aged in new French oak barrels for 28 months.

2019 The Hess Collection Winery “Ridge 4 Cabernet” Cabernet Sauvignon, Mount Veeder – Lot# 126
Inky garnet in the glass, this barrel sample smells of cherry, cedar, and dried flowers. In the mouth, the wine has a wonderful effortlessness on the palate, with delicate flavors of cherry, dried flowers, cedar, and cocoa powder. Hints of cola and licorice linger in the finish. Elegant and lithe. This wine represents the very best Cabernet Sauvignon the winery produces from Ridge 4 in their Veeder Hills Vineyard.

WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 9

2020 Ancien “Toyon Center Block” Pinot Noir, Los Carneros – Lot# 5
Medium garnet in color this wine smells of cherry and cocoa powder and a touch of herbs and oak. In the mouth, bright cherry and even strawberry flavors have a juicy zip thanks to excellent acidity. A faint hint of herbs emerges on the finish, along with the whisper of tannins and a bit of oak. Very pretty. Fermented in one-ton, open-top fermenters.

2019 AXR Napa Valley “Sleeping Denali” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley – Lot# 9
Very dark purple in color, this barrel sample smells of rich cherry and black cherry fruit. In the mouth, a fist of muscular tannins wraps around a core of cherry and black cherry fruit that is juicy with excellent acidity. The oak here is fairly well integrated, but there’s some heat on the finish. Notes of licorice root as well. 50% of the fruit was sourced from Sleeping Lady Vineyard in Yountville and 50% from Denali Vineyard in the hills of St. Helena. Barrel fermented with native yeasts.

2019 Bell Wine Cellars “Clone 7 Selection” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley – Lot# 12
Dark garnet in color, this barrel sample smells of nutty black cherry and cassis. In the mouth, black cherry fruit has a smokiness to it that merges with the espresso of oak. Good acidity, but a touch of heat on the finish. Supple, fine-grained tannins. A blend of Clone 7 Cabernet Sauvignon from St. Helena and Atlas Peak vineyards.

2019 Cliff Lede Vineyards “Sunshine in the Dark” Cabernet Sauvignon, Stags Leap District – Lot# 22
Very dark garnet in color, this barrel sample smells of cherry and tobacco leaf. In the mouth, cherry and black cherry flavors have a lean tightness to them, perhaps even a stony aspect, providing the impression of a wine that needs some time to blossom in the bottle. Sourced from Poetry Vineyard’s Sunshine of Your Love Block and the Twin Peaks Vineyard’s Dancing in the Dark Block. Aged for 21 months in new French oak.

2019 Dakota Shy “Moulds E2” Cabernet Sauvignon, Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley – Lot# 27
Very dark garnet in color, this barrel sample smells of struck match and black plum. In the mouth, plush, plummy black cherry flavors nestle into velvety tannins that gain strength over time. Lush and ripe, but I would like a bit more acidity. Notes of café au lait linger in the finish. 100% Clone 338 Cabernet Sauvignon from a single block of vineyard.

2019 Larkmead Vineyards “The Lark Ascending” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley – Lot# 67
Dark garnet in the glass, this barrel sample smells of olive and smoked meats with a hint of struck match. In the mouth, wonderfully saline umami flavors mix with cherry and tobacco notes, as well as the toasted espresso notes of wood. Excellent acidity and supple-yet-muscular tannins. Perhaps a bit too much wood influence here for me, but there’s no denying the deliciousness of the fruit. 100% Clone 337 Cabernet Sauvignon, aging in 100% French oak.

2020 Michael Mondavi Family Estate Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley – Lot# 76
Palest greenish gold in the glass, this barrel sample smells of lemon and grapefruit pith. In the mouth, flavors of lemon pith, white flowers, and a touch of grapefruit have delicate, filigreed acidity. I adore these flavors, but I just wish there were a little more kick in the acidity department. Delicious nonetheless. Single-vineyard, estate-grown Sauvignon Blanc from the Oso Vineyard, rumored to have been planted with cuttings from Château d’Yquem.

2019 Taplin Cellars “E. Lewelling Taplin” Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena – Lot# 119
Inky purple in the glass, this barrel sample smells of blackcurrant and black cherry fruit. In the mouth, sweet blackcurrant and black cherry fruit have a nice brightness thanks to excellent acidity. If not for the somewhat overtly sweet nature of this fruit, this barrel sample would be quite nicely balanced. From a specific rocky section of the vineyard. Aged 24 months in 100% new French oak barrels.

2019 The Wine Foundry “Stagecoach Vineyard” Cabernet Franc, Napa Valley – Lot# 128
Inky garnet in the glass, this barrel sample smells of crushed hazelnuts, plums, and cherries. In the mouth, bright plum and crushed nuts have a fantastically juicy core, wrapped in slightly fleecy tannins. Floral notes linger in the finish. Tasty. Cabernet Franc from Block E1, a stretch of low-yielding vines. A long maceration followed by 20 months aging in Taransaud French oak, 50% new, medium-plus toast. Blended with a small percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot, also from Stagecoach Vineyard.

2020 Trois Noix “Muir Hanna Vineyard” Chardonnay, Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley – Lot# 133
Pale greenish-gold in color, this barrel sample smells of grapefruit pith and white flowers. In the mouth, wonderfully floral notes of grapefruit and lemon juice have a nice snap to them thanks to excellent acidity. There’s surprisingly little oak influence on this wine. Crisp and bright and pithy, with a faint chalkiness lingering in the finish along with floral notes. Fruit comes from the H4 block of Muir-Hanna Vineyard, originally planted in 1987-1988 to Clone 17. Whole-cluster pressed, settled overnight, and racked to eight barrels, one puncheon with no new barrels. Made with partial indigenous fermentation and malolactic fermentation blocked.

2019 Whitehall Lane “Right Bank” Merlot, Napa Valley – Lot# 143
Dark garnet in color, this barrel sample smells of plums and black cherry. In the mouth, supple, smooth tannins wrap around a core of plum, cedar, espresso, and graphite. Excellent acidity keeps the fruit fresh, and savory notes of dried herbs enter the finish. Not flashy, but quite pretty. Merlot with blending components of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot.

WINES WITH A SCORE BETWEEN 8.5 AND 9

2019 Amici Cellars “Morisoli Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford – Lot# 4
Inky purple in the glass, this barrel sample smells of blackcurrants, black cherry, and sweet oak. In the mouth, rich flavors of black cherry, black plum, and tobacco are shot through with a touch of jalapeño and sweet oak. Decent, but not fabulous acidity. Falls slightly flat. 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from the Morosoli vineyard, aged for 22 months in 100% new French oak in a combination of Taransaud and Darnajou barrels. Tony Biagi, winemaker.

2019 Baldacci Family Vineyards “First Born” Cabernet Sauvignon, Stags Leap District – Lot# 10
Very dark garnet in the glass, this barrel sample smells of toasted oak and cherries. In the mouth, sweet cherry and blackberry flavors are tinged with oak and a bit of cocoa powder. Excellent acidity and powdery tannins. Comes off as slightly candied. Single-vineyard, 100% Clone 6 Cabernet Sauvignon from the Stags Leap District estate vineyard. Aged for 24 months in new French oak barrels.

2019 Davis Estates “Phase Five: Loving Life!” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley – Lot# 31
Inky, opaque purple in the glass, this barrel sample smells of black cherry and blackcurrant jelly. In the mouth, black cherry and blackcurrant flavors are thick with muscular tannins that put the squeeze on the palate but have a supple, fine grain to them. Good acidity keeps this wine from feeling too overwhelming but it’s a brawny thing and isn’t afraid of you knowing that. Made by Philippe Melka and Maayan Koschitzky. Includes a hint of Petite Sirah. The wine is aged for 24 months in 75% new Taransaud French cooperage.

2019 Eleven Eleven “Reserve” Cabernet Sauvignon, Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley – Lot# 34
Inky, opaque garnet in the glass, this barrel sample smells of raisins and dried black cherries tinged with black licorice. In the mouth, those ultra-ripe, dried fruits continue, with notes of licorice and dried herbs. Excellent acidity helps, but can’t compensate for what feels like too much ripeness and extraction. There’s also some heat on the finish. 100% Oak Knoll Cabernet Sauvignon from three estate vineyards: Destin, Laki’s, and Trancas. Aging 27 months in new French oak, Sylvain and Taransaud barrels. Winemakers are Kirk Venge and Brett Weis.

2019 Fisher Vineyards “Calistoga Estate” Cabernet Sauvignon, Calistoga – Lot# 42
Dark garnet in the glass, this barrel sample smells of sweet black cherry fruit. In the mouth, black cherry, cola, and plum have a nice brightness to them thanks to excellent acidity. The wine sort of floats off the palate a bit, ending somewhat high-toned and ethereal. Nice flavors though. A unique barrel selection from the Calistoga estate, aged in 100% new French oak barrels for 23 months.

2019 Grgich Hills Estate “Paradise Block Old Vine Cabernet” Cabernet Sauvignon, Yountville – Lot# 50
Dark purple in color, this barrel sample smells of black cherry and plum. In the mouth, velvety tannins make a bed for plush flavors of black cherry and black plum. Notes of cedar and herbs mix a savory note into the rich fruit. I wish there were a bit more acidity here to lift and enervate the wine, but the flavors are tough not to like. Sourced from vines planted in 1959, this small block is known as the Paradise Block. Organically farmed.

2019 Grieve Family Winery Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley – Lot# 51
Palest greenish gold in the glass to the point of being nearly colorless, this barrel sample smells of candied green apple. In the mouth, juicy green apple and kiwi flavors are silky and bright, though perhaps with not quite as much acidity as I would like. Damn tasty though, with a nice long finish. Made from the rare FSP-06 Clone planted in the Lovall Valley estate vineyard, one of Napa Valley’s most remote and coolest growing sites. Philippe Melka made the wine using a mixed vessel ferment: aging in French oak, a concrete egg, and a steel tank.

2019 Hertelendy Vineyards “Luxe” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley – Lot# 53
Inky garnet in the glass, this barrel sample smells of black cherry and sweet oak. In the mouth, graphite, espresso, black cherry, and the toast of oak give way to mouth-drying tannins, that contribute to the sense of just a bit too much wood at work here. Very good acidity helps, but ultimately the finish has a woody, drying quality that obscures the memory of nice fruit. Aged 23 months in French and Hungarian oak.

2020 Hyde Estate Pinot Noir, Los Carneros, Napa – Lot# 56
Medium to dark garnet in color, this barrel sample smells of cherry and cranberry fruit. In the mouth, cherry and cranberry flavors mix with cedar boughs and a touch of earth. Dried herbs linger in the finish with a touch of alcoholic heat. Faint, velvety tannins buff the edges of the mouth. Rich, but with decent acidity to keep it from being too much. Comes from the acclaimed Hyde Vineyard in the Los Carneros AVA. This specific block of grapes is made up of a selection of seven clones hand-selected by Larry Hyde. Hand-harvested and hand-sorted prior to aging in 30% new French oak barrels.

2019 John Anthony Vineyards “Twisted Oak” Cabernet Sauvignon, Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley – Lot# 60
Dark garnet in the glass, this barrel sample smells of black cherry and blackcurrant jam. In the mouth, sweetish cassis and black cherry flavors are squeezed tightly in a muscular fist of tannins that don’t release until long into the finish, which is tinged with licorice and herbs. Decent acidity, but a bit brawny for me. From the estate’s oldest hillside vineyard, Twisted Oak, in the foothills of Mount Veeder, 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from the Oak Knoll District.

2019 Louis M. Martini Winery “The Golden Crown ” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley – Lot# 69
Very dark garnet in color, this barrel sample smells of oak and black cherries. In the mouth, espresso and black cherry flavors have a slightly meaty, umami character along with intense black fruits. Good acidity keeps the wine juicy, but drying tannins and the flavors of oak dominate the finish.

2019 Quixote Winery Cabernet Sauvignon, Stags Leap District – Lot# 98
Very dark garnet in color, this barrel sample smells of sweet black cherry and blackberry. In the mouth, sweet and intense blackberry and black cherry flavors are wrapped in a thick, fleecy blanket of tannins that seems to grow and flex its muscles as the wine finishes. Good acidity but pretty heavy tannins make for a weighty experience along with very very ripe fruit. 100% estate-produced Cabernet Sauvignon from the hillside sections of the Quixote Vineyard. Concrete fermented with indigenous yeasts and a total maceration time of 36 days on the skins. Aging in 100% new French oak for 20 months.

2019 Tierra Roja Vineyards “Years for Peace” Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville – Lot# 129
Dark garnet in color, this barrel sample smells of cherries and chocolate-covered raisins. In the mouth, dried and fresh black cherries mix with hints of cola and cedar. There’s a faint flush of heat on the finish, and fine-grained, powdery tannins. Good acidity keeps things fresh.

WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 8.5

2019 Buena Vista Winery “Tribute” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley – Lot# 17
Dark garnet in color, this barrel sample smells of oak and black cherry, and plum. In the mouth, black cherry and oak mix with plum and cassis flavors that linger with some bitterness of wood and bitter herbs in the finish. Compressed by the wood at this point. Decent acidity. 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from the Morris Vineyard on Diamond Mountain. Aged for 20 months in 100% new French oak.

2019 Duckhorn Vineyards “Three Palms Vineyard Block 4” Merlot, Calistoga – Lot# 33
Dark purple in color, this barrel sample smells of plum, espresso, and oak. In the mouth, mocha, plum, and plum skin flavors mix with the sweet toastiness of oak. Too much wood here for my taste, which is a shame given the juicy brightness of the fruit, which is mouthwatering in the finish, despite drying tannins. Comes from the winemaker’s favorite block in the famed Three Palms Vineyard, which has produced a Merlot for the estate since 1978.

2019 Elizabeth Spencer Chardonnay, Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley – Lot# 35
Pale gold in the glass with a hint of green, this barrel sample smells of green apples and pears. In the mouth, silky flavors of cold cream and lemon curd mix with white flowers and the vanilla of oak. There’s a hint of toasted bread on the finish. Fermented with native yeasts and aged for 15 months in a single, neutral 60-gallon French oak barrel.

2019 Faust “The Pact” Cabernet Sauvignon, Coombsville – Lot# 38
Dark garnet in the glass, this barrel sample smells of roasted espresso and black cherries. In the mouth, espresso and mocha and black cherry flavors are heavily oak-inflected and somewhat high-toned, leaving something of a hollowness in the center of the wine. There’s some heat on the finish. Good acidity and the flavors are nice, but too much wood influence for my taste.

2019 Freemark Abbey “The Tribute” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley – Lot# 45
Dark purple in color, this barrel sample smells of sweet oak and black cherry, and tobacco leaf. In the mouth, muscular tannins wrap around a core of black cherry and espresso. Wood makes its presence known as the tannins slowly dry out the mouth, but not to an extreme. Cocoa powder and espresso linger in the finish. Dry-farmed, sustainably grown Cabernet Sauvignon from St. Helena, with vines more than 30 years old. A tribute to the estate’s founder and one of the first female winemakers in the Napa Valley circa 1886, Josephine Tychson. Made by Kristy Melton, Freemark Abbey’s second female winemaker since Tychson.

2019 Newton Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain District – Lot# 81
Dark garnet in the glass, this barrel sample smells of sweet black cherry and espresso. In the mouth, black cherry and black plum flavors have a hint of woody bitterness to them, along with a bit of alcoholic heat in the finish. Decent acidity. From the highest blocks of Newton on Spring Mountain, aged for 18 months in new French oak.

2019 Saintsbury “Toyon Farm” Chardonnay, Los Carneros – Lot# 107
Light yellow-gold in color, this barrel sample smells of lemon curd and candied lemon. In the mouth, silky, creamy lemon curd flavors are quite tasty but need more acidity to keep them from feeling a bit limp in the mouth. Delicious flavors, but ultimately falls a bit flat.

2019 Terlato Vineyards “An Ode to AJT Part III” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley – Lot# 122
Dark garnet in color, this barrel sample smells of black cherry and blackcurrant. In the mouth, cassis and blackberry mix with the faint bitterness of oak. Soft, pliable tannins and decent acidity round out the package but as a whole, the wine feels a bit compressed and narrow. Barrel fermented and aged in large-format barrels for 20 months. An ode to Anthony J. Terlato.

2019 Trefethen Family Vineyards “Sleeper Block” Cabernet Sauvignon, Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley – Lot# 132
Very dark garnet in color, this barrel sample smells of oak and black cherry fruit. In the mouth, muscular tannins wrap around a core of black cherry, black plum, and sweet oak flavors. The tannins parch the mouth, leaving it fairly dry and tasting of oak. Decent acidity but just too much wood influence here. 100% single-clone, single-block Cabernet Sauvignon, and the best barrel from the cellar.

2019 Turnbull Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville – Lot# 135
Inky garnet in the glass, this barrel sample smells of black cherry and blackberries. In the mouth, fairly grapey black cherry and blackberry flavors are wrapped in a gauzy haze of tannins that stiffens as the wine moves across the palate. Good acidity but some heat in the finish. 100% Cabernet Sauvignon Clone 337, aging in 100% French oak 500L puncheons. From a single block in the Oakville Bench.

2019 VGS Chateau Potelle “Saffron Vineyard Block 7” Cabernet Sauvignon, Mount Veeder – Lot# 137
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this barrel sample smells of cedar and mulling spices layered over red fruits. In the mouth, sweetish notes of cherry and cola are wrapped in muscular tannins, and notes of oak and dried flowers linger in the finish. More medium-bodied in style, I just wish the wood and its tannins were less intrusive. The fruit was dry-farmed at 2,200 feet in elevation. 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from the Saffron Vineyard Block 7 on Mount Veeder. Aged 24 months in 100% new French oak: Hermitage, Seguin Moreau, and Taransaud barrels.

WINES WITH A SCORE BETWEEN 8 AND 8.5

2019 Joseph Phelps Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville – Lot# 61
Dark purple in the glass, this barrel sample smells of black cherry and blackberry pie. In the mouth, raisins, blackberries, and black cherry fruit have a slightly dehydrated quality, that when coupled with the drying tannins of oak make for a parched quality in the mouth. Somewhat overripe for my taste. Good acidity, though. A unique blend of select lots from the Backus Vineyard in eastern Oakville: select vines from the rocky Plateau Block, and steeply terraced South and North blocks. Comprised of 94% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Malbec and 2% Petit Verdot.

NV Monticello Vineyards “Multis Annis” Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford – Lot# 77
Very dark garnet in the glass, this barrel sample smells of raisins and dried black cherries. In the mouth, raisins, roasted figs, and cocoa powder mix with licorice root and other dried fruit flavors. Definitely evolved, with suede-like tannins. Decent acidity.A Cabernet Sauvignon-based blend, that remarkably features wines from the vintages from 1981 to 2019, representing the family’s full history of winemaking. Multis Annis is a Latin phrase meaning “many years.”

2018 The Vice “Batch #70” Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain – Lot# 127
Dark garnet in the glass, this barrel sample smells of raisins and dried black cherries. In the mouth, sweetish raisins and dried black fruits are thick with powdery, muscular tannins, and light on acidity. Thick, rich, and over-extracted. 100% single-vineyard Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon, unfiltered and unfined. Single-barrel fermented and aged for 28 months in 100% Sylvain Grande Reserve heavy toast new French oak.

2019 To Kalon Vineyard Company “A Unique Offering” Red Wine, Oakville – Lot# 131
Inky, opaque purple in color, this barrel sample smells of cassis, black cherry, and ethanol. In the mouth, high-toned black cherry and cassis flavors mix with blackberry. Decent acidity but comes across as pretty high octane. Fine, supple tannins. A blend of 79% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Cabernet Franc and 3% Petit Verdot aged for 20 months in 100% new French oak barrels bottled unfiltered and unfined.

2019 William Cole Vineyards “Smoking Gun” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley – Lot# 144
Dark garnet in the glass, this barrel sample smells of black cherry and licorice. In the mouth, black cherry and blackberry fruit is high-toned and wrapped in a leathery sheaf of tannins. The wine is missing some substance on the mid-palate. Good acidity, though. Aged for 22 Months a French oak barrel.

WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 8

2019 Antinori-Antica Estate “A27 – The Next Generation” Cabernet Franc, Atlas Peak – Lot# 6
Inky, opaque purple in color, this barrel sample smells of raisins and black plums, and crushed nuts. In the mouth, extremely rich raisin, black plum, and black cherry flavors are very extracted and wrapped in a thick suede blanket of tannins. Decent acidity, but the fruit tastes a bit overripe. Low-yielding Cabernet Franc grown at 1,600 feet elevation on the slopes leading up to Atlas Peak. Fermented in 4-ton, conical fermenters and aged for 24 months in the tight-grain Taransaud Ref. 112 GC oak barrel.

2019 Varozza Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena – Lot# 136
Dark garnet in the glass, this barrel sample smells of blackcurrants and oak. In the mouth, drying tannins with some muscle behind them clasp firmly around a core of blackcurrant and blackberry fruit. By the time the wine finishes with hints of violets, the mouth is quite dry from the woody tannins. Overdone.

2019 VinRoc “Red Lava” Cabernet Sauvignon, Atlas Peak – Lot# 141
Inky garnet in the glass, this barrel sample smells of struck match and dried black fruits. In the mouth, rich and very ripe flavors of black cherry and raisins have thick powdery tannins and less acidity than I would like. Tastes overripe and over-extracted to my palate. Grown on Atlas Peak at an elevation of 1600 ft in volcanic soils.

WINES WITH A SCORE BETWEEN 7.5 AND 8

2019 Buoncristiani Family Winery “Liquid Gold Sticky” White Dessert Blend, Napa Valley – Lot# 18
Pale gold in color, this barrel sample smells of poached pears and apples. In the mouth, soft flavors of pastry cream and white flowers mix with poached pear and apple. Not enough acidity to be exciting. Late harvest of Pritchard Hill Viognier Rattlesnake Ridge and Rutherford Sauvignon Musqué old vines, fortified with Germain-Robin Viognier brandy.

2019 Frank Family Vineyards “Winston Hill Block 5 – Heart Block” Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford – Lot# 44
Dark garnet in the glass, this barrel sample smells of grape jelly and sweet cherry cordials. In the mouth, candied cherry and black cherry flavors have a cough-syrup-like quality to them, leaving blackcurrant flavors syrupy and sweet in the finish. Overdone.

WINES WITH A SCORE BELOW 7.5

2019 Correlation Wine Company, Vineyard 7 & 8 “Steffens Family Wines LLC” Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain District – Lot# 24
Inky garnet in color, this barrel sample smells of raisins and dried black cherries. In the mouth, super-ripe, over-extracted, sweet flavors of raisins and dried black fruits are thick with peanut-butter-textured tannins. Over the top and overdone. 100% barrel fermented in new French oak, with 60-day maceration, and is aged for 26 months. Winemakers Martha McClellan and Wesley Steffens.

How to Buy The Wines of Premiere Napa Valley

In recent years, the Vintners Association has been working hard to make it easier for those who are interested in purchasing some of these unique wines to find them. If you’d like to track down a bottle, you’ll want to head on over to the Premiere website where you can search by a number of parameters to find the wine you’re looking for.

The post A Stellar Season: Tasting the 2019 Vintage Through Premiere Napa Valley appeared first on Vinography.

Forging a New View of Sonoma Valley: Introducing Gail Wines

There comes a point in some people’s careers where the only thing left to do is to make some wine. Like they’ve been walking down a road without knowing where they were headed, yet all the while vigneron has been their destination.

Growing up blue-collar in Cranston, Rhode Island, Daniel O’Brien isn’t someone you would have pegged to become a winemaker. He’d be the first to tell you that.

“We were a classic Irish, Italian Catholic working-class family,” says O’Brien. “Mom worked in the local school system, dad worked in trucking and warehousing. Needless to say we weren’t a big wine family.”

Dan O’Brien inspecting the bottling line.

“I was selling paté, charcuterie, cheese—basically rich-people food I couldn’t afford”

Like most working-class kids, if O’Brien wanted pocket money, he had to earn it himself. Which is how he found himself working in a gourmet food store at 18, trying to save up a little cash before he went off to college. “I was selling paté, charcuterie, cheese—basically rich-people food I couldn’t afford,” he says. “But on Saturday and Sunday evenings, they had these ‘cafe nights’ where you could come with your own bottle of wine and so I started to pick up a little bit about wine.”

When the food store went out of business, the owner, who was also managing the Capitol Grill in Providence, hired O’Brien as a busboy, and a road through the hospitality business unfurled underneath his feet. It was a road he found himself returning to, even when he thought he was headed somewhere else.

“For some reason, I went to school for MIS and Database Management,” chuckles O’Brien. “I hated every minute of it. So at night I rolled my way into bartending and receiving wine shipments for restaurants and retailers.”

It was the early 2000s, and in the slump that followed 9/11, O’Brien moved his way up the hospitality ladder, eventually becoming a floor sommelier, and then a wine director.

Forging a New View of Sonoma Valley: Introducing Gail Wines
Checking progress in the cellar.

Listening to O’Brien chart the course of his career, it’s hard to judge exactly the point where selling and stocking wines became more than just a way to pay the rent. It’s not clear that he knows that himself, but he is 100% clear that there have been three key inflection points in his life that made Gail Wines inevitable.

The first was his decision to leave the East Coast and come to California to be the opening wine director at Cavallo Point. The second, which followed so close on the heels of this decision that O’Brien hadn’t even moved full-time to California yet, was the sudden and very unexpected death of his mother, Gail.

“It was around Christmas, two months before I was supposed to move permanently,” says O’Brien, “And it was devastating. She was 51, a saint among saints, just this super-incredible lady.”

Forging a New View of Sonoma Valley: Introducing Gail Wines
Gail O’Brien in a kayak, circa 2006.

O’Brien describes it as a “tragic time” for him, his father, and his two brothers. “But I had accepted this job, so I decided to take it and move.”

Once in California, at the helm of one of the most ambitious wine programs to launch in the San Francisco Bay Area in decades, O’Brien found himself swirling around in the pre-Financial-Crisis, New-California wine boom. Perhaps more importantly, in the midst of it all, O’Brien found both his tribe and his passion.

“Before then, I was treating wine like a business, sort of collecting and trading baseball cards for money,” says O’Brien. “I wasn’t navigating the world with my own tastes.”

Forging a New View of Sonoma Valley: Introducing Gail Wines
Looking out over Bennett Valley.

But hanging out with Rajat Parr, Shelley Lindgren, David Lynch, and Dan Petroski, among many of the others O’Brien counts as friends, mentors, and influences, O’Brien finally felt at home, and was discovering wines that lit him up like fireworks.

The decade that followed O’Brien’s move to California saw him explore every aspect of the wine business, as he moved from Cavallo Point to running a negociant wine label called Cultivar, serving as Estate Director first for Napa’s Long Meadow Ranch, and then Larkmead, where he got to hang out with his friend Dan Petroski, with whom he had been doing harvest work since 2013.

It was at this point that O’Brien realized that there was only one thing having to do with wine that he hadn’t done.

“I was basically a Swiss Army knife in the world of wine,” laughs O’Brien. But, of course, there was actually one blade missing.

In part thanks to some badgering from Petroski, as well as some fantastic bottles of Chinon shared with John Skupny, O’Brien took some of his savings and bought two tons of Cabernet Franc that he made into wine in a corner of Larkmead’s cellar in 2013.

“Even as I did it, I was thinking to myself, ‘I have to be an idiot to be doing this,’ but at the same time Dan was telling me, ‘You’re an idiot if you don’t do this,'” says O’Brien. “Dan can be pretty convincing.”

“I was trying to be cool and do whole-cluster, but I hadn’t exactly figured out the whole thing about stem lignification and didn’t really pay any attention to the pH” laughs O’Brien. “It came out…. ‘meh,'” he says, but to his surprise, he was able to sell every bottle that he didn’t drink himself to friends and family.

Forging a New View of Sonoma Valley: Introducing Gail Wines
Checking on Madhaven Cabernet Sauvignon.

At that point that O’Brien confided to Petroski that what he really dreamed of doing was starting a wine label and naming it after his mother. Petroski, of course, was all for it, as was Dan’s brother Patrick who interestingly had also ended up in the wine business at that point, and was serving as Cellarmaster at Failla wines.

“I want to express the diversity of the valley and highlight some of the incredible growers and their sites that exist here”

O’Brien thinks of 2015 as the first truly commercial vintage for Gail Wines, and by that time he had decided that his focus was going to be the Sonoma Valley.

Despite a storied history of wine production, somehow the Sonoma Valley AVA hasn’t seen the kind of recognition among wine lovers as some of Sonoma’s other appellations. In part, this may be due to the lack of a clearly defining characteristic in the same way that the Sonoma Coast has the ocean or the Russian River Valley has the river. It may also have to do with the fact that when people think about the superstar wines of Sonoma County, almost none of them (Hanzell perhaps being a notable exception) tend to carry the Sonoma Valley AVA on the label.

“It’s one of the parts of Sonoma County that really hasn’t been paid attention to,” says O’Brien. “There are a lot of big commercial producers here, but that’s not the legacy of this valley,” he continues. “I want to express the diversity of the valley and highlight some of the incredible growers and their sites that exist here.”

He goes on to add, “Sonoma Valley is like a tiny state that no one really gives a shit about, sort of like Rhode Island.”

It seems O’Brien finally feels at home in California.

Forging a New View of Sonoma Valley: Introducing Gail Wines
Madhavan Vineyard, Moon Mountain District, Sonoma.

O’Brien’s third point of departure in his career came on the heels of the devastating fires in 2017.

“When the fires came through, I was stressed out, and I had one of those ‘gotta change my life,’ moments,’ says O’Brien. “I knew I wanted to do something for myself, and I was tired of the scene in Napa.”

Despite having recently become the COO at Larkmead, a post that might seem to be the apogee of many people’s careers, O’Brien quit and downshifted his life to focus on Gail and a consulting business that he says he still needs in order to buy fruit and barrels.

He’s never regretted the decision since.

Gail Wines offers an eclectic portfolio of Sonoma wines that O’Brien says are inspired by the little producers of the Loire Valley. Yes, he admits that selling Barbera, Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon doesn’t exactly fit that narrative, but he will also point out that trying to make a living selling Cabernet Franc and Chenin Blanc might make for a very short-lived brand.

Rather than some unifying theme of geography or tradition, the Gail wines (as well as the table wine blends that O’Brien named after his great-aunt Doris) are best understood in the context of an approach to winemaking that O’Brien seems to have settled into naturally as one might ease into a comfortable chair.

Forging a New View of Sonoma Valley: Introducing Gail Wines
Walking the Warm Springs Ranch vineyard.

O’Brien finds organic or sustainable vineyards farmed by dedicated small growers. He arranges to have the vineyards farmed for early picking, so he can make high-acid, low-alcohol wines that convey energy and precision but still possess beautiful aromatics.

“I want classic expressions of specific grape varieties that are appealing.”

He ferments his wines with native yeasts, and doesn’t rack any of the wines until just before bottling. The whites are all barrel-fermented, usually with some battonage (stirring of the lees), and he generally avoids letting them go through malolactic conversion. The reds are destemmed and fermented in bins or tanks (though the Barbera is fermented in neutral puncheons) and aged, like the whites, in neutral oak.

Forging a New View of Sonoma Valley: Introducing Gail Wines
Dan O’Brien in the cellar.

“I’m trying to fit into a missing puzzle piece,” says O’Brien. “Doing good, clean, simple winemaking, but not having the wines feel made. I want classic expressions of specific grape varieties that are appealing.”

And then once the wines are made, he sells them for incredibly reasonable prices.

“My wine journey has to a certain extent been about getting in touch with the joy of drinking a hard-to-find, more affordable wine,” says O’Brien, suggesting that his apotheosis of wine drinking is a great wine that he can easily “buy a case of and not feel ripped off,” something that is increasingly difficult to do in Northern California.

I was about to write, “For the money, Gail wines are shockingly good,” but honestly, to think about these as “value wines” is to not give O’Brien or his wines enough credit. Regardless of price, this entire portfolio of wines is excellent, especially for a self-taught former sommelier who’s only 5 vintages into this journey of being a winemaker.

Of course, the fact that you can buy some of these wines for twenty bucks at retail is kind of magical.

“My wine journey has to a certain extent been about getting in touch with the joy of drinking a hard-to-find, more affordable wine”

When I first tasted O’Brien’s Chenin Blanc, I had one of my favorite moments as a wine writer and critic: when I’m stopped in my tracks, my existence narrows down to a tunnel-like focus on what is in my glass, and I usually utter some unprintable exclamation of praise filled with expletives. My next question is always, “who the hell made this, and what is their story?”

In this case, the answer is a working-class kid from Cranston who eventually found his way to exactly where he belongs.

Forging a New View of Sonoma Valley: Introducing Gail Wines

Tasting Notes

2018 Gail Wines “Morning Sun Ranch” Barbera, Sonoma Mountain, California
A bright medium purple in the glass, this wine smells of citrus peel and mulberries. In the mouth, gorgeously bright boysenberry and cherry flavors have a wonderful, crisp freshness to them thanks to fantastic acidity and a nice stony mineral underbelly. Notes of citrus peel and herbs linger in the finish. Beautiful. 13.3% alcohol. 900 bottles made. Score: around 9. Cost: $35. click to buy.

2018 Gail Wines “Doris – Red Table Wine” Red Blend, Sonoma Valley, California
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of blackberry and potting soil. In the mouth, blackberry and plummy flavors mix with earth and green herbs, all very lively thanks to excellent acidity. There’s a nice faint tannic texture to the wine that hangs at the edge of perception along with a green woody quality that suggests some whole cluster usage. Quite tasty. A blend of 40% Zinfandel, 40% Merlot, and 20% Barbera aged for 15 months in neutral barrels. 14.1% alcohol. 1200 bottles made. Score: around 9. Cost: $25. click to buy.

2018 Gail Wines “Chuy Vineyard” Chardonnay, Sonoma Valley, California
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of wet chalkboard, lemon pith, and lemonade. In the mouth, electric lemon flavors crackle with phenomenal acidity as pink grapefruit and other citrus notes sizzle in the finish with a wonderful mineral undertone. This is a lean, mean citrus machine and a great pleasure for acid freaks like me. 13.1% alcohol. 600 bottles made. Score: around 9. Cost: $35. click to buy.  

2018 Gail Wines “Doris” Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma Valley, California
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of stony cherry and earth and herbs. In the mouth, distinctly savory notes of cherry, wet earth, and green herbs have a cool, cave-like freshness to them. The word dank has a negative connotation, but there’s this “beneath-the-earth” quality to this wine that is quite interesting. Good acidity and supple tannins. 13.9% alcohol. 1000 cases made. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $35. click to buy.  

2018 Gail Wines “Deering Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, Moon Mountain District, Sonoma, California
Medium garnet in color, this wine has a wonderful perfume of bright cherry fruit. In the mouth, aromatically sweet cherry and floral flavors have an intense, fresh brightness thanks to fantastic acidity. Supple, suede-like tannins buff the edges of the mouth, as the wine moves somewhat weightlessly across the palate and then soars into a wonderfully floral finish. Excellent. 14.3% alcohol. 600 bottles made. Score: around 9. Cost: $45.

2019 Gail Wines “Morning Sun Ranch” Pinot Grigio, Sonoma Mountain, California
Pale greenish-gold in color, this wine smells of poached pears and white flowers. In the mouth, bright lemony pear flavors have a nice crispness thanks to fantastic acidity. Lo! A California Pinot Grigio that isn’t boring! This is honestly such a pleasure to drink. 11.9% alcohol. 1200 bottles made. Score: around 9. Cost: $35. click to buy.  

2019 Gail Wines “Doris – White Table Wine” White Blend, Sonoma Valley, California
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of apricot, honey, and chamomile. In the mouth, dried citrus peel, apricot, and peaches mix with yellow and dried herbs and a touch of candle wax. A blend of 80% Pinot Grigio and 20% Chardonnay. 12.5% alcohol. 323 cases made. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $25. click to buy.  

2019 Gail Wines “Doris – Red Table Wine” Red Blend, Sonoma Valley, California
A light coppery pink in the glass, this wine smells of red apple skin, cherries, and orange peel. In the mouth, orange zest, blood orange juice, and sour cherry flavors have a zingy brightness but also a pithy bitterness that lingers a bit in the finish along with sour cherry. Excellent acidity. A 50/50 blend of Cabernet Franc and Malbec. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $25. click to buy.

2019 Gail Wines “Pickberry Vineyard” Merlot, Sonoma Valley, California
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of earth, plum, and cedar. In the mouth, wonderfully fresh notes of forest floor and green herbs mix with plum and black cherry flavors. Excellent acidity and faint, muscular tannins linger through the finish along with the minty freshness of green herbs. A fantastic balance between savory and fruity. 13.9% alcohol. 600 bottles made. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $35. click to buy.  

2019 Gail Wines “Two Creeks Farm” Chenin Blanc, Sonoma Valley, Sonoma, California
Palest greenish-gold in the glass, but nearly colorless, this wine smells of pears and unripe apples. In the mouth, fantastically juicy and slightly saline flavors of crabapple, quince, and unripe apples have a beautiful crispness to them and a wonderful lemony quality that lingers in the finish on top of the deep stony qualities. One of the best renditions of this grape I’ve had from California. Truly outstanding. 12.3% alcohol. 1200 bottles made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $35. click to buy.

Forging a New View of Sonoma Valley: Introducing Gail Wines
Dan O’Brien in his Sonoma office.

Images courtesy of Gail Wines by photographer Jimmy Hayes.

The post Forging a New View of Sonoma Valley: Introducing Gail Wines appeared first on Vinography.

A Voice From the Fog: Current Releases From Peay Vineyards

There aren’t many wineries in California about whom I can confidently say that I’ve tasted pretty much every wine they’ve ever made. Even those wineries I claim to know very well, I may have missed a bottle here and there over the years. But among the few wineries for whom I could make such a claim, Peay Vineyards certainly would fit the bill. I’ve been tasting their wines made on the hills overlooking the Sonoma Coast for about 17 years.

Because I’ve written about the winery frequently over the years, I don’t feel the need to retell their story at the moment. If you’re unfamiliar with the winery, I’d direct you to my previous summary of their efforts, made when I tasted the 2014 vintage.

Nick, Vanessa, and Andy are still at it, working their same organically farmed 48 acres with their full-time crew of 8 vineyard hands, all with a view of the craggy Pacific coastline near Annapolis. This year marks the 20th year since their vines were planted in the remains of an old sheep ranch and apple orchard.

The wines continue to be some of the most nuanced and beautiful cold-climate wines made in California, thanks to Vanessa Wong, a winemaker who quietly cranks out deliciousness every year. While other winemakers of her talent have many consulting projects with various brands, Vanessa seems content to focus on the quality of what her plot of land can produce. And those of us lucky enough to enjoy the wines know, that is enough.

The 2018 vintage was nothing short of spectacular out on the Sonoma Coast. No real heat spikes or other major weather events compromised any part of the growing cycle. Yields were healthy after a very wet winter, and little stood in the way of the vines doing what they do best. It’s no wonder then, that these 2018 wines are tremendous, including both the wines from their “second label” Cep (which features non-estate fruit) and their entry-level wines as well.

Tasting Notes

2020 Cep Vineyards “Hopkins Ranch” Sauvignon Blanc, Russian River Valley, Sonoma, California
Palest greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of green apple, lemon cucumber and wet stones. In the mouth, crisp green apple, cut grass and unripe melon flavors have a nice zip thanks to fantastic acidity. Lean, mean and green, this wine is flirting with the austere, but manages to lean, finally to mouthwatering. 12.6% alcohol. Score: between 8.5-9 . Cost: $20. click to buy.

2020 Cep Vineyards “Hopkins Ranch” Rosé of Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, Sonoma, California
Pale baby pink in color, this wine smells of watermelon and strawberry fruit. In the mouth, tart hibiscus, watermelon, chopped herbs, and citrus peel all have a fantasically bright snap to them thanks to excellent acidity. Citrus pith and pomelo linger in the finish. 12% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $20. click to buy.

2018 Peay Vineyards “Estate” Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, California
Palest greenish-gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon curd, white flowers, and just the barest hint of melted butter. In the mouth, exceedingly silky flavors of lemon curd, lemon juice, grapefruit, and a whiff of butterscotch all have an electric brightness thanks to very good acidity. Lovely, long finish. Delicious. 13.2% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $56. click to buy.

2018 Peay Vineyards “Estate” Viognier, Sonoma Coast, California
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of apricots and a touch of malted milk and banana. In the mouth, lean apricot and citrus flavors have mouthwatering acidity and a zesty, pithy quality that is quite delicious especially with the saline kick that enters in the end. Phenomenal acids, here, really. In my experience, this wine will blossom for years in the bottle. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $48. click to buy.

2018 Peay Vineyards Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of raspberry and earth and cranberry fruit. In the mouth, wonderfully juicy raspberry and cranberry flavors are shot through with a deep herbal earthiness that is quite compelling, even as juicy and bright citrus-peel acidity makes the mouth water. Faint, powdery tannins hang in a haze through the back of the mouth as the salivary glands go into overdrive thanks to the acidity. Delicious. 13.4% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $45. click to buy.

A Voice From the Fog: Current Releases From Peay Vineyards

2018 Peay Vineyards “Pomarium” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of earth, cherry, and raspberry with a hint of cedar. In the mouth, gorgeous flavors of forest floor, raspberry, and cherry fruit are backed by supple, muscular tannins that linger with hints of citrus peel and dark earth in the finish. Slightly brooding, but give this a few years in the bottle and watch it shine. Easily drinkable today, however, and quite pleasurable. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $61. click to buy.

2018 Peay Vineyards “Ama” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of cherry and raspberry fruit. In the mouth, bright cherry and cranberry fruit flavors mix with raspberry and redcurrant. Wonderfully stony on the palate, with fine-grained but muscular tannins that definitely make their presence known. There’s a wonderful purity to this wine, with whispers of dried flowers in the finish. 13% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $61. click to buy.  

2018 Peay Vineyards “Savoy Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley, Mendocino, California
Light to medium garnet in color, this wine smells of raspberry and sour cherry and a hint of resinous herb. In the mouth, juicy raspberry, sour cherry, and redcurrant flavors mix with citrus peel and a touch of herbs. Excellent acidity keeps the saliva flowing as does a faint salinity. Delicious. 13.3% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $61. click to buy.

2018 Peay Vineyards “Scallop Shelf” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dried flowers, herbs, raspberry and redcurrant fruit. In the mouth, lean raspberry and redcurrant fruit is positively bursting with acidity. Gorgeous citrus peel and chopped herb flavors join the tart, expressive fruit in an impressively long finish. Fantastic, and just beginning its journey towards greatness. 13% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $64. click to buy.  

2018 Peay Vineyards “La Bruma” Syrah, Sonoma Coast, California
Dark purple in the glass, this wine smells of blackberry and white pepper. In the mouth, unripe blackberry and black cherry flavors are shot through with white pepper and chopped herbs, as dried flowers and a citrus peel brightness linger in the finish. Mouthcoating, dusty tannins fill every nook and cranny of the mouth, lingering through the finish with hints of black currant and earth. Gorgeous, and likely to blossom into something even greater with time. 13% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $56. click to buy.

A Voice From the Fog: Current Releases From Peay Vineyards

The post A Voice From the Fog: Current Releases From Peay Vineyards appeared first on Vinography.

Vinography Unboxed: Week of 4/4/21

Hello and welcome to my weekly dig through the pile of wine samples that show up asking to be tasted. 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.

Let’s start this week with what wine writer Matt Kramer has called the most reliable wine in the world: New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. I agree with him. If you pay $15 to $25 for a New Zealand “Savvy,” 99% of the time you are going to get a delicious wine that tastes the way you expect it to. It’s hard to say that about any other single “type” of wine in the world. The stuff ain’t profound, but it’s damn tasty. This week I’ve got a pitch-perfect rendition of the form from Allan Scott. At $12 a bottle, what’s not to love?

And now we can move into the slightly more unexpected realm of white wines with the 4 pale crown jewels in Piedmont’s ruby-studded reputation. Yes, there are white wines made in Piedmont, and some of them are damn special. Piedmont has been going through something of a white wine renaissance in recent years, as producers work hard to revive traditions that very nearly were lost forever.

Our first wine serves as the prime example. At one point there were a mere dozen or so rows of Nascetta in a single vineyard, but winegrower Elvio Cogno rediscovered the variety 20 years ago and began to expand plantings with the goal of finding out the potential of this all-but-unknown variety. Now 12 producers in Piedmont make it, including Gregorio Gitti, who has decided to try planting the grape at higher elevations in order to retain a bit more acidity, which apparently can disappear fast under the wrong conditions. While Gitti and his Castello di Perno bottling may not have yet reached the apogee of what Nascetta has to offer, the wine is very good, and the opportunity to drink a bit of forgotten history should not be missed.

In some ways, Nascetta is about 10 years behind Timorasso, which has a similar tale of rediscovery, but now is a somewhat poorly kept secret in Piedmont. The best examples of this semi-aromatic variety can be truly delicious and distinctive, and two of the best examples come from La Colombera, often called the “Queen of Timorasso” thanks to Elisa Semino who has spent 20 years dedicated to the grape along with her father Piercarlo. The one I have for you today is their single-vineyard “Il Montino” Timorasso, which grows at about 900 feet of elevation and is full of tropical fruits and brisk with bright acidity and salinity.

The two better-known white grapes of Piedmont are Cortese (made famous by the town of Gavi whose name has become almost shorthand for the wine), and Arneis, which has been made for a long time by a lot of Barbaresco producers in Roero. La Colombera also makes a really lovely Cortese and producer Malvirá has one of the better interpretations of Roero Arneis I have had in some time. Arneis can sometimes be an austere grape, so it’s fantastic when someone makes it as wonderfully balanced as this one is.

So while we’re in Piedmont let’s dally a bit with some reds as well, shall we? I’ve got four extremely different incarnations of Nebbiolo to share with you, all of which are distinctive and worthy of attention.

Let’s start with some northerly interpretations of Nebbiolo from Travaglini, which is the most prominent name in the northern parts of Piedmont. The family has been farming wine grapes in this region for four generations, and have been landholders since the 9th century. They farm 149 acres of vineyards in the foothills of the rocky Monte Rosa mountains. Their bottling of Gattinara is famous for both its quality and its distinctive curvy, asymmetrical glass bottle, which is molded from a 1958 design created by third-generation proprietor Giancarlo Travaglini.

Travaglini also makes some wine from one of the newer sub-regions of Piedmont, the Costa della Sesia, which is in the northwest of the region and shares some of the crunchy, more mineral qualities that can be found in the Gattinara bottling.

In addition to these two worthies, I have notes on a Barolo from Gregorio Gitti and a reserve Nebbiolo from Malvirá, both of which will please anyone looking for the classical complexities of the grape.

After spending a while dallying in Piedmont, I couldn’t think of a better transition back to California than the wonderfully brisk interpretation of Dolcetto from Acorn Winery just south of Healdsburg in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley. This tiny producer run by husband-and-wife team Bill and Betsy Nachbauer has long focused on heritage field blends that resemble the wines that were made in California more than a century ago by the immigrants who first planted grapes in California. Their Dolcetto is brisk and crunchy and offers a lovely balance between savory notes and bright fresh fruit.

The real stars of the Acorn portfolio, however, are its old-vine heritage bottlings, of which the Medley and Acorn Hill are both excellent examples. The Medley is a full-on “Mixed Blacks” field blend with several dozen grape varieties all planted together and fermented together. The Acorn Hill is a bottling from a specific hillside right behind the winery, and while it has fewer grape varieties than the Medley, has a poise and balance that is just remarkable. These are unique wines of a type that few make any longer, and are very worthy of your attention. Bill and Betsy are also the kind of tiny family-run operation that, too, has become scarce in Sonoma County.

Tasting Notes

2020 Allan Scott Family Winemakers Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand
Pale gold with a hint of green, this wine smells of cut grass, gooseberries and green apple. In the mouth, zippy green apple and gooseberry flavors have a nice electric green acidity to them, with margarita lime and passionfruit flavors lingering in a mouthwatering finish. Classic New Zealand “Savvy” profile. Crisp, delicious, and what you expect. 12.5% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: around 9. Cost: $12. click to buy.

2018 Gregorio Gitti Castello di Perno Nascetta, Langhe, Piedmont, Italy
Light greenish-gold
in color, this wine smells of struck match and candied lime. In the mouth, slightly sappy green apple and star fruit flavors mix with lime zest and a touch of pomelo. There’s a slightly oxidative quality to this wine. 13% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $29. click to buy.

2018 La Colombera “Il Montino” Timorasso, Colli Tortonesi, Piedmont, Italy
Pale gold in color, this wine smells of struck match, unripe mango, and a sort of resinous floral note that is hard to pin down. In the mouth, bright lemony papaya and saffron and a hint of melon flavors are juicy with fantastic acidity, especially for this variety. A silky texture gives way to a lightly mineral dustiness in the finish. Quite compelling. 14% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $40. click to buy.

2019 La Colombera “Bricco Bartolomeo” Cortese, Colli Tortonesi, Piedmont, Italy
Pale gold in color, this wine smells of grapefruit pith and lemonade. In the mouth, silky flavors of lemon curd and grapefruit have a bright freshness thanks to excellent acidity. There’s a hint of toasty nuttiness to this wine and a wonderfully saline finish. Quite tasty. 13% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: around 9. Cost: $16. click to buy.

2019 Malivirà “Renesio” Roero Arneis, Roero, Alba, Piedmont, Italy
Palest gold in the glass, this wine smells of sweet cream, white flowers, and wet chalkboard. In the mouth, wonderfully bright lemon pith mixes with white flowers and a deep stony minerality. Gorgeous acidity makes the mouth water as a faint saline and green apple note lingers with the margarita lime in the finish. 13% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $35. click to buy.

Vinography Unboxed: Week of 4/4/21

2017 Travaglini Gattinara, Northern Piedmont, Italy
Light to medium ruby in color, this wine smells of smoky dried flowers and strawberries. In the mouth, bright strawberry, rhubarb, and earth flavors have a wonderfully bright juiciness. Powdery tannins flex their muscles as the wine moves across the palate, but there’s a really nice suppleness to this wine and a freshness thanks to excellent acidity. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $28. click to buy.

2018 Travaglini Nebbiolo, Coste Della Sesia, Northern Piedmont, Italy
Light ruby in color, this wine smells of strawberries, wet pavement, and citrus peel. In the mouth, fresh and bright strawberry fruit mixes with chopped herbs and a touch of licorice. Faint tacky tannins back up the very fresh juicy acidity. Easy to drink and quite delicious. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $22. click to buy.

2016 Gregorio Gitti Castello di Perno “Castelletto” Barolo, Langhe, Piedmont, Italy
Light to medium ruby in the glass with orange highlights, this wine smells of strawberry and cherry fruit, a touch of woodsmoke, and crushed dried sage and other herbs. In the mouth, bright raspberry and sour cherry flavors are juicy and mouthwatering thanks to excellent acidity. Burnt orange peel and dried herbs emerge towards the finish, as lightly muscular tannins flex and squeeze. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $50. click to buy.

2009 Malivirà “Riserva Trinità” Nebbiolo, Roero, Alba, Piedmont, Italy
Light ruby with significant brick color encroaching from the edges, this wine smells of strawberry jam and bacon fat. In the mouth, strawberry fruit still has some primary character, but notes of dried strawberry, as well as mixed dried herbs, are the dominant quality on the palate. Excellent acidity keeps the wine fresh as thyme and oregano linger in the finish. Fleecy tannins. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $55. click to buy.  

2017 Acorn Winery “Alegria Vineyards” Dolcetto, Russian River Valley, Sonoma, California
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of boysenberries and leather with a hint of citrus peel. In the mouth, smooth, fresh flavors of boysenberry, black cherry, cola and citrus peel are wrapped in a very soft suede blanket of tannins. Excellent acidity keeps this wine quite brisk and delicious, adding an herbal tinge to the dark fruit. Contains 3% Barbera and 3% Freisa. Ages for 18 months in a combination of French and Hungarian barrels, mostly used. 13.5% alcohol. 153 cases made. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $42. click to buy.

Vinography Unboxed: Week of 4/4/21

2017 Acorn Winery “Medley – Alegria Vineyards” Red Blend, Russian River Valley, Sonoma, California
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of blackberries, woodsmoke, cherries, and cedar. In the mouth, juicy blackberry, cherry, and strawberry flavors swirl under a fleecy blanket of tannins. There’s a hint of cedar and incense that lingers in the finish along with a touch of oak. Excellent acidity and wonderful balance. Very compelling. A dizzying field blend of more than 60 varieties including 18% Syrah, 14% Zinfandel, 4% Dolcetto, 20% Cinsault, 4% Cabernet Franc, 3% Sangiovese, 2% Alicante Bouschet, 2% Petite Sirah, 1% Mourvedre, 20% various Muscats, and the remaining 12% includes dozens of other grape varieties including Einset, Blue Portuguese, Viognier and more. Ages for 15 months in a combination of French, American, and Hungarian oak barrels, mostly used. 14.4% alcohol. 119 cases made Score: around 9. Cost: $50 . click to buy.

2015 Acorn Winery “Acorn Hill – Alegria Vineyards” Red Blend, Russian River Valley, Sonoma, California
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of blackberries, black cherry, and exotic flowers. In the mouth, gorgeous bright fruit flavors of boysenberry, cherry, and black currant are wrapped in a fleecy blanket of tannins. There’s a cedar note that creeps into the fruit, along with some grace notes of flowers, while a citrus peel quality lingers in the finish. Unique and boisterous in personality, this wine beautifully showcases the joy of old-school mixed-black wines. An unusual field blend of 49% Syrah, 49% Sangiovese, 1% Viognier, .5% Canaiolo, and .5% Mammolo grown on the prominent hill just behind the winery. 13.9% alcohol. Ages in 42% new French oak for 18 months. 132 cases made. Score: around 9. Cost: $48. click to buy.

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Vinography Unboxed: Week of 1/3/21

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 was all red wines, starting with some local Pinot Noir and ending with some superstar Sonoma Cabernets.

I will admit my organization of the samples I’ve received in my cellar is not particularly scientific. In fact, at times it can hardly even be described as methodical. And occasionally embarrassing things happen. Like when I’ve received two vintages of some wines from a producer, and don’t realize it. Ordinarily, I’d prefer to review them together, but sometimes they get separated in the pile.

So today you’re getting reviews of some 2017 Pinots from Dutton-Goldfield winery, after I reviewed the 2018 vintage of several of these wines a couple of weeks ago. Both vintages are on the market, so at least these reviews aren’t worthless.

Of the four Pinots from Dutton-Goldfield, I think my favorite this week was the Azaya Ranch Pinot, from the chilly Petaluma Gap AVA. Located in the hills of Marin County, about halfway between Tomales Bay on the west and Highway 101 on the east, this south and west-facing hillside vineyard is protected from the chilliest winds from the coast, making for excellent conditions for cool-climate Pinot Noir. I really enjoy this site’s freshness of fruit, and anyone who appreciates acidity in their wine will love it.

I’ve also got one more wine from Kingston Family Vineyards, several of whose wines I reviewed last week. This “Alazan” Pinot Noir has a lovely balance between herbs and fruit and a unique darker berry character that I really enjoyed.

This week I also tasted two wines from a producer that flies a bit below the radar when it comes to Napa estates. For five generations the Battuello family has been farming 83 acres in the heart of St. Helena, but most people drive right by Battuello Vineyards because they’re tucked down at the end of Ehler’s Lane and there isn’t a big fancy winery to visit.

Like many families that have been farming in Napa for generations, the Battuello family began with nut and fruit orchards and eventually converted to grapes. They remain one of the few producers in Napa who still grows what for decades was locally known as Napa Gamay, but is more correctly known as the Portuguese grape variety Valdigue. Their rendition is on the rich side, but it retains the bright berry freshness and acidity that marks this underrated grape variety. Speaking of dark and rich, their Petit Verdot will fit the bill nicely for anyone looking for a dark red from Napa that is just a bit off the beaten path.

Lastly and certainly not least, for they are among my favorite wines made in California, I’m happy to present my notes on the 2015 vintage from Vérité, which I consider to be the crown jewel of the Jackson Family Estates. Sonoma’s answer to Opus One, Vérité represents a collaboration between Jess Jackson, founder of Jackson Family Wines, and Pierre Seillan, a winegrower and winemaker who spent two decades in Bordeaux before accepting the offer to start a new project in California with Jackson.

Seillan was given carte blanche to make the best wine he could from Sonoma County, which resulted in a selection of vineyard parcels in Chalk Hill, Bennett Valley, Knights Valley, and Alexander Valley, and a meticulous approach to vinification that Seillan (and his daughter, who has grown up to become his assistant winemaker) call “micro-cru” winemaking. The father-daughter team separately vinify and barrel more than 50 individual blocks that are then later assembled into the three iconic wines that the estate has produced since it began in 1998 (actually, the estate began with La Muse and La Joie, and two years later, began to produce Le Desir).

La Muse is a merlot-based blend, La Joie features Cabernet Sauvignon, and Le Desir is always centered on Cabernet Franc.

And what wines they each are. Rivaling (and in my book, often exceeding in finesse) anything that comes out of Napa, these are among the most profound Bordeaux-style wines made in California every year. The 2015 vintage is settling into a beautiful, relaxed elegance in the bottle, and all three of the wines are fantastic, as usual. However, the “La Muse” had just a little extra something to it that thrilled me.

Of course, like most of California’s luxury wines, these bottles are priced out of most wine buyers’ reach, but if you are in the habit of paying several hundred dollars per bottle, I would venture to say there are few better bets in Californian wine.

Tasting Notes

2019 Kingston Family Vineyards “Alazan” Pinot Noir, Casablanca Valley, Chile
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of struck match, raspberries, and chopped green herbs. In the mouth, brilliantly juicy flavors of raspberry and boysenberry are backed by green herbs and a touch of dusty tannin. Fantastic acidity and great length. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $42. click to buy.

2017 Dutton-Goldfield “McDougall Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Fort Ross-Seaview, Sonoma Coast, Sonoma, California
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry, cedar, and a hint of oak. In the mouth, cherry and raspberry flavors are shot through with the sweet vanilla of new oak. Excellent acidity and length, with barely perceptible tannins. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $60. click to buy.

2017 Dutton-Goldfield “Redwood Ridge” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of raspberry and cranberry fruit. In the mouth, cranberry and raspberry fruit is shot through with cedar and dried herbs. Faint but muscular tannins grip the edges of the palate. 14.2% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $62. click to buy.

2017 Dutton-Goldfield “Azaya Ranch Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Petaluma Gap, Marin, California
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of raspberry and cranberry fruit. In the mouth cranberry and raspberry notes mix with dried herbs and a touch of forest floor. Excellent acidity keeps the wine quite fresh as notes of green herbs linger in the finish along with citrus-peel brightness. 14.1% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $62. click to buy.

2017 Dutton-Goldfield “Freestone Hill Vineyard – Dutton Ranch” Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, Sonoma, California
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of cherry and cranberry compote. In the mouth, bright cherry and cranberry flavors have a hint of citrus peel and dried herbs to them. Excellent acidity and only the barest hint of tannins as the wine lingers for a long time on the palate. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $72. click to buy.

2018 Battuello Vineyards Valdigue, St. Helena, Napa, California
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of boysenberry and black cherry. In the mouth, rich boysenberry and cherry flavors have a nice freshness thanks to excellent acidity, while notes of cola and flowers linger in the finish. Quite delicious. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $45.

Vinography Unboxed: Week of 1/3/21

2018 Battuello Vineyards Petit Verdot, St. Helena, Napa, California
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry and cassis. In the mouth, rich black cherry, blackberry and cassis flavors are bright with juicy acidity even as they sit with some weight on the palate. Toasty notes of oak float on top of the dark fruit, and powdery tannins fill every nook and cranny of the mouth. A touch of cola lingers in the finish. Brawny, but not overpowering in its richness. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $70.

2015 Vérité “La Joie” Red Blend, Sonoma County, California
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and tobacco leaf. In the mouth, lush, velvety flavors of cherry, green herbs and dark plums are smooth and supple as they move across the palate. Excellent acidity, powdery faint tannins and impeccable balance. This is a poised, regal wine with confidence and grace. Herbal notes linger in the finish with a touch of licorice. 13.9% alcohol. Score: around 9.5 . Cost: $350. click to buy.

2015 Vérité “La Muse” Red Blend, Sonoma County, California
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of black cherry and chocolate. In the mouth, rich cherry cola and cocoa powder flavors are gorgeously juicy thanks to excellent acidity. Cola nut and floral flavors mix with mouthwatering cherry fruit as gauzy tannins coat the mouth. Fantastically balanced and delicious. Impeccable in every way. Effortless to drink, impossible not to love. 14.7% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $350. click to buy.

2015 Vérité “Le Desir” Red Blend, Sonoma County, California
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry, licorice, and earth. In the mouth, fleecy tannins wrap around a core of black cherry and cocoa powder that has a faint herbal bitterness to it. Excellent acidity and lovely sawdusty depths make for complex and delicious wine. Beautifully balanced and graceful to the last drop. 14.4% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $350. click to buy.

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