Category Archives: Napa Valley

The Wine Industry’s Millennial Strawman

I have some bad news for wine industry folks like Bob Torkelson, president and CEO of Trinchero Family Estates. You guys are chasing a strawman trying to solve your “Millennial Problem.”
Photo By Silverije - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

At a recent wine industry conference at Sonoma State University, Torkelson and other industry executives shared their thoughts on why Millennials weren’t buying premium wine at the rate of previous generations.

Of course, the substantial college debt and poor job prospects of Millennials made its appearance as the scapegoat du jour with Bill Swindell of The Press Democrat quoting Torkelson:

Maybe they don’t have any money. The prospect of them getting a better job is going to be difficult for a while. We face a lot of obstacles in this area. It will be interesting to see how we approach it. — Bob Torkelson, “Wine executives debate the promise and peril of millennial wine consumers” 04/18/2019

The idea of college debt keeping Millennials from embracing wine is an oft-told narrative. After the Silicon Valley Bank report came out in January, sounding the warning call about waning Millennial interest in wine, many stories ran with the idea that the more than a trillion dollars of Millennial student debt was the culprit.

College debt and poor job prospects is a serious issue but let me splash some cold truth on this burning strawman.

Even if you forgave all our college debts tomorrow, Millennials are not going to be running towards wine.

Photo By Sideways11 - Own work, Public Domain,

Seriously, it’s not Rex Pickett’s fault that no one is buying Merlot. It’s because the wines usually make us want to fall asleep.

Millennials are already spending money. That’s not the issue. The issue is that most of us are not spending money on wine.

Instead, we’re spending it on things that we want to spend it on–even if they may seem frivolous to other generations. We have no problem spending around $1200 a year (£904.20) socializing with friends or almost $600 (£441) on a daily treat of coffee.

For around $1800 a year, we could buy more than a case of the 2014 Duckhorn Three Palms Merlot that was Wine Spectator’s #1 Wine of the Year back in 2017. Or more than 7 cases of Duckhorn’s Decoy Merlot at around $20 a pop.

But why would we?

I’m in the minority as a Millennial who does spend money on wine but even I wouldn’t bother with chasing the Duckhorn Three Palms Merlot. No Millennial seriously cares about Wine Spectator’s Top Wine of the Year and while the Decoy Merlot is solid at $20, I could only enjoy one bottle before becoming dreadfully bored.

Henry Mckenna Bourbon.

Millennial Math in action. While the #1 wine of the year is usually $100+, you can buy the #1 whiskey in the world for around $30. And you don’t have to finish the bottle in one night.

Even if we had the money, even if you gave us the money (via debt forgiveness), the industry is not bothering to answer the fundamental question of why Millennials should care about what they’re offering.

The wine industry just assumes that as soon as Millennials somehow get more money in our pockets that we’re going to eagerly start buying whatever it is that they’re peddling.

I’m sorry guys, but that’s a pipe dream.

What the industry needs to realize is that for Millennials, it’s not about the money. It’s about the value (i.e. Millennial Math) and whether or not your product is actually interesting to us.

That’s true whether your wine is $10 or a $100+. It has to deliver on intrigue and value.

A bottle of Ménage à Trois or covering the $7.99 Uber Eats fee?

What I found most laughable about Torkelson’s worry about college debt impacting wine sales is that Trinchero’s most well-known brands are Sutter Home and Ménage à Trois. You don’t need to take out a payday loan or put off buying a house to drink these wines.

All you need is the money you spend on delivery fees. Yet, even with all our debts, Millennials have been enthusiastic consumers of services like Uber Eats, Deliveroo, GrubHub and the like.

Why? Because having someone bring us new and exciting food dishes from a variety of restaurants offers us far more value for an extra $8 bucks than a bottle of Ménage à Trois ever could.

Plus, we can always get an interesting craft beer, cider or even hard seltzer water to drink with our takeout that is certainly less boring than another same ole Cab, Chard or Red Blend.

The Avocado Toast Test

Millennials really don’t eat avocado toast all the time. It’s more of a meme than anything. But still, as an occasional treat, spending around $10-20 for some avocado toast is well-established as not being a big deal for us.

That $10-20 range is a sweet spot for a lot of wineries targetting Millennials. So that leads to an essential question that every winery should ask themselves.

Is my wine more interesting than avocado toast?
By Brenda Godinez cravethebenefits - https://unsplash.com/photos/k4116JZ07S0Image at the Wayback Machine (archived on 28 June 2017)Gallery at the Wayback Machine (archived on 28 June 2017), CC0

Does a bottle porn pic on Instagram make me want to drink your wine more than this picture makes me want to eat this dish? Probably not.

Why do people like avocado toast?

It’s different and definitely not something that our parents ate.

We can customize it and have it in a variety of ways (sliced, smashed, brioche, bagels, flatbread, baguette, tortillas) and with numerous toppings (bacon, cherry tomatoes, sesame seeds, balsamic, fried egg, grilled shrimp, toasted almonds, pomegranate, etc). Even loaded with all those goodies it still feels relatively healthy and a treat.

Does your wine offer any of that?

Does it offer us something interesting or unique? Or is it just the same old boring stuff that our parents drank?

Does it seem relatively healthy? Or is it sourced from conventionally farmed vineyards and highly manipulated in the winery with oak chips, mega-purple additives, and residual sugars?

By Agne27, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Hey, look! Another sub-$20 oaky, buttery Chardonnay. Lovely…..

Regardless of the price, does drinking your wine actually feel like a treat? Does buying your wine feel like a good value worth spending money on?

Yeah, Millennials do have a lot of college debt and shitty job prospects.

But wineries that are using this as a scapegoat to explain why we’re not buying their wines are fools.

Millennials do spend money on things beyond the bare essentials of food & rent. Like every generation that has come before us, we want to live and enjoy life even when so much around us royally sucks.

If your wine offers us that little bit of joy that our daily latte, going out with friends, a new outfit, getting take-out from a favorite restaurant or avocado toast does–then we’re going to buy it.

But if you’re peddling the same ole wines that we see everywhere, then no, you’ve lost us.

You could snap your fingers like Thanos and make all our college debt disappear, but that’s not going to change the fact that your wine is more boring than avocado toast.

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Start-ups and Sangio

Being in love with a techie, you’re never far from the siren song of start-ups. In her long career, my wife is 0 for 3 following that tune. Still, the excitement of building things from the ground up and being part of something innovative keeps luring her back. That’s why we found ourselves uprooting our lives and moving 5000 miles away from her cozy job at Google to a new start-up in France.

Villa Ragazzi Sangiovese

It takes a lot of nerve to set aside the doubts in your head to pursue what ignites your heart. That is a sentiment that Michaela Rodeno of Villa Ragazzi knows very well. As I learned more of Rodeno’s story, I began to understand the fire that drives people like my wife and Michaela. These are folks that don’t want to settle but, instead, want to see what more is possible.

Rather than take the easy road, the easy life, they embrace the challenges that come with forging your own path. Whether it’s building three (!) wineries from scratch or being on the cutting edge of technology, it takes a lot of gumption to do what they do. And that’s certainly worth raising a glass.

From Bubbles to Boardrooms

From Bubbles to Boardrooms book

If you’re in the mood for a fun summer-time read, I highly recommend Michaela Rodeno’s memoir.

From Bubbles to Boardrooms is the title of Rodeno’s book that is part biography and part primer for the fortitude that one needs to make their own opportunities happen. Rodeno gifted us a copy, but I very enthusiastically recommend the book to any wine lover. Or lovers of books about kick-ass women.

Not only is it a great read full of fun stories about the early days of Domaine Chandon and St. Supéry, but Rodeno sprinkles throughout compelling tidbits about what it means to be a leader and trusting your own abilities.

The First of Many Firsts

A UC-Davis grad, Michaela Kane Rodeno moved to Napa Valley with her husband, Greg, in 1972. A lawyer, Greg followed the advice of friends that there was lots of legal work to be found in the burgeoning valley. Michaela found a job at Beaulieu Vineyard, becoming the first woman to serve as a tour guide at the historic winery.

A short time later, she noticed a newspaper article about a new California project by Moët & Chandon. This was the first significant investment in California by a major French winery and Michaela was intrigued. Armed with nothing but her French language degree and a whole lot of moxie, she drove up to the Mt. Veeder home of John Wright, the man tasked by Moët to head the project, offering her services. That day Michaela Rodeno became employee number two at what would become Domaine Chandon.

Changing the Game At Chandon

Domaine Chandon

The owners of Moët & Chandon were very hands-off in the early years of Domaine Chandon, giving Wright and Rodeno almost free reign to build the brand as they saw fit.

While building Domaine Chandon from the ground-up with John Wright, Rodeno had to tackle many winery start-up problems. Her solutions, which she developed over a 15-year career at Chandon, introduced many innovations to Napa Valley.

Back then, wineries often viewed restaurants and retailers as their main customers. Rodeno and Domaine Chandon steered the focus back to regular consumers with an emphasis on the tasting room experience, a direct-to-consumer newsletter and establishing the first wine club in the US, Club Chandon. To counter the higher excise tax on sparkling wine, Chandon also was the first to introduce tasting fees to winery visitors.

Noticing the lack of fine dining options in the valley, Rodeno worked with the Napa County council to get the zoning and permits to open up Étoile, which many give credit with launching the Napa Valley food-scene. That restaurant would go on to earn Michelin stars and global recognition before closing in 2014.

Taking the Next Step at St. Supéry

The author and Michaela Rodeno

The author with Michaela Rodeno at her Oakville estate.

After rising to the position of Vice-President of Marketing at Domaine Chandon, the Skalli family tapped Michaela Rodeno in 1988 to be the first CEO of their new start-up in Rutherford, St. Supéry. The very first female CEO in Napa Valley, Rodeno would build another winery from scratch during a period of explosive growth in Napa.

In her 20+ yr tenure as CEO, Rodeno help developed the winery’s vineyards in Rutherford and Pope Valley. A little unusual for Napa, St. Supéry focused heavily on Sauvignon blanc as a means of distinguishing itself from its numerous neighbors. She also made education a key component of the consumer experience St. Supéry–introducing things like ampelography master classes, sensory tastings and blending events featuring all five red Bordeaux varieties.

Rodeno’s efforts help grow St. Supéry into a 150,000 cases-per-year estate winery that was recognized by Wine & Spirits magazine as their Winery of the Year. Rodeno retired in 2009 to focus on her family’s estate winery in Oakville, Villa Ragazzi.

Sangiovese in the Heart of Cab Country

Photo by Anthonysthwd - Own work, Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0

The Pope Valley in the eastern part of Napa Valley.

Inspired by a visit with Piero Antinori in Tuscany, the Rodenos started Villa Ragazzi in 1985, planting a small vineyard in the sandy soils of the Pope Valley. Their planting of Sangiovese is believed to be the first commercial planting of Sangiovese in Napa Valley. The budwood came from an old Sonoma vineyard of mixed varieties that a family friend of the Rodenos introduced them to.

Villa Ragazzi’s wine quickly distinguished itself from other domestic examples of Sangiovese with Jeff Cox describing it in his book, Cellaring Wine, as the “…one notable example [in California] that has the stuffing and structure of an Italian wine.”

At the last State Dinner hosted by the Obamas, the 2012 Villa Ragazzi Sangiovese was served at the event honoring the Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, and his wife.

In 1998, phylloxera attacked the Pope Valley vineyard. The Rodenos were able to save some of the original budwood and commenced a long replanting program. They sold the Pope Valley vineyard (under the condition that they could still source fruit from there) in 2010 to focus on their Oakville estate plantings of Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon.

The Rodeno Clone

Photo taken by of Sangiovese cluster. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under the user name Agne27.

A large-berried Sangiovese cluster from a Chianti clone grown in Washington State. These vines generally produce a higher output than the small-berried and low-yielding Rodeno clone.

The Sangiovese in the Pope Valley and estate vineyard in Oakville adapted to its terroir, developing distinct characteristics. It is now recognized as its own clone with budwood being propagated by UC-Davis.

Among the unique characteristics of the Rodeno clone is its natural propensity for low yields of small clusters with tiny berries. Most vintages, the harvest is around 1 to 2 tons an acre with a typical output being about 50 to 75 cases. Usually winemakers expect 1 to 2 tons of grapes to produce around 63 to 126 cases.

Over the years, other winemakers and wineries have experimented with the Rodeno (also spelled Rodino) clone including Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon, Silverado Vineyards at their Soda Creek Ranch vineyard, Araujo, Long Meadow Ranch, Krupp Brothers, Fess Parker, Foxen and Gargiulo Vineyard.

Villa Ragazzi’s Oakville Estate

Villa Ragazzi’s 22 acres of sustainably farmed grapes is in an envious spot in Oakville. Just east of Opus One, their next-door neighbors are Groth and Saddleback. A stone’s throw away is the vines of Swanson, Flora Springs and O’Shaughnessy.

Coming full circle from the Rodenos’ original inspiration, Villa Ragazzi’s wines are made at Piero Antinori’s Atlas Peak property, Antica.

Villa Ragazzi rosé of Sangiovese.

You don’t see many rosés made from Oakville fruit. But this one is worth every penny.

The current winemaker is the legendary Robert Pepi who follows an excellent list of predecessors including Charles Thomas (Opus One, Cardinale, Rudd, Lokoya), Celia Welch (Scarecrow, Staglin, Corra), Nate Weiss (Antica, Silver Oak) and Melissa Apter (Antica, Metzker).

The Wines

Note: These wines were received as samples.

2018 Rosato di Sangiovese, Oakville (47 cases made) Suggested Retail $28

High-intensity nose. Fresh strawberries and red floral notes with a little blood orange citrus aromatics.

On the palate, the strawberries and blood orange notes carry through with mouthwatering medium-plus acidity. Bone-dry with medium body fruit. Very well-balanced given its low 11.4% alcohol. The moderate finish lingers on the strawberries but also introduces a subtle floral herbal note like rosemary. Very scrumptious and the best rosé that I’ve had so far this year.

2014 Sangiovese, Napa Valley (195 cases) Suggested Retail $42

Medium intensity nose. A mix of red fruits (cherries and cranberries) with savory herbal and spice notes.

On the palate, the high acidity amplifies the red fruit and defines the herbs and spice as being clove and thyme. The full-bodied weight is more significant than what I usually associate with Tuscan Sangiovese, but the balance of acidity keeps it from being jammy. Medium-plus tannins have a velvet edge that contributes to the balance. The long finish is mouthwatering with the fruit and adds some pepper spice. Would go exceptionally well with a lot of different food dishes.

2014 Faraona, Napa Valley (55 cases) Suggested Retail $54. A blend of 75% Sangiovese and 25% Cabernet Sauvignon

Medium-plus intensity nose. Lots of dark fruits–black currants and black plums. Moderate oak notes like vanilla and cedar. Overall this smells very Cab-like.

On the palate, those full-bodied Cab-dominant fruits carry through, but a little cherry emerges. Firm, high tannins give this wine a lot of grip and, with the medium-plus acidity, suggest that it has a fair amount of aging still ahead. Long finish plays up the Cab notes with some tobacco joining the black fruits.

2015 Faraona, Napa Valley (42 cases) Suggested Retail $54. A blend of 90% Sangiovese and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon

Medium-plus intensity nose. Much more red fruit character than the 2014 Faraona–cherries and red plums. A subtle smokiness adds a savory element to the herbal notes–like roasted thyme and rosemary.

On the palate, the youthful red fruit take center stage. Medium-plus acidity and ripe, medium-plus tannins hold the full-bodied weight of the fruit very well. Some oak flavors of vanilla and allspice emerge but are less pronounced than the 2014. Moderate finish is lip-smacking with savory herbs returning — definitely my favorite of the two vintages of Faraona.

The Verdict

Villa Ragazzi super tuscan Faraona.

While the 2015 Faraona had a lot of character now, this wine is only going to get more complex and layered with age.

In many ways, Villa Ragazzi feels like an “Insider’s Wine” that actually attainable in price. With their minuscule production of fewer than 300 cases a year, so few people will get a chance to try these wines. Even less get a chance to try these wines at their peak.

Some of that scarcity does play into the pricing. In the US, it is easy to walk into any decent wine shop and find tons of Italian Sangiovese and Super Tuscan blends for less. But let’s put this into context.

It wouldn’t be fair to compare Villa Ragazzi’s wines to massed produced Chiantis like Ruffino’s Ducale Oro ($41 with 32,500 cases made) or Gabbiano Chianti Classico Riserva ($22 with 13,900 cases made).

A fairer comparison would be wines made in a more age-worthy style like Isole e Olena’s Cepparello ($90 with 3700 cases made), Felsina’s Fontalloro ($65 with 2500 cases made), Tenuta Sette Ponti’s Crognolo ($40 with 7500 cases made) and Terrabianca’s Campaccio ($36 with 8000 cases made).

Some of these wines are less in price than Villa Ragazzi’s Sangiovese and Faraona. However, none of these come close to such a tiny production. You are also not finding them coming from Napa’s pricey terroir. With their prime Oakville real estate, the Rodenos could turn their entire property over to Cabernet Sauvignon that would certainly fetch much higher prices–especially for a 300 case micro-cuvee.

The fact that they don’t is a testament to Michaela Rodeno’s long history of forging her own path.

The Rodenos could have taken the easy way, selling their land or cranking out more $100+ Napa Cabs. Instead, they followed their passions to innovate and do something different.

It’s that same passion that leads so many people, like my wife, to leave the comforts of a cozy job to dive headfirst into the uncertain, but exciting, world of start-ups. It is also the passion that makes the best stories in wine.

As well as in life.

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Cali Quick Takes — Winery Signage

I’m wrapping up my Northern California jaunt with a lovely 4-hour flight delay at SFO. But, all in all, the trip was extremely productive. I was able to gather lots of inspiration for future posts that I’ll be publishing over the next couple of months.

Tasting room sign

You can get a sneak peek at some of the places I’ve visited and topic ideas that I’m mulling over on the SpitBucket Instagram page.

I had several objectives on this trip–researching the Stags Leap District for a special project, indulging my wife’s sparkling wine obsession, checking out the CellarPass winery reservation system and figuring out how California’s prestige wine regions plan to reach Millennial consumers.

When it comes to the latter, the jury is still out. But I can tell you one thing, many wineries certainly won’t be helped by their signage.

I Can’t Drive (Or Read Your Sign) 55!

Photo by Weatherman90 Matt Becker. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-3.0

I seriously can’t believe that Sammy is 71.

And, at 71, Sammy Hagar probably can’t read them either–at whatever speed he’s driving nowadays.

It was really surprising how many winery signs along the major roadways in Napa and Sonoma had tiny print for their tasting hours and whether or not they were by appointment.

Sometimes even the name of the winery itself was hard to read because they decided to mimic the cursive font on their label. Very elegant when you’re slowly pulling into their entrance but completely useless when you’re whizzing past on California 12 in Carneros at 55 mph (or 65 mph as the numerous cars that passed me were going).

Now it’s not that bad when you have a passenger with a smartphone that can Google to see what winery we just passed and if it’s worth turning around to visit.

But that’s not good either.

Photo by Fietsbel. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Not elegant but effective–especially at 55 mph.

At several of the wineries I visited, I chatted with my fellow guests to see where they were going next. The most common reply I heard from wine drinkers of all generations was:

“Oh, we’re just going to drive around and see what jumps out.”

Do you think the winery signs with hard to read cursive fonts and tiny print “jump out” to many of these drinkers?

I truly wonder how many winery owners have gotten into their cars and drove past their signs at the maximum (and “realistic”) speeds to see how readable they are.

This is particularly critical for small wineries that don’t necessarily have people looking for them. They really need to capitalize on those wine drinkers who are just driving around and looking for a place to visit.

It’s worth sacrificing a little bit of elegance to gain functionality.

And that is the point of a winery sign, isn’t it? To be functional and to help people find you.

A good sign doesn’t have to look like a highway sign but taking a look at their standards is not a bad idea.

At the bare minimum, the name of the winery should be crystal clear as well as the tasting hours and if appointments are required or not. And this needs to be readable at roadway speeds.

Because most consumers aren’t going to pull over or ask a passenger to whip out their smartphone to see if a winery is worth turning back for.

They’re just going to keep on driving, looking for something to “jump out”.

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Cali Quick Takes — A tale of two approaches

I’m in Napa and Sonoma for the next few days–away from the comforts of my books and desktop that usually fuel my posts.

domaine carneros menu

But a visit to Domaine Carneros and dinner with a bottle of Joel Peterson’s Once and Future Mataro gave a great contrast in two wineries’ marketing approach that I want to chime in on.

Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah

At Domaine Carneros, I greatly appreciated that they were able to squeeze us in without an appointment. They sat us in a dining area with a menu of tasting option, glass pours and small bites.

My wife went for the bubbles flight (of course) while I had a glass pour of their prestige cuvee, the 2013 Le Rêve. The attendant was helpful enough, explaining briefly the grape varieties in each cuvee and the aging. He did stumble a bit in the sweetness scale–describing demi-sec as “half-sweet” and telling us that if we ever see a bottle labeled as sec that it would be “twice as sweet” as a demi-sec. (Yeah, no.)

But I wasn’t in the mood to be that person so I let him finish his spiel before going off to tend to other guests.

It was then that we noticed how utterly useless the tasting mat that came with my wife’s flight was.

Domaine Carneros tasting mat

#ChateauStyle gobbly gook

Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah

What use is this? I guess I should have had a pen and paper ready to take notes when the attendant was dropping off the wine.

There is not one shred of useful information on this tasting mat. Just marketing blurbs telling me what they think I’m drinking instead of details about what I’m actually drinking.

It would have been extremely helpful to have some worthwhile information about the wines as we compared and contrast. Grape varieties? Vineyard source? Blend percentages? Dosage? Farming style? Bueller?

It really felt more like pandering than anything else. And it was world’s apart to the back label of the 2016 Once and Future Mataro from the Oakley Road Vineyard in Contra Costa.

Can this be the “Once and Future” for all wine labels, pretty please?

Once and Future label

Well done Joel Peterson, well done.

The only thing missing is farming practices. But I absolutely love this approach. Here is a back label that doesn’t take the intelligence or curiosity of its customers for granted.

Yeah, there is a lot of info here that many folks won’t care about. It takes a certain type of geek to get excited about 8×8 head pruning. But it is all hidden away on the back of the bottle to where it is there if you want it and out of the way if you don’t.

And it is far and away better than pandering, marketing gobbly gook telling you to taste “refreshing aromas of lemon zest, grapefruit, golden hay and a floral note reminiscent of the delicate grape flower.”

Oh please.

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60 Second Wine Review — Smith-Madrone Riesling

A few quick thoughts on the 2015 Smith-Madrone Riesling from the Spring Mountain District of Napa Valley. Note: This wine was received as a sample.

The Geekery

Smith Madrone Riesling

When Stu and Charlie Smith bought 200 acres on the top of Spring Mountain in 1970, the area was so densely covered with Douglas Firs, poison oak and Madrones that they needed a logging permit to clear the land.

However, Stu Smith’s belief that the best grapes come from the hillsides encouraged him to plant in this area that still had remnants of old grapevine stakes from the 1880s.

Today, the Smiths focus on estate-grown fruit that is dry-farmed on their 200-acre ranch. In 2015, Smith-Madrone produced 685 cases of the Riesling.

The Wine

Photo by Runghold. Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

The stony flint notes adds some intriguing Old World elegance to this Riesling.

High-intensity nose. Green apple and apricot. Very fresh smelling. As the wine warms, petrol also shows up adding more complexity.

On the palate, the same high-intensity of the nose carries through with very vivid and intense green apple and apricot. The high, mouthwatering acidity also highlights some lime as well as a stony flint note that reminds me more of a Sancerre than a Riesling. Dry with medium body weight. Long-finish brings back the petrol but it’s not as intense as the fruit.

The Verdict

This is an outstanding Riesling that I’m disappointed that it took me this long to discover.

At $30-35, this is on the high-end for American Rieslings. But I’m not pulling your leg when I’m saying that this is, hands down, the best domestic Riesling that I’ve tried. I’m spoiled with a lot of great Washington State Rieslings but this tops them. I would put this Smith-Madrone more on par with minerally Trocken Rieslings from Germany.

However, the last Riesling that impressed this much was the Alsatian Cuvée Frédéric Emile from Trimbach (WS Ave $59). While a different style, this Smith-Madrone is not that far off in quality and is certainly worth the splurge. If you can find it, grab it.

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No, There’s Not an App For That — Winery Visit Rant

For a follow up to this post, check out Adapt or Perish — The Wine Industry’s Reckoning With Technology

As part of the visa application process for my upcoming move, I need to head down to San Francisco at the end of this month for an appointment at the French Consulate. Since we’re already paying for a flight, the wife and I figured that we might as well extend the trip to spend a couple of days in Napa and Sonoma.

Photo by Yoni13132. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Appointment slots at many wineries (particularly in Napa) are usually very limited. Often you want to book them at least a month in advance. This typically requires a back and forth email exchange or (gasp) phone call with whatever wineries you want to visit.

I know with the short notice that I’m going to be out of luck at many places. But I don’t like the idea of doing an email fishing expedition with 30 some odd wineries just to see which ones might still have an opening. Picking up a telephone to call is out of the question. I am a Millennial after all.

There has to be a better way.

There has to be an app for this.

Silicon Valley is right next door to the most visited wine regions in the country. Wine drinkers tend to be fairly tech-savvy people and, god knows, how many wineries have been purchased/founded by tech millionaires. Plus, the technology already exists with services like Open Table which makes it easy to search and book on your phone reservations at restaurants nearly anywhere in the world.

Surely, someone has come up with an Open Table-like app for booking winery visits. It is 2019 after all!

Right?!?!

I go to the App Store and search for “Winery Reservations.” I get an ad for Sonic Drive-In and listing for something called Tock for restaurant reservations.

Hmm, alright. Let’s search for “Winery Appointments.” Nope. Just an ad for Vagaro Pro (which I totally misread at first) to schedule salon appointments.

Let’s see, maybe “Winery Visits”? I knew this was going to bring up a lot of results for regional wine apps. Some of these can be helpful with listings of tasting rooms that are nearby and hours. But they all tend to be localized and don’t offer the appointment booking feature I’m looking for.

So I did what any whiney Millennial would do. I whined on social media.

But hey, it worked as Ryan Moore, the VP of Consumer Sales at Ridge Vineyards, came to my rescue.

Alright, I got a lead.

I start checking out the two sites and quickly hit a big ole pothole with Vino Visit.

The initial landing page looked good. However, as soon as you start to search for anything, you get the spinning lag wheel of death with phantom search results. I open up my phone browser and get the same issue with the results page never fully loading.

I double checked the app store to see if there was a mobile app (which is ultimately what I want) and no luck.

Vino Visit screen shot

Sorry Vino Visit, you’re dead to me.

Then I went over to CellarPass (great name, BTW) where I at least found a mostly-functioning website.

CellarPass – close but not quite

I’m going to try CellarPass out for my Napa trip. But playing around its website, I see a lot of missing features and poor design. Again, I was hoping to find something along the Open Table model for functionality and intuitive user interface.

I’ll highlight some areas where I think the CellarPass team can improve. If any of their folks ever read this, my consulting fee is simply a better app to use. 🙂

First, when you go to the landing page and select a region like Napa Valley you get brought to their main search page. Immediately, you see something missing.

Cellar Pass screen shot

Where’s the calendar option?

A calendar. Why is there not a calendar function? Right off the bat, I should be able to narrow down my options to what wineries actually have appointments available on the days that I’m visiting.

The whole reason why I was searching for an Open Table-like app was that I knew that there was going to be a lot of wineries that were already booked up. I don’t want to start clicking on wineries, going to their page, searching for my dates, only to find that I’m wasting my time. This offers little benefit over the “old fashion way” of emailing dozens of wineries and waiting for the reply or rejection.

Sigh. Okay, let’s see what I can search by.

CellarPass gives you the option of searching by varietal. My wife loves bubbles so let’s look at the sparkling wine producers.

CellarPass sparkling wine search

Or not. Or maybe? I don’t know, did it even take my search query?

My page reloaded, so I assumed something happened. It looks like I got a listing of wineries that may have sparkling wines. This is definitely a poor interface with not including the newly added search term up top.

However, I was suspicious why well-known Napa producers like Schramsberg weren’t listed. Neither was Mumm Napa, Domaine Chandon or Domaine Carneros. That gives me reasons to doubt the usefulness of this site. They have pages for all them (like Schramsberg below) though without any reservation link or hours available for tasting. But these pages weren’t included in my search results for Napa Valley sparkling wine producers.

Schramsberg listing

At least include a link to their website.

I’m guessing this is because of “pay to play” with the wineries that do show up in the search being ones that pay CellarPass for their spot. I get that and understand that tech companies need to make money. But come on. Even if the winery is not paying for their reservation link to go through you, they should still be included in a search result. Maybe they get pushed to end of the listings. Fine. But you already have pages created for them. It’s pretty ridiculous not to use them in the results.

Unfortunately, this was not my only search folly. On the sidebar, they give you the option to search by experience and notable features. They provide a lot of great choices that would be almost perfect for a visitor to tailor their experience to exactly what they want.

Almost perfect.

Notable features and experience

It looks like these features are pulled from the winery page that CellarPass has created. Now I’m not a tech person, but it seems like their site should know how many wineries pages they have listed as “Family Friendly,” “Electric Vehicle Charging,” “Food & Wine,” etc. Why not have the number of wineries tagged noted in parenthesis next to each option?

That’s worthwhile information that can help with planning a trip. If there was only something like eight options under “Ghost Winery,” that’s pretty doable to visit in a couple of days. Maybe I change my plans and do a “Ghost Wineries of Napa Tour.” Or if there are only 3 or 4 wineries listed as “pet-friendly” maybe I need to rethink bringing Fluffy along.

Another issue is that you can only search based on one feature or one experience at a time.

What if I want to visit a family-owned, pet-friendly, sustainable winery that does blind tastings?

Well tough luck because apparently that winery doesn’t exist–at least according to CellarPass. Not only can you not add multiple search parameters but even when I search for each of those individually I come up empty.

Cellar Pass screen shot search of blind tasting

Another “pay to play” issue?

However, this may be a technical issue with cookies or caching or whatever. As I said, I’m not a tech person so I don’t know. But I became curious when the very next search I did for “Calistoga” also came up empty. I had to close the webpage and come back before I was able to get results of wineries in Calistoga.

It’s possible that as I was checking to see what was available under each option that it kept adding to my search parameters without telling me that it was. But who knows? Again, poor interface and something that you would think a tester would have uncovered.

What About Tasting Fees?

Another thing that is sorely missing is the ability to search based on the cost of tastings. Fees can easily span the gamut with many wineries offering different experiences at various price points. A search feature based on min/max tasting fees should be front and center (along with the calendar function).

Along those same lines, wineries that offer complimentary tastings (which is become exceedingly rare) should be highlighted.

I suspect this entry for Consentino Winery, which notes that it has complimentary tastings, was written by the winery itself (it’s one of the few listings in all caps). But CellarPass should use a yellow star, green check mark or something to highlight these wineries because this is the type of info that folks (like broke Millennials) want to know about.

Consentino listing

The listing of hours as well as links to social media is a great touch,though.

Finally, WHY IS THERE NOT A MOBILE APP!?!?!

CellarPass mobile screenshot

Is this for wineries? Is this for users? Who knows?

Or maybe there is. I don’t know. When I went back to the app store and searched for CellarPass there is something listed as in development and then a “guest link” app. I downloaded the guest link app where I was greeted by a request for a Member ID, Username and Password.

Clicking the “Learn More” takes you to their support portal where you are asked to log in with an email address and password.

So…is this even something I’m supposed to use? Not intuitive in the slightest.

I went back to the CellarPass website where I saw a tab to “Join CellarPass”.  Clicking that gives you a pop up where you could sign up for a personal or business account. I click on the personal option where I’m sent to an account creation page. I input my details like email and select a password. Then…

I get an error message.

Lovely.

So, yeah, I have no idea what is going on here.

As I mentioned above, I’m going to try and book a few appointments online with CellarPass through my desktop. We’ll see how these go and I’ll write a follow up to this post when I return.

But I’m still stunned that while there are apps to alert you when it’s the best time to get up and pee, so you don’t miss anything good in a movie, that no one has come up a decent app for booking winery visits and appointments.

Come on Silicon Valley! We need to get our drink on!

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Millennial Math — Where’s the value in wine?

A few days ago I wrote about the “Boredom Factor” that is sapping Millennials’ enthusiasm for wine. But engaging Millennials with things that are new, interesting and authentic is only part of the battle. The industry also needs to reframe the discussion about value and pricing.

Photo by Ecole polytechnique Université Paris-Saclay. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.0

Let’s face it, wine delivers horrible “bang for the buck”–especially compared to other alcoholic beverages. This is true at all price points, but particularly at the low-end (and ironically titled) “value wine” segment.

For smaller boutique wineries, worrying about “value wine” might not seem like a big deal. But the issues impacting the top shelf take root on the bottom.

If you want to know why $100+ bottles of Napa Cab are in danger, head to your local grocery store and look around.

Millennial Math in the Grocery Store

I’ll get to our boutique and more premium wine brands below. But let’s start with a cash-strapped Millennial who want to spend less than $10 for something to drink. You could go to the wine aisle and find stuff like this.

Yellow Tail and other under $10 wines

Then there are other options as well–like Barefoot, Arbor Mist, Cooks, Andre’s and more. At this one grocery store, I estimated that around 40% of their wine selection was sub $10. So, diversity, yeah?

But they all fall into the same “sameness” of sweet, simple or boring Cabs, Chards and Red Blends. Sure, you have the occasional gimmick of things like the “living labels” of Treasury Wine Estates’ 19 Crimes. However, after the novelty of a cute label wears off, it’s still the same boring juice in the bottle.

Now right next to the wine department in many stores is a beer department which has likely been greatly expanded thanks to the craft beer boom.

Let’s see what under $10 options our Millennial shopper has there.

22 oz Beer bomber singles

These are 22 oz “bomber” sizes of beer which is only a tad smaller than the standard 750ml (25.4 oz) bottle of wine. In this one Albertsons grocery store, I counted over 80 different SKUs of at least 20 different styles of beer among under $10 bombers. And this was a rather small grocery selection for the Seattle-area market.

If you think of beer styles (Belgian Tripel, New England IPA, Oatmeal Stout, etc.) like grape varieties, the beer department has the wine industry smoked when it comes to answering the “Boredom Factor.”

Even among the same style (like IPA), you are far more likely to find distinct personalities and differences (hoppiness) among various brews than you ever would dream of finding among under $10 Cabs, Chards and Red Blends.

I have a fair amount of industry folks who read this blog so I’m going to ask you to step back and take off your “wine hat” for a moment. If you were a young post-college Millennial shopper with no personal connection (like having visited a winery) or long-term relationship with drinking wine, what would you spend your $10 on?

Are we just waiting for better times?

Yeah, things suck right now for the broke 20-something Millennial. But can we really predict their future buying potential based on the habits of their 20s?

It’s true that most Millennials have not entered their peak earning ages. Likewise, most have not reached the ages when previous generations started embracing wine.

Jason Haas, of Tablas Creek, makes that later point particularly well as he points out some of the silver linings amidst the gloom and doom assessments about Millennials.

The median age of a Millennial is 30, but the Millennials at the peak of the demographic bubble are just 24. Were many Baby Boomers drinking wine at age 30, let alone 24? No. How about GenX? Not much. Millennials are drinking more wine than preceding generations were at the same age, which should be a positive enough trend. — Jason Haas, Are the gloomy messages about the state of the wine industry warranted? I say not for wineries like us. 2/4/2019

I concede Haas’ point and appreciate his optimism. I’ve certainly not hidden my affection or admiration for Tablas Creek’s business acumen. Though Haas is a “proud Gen Xer,” he pretty much runs Tablas Creek like a Millennial with a brand that embraces transparency, authenticity and sustainability along with pushing the envelope for new and exciting wines.

Without a doubt, if more wineries followed Tablas Creek’s example, the Boredom Factor would almost be a non-issue.

But what I fret that Haas’ optimism overlooks is the habits and perceptions that are being ingrained into Millennial consumers right now. Haas’ generation (and the Boomers) had the benefit of a promising economic outlook before them–where there was the potential for growth in earnings and career development.

That is a luxury that many Millennials don’t have and this is something that we are all too aware of. Even if things get a little bit better into our late 30s and 40s, it’s going to be very difficult to shake the mindset and spending habits of our formative 20s and early 30s.

Valuing “Value”

While things are not as bad as they were during the Great Depression, social scientists and economists are already drawing parallels to the spending habits and mindset of Millennials with those of the Silent Generation born between 1925-1945.

Even though the Silent Generation benefited from the post-war boom, many kept the spending habits imprinted on them during the hardship of the Great Depression. Prominent among those retained habits was the idea of stretching your dollar–even when you had more dollars to stretch.

Millennials certainly like to be entertained. We want experiences and to feel connected. And we avoid boredom like the plague.

But we deeply value “value.”

The $15-25 Sweet Spot

Let’s go back to the grocery store and look at the more premium $15-25 “sweet spot” range of wine pricing–with emphasis on the sweet.

Meiomi & 7 deadly with cheaper spirits

Usually, Meiomi is not over $25 so, for the sake of argument, I’m including it here.

When you get up to the higher price points, wine’s competition is not just beer (with many interesting six and twelve packs available in this price range) but also spirits as well. But spirits adds another dimension because they’re far less perishable and the servings are much smaller.

With wine and beer, you ideally want to enjoy it the same day that it was opened. But a comparably priced spirit can last weeks or even months.

Now I can hear wine folks scoffing at the idea of Captain Morgan or Deep Eddy taking away throat share from anyone older than 23. Yeah, I get it. The “Fireball crowd” eventually grows up. But for those folks who lose the sweet tooth and want something with more complexity, the spirits department still offers numerous options–especially among whiskeys.

Plus, because of how long a bottle of whiskey last, a Millennial could even stretch their $25 drinking budget to $40 and still get some very compelling value.

Old Forester and Woodford reserve

Personally not a fan of the Redneck Riviera but I’d take it over Meiomi any day of the week.

Granted, you have to sometimes deal with the inconvenience of getting the product out of lockup. Also, in some states (like Washington) there are crazy high liquor taxes to account for too.

However, this is all part of the sum-value Millennial Math that we deal with on every trip to the store. What the wine industry needs to concern itself with is how all these figures are adding up.

Banking on Premium Spenders

I want to embrace the optimism that as Millennials feel financially secure, they will turn to wine and start spending in the premium category. That means not only a strong wine industry but also a strong economy overall.

But I can’t shake the feeling that even if Millennials have more money to spend, that they’re not going to be impressed with the value they see in high-end wines. This is something that I’ve personally experienced myself. I’m very fortunate in my financial situation to where I can occasionally splurge on bottles like Opus One, Silver Oak, Cristal and Petrus.

You know what? I’d rather drink Pappy.

I feel this way even though I’m a highly-engaged wine drinker with a personal connection to wine. I’ve been bitten hard by the bug and have a healthy cellar to show for it.

But if you ask me for my brutally honest choice of whether to spend another $2600-4000 on a bottle of Petrus or something like the 1981 Glenmorangie Pride, I would choose the Glenmorangie every time.

And this is coming from someone that keeps a picture of Petrus as their background banner on Facebook!

However, when I step back and let my Millennial nature take over–when I think about the sum-value of what I’m getting compared to what I’m paying–whiskey beats out wine.

If that’s the case with someone like me, then how do you think the math is playing out with my co-horts?

The Petruses of the World are not the ones that need to worry.

Petrus is not going to have problems selling their wine. Even if Millennials aren’t spending at levels of past generations, wineries like Petrus make so little at such high prices that they only need a few folks to bite the bullet each vintage. There is always going to be enough people like me who shell out thousands to attend our Super Bowl–even if it ends up being a 13-3 snorefest.

The real hurt is going to be felt by all the wineries making NFL regular-season and playoff-type wines. They’re the ones that are going to have to convince Millennials that their wines are worth the price of the ticket.

Let’s go back and look at our supermarket shelf at some of the $50-100 options.
$50 to 100 wine vs spirits

That is an excellent price on the Grgich. The only thing that kept me from pulling the trigger was wondering how long it had been standing upright under the supermarket’s harsh lights.

Again, why spend $50-100 for something that needs to be enjoyed mostly in one night (unless you spend another $200+ for a preservation system like the Coravin) over something you could stretch for months?

Wine’s saving grace has been that only a small segment of drinkers have developed a taste for brown spirits like whiskey, tequila and rum. But those categories are growing–especially among Millennials and women.

If the boredom factor doesn’t kill off the $100+ Napa Cab, brown spirits certainly will.

But it all starts back in the beginning, with the spending habits and perception of value that Millennials are developing now with their under $10 and $15-25 options. Here is where wineries are losing the battle before the war even begins.

Yeah, Millennials wanderlust is great and can definitely help wineries that are offering different and exciting wines. But that same wanderlust also fuels our openness in trying other beverages like craft beer and brown liquors. The more we try them, the more those other options become players in the “sum-value” game of Millennial Math.

And, right now, that math is seriously working against the wine industry.

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60 Second Wine Review — Wallis Family Little Sister Cabernet Sauvignon

A few quick thoughts on the 2011 Wallis Family Little Sister Cabernet Sauvignon from the Diamond Mountain District of Napa.

The Geekery
Wallis Family Little Sister Cabernet Sauvignon

Edward Wallis first purchased 85 acres on top of Diamond Mountain back in 1975. The property included two buildings on the National Register of Historic Places–a 19th-century carriage house designed by architect William H. Corlett and a stone castle built in 1906 by Frenchmen Jacques Pacheteau.

In 1997, the Wallis’ planted 13 acres with plans of selling grapes to wineries like Lokoya and Ramey. By 2006, they were producing wine from their estate fruit.

Since 2008, Thomas Rivers Brown has been making the Wallis Family’s wines. Brown began his career in 1997 at Turley before moving on to cult producers Schrader and Maybach. In addition to making his Rivers-Marie wines, Brown consults for 45 clients in the Napa Valley including Vermeil, Revana, Round Pond and Outpost.

The 2011 vintage of Little Sister is 99% Cabernet Sauvignon with 1% Petit Verdot. The wine was aged 18 months in 80% new French oak barrels with only 650 cases made.

The Wine

Photo by Fir0002. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

The juicy plums are quite fresh in this 2011 Cab.

Medium-plus intensity nose. A mix of red and black fruit–cherries and plums. Pop and pour, just the fruit shows up. But after 2 hours decanting, cured tobacco and spicy fennel emerge.

The fruit carries through on the palate and tastes fresh with medium-plus acidity. However, the palate brings out more oak than what the nose revealed. Creamy vanilla, allspice and clove become even more pronounced as the wine decants. The firm, high tannins also soften with the added time–balancing the full-bodied fruit. Moderate finish lingers on the fennel and oak spice.

The Verdict

The 2011 vintage in California has been hit or miss for me. Some wines, like the 2011 Stag’s Leap Fay have had way too much pyrazines for my taste. But there have been others that I’ve enjoyed.

This 2011 Wallis Little Sister falls into the enjoy camp, holding its own for $70-80. It definitely benefits from decanting, but it seems to have escaped the green monster of 2011.

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Nathan Fay’s Leap of Faith

Over the next several months I will be working on a research project about the stories and wines of the Stags Leap District. In 2019, this Napa Valley region will be celebrating the 30th anniversary of its establishment as an American Viticultural Area. So in between my regular features and reviews, you can expect a fair sprinkling of Stags Leap geekiness.

Stags Leap Fay bottle

My review of the 2011 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Fay Vineyard is down below.

Today the wines of the Stags Leap District are part of the robe that drapes Napa Valley in prestige and renown. However, originally that wasn’t the case. As the sleepy valley shook off the dust from decades of Prohibition and ambivalence, this little pocket in the shadow of the Vacas was dismissed as too cold for Cabernet Sauvignon.

While ambitions were growing up-valley in places like Oakville and Rutherford, the Stags Leap District was known for cattle and prunes. It took a single wine, from three-year-old vines, to shake the world into casting its gaze on this three-mile long “valley within a valley.”

But before anyone had reason to give the Stags Leap District a look, Nathan Fay took a leap.

The Origins of Fay Vineyard

A native of Visalia in the San Joaquin Valley, Nathan Fay moved to Napa in 1951. He purchased 205 acres in 1953 that was once part of the Parker homestead dating back to the 1880s. The land included several acres of prune trees that were a popular planting in the valley.

But following World War II, the fortunes of the Napa prune industry was on the decline. As William Heintz noted in his work California’s Napa Valley: One Hundred Sixty Years of Wine Making, Napa prunes were facing stiff competition from large-scale producers in the Sacramento Valley. Not only was the production bigger, but so were the prunes. Their size, Heintz shared, made them look more appealing in supermarket cellophane bags than their less plump Napa cousins.

Photo by Kduck94558. Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

The Stags Leap Palisades frame the east side of its namesake district and profoundly influences the terroir.

Then Napa’s most lucrative export market for prunes, the United Kingdom, shriveled as cheaper options from Hungary became available. Faced with these prospects, Fay sought the advice of the University of California-Davis. They encouraged him to switch to viticulture.

But the experts at Davis cautioned Fay against planting “warm weather grapes” like Cabernet Sauvignon, noting the chilly maritime winds that funneled up through the Stags Leap District in the late afternoon.

They didn’t take into consideration the influence of the Stags Leap Palisades. Fay had noticed, how during the heat of the day, these hills of volcanic rock would absorb the sun’s warmth. In the evening, after the wind had passed, they would radiate it back to the land. Fay also knew that the famous region of Bordeaux, well known for Cabernet, had its own maritime influences to deal with.

A Hunch and Some Hope

Conversations with the Mondavi brothers of Charles Krug gave Nathan Fay a hunch that there was a market for Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. In 1961, he took the plunge, planting the first sizable acreage of Cabernet south of Oakville. When those 15 acres of vines came of age, the Mondavis were his first customers with Joe Heitz of Heitz Cellars soon following. Then came George Vierra of Vichon, Frances Mahoney of Carneros Creek and others looking to buy Fay grapes.

By 1967, Fay was expanding his plantings, moving from the deep alluvial soils on the west side of his property to the shallow volcanic soils closer to the Palisades. With the help of his friend, Father Tom Turnbull, Fay planted 30 additional acres of Cabernet Sauvignon.

The Wine That Started It All?

Photo by Bob McClenahan. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Warren Winiarski in 2015, many years after his fateful meeting with Nathan Fay.

While the 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars gets the glory of winning the Judgement of Paris, in many ways that bottle was the moon reflecting the light of a 1968 Cabernet Sauvignon made by Nathan Fay. It was the pull of this wine, made from Fay’s vines, that changed the gravitation of Warren Winiarski’s career–and perhaps that of the entire Napa Valley.

George Taber describes Winiarski’s 1969 visit with Fay in his book Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine. Winiarski had finished the first two vintages as the inaugural winemaker of Robert Mondavi Winery and was looking to start his own operation.

He had planted a few acres up on Howell Mountain but found that his Cabernet Sauvignon buds were not taking to their grafts due to insufficient water in the soils. Winiarski was intrigued by irrigation techniques that Nathan Fay was experimenting with on his property. So he went down the Silverado Trail to pay him a visit.

While the two gentlemen discussed farming, Fay took Winiarski to a small building across from his house along Chase Creek where he kept barrels of his homemade wine. While Fay sold most of his grapes, he saved enough to make a few cases each year.

Tasting this young and roughly made wine, Winiarski found the aromatics and texture to be unlike anything else he had tried in Napa. The experience impacted him so dearly that when the land next to Fay’s vineyard, the 50 acre Heid Ranch, went up for sale the following year, Winiarski sold his Howell Mountain property and purchased the site.

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and the Fay Vineyard

Photo by Jim G from Silicon Valley, CA, USA. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Entrance towards the winery and tasting room of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.

The wine that beat some of the best of Bordeaux was not made from Fay grapes. The fruit for that 1973 bottling came from the young vines next door where the two sites shared the same deep alluvial soils. Most of the Cabernet buds Winiarski used for the new vineyard were from Fay’s vines with a few from Martha’s Vineyard in Oakville as well.

In 1986, Nathan Fay was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Wanting to scale back, he negotiated a sale for most of his vineyard to Winiarski. By 1990, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars was producing a vineyard-designated Fay Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. Fay passed away in 2001 with Winiarski acquiring the rest of this fabled vineyard from Fay’s heirs in 2002.

In 2007, Winiarski sold Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and its vineyards to a partnership of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and the Antinori family. He agreed to stay as a consultant through the 2010 vintage and winemaker Nicki Pruss remained through 2013. That year, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates brought Marcus Notaro down from Col Solare in Washington State to take over the winemaking.

Since 2006, Kirk Grace, the son of legendary Napa cult wine producers Dick and Ann Grace of Grace Family Vineyards, has been the vineyard manager. During his tenure, Fay and Stag’s Leap Vineyard have converted to sustainable viticulture, earning Napa Green certification in 2010.

A Stable of Wines
close up of fay label

Since Winiarski’s retirement, bottles of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars wines no longer feature his signature above the establishment date.
They do, however, note his 1976 triumph in Paris.

The Fay Vineyard is one of four Cabernet Sauvignon bottlings that Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars produces. Kelli White notes in Napa Valley Then & Now that, along with Cask 23 and S.L.V., Fay is always 100% Cabernet Sauvignon and estate-grown fruit. The entry-level Artemis is made from mostly purchased fruit and will often include Merlot and some Malbec.

Both Fay and S.L.V. will see around 20 months aging in 100% new French oak. The Cask 23, which is a blend from the two vineyards, will have 21 months in 90% new French oak. The Artemis is usually aged for 18 months in a mixture of American and French oak barrels with only about a quarter new. While the winery typically makes these wines every year, the quality of the 2011 vintage led them not to release a Cask 23.

Review of the 2011 Fay Cabernet Sauvignon

Medium intensity. Noticeable pyrazines right off the bat. Green bell pepper that overwhelmingly dominates the bouquet. Tossing it in the decanter for splash aeration allows some tobacco spice to come out, but it’s green uncured tobacco. Fighting through the greenness finally brings up a mix of red cherry, currant and a faint floral note that isn’t very defined.

On the palate, the green bell pepper, unfortunately, carries through but the medium-plus acidity adds more lift to the red fruit flavors. It also highlights the oak spice of cinnamon and allspice. Medium-plus tannins are soft with the velvety texture you associate with a Stags Leap District wine. They balance well with the medium-bodied fruit. Moderate finish still lingers on the green with the uncured tobacco hitting the final note.

The Verdict

Photo by JMK (JohnManuel). Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-2.5

Folks that are less sensitive to pyrazines might not mind this 2011 Fay. But for me, getting past the green bell pepper was a tall order

It would be incredibly unfair to harshly judge the terroir of the Fay Vineyard and winemaking of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars based on a 2011 wine. While there were some gems from that troublesome vintage (Chappellet, Paradigm, Barnett Vineyards, Corison, Moone-Tsai and Frank Family being a few that I’ve enjoyed), you can’t sugarcoat the challenges of 2011. The cold, wet vintage made ripening a struggle. Come harvest time many wineries had to be aggressive in the vineyard and sorting table to avoid botrytis.

While I applaud Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars for realizing that this vintage didn’t merit producing their $250-300 Cask 23, it’s hard to say that it warranted making a $100-130 Fay Vineyard either. I’m not a fan of dismissing vintages wholesale but 2011 is a year that you have to be careful with.  Great vineyards and winery reputation (or glowing wine reviews) won’t spare you from striking out on expensive bottles.

If you’re going to seek out a Fay Vineyard Cabernet, there is a charm in finding some of the Warren Winiarski vintages from 2009 and earlier. But I would also be optimistic about the more recent releases from the new winemaking team as well. While they might be different in style compared to the Winiarski wines, better quality vintages will be far more likely to deliver pleasure that merits their prices.

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Geek Notes — New Wine Books for January

I’ve spent the last few days doing my civic obligation of jury duty, so I haven’t been able to post as much. Then, of course, there has been travel and the holidays. But as 2018 crawls to an end, I’ve found time to explore a few intriguing new titles.

Photo by Nonnoant. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Grapes drying to produce the Lombardy DOCG wine of Moscato di Scanzo.

Now I know that at the start of the year, some folks like to dabble with “Drynuary.”  Advocates view it as an opportunity to “dry out” after the bacchanal of the holidays. I’ve never been a participant, but I respect those who give it a go. After all, they do say “absence makes the heart grow fonder.”

However, I tend to favor the English author Thomas Fuller’s spin on that phrase.

“Absence sharpens love; presence strengthens it.”

So even if you’re cutting back on wine to start the year, you can still resolve to strengthen your geekiness in 2019 with some fun wine books.

Into Italian Wine, Fourth Edition by Jack and Geralyn Brostrom. (Released in paperback Dec 24, 2018)

I was shocked to see the updated (226 pages) study guide for the Italian Wine Professional (IWP) course available for purchase by itself. Usually, you have to sign up for the course to get your hands on this text. Of course, that includes online/classroom study and exams. The price and timing will vary depending on the provider. For example, the Napa Valley Wine Academy is offering an 8-week online course for $795.

screen shot on chablis from WSG Burgundy course.

A screenshot from the Wine Scholar Guild’s Burgundy Master Level course conducted by Don Kinnan.

The benefits of taking these types of specialist courses (there is also the Wine Scholar Guild that offers many certifications) is mixed. I’ve taken a few of the WSG offerings (Bordeaux & Burgundy) and learned a lot. I’ve founded them to be well-designed and highly immersive. For someone that wants to dive deep into a topic (and are okay with the cost), they’re well worth it.

But for industry professionals looking to buff up a resume? I’m more skeptical. Especially compared to credentials like the Wine & Spirit Education Trust and Court of Master Sommeliers, I don’t think these certifications hold much “sway.” If you’re going to spend upwards of $1000 for something that will pay dividends on a resume, you are far better off looking at things like the Level 2 Certified Sommelier Examination and the WSET Level 2 or even Level 3 Advance.

The Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) and Certified Wine Educator (CWE) from the Society of Wine Educators can offer some resume benefits. But as a CSW, I can tell you that I’ve gotten far more credibility and job prospects from my WSET certifications. My winemaking and wine marketing & sales certificates from the Northwest Wine Academy have also helped but those cost me a bit more than $1000.

However, I don’t want to discount the value of the knowledge you can get from these courses.
Map provided by Benanti Winery. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Sicily is becoming one of the hottest wine regions in the world with wines from the Etna DOC, in particular, gaining attention. It probably won’t be long before this area gets promoted to a DOCG.
Wine students are well served becoming familiar with these wines.

As I noted above, there is a lot of good stuff here. That is why picking up essentially the textbook for the IWP at $49 is appealing.

I borrowed a copy of the 3rd Edition from a friend who paid for the full course. I was super impressed with how in-depth it covered nearly all of the 74 DOCG and most of the 300+ DOCs of Italy, including many of the intricacies of their various wine laws and regulations.

It’s far more scholarly than many wine books covering Italy. The closest would be the slightly outdated Vino Italiano: The Regional Wines of Italy (2005) by Joseph Bastianich and David Lynch. But even though the later has over 544 pages, I found that the IWP study guide included more precise details about the wine laws for many of the DOC/Gs.

The Cultivation Of The Native Grape, And Manufacture Of American Wines by George Husmann. (Released on paperback Dec. 18, 2018)

This historical encyclopedia of native American and hybrid grape varieties is 188 pages of pure geeky candy. Candy that I was super excited to see available for less than $7! It’s also a book that has a soft spot in this Missouri girl’s heart.

George Husmann was a 19th-century viticulturist who is considered the “Father of the Missouri Grape Industry.” Many people don’t realize how vibrant the Missouri wine industry was before Prohibition.

German settlers were reminded of their homeland when they stumbled upon the Missouri Rhineland in the 1830s. They planted vines in what eventually became the American Viticultural Areas of Hermann and Augusta. More than a century later, Augusta would beat out Napa Valley for the distinction of being the very first AVA created.

Photo by W.C. Persons. Released on Wikimedia Commons under PD-Art (PD-1923)

The American Wine Company of St. Louis was also a significant wine producer up until World War II. They created Cook’s Imperial sparkling wine before the brand moved to California after Prohibition.
Here workers in 1916 are bottling and corking wines at the Cass Avenue winery.

After Missouri entomologist Charles V. Riley discovered phylloxera as the cause of the epidemic that was devasting wine regions across Europe, it was rootstock cuttings of Missouri vines that helped saved the European wine industry.

By the start of the 20th century, Missouri was the second largest grape producer in the country–second only to California. Stone Hill Winery in Missouri, founded in 1847, was the 3rd largest winery in the world. Each year it would produce more than a million gallons of wine.

For folks who want to geek out more, the first volume of Thomas Pinney’s History of Wine in America (especially chapter 7) gives great insight into the long forgotten glory days and impact of the Missouri wine industry.

A Time Capsule of Geekiness
Photo by Don Kasak. Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-2.0

The native Norton grape, member of the Vitis aestivalis family, has long been an important grape of the Missouri wine industry.

Husmann’s 1866 The Cultivation Of The Native Grape is a time capsule about what the world of American wine was like in the mid-19th century. Many modern sources of American wine history (like Pinney) frequently cite this and other Husmann works such as The Muscadine Grapes, An Article on Pest Resistant Vines and Grape Investigations in the Vinifera Regions of the United States in their bibliographies.

Wine students don’t necessarily need to read these historical books to pass exams. But they do color in the portrait of American wine history in ways that many modern wine books can’t match. However, I don’t suggest paying a premium for these old books. But when you find them on the cheap, take a flier and broaden your perspective.

Dancing Somm: Life of the Napa and Sonoma Wine Sherpa by Sandrew Montgomery. (Released on paperback Dec. 16, 2018)

Sandrew Montgomery is a long time Napa fixture. He has worked at or been intimately involved with many of the region’s most iconic wineries. These include Far Niente, Chateau Montelena, Shafer, Caymus, Dominus and Opus One among many others. He’s also spent a significant time of his career in Sonoma. Here he has worked with legendary figures like Merry Edwards, Mike Benziger, Jeff Kunde, Sam Sebastiani and Jess Jackson.

Dancing Somm is a memoir of his long career and the developments he’s seen in the two valleys. As a wine historian and educator, he’s had a front row seat to many changes and events.

Compared to the scholarly and journalistic approach taken by James Conway in Far Side Of Eden and Napa at Last Light, I expect Montgomery’s memoir to offer a more personal and joie de vivre perspective. It’s another angle wine students can use to understand Napa and Sonoma’s remarkable growth over the last 40 years.

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