Category Archives: Napa Valley

60 Second Wine Review — Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs

A few quick thoughts on the 2014 Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs sparkling wine from California.

The Geekery

Schramsberg blanc de blancs sparkling wine

Schramsberg began in 1965 when Jack and Jamie Davies, inspired by a long lunch with legendary vintner Martin Ray, bought the derelict winery, house and caves of 18th century German immigrant Jacob Schram on Diamond Mountain.

The Davies wanted to distinguish themselves from other Napa wineries and focused on sparkling wines. At the time, only Korbel in Sonoma and Kornell in Napa were making sparklers. Instead of using Champagne varieties, these other wineries were using grapes like Thompson Seedless, Colombard and Chenin blanc.

Their first release was a 100% Chardonnay 1965 Blancs de Blanc. James Conway notes in his book Napa: The Story of an American Eden that the Davies got the grapes for their sparkler by purchasing Riesling from Jerome Draper on Spring Mountain and then trading with the Mondavis of Charles Krug for Chardonnay.

In 1972, President Richard Nixon shared the 1969 Blanc de Blancs with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai for the historic “Toast to Peace” between the two countries during Nixon’s famous trip to China.

The Chardonnay for the 2014 vintage was sourced primarily from Napa (66%) with 31% from Sonoma and 3% from vineyards in Marin County. Primary fermentation was done in barrel with full malolactic. The wine was then aged over 2 years on the lees before being bottled with a 9.5 g/l dosage. Around 34,850 cases were made.

The Wine

Photo by Kimberly Vardeman. Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-2.0

The racy citrus notes, pastry dough and baking spices remind me of key lime pie.

Medium intensity nose. Reminds me of key lime pie with the mix of citrus, pastry and baking spices.

On the palate, the key limes carry through and are amplified by the medium-plus acidity. Moderate mousse holds the lively acidity and crispness. The pastry and baking notes become more muted and fade quickly with the finish.

The Verdict

At $30-35, this an enjoyable sparkler but admittedly doesn’t wow me for the price.

It’s well made but there is not much that sets it apart from sparklers under $20.

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Two Great Videos About the Stags Leap District

I’m currently working on a research project about the Stags Leap District in Napa Valley. Despite the region’s fame, I’ve discovered that there aren’t many resources covering the Stags Leap District as its own entity. Virtually every wine book groups the AVA within the patchwork quilt of the greater Napa Valley with maybe a couple pages, at most, dedicated to it.

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

A vineyard shadowed by the basaltic palisades in the Stags Leap District of Napa Valley.

Which is a shame. As you peek under the covers and explore this dynamic wine region, it’s almost impossible not to see how distinctive this area and its wines really are.

Over the next couple months, I will be writing several posts about the Stags Leap District and sharing more of my research. But, for now, I want to highlight two great videos on YouTube that are worth watching.

An Introduction to the Stags Leap District’s Terroir

This short (1:19) video features winemaker Michael Beaulac of Pine Ridge Vineyards. He gives some great insights about the uniqueness of the Stags Leap District’s soils. This is important because the Stags Leap District was the first AVA in Napa to be designated based on the distinctiveness of its soils.

Beaulac highlights the importance of the Stags Leap Palisades in influencing the climate of the AVA. You also get a nice view of these rocky, basaltic outcrops of the Vacas in the video as well.

The Very Interesting History of How The Stags Leap District Became an AVA

Next year will be the 30th anniversary of the establishment of the Stags Leap District AVA. And, whoa nelly, was it a journey to make that happen!

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

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars is today one of the flagship wineries of the Stags Leap District. But during the AVA’s creation, they were one of its fiercest opponents.

No one knows that story better than Richard Mendelson, the attorney who was driving force behind the AVA petition. This video is a bit longer (40:24) but Mendelson gives tremendous background on the process that started in the early 1980s and didn’t come to fruition till 1989. And he definitely covers the challenges and drama over the name! However, I was most fascinated by the struggle that went into delineating the boundaries of the AVA. In some ways, it seems like “wind” played more of a deciding factor than soils.

I also highly recommend Mendelson’s book Appellation Napa Valley. This covers not only the Stags Leap battle but also the work that went into the establishment of all the other major AVAs of Napa.

Mendelson, who also worked on the petitions of the Rutherford, Oakville and Paso Robles AVAs as well as the failed Rutherford & Oakville Benches applications, is a well known expert of wine law. So if you want to get super geeky, you can check out his more technical books Wine in America: Law and Policy and From Demon to Darling: A Legal History of Wine in America.

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Geek Notes — Top Audiobooks on California Wine History

Every month I have a Geek Notes feature on upcoming wine books that I’m excited about. A subscriber that is visually impaired once shared to me how he unfortunately can’t enjoy those features as much since his printed book reading days are past him. That gave me the idea to look into what is available in audio formats.

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

While I haven’t done many audiobooks myself, my wife has long been a fan of them for her work commutes. And really, when you think about it, aren’t audiobooks just very long podcasts?

With that, let’s take a look at my top 5 picks for audiobooks about California wine history available on Audible.

Gallo Be Thy Name: The Inside Story of How One Family Rose to Dominate the U.S. Wine Market by Jerome Tuccille with Grainger Hines narrating.

First published in 2009, Tuccille’s work documents the family history of Ernest & Julio Gallo and how they turned a small post-prohibition winery into a global empire. I’m honestly shocked that the Gallos’ story hasn’t been turned into a Netflix miniseries. There is tons of drama here–not the least of which is the possible murder-suicide committed by Ernest & Julio’s father, Joe Gallo, with their mother Susie.

But beyond the drama and family intrigue is a thoroughly engrossing case study in wine business–especially in the American market. While it is very easy to poo poo Gallo wines today, there is no denying their continued success.  Savvy business acumen that responded to changing dynamics in consumers’ tastes drove that success.

Ernest & Julio had almost an intuitive sense about what Americans wanted to drink and they delivered it. That savvy is still on display by their descendants who continue to grow the Gallo empire with new acquisitions and expansions.

A Man and His Mountain: The Everyman Who Created Kendall-Jackson and Became America’s Greatest Wine Entrepreneur by Edward Humes with Mel Foster narrating.

I have not read this one yet but I can see this being similar to Tuccille’s work, absent the murder intrigue and family drama. For wine students wanting to understand the American market, you need to understand the figures who have had their finger prints all over it.

Like Ernest & Julio, Jess Jackson built an empire. But his start was world’s apart from the Gallos. A lawyer by training, Jackson purchased a pear and walnut farm in Lake County in 1974 to give him a change of pace as a gentleman farmer. He planted some vines which he sold to wineries like Fetzer. When Fetzer unexpectedly cancelled a large order on him one vintage, Jackson decided to make wine from the grapes himself. This was the birth of the Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay that has gone on to be a 3 million+ case behemoth.

The background of the author, Edward Humes, also jumped out to me. Following a long career as an investigative journalist, he’s written several highly acclaimed books covering a broad spectrum of topics such as Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash, Force of Nature: The Unlikely Story of Wal-Mart’s Green Revolution and Mississippi Mud: Southern Justice and the Dixie Mafia. This is not the typical resume of a wine book writer which, for me, adds a lot of intrigue to this book.

Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine by George M. Taber with Sean Runnette narrating.
Image a derivative collage put together by self as User:Agne27 on Wikimedia Commons. Originally image details available here https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Producers_from_Judgement_of_Paris_wine_tasting.jpg

Some of the wineries that participated at the famous 1976 Judgement of Paris wine tasting event.

Taber’s 2005 book has long been a favorite of mine. While I haven’t dived into them yet, his other wine books are high on my “to read” list.

To Cork or Not To Cork: Tradition, Romance, Science, and the Battle for the Wine Bottle

A Toast to Bargain Wines: How Innovators, Iconoclasts, and Winemaking Revolutionaries Are Changing the Way the World Drinks

In Search of Bacchus: Wanderings in the Wonderful World of Wine Tourism

It’s hard to know where the American wine industry would be today if the 1976 Paris tasting didn’t happen, or if Taber wasn’t there for Time magazine to report back. Robert Mondavi was still actively promoting American wines but did the 1976 tasting help spark his joint venture with Baron Philippe Rothschild that became Opus One?

The Baron’s 1970 Château Mouton-Rothschild was one of the French wines that unexpectedly lost in the blind tasting to an upstart from California (in this case, Warren Winiarski’s Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars). Coming only three years after Rothschild’s dogged petitioning finally got his Second Growth estate elevated up to First Growth, it’s fascinating to wonder how those dominoes fell to lead him to invest so heavily into California.

Now Taber’s book doesn’t really go off into that kind of speculation and tangent. But he does provide some great background details about the California wineries that took part (Stag’s Leap, Ridge, Heitz, Clos du Val, Mayacamas, Freemark Abbey, Ch. Montelena, Chalone, Spring Mountain Vineyards, Veedercrest and David Bruce) as well as the general state of the California wine industry at the time. Most importantly he provides context to an event that undoubtedly was a pivotal moment in not only Californian, but also American, wine history.

The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty by Julia Flynn Siler with Alan Sklar narrating.
Photo by scottsdale9. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Robert Mondavi with author Pat Montandon in 1981 at the Premier Napa Valley Auction.

Speaking of Robert Mondavi, his story and family drama would also make a very interest Netflix series. It’s still jaw dropping to think about how fast the forced sale and corporate takeover of the Mondavi Winery by Constellation Brands happened back in 2004.

Even though the empire’s collapse was rapid, there were smoldering cinders burning long before the ruble. While they never came to blows like Robert and his brother Peter famously once did, the infighting among Robert’s children–Tim, Michael and Marcia–played just as much of a role in shaping the Mondavi family narrative.

Siler’s work touches on all that as well as the family’s early history dating back to Cesare Mondavi’s arrival in the US from his native Italy. But the major focus of the book is the charismatic force of Robert Mondavi. Like the Gallos, Jess Jackson and Martin Ray, it’s hard to see the American wine industry being what it is today without his legacy.

Napa: The Story of an American Eden by James Conaway with John Morgan narrating.

This book is part of a series that Conway has written about the history and potential future of Napa Valley. The other two books are The Far Side Of Eden (2003) and Napa at Last Light: America’s Eden in an Age of Calamity (2018) with The Far Side of Eden not yet available in audio format.

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

A black-crowned night heron fishing in the Napa watershed. Concern for the habitat of this bird and other animals fueled support for Napa Prop C. which aimed to curb vineyard development in the hills of the valley that feed into the watershed.

I just started reading the hard copy version of this book. I was inspired to pick it up after listening to Levi Dalton’s interview with James Conway on episode 446 of his I’ll Drink To That! podcast.

Prior to his great interview with Dalton, Conway was already on my radar after reading his very biting essay for The Atlantic from March of this year titled “Rich People Are Ruining Wine”. A lot of this was happening during the political battle surrounding Napa’s Prop C ballot measure that aimed to limit vineyard development on hillsides that would have impacted the watershed of the Napa river.

Following a lot of heated debate from both sides, the measure ultimately lost in this June’s election–49.1% to 50.9%. Listening to Conway’s interview with Dalton and reading the first few chapters of this book, it seems that the war over Prop C was just another chapter in the endless story of the battle for the soul of Napa.

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Getting Geeky with Lang & Reed Chenin blanc

This post was inspired by Outwines’ Noelle Harman’s great post on the Loire and South African Chenins made by the husband-wife team of Vincent & Tania Carême. That post and her reviews are well worth a look along with her super geeky and super useful study outline on the Chenin blanc grape (part of a continuing series she does).

With this still being California Wine Month, I’m going to add my advocacy for the overlooked and underappreciated Chenin by highlighting Lang & Reed’s 2015 example from Napa Valley.

The Background

Lang & Reed was founded in 1995 by Tracey & John Skupny. After previous stints at Caymus, Clos Du Val and Niebaum-Coppola, John and his wife Tracey (previously of Spottswoode) wanted to work with their favorite grape varieties from the Loire Valley–Cabernet Franc and Chenin blanc.

Named after their children, Reed & Jerzy Lang, Lang & Reed Wine Company work with fruit primarily from the Anderson Valley of Mendocino and Napa Valley.

The 2015 Chenin blanc is sourced 100% from the cooler Oak Knoll District of the Napa Valley from a vineyard near the Napa River. The grapes were whole cluster pressed with the wine fermented in a combination of stainless steel tanks and French oak barrels. The Chenin was then transferred completely to barrel where it was aged 4 months with weekly batonnage stirring of the lees. Around 185 cases were produced.

The Grape

Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz note in Wine Grapes that the first mention of Chenin blanc, under the synonym Plant d’Anjou, dates back to 1496 in the Loire Valley. Here the wine was grown at Chateau Chenonceau owned by Thomas Bohier. It is believed that Bohier then propogated the variety which eventually took on the name Chenin from Chenonceau.

Photo by Simon Bonaventure. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.0

Chenin blanc grapes with botrytis growing in Saint Cyr en Bourg in the Anjou-Saumur region of the Loire Valley.

The name “Chenin” itself first appears in François Rabelais’ 1534 work Gargantua. A native of Touraine, Rabelais describes both a Chenin wine and a Vin Pineau with Gros Pineau being a common synonym of Chenin blanc in Touraine for many centuries.

It is possible that the name Chenin came from the monastery of Montchenin in Touraine. Another theory is that the name is derived from the French word chien, meaning dog, and could refer to the affinity of dogs to eat the the grapes off the vine.

Recent DNA analysis has shown a parent-offspring relationship between Savagnin and Chenin blanc with Savagnin being the likely parent. This would make Chenin blanc a half or full sibling of Sauvignon blanc, Petit Manseng, Gros Manseng, Grüner Veltliner, Verdelho, Siegerrebe and the Trousseau varieties.

Through its relationship with Sauvignon blanc, Chenin is then an aunt/uncle of Cabernet Sauvignon.

At some point, Chenin blanc naturally crossed with Gouais blanc (mother vine of Chardonnay) to produce several varieties like Colombard, Meslier-Saint-François and Balzac.

In South Africa, the grape was crossed with Trebbiano Toscano/Ugni blanc to produce Chenel.

Chenin Blanc Today

Photo by 	JPS68. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Chenin blanc is also grown in the French colony of Réunion off the coast of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. Here is a harvest of Chenin blanc grapes in the town of Cilaos.

From a high point of 16,594 ha (41,005 acres) of vines in 1958, plantings of Chenin blanc in France have sharply declined over the years to just 9,828 ha (24,286 acres) in 2008–representing around 1.2% of France’s vineyards.

It is mostly found in the Anjou-Touraine region of the Loire Valley where it is used in the sparkling wines of Cremant de Loire and Vouvray. Also in Vouvray it can be used to produce dry to demi-sec still wines while in the AOC of Bonnezeaux, Montlouis and Quarts de Chaume it is used exclusively for late harvest sweet examples that may have some botrytis influence. In Savennières it is used exclusively for minerally dry wines with notable ageability.

Outside of the Loire it can also be found in the Languedoc where it can make up to 40% of the blend for Cremant de Limoux with Mauzac blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot noir.

Chenin blanc has been historically known as “Steen” in South Africa where it has accounted for as much as a third of all white wine produced in the country. By 2008 there were 18,852 ha (46,584 acres) of the vine representing 18.6% of all South African plantings. It is grown throughout South Africa but is more widely found in Paarl, Malmesbury and Olifants River. In recent years the variety has seen a renaissance of high quality production by producers in the Swartland and Stellenbosch.

From an area so blessed to produce Cabernet Sauvignon, the Chappellet Molly’s Cuvee Chenin blanc from Pritchard Hill is jaw-droppingly good.


In California there is 4,790 acres of Chenin blanc planted throughout the state as of 2017–nearly 2/3 of the acreage that was in production in 2010 (7,223 acres). Notable plantings can be found in the Clarksburg AVA in Sacramento, Solano and Yolo counties, Chappellet Vineyard on Pritchard Hill in Napa, Santa Maria Valley, Lodi, Paso Robles, Alexander Valley and Mendocino County.

Like California, Washington State has also seen a notable drop in plantings of Chenin blanc in recent years going from 600 acres in 1993 to just 67 acres by 2017.

The Wine

High intensity nose–yellow peach and white flowers. There is also some honeycomb and fresh straw notes that come out more as the wine warms in the glass.

On the palate the peach notes come through and adds a spiced pear element. There is noticeable texture and weight on the mouthfeel but I would still place the body as just medium. Medium-plus acidity adds a mouthwatering element and a little saline minerality as well. Long finish still carries the fruit but brings back some of the straw notes from the nose.

The Verdict

The 2015 Lang & Reed Chenin blanc from Napa Valley is, hands down, one of the most delicious domestic Chenin blancs that I’ve had the opportunity to try–second only to Chappellet’s example. While not quite Savennières level, at $25-30 it still delivers plenty of complexity that outshines many California Chardonnays and other white wines in that price range.

At nearly 3 years, it is still quite youthful and I can see this wine continuing to give pleasure for at least another 3-4 years.

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60 Second Wine Review — Amici Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon

A few quick thoughts on the 2013 Amici Cabernet Sauvignon from Spring Mountain.

The Geekery

Amici Cellars was founded in 1991 by Jeff Hansen who named the winery “Amici” after the Italian word for friends.

Hansen eventually sold the winery to Bob & Celia Shepard and John Harris who remain the owners today and have expanded Amici from being a “virtual winery” produced in a custom-crush facility to an established winery with the purchase of Greg Brown’s T Vine Wines facility in 2012.

In 2010 Joel Aiken, a protege of André Tchelistcheff who spent 25 years making the BV Georges de Latour, joined Amici where he stayed until 2015 when he was succeeded by Anthony Biagi as winemaker.

Biagi, who oversaw the final blend and bottling of the 2013 wines, previously worked at Clos du Val, Duckhorn, Paraduxx, Plumpjack, Cade and Hourglass before joining the Amici team.

The 2013 Spring Mountain is 90% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Cabernet Franc that spent 22 months aging in 80% new French oak. Around 260 cases were made.

The Wine

Photo by feiern1. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-Zero

Lots of rich dark fruits in this Cab.

High intensity nose–lots of rich dark fruits of blackberry, black currants and black plums. After 30 minutes of air, blue floral and Asian spice notes with fennel and savory oolong tea begin to emerge.

On the palate the richness and weight of the dark fruit still dominate–giving the wine a very weighty, full-bodied mouthfeel. Medium-plus acidity goes a long way in balancing the wine and keeping the fruit tasting fresh and juicy without straying into jammy or sweet. The high tannins are very ripe but very present which suggests that this wine has a long life ahead of it still. The long finish brings back the Asian spice and savory tea components from the nose.

The Verdict

I first had this 2013 two years ago and, even though it was delicious then, it has come quite a ways.

Still quite youthful this wine more than merits it $125-150 price tag as a top shelf Napa Cab that combines hedonism with complexity.

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60 Second Wine Review — Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon

A few quick thoughts on the 2007 Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley.

The Geekery

Beringer was founded in 1876 by Jacob and Frederick Beringer in St. Helena next to the Charles Krug Winery where Jacob worked as a cellar-hand.

In 1970, Beringer was bought by the Swiss firm Nestle who brought Myron Nightingale in to be winemaker. Nightingale introduced the Private Reserve line of Cabernet Sauvignon & Chardonnay in 1976 before sliding into the emeritus role with the promotion of Ed Sbragia in 1984. Sbragia served as head winemaker until 2000–when Laurie Hooks took over–before retiring as emeritus in 2008 to focus on his Sbragia Family Vineyards.

In 2015, Hooks moved to the emeritus role as Mark Beringer, the great-great-grandson of Jacob Beringer, assumed chief winemaking duties.

Today Beringer is owned by Treasury Wine Estates where it is part of a large portfolio of brands.

The 2007 Private Reserve is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from several vineyards–Bancroft Ranch, Rancho del Oso and Steinhauer Ranch on Howell Mountain, Chabot Vineyard and Home Vineyard in St. Helena, Lampyridae on Mt. Veeder and Marston Ranch on Spring Mountain. Around 9,008 cases were produced.

The Wine

Medium-plus intensity nose. Very Bordeaux-like mix of tobacco spice, earthy forest floor and floral notes.

Photo by Rennett Stowe. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Savory forest floor earthiness adds interest to this wine.


On the palate, dark fruits of black cherry and currant appear but the flavors are still very tertiary-driven. Medium-plus acidity maintains freshness and with the soft medium-plus tannins balances the medium-plus bodied fruit. Long finish lingers on the savory notes.

The Verdict

I’ve been rather underwhelmed with more recent vintages of the Private Reserve–especially the highly rated 2012/2013. If those wines were $60-90 they would be fine but they definitely failed to live up to the hype. Tasting this 2007 with 10+ years of age has me thinking that this is a wine that simply needs patience.

If you’re going to spend $130-150 for a new vintage, I definitely encourage holding onto it in order to get your money’s worth. Otherwise, try to find this 2007.

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60 Second Wine Review — Patz & Hall Hyde Vineyard Pinot noir

A few quick thoughts on the 2014 Patz & Hall Pinot noir from the Hyde Vineyard in Carneros.

The Geekery

Patz & Hall Winery was founded in 1988 by Donald & Heather Patz, James Hall and Anne Moses. Donald & James first met when both were working at Flora Springs Winery where James was the assistant winemaker and Donald was the national sales manager.

In 2016, Patz & Hall was sold to Ste. Michelle Wine Estates which is the winemaking subsidary of the tobacco firm Altria Group (formerly Philip Morris Companies Inc.)–makers of Marlboro, Virginia Slims and the smokeless tobacco chews Copenhagen and Skoal.

In addition to Patz & Hall, Ste. Michelle/Altria also own Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars (with the Antinori family), Conn Creek, Columbia Crest, Erath, 14 Hands and Spring Valley Vineyards.

The Hyde Vineyard is located on the Napa Valley side of Carneros and was first planted in 1979. Patz & Hall has been producing a single vineyard Pinot from Hyde since 1996 using fruit from two of the oldest blocks in the vineyard.

In 2014, around 1,056 cases of the Hyde Pinot was made.

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

The red cranberry fruit on the nose give way to dark fruit flavors on the palate.


The Wine

Medium intensity nose–a mix of red and dark fruits with cranberry and cherry. Noticeable baking spices of cinnamon and clove.

On the palate, the dark fruit edges out the red with the cherry becoming blacker and the vanilla from the oak giving the wine medium-plus body weight to go with the firm medium tannins. The medium-plus acidity keeps the wine balanced and the fruit juicy while highlighting some subtle earthiness. The moderate-length finish brings back the baking spices.

The Verdict

While this is an enjoyable Pinot I have to admit that it is a stretch to say that it’s worth the $65-75 premium.

Perhaps it’s too young and will develop into something more? The pedigree of the vineyard and winemaking is certainly there but right now I would be a lot happier if this wine was more in the $35-45 range.

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60 Second Wine Review — Sheridan Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

A few quick thoughts on the 2013 Sheridan Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.

The Geekery

Scott and Karen Greer founded Sheridan Vineyards in 1996 in the Yakima Valley of Washington State. From the first vintage release in 2000, Sheridan has received much critical acclaim–being described as one of the rising stars in Washington.

In 2012, the Greers ventured into Napa Valley to produce a Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from the Wilsey Vineyard in Rutherford.

Located in the northwest quadrant of the appellation next to the Beckstoeffer-Melrose vineyard and near Emmolo’s Home Ranch and Whitehall Lane’s Bommarito vineyards, the Wilsey Vineyard was purchased in 1974 by the late Gary Wilsey.

According to Richard Mendelson in his book Appellation Napa Valley, Wilsey and his wife Lanetta, along with Agustin Huneeus of Franciscan Estate, Steve Girard of Girard Winery, Dennis Groth of Groth Vineyards, Jean Phillips of Screaming Eagle and the Duncan family of Silver Oak were part of the “Anti-Benchers” faction that opposed the delineation (and even existence) of a “Rutherford Bench”.

The Wine

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

Right now the rich dark fruits and secondary oak dominates but this wine is not far from developing even more interesting tertiary flavors.

Medium-plus intensity nose–ripe dark fruit flavors of black plums and blackberry. Noticeable oak baking spices of clove and nutmeg as well.

On the palate those rich dark fruit flavors carry through contributing to the full-bodied weight of the wine.  The mouthwatering medium-plus acidity balances the fruit well. The high tannins are very present but very ripe and smoothed by the vanilla from the oak. The long finish is still fruit-forward but starts to linger with spice and just a hint of smokey tobacco.

The Verdict

It feels like this Napa Cab is certainly on the cusp of hitting its prime. It just needs the baby fat of ripe fruit and oak to give way to more complex notes.

This wine is drinking well within its $100-130 Napa peers. However, its structure and acidity has the potential to deliver much more.

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Getting Geeky with Stony Hill Chardonnay

The First of September kicks off California Wine Month and while I won’t steer this blog as much towards a California-centric bent as I did with Washington Wine Month (hometown bias, y’all), I will be highlighting California wines throughout the month in various posts and my 60 Second Wine Reviews.

However, I also have posts in the pipeline that you can expect to see soon for a new edition of Keeping up with the Joneses in Burgundy as well as a wrap up of my ongoing series on the 2017 Bordeaux Futures campaign (had to give my wallet a bit of a break). Later this month I’m teaching a class on Italian wine so you can be sure to expect a sprinkling of Mambo Italiano here and there.

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But let’s turn the focus back to California beginning with the most memorable California wine that I’ve had in the past year–the 2008 Stony Hill Chardonnay.

I had the privilege of trying this 2008 Stony Hill Chardonnay courtesy of a dear friend who brought this wine over for dinner this past Thanksgiving. That night featured a lot of heavy hitters including a 2004 Nicolas Joly Coulée de Serrant, a 2006 Philipponnat Grand Blanc Brut, a 2006 Hospice de Beaune Volnay Premier Cru Cuvée Blondeau, 2012 Domaine de la Vougeraie Vougeot 1er Cru “Le Clos Blanc de Vougeot” Monopole, 2007 Copain Gary’s Syrah from the Santa Lucia Highlands and a 2010 Sichel Sauternes but this Napa Chardonnay was my run-away wine of the night.

The Background

Stony Hill Vineyard was founded in 1948 when Fred and Eleanor McCrea, inspired by their love for white Burgundy, planted their first 6 acres of Chardonnay along with some Riesling and Pinot blanc on the old Timothy Feeley homestead located on Spring Mountain. Charles Sullivan notes in Napa Wine: A History from Mission Days to Present that the McCreas sourced the budwood for their Chardonnay from the Wente family in the Livermore Valley.

Photo by 	StonyHill at en.wikipedia. Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-3.0

The winery doors to Stony Hill Vineyard.


The first vintage followed in 1952 and, by 1954, Stony Hill’s small production was being completely allocated through mailing list. According to Thomas Pinney, in his A History of Wine in America, by 1990 someone wishing to get their hands on Stony Hill wine had to wait at least 4 years on a waiting list for the privilege.

In 1972, Mike Chelini joined Fred McCrea as winemaker, assuming the job full-time on Fred’s passing in 1977. By 2011, Chelini, along with Bill Sorenson of Burgess, was one of the longest tenured winemakers in Napa Valley with the upcoming 2018 vintage being Chelini’s 45th harvest.

During this period Stony Hill developed a reputation for producing some of Napa’s most ageworthy Chardonnays with a lean, acid driven style that bucked the trend of buttery, malo-laden Chardonnays that were adorned in lavish new oak.

In his New California Wine, Matt Kramer describes Stony Hill Chardonnay as “… the essence of what California Chardonnay can be: pure, free of oakiness, filled with savor, and yet somehow unpretentious. It is rewarding, even exciting drinking–if you can find it.”

The task of finding Stony Hill has always been tough with the winery’s tiny 5000 case production but also because of the economics and realities of the wine business in the 21st century. Even when Stony Hill’s mailing list shrank, allowing more wine to be available on the retail market, the McCreas found that many large distributors which control the three-tier system didn’t care to pay attention to a small family winery–even one with such a stout pedigree.

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

Stony Hill Vineyards on Spring Mountain


Plus the counter fashion style of Stony Hill’s wines, which often requires patience and cellaring, as well as the “too cheap for Napa” pricing put the McCrea family in a position where they were looking to sell and in late August 2018 it was announced that Stony Hill Vineyard was being sold to the Hall Family of neighboring Long Meadow Ranch.

Long Meadow Ranch

In my recent post Tracking the Tastemakers which examined Wine Enthusiast’s “Top 40 Under 40 Tastemakers for 2018” I expressed my admiration for the wines of Long Meadow Ranch that are now headed by COO Chris Hall.

Long Meadow Ranch has been one of my favorite Napa estates for a while. Such an under the radar gem with a great winemaking pedigree that began with the legendary Cathy Corison and now features Ashley Heisey (previously of Far Niente and Opus One), Stéphane Vivier (previously of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti’s owners’ California project–Hyde de Villaine) and Justin Carr (previously of Cakebread, Rudd and Hourglass). — Tracking the Tastemakers (August 30th, 2018)

The view from Long Meadow Ranch’s Mayacamas Estate overlooking Rutherford.


Above and beyond Long Meadow Ranch’s fantastic wines and winemaking pedigree is the Hall family’s deep seated commitment to the environment and sustainability. Pam Strayer of Organic Wines Uncorked has a terrific write up on how Long Meadow Ranch is showing how a winery in Napa can thrive with an organic business model.

Founded in 1989 with their Mayacamas Estate, the Halls now tend to over 2000 acres of vineyards and agriculture lands that includes olive trees, fruit orchards, vegetable gardens and even cattle that supplies ingredients for their farm-to-table restaurant, Farmstead.

The Wine

High intensity nose–an intoxicating mix of grilled pears and peaches with a little bit of white pepper spice. A very savory nose.

Photo by Jerry012320. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

On the palate, the white pepper spice from the nose seems to morph into a stony minerality like river stones.


On the palate those grilled fruits come through. Even though they are couched with some subtle smokiness, the fact that the fruit is still present and distinctive is impressive for an 8 yr+ domestic Chardonnay. That is surely helped by the medium-plus acidity which holds up the medium weight of the fruit and keeps the mouth watering. Instead of white pepper, the wine takes on a more minerally river stone note that lingers through the long finish.

The Verdict

Just superb. Reviewing my notes after enjoying this wine during Thanksgiving, I was marveling at how youthful and fresh this wine was tasting. If you are lucky enough to have a bottle, you can probably still savor it easily for another 3 to 5 years–and I may be too conservative in that estimate.

While I’m not immune to the occasional indulgence and siren song of a butter-bomb like Rombaurer or Robert Lloyd’s sinfully delicious Carneros Chardonnay, neither of those wines could ever come close to the layers of elegance and complexity that this 2008 Stony Hill Chardonnay exhibits. This wine is truly on another level when it comes to domestic Chardonnays with its peers being found more in Burgundy than in Napa Valley.

This is a wine that combines the savoriness of a well aged Meursault with some of the mouthwatering acidity of a Chablis. At around $50 according to Wine Searcher, this wine is a screaming value compared to aged Burgundies of equivalent quality.

Ultimately, I have to fully echo Matt Kramer’s endorsement that tasting an aged Stony Hill Chardonnay “… is rewarding, even exciting drinking–if you can find it.”

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Event Review — Stags’ Leap Winery Dinner

Daniel’s Broiler in Bellevue, Washington is one of my wife and I’s favorite restaurants to visit. Each year they host a Champagne Gala that we love going to. Even when we’re not thrilled with the wines selected, we nonetheless always enjoy the exquisite food crafted by Executive Chef Kevin Rohr and a chance to try interesting food pairings.

Recently I got to attend a dinner featuring the wines of Stags’ Leap Winery with Assistant Winemaker Joanne “Jo” Wing.

The Background

I geeked out about some of the backstory of Stags’ Leap Winery in my 60 Second Review of their 2013 Napa Valley Merlot. With a long history dating back to the late 19th century, the winery is one of Napa’s most historic properties.

In California’s Great Cabernets, James Laube notes that the rise of the modern-era of Stags’ Leap Winery under Carl Doumani went hand in hand with the “Cabernet boom” of the 1970s that saw the notable Cabs of Burgess, Cakebread, Caymus, Clos du Val, Mount Eden, Mt. Veeder, Silver Oak and Joseph Phelps hit the scene. It also saw the birth of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and decades-long legal intrigue.

The War of the Apostrophe” soon took off with Warren Winiarski of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars (and winner of the famous 1976 Judgment of Paris) suing Doumani–who promptly counter-sued.

The two men eventually settled their differences in the mid-1980s and released a special collaborative bottling between the two estates called Accord from the 1985 vintage to commemorate. The agreement was that Winiarski’s Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars would have the apostrophe to the left of the ‘s’ while Doumani’s Stags’ Leap Winery would have it to the right.

You could tell that the Treasury Wine Estate rep at the dinner wasn’t too happy about the apostrophe typo on the menu.

Around this time, the two wineries faced another challenge with other wineries in the area like Gary Andrus’ Pine Ridge Winery, Steltzner Vineyards, Shafer Vineyards and more wanting to use the Stags Leap name and petitioning for American Viticultural Area (AVA) approval under that name for the region. After more legal challenges, a compromise was struck for the name of the new AVA to be the Stags Leap District (SLD) sans apostrophe.

Today the winery is owned by Treasury Wine Estates where it is part of a vast portfolio that includes 19 Crimes, The Walking Dead wines, Beaulieu Vineyards, Beringer, Ch. St Jean, Penfolds, Provenance, Hewitt Vineyard and more.

The current winemaker is Christophe Paubert who succeeded Robert Brittan when the later left Napa to make wine in Oregon at his own Brittan Vineyards and consult for wineries such as Winderlea.

A Bordeaux trained winemaker, Paubert has extensive experience working at such illustrious estates as the 2nd Growth St. Julien estate of Ch. Gruaud-Larose and the First Growth Sauternes estate of Chateau d’Yquem. Prior to joining Stags’ Leap in 2009, Paubert was the head winemaker for 4 years at Canoe Ridge Vineyards in Washington State.

Assistant Winemaker Joanne Wing is a New Zealand native who started out at Indevin, one of New Zealand’s largest wine producers. She gained experience working harvest across the globe from Saintsbury in Napa to Mount Pleasant Winery in the Hunter Valley of Australia as well as in Bordeaux before accepting a position at Stags’ Leap as a harvest enologist and working her way up to Asst. Winemaker.

Gorgeous Viognier that is well worth seeking out.


Passed hors d’oeuvres paired with 2016 Stags’ Leap Winery Napa Valley Viognier
Smoked sablefish with soft scrambled farm egg, ikura, chives and Chevre crostini with watermelon beet, grilled apricot, chili spice

I’m not a big beet person so I let my wife try the Chevre Crostini while I had the smoked sablefish with the ikura roe caviar. Both were smashing pairings with the Stags’ Leap Viognier with the wine being a particular revelation.

Sourced primarily from cooler climate vineyards in the Carneros AVA and Oak Knoll District, the Viognier had medium-plus intensity nose of orange blossoms and white peach notes.

On the palate, those white peach tree fruits carried through but also brought some tropical notes of passion-fruit and papaya. However this Viognier never came close to the tutti-fruity “Fruit Loop Cereal” style that unfortunately befalls many domestic Viogniers–especially those fermented and aged only in stainless steel. To avoid that pratfall, Paubert and Wing fermented the wine in neutral French oak barrels with weekly batonnage for 4 months. This very “Condrieu-style” approach produced a Viognier with textural weight and depth but with enough medium-plus acidity to keep it from being flabby or overly creamy.

The acidity also matched perfectly with the hors d’oeuvres, cutting through the “fishiness” of the sablefish and roe. My wife was particularly impressed at how well the acidity matched with the Chevre–the tangy goat cheese that often calls for high acid whites like Sauvignon blanc.

At $22-27, this is an outstanding Viognier with loads of personality and complexity that I would put on par with the àMaurice Viognier from Washington State as one of the stellar domestic examples of this variety.

The preserved kumquat vinaigrette on the salad were quite a treat.


First Course paired with 2016 Stags’ Leap Napa Valley Chardonnay
Spring Salad with Belgian endive, baby kale, avocado, marcona almonds, preserved kumquat vinaigrette

Sourced from the Carneros and Oak Knoll District, this Napa Chardonnay counters the stereotype of over-the-top, oaky, buttery Chardonnays. With 25% fermented and aged in new French oak, 50% in “seasoned” French oak and the rest in stainless steel with no malolactic fermentation, this Chardonnay aimed for an elegant and food-friendly style.

The wine had a medium intensity nose with apple and citrus lime notes. A little subtle baking spice from the oak rims around the edge.

On the palate, the citrus notes came through the most and played off the baby kale and avocado very well. Medium-plus acidity maintained freshness and balanced the moderate creaminess in the wine. The clove oak spice and an almost marzipan nuttiness lingered on the moderate finish.

Overall, this was a very drinkable and pleasant Chardonnay that did hit the target for food-pairing. But, admittedly, at $25-30 it didn’t jump out as anything wow-worthy–especially following in the footsteps of the scrumptious Viognier. It’s a very well made California Chard but it is still one of hundreds of similar well-made and similarly priced California Chards.

The star of the night. I can still taste the braised short ribs and that delectable sauce.

Second Course paired with 2014 Stags’ Leap Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
Braised short ribs with seared sea scallops, morel mushrooms, chervil

From a food perspective, this was the winning course of the night. The braised short ribs melted in the mouth and had you dearly wishing you had more than just the bite. The scallops were perfectly cooked and while I was skeptical with pairing them with a big Cab, the morel and au jus sauce from the short ribs offered just enough weight to carry the pairing.

As with other wines in the white label Napa Valley series, the Stags’ Leap Cabernet Sauvignon includes some estate fruit but is mostly sourced from vineyards throughout Napa Valley. Joanne Wing noted that while Paubert likes the flexibility of having some fruit from warm climate sites like Calistoga, he’s far more excited about the fruit from the cooler southern reaches of Napa like Coombsville, Oak Knoll and Yountville.

Medium-plus intensity with rich dark fruit–black currants, black plums, blackberries. This screams Napa Cab from the nose but it is not as overtly oak-driven as the norm with a little tobacco spice element.

On the palate those dark fruits carry through but there is a little earthy forest-floor element that emerges that adds some intrigue. Medium acidity adds juiciness to the fruit but not enough to be mouthwatering. The oak is a little more pronounced but is more spice driven than vanilla. The medium-plus tannins are still quite firm and young but are more tight than biting. Moderate length finish ends on the fruit which testifies to the youth of this wine.

Stags’ Leap Winery Assistant Winemaker Joanne Wing.

At $45-50, this is priced in lined with many of its Napa peers as a sort of “entry-level” Napa Cab. It’s hard to say it is a compelling value compared to what you can get for equivalent pricing from other regions like Washington and Paso Robles. Like the Chardonnay, I feel like this Cab is certainly well made but not blow-your-socks-off-you-must-find-it good partly because of the premium you are paying for the Napa name (and the winery’s history).

However, I do suspect that this wine could kick it up a couple notches with a few more years of bottle age that potentially could make it far more compelling.

Third Course paired with 2014 Stags’ Leap “The Investor” Red Blend
Piedmontese New York Steak with herb polenta, spring vegetables, blackberry demiglace

Admittedly, this was one of the few times I’ve been disappointed with a Daniel’s steak. Perhaps it was just this cut but I found it was in the weird position of being both too fatty and too dry and lacking flavor. The polenta and blackberry demi-glace were excellent though. But I found myself again wishing that the braised short ribs were the main course.

A unique blend of Merlot, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec, The Investor pays homage to former owner Horace Chase who made his fortune investing in gold and silver mines during the Gold Rush days of California. The Merlot and majority of the Petite Sirah come from estate fruit in the Stags Leap District and Oakville while the Cabernet and Malbec are sourced from vineyards throughout Napa Valley.

The medium-plus acidity and savory, herbal element of The Investor red blend definitely helped interject some much needed flavor into the Piedmontese New York steak.

Medium-plus nose with a mix of red and dark fruits–plums and currants. There is more overt oak vanilla on the nose of this wine than with the Cab but it doesn’t seem overwhelming. Underneath there is also a blue floral element that is not defined.

On the palate, the mix of fruits carry through with mouthwatering medium-plus acidity tilting the favor towards the red fruit. Some savory herbal and smokey notes join the party that dearly helps the food-pairing with the flavorless Piedmontese New York steak. The vanilla oak notes add a layer of velvety softness to the high tannins that still have a fair amount of gripe. Like the Cab, the moderate length finish ends on the youthful fruit.

At $50-60, The Investor intrigues me a lot more than the Napa Cabernet (and the Napa Merlot) because of the savory, smokey element and mouthwatering acidity. It’s still young and has some “baby fat” of oak that needs to be shed but this is a unique blend that could turn into something exceptionally good.

Dessert paired with 2014 Stags’ Leap Napa Valley Petite Sirah
Chocolate torte with Devonshire cream, coconut crisp

While the chocolate torte was amazing and sinfully delicious and the wine outstanding, this was not a winning pairing. The wine was nowhere near sweet enough to balance with the torte.

While delicious on their own, the pairing of the chocolate torte with the Stags’ Leap Petite Sirah just didn’t do it for me.

Still, it was somewhat fitting to end the Stags’ Leap Winery dinner with the wine that truly epitomizes the estate. While the name “Stags Leap” is synonymous with Cabernet Sauvignon, Stags’ Leap Winery was always a vanguard in cultivating and promoting Petite Sirah.

High intensity nose that started jumping out of the glass as soon as the waiter poured it. Blackberries and boysenberries with some peppery spice and violets.

On the palate, the first thing that hits you is the weight and richness of the wine with the full brunt of the dark fruits and high tannins. But there is an elegance with the juicy medium-plus acidity and fine balance that keeps the wine from being overbearing. On the moderate finish, there is some subtle dark chocolate notes that come out but not enough to make the food-pairing work. This was definitely a wine to savor on its own.

At $32-40, this is a more premium-priced Petite Sirah but it is well worth not only its price but also its reputation as the winery’s flagship. During this course, Jo told us about the Ne Cede Malis block of Prohibition-era vines that is a field blend of majority Petite Sirah with Muscat, Malbec, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Carignan and up to 9 other varieties. The grapes are harvested together and co-fermented to produce a limited release bottling. I have to admit that if Stags’ Leap Winery’s mobile ordering website wasn’t so buggy and difficult to navigate, I would have purchased a bottle of the Ne Cede Malis Petite Sirah (as well as several bottles of the Viognier) right then.

Overall Impressions

Attending this dinner left me wondering if Stags’ Leap Winery is a victim of its own name and location in Napa Valley. While the winery absolutely shined with its Viognier and Petite Sirah, their more typical Napa offerings of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay were just “ho-hum”.

I do appreciate that Treasury Wine Estates has let Paubert, Wing and Co. continue producing their more obscure bottlings but I have no doubt that the health of the winery’s bottom line depends on the case sales of the bread and butter Cab, Chardonnay and Merlot. It’s where the money is–especially in Napa–and that is what they’re out to sell.

Yet after tasting their outstanding Viognier, scrumptious Petite Sirah and very character-driven Investor blend, its hard not to think about what more the winery could do with their talented winemaking team and unique approach if they didn’t have to live up to the name Stags’ Leap.

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