Category Archives: Napa Valley

Hunting Unicorns in the Stags Leap District

Even if it’s was just a marketing farce of Horace Chase, I still like the story of how Stags’ Leap Winery (and the area) got its name. Jancis Robinson recounts it in her book, American Wine, with the legend of Wappo tribal hunters chasing a stag. The hunt was close until the cunning beast secured its freedom by leaping across a vast chasm among the craggy palisades.

Stags Leap Palisades

The “Leap” of the Stags Leap District behind Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.

Kirk Grace, director of vineyard operations for Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, pointed those fabled peaks out to me when I visited the district on a recent press tour. I thought about those hunters often while tasting through a stellar line-up of Stags Leap District wines.

There’s a lot of great wine here, no doubt. Trophies and treasures abound with a close-knit community of growers and producers. It’s hard to find a bad bottle because they all hold each other accountable for maintaining the area’s reputation.

But even with the bounty of treasures, there is still the urge to hunt.

As I noted in my post, Napa Valley — Boomer or Bust?, there’s a dichotomy brewing in the valley. It’s between what the Boomers (and, to some degree, Gen Xers) want to buy against the boredom that Millennials have with seeing the same ole, same ole everywhere. It’s this boredom that pushes us away from Napa in a hunt for something different.

However, from a business point of view, the current Napa recipe is working spectacularly well right now. Folks are making outstanding Cabs and Chardonnays which Boomers and Gen Xers are gobbling up. Of course, the fact that Cabernet Sauvignon grows really well in Napa Valley helps a lot.

Shafer Cabernets.

You can’t discount how delicious these Cabs can be. They are, indeed, “dialed in.”

As Doug Shafer of Shafer Vineyards noted, the valley has spent the last 40 years or so dialing things in. They have virtually perfected the art of making exquisite Cabernet. I can’t argue against that. The proof was loud and clear in the many sinfully delicious wines that I had on that trip. It has also been solidified over the years by several bottles that I’ve purchased and enjoyed on my own.

But even with all that velvet-glove gluttony, my Millennial heart was still tempted by another sin.

Lust

A craving for something different. Something exciting. Something worth stringing a bow and sharpening arrows for.

While the stag has gotten fat and easy to cull, I was excited to discover other beasts in the Stags Leap District that would have given the Wappos a good fight. These wines are often made in meager quantities and rarely see the light of retail or restaurant wine lists. Instead, these are the gems hidden in the tasting rooms and wine club offerings. But they are absolutely worth hunting down.

Steltzner Sangiovese

The Steltzner Stags Leap District Sangiovese was so good that a member of our tasting party bought another vintage (2015) to take to dinner.

What was even more remarkable–beyond their existence–is that each of these wines was quintessentially Stags Leap. The family resemblance you see in SLD Cabs of bright, juicy fruit with powerful, yet ripe and forgiving tannins echoes fiercely throughout these wines. Likewise, you can see the same care and “dialed in” attention that Stags Leap producers are known for in each bottle.

Of course, with all that care and the SLD banner comes a hefty price tag. With the average price of land in Napa over $300,000 an acre (and hitting over $400,000 an acre in the Stags Leap District), nothing here is going to be cheap.

Undoubtedly, this is always going to be an area where the Millennial Math is a struggle. However, one of the things that enhances value is excitement and uniqueness.

And you can’t get much more exciting and unique than hunting unicorns.

So let me share with you some of the unicorns I discovered in the Stags Leap District.

Again, I’m not trying to downplay the region’s flagship Cabernets. But trumpets have been heralding their triumphs for decades. If you’re like me, sometimes your ears get enchanted by a different tune. I think each of these wines offers notes worth singing about.

Note: the wines tasted below were samples provided on the press tour.

Steltzner Sangiovese ($55)

I’m going to be writing a dedicated piece on Dick Steltzner in the not too distant future. It’s fascinating how someone who is so ingrained into Stags Leap District history would step out of the parade so many times to do his own thing.

Even though Steltzner’s Cabernet Sauvignon has been prominently featured in iconic bottlings like the inaugural vintage of Joseph Phelps’ Insignia and the 1972 Clos du Val Cabernet Sauvignon (of Judgement of Paris fame), he’s never been afraid to try new things.

Steltzner Sangio

The 2016 Steltzner Sangio. Probably my favorite of the two vintages but they were both excellent.

The initial plantings of Steltzner Vineyards in the mid-1960s included Riesling which had been a favorite of Dick Steltzner since he tried Stony Hill’s version. The Riesling didn’t work out, but that didn’t discourage him from experimenting again in the 1980s with adding Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Pinotage and Sangiovese.

Over the years, Dick Steltzner has gradually parcelled and sold off his vineyard–first in 1990 and most recently in 2012 to the PlumpJack Group. However, he’s kept many of his oldest and favorite plantings including the absolutely delicious Sangiovese as well as some Malbec vines which will occasionally be made as a varietal ($55).

Today, the vineyards are managed by Jim Barbour with the wines made by Mike Smith and Robert Pepi.

The Wine and Verdict

Medium-plus intensity nose. A mix of black cherries and plums. Not as herbal as an Italian example. Instead, there is an intense blue floral component.

On the palate, those dark fruits carry through and are quite juicy with medium-plus acidity. Full-Bodied but not overbearing with ripe medium-plus tannins. As with the Stags Leap District Cabs, the texture and mouthfeel are outstanding. The fruit wraps around your tongue, having a tug of war with the mouthwatering acidity. It makes you want to both hold the wine in your mouth to savor and swallow so you can enjoy another sip. Long finish brings back the floral notes and adds a little oak spice.

Like Villa Ragazzi’s Pope Valley/Oakville Sangioveses, you’re not going to mistake this for a Tuscan wine. But this wine has more than enough character to stand on its own compared to similarly priced Brunellos.

Ilsley Seis Primas ($79)

Not long after Nathan Fay pioneered Cabernet Sauvignon in the Stags Leap District, Robert Mondavi suggested to Ernest Ilsley in 1964 that he try his hand at the variety. The Ilsley Vineyard was already selling their Carignan and Zinfandel to Charles Krug winery. When Robert Mondavi opened his winery a couple of years later, a good chunk of the fruit for his very first Cab came from the young Ilsley vines.

The Ilsleys continue to sell fruit to wineries even after starting their own label in 2000–most notably to Shafer Vineyards where David Ilsley is the vineyard manager. David also manages the family vineyard with brother Ernie running operations and sister Janice handling hospitality and sales. Since 2009, Heather Pyle-Lucas has been making the wines after starting at Robert Mondavi Winery.

Ilsley Seis Primas

Such a delicious bottle. I’m kicking myself for not figuring out a way to bring a few bottles back to Paris.

The 2015 Seis Primas is a blend of 62% Malbec, 24% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Merlot and 2% Cabernet Franc with only 183 cases made. The name pays homage to the six girl cousins that make up the 4th generation of the Ilsley family. The wine is sourced from six separate vineyard blocks including a 1996 planting of Malbec that the girls’ grandfather, Ed Ilsley, added to the family estate.

The Wine and Verdict

High-intensity nose. Rich dark blackberry fruit and plum. Lots of blue floral notes of violet and irises. There is also some noticeable oak spice, but it’s not dominating at all.

On the palate, the oak is more noticeable with a chocolate component added to the dark fruit. But still not overwhelming with black pepper spice emerging that compliments the allspice and cinnamon. Full-bodied with high-tannins, the wine is balanced well with medium-plus acidity that keeps the fruit tasting fresh. Long finish lingers on the spices.

I know that I said that it’s hard to find value in the Stags Leap District, but this wine proves me wrong. I’m stunned that this bottle is less than $100. It was easily one of the Top 5 wines that I had that entire week in the Stags Leap District after visiting 15 wineries and trying lots of heavy-hitters.

Honestly, if this wine had the magical “C-word” on the label, it probably could fetch closer to $130. All the Ilsley wines are sold direct-to-consumer. If you want any chance of bagging this trophy, you need to visit this family winery.

Clos du Val Cabernet Franc ($100)
Clos du Val Cab Franc

The 2016 Clos du Val Cabernet Franc. Still young but impressive already.

Even among Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignons, Clos du Val is a unicorn. From founding winemaker Bernard Portet to current winemaker Ted Henry and assistant Mabel Ojeda, tasting a Clos du Val Cab stands out from the pack. While the use of new French oak has steadily increased over the years (100% for their 2015 Hirondelle estate), it’s never been as overt as it is with many of their Napa brethren.

With lively acid and more moderate alcohols, these are always wines that sing in harmony with food. Think Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty’s “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.” Yeah, Fleetwood Mac and the Heartbreakers are great–just like a big, bold, luscious Napa Cab is at times. But, damn, if there’s not something magical about tension and style.

These are also wines built for aging. That’s why it wasn’t shocking that when the historic 1976 Judgement of Paris wine tasting was recreated in 1986, it saw the 1972 Clos du Val Cab nab first place.

The Cabernet Franc comes from the estate Hirondelle Vineyard that surrounds the winery. It’s named after the French word for “swallows” and references the birds that build their nests on the northwest side of the winery every spring. The 2016 vintage was 99% Cabernet Franc with 1% Cabernet Sauvignon. Clos du Val’s winemaking team aged the wine 20 months in a mix of 80% new French and Hungarian oak.

The Wine and Verdict
Swallows at Clos du Val

Some of the swallows and nests that give the Hirondelle Vineyard its name.

High-intensity nose. Very floral but also an earthy, leather component. Underneath there is some dark fruit of blueberries and blackberries, but they’re secondary notes in this very evocative bouquet.

On the palate, the fruit makes its presence more known and are amplified by high acidity. Very mouthwatering. The earthy, leathery notes are still here but add a truffle component. It’s not like a Rhone, but it’s almost meaty. Firm, medium-plus tannins have solid structure but are still approachable. Moderate length finish brings backs the floral notes.

This is definitely a completely different Cabernet Franc than anything you would see in the Loire. It’s also not as “Cab Sauv-like” as many new world examples of Cabernet Franc can be (especially in Napa and Washington). The wine is certainly its own beast and is bursting with character. I can only imagine how much more depth and complexity this wine will get with age.

At $100 a bottle, you’re paying top-shelf Cab prices for it. But I guarantee this wine is going to have you scribbling a lot more tasting notes and descriptors than your typical $100+ Napa Cab.

Quixote Malbec ($80)
Quoixote shower

Or step into the shower they have in the visitor’s bathroom at the Quixote tasting room.

Quixote is pretty much the Narnia of Napa Valley. If you want to find unicorns, all you need to do is enter through the Friedensreich Hundertwasser-designed wardrobe and there you are.

Carl Doumani founded Quixote in 1996 not long before he sold Stags’ Leap Winery to Beringer (now Treasury Wine Estates). At Stags’ Leap, Doumani built a reputation for the high quality of his Petite Sirah.  When he sold the property,  he kept many of the choice parcels for his new venture. The current owners, the Chinese private firm Le Melange, which acquired Quixote in 2014, continues to make Petite Sirah a significant focus.

They make three tiers of Petite Sirah. The prices range from the red label Panza ($50) up to their premier black label Helmet of Mambrino ($105-125 depending on the vintage). Quixote also makes a very charming rose of Petite Sirah ($35). All of those are well worth trying. However, the one wine that really knocked my socks off was their Stags Leap Malbec.

Doumani fell in love with the grape after a trip to Argentina in the 2000s. He had a little less than an acre planted with the first vintage released in 2011. Only around 100-150 cases of this wine are produced each year.

The Wine and Verdict
Quixote Malbec

The 2015 Quixote Stags Leap Malbec.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Blackberries clearly dominate the show with some noticeable chocolatey oak undertones. With a little air comes black pepper spice, anise and savory leather notes.

On the palate, this was one of the most quintessential Stags Leap wines I tasted. Totally “iron fist in a velvet glove” all the way. Very full-bodied with ripe, medium-plus tannins. The plush texture is accentuated by the creamy vanilla of the oak. Medium acidity gives enough balance to add juiciness to the blackberries and also highlight a red plum component. Moderate finish brings back the spice notes with the black licorice note lingering the most.

In many ways, I can see regular consumers (as opposed to blind tasters) thinking this was a Napa Cab. There’s the rich dark fruit with noticeable oak. Coupled with the full-bodied structure and mouthfeel, it hits all those hedonistic notes that many consumers seek out in top-shelf Napa wines. But I love what the Malbec-y spice brings to the table. It helps the wine stand apart as a unicorn worth seeking out.

It’s definitely different than Malbecs grown elsewhere in the world (and a lot pricier too). However, this is truly a unique expression of the grape that reflects the Stags Leap District exceedingly well.

Other Stags Leap District Unicorns that I haven’t had yet but am on the hunt for.

In 2014, Decanter magazine noted that the Stags Leap District was planted to 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc, 2% Petite Sirah and 1% other. I honestly don’t think the numbers have changed much in the last five years. If anything, Cab has probably gained more ground and relegated Cabernet Franc and Petite Sirah to the One-Percenter Club.

So, yeah, these wines are going to be hard to fine.  But my experiences with the unicorns that I’ve already encountered has me feeling that these are going to be worth the hunt.

Chimney Rock Cabernet Franc ($85)
Author with Elizabeth Vianna.

Yup. Totally fangirl’d.

I fully admit that I’m an Elizabeth Vianna fangirl. I adore her work at Chimney Rock and she also has a great twitter account worth following.  Another upcoming post in the works will see me getting geeky over Chimney Rock’s crazy delicious Elevage Blanc.

From a solely Stags Leap perspective, this Cabernet Franc from their estate vineyard intrigues me. Even though Chimney Rock’s vineyards essentially encircles Clos du Val’s Hirondelle vineyard, I suspect that this will be a very different expression of Cabernet Franc. That’s partly why it would be so cool to try.

Chimney Rock also occasionally releases a rose of Cabernet Franc as well as a varietal Sauvignon gris– when the latter is not being used up in their Elevage blanc.

Update: Oh and there’s now this to look forward to!

Yes! A Stags Leap District Fiano!

Pine Ridge Petit Verdot ($75)
Pine Ridge map

While founded and based in the Stags Leap District, Pine Ridge sources fruit from many places and has estate vineyards in Carneros, Howell Mountain, Rutherford and Oakville.

Founded by Gary Andrus in 1978 and now owned by the Crimson Wine Group, Pine Ridge was also a big player in getting the Stags Leap District established as an AVA. While the winery is well-known for its Chenin blanc-Viognier blend (sourced mostly from the Clarksburg AVA in Sacramento, Solano and Yolo counties), the bread and butter of Pine Ridge’s Stags Leap estate is, of course, their Cab.

That’s what makes trying this Petit Verdot so intriguing even though a small amount comes from their Oakville property. Petit Verdot is a late-ripening variety that is seeing increased interest across the globe. It’s being planted more to help offset the toll that climate change is having on overripe Cab & Merlot. Of course, it can be a finicky grape to make as a varietal. However, when it’s done well, it’s a spicy delight!

Regusci Zinfandel ($60)
Screenshot of The Taste podcast

If you want to listen to a great podcast, check out Doug Shafer’s interview with Jim Regusci.

The Regusci family has a tremendous history in Napa Valley beginning with the site of the very first dedicated winery built in the Stags Leap District. The stone building, constructed by Terrill Grigsby in 1878, was known as the Occidental Winery for many years.

In 1932, Gaetano Regusci acquired the property and planted Zinfandel with many of those vines still producing fruit today. The family would sell grapes and maintain a dairy ranch on the property for several decades. In 1996, Gaetano’s son and grandson, Angelo and Jim Regusci, started the Regusci Winery.

While Zinfandel has a long history in Napa, its numbers are slowly dwindling. That’s a shame because Zinfandel is the “Craft Beer” of American Wine and a grape that is poised to capture Millennials’ attention. I don’t think anyone else in the Stags Leap District is still growing the grape which certainly makes this a fun unicorn to find.

Stags’ Leap Winery Ne Cede Malis ($150)

I became fascinated with this wine when I attended a winemaker’s dinner last year with Stags’ Leap Winery’s winemaker Joanne Wing.

Stags’ Leap Winery Winemaker Joanne Wing.

Sourced from a tiny Prohibition-era block of vines, Ne Cede Malis is a field blend.  Mostly Petite Sirah with up to 15 other different grapes including Sauvignon blanc, an unknown Muscat variety, Carignane, Mourvedre, Grenache, Peloursin, Cinsault, Malbec and Syrah. The grapes are all harvested together and co-fermented.

Coming from the Latin family motto of Horace Chase, Ne Cede Malis means “Don’t give in to misfortune.” But with the last vintage of Ne Cede Malis on Wine-Searcher being 2015 (Ave price $86), I do fret that maybe these old vines came into some misfortune. If any of my readers know differently, do leave a comment. (UPDATE BELOW)

Of course, that is the risk that comes with all unicorns. One day they may simply cease to exist. But that is also part of the thrill of the hunt.

Sometimes you bag your prize. Other times you’re standing on the edge of a cliff watching it leap away.

UPDATE: The Ne Cede Malis lives on! I was very excited to get an email from Stags’ Leap Winery letting me know that these old vines are still going strong with the 2016 vintage slated to be released in the fall for a suggested retail of $150.  Only around 500 cases were produced so this is still a unicorn worth hunting!

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Book Review — Drive Through Napa

The folks behind I Like This Grape were gracious enough to send me a copy of their latest book, Drive Through Napa: Your Ultimate Companion to Napa Valley’s Wines Regions.

Drive Through Napa cover

Photo courtesy of Naushad Huda, ILikeThisGrape.com

While working on a research project about the Stags Leap District, I had several opportunities to check out the eBook version written by Paul Hodgins and Naushad Huda with Kathy Lajvardi providing graphic design.

Below are a few thoughts about this modern primer on the most famous wine region in the United States.

The Background

Naushad Huda came up with the idea of Drive Through Napa after wandering,

“If Pharrell or Complex Magazine were to write a wine book, what would it look like? What would it sound like?”

Previously, Huda had founded the digital creative agency XTOPOLY that focused on interactive marketing. They worked on T-Mobile’s first mobile eCommerce site and created campaigns for several global companies including Vitamin Water, Nestle, Emirates Airlines, Nivea and Google. After merging XTOPOLY with the Finnish software company Vincit in 2017, Huda served as their Director of Strategy and Partnerships.

It was during this time that Huda, along with his wife Kathy Lajvardi, wanted to take a fresh approach to the traditional concept of a regional wine guide.  Lajvardi is an accomplished artist whose done graphics work for the Iron Man and Transformer movie trailers. Her photographs and paintings are also regularly featured in major art galleries.

Partnering with Paul Hodgins, a longtime writer for the Orange County Register and author of The Winemakers of Paso Robles with Julia Perez, the Drive Through Napa team embarked on their project with Millennials as a target audience.

The Book

With that Millennial-focus in mind, Drive Through Napa is designed to be easily digestible within a 1-hour read. One of the goals of the creative team was to avoid many of the cliches that they saw in other wine guides–such as endless photos of vineyards that all look the same. The main graphics in the book are maps and price-to-rating charts taken from data provided by Vivino.

Another focus of the book was to steer clear of being a “what to drink” guide. Instead, Drive Through Napa takes more of a high-level approach to exploring the 16 AVAs (or “neighborhoods”) in Napa with brief blurbs on climate, elevation, rainfall, soils as well as principal grapes and their characteristics.

SLD Screenshot from Drive Through Napa

Screenshot of winery listing for the Stags Leap AVA which also includes notable vineyards.

Each AVA section touches a bit on some of the history and key pioneers. They also include a listing of most all the wineries and many notable vineyards that call each region home.

A critical distinction between Drive Through Napa and other regional wine guides is that there is no contact information about these wineries. Nor are there any details about which wineries are open to visitors and if appointments are necessary.

I suspect part of the reason for this stems from the goal of not being a “what to drink” guide.

The book does include a note directing folks to check out each individual AVA associations’ website. However, they unfortunately don’t include what those websites are so folks will have to Google them.

In addition to the AVA chapters, the introduction of the book goes into some of the history of California wine and the role that Napa has played in bringing prominence to the state. It touches on the usual characters of the Catholic Church and early 19th-century pioneers but also devotes time to post-Prohibition figures like Brother Timothy Diener of the Christian Brothers and putting the “Mondavi Effect” into context.

Additionally, the intro chapters include a short glossary of essential wine terms used in the book and briefly touches on a few of the major California wine regions beyond Napa.

Things I really liked about the book.

Photo by Sarah Stierch. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 4.0.

Burgundian winemaker and Raymond Vineyards owner Jean-Charles Boisset is one of several subjects interviewed for Drive Through Napa.

The team behind Drive Through Napa certainly achieved their goal in creating an approachable primer. There is brilliant simplicity in the graphics and design that makes it easy to digest even when a fair amount of information stray into technical viticultural details.

You don’t need to be a “wine geek” to pick up this book and find it useful. But if you are a geek, there is most certainly something in it for you as well.

My favorite part of Drive Through Napa was the interviews they included in several AVA chapters. Here Hodgins and Co. asked very pointed questions such as  “What effect does your region have on the grapes that are grown here?”, “What will we notice when tasting a wine from your AVA?” and What do people misunderstand about your AVA?”

This is where Drive Through Napa moves beyond just being an easily digestible primer on Napa Valley towards something that wine students will find immensely useful. In particular, I would encourage folks working on blind tasting exams to pay careful attention to the answers about AVA characteristics and their influence on the resulting wines.

The interview subjects have some serious pedigree.

Richie Allen, Director of Viticulture and Winemaking for Rombauer Vineyards (Carneros)
Taylor Martin, Managing Partner of Italics Winegrowers (Coombsville)
Dave Guffy, Director of Winemaking for The Hess Collection (Mt. Veeder)
Lorenzo Trefethen of Trefethen Family Vineyards (Oak Knoll)
Celia Welch, consulting winemaker of Keever Vineyards and many others (Yountville)
Jon Emmerich, winemaker of Silverado Vineyards (Stags Leap District)
Jean Hoefliger, winemaker of Alpha Omega Winery (Atlas Peak)
Nicole Marchesi, winemaker of Far Niente Winery (Oakville)
Ivo Jeramaz, winemaker of Grgich Hills Estate (Rutherford)
Jean-Charles Boisset, owner of Raymond Vineyards and many others (St. Helena)
Stuart Smith, owner and winemaker of Smith-Madrone Vineyards (Spring Mountain)
Danielle Cyrot, winemaker of CADE Winery (Howell Mountain)
Dawnine and Bill Dyer, owners and winemakers of Dyer Vineyard (Diamond Mountain)
Bo Barrett, owner of Chateau Montelena (Calistoga)
Andy Erickson, consulting winemaker and owner of Favia (Napa Valley)

Things that were “Meh.”

Diamond Mountain screenshot from Drive Through Napa

Good luck trying to find those $30-40 Diamond Mountain wines. My best guess is that these are white wines and roses.

I found the Price-To-Rating charts to be pretty useless. Using Vivino’s 1 to 5-star ratings, Drive Through Napa featured a bar chart for most of the AVAs. Here they highlighted what the average score was of wines at various price points.

Spoiler alert: In every AVA but Diamond Mountain, Spring Mountain and Carneros, the wines with the highest ratings are the ones that cost $70+.

And really, the $70+ wines are still the highest rated segment even in those exceptions. They just happen to share the same rating as another price category.

I honestly don’t think a single person is going to be surprised at these charts.

I also do wish they did little more with the winery listings for each AVA. In particular, I think they should have found a way to signify which wineries had open tasting rooms, those that needed appointments and which ones that there is no way in hell you’re getting into.

I doubt including little icons (asterisk, smiley faces, etc.)  next to each name would have added much to reading time. Plus, even if they didn’t want to be a “What to Drink” guide, anyone that is buying this book is likely going to want to visit Napa. And they’re probably going to want to drink something.

Steering folks to the individual AVA associations is fine (though, again, would be helpful to have their web addresses in the book). But that one small change to the winery listing pages would have significantly enhanced the overall utility of Drive Through Napa.

The Verdict

While I was fortunate to receive my e-copy of Drive Through Napa as a sample, I would buy this book without question. For $18 paperback and $9.99 for Kindle, it more than delivers in content and usefulness.

In particular, I wished I had this book back when I worked at Total Wine and helped train their wine staff in my region. I would have recommended Drive Through Napa to every wine associate there, especially those studying for their California TWP certifications. Likewise, I can see this book being handy for sommeliers–especially with those interviews I mentioned above.

You can’t talk about American or Californian wines without talking about Napa. If you want to understand this famous wine region, Drive Through Napa is a great place to start.

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60 Second Wine Review — Odette SLD Cabernet Sauvignon

A few quick thoughts on the 2016 Odette Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley.

Odette SLD Cab

Note: This wine was tasted as a sample.

The Geekery

In 2012, the PlumpJack Group acquired 45 acres in the Stags Leap District from Dick Stelzner. Along with Nathan Fay, Stelzner pioneered Cabernet Sauvignon in the area.

In addition to Odette, the PlumpJack Group also own PlumpJack in Oakville and CADE on Howell Mountain.  While each property has its own winemakers and style, they all consistently use screw caps for all their wines, even high-end reds.

At Odette, Jeff Owens, previously the assistant winemaker at CADE and a protege of Anthony Biagi, has been with the winery since the beginning. He helped design the new winery to meet LEED Gold specifications and oversees the sustainable and organic farming of the estate.

The 2016 Estate Cab is 82% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 4% Malbec and 4% Petit Verdot with 75 barrels (about 1875 cases) made.

The Wine

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

Very rich dark fruit in this Cab.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Ripe dark fruits–black plums, blackberries–and noticeable vanilla. With air, vivid floral notes come out–violets and lavender. Very perfumey.

On the palate, the richness of the dark fruit leads the way. Velvety and very ripe medium-plus tannins hold up the full-bodied fruit. Medium acidity gives some freshness and life to the floral notes, as well as suggest a subtle spiciness underneath. The fruit leads the long finish with creamy vanilla and chocolatey notes lingering.

The Verdict

The Odette wines were by far the most hedonistic and lavishly seductive wines that I tasted on my press tour of the Stags Leap District. They are definitely more velvet glove than an iron fist.

Is that seduction worth $150 a bottle? Depends.

Compared to many of its hedonistic peers that I’ve bought before such as Pahlmeyer Proprietary Red ($170), Bevan Wildfoote Vixen Block ($265), Alpha Omega Beckstoffer Georges III ($200) among others, it holds its own. And, truthfully, I would put the Odette closest to the Bevan–which makes sense given their SLD pedigree.

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60 Second Wine Review — Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Elia Rosé

Today is apparently National Rosé Day. In the US? Globally? Who knows?, but I figured it was as good as any day to share a few quick thoughts on the 2018 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Elia Rosé from Napa Valley.

Stags Leap Elia

Note: This wine was tasted as a sample.

The Geekery

First released in 2015, the Elia Rosé is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from the legendary Fay Vineyard in the Stags Leap District.

The 2018 vintage is a blend of fruit harvested in early September to make rosé (with six hours of skin contact) and then later fruit harvested in November. Tasting notes don’t clarify if this last batch was made in the saignée style. However, the resulting color of the wine and timing suggest that likely was the case.

Winemaker Marcus Notaro then aged the wine for 5.5 months in combination neutral oak barrels and stainless with 550 cases made.

The Wine

Photo by USDA NRCS. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD USDA NRCS

Very ripe cherry notes in this wine.

Medium-plus intensity. A mix of red cherry and ripe raspberries. Around the edges, there is a little mint eucalyptus note that reminds you of its red Fay counterpart.

On the palate, you can definitely feel medium-body weight and phenolics, but the texture is very well done. No bitterness or astringency at all. Again, there is a velvety texture that reminds you of a Stags Leap District Cab. The medium acidity gives some balance of freshness but unfortunately fades with the finish.

The Verdict

This is definitely a unique rosé with a lot of character. It was fun to try as a novelty but, without a doubt, a massive driver of its $44 price is the quality and novelty of its grapes. The Fay Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon averages around $140 a bottle.

You can tell that the SLWC team put a lot of thought and care into crafting a high-end rosé. But, in all honesty, it’s not something that I’d feel compelled to hunt down or pay more than $30 for.  There are just too many other great rosés out there for far less.

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Sculpting Soapstone in Napa

I wrapped up my week-long press tour of the Stags Leap District yesterday. You can look forward to me spending the next couple months working through my notes in between other writings and reviews. For those that want a sneak peek of some of the insights and themes that I’ll be writing about check out the SpitBucket Instagram page. There I’ve posted pictures and thoughts from many of the wineries that I’ve visited.

Photo By Lysippos - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Before the trip, I wrote about some of the questions and expectations that I had going in. A large part of my role in Friedenreich’s research entourage was to bring a Millennial perspective with an eye towards what the future of the Stags Leap District could be. While that is a role that I’m apt to fill, the WSET Diploma student and wine marketer in me is also conscious of the present reality of business.

Many times in between my Millennial “what if” questions, I found myself taking a step back to think about what I would do if I were a general manager, COO or president of a Stags Leap District winery.

Honestly? There is not much that I would do differently.

Though I still see challenges ahead, I couldn’t find fault in how well-executed all these operations were. It’s clear that these wineries have found a recipe that works for them and have spent considerable time, thought and capital into honing and perfecting that recipe. They’re all working hard to maximize the gifts of terroir like a sculptor skillfully chiseling away to reveal the beauty of the piece underneath.

However, they’re not chiseling their work into granite.

The nature of the wine industry is inherently transient. It’s an agrarian product that is a consumable good. There will always be factors at play (climate change, demographics, consumer trends) that will weather even the mightiest of edifices. No matter how much care, attention and capital that you invest, everything you do will always be chiseled in soapstone.

Quixote Malbec

There is some sexy Malbec being made in the SLD. These wines combine the spiciness of Argentine Malbecs with the seductive texture of Stags Leap District wines.

Even the fabled European wine regions spent centuries, if not millennia, figuring themselves out.

Cabernet Sauvignon, which is the backbone of the great wines of the Medoc, is still in its adolescence in Bordeaux. The Bordelais have been making wine since the Romans while Cab only appeared on the scene in the late 18th century. And even then, it took some time to catch on. During the 1855 classification, many of the grandest estates of the Left Bank relied heavily on grapes like Malbec and Merlot.

The soapstone sculpture of Bordeaux has changed many times over the years. With climate change, it’s already starting to change again with a growing focus on Petit Verdot and even Malbec making a return.

With Cab barely out of the womb in Napa, why should we not expect its form to change as well?

Now I’m not discrediting the beauty of Napa and, particularly, Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon. I had many delicious examples which I’ll be writing about on this blog. But while not as numerous, there were certainly several “unicorn” wines of other grapes that had me excited about what the future sculpture of SLD could be.

Some strawmen, some strong points.

Now back to those Millennials and the future challenges they may pose.

Often I heard the strawmen assessment that Millennials would come around once they had more money. However, there were also some excellent points which I’ll tackle in future pieces.

One is that education will be paramount in reaching Millennials. That does present the challenge of how do you entice anyone to want to be educated. But I also think it offers a double edge sword. One that can both cut Napa/SLD producers just as much as it can clear the path.

Another strong point is that rather than thinking of demographics, producers should market to “tribes”–i.e., a tribe Cab-lovers. This was argued exceedingly well by Russ Joy, the general manager of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. That tribal spin invites personalization with a sense of community and identity. A sort of “hipster” approach, which is somewhat ironic.

Malk Vineyards

This tiny little patch of vines in the foreground is Malk Family Vineyards. Beyond the dirt road is Steltzner, then Joseph Phelps, then Mary Jane Fay Vineyards (fruit sold to Shafer), then Odette and FINALLY you get to the Silverado Trail.

But probably the point that I could appreciate the most was the blessing of small production.

This was made quite clear at the tiny 2-acre estate of Malk Family Vineyards. With only a few hundred cases, the Malks don’t need to focus on chasing the market. Anyone who finds them (and believe me, the drive to find them is a bit of a hunt), is someone who is already passionate and committed.

That small production provides a bit of cover that will undoubtedly help many producers weather the changes–regardless of what they’re carving.

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60 Second Wine Review — Hunt & Harvest Picpoul

A few quick thoughts on the 2016 Hunt & Harvest Picpoul from Rutherford in Napa Valley.

Hunt & harvest picpoul

The Geekery

Hunt & Harvest is the new label of Chris Hall of Long Meadow Ranch fame. Along with Dan O’Brien (formerly of Larkmead and owner of Gail Wines in Sonoma), Hall created the label to produce varietal wines from various vineyards in Napa Valley.

In addition to the Picpoul, they also produce a Sangiovese, Sauvignon blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa as well as Rutherford designated Merlot & Cab. Additionally, they source Pinot noir from a Willamette Valley vineyard that is just outside the Dundee Hills AVA.

The Picpoul is 100% varietal from Rutherford that was aged in stainless steel.

The Wine

Photo By Ulf Eliasson - Own work, CC BY 2.5

Even when the glass was empty, you could still smell the honeysuckle.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Was a smidge reductive under the screw cap but that quickly blew off to reveal white floral honeysuckle and green apple notes.

On the palate, the green apple carries through with some lemon citrus peel notes joining the party. Medium-plus acidity is lively. Not quite the lip-stinging of Languedoc examples, but very nervy.

There is a lot of texture to the medium-bodied mouthfeel that would have suggested neutral oak but that’s obviously not the case. (Perhaps skin contact?) Long finish is mouthwatering and extremely floral.

The Verdict

While I’ve had a lot of great wine this week in the lion’s den of Napa Cab country, few wines have made my heart soar as much as finding this bottle of Picpoul. And from Rutherford of all places!

Undoubtedly, Rutherford has some blessed terroir with a lot of history. But it’s always seemed like an endless carpet of Cabernet Sauvignon with maybe a smattering of other Bordeaux varieties here and there. High price tags also trademark Rutherford, but at $25 this Hunt & Harvest Picpoul is a screaming good deal. Even paying restaurant mark-up of $55 I felt extremely pleased with the freshness, depth and vigor of this wine. Well worth seeking out.

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Napa Valley — Boomer or Bust?

Note: A follow up to this post can be found at Sculpting Soapstone in Napa

I’ve entered the lion’s den.
Photo By Aaron Logan - from http://www.lightmatter.net/gallery/albums.php, CC BY 1.0,

This week I will be in Napa assisting Kenneth Friedenreich, author of Oregon Wine Country Stories, with research on the Stags Leap District for the sequel in his Decoding the Grape series.

Surprisingly, no one has written a dedicated book about the district yet. With 2019 being the 30th anniversary of the AVA’s establishment, a deep dive into the legacy and future of this influential region seems long overdue.

That puts me on a fact-finding mission with Friedenreich and two of his other compatriots as we embark on a schedule of winery visits and interviews. In many ways, I am the odd duck in this entourage being not only the only woman but also a Millennial seeing Napa Valley beside the eyes of three Boomers.

Past and Present

The dichotomy will be rich as Friedenreich, Doc Wilson (a longtime fixture in the Oregon wine scene) and Mark, a pediatrician from Portland, represent the bread and butter of Napa Valley.

Photo By LEONARDO DASILVA, CC BY 3.0,

Are legends still exciting?

They are the generation that took with gusto an appreciation for fine American wine. For the last 40 plus year, every Napa vintner that has had an inkling of success achieved that by courting the Boomers.

While the recipe has varied somewhat over the years, the entire business model and marketing of Napa has been oriented towards enticing and exciting this large and lucrative demographic.

And it has remained a lucrative demographic even as the Boomers settle into retirement. They (along with the smaller Generation X) are still the ones buying the high priced and highly prized bottles that have paved Napa’s reputation with gold. That’s a reality that no vintner can ignore.

But what of the Future?

On the surface, I’m probably the ideal Millennial consumer that Napa wineries could hope for. I’m highly engaged with wine and willing to travel. I crave experiences which is something that Napa has spent decades perfecting. And, most keenly, I’m in a position of financial stability where I could afford to join wine clubs and regularly buy $100+ bottles if I wished.

Pritchard Hill at sunset

I will say that the view from Pritchard Hill is awe inspiring.
It does add a bit more character than the highly manicured vineyard lawns of the valley floor.

I might be a minority among my cohorts, but there are other Millennials like me, and we are the future bread and butter.

And with auspicious timing. For just as some industry folks are beating the strawman that Millennials will come running as soon as they have more money in their pockets, here I am representing the best-case scenario that Napa vintners could hope for.

How are they planning to reach me?

While Friedenreich is going to write his retrospection of the Stags Leap District from his Boomer perspective, he’s very conscious of the contemporary. One of the things that I’ll be contributing to the team is being the canary in the vineyards.

Will the Stags Leap District (and Napa in general) still be relevant in another 30 years?

Yes, Cab is King but for how long?

Even if I can afford $100+ bottles, what is the distinct value that makes getting these wines worth buying instead of a nice whiskey or the myriad of other options I have?

I’m from a generation that is notoriously in love with great stories so how are today’s SLD and Napa wineries communicating their stories? Do they feel authentic? Is it presented in a way that I can connect with and relate to?

The old recipe is not going to work.

Photo By Jim G from Silicon Valley, CA, USA - Darioush Winery, Napa Valley, California, USAUploaded by Josve05a, CC BY 2.0,

I mean, yeah, that kind of looks interesting… I guess.

To be brutally blunt, Napa can be really boring.

The marketing to my generation has been trying to sell us a luxurious lifestyle that is rather generic.

Oh, beautiful people in a beautiful place. That’s nice.

Open up Instagram and you see a countless stream of beautiful people in beautiful places. There’s nothing special about that messaging. Been there, done that. Scroll.

Adding a glass of high priced Cab or Chardonnay doesn’t make the #NapaStyle filter feel any more unique or authentic. At worst, with literally hundreds of wineries delivering the same message, it feels fake and basic.

So what Napa will I see this week?

Will I see producers following the old recipe of success that has served them so well? Perhaps. With Boomers and Gen Xers still buying, it would be foolish to abandon it altogether.

But what I am hoping to see is a glimpse of planning for the future. I’d like to see a Stags Leap District and a Napa Valley that recognizes that the old #NapaStyle filter is a recipe for Millennials to keep scrolling past.

What I want is Napa unfiltered.

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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 are serious issues 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 still 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 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–as well as 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 had 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 at 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 is 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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