Category Archives: Napa Valley

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?

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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Cali Quick Takes — A tale of two approaches

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

domaine carneros menu

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

Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah

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

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

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

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

Domaine Carneros tasting mat

#ChateauStyle gobbly gook

Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah

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

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

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

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

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

Once and Future label

Well done Joel Peterson, well done.

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

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

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

Oh please.

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60 Second Wine Review — Smith-Madrone Riesling

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

The Geekery

Smith Madrone Riesling

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

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

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

The Wine

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

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

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

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

The Verdict

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

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

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

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