Category Archives: Napa Valley

60 Second Wine Review — Hess Collection Estate Napa Valley Chardonnay

A few quick thoughts on the 2016 Hess Chardonnay from Napa Valley.

The Geekery
Hess Chardonnay

Donald Hess came from a family of brewers in Switzerland. But in his twenties, Hess purchased a mineral water source and founded Valser Wasser that grew to become the largest in Switzerland. It was a search for new sources in California that would bring Hess to discover Napa Valley wines in the 1970s and eventually lease the old Mont La Salle winery on Mount Veeder from the Christian Brothers.

The Su’skol Vineyard, located just east of Carneros at the far southern extreme of Napa Valley, is the source for the estate Chardonnay. The vineyard is unique with Hess using massal selection to propagate and sustain a mixture of 9 different clones of Chardonnay–including several of the aromatic musqué clones. Like all their estate vineyards, Hess farms Su’skol sustainably and is certified Napa Green.

Depending on the vintage, around 20-30% is fermented in new French oak for nine months with weekly lees stirring for four months. A similarly small amount will see malolactic fermentation. In 2016, around 21,700 cases were made.

The Wine

Photo of citrus blossoms by Ανώνυμος Βικιπαιδιστής. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-3.0

Gorgeous citrus blossom notes in this Chardonnay.

High-intensity nose. Lots of lemon with very citrusy white blossom notes as well. Subtle herbal and white pepper spice reminds me of both Sauvignon blanc and Gruner Veltliner. With air, spiced pear hints at oak and more Chardonnay-like fruit.

On the palate, the Chardonnay character emerges with spiced pear, as well as apples, going along with the still pronounced citrus fruits. There’s also noticeable medium-plus weight and subtle vanilla creaminess of oak. It doesn’t dominate the profile, but the fresh lemon definitely moves to more lemon custard. High acidity still maintains freshness with a mouthwatering nature that lingers on a long finish.

The Verdict

This is definitely a very different Cali Chard that’s nothing like the butter bomb “cougar juice” stereotype. Nor is it trying to be a wannabe Chablis.

For around $17-20 retail, it’s just a plain delicious Chardonnay that is well worth finding.

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60 Second Wine Review — Silverado Cabernet Sauvignon

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

Silverado Cabernet Sauvign

The Geekery

In 1976 Diane Miller, daughter of Walt Disney, and her husband, Ron, purchased Miller Ranch from Harry See (of the notable See’s Candies family). A couple years later, Diane’s mother, Lillian Disney, acquired a neighboring parcel of See’s in the Stags Leap District that became Silverado Vineyards.

The sale included several acres of Cabernet Sauvignon planted in 1968-69 by See after seeing Nathan Fay’s success with the grape. This would become the notable “See Clone” (FPS 30) that today is one of the prized heritage clones of Cabernet.

In the early years, the Millers and Disney sold their grapes to wineries such as Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Grgich Hills until they were inspired to make their own wine.

The first vintage in 1981 was made at Shafer Vineyards while the Silverado winery down the road was being built.

Sourced from estate vineyards, the 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon includes fruit from Stags Leap District and the Mt. George Vineyard in Coombsville. Certified Napa Green, all the vineyards are sustainably farmed. While labeled a Cab, winemaker Jon Emmerich blended in 9% Merlot and 3% Petit Verdot for this vintage.

The Wine

Mocha pic by André Richard Chalmers. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0.

The creamy mocha coffee notes add richness & depth without overwhelming the fruit.

Medium-plus intensity. More red fruit than black (cherry, raspberry, plum). Noticeable oak and cedar with some mocha coffee notes as well.

On the palate, the ripe fruit becomes very juicy with high acidity. Medium-plus tannins are chewy, holding up the full-bodied weight of the wine. Some creamy vanilla enhances the coffee flavors but doesn’t overwhelm the fruit. Moderate finish introduces a minty note that wasn’t noticeable on the nose.

The Verdict

At $45-50 retail, this is an excellent buy for a Napa Cab. At the restaurant, we paid closer to $110, which wasn’t great but not dreadfully horrible for restaurant markups.

Still, I was impressed with how food-friendly and versatile this Silverado was to go with both my steak as well as the wife’s lighter chicken dish.

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Sauvignon Gris — the key to making Napa Sauvignon Blanc interesting?

Note: All the wines reviewed here were samples provided on a press tour.

Sauvignon blanc grapes by Cserfranciska. Uploading to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Back in my retail days, premium Napa Sauvignon blanc was always some of the hardest wines to sell. I’d have fantastic producers like Araujo, Bevan,  Cakebread, Grgich Hills, Duckhorn, etc. sit on the shelf untouched. Even during the peak white wine season of summer, it took every bit of handselling savvy to get these bottles into baskets.

You’d think that good wine wouldn’t be that difficult to move, but Napa SB had two knocks against it.

1.) It’s a white Napa wine (usually) over $20 that’s not Chardonnay.
(Because, hey, why not get Chateau Montelena or Moone-Tsai Chard instead?)

2.) It’s a Sauvignon blanc over $20.
(Why spend more than Kim Crawford or Oyster Bay?)

Now I’m not saying that it’s impossible to sell a Napa Sauvignon blanc over $20.

Obviously, these bottles are selling somewhere (such as tasting rooms). But it’s a tough sell in many retail settings because of the way that most US stores are laid out.

Here you’ll often see varietal wines from New World regions like California, New Zealand, Chile and South Africa all grouped together. Napa Sauvignon blanc rarely seems like a compelling value when stocked among their more value-oriented peers. Even if a shop had a dedicated “California” or “American wine” section, these wines are still competing against sub-$20 options from Washington State, Sonoma, Monterey County, etc.

The few Napa bottles that manage to stay under that magical $20 mark–like St. Supery, Mondavi and Honig–tend to fare better. But even these wines regularly lose sales to other regions.

This is because, in the minds of many consumers, Napa Sauvignon blanc doesn’t have a distinctive style–only a distinctive price tag.

2017 Stags Leap Aveta sauvignon blanc
And while they’re more likely to swallow the Napa price for Chardonnay (and, of course, Cabernet Sauvignon), that halo effect rarely reaches the Sauvignon blanc aisle.

Instead, customers who are interested in spending top dollar for Sauvignon blanc are more likely to go over to the Old World aisles for Loire or White Bordeaux. Here, the premium pricing of Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé and Pessac-Leognan doesn’t drag each other down. More importantly, they promise a unique regional identity–which is key.

Back in the varietal section, those few customers reaching for the top shelf are more apt to grab Cloudy Bay. Or maybe one of the few other high-quality New Zealand Sauvignon blanc wines that make their way to the US. Even if you don’t know the producer, seeing the words “Marlborough” and “New Zealand” on the label promises something distinctive.

What is Napa Sauvignon blanc promising?

Something less green and herbaceous than New Zealand? Maybe. Though some producers have been experimenting with things like early harvest, heavier crop load and canopy shading to create more NZ-like flavors.

Something with a lavish texture and noticeable oak influence? Perhaps. These tend to be the more expensive and highly rated examples of Napa Sauvignon blanc. But, again, you have the question of why should a consumer who’s looking to spend top dollar for that style not go with a Chardonnay or white Bordeaux instead?

Which brings us back to the muddled middle that premium Napa Sauvignon blanc finds itself in. It’s not a value-priced wine. But it’s not as distinctive as other premium white wine categories.

Napa has to deliver something compelling–something interesting–to merit those lofty prices.
SLD vineyards behind Quixote

Of course, Napa wine is always going to be premium priced because of the high cost of land here.

They can’t rely just on the name “Napa” or even the quality in the bottle. Yes, having an outstanding wine helps sell in the tasting room where people can try it for themselves. But you don’t always have that privilege on the sales floor or restaurant table. Those premium bottles have to be hand-sold by an enthusiastic wine steward or sommelier who has already been wowed by the wine.

Though here’s the rub.

Every steward and sommelier is going to have dozens upon dozens of bottles that they’re passionate about. Everything from geeky varieties, obscure regions, small-lot productions to wineries with great stories–they all need handselling. Even hand-sold wines need to find ways to stand out from the pack.

In search of interesting Napa Sauvignon blanc.

During my trip to the Stags Leap District, I had many showstopping wines. And, yes, that included some absolutely delicious Napa Sauvignon blanc.

I noticed a pattern that many of the best examples prominently featured the Sauvignon Musqué clone. This caught my attention as growers in the Arroyo Seco region of Monterey County are also using this clone to make some thoroughly intriguing wines.

Taylor Sauvignon blanc

A few of my favorites were:
2018 Taylor Family ($40) made from 100% Musqué clone from Yountville.
2017 JK Ilsley ($35) also from Yountville and majority Musqué.
2017 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellar Rancho Chimiles ($40) made from 86% Musqué. This was way more aromatic and textural than SLWC’s regular Aveta Sauvignon blanc ($26) that is only 8% Musqué.

But as delicious as those wines were, it’s hard to say that they were compelling enough to merit a $20+ price tag–especially compared to the similarly delicious Sauvignon Musqué from areas like Arroyo Seco that cost far less. Picturing these bottles sitting on the same retail shelf, it’s not hard to see the higher-priced Napa bottles gathering dust.

However, there was one Napa Sauvignon blanc-based wine that more than stood out as being worth every penny.

The Chimney Rock Elevage Blanc ($50).

I was already familiar with Elizabeth Vianna’s outstanding Cabernet Sauvignon. Nestled in the southern end of the Stags Leap District, neighboring Clos du Val and one of Shafer’s vineyards, this is obviously prime red wine territory. But instead of offering the typical Carneros Chardonnay that is omnipresent in Napa, Chimney Rock’s flagship white is a fruit-forward but elegant white Bordeaux style blend–with a twist.

Chimney Rock exterior

Bordeaux-style wine made by a Brazilian winemaker at a Cape Dutch-inspired winery in the heart of Napa. There’s a lot going on at Chimney Rock and it’s all delicious.

Vianna has never been a fan of Semillon from Napa. Compared to Bordeaux, Semillon gets too lush and fat here. Now winemakers could do a juggling act with early harvests (like they do in the Hunter Valley) to retain acidity. But while that may work for a low alcohol varietal wine requiring long term aging, it’s not necessarily the ideal match for adding depth to Napa Sauvignon blanc.

Instead, Vianna and her predecessor, Doug Fletcher, fell in love with the “secret ingredient” hidden in many of the best white Bordeaux–Sauvignon gris.

Chateau Palmer in Margaux; Haut Brion, Smith Haut Lafitte and Pape Clement in Pessac-Leognan; Valandraud, Fombrauge and Monbousquet in St. Emilion. Depending on the vintage, you’ll often find anywhere from 5% up to 50% (2018 Blanc de Valandraud) of Sauvignon gris in these highly-acclaimed wines.

So what the heck is Sauvignon gris?

Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz’s Wine Grapes notes that Sauvignon gris is a color mutation of Sauvignon blanc. Similar to the Pinot gris mutation of Pinot, it’s not known precisely where Sauvignon gris first emerged.

One possibility is the Loire, where the grape is known as Fié. Ridiculously low yielding, the vine was almost wholly lost to phylloxera as producers replanted with other varieties. It’s only recently, with the rediscovery of abandoned old vine vineyards such as Jacky Preys’ site in Mareuil-sur-Cher, that Sauvignon gris is getting another look.

Compared to Sauvignon blanc, Sauvignon gris tends to have slightly thicker skins often with a pink hue. It produces wines of medium-plus to high acidity with pronounced, concentrated flavors of melon, mango, stone and citrus fruit as well as a robust floral component. In the cooler climates of the Loire, it can add some subtle herbaceous notes though it rarely gets as green as Sauvignon blanc.

In addition to the Loire and California, producers in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Moldova and New Zealand are also experimenting with Sauvignon gris.

A tasting of three Chimney Rock Elevage Blanc

Kenneth Friedenreich & Elizabeth Vianna

Tasting the Elevage Blanc and other Chimney Rock wines with Elizabeth Vianna and Kenneth Friedenreich, author of Oregon Wine Country Stories.

The winemaking of Elevage Blanc is very Bordeaux-like with a mixture of barrel fermentation and stainless steel using several yeast stains for complexity. The barrel component (usually around 1/3 new French and 1/3 neutral) sees frequent bâttonage beginning with 3-4 times a week and then gradually decreasing. The wine often goes through malolactic fermentation for stability. Depending on the vintage, around 3000 cases a year are made.

2008 Elevage Blanc – 70% Sauvignon blanc, 30% Sauvignon gris

Medium-plus intensity nose of tropical fruit with a savory, smokey component. Proscuitto wrapped melon-balls comes to mind. Along with the melon is some noticeable spiced pear.

On the palate, the pear and oak spices (nutmeg, clove) come through with a little cardamon. The slightly salty, savory, smokey notes are there as well but less pronounced than they were on the nose. The full-bodied mouthfeel is well balanced with medium-plus acidity–giving a lot of life to this wine. But the moderate finish lingering on the spice shows that its time is nearing the end. Still quite impressive for a 10+-year-old white wine.

2014 Elevage Blanc – 54% Sauvignon gris, 46% Sauvignon blanc

High-intensity nose. Intense fresh and grilled peaches. Less noticeable oak than the 2008 with the smokiness being more flinty. This one was also the most floral of the three with a mixture of elderflower and white lilies. Very mouthwatering bouquet.

On the palate, the peaches carry through joined by apples that also have a grilled component. Again, the oak is far less noticeable with maybe some subtle vanilla creaminess to go with the full-bodied richness. However, the high acidity keeps this wine well in check. The mouthwatering grilled peaches continue throughout the long finish. The highest proportion of Sauvignon gris and one of the best wines I had on the entire trip.

2016 Elevage Blanc – 79% Sauvignon blanc, 21% Sauvignon gris

Medium-plus intensity nose–apple and citrus-driven (star fruit, lemon). It’s the only one of three without a smokey, savory component. However, the oak is noticeable with pastry dough and clove spice. With air, tropical mango emerges as well as very ripe apricot.

On the palate, the toasty pastry and ripe tree fruit (apple & apricot) carry through. While not as heavy and oaky as a Chard, this one definitely feels the weightiest with the pastry tart element. Medium-plus acidity helps keep the full-bodied wine balanced. It also highlights more of the citrus flavors from the nose, bringing some pomelo to the party. Those more defined fruits offset the oak flavors, letting the citrus dominant the medium-plus length finish.

Takeaways

2014 Elevage Blanc

Definitely was one of my top wines of 2019. Such a stellar white that still has several years to go.

While 2014 was my clear favorite, each of these Elevage Blancs was well worth a premium $50 price. They had complexity with each vintage showing its own distinct and unique personality.

It’s clear that Sauvignon gris, itself, adds interesting elements when blended with Sauvignon blanc that you don’t always get with Semillon or Muscadelle in white Bordeaux. Most notable for me was how Sauvignon gris seems to deal with oak, steering the wine towards more savory flavors as opposed to just “oaky” notes.

In contrast, I feel like Semillon and Sauvignon blanc tend to absorb oak flavors like a sponge–making the wine feel more Chardonnay like. It was notable that as the quantity of SG decreased, the oak in the Elevage Blanc became more noticeable.

Blend vs. Varietal

Only the 2016 vintage of Elevage Blanc could be labeled as a varietal Sauvignon blanc. But maybe ditching the varietal designation is the answer to avoiding that muddled middle which plagues these Napa white wines? While a New World “white blend” aisle probably doesn’t get as much traffic as the Sauvignon blanc section, it doesn’t come with the baggage either.

A premium Napa white blend isn’t competing with the value-driven options from New Zealand, Chile and elsewhere. Instead, it can pull more of the “halo effect” of the Napa name as it stands out from various white blends from Lodi, Paso Robles, Sonoma, Washington State, etc.

There is still the question of regional identity, but not many regions have staked a claim to Sauvignon gris. No matter which style you go with–crisp, stainless or lavish, oak-driven–Sauvignon gris adds its own “twist” to the wine. This is something that Napa can sink its teeth into, crafting a distinct regional style of Sauvignon blanc/Sauvignon gris blends.

Though, they better hurry before someone else beats them to the punch.

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60 Second Wine Review – Lindstrom Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon

Note: This wine was a sample during a press trip.

A few quick thoughts on the 2012 Lindstrom SLD Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley.

Lindstrom 2012 SLD Cab

The Geekery

The tiny 4-acre Nicali Vineyard of Greg and Carol Lindstrom is literally above it all. Perched on a hilltop overlooking the vineyards of Shafer, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Odette and Joseph Phelps’ SLD vineyard, the Lindstroms have some of the steepest slopes in the district. Because of this steepness, everything is done by hand with meager yields of sustainably farmed grapes.

Despite being 100% Cab, the uniqueness of the Lindstrom’s vineyard gives them ample opportunity to make a complex and characterful wine. Taking a very Bordelais approach, the Lindstroms identified 11 distinct blocks with vastly different exposures and soil types. With vineyard manager Michael Wolf (of Araujo, Harlan, Duckhorn and Scarecrow fame), they matched each to specific rootstocks and clones.

Since 2005, winemaker Celia Welch (Scarecrow, D.R. Stephens, Staglin and Corra) harvests, ferments and ages the blocks separately to use as blending components. What doesn’t make the cut goes to their second wine, Nicali, or is sold off. Each year only around 250-600 cases are produced.

The Wine

Star anise pic by THOR. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

The wide array of spices, like star anise, adds Old World complexity to this very ripe, full-bodied SLD Cab.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Lots of rich dark fruits–plums, cassis. But most intriguing is the melange of spices–anise, black pepper, clove, cinnamon.

On the palate, the dark fruit still leads the way with a very full-bodied mouthfeel. Medium-plus acidity keeps it fresh and with its high, ripe tannins suggest that this wine has a lot of aging potential. A little tertiary tobacco is starting to emerge but the long finish is very spice-driven–particularly with the black pepper and anise.

The Verdict

At around $131 (WS Ave), this is very much in line with its SLD peers. It probably should be closer to $150 as the new releases are.

While it’s hard to find deals in Napa, this small family estate is definitely under the radar.

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60 Second Wine Review — Frank Family 2013 Blanc de Blancs

A few quick thoughts on the 2013 Frank Family Blanc de Blancs sparkling wine from Carneros.

The Geekery
Frank Family bubbles

While today Frank Family is known for big Rutherford Cabs and buttery Chardonnays, its origins were actually sparkling wine. In 1992, Rich Frank, a Disney exec, bought Hanns Kornell Champagne Cellars with Koerner Rombauer.

Hanns Kornell was a German immigrant who survived the Dachau concentration camp during World War II before founding his eponymous sparkling house in 1958.

Using the methode champenoise, Kornell helped innovate many new sparkling wine techniques in California. His wines earned high praise with Marilyn Monroe reportedly being a fan.

Rich Frank later bought out Rombauer’s interest in the winery and changed the name to Frank Family Vineyards. To honor Kornell, they kept producing sparkling wines.

The 2013 Blanc de Blancs is 100% Chardonnay sourced from Carneros. The wine spent 3 years aging on the lees with 500 cases made.

The Wine

Meyer lemons photo by ChaosNil. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under ) CC-BY-SA 3.0

Lots of ripe lemon notes in this wine.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Very citrusy with ripe lemon notes coupled with floral orange blossom. Apples with a toasted pastry element follow.

The palate echos the nose but also introduces an intriguing spiced pear note that adds more depth. Creamy mouthfeel enhances the toasted element and “California Chard” feel of the wine.

Medium-plus body. The medium-plus acidity is enough to feel balanced with the dosage (likely in the 10-11 g/l range). But it could use a little more zip of freshness. Long finish lingers more on the tree fruit, especially the spiced pear.

The Verdict

For around $45-55, it’s a decent value. It certainly offers more complexity and depth than many of your typical mass-market Champagnes in that range like Veuve Clicquot & Moet.

But it’s not going to knock your socks off and there are certainly better values out there. I also got a chance to try their 2011 Lady Edythe Reserve Brut (aged for 6 years on lees), which sells at the winery for $110. That was very tasty as well, but not that drastically different from the Blanc de Blancs.

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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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