Category Archives: Napa Valley

60 Second Wine Review — Smith-Madrone Riesling

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

The Geekery

Smith Madrone Riesling

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

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

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

The Wine

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

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

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

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

The Verdict

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There has to be a better way.

There has to be an app for this.

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

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

Right?!?!

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

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

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

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

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

Alright, I got a lead.

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

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

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

Vino Visit screen shot

Sorry Vino Visit, you’re dead to me.

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

CellarPass – close but not quite

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

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

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

Cellar Pass screen shot

Where’s the calendar option?

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

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

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

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

CellarPass sparkling wine search

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

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

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

Schramsberg listing

At least include a link to their website.

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

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

Almost perfect.

Notable features and experience

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

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

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

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

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

Cellar Pass screen shot search of blind tasting

Another “pay to play” issue?

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

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

What About Tasting Fees?

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

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

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

Consentino listing

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

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

CellarPass mobile screenshot

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

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

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

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

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

I get an error message.

Lovely.

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

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

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

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

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Millennial Math — Where’s the value in wine?

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

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

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

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

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

Millennial Math in the Grocery Store

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

Yellow Tail and other under $10 wines

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

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

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

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

22 oz Beer bomber singles

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

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

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

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

Are we just waiting for better times?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Valuing “Value”

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

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

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

But we deeply value “value.”

The $15-25 Sweet Spot

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

Meiomi & 7 deadly with cheaper spirits

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

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

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

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

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

Old Forester and Woodford reserve

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

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

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

Banking on Premium Spenders

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

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

You know what? I’d rather drink Pappy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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60 Second Wine Review — Wallis Family Little Sister Cabernet Sauvignon

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

The Geekery
Wallis Family Little Sister Cabernet Sauvignon

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

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

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

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

The Wine

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

The juicy plums are quite fresh in this 2011 Cab.

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

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

The Verdict

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

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

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Nathan Fay’s Leap of Faith

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

Stags Leap Fay bottle

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

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

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

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

The Origins of Fay Vineyard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Hunch and Some Hope

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

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

The Wine That Started It All?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and the Fay Vineyard

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Stable of Wines
close up of fay label

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

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

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

Review of the 2011 Fay Cabernet Sauvignon

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

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

The Verdict

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

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

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

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

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

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Geek Notes — New Wine Books for January

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

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

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

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

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

“Absence sharpens love; presence strengthens it.”

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

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

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

screen shot on chablis from WSG Burgundy course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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60 Second Wine Review — Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs

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

The Geekery

Schramsberg blanc de blancs sparkling wine

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

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

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

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

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

The Wine

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

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

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

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

The Verdict

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

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

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Two Great Videos About the Stags Leap District

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

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

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

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

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

An Introduction to the Stags Leap District’s Terroir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Geek Notes — Top Audiobooks on California Wine History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Getting Geeky with Lang & Reed Chenin blanc

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

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

The Background

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

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

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

The Grape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chenin Blanc Today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

The Wine

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

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

The Verdict

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

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

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