Category Archives: Wine reviews

Start-ups and Sangio

Being in love with a techie, you’re never far from the siren song of start-ups. In her long career, my wife is 0 for 3 following that tune. Still, the excitement of building things from the ground up and being part of something innovative keeps luring her back. That’s why we found ourselves uprooting our lives and moving 5000 miles away from her cozy job at Google to a new start-up in France.

Villa Ragazzi Sangiovese

It takes a lot of nerve to set aside the doubts in your head to pursue what ignites your heart. That is a sentiment that Michaela Rodeno of Villa Ragazzi knows very well. As I learned more of Rodeno’s story, I began to understand the fire that drives people like my wife and Michaela. These are folks that don’t want to settle but, instead, want to see what more is possible.

Rather than take the easy road, the easy life, they embrace the challenges that come with forging your own path. Whether it’s building three (!) wineries from scratch or being on the cutting edge of technology, it takes a lot of gumption to do what they do. And that’s certainly worth raising a glass.

From Bubbles to Boardrooms

From Bubbles to Boardrooms book

If you’re in the mood for a fun summer-time read, I highly recommend Michaela Rodeno’s memoir.

From Bubbles to Boardrooms is the title of Rodeno’s book that is part biography and part primer for the fortitude that one needs to make their own opportunities happen. Rodeno gifted us a copy, but I very enthusiastically recommend the book to any wine lover. Or lovers of books about kick-ass women.

Not only is it a great read full of fun stories about the early days of Domaine Chandon and St. Supéry, but Rodeno sprinkles throughout compelling tidbits about what it means to be a leader and trusting your own abilities.

The First of Many Firsts

A UC-Davis grad, Michaela Kane Rodeno moved to Napa Valley with her husband, Greg, in 1972. A lawyer, Greg followed the advice of friends that there was lots of legal work to be found in the burgeoning valley. Michaela found a job at Beaulieu Vineyard, becoming the first woman to serve as a tour guide at the historic winery.

A short time later, she noticed a newspaper article about a new California project by Moët & Chandon. This was the first significant investment in California by a major French winery and Michaela was intrigued. Armed with nothing but her French language degree and a whole lot of moxie, she drove up to the Mt. Veeder home of John Wright, the man tasked by Moët to head the project, offering her services. That day Michaela Rodeno became employee number two at what would become Domaine Chandon.

Changing the Game At Chandon

Domaine Chandon

The owners of Moët & Chandon were very hands-off in the early years of Domaine Chandon, giving Wright and Rodeno almost free reign to build the brand as they saw fit.

While building Domaine Chandon from the ground-up with John Wright, Rodeno had to tackle many winery start-up problems. Her solutions, which she developed over a 15-year career at Chandon, introduced many innovations to Napa Valley.

Back then, wineries often viewed restaurants and retailers as their main customers. Rodeno and Domaine Chandon steered the focus back to regular consumers with an emphasis on the tasting room experience, a direct-to-consumer newsletter and establishing the first wine club in the US, Club Chandon. To counter the higher excise tax on sparkling wine, Chandon also was the first to introduce tasting fees to winery visitors.

Noticing the lack of fine dining options in the valley, Rodeno worked with the Napa County council to get the zoning and permits to open up Étoile, which many give credit with launching the Napa Valley food-scene. That restaurant would go on to earn Michelin stars and global recognition before closing in 2014.

Taking the Next Step at St. Supéry

The author and Michaela Rodeno

The author with Michaela Rodeno at her Oakville estate.

After rising to the position of Vice-President of Marketing at Domaine Chandon, the Skalli family tapped Michaela Rodeno in 1988 to be the first CEO of their new start-up in Rutherford, St. Supéry. The very first female CEO in Napa Valley, Rodeno would build another winery from scratch during a period of explosive growth in Napa.

In her 20+ yr tenure as CEO, Rodeno help developed the winery’s vineyards in Rutherford and Pope Valley. A little unusual for Napa, St. Supéry focused heavily on Sauvignon blanc as a means of distinguishing itself from its numerous neighbors. She also made education a key component of the consumer experience St. Supéry–introducing things like ampelography master classes, sensory tastings and blending events featuring all five red Bordeaux varieties.

Rodeno’s efforts help grow St. Supéry into a 150,000 cases-per-year estate winery that was recognized by Wine & Spirits magazine as their Winery of the Year. Rodeno retired in 2009 to focus on her family’s estate winery in Oakville, Villa Ragazzi.

Sangiovese in the Heart of Cab Country

Photo by Anthonysthwd - Own work, Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0

The Pope Valley in the eastern part of Napa Valley.

Inspired by a visit with Piero Antinori in Tuscany, the Rodenos started Villa Ragazzi in 1985, planting a small vineyard in the sandy soils of the Pope Valley. Their planting of Sangiovese is believed to be the first commercial planting of Sangiovese in Napa Valley. The budwood came from an old Sonoma vineyard of mixed varieties that a family friend of the Rodenos introduced them to.

Villa Ragazzi’s wine quickly distinguished itself from other domestic examples of Sangiovese with Jeff Cox describing it in his book, Cellaring Wine, as the “…one notable example [in California] that has the stuffing and structure of an Italian wine.”

At the last State Dinner hosted by the Obamas, the 2012 Villa Ragazzi Sangiovese was served at the event honoring the Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, and his wife.

In 1998, phylloxera attacked the Pope Valley vineyard. The Rodenos were able to save some of the original budwood and commenced a long replanting program. They sold the Pope Valley vineyard (under the condition that they could still source fruit from there) in 2010 to focus on their Oakville estate plantings of Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon.

The Rodeno Clone

Photo taken by of Sangiovese cluster. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under the user name Agne27.

A large-berried Sangiovese cluster from a Chianti clone grown in Washington State. These vines generally produce a higher output than the small-berried and low-yielding Rodeno clone.

The Sangiovese in the Pope Valley and estate vineyard in Oakville adapted to its terroir, developing distinct characteristics. It is now recognized as its own clone with budwood being propagated by UC-Davis.

Among the unique characteristics of the Rodeno clone is its natural propensity for low yields of small clusters with tiny berries. Most vintages, the harvest is around 1 to 2 tons an acre with a typical output being about 50 to 75 cases. Usually winemakers expect 1 to 2 tons of grapes to produce around 63 to 126 cases.

Over the years, other winemakers and wineries have experimented with the Rodeno (also spelled Rodino) clone including Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon, Silverado Vineyards at their Soda Creek Ranch vineyard, Araujo, Long Meadow Ranch, Krupp Brothers, Fess Parker, Foxen and Gargiulo Vineyard.

Villa Ragazzi’s Oakville Estate

Villa Ragazzi’s 22 acres of sustainably farmed grapes is in an envious spot in Oakville. Just east of Opus One, their next-door neighbors are Groth and Saddleback. A stone’s throw away is the vines of Swanson, Flora Springs and O’Shaughnessy.

Coming full circle from the Rodenos’ original inspiration, Villa Ragazzi’s wines are made at Piero Antinori’s Atlas Peak property, Antica.

Villa Ragazzi rosé of Sangiovese.

You don’t see many rosés made from Oakville fruit. But this one is worth every penny.

The current winemaker is the legendary Robert Pepi who follows an excellent list of predecessors including Charles Thomas (Opus One, Cardinale, Rudd, Lokoya), Celia Welch (Scarecrow, Staglin, Corra), Nate Weiss (Antica, Silver Oak) and Melissa Apter (Antica, Metzker).

The Wines

Note: These wines were received as samples.

2018 Rosato di Sangiovese, Oakville (47 cases made) Suggested Retail $28

High-intensity nose. Fresh strawberries and red floral notes with a little blood orange citrus aromatics.

On the palate, the strawberries and blood orange notes carry through with mouthwatering medium-plus acidity. Bone-dry with medium body fruit. Very well-balanced given its low 11.4% alcohol. The moderate finish lingers on the strawberries but also introduces a subtle floral herbal note like rosemary. Very scrumptious and the best rosé that I’ve had so far this year.

2014 Sangiovese, Napa Valley (195 cases) Suggested Retail $42

Medium intensity nose. A mix of red fruits (cherries and cranberries) with savory herbal and spice notes.

On the palate, the high acidity amplifies the red fruit and defines the herbs and spice as being clove and thyme. The full-bodied weight is more significant than what I usually associate with Tuscan Sangiovese, but the balance of acidity keeps it from being jammy. Medium-plus tannins have a velvet edge that contributes to the balance. The long finish is mouthwatering with the fruit and adds some pepper spice. Would go exceptionally well with a lot of different food dishes.

2014 Faraona, Napa Valley (55 cases) Suggested Retail $54. A blend of 75% Sangiovese and 25% Cabernet Sauvignon

Medium-plus intensity nose. Lots of dark fruits–black currants and black plums. Moderate oak notes like vanilla and cedar. Overall this smells very Cab-like.

On the palate, those full-bodied Cab-dominant fruits carry through, but a little cherry emerges. Firm, high tannins give this wine a lot of grip and, with the medium-plus acidity, suggest that it has a fair amount of aging still ahead. Long finish plays up the Cab notes with some tobacco joining the black fruits.

2015 Faraona, Napa Valley (42 cases) Suggested Retail $54. A blend of 90% Sangiovese and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon

Medium-plus intensity nose. Much more red fruit character than the 2014 Faraona–cherries and red plums. A subtle smokiness adds a savory element to the herbal notes–like roasted thyme and rosemary.

On the palate, the youthful red fruit take center stage. Medium-plus acidity and ripe, medium-plus tannins hold the full-bodied weight of the fruit very well. Some oak flavors of vanilla and allspice emerge but are less pronounced than the 2014. Moderate finish is lip-smacking with savory herbs returning — definitely my favorite of the two vintages of Faraona.

The Verdict

Villa Ragazzi super tuscan Faraona.

While the 2015 Faraona had a lot of character now, this wine is only going to get more complex and layered with age.

In many ways, Villa Ragazzi feels like an “Insider’s Wine” that actually attainable in price. With their minuscule production of fewer than 300 cases a year, so few people will get a chance to try these wines. Even less get a chance to try these wines at their peak.

Some of that scarcity does play into the pricing. In the US, it is easy to walk into any decent wine shop and find tons of Italian Sangiovese and Super Tuscan blends for less. But let’s put this into context.

It wouldn’t be fair to compare Villa Ragazzi’s wines to massed produced Chiantis like Ruffino’s Ducale Oro ($41 with 32,500 cases made) or Gabbiano Chianti Classico Riserva ($22 with 13,900 cases made).

A fairer comparison would be wines made in a more age-worthy style like Isole e Olena’s Cepparello ($90 with 3700 cases made), Felsina’s Fontalloro ($65 with 2500 cases made), Tenuta Sette Ponti’s Crognolo ($40 with 7500 cases made) and Terrabianca’s Campaccio ($36 with 8000 cases made).

Some of these wines are less in price than Villa Ragazzi’s Sangiovese and Faraona. However, none of these come close to such a tiny production. You are also not finding them coming from Napa’s pricey terroir. With their prime Oakville real estate, the Rodenos could turn their entire property over to Cabernet Sauvignon that would certainly fetch much higher prices–especially for a 300 case micro-cuvee.

The fact that they don’t is a testament to Michaela Rodeno’s long history of forging her own path.

The Rodenos could have taken the easy way, selling their land or cranking out more $100+ Napa Cabs. Instead, they followed their passions to innovate and do something different.

It’s that same passion that leads so many people, like my wife, to leave the comforts of a cozy job to dive headfirst into the uncertain, but exciting, world of start-ups. It is also the passion that makes the best stories in wine.

As well as in life.

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Getting Geeky with Grace Vineyard Tasya’s Reserve Shiraz

I am going to need more than 60 Seconds to geek out over my first ever Chinese wine–the 2012 Grace Vineyard Tasya’s Reserve Shiraz from the Shanxi province.

The Background

Mr. Chun-Keung Chan founded Grace Vineyards in 1997 with the help of his friend Sylvain Janvier, a native of Burgundy. Suzanne Mustacich notes in Thirsty Dragon: China’s Lust for Bordeaux and the Threat to the World’s Best Wines that Chan and Janvier met during the former’s business dealings in France. At the time, Chan worked for the Chinese mineral trading and manufacturing firm Eastern Century.

When he sold his shares of Eastern Century in 1994, Chan inquired about purchasing a chateau in Bordeaux. But Janvier convinced him to explore the potential of viticulture in his home country. The two men hired French enologist Denis Boubals to scout for locations. Known as the “Apostle of Cabernet Sauvignon,” Boubals was famous for encouraging Languedoc wine producers to modernize. He promoted uprooting native cultivars in favor of the more fashionable varieties of Cab, Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc and Merlot.

The Vineyard

Map by Shannon1. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

The Yellow River Basin with provinces noted.

Boubals identified 100 ha (247 acres) in the Yellow River Basin of Taigu County in the Shanxi Province as a potential vineyard site. Located on an arid loess plateau 2600 feet above sea level, the sandy loam soils near Jinzhong City provided good drainage. This allowed room for roots to burrow deep into the earth with ample tillage to bury the vines during harsh winters.

Shanxi’s inland location (nearly 600 km/373 miles from the coast) has a continental climate with cold winters and warm summers. Vineyards here experience a wide diurnal temperature variation between daytime highs and nighttime lows. This can help maintain acidity during heat spikes in the summer.

They planted 69 ha (171 acres) of eleven different grape varieties–including Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Chardonnay, Riesling and Chenin blanc. Boubals sourced all the cuttings from France. The partners named their estate Yi Yuan in Chinese and Grace Vineyard in English.

By the estate’s 20th anniversary in 2017, Grace Vineyard had expanded to 200 ha (494 acres) of vines in Shanxi as well as additional parcels in neighboring Ningxia and Shaanxi provinces. The winery also works with several contract growers.

A Family-Owned Winery and a Growing Reputation

Photo by Nick Chan. Uplaoded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-3.0

The exterior of the Grace Vineyard estate.

At the time of Grace Vineyard’s founding, the majority of commercial wineries in China were government-owned entities or co-operatives. The large corporation Changyu based in the Shandong region dominated private enterprise.

In 2002, Chan passed the management of Grace Vineyard to his daughter, Judy, a 24-year-old recent graduate of the University of Michigan. She embarked on an ambitious business-plan that sidestepped the corporation controlled distribution networks in favor of direct-to-consumer sales to the growing Chinese middle class. Chan opened up several wine bars and boutique wine shops in major metropolitan areas that prominently featured Grace Vineyard wine.

Mustacich noted that Chan observed the reticence of Chinese consumers to ask questions that could potentially display ignorance. To combat these fears, she organized the wine bars and retail shops to emphasize education. Chan tailored these sites to be more intimate settings where consumers could freely explore.

As the reputation of Grace Vineyard wines grew domestically, they caught the attention of international critics such as Master of Wine Jancis Robinson. Soon major hotel groups like Peninsula and Shangri-La were featuring their wines. Cathay Pacific Airways, the flag carrier of Hong Kong, also began to promote Grace Vineyard wines on their flights.

Today, Grace Vineyard is considered the “role model” for Chinese boutique wineries as China grows in prominence on the world’s wine stage.

The Winemaking

Map by Pancrat. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Significant areas of grapevine production in China in the early 2000s. Grace Vineyard is in the Shanxi province, northeast of Ningxia, neighboring Hebei.

When the vines were nearing their first harvest, Chan and Janvier hired a Bordeaux winemaker, Gérard Colin. Before joining Grace Vineyard in 2000, Colin worked more than a decade for Chateau Teyssier in Saint-Emilion (before it bought by Jonathan Maltus in 1994). He then spent time at the Haut-Medoc estate of Baron Edmond de Rothschild, Château Clarke.

Colin would make the first several vintages of Grace Vineyard, helping to pioneer serious viticulture in China. He eventually left in 2006 to join the new project of Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) in the Shandong peninsula, CITIC-Lafite.

Colin was succeeded by Australian winemaker Ken Murchison who ushered in a period of exploration. He encouraged the plantings of unique varieties in China such as Aglianico, Marselan, Saperavi, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Nebbiolo, Sauvignon blanc, Pinot noir and Syrah. He also helped Grace launch a sparkling wine project. A native of Victoria, with his own family vineyard in the Macedon Ranges, Murchison split time between working the northern hemisphere harvest at Grace and the southern hemisphere harvest in Australia.

When Murchison retired in 2016, he was succeeded by his assistant winemaker, Lee Yean Yean. Before joining Grace as a cellar hand in 2006, Yean worked in Australia at the Victoria wineries of Curly Flat and Brown Brothers.

The Tasya’s Reserve Shiraz

Photo by Hahn Family Wines. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Syrah grapes growing in the central coast region of California.

Launched as an experimental batch in 2012 (along with an Aglianico and Marselan), the Tasya’s Reserve Shiraz was Grace Vineyard’s first significant departure from Bordeaux varieties. The series’ name comes from the founder’s first granddaughter, Anastasya.

The wine was aged for around one year in second-use oak barrels. Grace Vineyard’s initial release of the experimental wines was limited to 3000 bottles of each variety. Only a few dozen cases were exported.

The Wine

Medium intensity nose. Black pepper and red fruit like cherry and plums. There is a little noticeable oak spice such as cinnamon coupled with an undefined herbal element.

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

The black pepper spice, along with its juicy red fruits, is a defining feature of this Chinese Shiraz.

On the palate, the red-fruits carry through– mainly the cherries. Mouthwatering medium-plus acidity and soft, medium tannins balance the medium-bodied weight of the fruit. If it wasn’t for the black pepper and darker color, I could see myself wondering if this was actually a Pinot in a blind tasting. Moderate finish lingers on the mouthwatering red fruit.

The Verdict

For $25-35, you are paying a tad for the novelty of a Chinese wine. But taken on its own as a cool-climate Syrah, it does have enough character to make the price feel reasonable.

I would describe it as if a Syrah from a cool area (like the Russian River Valley or Santa Barbara County) and a regional Bourgogne Pinot noir had a baby. You can pick up some of the Syrah qualities. But the acidity and structure would lend me to treating it more like a Burgundy Pinot noir. Its best place to shine is on the table with food.

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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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The Hits, Misses and Mehs of Wine Reviews

Earlier this week The Seattle Times published an article about the top Costco Kirkland wines as selected by a local wine blogger.

Kirkland brand Champagne

One of the wines featured was the Kirkland Signature Brut Champagne that I picked up for $19.99. Throughout the month of December, my wife and I like to open up a bottle of sparkling wine each night. That can get expensive with Champagne so we make sure to stock up on plenty of Proseccos, Cavas and Cremants.

Needless to say, I was pretty excited at the idea of trying a true Champagne for the price of a Crémant de Bourgogne.

Reading Owen Bargreen’s review of the wine intrigued me. The Champagne certainly had pedigree with fruit from the Grand Cru village of Verzenay. Also, unusual for Kirkland branded wines, the back label listed who actually made it as Manuel Janisson of the négociant firm Champagne Janisson.

“The Brut Champagne by Kirkland Signature is a blend of pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier sourced from vineyards located in Verzenay. The wine starts off with lovely diatomaceous earth followed by lemon curd and brioche on the nose. The palate shows really nice citrus fruit with kumquat, lemon oil, sourdough bread and a light musty earth flavor. Dense and layered, this is a simply outstanding effort that is a one-of-a-kind value. Drink 2018-2024.” — Owen Bargreen as quoted by Tan Vinh for The Seattle Times 12/7/2018

Unfortunately my experience didn’t quite live up to that glowing review.
label of kirkland champagne

The back label of the Kirkland Brut Champagne.

I was originally planning to share my thoughts about the Kirkland Champagne as a 60 Second Review. But instead I think I need to talk about the risks of buying blindly on the recommendations of critics and wine writers.

At the end of this post I’ll give my take on the Kirkland Champagne. But I’ll blanket it with the same caveats that I’m going to discuss below.

First, let me say that this is not about bashing another blogger.

While I’m going to be disagreeing with a bit of Bargreen’s assessment of the Kirkland Signature Brut Champagne, I’ve been a big fan of his work on the Washington Wine Blog.

Among some of my favorite posts have been his interviews with wine industry insiders like:

Kit Singh of Lauren Ashton
Benjamin Smith of Cadence
Jason Fox of Lagana Cellars
Master of Wine Billo Naravane of Rasa Vineyards
Brooke Robertson of Delmas
Nina Buty of Buty Winery

And many more.

Bargreen has a terrific sense of what’s happening in the world of wine–particularly in Washington. He seeks out the people who are shaping the scene and produces content that is well worth following.

My intent is not to quibble about differences in tasting notes. Taste is highly subjective and personal. From one taster to the next, you are just as likely to agree with someone as you are to disagree.

And that’s precisely the point.

Photo by James Suckling. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

This is especially true with professional critics. It doesn’t matter how esteemed their careers or opinions are. The tastes of critics like James Suckling (pictured) may be quite different than yours.

When you buy a wine based on a newspaper, magazine or blog review, you’re essentially gambling on how likely your tastes will align with the reviewers. And I’m not talking Somm Game gambling here. Because with written reviews (as opposed to personal recommendations from a sommelier or wine steward), you really are going out on a ledge.

The author of a wine review is writing solely from the perspective of their tastes and their opinions. They’re not standing in front of you, listening to you describe the kind of wines that you like or don’t like. They’re not acting like a sommelier or wine steward, piecing together clues to recommend something that they feel confident that you’re going to enjoy.

The reviewer may have a tremendous palate with lots of experience tasting a vast array of wines. But when it comes to recommendations published in articles, blogs, “Best of…” and “Top Whatever” lists, your tastes and your opinions do not enter the reviewer’s equation whatsoever.

Yet it is your wallet that is buying the wine. Plus, either your mouth or your kitchen drain is going to end up with the contents of that bottle.

When you buy off of reviews, what are the odds that you’re going to absolutely love the wine?

I would say about 25% or a quarter of the time. For another quarter, it’s likely to be a complete whiff.

But for the majority of the recommendations you buy, the results will be in the middle of don’t love, but don’t hate or what I call “Meh wines”.

Photo by Katy Warner from Orlando, FL, USA. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD text

And then you got to figure out if it’s worth eating at McDonald’s again to redeem your small fry.

Getting a “Meh wine” is certainly not the end of the world.

It’s kind of like playing McDonald’s Monopoly where you pull off a tab and win a small fry. You didn’t lose per se, but you really didn’t win either. You essentially got a token of a prize and with a “Meh wine” you end up with a token of an experience–something drinkable but not much more.

Now ask yourself. How much money and time do you want to spend on “Meh wines”?

Can You Hedge Your Bets?

You most definitely can. But to do that, you need to think more like a bettor at the horse races.

1.) Do Your Homework. Admittedly, a good chunk of this is trial and error. The only way to increase your odds for successful drinking is to learn how your palate aligns with the reviewers. Paying attention to how many Hits/Misses/Mehs you get with a certain reviewer will key you in on if it’s worth the gamble. Even this is not absolute. There still may be wines that you don’t completely jive with. But, at the very least, you’ll be able to weed out more of the misses and the mehs.

Photo by Ronnie Macdonald from Chelmsford, United Kingdom. Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-2.0

Though there is some truth to the old Will Rogers’ quote: “You know horses are smarter than people. You never heard of a horse going broke betting on people.”

2.) Pay Attention To The Jockeys–i.e. the wineries who made the wine. Often this is even better than betting on the horse. If you’ve had past experiences enjoying a winery’s wines, your bet just got a whole lot better. Because now you’re not really taking a blind recommendation from a reviewer but rather letting your own palate and experience have a say.

3.) Don’t Bet Big On An Unknown. Buying blindly on a review is never an occasion to buy a case. It doesn’t matter what high score or glowing review it got or how killer of a deal it looks like. It could still wind up being a colossal dud. You’re far better off taking a flyer on a single bottle to try first. Even though I really loved the idea of a $20 Champagne to drink all month, I am so grateful that I only spent $20 on the Kirkland Brut instead of a couple hundred.

4.) Spread Out Your Risk. Don’t bet it all on one wine. While I’m a huge supporter of trying new things, it’s always a good strategy to spread your bets out between long-shots mixed with a few favorites. Go ahead and take a chance on that new bottle, but also pick up something that is more of a sure bet just in case.

A Personal Note

Since I do reviews here on the blog, I hope all my readers take the above to heart and apply these strategies to my recommendations as well.

My favorite wines might only hit a 25% jackpot with you–or even less. Our tastes could be polar opposites and that is perfectly fine. My hope is that with the Geekery tidbits and other posts, you’re still finding resources that’ll help you find bottles you enjoy.

In the end, finding great wines that give you pleasure is the only thing that matters. Life is too short to drink “Meh wines”.

Now About That Kirkland Champagne

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

Lots of citrus notes in this Champagne but they’re more on the bitter green side like unripe pomelos.

Medium intensity nose. Definitely citrus driven but more bitter green citrus notes like unripe pomelo and Bergamot orange. Noticeable yeasty notes reminds me of raw Pillsbury buttermilk biscuit dough.

On the palate, those green citrus notes carry through but they fade pretty quickly. It’s definitely the dough notes that dominate but they taste much sweeter than the nose would have suggested. I couldn’t find the exact dosage but it’s certainly on the sweeter side of brut–likely 10-12 g/l.

The sweet dough with citrus flavors makes me think they were trying to go for the Veuve Clicquot style. However, the medium-plus acidity and moderate mousse has a tangy edge (like Bargreen’s sourdough) that doesn’t quite match the creamy mouthfeel that trademarks Veuve. The finish does have a hint of dustiness but is very short.

The Verdict

At $20, this isn’t a horrible wine. It’s definitely drinkable. If it’s aiming to be a budget Veuve Yellow Label for half the price then it’s not that far off. But it certainly tastes like a half-price “Meh” version of Veuve.

Levert Freres

While I might slightly give the nod to the regular Brut, the rose Cremant de Bourgogne from Levert Freres is also quite delicious for less than $20.

However, this is not “a one-of-a-kind value” by any stretch of the imagination.

There are so many stronger bottles of sparkling wines under $20–most notably the many available Cremants from Burgundy, Alsace and the Loire. These include wines like Levert Freres, Louis Bouillot, Albrecht, Gratien & Meyer and Champalou. Often these wines are aged as long as nonvintage Champagne (15 months) and many times much longer.

These Cremants may not have the magical “C-word” on the label like the Kirkland Brut but they are far more Champagne-like.

Then in the US, we have producers like Gruet, Jacqueline Leonne, Trevari and Roederer Estate who make very solid bottles in the $15-20 range. And, of course, Cava has some tremendous bangs for the buck with the Insito, Juve & Camps and Anna de Codorniu being highly reliable sparklers.

Champagne Dreams With a Budget-Friendly Reality

If you want to go Champagne, paying just a little bit more will give you huge quality dividends above the Kirkland Brut.

Bargreen’s article mentions the Feuillatte Blue Label that is often around $27-29 during holidays. Then there is the Moët & Chandon Brut Imperial ($33-36), Petrois Moriset Cuvee ($30-33), Moutard Grand Cuvee ($30-33) Chanoine Frères Grande Reserve ($33-35), Montaudon Brut ($32-35), Pommery Brut Royal ($33-36) and Laurent Perrier La Cuvee ($33-36).

And if you really want a slightly cheaper Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label, the Heidsieck Monopole Blue Top hits those notes better than the Kirkland Brut does in the $33-36 range.

I’m sure you can find even more under $40 Champagne or under $20 sparkling wine options checking out your local wine shop. Plus, you can talk with a wine steward and let them know what you like or don’t like.

That way you’re more likely to go home with a Secretariat, Justify or American Pharoah than you would betting on “Meh”.

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Cannonball Run and Review

The 1981 Burt Reynolds film Cannonball Run is a classic campy action film. But it’s also one of those films that can get a little cringe-worthy watching it in a modern light.

CannonBall Run posted. Uploaded to Wikipedia under Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11146898

Based around a fabled cross-country race, the film has an all-star cast that includes Reynolds, Farrah Fawcett, Dom DeLuise, Roger Moore, Dean Martin, Jackie Chan, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Fonda, Mel Tillis and Terry Bradshaw as well as a heap of “good ole boy” bawdiness.

Fawcett’s character gets kidnapped to be a fake patient in Reynolds’ souped up ambulance. She’s drugged by a creepy doctor (played by Jack Elam) when it’s convenient for Reynolds to use her unconscious body to avoid speeding tickets.

When she comes to, she sleepily smiles and asks if any of the men laid a finger on her while she was out. The joke was that the only thing they did was give her “a little prick” (of a needle, har, har). But, of course, everything is okay because she eventually falls for her captor. Never mind that he didn’t care to even want to learn her name at the beginning and just called her “Beauty”.

Then there was the Vixen Team played by Marcie Thatcher and Jill Rivers who responded to every obstacle in their path by unzipping their racing suits to show more cleavage.

Yet as problematic as Cannonball Run is by today’s standards, it’s hard to judge it too harshly. It was certainly a different time 37 years ago and Cannonball Run was never meant to be taken as a serious film. It was always just a silly, popcorn muncher.

Why am I waxing philosophically about an old Burt Reynolds film?

You could blame a late night Netflix binge. But really why we’re here is because of my recent experience with the Cannonball Eleven wines from Share a Splash Wine Co.

While the Cannonball brand was built on value oriented supermarket wines in the $10-15 range (the popcorn munchers of the wine world), the Cannonball Eleven series is marketed as a more elevated and terroir driven offering.

It’s more Academy Award nominated Boogie Nights Burt Reynolds than Cannonball Run Reynolds–with certainly less “Captain Chaos”.

Intrigued by Cannonball’s all-star cast of Dennis Hill (formerly of Seghesio, Alexander Valley Vineyards, Martin Ray and founding winemaker of Blackstone) and Ondine Chattan (formerly of Ridge, Cline and Geyser Peak), I decided to give these new wines a try.

Full Disclosure: These wines were sent to me as samples.

The Background

Cannonball Wine Company was founded in 2006 in Healdsburg, Sonoma by Yoav Gilat and Dennis Hill.

Focusing on under $20 wines blended from a variety of California regions, the company eventually grew to include a portfolio of brands like Angels & Cowboys Wines, High Dive (a collaboration with Napa Valley winemakers Scott Palazzo of Palazzo Wines and Peter Heitz of Turnbull Wine Cellars) and the Marlborough winery Astrolabe.

In 2017, Cannonball Wine Company relaunched itself as Share a Splash Wine Co.

The Wines

2017 Cannonball Eleven Sauvignon blanc Dry Creek Valley ($24.99)
Cannonball Sauvignon blanc

I’m not a big fan of grassy and green New Zealand Sauvignon blancs so this tropical but elegant Cannonball Eleven Sauvignon blanc hit a lot of pleasure notes.

A 100% Sauvignon blanc, the wine was primarily fermented in stainless steel with a small portion fermented in (presumably neutral) French oak barrels. Around 14,000 bottles were made.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Very tropical with lots of citrus starfruit and melon notes. What’s interesting is that you can get both the zest and pulp aromatics from the fruit. No sign of oak on the nose.

On the palate, the medium-plus acidity makes the tropical fruit tastes very fresh and juicy. Still no oak flavors but the medium body weight of the fruit is balanced by a creamy texture that isn’t that dissimilar to a white Bordeaux. The moderate finish keeps with the fresh tropical flavors but tilts more towards the zestier aspects of the fruit.

2017 Cannonball Eleven Chardonnay Sonoma Coast ($34.99)
Cannonball Chardonnay

I gave these wines nearly a month from when I received them to settle down from travel shock.
I suspect the awkwardness of this Chard is due to its youth,

A 100% Chardonnay, this wine was fermented in a combination of stainless steel and French oak barrels (20% new and 15% second fill). After fermentation, 40% of the wine was aged 8 months in neutral French oak barrels sur lie. Around 15,000 bottles were produced.

Medium-minus intensity nose. Tree fruits like apple with some pastry tart elements. A little vanilla and baking spice from the oak. Rather muted even as the wine warms in the glass.

On the palate, the apple notes carry through and also spice d’Anjou pear with them. There is still some of the pastry baking elements but the presence of oak is much more toned down. Medium-plus acidity gives balance to the medium-plus body fruit. There’s texture to the mouthfeel but it isn’t very malo driven. Unfortunately everything just quickly fades on the mid-palate ending on a practically non-existent finish.

2016 Cannonball Eleven Merlot Sonoma County ($34.99)

A blend of 94% Merlot with 6% Petite Sirah sourced from the Dry Creek and Russian River Valleys. The wine received a cold soak prior to fermentation in stainless steel before being aged in French oak barrels for 6 to 20 months. I suspect that probably the Petite Sirah was aged closer to the 6 month mark while most of the Merlot lots in the blend were aged longer.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Lots of oak with noticeable vanilla as well as chocolate latte aromatics. It’s a very toasty latte like the burnt coffee base of Starbucks. Underneath the oak and chocolate is some dark fruit but it’s hard to make out at this point.

On the palate, the chocolate definitely carries through and so does the dark fruit which become more defined as cherries. But also here is where a distinct streak of pyrazines, particularly jalapeno, emerges. Medium acidity adds a soft lushness to the medium-plus tannins. It’s just enough to hold up the full-bodied fruit. The moderate finish unfortunately lingers on the chocolate-covered jalapenos.

The Verdict

The Dry Creek Sauvignon blanc is by far the strongest of the three Cannonball Eleven wines I tried. It’s clearly California with the warm climate fruit but it has an elegant structure and mouthfeel that you don’t often find in California Sauvignon blancs. It’s versatile as an easy drinking sipper but has the depth to be a solid food pairing wine.

Compared to its peers, I would put the Cannonball Eleven above the similarly priced Emmolo and Duckhorn and not that far off from the $30-35 Cakebread Sauvignon blanc.

I suspect that the Sonoma Coast Chardonnay is in an awkward phase. It tastes a bit disjointed with some of the baby-fat of oak on the nose and the fruit quickly fading on the palate.
It seems to have decent structure and probably will improve with at least 6 months more bottle age. With its acidity and balance I can see this improving even for another 2 to 3 years.

But right now it reminds me more of the $13-16 Kendall Jackson Grand Reserve than it does other Sonoma Coast Chardonnays like Amici and Paul Hobbs’ Crossbarn which can often be had in the $23-26 range. With a price in the realm of Ramey, Failia and Patz & Hall’s Sonoma Coast bottlings, it’s hard to say the Cannonball Eleven Chardonnay is justifying that at the moment.

Oh but that Merlot…
Cannonball Merlot

Yeah, not my thing.

The only Cannonball Eleven wine that wouldn’t personally buy is the Merlot. The combination of overt oak, chocolate and pyrazines just isn’t my style. The best way I can describe this wine is as a bowl of chocolate covered cherries and jalapenos.

Maybe we did have some “Captain Chaos” after all.

I can possibly see this wine working for folks who aren’t as sensitive to pyrazines. If you can look past the green notes, it does have jammy, chocolately fruit with a lush mouthfeel. However, you can find wines in that style (particularly California red blends) for far less than $35.

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Getting Geeky with the 2000 Krug Clos du Mesnil

Going to need more than 60 Seconds to geek out about the 2000 Krug Clos du Mesnil Blanc de Blancs Champagne from the Grand Cru village of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger.

Krug Clos du Mesnil

While Le Mesnil-sur-Oger is known for multiple outstanding wines like Salon, Pierre Peters’ Les Chètillons, Jacques Selosses’ Les Carelles, Pertois Moriset, Pierre Moncuit, Robert Moncuit, Gimonnet-Gonet, J. L. Vergnon and others, the Krug Clos du Mesnil stands apart as one of the most iconic bottles of Champagne. It also tends to be among the most expensive.

At the end of this post, I’ll let you know if I think it’s worth the money.

The Background

Krug was founded in 1843 by Johann-Joseph Krug. Tom Stevenson and Essi Avellan note in their Christie’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine that Krug got his start working for Champagne Jacquesson beginning in 1834.

He eventually married the sister-in-law of Adolphe Jacquesson and rose to second in command of the Champagne house. But instead of staying, he ventured out on his own so that he could put into practice his philosophy of winemaking.

In 1969, his descendants sold the house to the French spirits company Remy-Cointreau but still maintained a vested interest in operations. In 1999, Remy-Cointreau sold it to LVMH (Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton) where it is today part of a vast portfolio of wines that includes Moët & Chandon, Dom Pérignon, Ruinart, Veuve Clicquot and Mercier as well as Clos des Lambrays, Château d’Yquem and Château Cheval Blanc.

However, members of the Krug family are still involved in production with 6th generation Olivier Krug being part of the tasting panel that selects the final blends of all the wines.

While Krug only owns around 50 acre of vines (with 70% of their grapes provided by long-term contract growers & co-operatives), the Champagne house has been steadily converting all their estate vineyards (like Clos du Mesnil) to organic viticulture.

Unique Winemaking
Photo by Tomas er. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

The courtyard of Krug’s production facility in Reims with empty oak barrels that have been used for the primary fermentation of their Champagnes.

Krug is notable for conducting the primary fermentation of all its cuvees in 205 liter oak barrels. Tyson Stelzer notes in his Champagne Guide 2018-2019 that Krug buys all of their barrels new and then keeps them for up to 50 years. Sourced from Seguin Moreau and Taransaud, the average age of the house’s 4000+ barrels is around 20 years.

When the new barrels arrive they are “seasoned” for 3 years with the juice from the second and third pressing. This wine never makes it into any Krug Champagne and is instead sold off for distillation. All together the wine spends only a few weeks in oak due to Krug’s preference for warm and fast fermentations that produce richer flavors. The wine is then transferred to stainless steel tanks.

Oxidative Style

Like Alfred Gratien, Charles Heidsieck, Selosse, Bernard Bremont, Vilmart and Bollinger, Krug is known for its oxidative style of winemaking with less SO2 used. This style tends to emphasize a more broader palate with rounder flavors compared to the reductive winemaking style of houses like Salon, Taittinger, Laurent Perrier, Franck Bonville, Ruinart and Dom Perignon.

While common for many oxidative-style Champagnes, malolactic fermentation is never intentionally induced at Krug. However, it is also not actively suppressed either so it will happen in some lots. But, in general, Krug Champagnes tend to have high levels of malic acid and low pH which contributes to the wines’ legendary longevity.

The non-vintage Grande Cuvée comprises the bulk of Krug’s 650,000 bottle production with vintage Champagnes like the Clos du Mesnil, Clos du Ambonnay and Brut Vintage making up only around 10% of the house’s Champagnes. This scarcity is a big reason for the Champagnes’ high price tags.

The Production Team

Since 1998, the chef de cave of Krug has been Eric Lebel. He was previously the winemaker at De Venoge where he made the notable 1996 Louis XV Tête de Cuvée. His assistant and heir apparent, Julie Cavil, now personally oversees the production of Clos du Mesnil. She has been with Krug since 2006, joining after previously working harvests at Moët & Chandon.

Krug Champagne display box

The display box that the Clos du Mesnil comes package in.

The 2000 vintage of the Clos du Mesnil spent more than 11 years aging on its lees. Krug only produces the wine in exceptional vintages with around 10,000 to 12,000 bottles made. I could not find the exact dosage for this wine but the house style of Krug tends to be on the lower side with an average of 6 g/l. Another trademark of Krug is to use reserves of the same base wine as part of the finished Champagne’s dosage.

The story of the 1999 Clos du Mesnil is an interesting one. Initially set for release after 12 years of aging on the lees, complete with labels printed, the production team of Krug decided at the last minute not to release the wine at all. Instead the wine was uncorked, the bottles destroyed, and the 1999 Clos du Mesnil blended away into other wines.

The Vineyard

Clos du Mesnil is a tiny 1.84 ha (4.55 acre) vineyard located in the heart of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger. A true clos, the vineyard is surrounded by walls that were erected in 1698. An inscription in the clos notes that vines were first planted around this time as well.

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

The Clos du Mesnil vineyard is located practically in the middle of the Grand Cru village of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger.

In the late 19th century, the plot was owned by Clos Tarin whose winemaker was Marcel Guillaume, brother-in-law to Eugène-Aimé Salon. Intrigued by the Champagne business, Salon joined his brother-in-law at Clos Tarin. As he worked the vines of Clos du Mesnil with Guillaume, Salon was inspired to start his own house.

Krug purchased the Clos du Mesnil vineyard in 1971 with the fruit originally destined for use in the Grande Cuvée. The quality of the 1979 vintage inspired the house to do a dedicated bottling that year which was released in 1986. Peter Liem notes in his book Champagne that Krug’s foray into vineyard-designated Champagne was a game-charger for an industry that has historically focused on blending from multiple sites.

The vineyard is divided into 5 to 6 parcels. With varying vine ages and exposures, harvest usually takes place over multiple days with some vintages taking up to 10 days to complete. In the winery, the lots are further subdivided into around 19 different fermentation. The wine is constantly tasted during the aging process with some lots declassified into different bottlings of Krug or wines destined for other LVMH Champagnes.

Behind the Scenes at Clos du Mesnil

Krug’s YouTube channel has several “behind the scenes” videos including this one published in 2014 about Clos du Mesnil. Featuring enologist Julie Cavil, you get a great feel for the vineyard and how much it is like a tiny garden in the middle of the village. It is believed that the site’s urban location adds to the ripeness of Chardonnay in Clos du Mesnil with heat radiating off the nearby buildings onto the vines.

The short (less than 2 minutes) video below also gives some great insights about the 2000 vintage  as well. That year saw hail storms devastate Le Mesnil-sur-Oger though Clos du Mesnil was spared.

The Wine

High intensity nose. This wine smells like freshly harvested raw honeycomb. There is also a spicy ginger element along with a subtle smokiness. It reminds me of an aged botrytized wine like Sauternes. But not quite as sweet smelling. As the Champagne warmed up a bit in the glass, grilled pear notes emerged.

Photo by Merdal at Turkish Wikipedia. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

The raw honeycomb note of this Champagne is very intriguing.

On the palate, the ginger and pear notes carry through and bring a citrus tang as well. The raw honeycomb is also present but takes on more of a baked element like honey shortbread cookies. Racy vibrant acidity makes this Champagne feel very youthful and contributes a streak of salty minerality. Very silky and creamy mousse. Long finish lingers on the smokey, spicy botrytized notes.

The Verdict — Is it worth the money?

Right now the 2000 Krug Clos du Mesnil averages around $994 a bottle with some vintages, like the 1996, topping over $1800.

I had the opportunity to try this bottle as part of the Archetype Tasting series conducted by Medium Plus. Founded by Seattle sommelier Nick Davis, this tasting group allows participants (usually 8 to 10 people) to split the cost of an iconic wine. For this event, attendees contributed $100 each towards the cost of the Krug Clos du Mesnil as well as bringing another fun bottle of Champagne to analyze in an educational setting.

The event was well worth the $100 ($200 with my wife attending) and the add-on bottles to taste the 2000 Krug Clos du Mesnil along with the 2006 Taittinger Comtes de Champagne, 2006 Perrier Jouet Belle Epoque, Frederic Savart ‘l’Ouverture’, Suenen Oiry Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs, Paul Bara and others Champagnes featured.

But would I spend around a $1000 to get another bottle or splurge for an older vintage?

Nope.

Taittinger Comtes de Champagne

The person who brought this Champagne got a screaming good deal getting this for around $100.

Now I will confess that I was recovering from a cold this evening so my tasting impressions were probably a little skewed. But even at less than 100% I found myself much more wowed by how delicious the 2006 Taittinger Comtes (WS Ave $136) was. While the 2004 Comtes Rosé I had earlier this year was a tad disappointing, this 2006 Blanc de Blancs from Taittinger was lively and intense with a long minerally finish that I can still taste.

Sure, I will put the 2000 Krug Clos du Mesnil ahead of it in terms of depth and complexity but I wouldn’t put it nearly 10x ahead. Likewise, the Savart L’Ouverture (WS Ave $47) was an absolutely scrumptious bottle just oozing with character.

I’ll be honest, when we had an opportunity to revisit the Champagnes later in the night, including more of the Clos du Mesnil, I let my wife (who really loved the Clos) get my extra pour so I could enjoy more of the Taittinger and Savart. Since I was the one driving home, I had to prioritize what wines I was going to savor and those were my picks.

If the Krug Clos du Mesnil was more in the $300-400 range, I could see myself wanting to give it another shot. It’s not a disappointing wine at all. But it’s hard to justify the cost especially when there are other wines even in the Krug stable (like their super solid Grande Cuvée at around $200) that can give me just as much pleasure for a better price.

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What’s The Point In Writing Wine Reviews?

I have a confession to make. While I’m no longer in the retail game, I spent over 7 years in it working as a grocery store wine steward and an associate at a major wine retailer. In that time working the floor and talking to thousands upon thousands of customers, I never once had a customer ask me for a wine they saw reviewed on a blog.

Photo by Jami (Wiki Ed). Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Not once.

Oh I’ve had numerous people come in with Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list or a copy of award winners from local competitions like the Seattle Wine Awards. Local newspaper and magazine articles such as Andy Perdue’s Top Wines Under $30 and Sean Sullivan’s 30 Most Exciting Wines in Washington also brought people in hunting.

But never once did I have a customer show me their phone with a wine review from a blog. Or an Instagram pic. Or a Twitter wine chat recommendation.

Never.

I share this confession because as I settle into full-time writing, I’m wondering “What is the point in doing wine reviews?”

Do Consumers Care?

Jeff Siegel, the Wine Curmudgeon, recently asked if we’ve “reached the end of wine criticism?” . He highlights a 2013 Laithwaites Wines Survey that shows only 9% of wine drinkers actively used wine reviews to make a decision. In fact, rather than being helpful, the majority of the 1000 wine drinkers surveyed found reviews to be of little use.

Becca Yeamans-Irwin (The Academic Wino) created a chart showing the results of the Laithwaites’ survey for Wine Industry Insight.

Wine Industry Insight Chart on how helpful reviews are

Chart made by Becca Yeamans-Irwin for Wine Industry Insight. Published 10/26/2018

When I step back and think about how I approach reviews as a consumer, I realize that I hardly use reviews at all.

Context or Empty Text?

It’s not that I don’t read reviews. I’m reading wine stuff all the time and pay for subscriptions to Decanter, JebDunnuck.com, Vinous Media, Burghound, Jancis Robinson’s Purple Pages and others.

But I’m not reading any of those for reviews. If anything, these sites are like porn mags where I am actually just reading them for the articles.

When an article includes tasting notes with descriptors about bouquet, body, fruit, etc, my eyes gloss over them. Instead, I’m looking through the review for something unique or interesting about the wine–something about its story that is worth my attention.

When I was selecting sample reviews for my 2017 Bordeaux Futures posts, the ones I picked had added details about the vintage or chateaux such as if they had frost damage or how this wine compares to the style of years past, etc. While I often found the notes of critics like James Suckling to be virtually useless, other writers like Jane Anson of Decanter gave me the context I craved.

I also regularly read numerous bloggers who do wine reviews such as Jeff Leve’s The Wine Cellar Insider, Dwight Furrow’s Edible Arts, Dave Nershi’s Vino-Sphere, Tom Lee’s Zinfandel Chronicles and Robin Renken’s Crushed Grape Chronicles.

The writers and bloggers that give me context, I follow. The ones that just spew out tasting notes and numbers, I don’t even give a second thought to.

Here’s an example of a wine blogger I follow.

https://foodandwineaesthetics.com/2018/10/16/wine-review-bonny-doon-syrah-bien-nacido-x-block-santa-maria-valley-2009/

While I was familiar with the Bien Nacido vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley, I didn’t know that it was the first cool-climate US vineyard to plant Syrah. This great tidbit adds context to Dwight Furrow’s review of the Bonny Doon Syrah Bien Nacido X-Block.

Even if Furrow didn’t like the Bonny Doon Bien Nacido Syrah, those added details about the wine intrigues me enough to want to try it.

It wasn’t his description of the wine, the “rich, smoked meat with mint highlights” or “luscious, peppery burst of fresh fruit”, that ultimately influenced me. Nor was it his 92 point score. There are many wines that have savory, meaty flavors and pepper notes. Likewise, the cliche “a dime a dozen” doesn’t even come close to expressing how many “92 point wines” there are out in the world.

But the story he shared about the wine–the uniqueness of the Bien Nacido vineyard and the framing of this as a “treasure of the past” that can be used to view Grahm’s new projects–gave me a reason to want to try this wine above all the other savory, meaty and peppery 92 pointers out there.

Why Do I Review Wines?

Being a blogger myself, these sentiments might be a bit of “biting the hand that feeds me”. I mean, shouldn’t I be banging the drum for more people to pay attention to wine reviews? I do, after all, even have a samples policy. Come on! Get with the program LeBeau!

But though I’ve been actively blogging for over a year, it’s hard for me to disengage from the mentality of a consumer and reader of blogs. Nor can I discount my experiences working in the industry. It is those experiences, and dealing with other consumers, that have made me hugely skeptical of the entire concept of “wine influencer”.

Photo by Naotake Murayama. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Lord knows that there are A LOT of stories that can be told about Randall Grahm and his wines.

However, I do think that wine writers have influence. But, as I mentioned with my example of Furrow’s review, it’s not in their tasting notes or numbers.

I might not walk into a wine shop with Furrow’s review on my phone, but the story of Bonny Doon’s Bien Nacido Syrah will resonate in my mind when I see the label or name on a wine list.

Even though I won’t remember the details of his tasting note at all, I will remember the story and context that Furrow shared about the wine.

THAT is the true influence of a wine writer.

These experiences are what shape my own 60 Second Reviews and how I expect readers to approach them.

To be brutally honest, folks could stop reading them after the Geekery section and make them 30 second reviews.

It’s that first section where I strive to give you something that either intrigues you about the wine or gives you a reason to think about it differently.

The tasting note that follows is mostly for my own edification. It’s there to force me to pay attention to what I’m tasting versus just drinking it. A lot of the language I use in those notes (like medium-plus acidity, firm tannins, etc) is language that I need to use for my blind tasting examinations. It’s not the same language that you are going to use when tasting the wine and my note is likely going to be quite different from yours in other ways as well. Wine is subjective and intensely personal.

Rating With My Wallet

The Verdict section, as I mentioned in my post Why I Don’t Use Scores, is my reconciliation of how I feel about the wine with what I paid for it.

I don’t expect to ever get many samples sent to me–and really, after the “hand biting” of this post, why would a PR firm want to? So the vast majority of wines I review will continue to be things that I bought with my own money from shops, wineries and restaurants.

Some things I’m going to feel really good about buying. Other wines are going to feel like I way overpaid for them. I’ll share that frank assessment because you’re likely not going to be getting samples sent to you either.

With every wine, it’s going to be your wallet and your taste buds that determine if it’s worth it. Not a tasting note, not a wine review and certainly not a numerical score.

That is why I don’t want to waste your time with empty text.

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Exploring the Cascade Valley at WBC18

As I was looking back at my notes and photos from the 2018 Wine Bloggers Conference, I realized that I had a serious Day 2 omission. That Friday was a jam pack day. Between the panel on Wine Blogging vs Influencing, Lewis Perdue’s keynote speech and the mystery dinner excursion, I totally forgot to note all the fun discoveries at the lunch sponsored by Cascade Valley Wine Country.

Which is a downright shame on my part because this area is a hot bed for great family wineries. It was also the source of one of the best wines I had at the entire conference.

Some Geekery

Located in north-central Washington State, Cascade Valley Wine Country includes the winemaking hubs of Lake Chelan, Wenatchee and Leavenworth. The area is home to over 50 wineries and many more satellite tasting rooms.

In some ways, the Cascade Valley Wine Country is more geography–rather than terroir–oriented. Just like Woodinville Wine Country, the vast majority of wines made in the area comes from fruit sourced elsewhere in the state like Red Mountain, Wahluke Slope, Horse Heavens and Walla Walla.

However, that dynamic is changing. Several of the wines I tried at the Wine Bloggers Conference (like Hard Roe to Hoe’s Lake Chelan Pinot, Tipsy Canyon’s Viognier and Stemilt Creek’s red blend) came from fruit grown in the valley. With the establishment of Lake Chelan’s own AVA in 2009 and the potential for Wenatchee to get one, the growth potential in this area is immense.

It’s particularly intriguing for an industry grappling with the impact of climate change. While eastern Washington is a lot warmer than many people give credit for, the higher elevation sites around Wenatchee and Leavenworth and the moderate lake effect of Chelan does offer a more temperate climate compared to the very hot AVAs of Red Mountain and Wahluke Slope.

The Ancient Lakes region south of Wenatchee was designated as an AVA and has already shown an affinity for producing outstanding cool-climate wines.

It’s very likely that the future of the Washington wine industry is emerging here in the Cascade Valley.

Wines I Tried

In addition to the lunch sponsored by Cascade Valley Wine Country, I also got a chance to try some of the region’s wines at the speed blogging events on day 2 and day 3.

Hard Row to Hoe 2016 Pinot noir from Lake Chelan

Outside of maybe Otis Kenyon, this winery has the best backstory in Washington. Let’s just say the ladies of Moulin Rouge would be proud. If you are in Manson, it’s well worth the visit to the Phelps family winery just to experience it and hear more of this place’s fascinating history.

Pinot noir is a tough grape to market in Washington. As I noted in my review of Whidbey Island’s Pinot noir from Puget Sound, few Washington Pinots have impressed me. But I do see a lot of potential in this Lake Chelan Pinot noir. It had bright acidity, good balance with oak and nice juicy fruit. It just didn’t quite deliver the depth and layers that you can find from Oregon for the same $40 mark. I strongly suspect that vine age will play an important role because the climate and terroir of Lake Chelan seems, on paper, to be ideal for Pinot.

Succession 2017 Viognier from the Columbia Valley

Owned by Brock and Erica Lindsay, Succession Wines was named this year by Wine Press Northwest as the 2018 Washington Winery to Watch.

Their tiny production of 138 cases of Viognier definitely demonstrates the very fruity, tropical side of the grape. At around $26, I can see these appealing to fans of Pinot gris. I couldn’t find any technical notes but I suspect this wine has a touch of residual sugar which amplifies the fruitiness.

Tipsy Canyon 2017 Viognier from the Columbia Valley

Owned by the Garvin family, this Viognier is sourced from the Antoine Creek Vineyard north of Lake Chelan. That vineyard is also the source of an outstanding sparkling Viognier made by Cairdeas Winery as well.

I will admit that this Tipsy Canyon Viognier was more of my personal style than the Succession one. It tasted noticeably drier with crisp medium-plus acidity and a little stoney minerality. You wouldn’t confuse it for a Condrieu but it is a bottle that you could empty very easily in one sitting.

Unfortunately, they don’t seem to have much of a website or web presence so I couldn’t find out what this Viognier costs. For myself, I would rank this just slightly behind àMaurice’s sinfully delicious Viognier that runs $28-35. If this Tipsy Canyon falls into the $23-28 range, I would have no problem buying multiple bottles of it.

Stemilt Creek 2014 Boss Lady Red from the Columbia Valley

Founded in 2001 by Kyle and Jan Mathison in Wenatchee, Stemilt Creek sources primarily from their own estate vineyard that they farm sustainably. The 2014 Boss Lady is a blend of 46% Syrah, 30% Merlot, 18% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Cabernet Franc and 3% Petit Verdot.

I am a huge fan of the “Hermitage’d” Bordeaux-style wines that add Syrah to the traditional Bordeaux blend. It takes the structure and dark fruit you typically associate with Cab-Merlot and adds gorgeous spiciness. At $24, this Boss Lady Red from Stemilt Creek is a killer value that should probably be priced more in the $30-35 range.

Baroness Cellars 2016 Riesling from Red Mountain.

Founded by Danielle Clements, Baroness Cellars is based in Leavenworth where Clements makes food-friendly European style wines.

While details on this 2016 Red Mountain Riesling is scare, I’m incredibly fascinated with how well she succeeded here. Though off-dry in style, this wine still had crackling acidity that reminded me a lively German Kabinett. Really surprising to see this came from the very warm Red Mountain AVA.

Put Chateau Faire Le Pont on your radars

By far one of the most impressive wines at the entire conference was the 2014 Chateau Faire Le Pont Sangiovese from the Wahluke Slope.

Making good quality Sangiovese (especially domestically) is tough. Despite the proliferation of Chiantis, Brunellos and other Tuscan wines, the grape is actually rather finicky to grow outside of its native Italian homeland. The Antinori family invested millions into their Atlas Peak Antica project–feeling that was the ideal spot for Sangiovese–only to have to admit defeat and move many of those parcels over to Cabernet Sauvignon. For a family with 26 generations of winemaking experience, that’s a tough pill to swallow.

Can Washington do better? Leonetti has been making a tasty Sangiovese sourced from vineyards in Walla Walla but that bottle is usually $80+. For rosé, it has shown great promise such as this delicious example from Davenport Cellars sourced from Ciel du Cheval fruit on Red Mountain. Kaella Winery in Woodinville also used to make a great Sangio rosé from the same vineyard before an ownership change altered its style.

Wine Notes

The 2014 Chateau Faire Le Pont Sangiovese had a terrific medium-plus bouquet with a mix of bright red cherries and savory spice notes. Ripe medium-plus tannins gave it great structure and held up the full-body fruit of the wine well. The medium-plus acidity enhanced the savory spices and contributed a mouthwatering quality which lingered on the long finish. Sangiovese’s best role is usually on the table and this was certainly a winner at lunch with several bloggers going from table to table to find more bottles to finish off.

Again, details are unfortunately scarce outside of noting it was sourced from the Wahluke Slope and that it runs for around $40. Well worth that price.

Other Cascade Valley wineries I’ve enjoyed in the past

Ancestry Cellars (Manson)

Full disclosure, I went to winemaking school with Jason Morin so I’ve had many opportunities to try his great food friendly wines. His 2017 Pinot gris, in particular, hits it out of the park and shows that not all Northwest Pinot gris have to been on the fruity, slightly sweet side.

Cairdeas Winery (Chelan)

Another disclosure, Charlie Lybecker is also a Northwest Wine Academy alum and I’ve been a big fan of his wines for a while. His Rhones are outstanding and the 2014 Caislén an Pápa Chateauneuf-du-Pape style blend was one my top wines from the 2017 Taste Washington Grand Tasting.

Karma Vineyards (Chelan)

By far, some of the best domestic sparklers in the US. I may only rank Schramsberg in California above them but, honestly, the separation is not much at all. Their wines featured at this year’s Taste Washington The New Vintage made dealing with that hellish cattle-call almost worth it.

Seriously, if you love bubbles. Check them out.

Boudreaux Cellars (Leavenworth)

Rob Newsom is one of the most interesting figures in Washington wine. A trained musician, tasting a bottle of Leonetti Cabernet Sauvignon while passing through Walla Walla turned his life around. He learned a lot about winemaking from the Figgins family of Leonetti which he’s used to produce very big, almost Napa-like wines in Washington. I’ve yet to have a bottle of Boudreaux that didn’t beg to be paired with a juicy prime rib. If you like big, bold wines then you need to seek out Boudreaux.

Recommendations for Cascade Valley Wineries

By far, one of the biggest barriers to success for the Cascade Valley wineries is getting their message and branding out.

I would definitely advise them to by looking at what message their websites are sending out. While tasting room traffic and one-on-one dialogue is great, in today’s digital age there will be a lot of customers who are first introduced to a brand via their online presence–including social media.

As much as I enjoyed the wines from this region, I have to admit that writing this post was incredibly difficult. I had a heck of a time trying to find more info about the wineries and wines featured. As a geek, I acknowledge that I sometimes have to play detective and sleuth out details from a variety of sources but 99.9% of wine consumers aren’t going to put in that same effort. You have to make it easy for them to find you and learn more about your wines.

While there are certainly great websites from Cascade Valley wineries (check out Cairdeas and Hard Row to Hoe in particular), most of the sites had very little information or were difficult to navigate. At the very least, tech notes of current and past vintages with details on vineyards and farming practice would go a long way towards filling in the blanks. Beyond that, it would be fantastic to hear more about the stories of the wineries and what make this region so unique and dynamic.

The future looks bright for Cascade Valley Wine Country, folks just need a little help to find these hidden gems of Washington wines.

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Getting Geeky with Rabbit Ridge Petit Verdot

Going to need more than 60 Seconds to geek out about this 2011 Rabbit Ridge Petit Verdot from Paso Robles.

The Background

Rabbit Ridge Petit Verdot

Erich Russell founded Rabbit Ridge winery in 1981 in Healdsburg, Sonoma. Originally a home winemaker in San Diego, Russell’s wines caught the attention of the winemaking team at Chateau St. Jean who offered him a position. From there he spent time at Simi and Belvedere Winery before starting out on his own.

Over the years, Rabbit Ridge has earned numerous accolades and acclaim. They’ve had 3 wines featured on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list. Connoisseur’s Guide named Russell it’s “Winemaker of the Year” in 1998. Wine writer Jay McInerney noted in his 2002 work Bacchus and Me: Adventures in the Wine Cellar that if you wanted to guarantee yourself a good bottle of Zinfandel, seek out the “R wineries” of Rafanelli, Ravenswood, Ridge, Rosenbloom, Renwood and Rabbit Ridge.

In 2001, the winery moved to the central coast of California. Here, the Russell family planted 200 acres on the west side of Paso Robles. Today the winery produces around 10,000 cases from their sustainably farmed fruit.

Rabbit Ridge is a family operation from top to bottom with Erich and Joanne Russell running the estate with their daughter, Sarah Fleming Garrett, and her husband Brice. In addition to working at Rabbit Ridge, the Garretts also have their own label, Serrano Wine, that was launched in 2018 in the Willow Creek District of Paso Robles. According to Barnivore, all the Rabbit Ridge wines are “vegan friendly” with only bentonite and yeast fining used.

The 2011 Petit Verdot is sourced from estate fruit with a little bit of Cabernet Sauvignon blended in.

The Grape

Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz note in Wine Grapes that the first mention of Petit Verdot was in Bordeaux in 1736. However, the grape may not have originated there. Ampelograhical evidence of similar varieties suggest that Petit Verdot may have been a domesticated wild vine that originated somewhere in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques department south of Bordeaux on the border with Spain.

Photo by Eric 先魁 Hwang. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Petit Verdot grapes growing in Portugal.

The name Petit Verdot references the small berries with thick skins that produce green (French vert) and acidic flavors if the grape doesn’t ripen fully. A very late-ripening variety, Petit Verdot is often harvested several days or even a couple weeks after Cabernet Sauvignon.

Despite contributing deep color and spiciness to blends, the risk of not fully ripening caused Petit Verdot’s plantings in Bordeaux to sharply decline in the 20th century to around 338 ha (835 acres) in 1988. However, global warming has sparked renewed interest with a jump to 526 ha (1300 acres) by 2009. Mostly grown on the Left Bank, classified estates that have notable plantings of Petit Verdot include Ch. Margaux and Palmer in Margaux, Pichon Lalande in Pauillac, Léoville Poyferré in St. Julien and La Lagune in the Haut-Medoc.

Petit Verdot in the US

Varietal versions of Petit Verdot have always commanded a premium in the United States. The reason has been because of limited supply and planting compared to other varieties. Matt Kramer notes in his 2004 book New California Wine that while a ton of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon would average around $3,921 and Pinot noir $2,191, Petit Verdot usually cost around $4,915 a ton to harvest.

Today, there are 2,897 acres of Petit Verdot planted throughout California with Napa, Sonoma and Paso Robles being the home for a majority of those plantings.

Outside of California, the grape can be found in Virginia, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, Texas, Pennsylvania and Washington State. In Canada, it is also grown in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia and the Niagara Peninsula of Ontario.

Photo taken by self and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD-user

Petit Verdot leaf growing at the Hedges Vineyard on Red Mountain.

Red Willow Vineyard pioneered Petit Verdot in Washington State in the mid-1980s. Here Master of Wine David Lake encouraged Mike Sauer to plant UCD clone-1 Petit Verdot in his Yakima Valley vineyard. However, as Paul Gregutt notes in Washington Wines, those early plantings failed and the blocks had to replanted with new clones in 1991.

In Walla Walla, the Figgins family of Leonetti planted Petit Verdot at the Spring Valley Vineyard.  Today Petit Verdot is still a significant component of their Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. Other early plantings of Petit Verdot in the 1990s took place at the Mill Creek Upland vineyard in Walla Walla, Destiny Ridge in Horse Heaven Hills and Ciel du Cheval on Red Mountain. As of 2017, there were 254 acres of Petit Verdot in Washington State.

The Wine

Medium-plus intensity nose. Brambly fruit like elderberry and boysenberry with some blue floral notes and forest floor earthiness. With a little air some tobacco spice and a distinct streak of graphite pencil lead emerges. The nose reminds me a bit of Cabernet Franc.

On the palate those dark brambly fruits carry through. The wine has full-bodied weight but I wouldn’t have guessed a 14.8% alcohol. There is no back-end heat or jammy fruit. Moderate oak contributes some baking spice but doesn’t play much of a role. Medium-plus acidity gives the fruit freshness and balances well with the ripe, high tannins. This wine is mouth-filling and mouthwatering. Moderate length finish brings back the spice and minerally graphite notes.

Some Personal Thoughts

I have to confess a bias of sorts. Stories like that of the Russells and Rabbit Ridge fuel and sustain my love for the world of wine. It’s so easy to get lost in the doldrums of supermarket shelves dominated by portfolio of brands owned by a handful of mega-corps that you lose sight of what wine is really supposed to be about. Wines like this remind me of why I geek out about wine.

The 2014 Rabbit Ridge sparkling Pinot noir Brut was also really tasty as well. Look for a 60 Second Review of this wine in December.

I’ve been following Rabbit Ridge Winery on Twitter and highlighted them in my article The Winery Twitter Dance as one the best winery Twitter account worth following. While I don’t know the Russells personally, it’s hard not to feel like I do because of all the great behind the scene tidbits that they share about the hard work and joys that comes with managing a small family winery. Likewise with the Serrano Wine Twitter, you feel like you are with the Garretts on their journey in launching a new winery from the ground up.

For folks like the Russells, the wine that you open up to share on your table with family and friends isn’t just a brand. It’s their life work and the result of hours upon hours of toil, and gallons upon gallons of sweat, spent over every step of the process. From first putting the vines into the ground to finally the cork in the bottle, they’re putting a part of themselves into each wine.

When you share their wines, you’re not sharing something thought up during a marketing department’s brainstorming session and tested on focus groups. Instead, you’re sharing something that was dreamed up by person who looked out at a vineyard or into a great glass of wine and thought “I could do this. I should do this.” and tested that dream over and over again on their own table–with their own family and friends.

The Verdict

I opened this bottle of 2011 Rabbit Ridge Petit Verdot with higher expectations than I do for a commodity brand.  And I certainly savored that it lived up to those expectations. At $20 (yes, $20 for a varietal Petit Verdot!), this wine has character and complexity that opens up even more in a decanter over the course of dinner.

No, it’s not a jammy, hedonistic red like many Paso wines can be. Its best role is definitely on the table where its acidity and structure can shine with food. But it is a bottle way over delivers for the price and worth trying.

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WBC18 Day 3 Quick Impressions

Picture of Brokenwood Semillon wine

A big selling point for next year’s WBC will be the chance to explore more Hunter Semillons.

I’m back home from the 2018 Wine Bloggers Conference in Walla Walla. Next year’s event will in the Hunter Valley in Australia and I’m very tempted!

Over the next couple of weeks I’ll get back to posting 60 Second Wine Reviews and Geek Notes as well as a new edition of Keeping Up With the Joneses of Burgundy.

I’ll also have some extended write-ups from the conference so keep your eyes open for those. Till then feel free to check out the previous posts in my WBC18 series:

WBC18 Day 2 Quick Impressions
WBC18 Day 1 Quick Impressions
Getting Ready (and a bit nervous) For WBC18!

On to Day 3!

Breakout Session — Advanced Strategies for Facebook and Instagram

My other options for the morning sessions were How to Seal the Deal with a Kick Ass Media Kit and How to Craft a Compelling Professional Pitch which seem to be heavily tilted towards seeking paid promotions from wineries. Since I have little interest in those kind of gigs, I opted for this seminar hosted by Carin Oliver of Angelsmith, Inc.

I haven’t figured out what I’m doing with Instagram yet. I like pretty pictures as much as the next person but I get bored easily with bottle porn. Tell me something about the wine or vineyard beyond just “Yum!” or “Beautiful!”.

Wine Bloggers Conference Agenda

The “How to Make Wineries Adore You” session also didn’t seem like my calling.

I was hoping that Oliver’s talk would show me the value of Instagram as well what’s the best use of Facebook. While she gave great insights on how Facebook treats blog and business pages, I quickly realized that her talk was geared towards “influencers” who want to make themselves marketable to wineries. Again, that’s not me.

Can Google Read? How your Writing Affects Your Rank in Google Search

This was an awesome session! John Cashman and Nancy Koziol (The Oethical Oenologist) of Digital Firefly Marketing gave a terrific presentation that was the most fruitful of the entire conference.

Around 2/3 of my traffic comes from search engines so I was eager to learn how that happens. Cashman and Koziol explained search engine optimization and the current understanding of how Google analyzes and ranks pages. But the best part was Koziol’s section on how to be a better writer and make your posts more readable.

You can check out the presentation yourself here!

Bubbles & Bites With Gloria Ferrer

The old adage that American wine drinkers “Talk dry but drink sweet” has a lot of truth to it. The sweet Bruts of Gloria Ferrer fit that bill very well.

It probably wasn’t the best idea to schedule this session after lunch but sommelier Sarah Tracey (The Lush Life) did a great job of pairing Gloria Ferrer sparklers with various nibbles.

I wasn’t thrilled with the wines as the Gloria Ferrers were on the sweeter side of Brut with 12.2 g/l residual sugar (2010 Anniversary Cuvee $45) to 12.8 g/l (Rose $29). While the US and EU allows up to 15 g/l under the Brut category, in Champagne the limit is 12 g/l. Believe me, you can taste the difference.

Live White & Rosé Wine Blogging

I missed the Wine and Cheese Pairing with Cheeses of Europe and the Lightening Talks so I could finish yesterday’s Day 2 recap but I made it in time for the second round of chaotic blogging.

This style of blogging is still not my cup of tea but I was introduced to some awesome wines.

Amanda Barnes presenting the Garzon Albarino from Uruguay

Amanda Barnes of Around the World in 80 Harvests presenting the Garzón Albarino.

1.) Bodega Garzón 2017 Albarino — An Albarino from Uruguay! This was a first for me and I totally geeked out over the differences between this and the Albarinos I had the day before from Rías Baixas. The Garzón was crisp but more rich in the mouthfeel with riper fruit flavors. It also didn’t have the trademark salinity of the Galcian Albarinos.

2.) Dr. Loosen 2016 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling GG Alte Rebben — A super geeky old vine Riesling sourced from 100+ yr vines that are still planted on their own rootstock. Crisp and dry with only 6.9 g/l residual sugar, it was a welcomed contrast to the Gloria Ferrer “Brut” sparklers from earlier.

3.) Troon Vineyard 2017 Riesling — I actually got a “sneak peak” taste of this before the speed blogging which I really appreciated. This complex, orange wine-style Riesling merits way more attention than what could be given in 5 minutes. Sourced from biodynamically grown grapes in the Applegate Valley of Southern Oregon, this wine spent 2 weeks macerating with its skins before being fermented dry and aged in neutral oak barrels. Lots of interesting flavors that I don’t regularly associate with Riesling like cumin and saffron with cantaloupe rind. Great texture and mouthfeel with a long finish.

Final Dinner Sponsored by Visit Walla Walla

The Truth Teller and the Wine Lunatic, together at last!

The last event of the conference was a dinner with Washington winemakers at each table. My table got to enjoy the company of Chris Loeliger of Truth Teller Winery and Tim Armstrong of Armstrong Family Winery.

With a more intimate setting, it was great hearing behind-the-scenes anecdotes about what it’s like starting a winery and the challenges that come with it. Of course, those great stories also came with great wines with the Truth Teller Right Bank Bordeaux-style blend Satire and Armstrong’s Cabernet Franc being my favorites. Look for some upcoming 60 Second Wine Reviews on both.

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