Tag Archives: A History of Wine in America

Getting Geeky with Welsh Family Wines Blaufränkisch

Going to need more than 60 Seconds to geek out about this 2016 Welsh Family Wines Blaufränkisch from Dauenhauer Farms in the Willamette Valley.

Full Disclosure: This wine was received as a sample. I also went to winemaking school with Dan Welsh of Welsh Family Wines at the Northwest Wine Academy.

The Background

Welsh Family Blaufränkisch wine

Dan Welsh and his wife, Wendy Davis, started Welsh Family Wines in 2014. A protege of Peter Bos from the Northwest Wine Academy, Welsh utilizes native yeast fermentation and minimalist winemaking to produce food-friendly wines.

Sourcing fruit from dry-farmed vineyards throughout the Willamette Valley, Welsh makes single vineyard designate wines from Armstrong Vineyard in the Ribbon Ridge AVA, Bjornson Vineyard and Eola Springs Vineyard in the Eola-Amity Hills, Dell’Uccello Vineyard near Eugene as well as Dauenhauer Farms in Yamhill County.

The wines are made at the SE Wine Collective in Portland. Here Welsh Family Wines shares space and a tasting room with several other urban wineries such as Esper Cellars, Laelaps Wines, Stedt Winegrowers and Statera Cellars. Alumni wineries like Fullerton Wines, Vincent Wine Company and Bow & Arrow started out as part of the SE Wine Collective before moving on to their own facilities.

The 2016 vintage was the first release of Welsh’s Blaufränkisch from 30+ year old vines planted at Dauenhauer Farms. Multi-generation farmers, the Dauenhauers also produce a Lemberger/Blaufränkisch under their Hauer of the Dauen (Hour of the Dawn) label.

The Grape

Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz note in Wine Grapes that several grape varieties have been known as “Fränkisch” since the Middle Ages. Distinct from Heunisch grapes believed to have originated from Hungary, these Fränkisch varieties were thought to be more noble grapes associated with wines of the Franconia region.

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

Blaufränkisch grapes growing in Germany.

The first written record of the name Blaufränkisch dates back to 1862 when the grape was presented at a exposition in Vienna. Later that century, the grape appeared in Germany under the synonyms Lemberger and Limberger. Both names seem to have Austrian origins and may indicate the villages where the grape was commonly associated with–Sankt Magdalena am Lemberg in Styria and Limburg (now part of Maissau) in Lower Austria.

DNA evidence has shown that Blaufränkisch has a parent-offspring relationship with the Heunisch grape Gouais blanc. It also crossed with Gouais blanc to produce Gamay noir. This suggests that the grape may have originated somewhere between Austria and Hungary though Dalmatia (in modern-day Croatia) is also a possibility. Here the grape is known as Borgonja (meaning Bourgogne) and Frankovka. However, the identification of these Croatian plantings with Blaufränkisch was only recently discovered so the grape’s history in this region is not fully known.

Beyond Gamay noir, Blaufränkisch has also sired several other varieties such as Zweigelt (with St. Laurent), Blauburger and Heroldrebe (with Blauer Portugieser), Cabernet Cubin and Cabernet Mitos (with Cabernet Sauvignon) and Acolon (with Dornfelder).

Blaufränkisch in Europe.
Photo by qwesy qwesy. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-3.0

Lemberger vines growing in Württemberg, Germany.

In Austria, Blaufränkisch is the second most widely planted red grape variety after its offspring Zweigelt with 3,340 ha (8,250 acres) as of 2008. Covering 6% of Austria’s vineyards, most of these plantings are found in the Burgenland region.

Most German examples of Lemberger/Limberger are found in Württemberg (part of the historic Franconia region). There were 1,729 ha (4,272 acres) of the grape planted in Germany as of 2009.

The 8000 ha (19,770 acres) of Hungarian Kékfrankos, the local translation of “Blue Frank”, are scattered throughout the country. Sopron, bordering Austria, is particularly well known for the grape as well as Kunság. In Eger, Kékfrankos is a primary grape in the region’s famous “Bull’s Blood” wine of Egri Bikavér.

Prior to the discovery of Borgonja as Blaufränkisch, Croatian plantings of Frankovka accounted for 2.7% of the country’s vineyard.

Blaufränkisch in the US.

Paul Gregutt notes in Washington Wines and Wineries that Dr. Walter Clore pioneered planting of Lemberger in Washington State in the 1960s and 1970s. Sourced from cuttings in British Columbia, Clore thought the grape had the potential to be Washington’s answer to California Zinfandel.

Photo source https://cahnrs.wsu.edu/blog/2007/04/a-brief-history-of-washington-wine-walter-clore-washington-wine-history-part-1/

Dr. Walter Clore, the “Father of Washington Wine” and pioneer of Lemberger in the state. Photo courtesy of WSU’s A Brief History of Washington Wine.

In those early years, the grape was mostly used in blends and port-style wines. Kiona Vineyards released the first commercial example of Lemberger in the United States in 1980. Under Clore’s influence, Thomas Pinney notes in “A History of Wine in America, Volume 2”, the grape became something of a “Washington specialty”.

While consulting for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates’ Columbia Crest winery, California winemaker Jed Steele discovered Washington Lemberger. He eventually partnered with the winery to make his Shooting Star Blue Franc.

Lemberger hit a high point of popularity with 230 acres in 2002. But in recent years the variety has seen a steep decline with only 54 acres in production as of 2017. Today, some of the oldest plantings are found on Red Mountain at Kiona and Ciel du Cheval.

In Oregon, there is not enough plantings of Lemberger/Blaufränkisch to merit inclusion on the state’s acreage report. Outside of the Pacific Northwest there are some plantings in Lodi, New Mexico, New York, Michigan and Ohio.

The Wine

Medium intensity nose. A mix of red fruits–cherries and raspberry–with floral notes like carnations. With air some forest floor earthiness comes out. Little to no oak influence except for maybe some slight allspice baking notes.

On the palate, those red fruits carry through and are amplified with high acidity. Very mouthwatering. The acidity also brings out black pepper spice and makes the forest floor earthiness seem more fresh. Soft medium tannins balance the medium-minus body weight of the wine very well. The moderate finish lingers on the red fruit.

The Verdict

Photo by Jeremy Keith from Brighton & Hove, United Kingdom. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Lots of juicy red cherry notes in this wine.

This is a very Pinot noir-like Blaufränkisch that is very different from the Washington Lembergers I’m familiar with from Kiona and Alexandria Nicole. Those wines tend to have a much bigger body with dark blackberry fruit and more noticeable oak influences.

The lightness of the body, ample acidity and spice notes are certainly closer to Austrian examples of the grape. Though the fruit in Austrian Blaufränkisch tends to be more on the black fruit side of the spectrum than this very red-fruited Oregon wine.

As this was my very first Oregon Blaufränkisch, I can’t say if this is typical of how the grape responds to Oregon terroir. My gut is that it is because the Pinot comparisons are inescapable.

The best way to describe this wine would be if an “old school” Oregon Pinot noir (like Rollin Soles’ ROCO) and a Cru Beaujolais (like a Côte de Brouilly) had a baby.

While it is enjoyable on its own (especially if served slightly chilled on a warm day), the best place for this wine is on the table with food. Here its mouthwatering acidity and interplay of fruit & spice can shine with a wide assortment of dishes. At $20, this would be a terrific bottle to think about for Thanksgiving.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

The Fanatical But Forgotten Legacy of Martin Ray

As California Wine Month comes to a close, I want to spend some time reflecting on the men and women who have made California what it is today.

Folks like Agoston Haraszthy, H.W. Crabb, Charles Krug, Josephine Tychson, Louis M. Martini and, in more modern history, people like Andre Tchelischeff, Robert Mondavi, Warren Winiarski, Robert Haas, Donn Chappellet, Fred and Eleanor McCrea and Dick Grace.

Truthfully, the list could go on ad infinitum because the history and story of California wine is truly a patch work quilt of individual dreams and efforts.

But I’m willing to bet that if you asked most wine lovers to list some of the influential figures in California wine history–only the truly old timers and the geekiest of wine students would mention Martin Ray.

Which is remarkable considering the modern legacy of all “the Martians” that came after Ray.

The Invasion of Quantity over Quality

In the link above, wine economist Mike Veseth highlights the dichotomy in thought of two post-Prohibition wine pioneers over what the “idea” of wine should be–a topic he greatly expands upon in his 2011 work Wine Wars: The Curse of the Blue Nun, the Miracle of Two Buck Chuck, and the Revenge of the Terroirists.

Philip Wagner, who founded the Maryland winery Boordy Vineyards, bequeathed the Wagnerian ideals of wine being an everyday commodity–much like any other food and beverage–that should be affordable and accessible. As Veseth notes, the existence of “Two Buck Chuck” is a very Wagnerian model. However, Wagner’s idea of everyday affordability wasn’t just limited to bottom of the barrel prices.

Photo from Radicaldreamer29. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Martin Ray in the 1960s.

Martin Ray, on the other hand, thought that American wine should aim high and not settle for just being a commodity like milk and grains. Inspired by the great wines of Europe, the original “Martian” was convinced that California had the potential to reach similar heights.

Post-Prohibition Blues

As Thomas Pinney notes in A History of Wine in America, Volume 2: From Prohibition to the Present, the American wine industry was in a bit of a funky, cloudy haze in the years after the repeal of Prohibition–just like many of the wines of that period.

The goal of most post-Prohibition wineries was cheapness and quantity with quality being a distant third. In chapter 4 of his work, Pinney quotes UC-Davis professor Maynard Amerine’s 1940 letter bemoaning the fact that many producers ignore their vineyards until late in the harvest season, letting the grapes go far past their ideal harvest time and producing wines that were “…heavy, lacking the essential fruit quality and frequently have an overripe grape or raisin taste.” Beyond the poor condition of the fruit, Amerine noted, in the winery this often led to the presence of spoilage bacteria.

Amerine’s letter (as quoted by Pinney) would go on to say:

Aside from [Martin] Ray you would be amazed at how few of our growers or vintners have the least conception of these facts. This is one of the recurring reasons for the lack of quality (or even drinkability) of California wines.

— Maynard Amerine’s October 20th, 1940 letter to Julian Street as quoted in Thomas Pinney’s A History of Wine in America, Volume 2

Martin Ray was different.

 

A protégé of Paul Masson, Ray grew up near Masson’s vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Francisco.

While today his name is synonymous with low quality jug wines made by Constellation Brands, Paul Masson was a pioneer in his own right aiming to make high quality sparkling wines in the style of his homeland of France–even importing his own cuttings of Pinot noir and Chardonnay vines from Burgundy (likely from his friend Louis Latour’s vineyards).

During the Great Depression, Martin Ray quit his career as a stock broker to joined his neighbor Paul Masson at his winery. Falling in love with the industry, Ray bought the Paul Masson winery in 1936.

Seeing the poor quality that dominated the post-Prohibition wine industry, Ray made it his personal mission (a fanatical obsession as Pinney describes) to bring back the quality levels and standards that trademarked the industry in the Pre-Prohibition days of Haraszthy, Krug, Lily Langtry, Tychson, Jacob Schram, Gustave Niebaum and Georges de Latour.

The Best Of Intentions, The Poorest of Results
Photo from the California Historical Society. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD US

A 1935 advertisement for California port with a hefty 18-20% ABV.

But he had an uphill battle with the legacy of bootlegging, speakeasies and moon-shining leaving American drinkers with a taste for things strong and sweet.

Many of the California wines that dominated the market were often fortified with brandy and sweetened up with the use of raisins or very late harvested grapes made from Muscat, Thompson Seedless and Sultana. Thomas Pinney notes those three grapes represented nearly half (44%) of the 1941 vintage alone.

The nature of the industry and a devastating winery fire were too much to overcome. In 1942, Ray accepted an offer from Seagram’s for the Paul Masson brand and what was left of the winery.

The Sky’s The Limit

However, rather than retire, Ray tried his hand again in his fanatical quest for quality. Purchasing land on the hilltop across from the old Paul Masson vineyards, Ray transferred many of those Burgundian cuttings of Pinot noir and Chardonnay to plant what is now known as Mount Eden Vineyards–2000 feet above the Santa Clara Valley. His widow Eleanor Ray and their daughter, Barbara Marinacci, detailed Ray’s passion and goals in their book Vineyards in the Sky: The Life of Legendary Vintner Martin Ray which is a great read for folks wanting to know about this pivotal time in California’s wine history.

By Radicaldreamer29 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

The Martin Ray vineyard was renamed Mount Eden in 1972 with the legendary Dick Graff and Merry Edwards making the first few post-Ray vintages. Today Jeffery Patterson tends to these grapes.

Branded under his own name, Martin Ray spared no expense in making Pinot noir, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon wines that he felt could compete with the best that Europe offered. In the vineyard, he focused on lowering yields and refused to irrigate–believing that excess water diluted the vine’s potential to make great grapes.

After the grapes were harvested, he rushed to get them crushed and fermenting within an hour of leaving the vine in order to minimize the degradation of quality and exposure to spoilage bacteria.

The wines were barrel fermented and then pressed in a custom built hand press that Ray designed himself to minimize extraction of harsh tannins. He then aged the wines in oak barrels before bottling them unfined and unfiltered. However, rather than releasing the wines soon after bottling, Ray kept the wines back and aged them further in cellar until he felt that they were ready for the market. Sometimes this meant holding them back as long as ten years.

Recognition, at last?
Photo a derivative of photos on Wikimedia Commons uploaded by self under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Unfortunately by the time Steven Spurrier was touring California to select wines for his famous tasting, the wines of Martin Ray were fading into obscurity.
S

Ray’s efforts and dedication to quality allowed him to ask for and receive some of the highest prices in all of California at the time–$2 a bottle.  Martin Ray wines were even served at the White House for both Johnson and Nixon.

However, Ray still had the cards against him. Many American drinkers of dry wines were more apt to look eastward towards Europe than to the home grown products of California. The costs and expenses of his quality-driven style–plus some bad business decisions with investors–caused Martin Ray to lose his winery in 1970. The new owners did allowed him to spend his remaining years living in a house below the vineyard.

He passed away in 1976–the same year that the famous Judgement of Paris wine tasting took place. It seems both fitting and tragic that the moment when Martin Ray’s passion and vision were actualized was when he left this earth.

That year, American wines truly did compete with the best that Europe offered.  The embrace of American consumers came shortly after.

His life’s work. Finally completed.

Rediscovering Martin Ray

Following the Judgement of Paris, the California wine industry entered a boom period of prosperity and acclaim. In the dust, the name of Martin Ray continued to fade into obscurity until 1990 when a young entrepreneur named Courtney Benham stumbled upon a warehouse in San Jose that contained 1500 cases of old Martin Ray wines along with Ray’s letters and winemaking notebooks.

That same year Courtney Benham had founded Blackstone Winery with his brother Derek. Intrigued, Benham inquired with the family of Martin Ray about acquiring the rights to Ray’s name.

Lindsey Haughton and Bill Batchelor of Martin Ray.

In 2001, the Benham brothers sold Blackstone to Constellation Brands for $140 million and in 2003 acquired the historic Martini & Prati Winery in the Russian River Valley to be the new home of Martin Ray Winery.

Blackstone’s winemaker Dennis Hill made the first vintages of the new Martin Ray wines until the 2001 sale. Then Bryan Davison succeeded him. The new winery building in 2003 saw the hiring of Bill Batchelor. The brand expanded to with the introduction of sister labels, Angeline and Courtney Benham Wines.

Batchelor eventually left Martin Ray in 2017 to take over the winemaking operation of Gundlach Bundschu. He was succeeded by his assistant winemaker, Lindsey Haughton who has been with the winery since 2012. Prior to joining Martin Ray, Haughton worked harvest at Heitz Cellars in Napa and studied at Fresno State University. While at school, she worked at Engelmann Cellars.

The Wines

2016 Martin Ray Sauvignon blanc Russian River Valley ($16-20)

100% Sauvignon blanc sourced from vineyards mostly in the Green Valley of the Russian River.

High intensity nose. Very intriguing mix tropical citrus fruit like starfruit and pomelo with richer honeydew melon and subtle grassiness. It’s not as green as a New Zealand Sauvignon blanc but the nose is as intense as one.

On the palate, the citrus notes hold court and add a lemony note. Medium-plus acidity is mouthwatering and fresh but doesn’t stray into tartness. Good balance with medium bodied fruit. Moderate finish brings back some of the honeydew notes.

2016 Martin Ray Sonoma County Pinot noir ($23-28)

A gorgeous Pinot that way over delivers for the price.

100% Pinot noir sourced from the Ricioli and Foppiano Vineyards in the Russian River Valley and the Sangiacomo Vineyard in Carneros.

WOW! High, high intensity nose. Mix of dark cherries with red raspberries and some subtle dried floral and earthy notes. With air those earthy notes become more defined as forest floor and cola nut.

On the palate the red fruit comes out more than the dark but feels weightier with medium-plus tannins. Noticeable vanilla oak also brings spices like nutmeg and cinnamon to the party. Medium-plus acidity is very lively and balances the weight of the medium body fruit. Long finish lingers on the juicy fruit at this point. It will become even more complex as the baby fat of oak fades and the floral and earthy notes develop.

2016 Martin Ray Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon ($18-22)

100% Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from vineyards in the Alexander Valley, Sonoma Mountain and Dry Creek Valley.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Very jammy dark fruits of black currants and blackberries. More noticeable oak on the nose with toasty vanilla and some clove.

On the palate those jammy dark fruits come through with medium-plus body weight. Ripe medium-plus tannins holds up the fruit and contribute to the smooth mouthfeel with the vanilla. Medium acidity gives some balance but has me wishing for more. Reminds me a lot of the Justin Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon. Moderate length finish continues with the dark fruit and vanilla oak.

Final Thoughts

It’s interesting that the modern incarnation of Martin Ray seems to combine the “Wagnerian” and “Martian” ideals. These wines offer affordable everyday drinking of very good quality.

I know that not every household has $20 wines as their everyday drinkers. But compared to many higher priced $30-40 bottles, these wines certainly make that kind of quality level more attainable.

Compared to many Napa and New Zealand Sauvignon blancs over $20, this Russian River Sauv. blanc is extremely tasty and vibrant.

The Pinot noir, in particular, is outstanding for the price with single vineyard designates from the legendary Sangiacomo vineyard rarely dropping below $35. The Ricioli and Foppiano vineyards in the Russian River Valley also tend to fetch higher prices.

While the Martin Ray lineup certainly does include more expensive wines from the Diamond Mountain District and Stags Leap District of Napa Valley, I don’t think the original Martin Ray would balk at these more affordable bottles from Sonoma.

 

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

Zinfandel — The “Craft Beer” of American Wine

Photo from the Provincial Archives of Alberta. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons with no known copyright restrictions

In 1915, on the eve of Prohibition in the United States, there were over 1300 breweries across the country producing around 60 million barrels. While the growing behemoths of Anheuser-Busch and Pabst Brewing Company had national scale, the vast majority of these breweries were small regional players that were deeply influenced by the traditions of the local immigrant communities.

In 1940, seven years after the repeal of the Volstead Act, that number of breweries was nearly halved to 684 yet the country was still producing nearly 55 million barrels as production and distribution started consolidating around the big breweries.

By 1980, there were only 101 breweries in the United States cranking out nearly 200 million barrels–with the 10 largest breweries being responsible for nearly 94% of that.

This was the state of the beer industry on the eve of the Craft Beer Movement–a movement spearheaded by folks who simply wanted something different apart from the mass proliferation of American lagers.

Chanpuru — “Something Mixed”

I’ve been binge watching Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, trying to get through all 8 seasons on Netflix before it leaves their listings on October 1st.

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

Also good to know that the Okinawan diet includes plenty of beer!

In the Season 6 episode on Okinawa, I was introduced to the phrase chanpuru which Bourdain described as the Okinawan idea of eating something different every day and enjoying the richness of variety.

Considering that the Okinawa diet and lifestyle is legendary for promoting long life and contentment, this was certainly a concept that resonated with me–especially being part of a generation that is notoriously “…open to new experiences, new regions and new grape varieties.”

Which brings us back to Zinfandel and the lessons of craft beer.

While the craft beer category in the United States has evolved to encompass envelop-pushing styles and new ideas, at the root of the movement was a desire of beer lovers to get back some of what was lost prior to Prohibition–those traditional styles and varieties of beers that were regionally influenced by local German, Austrian, Irish and Latin immigrant communities.

While the majority of beer drinkers had “moved on” and were content with their mass-produced lagers, a tiny but growing segment of passionate beer lovers knew that this country’s brewing heritage was a worthwhile story to explore. And if the big brewers weren’t going to explore it, then these beer lovers needed to take the mantle themselves and lead the way.

They not only found their chanpuru but made it their own.

Heritage Vines — Heritage Wines

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

Zinfandel vineyard first planted in 1910 in Saratoga, California. Even the “young” 1976 vines are over 40 years old.

First introduced to California during the Gold Rush of the 1850s, Zinfandel has always been an American wine with an immigrant’s story–likely coming to the US as a Croatian vine (now known to be Crljenak Kaštelanski/Tribidrag) that was part of an Austrian nursery collection.

Once the grape reached California, it was spread widely across the state–particularly by Italian immigrants who established numerous old vine vineyards in the North Coast that are still treasured today.

While the Hungarian immigrant Agoston Haraszthy, the “Father of California Viticulture”, didn’t originally bring Zinfandel to the US, Thomas Pinney notes in his A History of Wine in America, Volume 1 that Haraszthy did much to propagate and promote the variety.

By 1888, Zinfandel was the most widely planted wine grape in California with around 34,000 acres. Even after Prohibition, Zinfandel still maintained significant plantings with Master of Wine Benjamin Lewin noting in Claret and Cabs that in the mid 20th century, Zinfandel far outpaced Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley with many Napa “clarets” actually being Zin-based.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that Chardonnay (and in the 1990s Cab) eventually surpassed Zinfandel as most widely planted variety in California. However, with over 44,000 acres, Zinfandel still remains the third most widely planted grape in California.

Master of Wine Morgan Twain-Peterson of Bedrock Wine Co. and Tegan Passalacqua of Turley Wine Cellars both serve on the board of the Historic Vineyard Society. Here they are giving a presentation on old vine vineyards at the 2018 Hospice du Rhone.


A Sleeping Giant

Interwoven within those 44,000+ acres are plots of old vine Zinfandel that are increasingly being highlighted by wine producers and organizations like the Historic Vineyard Society.

Scattered across the state of California–from Sonoma to Amador County, Lodi to Paso Robles, Santa Clara Valley to Cucamonga Valley–each of these old vine vineyards are planted with stories that span several decades. In the case of the Zinfandel vines in the Grandpere Vineyard in the Sierra Foothills, those stories have been shared for nearly 150 years.

For a generation of consumers that crave experience and authenticity, connection and chanpuru–few wines can craft a better calling card for Millennial wine drinkers than Old Vine Zin (the real stuff, not the marketing fluff–which is fodder for another post).

But are Millennial drinkers actually interested?

Perhaps.

This post was provoked by two articles that came across my Twitter dash today–Mike Veseth (@MikeVeseth) examining trends in the US Wine Market highlighted by Nielsen data that was reported in Wine Business Monthly and Winesearcher.com’s Liza B. Zimmerman report on the takeways from the recent Silicon Valley Bank’s State of the Wine Industry report (brought to my dash via @DwightFurrow‘s daily round up of interesting blog writings).

I found it curious that this grocery store display of “Beginner’s Wines” under $20 didn’t feature any red wines–only Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc and Riesling.


After noting Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay’s sustained dominance in both case volume and sales value, Veseth was surprised to find that the number one variety in terms of average bottle price in the United States was Zinfandel at $11.19 a bottle–beating out Pinot noir’s $10.43 average. Along with his surprise, Veseth expressed a desire to see more research into this development.

Of course, correlation does not imply causation and all that but I couldn’t help but wonder if there is a link between this and the “frugal hedonists” that Rob McMillan, founder and executive vice president of the Silicon Valley Bank Wine Division, describes when talking about Millennials in Zimmerman’s WineSearcher.com piece.

While the under $9 category of wines are slumping, adventurous Millennial drinkers are branching out more into the $8-14 range. Like craft beer drinkers before them who weren’t content with just the cheap brews of the mass produced beers, Millennial drinkers are willing to spend a little bit more to get something that appeals to their wanderlust hedonism and cravings for something interesting.

Few varieties offer a better (or more frugal) bang for the buck in quality than Zinfandel.

Yeah….I’ve been low on Merlot but given these options, you really can’t blame me for heading over to the Zin aisle.


While there is not that huge of a quality gap between an $8 Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Pinot noir and a $14 example–when you get to Zinfandel there is a much more noticeable jump in quality from the $8-9 Bogle and Seven Deadly Zins of the world and $12-14 examples from the Sobon and Maggio-Reynolds families or even relatively large wineries like Ravenswood, Klinker Brick and St. Francis.

The jump to the $15-25 range in Zinfandel also offers an exponentially higher quality jump than you typically find in Cabs, Merlot and Pinots with offerings from wineries like Rosenblum, St. Amant, Seghesio, Truett Hurst, Carol Shelton, Ridge and Renwood.

Then when you start exploring the character-driven wines of single vineyard, old vine Zinfandels from producers like Turley, Bedrock, Carlisle, Bella, Robert Biale and the higher-end Ridge wines, you find oodles of wines in the $40-60 range that would blow most $100+ Napa Cabs out of the water.

Even Turley’s entry-level Juvenile Zin at $30-38 offers more character and complexity than a lot of Cabernets twice its price.


Zin-ful Thoughts Part II

Now I’m not saying that cheap, crappy Zin doesn’t exist.

If there is a dollar to be made and a brand to be mass produced, you know that one of the big mega-corps are going to capitalize on it.

Just look at what has happened to the craft beer segment which has become a feeding frenzy of acquisitions by the big beer firms trying to conquer the craft market by gobbling up brands like old European powers colonizing Africa and the New World. Just as beer drinkers have to be open minded, but weary, so too are wine drinkers well served by frequently asking who made the wine that is in their glass.

Still these mass-produced (and sometimes “faux old vine”) Zins aren’t all bad and I would wager that, for an equivalent price, a mass-produced cheap Zin is on par (if not better) than a mass-produced cheap Cab, Merlot or Pinot.

Above all, what I am saying is that there is a special heritage here in the United States with Zinfandel–a heritage that is too valuable to be lost to the dust bin of history.

Just like the craft beer drinkers of the late 20th century reclaimed their heritage, we also have the same opportunity to reclaim a bit of ours and add a little more chanpuru to our drinking options.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

Getting Geeky with Stony Hill Chardonnay

The First of September kicks off California Wine Month and while I won’t steer this blog as much towards a California-centric bent as I did with Washington Wine Month (hometown bias, y’all), I will be highlighting California wines throughout the month in various posts and my 60 Second Wine Reviews.

However, I also have posts in the pipeline that you can expect to see soon for a new edition of Keeping up with the Joneses in Burgundy as well as a wrap up of my ongoing series on the 2017 Bordeaux Futures campaign (had to give my wallet a bit of a break). Later this month I’m teaching a class on Italian wine so you can be sure to expect a sprinkling of Mambo Italiano here and there.

Subscribers can stay on top of the geekery with new posts emailed right to their inbox.

But let’s turn the focus back to California beginning with the most memorable California wine that I’ve had in the past year–the 2008 Stony Hill Chardonnay.

I had the privilege of trying this 2008 Stony Hill Chardonnay courtesy of a dear friend who brought this wine over for dinner this past Thanksgiving. That night featured a lot of heavy hitters including a 2004 Nicolas Joly Coulée de Serrant, a 2006 Philipponnat Grand Blanc Brut, a 2006 Hospice de Beaune Volnay Premier Cru Cuvée Blondeau, 2012 Domaine de la Vougeraie Vougeot 1er Cru “Le Clos Blanc de Vougeot” Monopole, 2007 Copain Gary’s Syrah from the Santa Lucia Highlands and a 2010 Sichel Sauternes but this Napa Chardonnay was my run-away wine of the night.

The Background

Stony Hill Vineyard was founded in 1948 when Fred and Eleanor McCrea, inspired by their love for white Burgundy, planted their first 6 acres of Chardonnay along with some Riesling and Pinot blanc on the old Timothy Feeley homestead located on Spring Mountain. Charles Sullivan notes in Napa Wine: A History from Mission Days to Present that the McCreas sourced the budwood for their Chardonnay from the Wente family in the Livermore Valley.

Photo by 	StonyHill at en.wikipedia. Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-3.0

The winery doors to Stony Hill Vineyard.


The first vintage followed in 1952 and, by 1954, Stony Hill’s small production was being completely allocated through mailing list. According to Thomas Pinney, in his A History of Wine in America, by 1990 someone wishing to get their hands on Stony Hill wine had to wait at least 4 years on a waiting list for the privilege.

In 1972, Mike Chelini joined Fred McCrea as winemaker, assuming the job full-time on Fred’s passing in 1977. By 2011, Chelini, along with Bill Sorenson of Burgess, was one of the longest tenured winemakers in Napa Valley with the upcoming 2018 vintage being Chelini’s 45th harvest.

During this period Stony Hill developed a reputation for producing some of Napa’s most ageworthy Chardonnays with a lean, acid driven style that bucked the trend of buttery, malo-laden Chardonnays that were adorned in lavish new oak.

In his New California Wine, Matt Kramer describes Stony Hill Chardonnay as “… the essence of what California Chardonnay can be: pure, free of oakiness, filled with savor, and yet somehow unpretentious. It is rewarding, even exciting drinking–if you can find it.”

The task of finding Stony Hill has always been tough with the winery’s tiny 5000 case production but also because of the economics and realities of the wine business in the 21st century. Even when Stony Hill’s mailing list shrank, allowing more wine to be available on the retail market, the McCreas found that many large distributors which control the three-tier system didn’t care to pay attention to a small family winery–even one with such a stout pedigree.

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

Stony Hill Vineyards on Spring Mountain


Plus the counter fashion style of Stony Hill’s wines, which often requires patience and cellaring, as well as the “too cheap for Napa” pricing put the McCrea family in a position where they were looking to sell and in late August 2018 it was announced that Stony Hill Vineyard was being sold to the Hall Family of neighboring Long Meadow Ranch.

Long Meadow Ranch

In my recent post Tracking the Tastemakers which examined Wine Enthusiast’s “Top 40 Under 40 Tastemakers for 2018” I expressed my admiration for the wines of Long Meadow Ranch that are now headed by COO Chris Hall.

Long Meadow Ranch has been one of my favorite Napa estates for a while. Such an under the radar gem with a great winemaking pedigree that began with the legendary Cathy Corison and now features Ashley Heisey (previously of Far Niente and Opus One), Stéphane Vivier (previously of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti’s owners’ California project–Hyde de Villaine) and Justin Carr (previously of Cakebread, Rudd and Hourglass). — Tracking the Tastemakers (August 30th, 2018)

The view from Long Meadow Ranch’s Mayacamas Estate overlooking Rutherford.


Above and beyond Long Meadow Ranch’s fantastic wines and winemaking pedigree is the Hall family’s deep seated commitment to the environment and sustainability. Pam Strayer of Organic Wines Uncorked has a terrific write up on how Long Meadow Ranch is showing how a winery in Napa can thrive with an organic business model.

Founded in 1989 with their Mayacamas Estate, the Halls now tend to over 2000 acres of vineyards and agriculture lands that includes olive trees, fruit orchards, vegetable gardens and even cattle that supplies ingredients for their farm-to-table restaurant, Farmstead.

The Wine

High intensity nose–an intoxicating mix of grilled pears and peaches with a little bit of white pepper spice. A very savory nose.

Photo by Jerry012320. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

On the palate, the white pepper spice from the nose seems to morph into a stony minerality like river stones.


On the palate those grilled fruits come through. Even though they are couched with some subtle smokiness, the fact that the fruit is still present and distinctive is impressive for an 8 yr+ domestic Chardonnay. That is surely helped by the medium-plus acidity which holds up the medium weight of the fruit and keeps the mouth watering. Instead of white pepper, the wine takes on a more minerally river stone note that lingers through the long finish.

The Verdict

Just superb. Reviewing my notes after enjoying this wine during Thanksgiving, I was marveling at how youthful and fresh this wine was tasting. If you are lucky enough to have a bottle, you can probably still savor it easily for another 3 to 5 years–and I may be too conservative in that estimate.

While I’m not immune to the occasional indulgence and siren song of a butter-bomb like Rombaurer or Robert Lloyd’s sinfully delicious Carneros Chardonnay, neither of those wines could ever come close to the layers of elegance and complexity that this 2008 Stony Hill Chardonnay exhibits. This wine is truly on another level when it comes to domestic Chardonnays with its peers being found more in Burgundy than in Napa Valley.

This is a wine that combines the savoriness of a well aged Meursault with some of the mouthwatering acidity of a Chablis. At around $50 according to Wine Searcher, this wine is a screaming value compared to aged Burgundies of equivalent quality.

Ultimately, I have to fully echo Matt Kramer’s endorsement that tasting an aged Stony Hill Chardonnay “… is rewarding, even exciting drinking–if you can find it.”

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

Geek Notes 8/28/18 — Upcoming Wine Books For September


Let’s take a look at some of the new upcoming wine books that will be hitting the market soon.

Crush: The Triumph of California Wine by John Briscoe (Paperback to be released Sept 1st. Hardcover on Sept 4th)

September is California Wine Month (I know, I know, someone needs to publish a calendar with all these various wine months and days) so the release timing of this 368 page book covering the history of the California wine industry is apt.

Given the breadth of its subject, it will be interesting to see how this book tackles its topic with most books on California’s wine history being more singularly focused like James Conway’s 3 book series on the history of Napa–Napa: The Story of an American Eden, The Far Side of Eden: New Money, Old Land, and the Battle for Napa Valley and Napa at Last Light: America’s Eden in an Age of Calamity, Charles Sullivan’s nearly completely California-centric Zinfandel: A History of a Grape and Its Wine or George Taber’s account of the famous Judgement of Paris tasting and its impact of the California wine industry.

It’s also telling of a daunting task that Thomas Pinney, a former professor at Pomona College in Claremont, California, needed more than a 1000 pages and two volumes to document a lot of California’s history in his work A History of Wine in America Volume 1 & Volume 2. Yes, Pinney does include a little bit of history of winemaking from other states–including the early booming industries of Missouri and Ohio–but the vast majority of his work focuses on California and even then you get the impression that he probably could have added a third volume.

Photo by Radicaldreamer29. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

California wine pioneer Martin Ray in the 1960s. Any good book on California history should have him featured.


If you are craving more, I can recommend for any geeks wanting to learn about California wine to check out Larry Bettiga’s Wine Grape Varieties in California which goes beyond the usual suspects of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay to detail more than 50 grape varieties growing throughout the state as well as Mike DeSimone and Jeff Jenssen’s Wines of California, Special Deluxe Edition that takes a little more of an overview approach of the state, focusing on wineries and winemakers. Likewise Jon Bonné’s The New California Wine: A Guide to the Producers and Wines Behind a Revolution in Taste also takes an overview approach but focuses on the wineries that Bonné particularly feels are driving the future of the California wine industry.

Literary Libations: What to Drink with What You Read by Amira K. Makansi (To be released Sept 4th)

I love when my passion for wine and literature cross paths which is why I’ve been really looking forward to Jay McInerney’s upcoming November release of Wine Reads: A Literary Anthology of Wine Writing which will include both fictional and non-fictional stories and anecdotes on wine from folks like Rex Pickett (of Sideways fame), Jancis Robinson, Kermit Lynch, New Yorker writer A. J. Liebling as well as McInerney who previously wrote Bacchus and Me: Adventures in the Wine Cellar, A Hedonist in the Cellar: Adventures in Wine and The Juice: Vinous Veritas.

Photo 	Screenshot from

Makansi recommends drinking a Bloody Mary while reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
But come on, you’ve got to go with the Hungarian wine Egri Bikavér (Bull’s blood) or a Romanian wine from Transylvania which is a legit wine region with more than 6000 years of viticulture and unique varieties like Fetească Regală (white) and Fetească Neagră.


I suspect that Makansi’s Literary Libations is going to have a more light-hearted and entertainment-focused approach than McInerney’s work–especially since the former is categorized as “Humor Literary Criticism” by Amazon. Still the description of the 224 page Literary Libations notes that it will offer nearly 200 wine, beer and cocktail recommendations for numerous classical works across a number of genres.

I can see this being a fun easy read, especially for something like a long train ride or airline flight.

Flawless: Understanding Faults in Wine by Jamie Goode (To be released September 7th).

Now this is a book to truly get your geek on. A plant biologist by training, Jamie Goode (the Wine Anorak) is an excellent writer who takes a keen scientific approach to all aspects of wine production and tasting, presenting it in both a thought provoking and digestible manner.

If your book shelf doesn’t have at least his The Science of Wine: From Vine to Glass then you are missing out. Likewise his I Taste Red: The Science of Tasting Wine and Authentic Wine: Toward Natural and Sustainable Winemaking with Master of Wine Sam Harrop are also well worth the read.

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

A plating of Brettanomyces bruxellensis. While mostly considered a fault in the wine world, many brewers are intentionally cultivating this yeast strain to produce sour beers.

With Flawless, Goode turns his attention to faults in wine which can have a myriad of causes in the vineyard and the winery. To add to the complexity of faults, humans have a wide range of sensitivity to them with some, like Brettanomyces, being considered anything from a component of terroir and complexity (see A Spice of Brett) to an incorrigible fault that should be eradicated in winemaking.

It will be fascinating to see Goode’s take on this so you better believe that this book will soon be on my shelf.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

The Legend of W.B. Bridgman

With more than 900 wineries producing over 17.5 million cases, the future of the Washington wine industry looks bright.

But as we wrap up Taste Washington Wine Month, it would be remiss not to take a look at a pivotal figure of the past who put Washington on the path to such a future–A Canadian ex-pat from Sunnyside, Washington named William B. (W.B.) Bridgman.

Early History and Irrigation Laws

Born in 1877, W.B. Bridgman grew up on the Niagara Peninsula in Ontario where his family grew Concord grapes. Ronald Irvine notes in The Wine Project that it was at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota where Bridgman met Walter Hill, son of railroad tycoon James J. Hill. To help pay his way through law school, Bridgman became a tutor for the younger Hill. This arrangement led Bridgman to accompany Walter on a rail journey to the Pacific Northwest in 1899.

Intrigued at the opportunities in this new frontier, Bridgman found work at a local irrigation company. He settled permanently in the Yakima Valley in the town of Sunnyside–about 175 miles southeast of Seattle. An expert in irrigation laws, Bridgman wrote many of the early statutes that outlined access and development of irrigation usage for agriculture in Eastern Washington. Several of his laws are still on the books today.

Due to the rain shadow effect of the Cascade Mountains, a significant portion of the central basin of Eastern Washington averages only around 8 inches of rain a year–most of it in winter months. To grow grapevines that often need 3 to 6 gallons of water a week during the heat of summer to avoid heat stress, the development and use of irrigation proved vital to the growth of viticulture in Washington.

Planting of Harrison Hill and Snipes Mountain

Settling into Sunnyside, Bridgman was elected mayor twice. Then, in 1914, he purchased land on two uplifts that are today separated by Interstate 82. Among the first vines he planted on Harrison Hill were Black Prince (Cinsault), Flame Tokay and Ribier. In 1917, he planted Muscat of Alexandria and Thompson Seedless on Snipes Mountain.

Map a derivative from Washington State AVA map provided by the Washington State Wine Commission for public use.

The Snipes Mountain AVA with a rough approximation of the location of Harrison Hill and present-day Upland Vineyard bisected by Highway 82.

Eventually, Bridgman expanded to plant Zinfandel, Alicante Bouschet, Carignan, Mataro (Mourvedre), Pinot noir, Semillon, Sauvignon blanc, Black Malvoisie and many other varieties.

In the early years, Bridgman mostly sold grapes to Italian and Croatian immigrants in Cle Elum and Roslyn. But when Prohibition was enacted in 1919, Bridgman saw demand skyrocket.  A “loophole” in the legislation permitted up to 200 gallons a year of self-made wine. This essentially produced overnight what Ronald Irvine describes as “a nation of home-winemakers.”

Upland Winery

Thomas Pinney notes in A History of Wine in America, Volume 2 that by the end of Prohibition, Bridgman had over 165 acres of vinifera planted. He decided to open a winery in 1934, hiring German winemaker Erich Steenborg. A graduate of the famous Geisenheim Institute, Steenborg had worked for several wineries in the Mosel.

Photo taken by self. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons as User:Agne27 under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Soil sample from Upland Vineyard on Snipes Mountain.

At Steenborg’s urging and with his connections, Bridgman brought in around a half million cuttings of Riesling, Sylvaner, Gutedel (Chasselas), Blauer Portugieser and Müller-Thurgau vines. (Incidentally, Irvine notes that most of the Riesling cuttings that Upland brought in turned out to be Scheurebe.)

Named Upland Winery, Bridgman and Steenborg desired to make dry European-style table wines from vinifera grapes. However, post-Prohibition wine drinkers favored sweet dessert and fortified wines made from a mix of vinifera, hybrid and labrusca grape varieties.  To pay the bills, Upland produced “ports” and “sherries” to meet market demand.

When Steenborg left in 1951, Bridgman hired Marie Christensen, the winery’s lab assistant, to take over winemaking. Her promotion made her the first woman in the state to head winemaking at a major winery.

Changing Markets and Challenges

Dealing with market forces that favored sweet and boozy wines eventually proved too much for Bridgman. He sold the winery in 1960 to George Thomas. Thomas changed the name to Santa Rosa Winery.  The winery continued to operate it in some degree until shuttering in 1972.

Today, the Newhouse family own the old buildings of Upland Winery and vineyards, having purchased the property in 1968.  Several of Bridgman’s original 1917 Muscat of Alexandria vines are still producing grapes. Paul Gregutt speculates in Washington Wine that these may be the oldest Vitis vinifera vines in the state.

In addition to selling grapes from Upland Vineyard to over 20 different wineries like Betz, DeLille, Pomum, K Vintners and Kerloo–the Newhouses produce wine under Todd Newhouse’s Upland Estate and Steve Newhouse’s Newhouse Family Vineyards made in partnership with Ron Bunnell.

Influence on the Washington Wine Industry

Grenache made by Kerloo Cellars from Upland Vineyard.

If Dr. Walter Clore is the “Father of Washington Wine,” W. B. Bridgman can rightfully be called “the Grandfather.”

After Prohibition, Bridgman and his Upland Winery were charter members of the Washington Wine Producers Association. Founded in 1935, Bridgman was the only charter member from the east side of the mountains as most of the winemaking during that period was done on the west side of the state by fellow charter members St. Charles Winery and Davis Winery on Stretch Island, Wright Winery in Everett, Werberger Winery on Harstine Island and Pommerelle Winery in Seattle.

In Goldendale, Bridgman advised Samuel Hill (who married Walter Hill’s sister, Mary) to plant a mix of vinifera and American hybrids developed by Thomas Volney Munson in what is now Maryhill in the Columbia Gorge AVA.

Dr. Walter Clore

Pinot gris from Upland Vineyard on Snipes Mountain.

In 1940, Bridgman encouraged a young horticulturalist from Washington State University named Walter Clore to plant wine grape varieties at the Irrigation Experiment Station in Prosser. With Bridgman supplying many of the initial vine cuttings, this experimental vineyard would eventually become known as “The Wine Project” and include over 250 different varieties of vinifera, hybrid and American wine grape varieties.

Observing the success of several varieties in the vineyard, Clore authored academic papers extolling the viability of a wine industry in Washington State. Spurred on by the results of Dr. Clore’s work, the Washington wine industry today is responsible for more than 27,000 jobs. Overall, the industry has an economic impact of nearly 15 billion dollars for the state.

Associated Vintners

In 1954, W.B. Bridgman sold grapes to a group of University of Washington professors making wine under the name of Associated Vintners. Impressed by the wines produced by Lloyd Woodburne, Bridgman gave the young academics advice and encouragement in their endeavors. In 1960, Bridgman met with the AV group in Seattle to discuss the future of the Washington wine industry.

That meeting would lead to a long term contract for grapes. This eventually turned into Associated Vintners purchasing the 5.5 acres Harrison Hill Vineyard in 1962 from Bridgman. Uprooting most of the older plantings, AV replanted with Cabernet Sauvignon and other red grape varieties. While Associated Vintners is now known as Columbia Winery and owned by Gallo, those Cab plantings at Harrison Hill Vineyard (managed by the Newhouse family) are today some of the oldest and most prized plantings in the state.

Legacy Today

A Columbia Valley Syrah made under the W.B. Bridgman label by Precept Brands.

William B. Bridgman died in 1968 at the age of 90, leaving a last imprint on the Washington wine industry even as his name has faded into obscurity.

Beyond the irrigation laws he authored that allowed viticulture to prosper, the roots of Upland Vineyard and Harrison Hill Vineyard continue to produce world-class wine grapes. The first Chardonnay in the state was planted here. Mike Sauer used cuttings from AV’s replanting of Harrison Hill to plant Red Willow Vineyard in the 1970s.

To help keep the name of Bridgman alive, Washington Hills Winery (co-founded by Brian Carter) created a select line of wines in 1993 to honor the pioneer. When Precept Brands acquired Washington Hills in 2003, they kept the Bridgman Cellars label and today still produce wines that bare the name and legacy of W.B. Bridgman.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!