Tag Archives: Atlas Peak

Book Review — Drive Through Napa

The folks behind I Like This Grape were gracious enough to send me a copy of their latest book, Drive Through Napa: Your Ultimate Companion to Napa Valley’s Wines Regions.

Drive Through Napa cover

Photo courtesy of Naushad Huda, ILikeThisGrape.com

While working on a research project about the Stags Leap District, I had several opportunities to check out the eBook version written by Paul Hodgins and Naushad Huda with Kathy Lajvardi providing graphic design.

Below are a few thoughts about this modern primer on the most famous wine region in the United States.

The Background

Naushad Huda came up with the idea of Drive Through Napa after wandering,

“If Pharrell or Complex Magazine were to write a wine book, what would it look like? What would it sound like?”

Previously, Huda had founded the digital creative agency XTOPOLY that focused on interactive marketing. They worked on T-Mobile’s first mobile eCommerce site and created campaigns for several global companies including Vitamin Water, Nestle, Emirates Airlines, Nivea and Google. After merging XTOPOLY with the Finnish software company Vincit in 2017, Huda served as their Director of Strategy and Partnerships.

It was during this time that Huda, along with his wife Kathy Lajvardi, wanted to take a fresh approach to the traditional concept of a regional wine guide.  Lajvardi is an accomplished artist whose done graphics work for the Iron Man and Transformer movie trailers. Her photographs and paintings are also regularly featured in major art galleries.

Partnering with Paul Hodgins, a longtime writer for the Orange County Register and author of The Winemakers of Paso Robles with Julia Perez, the Drive Through Napa team embarked on their project with Millennials as a target audience.

The Book

With that Millennial-focus in mind, Drive Through Napa is designed to be easily digestible within a 1-hour read. One of the goals of the creative team was to avoid many of the cliches that they saw in other wine guides–such as endless photos of vineyards that all look the same. The main graphics in the book are maps and price-to-rating charts taken from data provided by Vivino.

Another focus of the book was to steer clear of being a “what to drink” guide. Instead, Drive Through Napa takes more of a high-level approach to exploring the 16 AVAs (or “neighborhoods”) in Napa with brief blurbs on climate, elevation, rainfall, soils as well as principal grapes and their characteristics.

SLD Screenshot from Drive Through Napa

Screenshot of winery listing for the Stags Leap AVA which also includes notable vineyards.

Each AVA section touches a bit on some of the history and key pioneers. They also include a listing of most all the wineries and many notable vineyards that call each region home.

A critical distinction between Drive Through Napa and other regional wine guides is that there is no contact information about these wineries. Nor are there any details about which wineries are open to visitors and if appointments are necessary.

I suspect part of the reason for this stems from the goal of not being a “what to drink” guide.

The book does include a note directing folks to check out each individual AVA associations’ website. However, they unfortunately don’t include what those websites are so folks will have to Google them.

In addition to the AVA chapters, the introduction of the book goes into some of the history of California wine and the role that Napa has played in bringing prominence to the state. It touches on the usual characters of the Catholic Church and early 19th-century pioneers but also devotes time to post-Prohibition figures like Brother Timothy Diener of the Christian Brothers and putting the “Mondavi Effect” into context.

Additionally, the intro chapters include a short glossary of essential wine terms used in the book and briefly touches on a few of the major California wine regions beyond Napa.

Things I really liked about the book.

Photo by Sarah Stierch. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 4.0.

Burgundian winemaker and Raymond Vineyards owner Jean-Charles Boisset is one of several subjects interviewed for Drive Through Napa.

The team behind Drive Through Napa certainly achieved their goal in creating an approachable primer. There is brilliant simplicity in the graphics and design that makes it easy to digest even when a fair amount of information stray into technical viticultural details.

You don’t need to be a “wine geek” to pick up this book and find it useful. But if you are a geek, there is most certainly something in it for you as well.

My favorite part of Drive Through Napa was the interviews they included in several AVA chapters. Here Hodgins and Co. asked very pointed questions such as  “What effect does your region have on the grapes that are grown here?”, “What will we notice when tasting a wine from your AVA?” and What do people misunderstand about your AVA?”

This is where Drive Through Napa moves beyond just being an easily digestible primer on Napa Valley towards something that wine students will find immensely useful. In particular, I would encourage folks working on blind tasting exams to pay careful attention to the answers about AVA characteristics and their influence on the resulting wines.

The interview subjects have some serious pedigree.

Richie Allen, Director of Viticulture and Winemaking for Rombauer Vineyards (Carneros)
Taylor Martin, Managing Partner of Italics Winegrowers (Coombsville)
Dave Guffy, Director of Winemaking for The Hess Collection (Mt. Veeder)
Lorenzo Trefethen of Trefethen Family Vineyards (Oak Knoll)
Celia Welch, consulting winemaker of Keever Vineyards and many others (Yountville)
Jon Emmerich, winemaker of Silverado Vineyards (Stags Leap District)
Jean Hoefliger, winemaker of Alpha Omega Winery (Atlas Peak)
Nicole Marchesi, winemaker of Far Niente Winery (Oakville)
Ivo Jeramaz, winemaker of Grgich Hills Estate (Rutherford)
Jean-Charles Boisset, owner of Raymond Vineyards and many others (St. Helena)
Stuart Smith, owner and winemaker of Smith-Madrone Vineyards (Spring Mountain)
Danielle Cyrot, winemaker of CADE Winery (Howell Mountain)
Dawnine and Bill Dyer, owners and winemakers of Dyer Vineyard (Diamond Mountain)
Bo Barrett, owner of Chateau Montelena (Calistoga)
Andy Erickson, consulting winemaker and owner of Favia (Napa Valley)

Things that were “Meh.”

Diamond Mountain screenshot from Drive Through Napa

Good luck trying to find those $30-40 Diamond Mountain wines. My best guess is that these are white wines and roses.

I found the Price-To-Rating charts to be pretty useless. Using Vivino’s 1 to 5-star ratings, Drive Through Napa featured a bar chart for most of the AVAs. Here they highlighted what the average score was of wines at various price points.

Spoiler alert: In every AVA but Diamond Mountain, Spring Mountain and Carneros, the wines with the highest ratings are the ones that cost $70+.

And really, the $70+ wines are still the highest rated segment even in those exceptions. They just happen to share the same rating as another price category.

I honestly don’t think a single person is going to be surprised at these charts.

I also do wish they did little more with the winery listings for each AVA. In particular, I think they should have found a way to signify which wineries had open tasting rooms, those that needed appointments and which ones that there is no way in hell you’re getting into.

I doubt including little icons (asterisk, smiley faces, etc.)  next to each name would have added much to reading time. Plus, even if they didn’t want to be a “What to Drink” guide, anyone that is buying this book is likely going to want to visit Napa. And they’re probably going to want to drink something.

Steering folks to the individual AVA associations is fine (though, again, would be helpful to have their web addresses in the book). But that one small change to the winery listing pages would have significantly enhanced the overall utility of Drive Through Napa.

The Verdict

While I was fortunate to receive my e-copy of Drive Through Napa as a sample, I would buy this book without question. For $18 paperback and $9.99 for Kindle, it more than delivers in content and usefulness.

In particular, I wished I had this book back when I worked at Total Wine and helped train their wine staff in my region. I would have recommended Drive Through Napa to every wine associate there, especially those studying for their California TWP certifications. Likewise, I can see this book being handy for sommeliers–especially with those interviews I mentioned above.

You can’t talk about American or Californian wines without talking about Napa. If you want to understand this famous wine region, Drive Through Napa is a great place to start.

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Start-ups and Sangio

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

Villa Ragazzi Sangiovese

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

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

From Bubbles to Boardrooms

From Bubbles to Boardrooms book

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

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

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

The First of Many Firsts

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

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

Changing the Game At Chandon

Domaine Chandon

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

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

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

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

Taking the Next Step at St. Supéry

The author and Michaela Rodeno

The author with Michaela Rodeno at her Oakville estate.

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

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

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

Sangiovese in the Heart of Cab Country

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

The Pope Valley in the eastern part of Napa Valley.

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

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

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

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

The Rodeno Clone

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

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

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

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

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

Villa Ragazzi’s Oakville Estate

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

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

Villa Ragazzi rosé of Sangiovese.

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

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

The Wines

Note: These wines were received as samples.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Verdict

Villa Ragazzi super tuscan Faraona.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As well as in life.

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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 about Malbec

Photo by Marianne Casamance. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0Continuing our celebration of the oddly named Malbec World Day we’re going to get geeky here at Spitbucket about the Malbec grape.

What’s In a Name?

In Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes, the entry for Malbec is under Cot (or Côt) because of the association with grape’s likely birthplace in the region of Cahors in the historical province of Quercy in southwest France. Ampelographers note that like Côt many of the other early names for the grape such as Cos, Cau, Cor and Cors all seem to be contractions of Cahors.

However, the first written account of Malbec was in Pomerol in 1761 as Noir de Pressac (black of Pressac). The name likely referred to the individual who first cultivated the vine. From Pomerol, the grape made its way to the Left Bank region of the Medoc. Here it took on the new name of Èstranger (stranger) or Estrangey.

The name Malbec came from a grower named Malbeck who propagated the grape in what is now known as Sainte-Eulalie in the Premières Côtes de Bordeaux AOC of the Entre-Deux-Mers region.

When a Mommy Grape and a Daddy Grape Cross-Pollinate…

In 2009, DNA analysis discovered that Magdeleine Noire des Charentes–the mother grape of Merlot (Check out the Academic Wino’s Who’s Your Daddy? series on Merlot)– and an obscure grape from the Tarn department called Prunelard were the parent varieties of Malbec.

In addition to being a half-sibling of Merlot, Malbec has done a bit of its own “cross-pollinating” being a parent grape to Jurançon noir (with Folle blanche) and Caladoc (with Grenache).

Malbec in Bordeaux

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

Malbec used to be far more prevalent in the Bordeaux region. In fact, Stephen Brook noted in The Complete Bordeaux that it was the most widely planted grape in the vineyards of Lafite in the 18th century. Many estates classified in 1855 had Malbec account for as much as 50% of their blends in the early 19th century.

However, the latter half of the 19th century would usher in the decline of the variety due to its sensitivity to coulure and mildew. Following the devastation of phylloxera, many growers who did replant chose to replace Malbec. The easier to grow Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot were favored choices. Into the 20th century, Malbec was still present, particularly in the Right Bank. However, the devastating frost of 1956 killed off a significant number of plantings. This practically signaled the death knell for the grape in Bordeaux.

There are still some small plantings in Bordeaux. The most significant strongholds are the Côtes de Bourg and Côtes de Blaye. In St. Emilion, Cheval Blanc and Jean Faure are two notable estates with some plantings of Malbec. In Pomerol, Chateau L’Enclos (owned by the Adams family who also owns Chateau Fonplegade in St. Emilion) also maintain some Malbec.

On the Left Bank, a 1 ha block of old-vine Malbec is still producing for Ch. Gruaud Larose in St. Julien. Fellow 2nd Growth, Ch. Brane Cantenac in Margaux grows a few parcels of Malbec (as well as Carmenère). In the Graves region of Pessac-Leognan, Ch. Haut Bailly owns a 4 ha block of 100+-year-old vines that includes a field blend of all six Bordeaux varieties–including Malbec and Carmenère.

Malbec in Argentina

Photo by PABLO GONZALEZ. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.0

Malbec vines growing in Argentina.

Michel Pouget introduced Malbec to Argentina, bringing pre-phylloxera cuttings of the grape from Bordeaux to the country in the 1850s.

Compared to their French counterparts, clusters of Malbec in Argentina are smaller with tighter berries. These smaller grape berries have a skin-to-juice ratio that produces deeply colored wines with intense black fruit.

The Bordeaux influence in Argentina is still felt today with producers like like Léoville Poyferré (Cuvelier de Los Andes), Michel Rolland (Clos de los Siete), Cheval Blanc (Cheval des Andes), Hélène Garcin-Lévêque (Poesia) and Lafite-Rothschild (CARO) having projects in Argentina making both varietal Malbec and using it in Bordeaux style blends.

Malbec in the United States

The grape is widely planted throughout the US including in states like Missouri, Idaho, Georgia, Arizona, Virginia, North Carolina, New York, Maryland, Texas and Michigan. Here it is made as both as a varietal wine and as a blending component.

In Napa Valley, despite being a regular feature of popular blends like Opus One and Joseph Phelps Insignia, Malbec is sometimes considered the “Gummo Marx” of the Bordeaux varieties. Part of the grape’s low standing in the region was historically due to poor clonal selection. However, as better clones from Cahors and Argentina become available, growers in Mt. Veeder, Coombsville and Atlas Peak are increasing plantings.

Outside of Napa, Malbec is widely planted in the San Joaquin Valley where it is used for mass-produced bulk blends. However, there are quality minded producers making varietal Malbec wines throughout the state. Key areas include Paso Robles, Dry Creek Valley, Santa Ynez, Lodi and the Sierra Foothills.

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

Red Willow Vineyard in Washington State.

In Washington State, Malbec has the distinction of being the most expensive grape per ton. The average price for a ton of Malbec in 2016 was $1,587. In contrast, Cabernet Sauvignon was $1,442/ton, Merlot $1,174/ton, Chardonnay $940/ton and Semilion (the most expensive white grape) at $1,054 ton.

While Red Willow Vineyard in the Yakima Valley helped pioneer the grape in Washington State, Paul Gregutt in Washington Wines and Wineries: The Essential Guide notes that Casey McClellan of Seven Hills Winery was the first to plant the grape in Walla Walla in the early 1990s.

Want More Malbec?

Check out the hashtags #MalbecWorldDay and #WorldMalbecDay on Twitter and the Malbec tag on Instagram for more fun.

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