Tag Archives: Clos du Val

Hunting Unicorns in the Stags Leap District

Even if it’s was just a marketing farce of Horace Chase, I still like the story of how Stags’ Leap Winery (and the area) got its name. Jancis Robinson recounts it in her book, American Wine, with the legend of Wappo tribal hunters chasing a stag. The hunt was close until the cunning beast secured its freedom by leaping across a vast chasm among the craggy palisades.

Stags Leap Palisades

The “Leap” of the Stags Leap District behind Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.

Kirk Grace, director of vineyard operations for Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, pointed those fabled peaks out to me when I visited the district on a recent press tour. I thought about those hunters often while tasting through a stellar line-up of Stags Leap District wines.

There’s a lot of great wine here, no doubt. Trophies and treasures abound with a close-knit community of growers and producers. It’s hard to find a bad bottle because they all hold each other accountable for maintaining the area’s reputation.

But even with the bounty of treasures, there is still the urge to hunt.

As I noted in my post, Napa Valley — Boomer or Bust?, there’s a dichotomy brewing in the valley. It’s between what the Boomers (and, to some degree, Gen Xers) want to buy against the boredom that Millennials have with seeing the same ole, same ole everywhere. It’s this boredom that pushes us away from Napa in a hunt for something different.

However, from a business point of view, the current Napa recipe is working spectacularly well right now. Folks are making outstanding Cabs and Chardonnays which Boomers and Gen Xers are gobbling up. Of course, the fact that Cabernet Sauvignon grows really well in Napa Valley helps a lot.

Shafer Cabernets.

You can’t discount how delicious these Cabs can be. They are, indeed, “dialed in.”

As Doug Shafer of Shafer Vineyards noted, the valley has spent the last 40 years or so dialing things in. They have virtually perfected the art of making exquisite Cabernet. I can’t argue against that. The proof was loud and clear in the many sinfully delicious wines that I had on that trip. It has also been solidified over the years by several bottles that I’ve purchased and enjoyed on my own.

But even with all that velvet-glove gluttony, my Millennial heart was still tempted by another sin.

Lust

A craving for something different. Something exciting. Something worth stringing a bow and sharpening arrows for.

While the stag has gotten fat and easy to cull, I was excited to discover other beasts in the Stags Leap District that would have given the Wappos a good fight. These wines are often made in meager quantities and rarely see the light of retail or restaurant wine lists. Instead, these are the gems hidden in the tasting rooms and wine club offerings. But they are absolutely worth hunting down.

Steltzner Sangiovese

The Steltzner Stags Leap District Sangiovese was so good that a member of our tasting party bought another vintage (2015) to take to dinner.

What was even more remarkable–beyond their existence–is that each of these wines was quintessentially Stags Leap. The family resemblance you see in SLD Cabs of bright, juicy fruit with powerful, yet ripe and forgiving tannins echoes fiercely throughout these wines. Likewise, you can see the same care and “dialed in” attention that Stags Leap producers are known for in each bottle.

Of course, with all that care and the SLD banner comes a hefty price tag. With the average price of land in Napa over $300,000 an acre (and hitting over $400,000 an acre in the Stags Leap District), nothing here is going to be cheap.

Undoubtedly, this is always going to be an area where the Millennial Math is a struggle. However, one of the things that enhances value is excitement and uniqueness.

And you can’t get much more exciting and unique than hunting unicorns.

So let me share with you some of the unicorns I discovered in the Stags Leap District.

Again, I’m not trying to downplay the region’s flagship Cabernets. But trumpets have been heralding their triumphs for decades. If you’re like me, sometimes your ears get enchanted by a different tune. I think each of these wines offers notes worth singing about.

Note: the wines tasted below were samples provided on the press tour.

Steltzner Sangiovese ($55)

I’m going to be writing a dedicated piece on Dick Steltzner in the not too distant future. It’s fascinating how someone who is so ingrained into Stags Leap District history would step out of the parade so many times to do his own thing.

Even though Steltzner’s Cabernet Sauvignon has been prominently featured in iconic bottlings like the inaugural vintage of Joseph Phelps’ Insignia and the 1972 Clos du Val Cabernet Sauvignon (of Judgement of Paris fame), he’s never been afraid to try new things.

Steltzner Sangio

The 2016 Steltzner Sangio. Probably my favorite of the two vintages but they were both excellent.

The initial plantings of Steltzner Vineyards in the mid-1960s included Riesling which had been a favorite of Dick Steltzner since he tried Stony Hill’s version. The Riesling didn’t work out, but that didn’t discourage him from experimenting again in the 1980s with adding Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Pinotage and Sangiovese.

Over the years, Dick Steltzner has gradually parcelled and sold off his vineyard–first in 1990 and most recently in 2012 to the PlumpJack Group. However, he’s kept many of his oldest and favorite plantings including the absolutely delicious Sangiovese as well as some Malbec vines which will occasionally be made as a varietal ($55).

Today, the vineyards are managed by Jim Barbour with the wines made by Mike Smith and Robert Pepi.

The Wine and Verdict

Medium-plus intensity nose. A mix of black cherries and plums. Not as herbal as an Italian example. Instead, there is an intense blue floral component.

On the palate, those dark fruits carry through and are quite juicy with medium-plus acidity. Full-Bodied but not overbearing with ripe medium-plus tannins. As with the Stags Leap District Cabs, the texture and mouthfeel are outstanding. The fruit wraps around your tongue, having a tug of war with the mouthwatering acidity. It makes you want to both hold the wine in your mouth to savor and swallow so you can enjoy another sip. Long finish brings back the floral notes and adds a little oak spice.

Like Villa Ragazzi’s Pope Valley/Oakville Sangioveses, you’re not going to mistake this for a Tuscan wine. But this wine has more than enough character to stand on its own compared to similarly priced Brunellos.

Ilsley Seis Primas ($79)

Not long after Nathan Fay pioneered Cabernet Sauvignon in the Stags Leap District, Robert Mondavi suggested to Ernest Ilsley in 1964 that he try his hand at the variety. The Ilsley Vineyard was already selling their Carignan and Zinfandel to Charles Krug winery. When Robert Mondavi opened his winery a couple of years later, a good chunk of the fruit for his very first Cab came from the young Ilsley vines.

The Ilsleys continue to sell fruit to wineries even after starting their own label in 2000–most notably to Shafer Vineyards where David Ilsley is the vineyard manager. David also manages the family vineyard with brother Ernie running operations and sister Janice handling hospitality and sales. Since 2009, Heather Pyle-Lucas has been making the wines after starting at Robert Mondavi Winery.

Ilsley Seis Primas

Such a delicious bottle. I’m kicking myself for not figuring out a way to bring a few bottles back to Paris.

The 2015 Seis Primas is a blend of 62% Malbec, 24% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Merlot and 2% Cabernet Franc with only 183 cases made. The name pays homage to the six girl cousins that make up the 4th generation of the Ilsley family. The wine is sourced from six separate vineyard blocks including a 1996 planting of Malbec that the girls’ grandfather, Ed Ilsley, added to the family estate.

The Wine and Verdict

High-intensity nose. Rich dark blackberry fruit and plum. Lots of blue floral notes of violet and irises. There is also some noticeable oak spice, but it’s not dominating at all.

On the palate, the oak is more noticeable with a chocolate component added to the dark fruit. But still not overwhelming with black pepper spice emerging that compliments the allspice and cinnamon. Full-bodied with high-tannins, the wine is balanced well with medium-plus acidity that keeps the fruit tasting fresh. Long finish lingers on the spices.

I know that I said that it’s hard to find value in the Stags Leap District, but this wine proves me wrong. I’m stunned that this bottle is less than $100. It was easily one of the Top 5 wines that I had that entire week in the Stags Leap District after visiting 15 wineries and trying lots of heavy-hitters.

Honestly, if this wine had the magical “C-word” on the label, it probably could fetch closer to $130. All the Ilsley wines are sold direct-to-consumer. If you want any chance of bagging this trophy, you need to visit this family winery.

Clos du Val Cabernet Franc ($100)
Clos du Val Cab Franc

The 2016 Clos du Val Cabernet Franc. Still young but impressive already.

Even among Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignons, Clos du Val is a unicorn. From founding winemaker Bernard Portet to current winemaker Ted Henry and assistant Mabel Ojeda, tasting a Clos du Val Cab stands out from the pack. While the use of new French oak has steadily increased over the years (100% for their 2015 Hirondelle estate), it’s never been as overt as it is with many of their Napa brethren.

With lively acid and more moderate alcohols, these are always wines that sing in harmony with food. Think Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty’s “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.” Yeah, Fleetwood Mac and the Heartbreakers are great–just like a big, bold, luscious Napa Cab is at times. But, damn, if there’s not something magical about tension and style.

These are also wines built for aging. That’s why it wasn’t shocking that when the historic 1976 Judgement of Paris wine tasting was recreated in 1986, it saw the 1972 Clos du Val Cab nab first place.

The Cabernet Franc comes from the estate Hirondelle Vineyard that surrounds the winery. It’s named after the French word for “swallows” and references the birds that build their nests on the northwest side of the winery every spring. The 2016 vintage was 99% Cabernet Franc with 1% Cabernet Sauvignon. Clos du Val’s winemaking team aged the wine 20 months in a mix of 80% new French and Hungarian oak.

The Wine and Verdict
Swallows at Clos du Val

Some of the swallows and nests that give the Hirondelle Vineyard its name.

High-intensity nose. Very floral but also an earthy, leather component. Underneath there is some dark fruit of blueberries and blackberries, but they’re secondary notes in this very evocative bouquet.

On the palate, the fruit makes its presence more known and are amplified by high acidity. Very mouthwatering. The earthy, leathery notes are still here but add a truffle component. It’s not like a Rhone, but it’s almost meaty. Firm, medium-plus tannins have solid structure but are still approachable. Moderate length finish brings backs the floral notes.

This is definitely a completely different Cabernet Franc than anything you would see in the Loire. It’s also not as “Cab Sauv-like” as many new world examples of Cabernet Franc can be (especially in Napa and Washington). The wine is certainly its own beast and is bursting with character. I can only imagine how much more depth and complexity this wine will get with age.

At $100 a bottle, you’re paying top-shelf Cab prices for it. But I guarantee this wine is going to have you scribbling a lot more tasting notes and descriptors than your typical $100+ Napa Cab.

Quixote Malbec ($80)
Quoixote shower

Or step into the shower they have in the visitor’s bathroom at the Quixote tasting room.

Quixote is pretty much the Narnia of Napa Valley. If you want to find unicorns, all you need to do is enter through the Friedensreich Hundertwasser-designed wardrobe and there you are.

Carl Doumani founded Quixote in 1996 not long before he sold Stags’ Leap Winery to Beringer (now Treasury Wine Estates). At Stags’ Leap, Doumani built a reputation for the high quality of his Petite Sirah.  When he sold the property,  he kept many of the choice parcels for his new venture. The current owners, the Chinese private firm Le Melange, which acquired Quixote in 2014, continues to make Petite Sirah a significant focus.

They make three tiers of Petite Sirah. The prices range from the red label Panza ($50) up to their premier black label Helmet of Mambrino ($105-125 depending on the vintage). Quixote also makes a very charming rose of Petite Sirah ($35). All of those are well worth trying. However, the one wine that really knocked my socks off was their Stags Leap Malbec.

Doumani fell in love with the grape after a trip to Argentina in the 2000s. He had a little less than an acre planted with the first vintage released in 2011. Only around 100-150 cases of this wine are produced each year.

The Wine and Verdict
Quixote Malbec

The 2015 Quixote Stags Leap Malbec.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Blackberries clearly dominate the show with some noticeable chocolatey oak undertones. With a little air comes black pepper spice, anise and savory leather notes.

On the palate, this was one of the most quintessential Stags Leap wines I tasted. Totally “iron fist in a velvet glove” all the way. Very full-bodied with ripe, medium-plus tannins. The plush texture is accentuated by the creamy vanilla of the oak. Medium acidity gives enough balance to add juiciness to the blackberries and also highlight a red plum component. Moderate finish brings back the spice notes with the black licorice note lingering the most.

In many ways, I can see regular consumers (as opposed to blind tasters) thinking this was a Napa Cab. There’s the rich dark fruit with noticeable oak. Coupled with the full-bodied structure and mouthfeel, it hits all those hedonistic notes that many consumers seek out in top-shelf Napa wines. But I love what the Malbec-y spice brings to the table. It helps the wine stand apart as a unicorn worth seeking out.

It’s definitely different than Malbecs grown elsewhere in the world (and a lot pricier too). However, this is truly a unique expression of the grape that reflects the Stags Leap District exceedingly well.

Other Stags Leap District Unicorns that I haven’t had yet but am on the hunt for.

In 2014, Decanter magazine noted that the Stags Leap District was planted to 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc, 2% Petite Sirah and 1% other. I honestly don’t think the numbers have changed much in the last five years. If anything, Cab has probably gained more ground and relegated Cabernet Franc and Petite Sirah to the One-Percenter Club.

So, yeah, these wines are going to be hard to fine.  But my experiences with the unicorns that I’ve already encountered has me feeling that these are going to be worth the hunt.

Chimney Rock Cabernet Franc ($85)
Author with Elizabeth Vianna.

Yup. Totally fangirl’d.

I fully admit that I’m an Elizabeth Vianna fangirl. I adore her work at Chimney Rock and she also has a great twitter account worth following.  Another upcoming post in the works will see me getting geeky over Chimney Rock’s crazy delicious Elevage Blanc.

From a solely Stags Leap perspective, this Cabernet Franc from their estate vineyard intrigues me. Even though Chimney Rock’s vineyards essentially encircles Clos du Val’s Hirondelle vineyard, I suspect that this will be a very different expression of Cabernet Franc. That’s partly why it would be so cool to try.

Chimney Rock also occasionally releases a rose of Cabernet Franc as well as a varietal Sauvignon gris– when the latter is not being used up in their Elevage blanc.

Update: Oh and there’s now this to look forward to!

Yes! A Stags Leap District Fiano!

Pine Ridge Petit Verdot ($75)
Pine Ridge map

While founded and based in the Stags Leap District, Pine Ridge sources fruit from many places and has estate vineyards in Carneros, Howell Mountain, Rutherford and Oakville.

Founded by Gary Andrus in 1978 and now owned by the Crimson Wine Group, Pine Ridge was also a big player in getting the Stags Leap District established as an AVA. While the winery is well-known for its Chenin blanc-Viognier blend (sourced mostly from the Clarksburg AVA in Sacramento, Solano and Yolo counties), the bread and butter of Pine Ridge’s Stags Leap estate is, of course, their Cab.

That’s what makes trying this Petit Verdot so intriguing even though a small amount comes from their Oakville property. Petit Verdot is a late-ripening variety that is seeing increased interest across the globe. It’s being planted more to help offset the toll that climate change is having on overripe Cab & Merlot. Of course, it can be a finicky grape to make as a varietal. However, when it’s done well, it’s a spicy delight!

Regusci Zinfandel ($60)
Screenshot of The Taste podcast

If you want to listen to a great podcast, check out Doug Shafer’s interview with Jim Regusci.

The Regusci family has a tremendous history in Napa Valley beginning with the site of the very first dedicated winery built in the Stags Leap District. The stone building, constructed by Terrill Grigsby in 1878, was known as the Occidental Winery for many years.

In 1932, Gaetano Regusci acquired the property and planted Zinfandel with many of those vines still producing fruit today. The family would sell grapes and maintain a dairy ranch on the property for several decades. In 1996, Gaetano’s son and grandson, Angelo and Jim Regusci, started the Regusci Winery.

While Zinfandel has a long history in Napa, its numbers are slowly dwindling. That’s a shame because Zinfandel is the “Craft Beer” of American Wine and a grape that is poised to capture Millennials’ attention. I don’t think anyone else in the Stags Leap District is still growing the grape which certainly makes this a fun unicorn to find.

Stags’ Leap Winery Ne Cede Malis ($150)

I became fascinated with this wine when I attended a winemaker’s dinner last year with Stags’ Leap Winery’s winemaker Joanne Wing.

Stags’ Leap Winery Winemaker Joanne Wing.

Sourced from a tiny Prohibition-era block of vines, Ne Cede Malis is a field blend.  Mostly Petite Sirah with up to 15 other different grapes including Sauvignon blanc, an unknown Muscat variety, Carignane, Mourvedre, Grenache, Peloursin, Cinsault, Malbec and Syrah. The grapes are all harvested together and co-fermented.

Coming from the Latin family motto of Horace Chase, Ne Cede Malis means “Don’t give in to misfortune.” But with the last vintage of Ne Cede Malis on Wine-Searcher being 2015 (Ave price $86), I do fret that maybe these old vines came into some misfortune. If any of my readers know differently, do leave a comment. (UPDATE BELOW)

Of course, that is the risk that comes with all unicorns. One day they may simply cease to exist. But that is also part of the thrill of the hunt.

Sometimes you bag your prize. Other times you’re standing on the edge of a cliff watching it leap away.

UPDATE: The Ne Cede Malis lives on! I was very excited to get an email from Stags’ Leap Winery letting me know that these old vines are still going strong with the 2016 vintage slated to be released in the fall for a suggested retail of $150.  Only around 500 cases were produced so this is still a unicorn worth hunting!

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Geek Notes — Top Audiobooks on California Wine History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Getting Geeky with Lang & Reed Chenin blanc

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

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

The Background

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

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

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

The Grape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chenin Blanc Today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

The Wine

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

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

The Verdict

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

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

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60 Second Wine Review — Amici Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon

A few quick thoughts on the 2013 Amici Cabernet Sauvignon from Spring Mountain.

The Geekery

Amici Cellars was founded in 1991 by Jeff Hansen who named the winery “Amici” after the Italian word for friends.

Hansen eventually sold the winery to Bob & Celia Shepard and John Harris who remain the owners today and have expanded Amici from being a “virtual winery” produced in a custom-crush facility to an established winery with the purchase of Greg Brown’s T Vine Wines facility in 2012.

In 2010 Joel Aiken, a protege of André Tchelistcheff who spent 25 years making the BV Georges de Latour, joined Amici where he stayed until 2015 when he was succeeded by Anthony Biagi as winemaker.

Biagi, who oversaw the final blend and bottling of the 2013 wines, previously worked at Clos du Val, Duckhorn, Paraduxx, Plumpjack, Cade and Hourglass before joining the Amici team.

The 2013 Spring Mountain is 90% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Cabernet Franc that spent 22 months aging in 80% new French oak. Around 260 cases were made.

The Wine

Photo by feiern1. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-Zero

Lots of rich dark fruits in this Cab.

High intensity nose–lots of rich dark fruits of blackberry, black currants and black plums. After 30 minutes of air, blue floral and Asian spice notes with fennel and savory oolong tea begin to emerge.

On the palate the richness and weight of the dark fruit still dominate–giving the wine a very weighty, full-bodied mouthfeel. Medium-plus acidity goes a long way in balancing the wine and keeping the fruit tasting fresh and juicy without straying into jammy or sweet. The high tannins are very ripe but very present which suggests that this wine has a long life ahead of it still. The long finish brings back the Asian spice and savory tea components from the nose.

The Verdict

I first had this 2013 two years ago and, even though it was delicious then, it has come quite a ways.

Still quite youthful this wine more than merits it $125-150 price tag as a top shelf Napa Cab that combines hedonism with complexity.

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Event Review — Stags’ Leap Winery Dinner

Daniel’s Broiler in Bellevue, Washington is one of my wife and I’s favorite restaurants to visit. Each year they host a Champagne Gala that we love going to. Even when we’re not thrilled with the wines selected, we nonetheless always enjoy the exquisite food crafted by Executive Chef Kevin Rohr and a chance to try interesting food pairings.

Recently I got to attend a dinner featuring the wines of Stags’ Leap Winery with Assistant Winemaker Joanne “Jo” Wing.

The Background

I geeked out about some of the backstory of Stags’ Leap Winery in my 60 Second Review of their 2013 Napa Valley Merlot. With a long history dating back to the late 19th century, the winery is one of Napa’s most historic properties.

In California’s Great Cabernets, James Laube notes that the rise of the modern-era of Stags’ Leap Winery under Carl Doumani went hand in hand with the “Cabernet boom” of the 1970s that saw the notable Cabs of Burgess, Cakebread, Caymus, Clos du Val, Mount Eden, Mt. Veeder, Silver Oak and Joseph Phelps hit the scene. It also saw the birth of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and decades-long legal intrigue.

The War of the Apostrophe” soon took off with Warren Winiarski of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars (and winner of the famous 1976 Judgment of Paris) suing Doumani–who promptly counter-sued.

The two men eventually settled their differences in the mid-1980s and released a special collaborative bottling between the two estates called Accord from the 1985 vintage to commemorate. The agreement was that Winiarski’s Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars would have the apostrophe to the left of the ‘s’ while Doumani’s Stags’ Leap Winery would have it to the right.

You could tell that the Treasury Wine Estate rep at the dinner wasn’t too happy about the apostrophe typo on the menu.

Around this time, the two wineries faced another challenge with other wineries in the area like Gary Andrus’ Pine Ridge Winery, Steltzner Vineyards, Shafer Vineyards and more wanting to use the Stags Leap name and petitioning for American Viticultural Area (AVA) approval under that name for the region. After more legal challenges, a compromise was struck for the name of the new AVA to be the Stags Leap District (SLD) sans apostrophe.

Today the winery is owned by Treasury Wine Estates where it is part of a vast portfolio that includes 19 Crimes, The Walking Dead wines, Beaulieu Vineyards, Beringer, Ch. St Jean, Penfolds, Provenance, Hewitt Vineyard and more.

The current winemaker is Christophe Paubert who succeeded Robert Brittan when the later left Napa to make wine in Oregon at his own Brittan Vineyards and consult for wineries such as Winderlea.

A Bordeaux trained winemaker, Paubert has extensive experience working at such illustrious estates as the 2nd Growth St. Julien estate of Ch. Gruaud-Larose and the First Growth Sauternes estate of Chateau d’Yquem. Prior to joining Stags’ Leap in 2009, Paubert was the head winemaker for 4 years at Canoe Ridge Vineyards in Washington State.

Assistant Winemaker Joanne Wing is a New Zealand native who started out at Indevin, one of New Zealand’s largest wine producers. She gained experience working harvest across the globe from Saintsbury in Napa to Mount Pleasant Winery in the Hunter Valley of Australia as well as in Bordeaux before accepting a position at Stags’ Leap as a harvest enologist and working her way up to Asst. Winemaker.

Gorgeous Viognier that is well worth seeking out.


Passed hors d’oeuvres paired with 2016 Stags’ Leap Winery Napa Valley Viognier
Smoked sablefish with soft scrambled farm egg, ikura, chives and Chevre crostini with watermelon beet, grilled apricot, chili spice

I’m not a big beet person so I let my wife try the Chevre Crostini while I had the smoked sablefish with the ikura roe caviar. Both were smashing pairings with the Stags’ Leap Viognier with the wine being a particular revelation.

Sourced primarily from cooler climate vineyards in the Carneros AVA and Oak Knoll District, the Viognier had medium-plus intensity nose of orange blossoms and white peach notes.

On the palate, those white peach tree fruits carried through but also brought some tropical notes of passion-fruit and papaya. However this Viognier never came close to the tutti-fruity “Fruit Loop Cereal” style that unfortunately befalls many domestic Viogniers–especially those fermented and aged only in stainless steel. To avoid that pratfall, Paubert and Wing fermented the wine in neutral French oak barrels with weekly batonnage for 4 months. This very “Condrieu-style” approach produced a Viognier with textural weight and depth but with enough medium-plus acidity to keep it from being flabby or overly creamy.

The acidity also matched perfectly with the hors d’oeuvres, cutting through the “fishiness” of the sablefish and roe. My wife was particularly impressed at how well the acidity matched with the Chevre–the tangy goat cheese that often calls for high acid whites like Sauvignon blanc.

At $22-27, this is an outstanding Viognier with loads of personality and complexity that I would put on par with the àMaurice Viognier from Washington State as one of the stellar domestic examples of this variety.

The preserved kumquat vinaigrette on the salad were quite a treat.


First Course paired with 2016 Stags’ Leap Napa Valley Chardonnay
Spring Salad with Belgian endive, baby kale, avocado, marcona almonds, preserved kumquat vinaigrette

Sourced from the Carneros and Oak Knoll District, this Napa Chardonnay counters the stereotype of over-the-top, oaky, buttery Chardonnays. With 25% fermented and aged in new French oak, 50% in “seasoned” French oak and the rest in stainless steel with no malolactic fermentation, this Chardonnay aimed for an elegant and food-friendly style.

The wine had a medium intensity nose with apple and citrus lime notes. A little subtle baking spice from the oak rims around the edge.

On the palate, the citrus notes came through the most and played off the baby kale and avocado very well. Medium-plus acidity maintained freshness and balanced the moderate creaminess in the wine. The clove oak spice and an almost marzipan nuttiness lingered on the moderate finish.

Overall, this was a very drinkable and pleasant Chardonnay that did hit the target for food-pairing. But, admittedly, at $25-30 it didn’t jump out as anything wow-worthy–especially following in the footsteps of the scrumptious Viognier. It’s a very well made California Chard but it is still one of hundreds of similar well-made and similarly priced California Chards.

The star of the night. I can still taste the braised short ribs and that delectable sauce.

Second Course paired with 2014 Stags’ Leap Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
Braised short ribs with seared sea scallops, morel mushrooms, chervil

From a food perspective, this was the winning course of the night. The braised short ribs melted in the mouth and had you dearly wishing you had more than just the bite. The scallops were perfectly cooked and while I was skeptical with pairing them with a big Cab, the morel and au jus sauce from the short ribs offered just enough weight to carry the pairing.

As with other wines in the white label Napa Valley series, the Stags’ Leap Cabernet Sauvignon includes some estate fruit but is mostly sourced from vineyards throughout Napa Valley. Joanne Wing noted that while Paubert likes the flexibility of having some fruit from warm climate sites like Calistoga, he’s far more excited about the fruit from the cooler southern reaches of Napa like Coombsville, Oak Knoll and Yountville.

Medium-plus intensity with rich dark fruit–black currants, black plums, blackberries. This screams Napa Cab from the nose but it is not as overtly oak-driven as the norm with a little tobacco spice element.

On the palate those dark fruits carry through but there is a little earthy forest-floor element that emerges that adds some intrigue. Medium acidity adds juiciness to the fruit but not enough to be mouthwatering. The oak is a little more pronounced but is more spice driven than vanilla. The medium-plus tannins are still quite firm and young but are more tight than biting. Moderate length finish ends on the fruit which testifies to the youth of this wine.

Stags’ Leap Winery Assistant Winemaker Joanne Wing.

At $45-50, this is priced in lined with many of its Napa peers as a sort of “entry-level” Napa Cab. It’s hard to say it is a compelling value compared to what you can get for equivalent pricing from other regions like Washington and Paso Robles. Like the Chardonnay, I feel like this Cab is certainly well made but not blow-your-socks-off-you-must-find-it good partly because of the premium you are paying for the Napa name (and the winery’s history).

However, I do suspect that this wine could kick it up a couple notches with a few more years of bottle age that potentially could make it far more compelling.

Third Course paired with 2014 Stags’ Leap “The Investor” Red Blend
Piedmontese New York Steak with herb polenta, spring vegetables, blackberry demiglace

Admittedly, this was one of the few times I’ve been disappointed with a Daniel’s steak. Perhaps it was just this cut but I found it was in the weird position of being both too fatty and too dry and lacking flavor. The polenta and blackberry demi-glace were excellent though. But I found myself again wishing that the braised short ribs were the main course.

A unique blend of Merlot, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec, The Investor pays homage to former owner Horace Chase who made his fortune investing in gold and silver mines during the Gold Rush days of California. The Merlot and majority of the Petite Sirah come from estate fruit in the Stags Leap District and Oakville while the Cabernet and Malbec are sourced from vineyards throughout Napa Valley.

The medium-plus acidity and savory, herbal element of The Investor red blend definitely helped interject some much needed flavor into the Piedmontese New York steak.

Medium-plus nose with a mix of red and dark fruits–plums and currants. There is more overt oak vanilla on the nose of this wine than with the Cab but it doesn’t seem overwhelming. Underneath there is also a blue floral element that is not defined.

On the palate, the mix of fruits carry through with mouthwatering medium-plus acidity tilting the favor towards the red fruit. Some savory herbal and smokey notes join the party that dearly helps the food-pairing with the flavorless Piedmontese New York steak. The vanilla oak notes add a layer of velvety softness to the high tannins that still have a fair amount of gripe. Like the Cab, the moderate length finish ends on the youthful fruit.

At $50-60, The Investor intrigues me a lot more than the Napa Cabernet (and the Napa Merlot) because of the savory, smokey element and mouthwatering acidity. It’s still young and has some “baby fat” of oak that needs to be shed but this is a unique blend that could turn into something exceptionally good.

Dessert paired with 2014 Stags’ Leap Napa Valley Petite Sirah
Chocolate torte with Devonshire cream, coconut crisp

While the chocolate torte was amazing and sinfully delicious and the wine outstanding, this was not a winning pairing. The wine was nowhere near sweet enough to balance with the torte.

While delicious on their own, the pairing of the chocolate torte with the Stags’ Leap Petite Sirah just didn’t do it for me.

Still, it was somewhat fitting to end the Stags’ Leap Winery dinner with the wine that truly epitomizes the estate. While the name “Stags Leap” is synonymous with Cabernet Sauvignon, Stags’ Leap Winery was always a vanguard in cultivating and promoting Petite Sirah.

High intensity nose that started jumping out of the glass as soon as the waiter poured it. Blackberries and boysenberries with some peppery spice and violets.

On the palate, the first thing that hits you is the weight and richness of the wine with the full brunt of the dark fruits and high tannins. But there is an elegance with the juicy medium-plus acidity and fine balance that keeps the wine from being overbearing. On the moderate finish, there is some subtle dark chocolate notes that come out but not enough to make the food-pairing work. This was definitely a wine to savor on its own.

At $32-40, this is a more premium-priced Petite Sirah but it is well worth not only its price but also its reputation as the winery’s flagship. During this course, Jo told us about the Ne Cede Malis block of Prohibition-era vines that is a field blend of majority Petite Sirah with Muscat, Malbec, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Carignan and up to 9 other varieties. The grapes are harvested together and co-fermented to produce a limited release bottling. I have to admit that if Stags’ Leap Winery’s mobile ordering website wasn’t so buggy and difficult to navigate, I would have purchased a bottle of the Ne Cede Malis Petite Sirah (as well as several bottles of the Viognier) right then.

Overall Impressions

Attending this dinner left me wondering if Stags’ Leap Winery is a victim of its own name and location in Napa Valley. While the winery absolutely shined with its Viognier and Petite Sirah, their more typical Napa offerings of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay were just “ho-hum”.

I do appreciate that Treasury Wine Estates has let Paubert, Wing and Co. continue producing their more obscure bottlings but I have no doubt that the health of the winery’s bottom line depends on the case sales of the bread and butter Cab, Chardonnay and Merlot. It’s where the money is–especially in Napa–and that is what they’re out to sell.

Yet after tasting their outstanding Viognier, scrumptious Petite Sirah and very character-driven Investor blend, its hard not to think about what more the winery could do with their talented winemaking team and unique approach if they didn’t have to live up to the name Stags’ Leap.

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Product Review — Restaurant Crystal Clean Wine Glass Cleaner

A few thoughts on the Restaurant Crystal Clean: Professional Wine Glass Cleaning Liquid by The Mill River Company.

Product Specs

Made from all natural plant-derived ingredients that are 100% biodegradable, the bottle notes that the cleaner is also hypoallergenic and has not been tested on animals.

The Mill River Company’s website claims that it is used by over 200 wineries including Ridge, Clos du Val, Gary Farrell, Pina Vineyards, Caymus, Araujo Estate, Bonny Doon, Jordan, Ovid (do they even have a tasting room?) and numerous restaurants and wine bars.

A 16 oz bottle runs about $28 dollars on Amazon. It claims that because it’s “ultra concentrated”, it is more cost effective than other cleaners with one bottle able to clean 2200+ glasses at the cost of less than 1 penny per glass.

How to Use

One drop, scrub and rinse with hot water.

The directions say that it can be used as a rinse aid in dishwashers but I don’t trust my dishwasher with my wine glasses so I explored the hand wash option.

The instruction said to squirt a drop in a glass, wash with a soft sponge or cotton scrubber and rinse with hot water. One drop did get it nice and soapy but after the rinse with hot water, I had water spots and streaks that I needed to polish off.

I tried it with cold water and while it looked cleaner at first, after the glass dried I had fewer streaks but I still needed to get the polishing rag out.

Soaking in cold water before rinsing in cold water.

The bottle gave instructions on how to make a squirt bottle glass cleaner by mixing 1.5 oz into a gallon of cold water. I decided to try that ratio in my sink and let the glasses soak in the solution before cleaning them and rinsing in cold water. That turned out to be the winning recipe as the glasses came out brilliantly perfect.

The Verdict

I suspect that the laundry list of wineries, restaurants and wine bars that are using Restaurant Crystal Clean are using it as a rinse aid with an industrial dishwasher designed for wine glasses and it probably works really well.

The difference between doing one drop with hot water rinse (left) and the soaking in cold water in the sink (right).

While I am pleased with the results after soaking the glasses in the cold water solution, I’m very skeptical that I’m going to get 2200+ glasses worth of cleaning from the 16 oz bottle. Perhaps doing the one drop per glass and letting it soak in cold water will get me more mileage but I suspect that I will end up experimenting more with the soaking trick but with a scaled down ratio from the 1.5 oz/gallon.

However, after hosting a few wine tasting parties where I had a couple dozen dirty glasses and a few decanters that needed to be clean, the sink trick worked really well. The glasses do come out spotless and streak free with no traces of soap or odor. It may work out more realistically to costing 5-10 cents per glass but that is, for me, an acceptable cost to have perfectly cleaned wine glasses.

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