Tag Archives: Condrieu

Winery Tasting Notes Done Right

JJ Williams of Kiona Vineyards did a terrific write-up on the problem with winery tasting notes. If you own a winery, this is a must read. Tasting notes are certainly one of the necessary evils of selling wine.

Photo by Simon A. Eugster. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Next time you’re at a wine shop, look at back labels. Try to count how many times you see the words chocolate, mocha or cacao used in tasting notes.

For wine students, particularly those studying for Unit 1 of the WSET Diploma on the Business of Wine, it’s helpful to critically examine the usefulness of these notes.

Whether on the back label or website, we should ask if tasting notes really help consumers in selecting wine. Do flourished descriptions of flavors, bouquet and mouthfeel help distinguish one winery’s wine from its thousands of competitors?

Do they answer the important question of “Why should I buy this wine?”

Probably not.

In his post, Williams notes the usual results of these tasting notes.

Enter the wine marketer. We interject ourselves into the equation by telling you what to do, and how you’re going to do it. If I say, “now this Cabernet has a really nice chocolate note,” there are three potential outcomes that I think are the most likely:

1.) The power of suggestion is very strong. If I say chocolate, you taste chocolate.
2.) You don’t taste chocolate. You’ve been eating chocolate for a long time, and this is not that. Since I am speaking from a position of authority, you decide you’re doing something wrong, and slowly nod your head in faux agreement.
3.) You don’t taste chocolate. You’ve been eating chocolate for a long time, and this is not that. You are suddenly aware that your eyebrow is twitching because you’ve just realized that I must be full of $*%#. You slowly nod your head in faux agreement.

None of these are good outcomes.
— JJ Williams, Hitting the Wrong (Tasting) Note?, 12/11/18

What are the benefits of telling consumers that a wine has notes of chocolate? Sure, there may be a halo effect on the wine from positive associations with chocolate. That may help someone pick up a bottle. But there is also a risk of negative associations backfiring too. Back in my retail days, I once had a customer get turned off by a wine described as chocolaty because she was lactose intolerant. (Yeah, I know.) But you get the same issues with virtually every descriptor.

If you think of the tasting note, on a website or bottle, as valuable real estate—are overly common (and, ultimately, subjective) words like “chocolate” truly worth that space?

Putting That Real Estate To Work.

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

Some winery tasting notes feel like they threw darts at the Aroma Wheel and wrote down what they hit. I once had a California red blend with a back label describing flavors of orange blossom, fig, hazelnut, chocolate (*ding*) and hay.

Consumers pick up bottles to read back labels and will often visit wineries’ websites to buy wine or find more details. This space is valuable. Extremely so.

As much attention and care that a winery puts into crafting stylish front labels and web-page design, should be put towards their tasting notes as well. Wineries need to leverage this space.

Writing the same boring tasting notes populated with platitudes and whatever descriptors they get from the Wine Aroma Wheel is not going to cut-it. Wineries have to give consumers a reason to take home their wine over the multitudes of other bottles being described with those same tasting notes.

A tasting note should convey what sets one “balanced, Bordeaux-style wine [that] coats the palate with a velvety richness and fine tannin structure” apart from every other balanced, velvety rich and finely tannic wine.

Otherwise, it is just blowing the same useless marketing BS that virtually every other bottle is blowing. Where is the consumer being helped in this?

Outside the Bottle — In the Consumer’s Cart

Williams highlights a brilliant approach that Kiona uses in crafting their tasting notes. They categorize their “wine speak” into what relates to “Outside the Bottle” details and what pertains to the more vague and subjective “Inside the Bottle” experiences.

1.) Outside the Bottle. This category encompasses everything that is interesting about a wine that happens outside the bottle. Vineyards, geography, growing philosophy, winemaking goals, winemaking process, blending process, etc.
2.) Inside the Bottle. This category encompasses everything that the drinker experiences once the cork is pulled.

We make a concerted effort to talk about the “OtB” aspects of a wine only. This extends up and down our operation, including our website, our tech sheets, our tasting room collateral, our employee training and our general vernacular. In the rare circumstances where we dabble in “ItB” language, it’s almost always in generalities. You might read something along the lines of “fresh black fruit characteristic”, but never “brambly vine-ripened summer blackberries.” — JJ Williams, Hitting the Wrong (Tasting) Note?, 12/11/18

Kiona's Lemberger tasting note

Example of Kiona’s “Outside the Bottle” approach for their Lemberger.

Inside the bottle, almost all wine is the same–especially before a consumer pulls the cork. It has potential and possibilities but every wine is promising potential and possibilities.

However, what is outside the bottle makes the wine unique. It’s the people, the place, the story and craftsmanship that sets it apart from each and every other bottle.

That is real estate that pays for its space.

Examples of Tasting Notes That Work

On their website, Kiona has several examples where they use “Outside the Bottle” tasting notes to make their wines distinctive and interesting. One I particularly like is for their Lemberger shown above. This is a bloody hard wine to sell because of the name. But Kiona gives some intriguing history as well as details about what makes their Lemberger different from other domestic examples and Austrian Blaufränkisch.

Personality Not Platitudes
Upside Down Malbec's tasting note

I don’t know why but “Dead Poplar” sounds like an awesome vineyard name.

Upsidedown Wine by Seth & Audrey Kitzke note that their 2014 Gold Drop Malbec is made from one of the fastest growing varieties in Washington State. That piques curiosity. Why are people so excited about Washington Malbec? Maybe I should buy a bottle and find out.

The tasting note also shares that the wine has some Petit Verdot (another grape getting a lot of buzz) blended in to make it distinctive from other Malbecs. Additionally they highlight the small production (only 98 cases) and single vineyard sourcing. While it does have the typical big dark fruits and pepper descriptors of many other Malbecs, those notes act as side bars rather than the main feature.

For their 2016 Viognier, Serrano Wines injects a ton of personality into their tasting note by sharing that this wine was inspired by drinking Guigal’s Le Doriane Condrieu.

Instead of being grown with the typical cordon or guyot vine training methods that most domestic Viogniers use, Serrano points out that they’re using a special tee-pee (or eschalla) training common in Condrieu and Côte-Rôtie. (Their website has pictures of this unique–and very labor intensive–vine training.)

While many consumers are not going to care much about vine training, Serrano’s tasting note works by highlighting why the consumer should care–i.e. why this bottle of Viognier is different from all the other options they have.

That is leveraging every bit of precious real estate to stand out from the pack.
Serrano Viognier tasting note

When evident care is put into crafting a great tasting note that tells a story, it tells the consumer that a lot of care went into crafting the wine as well.

Instead of being a “necessary evil”, tasting notes can be tools.

Wineries should follow the advice of JJ Williams of Kiona. They shouldn’t farm this task to marketing departments writing the same blathering blurbs. They need to think “outside the bottle” and use these notes to tell consumers their stories.

Of course, wineries will benefit by selling more wines. But consumers will benefit as well from better tasting notes.

Instead of standing in an aisle, reading label after label of fruit-forward, divinely complex, approachable and exceptionally food-friendly and layered aromas of black currant, blueberry and cherry [that] are accentuated by an authentic barrel bouquet of hazelnut, cocoa powder [ding], and dark roasted coffee, they actually get words that have value and meaning.

They get words that tell them something–about the people and place this wine comes from. Most importantly, they get answers to the question that all consumers have when they pick up a bottle.

Why should I buy this wine?

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Doubling Down On What’s Been Done Before

Photo taken by self and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under : CC-BY-SA-3.0

Andy Perdue of Wine Press Northwest says it time for Washington State wine producers to “double down” on Cabernet Sauvignon.

The state needs to focus, he says, much like how Oregon did several decades ago with Pinot noir.

Washington has proved it can grow several wine grape varieties very well, and in some ways this has hurt the industry, because the state hasn’t had a focus. Now, we can align ourselves with other Cab regions, including Bordeaux and Napa Valley. — Andy Perdue, 9/13/18

Now why in the hell would we want to do that?

Napa On My Mind — And The Minds Of Most Consumers

Yes, I know that Cab is still king and there is no doubt that Cabernet Sauvignon sales are still going strong. You can’t fault vineyards for planting Cabernet Sauvignon or wineries for producing it.

But what you can fault is the idea that we should start hoarding all our eggs into one Cab basket–especially a basket that is already dominated by one really large hen.

Look at any “Most Popular” list of American wines and you can easily see a stark theme.

Wine & Spirits Top Restaurant Wines of 2018.

I would definitely be impressed seeing a wine list with Woodward Canyon prominently featured.

Cakebread, Caymus, Chateau Montelena, Corison, Duckhorn, Faust, Frank Family, Heitz, Jordan, Justin, Louis M. Martini, Mount Veeder, Rodney Strong, Sequoia Grove, Silver Oak, St. Francis Winery, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Turnbull–all well known California Cabernet producers. Though, yes, Washington State does get a few nods with Woodward Canyon, L’Ecole 41 and Chateau Ste. Michelle (probably for their Riesling).

The Most Searched-For Cabernet Sauvignon on WineSearcher.com in 2017.

Screaming Eagle, Caymus, Scarecrow, Shafer, Dunn, Robert Mondavi and Silver Oak–all Napa Valley staples with only Penfolds 707 from Australia and Concha y Toro Don Melchor from Chile being outside Cabernets that cracked the list.

Vivino’s Top 20 Cabernet Sauvignon for Cab Day (which was apparently September 3rd)

Pretty much the same Napa-dominated list like the ones above with Quebrada De Macul’s Domus Aurea from Chile, Gramercy Cellars’ Lower East from Washington, Thelema Mountain Vineyards’s The Mint and Springfield Estate’s Whole Berry from South Africa sprinkled in for diversity.

This is not to say that Washington State can’t compete with California–in quality or in price. Lord knows we can and often exceedingly over deliver in both. Many years the state usually leads the pack in percentage of wines produced that receive 90+ scores from critics and often command a sizable chunk of year-end “Top 100” lists.

Photo a compilation of creative commons licensed images uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Perhaps the Washington State Wine Commission needs to get Steven Spurrier on the phone.

But to the vast majority of American wine buying consumers (particularly of Cabernet Sauvignon) that hardly makes a dent in their Napa-centric worldview. Pretty much since the 1976 Judgment of Paris, Cabernet Sauvignon in the United States has been synonymous with Napa Valley, California.

Of course, I’m not saying that Washington should stop producing its bounty of delicious and highly acclaimed Cabs but why should we double down on chasing a horse that has already left the stable?

The Lessons Of Oregon

To bolster his case, Perdue points to the example of Oregon which has built its brand (quite successfully) on the quality and notoriety of its Pinot noir. It’s no shock that on that same Wine & Spirits Top Restaurant List that Oregon has a healthy showing with Adelsheim Vineyard, Argyle Winery, Cristom Vineyards, Domaine Drouhin Oregon, Elk Cove Vineyards and King Estate representing the state–doubling the amount of wineries that Washington has featured.

Perdue would, presumably, attribute that success to Oregon’s seemingly singular focus on Pinot noir instead of the jack-of-all-trades approach that Washington State has taken in a modern history that is pretty close to the same age.

But what I don’t think Perdue has really taken into consideration is that Oregon started doubling down on Pinot long before Pinot noir was cool.

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

Pinot noir in early veraison at Cristom Vineyards in the Eola-Amity Hills

In his book Oregon Wine Country Stories Kenneth Friedenreich notes that many of Oregon’s early pioneers were thought to be crazy by their neighbors and bankers when they started planting Pinot noir in the Willamette Valley in the 1960s. It wasn’t until the 1980s when French producers like the Drouhin family of Burgundy took notice that the state began getting some attention on the world’s stage.

Even then, Oregon Pinot noir was still a tough sell in the domestic US market.

 

It’s hard to discount the impact that the 2004 film Sideways had on the perception of Pinot noir. As David Adelsheim noted “There were two great grapes of America [Cabernet Sauvignon & Chardonnay], and after ‘Sideways,’ there were three,” with the Oregon wine industry reaping the benefit of sustained sales ever since.

In the game of life, when Oregon wine producers were least expecting it, they rolled a ‘7’. But they could have just as easily crapped out.

Oregon was initially betting on a long shot–not a 2 to 1 favorite like Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s crazy to think that Washington could every get the same kind of payout.

How About Betting On What’s Exciting?

Seriously, if you are not on the Washington Cab Franc train than you are lagging behind my friend!

Earlier this week Sean Sullivan of Seattle Met and Wine Enthusiast published a fantastic list of “The 30 Most Exciting Wines in Washington”.

Now while there are certainly Cabs included on this list–several of which, like Passing Time and Quilceda Creek, I wouldn’t dispute–there are several wines included that are truly, genuinely exciting.

2013 Leonetti Cellar Aglianico Serra Pedace Vineyard Walla Walla Valley

Yes, an Aglianico! From Leonetti!

2015 Spring Valley Vineyard Katherine Corkrum Estate Grown Cabernet Franc Walla Walla Valley

The 2012 vintage of this wine was one of the best wines being poured at the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance tasting in Seattle earlier this year.

2017 L’Ecole No. 41 Old Vines Chenin blanc Columbia Valley

I’m no stranger to hollering into the void about the charms and deliciousness of Washington Chenin blanc. I love that L’Ecole is highlighting “Old Vines” on this bottle. It shows that their faith in this wonderful variety isn’t a fly-by-night fancy.

2015 Two Vintners Cinsault Make Haste Yakima Valley

Cinsault has been on my radar since attending the Hospice du Rhone seminar highlighting South African Cinsault. Obviously Washington doesn’t have anywhere close the vine age or experience but Morgan Lee of Two Vintners is an incredibly talented winemaker so it will be fun to see what he could do with the grape.

2016 Savage Grace Côt Malbec Boushey Vineyard Yakima Valley

Michael Savage makes some of my favorite Cabernet Francs from the Two Blondes Vineyard and Copeland Vineyard. The Boushey Vineyard is one of the grand crus of Washington. All perfect ingredients for what is likely a very kick ass wine.

2017 Syncline Winery Picpoul Boushey Vineyard Yakima Valley

If you’re not drinking Picpoul, is it really worth drinking anything?

2012 MTR Productions Memory Found Syrah Walla Walla Valley

This Syrah, made by Matt Reynvaan (of Reynvaan Family Vineyards fame),  is practically treated like a Brunello di Montalcino. It sees two years of oak aging followed by 3 years of bottle aging before release. A fascinating project.

2015 Sleight of Hand Cellars Psychedelic Syrah Stoney Vine Vineyard Walla Walla Valley

Yeah, yeah the Rocks District is technically Oregon. But since the wine consuming public is too myopically focused on Oregon Pinot noir,  Washingtonians can take credit for the insane depth and character that comes out of wines from this area. At the Taste Washington “Washington vs The World Seminar” this was the run away winner at an event that featured heavy hitters like Joseph Phelps Insignia, Lynch-Bages, Sadie Family, Amon-Ra and Duckhorn Merlot.

Lessons of Oregon part II

Another lesson from Oregon that’s often overlooked is the lack of attention given to other grapes grown in the state. This was a takeaway I had from Friedenreich’s Oregon Wine Country Stories that I noted in my review with the fascinating possibilities of the Southern Oregon AVAs like the Umpqua, Rogue and Applegate Valleys or the shared Columbia Gorge AVA up north with Washington.

There are over 50 grape varieties grown in Oregon–yet we really only hear about 1 to 3 of them. Sure the producers in prime Pinot country with blessed vineyards on Jory and Willakenzie soils, have a good gig right now. But the countless small wineries in other areas of the state trying to promote and sell their non-Pinot wines are facing an uphill battle.

Now What?

Does Washington State really want to  be associated with just one grape variety? With more than 70 different grape varieties, why limit ourselves?

As a Washington wine lover that adores the bounty and bevy of fantastic wines like Viognier that can compete with great Condrieu, geeky Siegerrebe and Pinot noir from the Puget Sound, Counoise rosé that echoes the grape’s Châteauneuf-du-Pape heritage and robust Malbecs that gets your mouth watering with their savory, spicy complexity, I vote no.

If are going to double down on anything then we should double down on what makes Washington, Washington.

We’re the Meryl Streep and Daniel Day-Lewis of the American wine industry. We can do it all and we can do it very, very well.

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Hospice du Rhône Weekend 2018

The BBQ prep for the closing dinner.

Just got back home from a wonderful weekend down in Paso Robles attending the 2018 Hospice du Rhône. This was my first time attending the event and I can tell you that my wife and I are already making plans to attend the 2020 event April 23rd-25th.

To be honest, we are even thinking about attending the 2019 event in the Rhône Valley.

We purchased two weekend passes at $995 each which got us:

4 seminars featuring 9-11 wines each including many wines with limited releases and very small production.
Two lunches (a Rosé lunch on Day 1 and Live Auction lunch on Day 2)
An Opening and Closing Tasting featuring hundreds of wines with each tasting having a different theme (older vintages for Day 1 and newer vintages for Day 2) so each day had different wines to try.
Farewell dinner and BBQ

As you can probably garner from the first paragraph, my wife and I left the event feeling that the cost of the weekend pass was more than worth it for the experience we got. So I’ll share some of my favorite geeky moments, top wines and the two slight negatives that put a damper on an otherwise stellar event.

I’ll save my reviews of the 4 seminars (South Africa’s Cinsault Renaissance, A 6th Generation Crusade in the Barossa Valley, Lost and Found: Old Vine Rhônes Across California, The Majesty of Guigal) for their own individual posts because there was a lot of great stuff from each to unpack.

Top 3 Geek Moments

Meeting two Masters of Wine in Billo Naravane of Rasa Vineyards and Morgan Twain-Peterson of Bedrock Wine Co. I got a chance to talk to Billo about the possibilities of Walla Walla hosting a future Hospice du Rhone (would be incredibly exciting!) and with Morgan it was hard not to be charmed with his unabashed geekiness for old vine vineyards in California.

John Alban, Morgan Twain-Peterson and Tegan Passalacqua at the old vine seminar.

Which along those lines….

Having the light bulb flick on about the treasure of old vine field blends. Some of the most exciting wines at the event were old vine field blends featuring a hodge podge of grapes like Mataro (Mourvedre), Syrah, Peloursin, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Trousseau noir, Grenache, Mondeuse, Alicante Bouchet and the like inter-planted and fermented together. In an industry dominated by monoculture and mono-varietal wines, the character of these field blends like Carlisle’s Two Acres and Bedrock’s Gibson Ranch are off the charts.

And no one is intentionally planting field blends right now. This truly is a treasure of the past when farmers, rather than viticulturists, just kind of did their thing and let what would grow, grow. That kind of proposition is way too risky today but that only heightens the importance of saving these old vineyards and supporting the wineries who source fruit from them.

As a Millennial, the character and stories behind field blend plantings is the perfect antidote to the mind-numbing boredom of the “same old, same old”. Millennials are changing the wine industry with their craving for new experiences and new things as well as authenticity–which an old vine field blend delivers in spades. It’s why I’m skeptical that Cabernet Sauvignon will continue it dominance and why I don’t think Merlot’s downturn is just because of a movie.

Potek Winery’s Mormann Vineyard Syrah from the Santa Rita Hills.
Great wine but Potek’s labels are WAAAAAAY too busy. Admittedly in a wine shop I wouldn’t even give them a second look because they’re so hard to read.

Though speaking of that movie…

Screw Pinot. Let’s start drinking Santa Barbara County Rhônes. I mentioned this in my quick take on Day 1 and day 2 only reaffirmed how special these cool climate Rhônes are. I’ll also add the Russian River Valley of Sonoma because not only can you find Carlisle’s Two Acre gem there but I was also thoroughly impressed with the wines from MacLaren.

Top 10 (non-seminar) Wines of the Event

When you have wines like a 2005 Guigal La Turque being poured at the seminars, it would be easy to fill up this list with nothing but seminar wines. But there were a lot of fantastic wines poured at the Opening and Closing tastings so here are 10 of my favorites in no particular order.

2016 Jada Hell’s Kitchen Paso Robles — It was actually hard to narrow down just one of the Jada wines to put on this list because every single one of them were stellar. This one was very full bodied and hedonistic with rich dark fruit, velvety smooth mouthfeel and a long finish with dark chocolate notes.

2016 Louis Cheze Condrieu Pagus Luminis — Crisp but mouthfilling. Lots of fresh tree fruit notes–apricots and peaches–with some stony minerality.

While I enjoyed the opportunity to try Saxum, I’m actually far more excited about the wines being made by their assistant, Don Burns, with his wife Claudia at their Turtle Rock Winery.

2016 CR Graybehl The Grenachista Alder Springs Grenache Mendocino County — I guess I could add this to my cool-climate Rhône discoveries. Like Jada, this was a hard one to narrow down because I loved everything from this producer. The Alder Springs had a particular vivacious mouthfeel of juicy blackberries with some spice and floral notes.

2012 Turtle Rock Willow’s Cuvee Paso Robles — Made by the assistant winemaker of Saxum. Truthfully, I liked these better than the Saxum wines I tried. Very floral with a mix of red and dark fruit. One of the best noses of the night.

2012 Dos Cabezas Wineworks El Campo Sonoita Arizona — One of the surprises of the event. A Tempranillo-Mourvedre blend from Arizona that tasted like a spicy Ribera del Duero and juicy Jumilla had a baby. Very impressive.

2008 Kunin Alisos Vineyard Syrah Santa Barbara County — Winners across the board from Kunin. Great mix of dark fruit and earthy forest floor. Very long finish. These were wines I wished I had more time to savor.

2012 Le Vieux Donjon Châteauneuf-du-Pape — This hit my perfect catnip style of savory, meaty undertones wrapped around a core of juicy, mouthwatering fruit. Such a treat to have and I suspect that the 2015 will be even better with a few more years.

2007 Carlisle James Berry Syrah Paso Robles — All in all, Carlisle probably made my favorite wines of the entire event. I can still taste the 2016 Two Acres from the old vine seminar but this James Berry was a close second. Still very lively with dark fruit, mouthwatering medium-plus acid and some spicy minerality on the finish.

A 100% Cinsault pet-nat was not only geeky good but also a palate savior.
Would really love to see more sparkling wines like this at future Hospice du Rhone events.


2017 The Blacksmith The Bloodline Cinsault Pet-Nat Darling W.O. South Africa — This was much needed salvation for the palate (see below) but it would have been a treat to try under any circumstance. Super geeky Cinsault pet-nat, this wine had a huge nose of orange blossoms and cherries that jumped out of the glass.

2005 Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage — This wine wasn’t part of any featured tasting and was certainly an unexpected treat that someone brought to the Live Auction lunch on Day 2. This was my first Chave and my lord! Still quite young and powerful for its age with layers of red fruit, savory Asian spices and a long finish of smokey BBQ notes.

Palate Fatigue and a little clicky culture

While overall the event was fantastic, there were two things that stuck out as minor negatives. One was the absence of sparkling wines which are the guardian angels of the palate at tastings like these. As readers of my flashback review of the 2017 Taste Washington know, periodically taking a break from big, heavy reds with some palate cleansing bubbles is a must if you’re going to maximize your tasting experience.

There were a few producers pouring some roses and crisp white wines which helped but it was disappointing not to see more sparkling examples. I know that the Rhône is not particularly well known for bubbles but there is the Clairette de Die and Saint-Péray AOCs producing sparkling wine and Australia has a good tradition of making sparkling Shiraz. I’m sure there are also examples from New World producers experimenting with sparkling Viognier and other varieties. It would be great to give these wines more visibility and they would be absolute god sends during the big tastings.

While some of the “clickiness” at lunch was disheartening, the gracious couple who shared this wine from their table gave me an amazing thrill that was a joy to try.


The second negative was how “clicky” the culture among the attendees were–especially at the lunches. It’s wonderful that the Hospice du Rhône is in its 22nd year and it’s clear that there are many people who have been attending this event regularly. But for a “newbie”, it felt hard at times to break into the crowd.

Again, this was most felt at the lunches where several times seats and entire tables were reserved not by official organizers but other attendees who didn’t seem to have any interest in interacting with people who weren’t part of their local scene.

But there were certainly more than enough gracious attendees who were welcoming and approachable (as well as the organizers themselves like John and Lorraine Alban, Vicki Carroll and Faith Wells) to make the event exceedingly enjoyable and well worth attending again.

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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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Getting Geeky with Domaine du Grangeon Chatus

Going to need more than 60 Seconds to geek out about this bottle of 2012 Domaine du Grangeon Chatus from the Ardèche.

The Grape

Jancis Robinson notes in Wine Grapes that Chatus is a very old variety that was first mentioned by Olivier de Serres in 1600 as being one of the best wine grapes in the Ardèche. For the next couple centuries, the grape enjoyed widespread planting from the Massif Central to the Drôme, Isère and Savoie. It even found its way across the Alps to the foothills of Piedmont before phylloxera dramatically reduced its numbers.

Even after the threat of phylloxera passed with rootstock grafting allowing Vitis vinifera varieties to be reintroduced, Chatus struggled to gain much traction even inside its home territory of the southern Ardèche. By 1958 there were around 371 acres in all of France. However, that number would drop to only 141 acres by 2006. Here is often blended with Syrah.

DNA analysis has shown that Chatus likely originated in the Ardèche region where one of its parent grapes may have been the near extinct variety Pougnet. It crossed at some point with Gouais blanc (parent of Aligoté, Chardonnay, Gamay, Melon de Bourgogne and many more varieties) to produce Sérénèze de Voreppe.

Outside of France, Chatus is still grown in Piedmont in regions like Pinerolo, Saluzzo and Maira Valley. Here it is often blended with Avanà, Barbera, Neretta Cuneese, Persan and Plasa.

Confusion With Nebbiolo
Photo taken by self and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Chatus is often confused with Nebbiolo (pictured)

DNA profiling showed that the Neiret and Nebbiolo di Dronero growing in the alpine foothills of Piedmont were actually Chatus. In the 1930s, the grape breeder Giovanni Dalmasso at the Istituto Sperimentale per la Viticoltura in Conegliano used what he thought was Nebbiolo as a parent variety in the development of several new grapes.

However, the cuttings he used turned out to be Chatus.  This makes the grape a parent to several varieties such as Albarossa, Cornarea, Nebbiera, San Michelle and Soprega (with Barbera) as well as Passau, San Martino and Valentino nero (with Dolcetto).

Chatus’ confusion with Nebbiolo can also be seen in the type of wines that the small-berried variety produces. Often Chatus wines show ample acidity, high tannins and an affinity for absorbing the flavors of oak. One significant difference between the two varieties is that Chatus tends to produce more deeply colored wines than typical of Nebbiolo.

 

The Winery

After serving as cellar master for the notable Condrieu producer Georges Verney, Christophe Reynouard returned home in 1998 to take over his family’s estate in the village of Rosières in southern Ardèche.

In addition to the very rare Chatus, Domaine du Grangeon also grows Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Gamay, Viognier and Chardonnay on their 42 acres of vineyards. The winery farms sustainably with no chemicals used in the vineyard.

The grapes for the 2012 Chatus came from the family’s vineyard in Balbiac. After fermentation and malolatic fermentation, the wine spent 24 months in new French oak. Only around 4500 bottles were produced.

The Wine

Medium intensity nose. Spice, lots of spice. The nose has a bit of Syrah-like black pepper spice. Earthy tobacco spice reminiscent of Nebbiolo soon follows. With air, baking oak spice comes out as well. Underneath the spice is a mix of dark berry fruit with some slight floral element.

On the palate, the oak takes center stage with round vanilla notes tempering the medium-plus acidity and medium-plus tannins. The dark fruits still carry through but are even harder to pick out on the palate under the oak. The spice notes from the nose also get a bit muted but seem to reemerge for the moderate length finish.

The Verdict

At around $25-30, you are certainly paying a premium for the uniqueness of this grape variety and its scarcity. The wine certainly has some character. It would be intriguing to try an example that didn’t have as much overt oak.

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