Tag Archives: Muscat

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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The Fanatical But Forgotten Legacy of Martin Ray

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

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

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

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

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

The Invasion of Quantity over Quality

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

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

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

Martin Ray in the 1960s.

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

Post-Prohibition Blues

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

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

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

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

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

Martin Ray was different.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sky’s The Limit

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

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

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

Branded under his own name, Martin Ray spared no expense.

His goal was to make Pinot noir, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon that could compete with the best that Europe offered. In the vineyard, he focused on lowering yields and refused to irrigate–believing that excess water diluted the vine’s potential to make great grapes.

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

The wines were barrel fermented and then pressed in a custom-built hand press that Ray designed himself to minimize extraction of harsh tannins. He then aged the wines in oak barrels before bottling them unfined and unfiltered. However, rather than releasing the wines soon after bottling, Ray kept the wines back and aged them further in the cellar. Not a single bottle was released until he felt that they were ready for the market. Sometimes this meant holding them back as long as ten years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

His life’s work. Finally completed.

Rediscovering Martin Ray

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

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

Lindsey Haughton and Bill Batchelor of Martin Ray.

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

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

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

The Wines

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

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

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

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

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

A gorgeous Pinot that way over delivers for the price.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Cinsault — The Black Prince of South Africa

As promised in my summary post about the 2018 Hospice du Rhône Weekend, I’ll tackle each of the four seminars with their own posts beginning with the first seminar on Friday — South Africa’s Cinsault Renaissance.

I’m hard-pressed to narrow down which of the four seminars were my absolute favorite but, without a doubt, this seminar was the most eye-opening. In my Quick Take on Day 1, I commented how neither Cinsault nor South Africa tends to be on the radar of most US consumers. The trade organization WOSA (Wines of South Africa) reported in 2016 that the US receives only 3% of the wine exported from South Africa. In 2014, when US sales of wine (both domestic and exported) were around 370 million cases, wines from South Africa accounted for less than 0.33% of those sales.

But after attending this seminar moderated by Lauren Buzzeo of Wine Enthusiast and reading about my friend Adrienne’s wine adventures drinking South African wines in Nambia, it’s clear that South Africa is a wine producer worth paying attention to—not the least of which for the country’s treasure trove of old vine Cinsault.

The seminar featured 9 Cinsaults and Cinsault-dominant blends from 7 producers with winemakers Tremayne Smith (The Blacksmith Wines), Andrea Mullineux (Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines), Danie Steytler (Kaapzicht Wine Estate) and Ryan Mostert (Silwervis) on the panel.

I will get into my tasting notes on the individual wines in the moment but first some geeking about Cinsault.

Cinsault: The Mediterranean “Pinot noir”?

Jancis Robinson notes in Wine Grapes that the earliest recorded mention of Cinsault was under the synonym ‘Marroquin’ in 1600 by the French writer Olivier de Serres. The modern spelling ‘Cinsault’ emerged in the 1880s as a likely derivative from ‘Sinsâou’ that was used in the Hérault department along the Mediterranean coast as early as 1829.

Photo by Varaine. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Cinsault growing in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

DNA analysis suggest this area is the probable birthplace of Cinsault due to its close genetic relationship to the Piquepoul varieties and the potential parent-offspring relationship with Rivairenc (Aspiran), the very old Languedoc grape.

Today some of the oldest vines of Cinsault in the Languedoc date back to 1900. While Cinsault suffered the same post-WW II image problem here it did in South Africa, it is also benefiting from renewed interest in the variety with even acclaimed Burgundian producers like Anne Gros (of the notable Vosne-Romanée family) and her husband Jean-Paul Tollot tending to 50+ year old vines in Minervois.

Outside of France, the grape is found in the Puglia region of Italy where it is known as Ottavianello and must make up a minimum of 85% of the red blends in the Ostuni DOC. In Morocco it is the most widely planted grape variety but that is largely because Cinsault is also a popular table grape variety.

Chateau Musar has long championed the grape variety in Lebanon, frequently blending it with Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.

In Washington State, Paul Gregutt describes wines made from Cinsault as like a “good Beaujolais” and notes in Washington Wines that it can be found in Walla Walla in the Morrison Lane and Minnick Vineyards as well as in the Horse Heaven Hills at Alder Ridge.

Cinsault in South Africa

Tim James in Wines of the New South Africa notes that Cinsault was introduced to South Africa in the 1880s and quickly became a popular planting. By 1909, it was the most widely planted red grape variety and the third most popular grape after Greengrape (Semillon) and Muscat.

Originally known as “Hermitage” until the mid-1930s, Cinsault would eventually account for as much as a third of all vineyard plantings in South Africa and was used to make everything from dry reds to sweet fortified wines to even brandy. The rise in popularity of Chenin blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon after World War II would eventually signal the grape’s decline throughout rest of the 20th century but even as its popularity wane it was still frequently used as a blending grape to add perfume and acidity to some of the country’s top Cabernet Sauvignon.

By 2008, Cinsault accounted for around a tenth of all vineyards in South Africa with notable plantings in Paarl, Breedekloof and the ward of Malmesbury in Swartland. Roughly translated to “The Black Land” in reference to the renosterbos (“rhino bush”) shrubs that dot the landscape, it is somewhat poetic that old vine vineyards of the Black Prince in Swartland would be the source of some of the most delicious Cinsault at the seminar.

Seminar Wines

Most of these wines are limited releases and hard to find in the United States. But they are well worth the hunt if you can get them.

Color of the The Blacksmith Barebones. Note how you can read through the core to see the text underneath.


2017 The Blacksmith Barebones, W.O. Paarl (Wine Searcher Average $24)
Medium intensity nose with black cherry and fresh uncured tobacco.

On the palate, those black cherry notes come through and are quite juicy and fresh with medium-plus acidity. Medium tannins and medium body contribute to the “Beaujolais” quality of the wine making it very pleasant and enjoyable with a moderate finish.

2017 The Blacksmith Prince of Bones, W.O. Swartland (No WS listing. At the seminar, Lauren Buzzeo priced it at $45)
Medium-plus intensity nose with lots of blue floral notes to go with the black cherry and tobacco notes exhibited by the Barebones.

On the palate, those fresh uncured tobacco notes from the nose change to more cured tobacco spice–not that dissimilar from Bordeaux wines. Medium-plus acidity maintains the juiciness of the cherry fruit with medium-plus tannins contributing to the medium-plus body of the wine. Long finish ends on the spicy note and mouthwatering fruit. Outstanding wine and probably my favorite of the tasting.

2017 Sadie Family Pofadder, W.O. Swartland (WS Average for 2016 vintage $42)
Medium-minus intensity nose. Light raspberry and some herbal notes. With some air a slight watermelon note (both flesh and rind) come out which is intriguing.

On the palate, the fruit flavors are similarly light. High acidity and chalky medium-plus tannins contribute to a thin and skeletal feel of the wine. Very short finish brings an earthy element that is hard to make out.

2017 Craven Wines Cinsault, W.O. Stellenbosch (WS Average $14 but I’m skeptical as Buzzeo listed the price at $55)
Medium intensity nose with red cherry, rose petals and fresh forest earthiness.

On the palate, the earthy element becomes a little more herbal but also brings a savory black pepper spice note. High acidity and medium-plus tannins are balanced a bit better with the fruit than the Sadie Pofadder so the wine feels more firm and structured rather than thin and skeletal. Seems young but promising.

The Badenhorst Ramnasgras from Swartland was fantastic.


2016 A.A. Badenhorst Cinsault Ramnasgras, W.O. Swartland (WS Average $38)
Medium-plus intensity with black cherry notes and lots of spice and meatiness. A mix of Burgundian and Rhone notes on the nose that had my mouth watering before even taking a sip.

On the palate, the cherry and spice carries through with the mouthwatering continuing with the medium-plus acidity. High tannins hold up the full-bodied fruit of the wine really well and contribute to this wine feeling like a meal in itself. Another favorite.

2016 Kaapzicht Cinsault 1952, W.O. Stellenbosch (NO WS listing though one merchant offering it for $31)
Medium intensity nose with an intriguing mix of cherry pie spices and leather.

The Kaapzicht 1952. Note how much darker this wine is in the core.


On the palate, those cherry pie notes come through with a toasty graham cracker crust character as well. Juicy medium-plus and ripe medium-plus tannins gives the wine great structure and mouthfeel. Long finish keeps with the cherry pie note with some cured tobacco spice joining the party. Very delicious.

2015 Kaapzicht Cinsault Skuinberg, W.O. Stellenbosch (NO WS listing though one merchant offering it for $79)
Medium-minus intensity nose. A mix of minty menthol and coffee espresso with some undefined red fruits.

On the palate, the red fruits become more defined as cherry and raspberry but the menthol and espresso dominant. Like the 1952, the medium-plus acidity and tannins give the wine exceptional balance and structure. I just don’t know if I’m a fan of this flavor profile as much.

2015 Leeu Passant Old Vine Cinsault, W.O. Franschhoek (NO WS listing though one merchant offering it for $103)
Medium-plus intensity nose with black raspberry and blackberry notes. There is also a minty element here but it smells more like fresh mint leaves rather than menthol.

The black fruits carry through on the palate with the minty notes being more subdued. In their place some of that Bordeaux-style tobacco spice emerges which gives the wine a savory element with the medium-plus acidity. Medium-plus tannins balances out the full bodied weight of the fruit. Long finish lingers on the spice. Really well made wine.

2015 Silwervis Cinsault, W.O. Swartland (WS Average $26 but I’m skeptical as Buzzeo listed the price at $50)
Medium intensity nose with coffee and cherry notes. With some air, a little floral mint and fresh tobacco leaf comes out.

On the palate, the coffee notes dominant with fruit present but struggling to emerge. Medium acidity and medium-plus tannins have firm edges to them. Even though this one of the oldest wines at the tastings, it felt really young. Intriguing though.

Takeaways

Cinsault’s diversity is a joy for food pairing but a nightmare for blind tasting.

As I reviewed my notes I saw some patterns emerging (cherry and tobacco) but many of those notes overlap with styles familiar to Burgundy, Beaujolais and lighter Bordeaux. A few examples even hit some of those savory meaty notes of a Rhone. Still, this diversity is exciting because here we have a wine that can be anything from a great picnic & BBQ sipper to something savory and complex that can hold up to robust dishes.

While two of my favorites (The Blacksmith’s Prince of Bones and A.A. Badenhorst’s Ramnagras) were from the Swartland–along with the intriguing but young tasting Silwervis–it was hard to pinpoint terroir characteristics. Considering how much I’ve liked other wines from these producers, I wonder how much of it is more producer style verses the region?

But a big takeaway, and one that the moderator and panelists frequently referred to, was the importance of older vines for Cinsault. The vine lends itself easily to overproduction and with its thin skins can be prone to producing thin flavors. While that may work for bulk rosé, it’s not ideal for making character driven wines.

With over 1600 acres of Cinsault vines over 20 years old (and many of the wines featured in this tasting coming from 40+ year old vineyards), South Africa does have a good bounty of older vines to work with. The really lovely Leeu Passant Old Vine Cinsault from Franschhoek was sourced from South Africa’s 2nd oldest red wine vineyard from vines that are 91+ years old. You can taste the added complexity and concentration from these older vines.

Remarkable stuff that is, again, well worth the hunt to find.

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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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Book Reviews — Rosé Wine

A few thoughts on Rosé Wine: The Guide to Drinking Pink by Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan.

Overview

Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan earned her Master of Wine in 2008, becoming the 4th woman in the United States to achieve such a distinction. In the introduction of Rosé Wine, she describes the difficulties in finding resources on rosé while she was studying for her MW and with rosé growing in popularity (particularly in the US), this book fills a niche.

The book is broken into 3 sections with 10 chapters. The first part, “Getting Started”, covers the basics of making and tasting rosé and concludes with Chapter 3’s presentation of Simonetti-Bryan’s 10 question Rosé Quiz. This quiz, which features questions asking about coffee habits and whether you put lemon juice on your green beans, aims to identify what style of rosé you may enjoy based on your tolerance of bitter, sweet and sour components as well as alcohol heat.

The next section of the book goes into the world of rosés with chapters 4 through 7 detailing the four broad categories of rosés–Blush wines which emphasize sweetness, Crisp wines which emphasize acidity, Fruity wines which emphasize fruit and Rich wines which emphasize body, alcohol and deep color. In each section, Simonetti-Bryan gives specific wine recommendations that exhibit these particular styles and food pairing options for them.

The last section, covering chapters 8 through 10, is titled “Resources” and includes more in-depth food pairing guidelines as well as a pronunciation guide and checklist for the wines featured throughout the book.

Some Things I Learned

I must confess that when I picked up this tiny (6.5 x 8 inch) book, I wasn’t expecting much. I mean, come on, it’s about rosé! Outside of knowing which grapes grow in which wine region that makes rosé, how much is there to really know about it?

But y’all….

From Wikimedia Commons, taken by self and uploaded as Agne27

And truthfully, it’s often easier to find rose Cava in the US than Spanish rosados.

I got schooled by the Jedi Wine Master.

The first eye-opener for me came on page 2 when I learned that after France, Spain is the second leading producer of rosé. Spain?!? I know they make a significant quantity of wine but I would have surely pegged the US as #2 for rosé production–especially since we drink so much of it. But then, my US-centric experience is at play when I can find dozens of American rosé examples but only a handful of Spanish rosados on restaurant wine lists and store shelves–a Muga here, a Marques De Caceres there.

In Chapter 1 on “Making Rosé”, I geeked out on the varietal characteristics of the grapes. As someone who is toiling away on the WSET Diploma level, it’s helpful to know little blind tasting hints such as looking for herbal notes like oregano in Sangiovese, the raspberry flavors in Syrah rosés and how Mencía can come across like Malbec but with more blackberry, violet and spicy flavors.

I also never realized how much co-fermentation of white and red grapes was done in rosé winemaking. Typically when you think of co-ferments, you think of notable examples like Syrah and Viognier in Côte-Rôtie and field blends. But littered throughout Rosé Wine are examples that Simonetti-Bryan highlights from regions like Vinho Verde (10 different red and white grapes can be used), Veneto (the Prosecco grape Glera with red grape varieties), Rioja (Viura and Tempranillo) and Tavel.

I was also surprised to learn that Pink Moscato is usually made with blending red wine to white Muscat blanc wine. I always thought it was made from one of the countless red skin variations of the Muscat grape.

In Chapter 2 on “Tasting Rosé”, Simonetti-Bryan’s explanation of picking up flavors via your retronasal cavity is one of the best I’ve ever came across. She asks you to think about how you can taste food that you ate hours ago when you burp and that is bloody brilliant. Gross, but brilliant and I’m totally going to steal that the next time I have to explain retronasal olfaction.

Wines I Want to Try Because of This Book

Here Simonetti-Bryan gives a smorgasbord of options with each rosé style getting 15 to 22 recommendations of specific wines to try. I found a couple dozen that excited me but I’m going to limit this list to the top 5 that interested me the most.

Domaines Ott Clos Mireille Côtes de Provence Rosé (Crisp style) – I can’t imagine myself paying nearly $50 for a rosé but Simonetti-Bryan’s description of this wine having a long slow fermentation, spending 8 to 12 months in vats, makes this very fascinating.

Domaine la Rabiotte Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence (Crisp) – At around $13, this is more in my wheel house for rosé and the description of this wine’s minerally acidity cutting through the fat of pulled pork had my mouth watering just thinking about it.

By jean-louis Zimmermann - Flickr: vin

Very intrigued to explore the rosés of Tavel more

Conundrum Rosé (Crisp) – Made by the Wagner family of Caymus fame, this rosé is made from the uber geeky Valdigué grape. That right off the bat had me interested but then Simonetti-Bryan notes that the grapes are apparently “rolled” for 3 hours before pressing. Rolled? I’ve never heard of that before. By hand? By machine? In a tumbler barrel? I’m intensely curious.

Domaine Clarence Dillon Clarendelle Rosé (Fruity style) – Made by the Dillon family of Ch. Haut-Brion fame, a sub $20 Bordeaux rosé made from Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc sounds delicious. I’d also like to see how the time spent aging on the lees impacts mouthfeel.

Château de Ségriès Tavel (Rich style) – Located across the Rhône river from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the Tavel AOC specializes in producing deeply colored and fuller bodied rosés. I also liked Simonetti-Bryan’s tidbit that this AOC only produces around 500,000 cases a year–which she compared to Barefoot’s annual production of 17 million cases. With all the food pairing tips she gives for matching rich, robust rosés with heartier fare, I think I’ve found a way to enjoy rosés in winter.

New Reading Recommendations I Got From This Book

Unfortunately Simonetti-Bryan didn’t include an appendix of notes or reference section in Rosé Wine so I didn’t get as many recommendations for future reading materials as I have from other wine books (like Bursting Bubbles). She does name drop a few potentials in the book–including two in the Introduction as she recounts a sommelier at a Michelin-starred restaurant humorously telling a Master of Wine that “rosés are not wine”.

Benjamin Lewin’s Wine Myths & Reality (I wonder if he tackles the “rosés are not wine” myth here)

Benjamin Lewin’s Wines of France

But I was so impressed with Rosé Wine that, when I was finished, I went to Amazon to look up other books from Simonetti-Bryan that I could add to my reading list.

The One Minute Wine Master: Discover 10 Wines You’ll Like in 60 Seconds or Less

With Master Chef Ken Arnone, Pairing with the Masters: A Definitive Guide to Food and Wine

Final Thoughts

As I noted above, I wasn’t expecting much from this book–a quick read and maybe a takeaway or two–but I ended up burning through a highlighter. The fact that Simonetti-Bryan could jam so many usefully nuggets of info, and present it so unassumingly, is a huge testament to her skill as a teacher. Throughout reading Rosé Wine, I found myself continually surprised and presented with new ways of thinking about something.

While I initially eye-rolled at the Rosé Quiz and usually chafe at such over-simplification of people’s tastes (like I hate coffee and spicy food but love bitter dark chocolate and spicy, tannic, full-bodied reds), I was thoroughly impressed with her explanation of her methods and will have to admit that she nailed me as a Crisp rosé girl and my wife as Fruity rosé fan. While on the surface it seemed overly simple, the thinking and methodology behind it was solid.

I can see the full-bodied weight of this Counoise rosé from Washington pairing well with heavier fare.

I was also impressed with how Rosé Wine encouraged me to rethink my food pairing approach with rosés. I’m so nearsighted about matching weight to weight (light bodied rosé with lighter fare) that it was surprising for me to see Simonetti-Bryan’s recommendations of lamb with a Merlot and Malbec rosé from New Zealand, rich octopus with a Tuscan rosato and beef brisket with a Cabernet Franc rosé from Israel. None of those pairings would have been my first instinct for those dishes or wines but after reading Rosé Wine, I see how they make sense.

And I honestly can’t wait to try them.

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