Tag Archives: Opus One

Geek Notes — Top Audiobooks on California Wine History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Getting Geeky with Stony Hill Chardonnay

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

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

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

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

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

The Background

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

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

The winery doors to Stony Hill Vineyard.


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

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

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

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

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

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

Stony Hill Vineyards on Spring Mountain


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

Long Meadow Ranch

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

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

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


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

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

The Wine

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

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

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


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

The Verdict

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

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

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

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

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Tracking the Tastemakers

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

I’m reminded of Austrian puppeteer Karin Schäfer often when I walk into a supermarket’s wine department.

Recently Wine Enthusiast released their Top 40 Under 40 Tastemakers for 2018–a list highlighting the folks who are “… doing their part to lead the conversation and leave a lasting influence on the world of food and drink for generations to come.”

Admittedly lists like this usually illicit an eye roll response from me because of the feel of puffery that abounds in them. Often when I look more critically at these kinds of list, such as Social Vignerons’ 2018 Top 40+ Wine Influencers which I reviewed in my post Under the (Social Media) Influence, I find an absence of voices and views that actually do influence me to check out a new wine, winemaker or region.

Then there is the cynical part of me who looks at the world of wine through the jaded sunglasses of supermarket shelves dominated by mega-corporations and massive consolidation among distributors which leaves me feeling that the real “tastemakers” in the US sits on the boards of E&J Gallo, Constellation Brands, Diageo, Brown-Foreman, Beam Suntory, Treasury Wine Estates, AB InBev, Costco, Young’s Market Company, Republic National Distributing and Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits.

But that wouldn’t make a very exciting list now would it? Plus, I’m sure the puppeteers that are heading the decision-making at these companies would prefer to keep their strings hidden.

A Taste of Vox Populi

While the geek in me would love to see more people get excited about Pét-Nat sparklers and wines made from unique grape varieties like Trousseau, Fiano, Touriga Nacional, Pošip, Xinomavro and others, I know I’m in the minority.

So I sit by and shake my head as people go nuts over wines aged in bourbon barrels, mixed with cold brew coffee, Frosé cocktails, blue wine or silly packaging with “living labels”–the quality of the contents inside the bottle be damned.

Can’t argue with success even if it is not your cup of tea.


Even trends that start out on a craft level soon get co-opt and commercialized like how making cider from red-fleshed heritage apples became the latest rosé trend. The rye whiskey heritage that pre-dates the Revolution is now “marketable” with the big boys like Jack Daniels, Woodford Reserve, Wild Turkey and Jim Beam hopping on the rye wagon and expanding their portfolios. Patron and Jose Cuervo have their eyes set on the Mezcal market.

And let’s not even get started with what’s become of the sour beer and hazy IPA segments.

But c’est la vie.

If there is a dollar to be made in the beverage industry, somebody will be there to make it.

In vino veritas

Like wine, there is truth in innovation and if history has taught us anything over the course the 10,000+ years that humans have been consuming alcohol it is that we do like a little variety in our tipple–even if that variety is pumpkin spiced flavored.

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

Y’all know its only a matter of time till Apothic PSL comes out, right?


To that extent, I’ll set aside my cynicism to look at Wine Enthusiast’s list and highlight for you some of the folks whose stories I’ve found spark just a bit of hope in my world weary heart.

Maggie Campbell – President/Head Distiller, Privateer Rum; Board of Directors Vice President, American Craft Spirits Association

A female head distiller who has a WSET diploma and is pursuing a Master of Wine certification? Badass! My wife is from the Peabody/Salem, Massachusetts area which is a short drive from Privateer Rum in Ipswich so the next time we’re visiting family back east, I’m definitely putting this distillery on my “Must Visit” list.

Paul Elliot — Founder, Loft & Bear

In all honesty, the vodka industry has been something of a joke the last couple decades with flavors and marketing holding more sway than quality and craftsmanship. I have to tip my hat to the small craft distilleries who try their best to forge a living in this category. While the whiskey, gin, rum and tequila categories have their Goliaths, those mediums at least give the Davids a few rocks of opporunities to differentiate themselves with their ingredients and aging. That’s a tougher task in the craft vodka segment.

Kudos to Elliot and Loft & Bear which not only wants to stand out from the pack but also wants to give back through their charity commitments.

Jim Fischer and Jenny Mosbacher — Co-winemakers, Fossil & Fawn

Photo by  Cornischong . Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD-self

Admit it. You can see Treasury Wine Estates coming out with a “Living Amphora” series of Natural Wines at some point.

While I haven’t always been enthralled with the quality of natural wines, I do respect the commitment and passion behind the people who make them. I haven’t had a chance to try Fossil & Fawn yet but, being Pacific Northwest neighbors, I’ll certainly make an effort to seek them out when I’m in the Portland area.

But, and I’m going to let my cynicism slip in here, I do think that the moment when the Natural Wine Movement has made it will be when wineries like Fossil & Fawn start getting gobbled up by mega-corps like Constellation Brands (a la AB InBev’s mad buying spree of craft brewers).

It will be both a sad and triumphant time for the Natural Wine Movement but I’ll raise a glass and hope that folks like Fischer & Mosbacher still stay part of La Résistance and can make a healthy living doing so.

Maya Dalla Valle – Director, Dalla Valle Vineyards

Dalle Valle has been one of the few Napa “cult wines” that I’ve believed have been worth the hype. It is heartening to see the vineyards still stay in the family and that rather than resting on her name, Maya has gone out into the world to gain real experience at wineries across the globe.

Jésus Guillén — Owner/Winemaker, Guillén Family Wines; Winemaker, White Rose Estate

The last few times I’ve had White Rose wines from the Dundee Hills, I’ve been impressed. Learning about Guillén’s story gives me reason to explore these wines more as well as his own family estate wines.

The windmill that is featured on many of the Long Meadow Ranch wines is still holding the fort on their Mayacamas property overlooking Rutherford.


Chris Hall — Proprietor/Chief Operating Officer, Long Meadow Ranch

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

But visiting the estate a couple years ago as well as their delicious farm-to-table restaurant really hit home for me the Hall family’s commitment to sustainability and the environment.

Jonathan Hajdu — Winemaker, Covenant Wines

I’m not Jewish but I’ve listened to many Jewish friends over the years lament about the poor selection and quality level of many kosher wines–especially those that are mevushal which are flash pasteurized so they can be handled by non-Jews.

While I know that there are quality minded producers in Israel and abroad making kosher wines, their small productions and the hurdles of importation limits their access to US consumers. Being based in Napa and Sonoma, Covenant Wines does have the potential to fill in a sorely needed niche. It never hurts when you have fruit sources like Rudd’s Oakville Estate and Mt. Veeder vineyards!

Their limited production will make them hard to find outside the Pacific Northwest but if you get an opportunity to try Trout’s VITAL wines, take it.

Ashley Trout — Owner/Winemaker, Brook & Bull Cellars; Head Winemaker, Vital Wines

I’ve been a fan of Ashley Trout since her first project, Flying Trout Wines which is now owned by TERO estates. Recently I was really impressed with her VITAL rosé at the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance tasting earlier this year which I documented in my Walla Walla Musings post.

The entire VITAL project is super cool and worth supporting with all the profits from the wine label going to the SOS Clinic of Walla Walla that provides healthcare for under-served members of the community–including many vineyard workers and their families.

I was wondering why Ashley Trout was pictured in her Wine Enthusiast photo op drinking Duckhorn wine until I read that she is married to Brian Rudin the winemaker of Duckhorn’s Red Mountain project, Canvasback. They have two kids who have likely inherited some really good winemaking genes.

Katarina Martinez — Owner/Head Brewer, Lineup Brewing

While no industry is immune, the beer industry has had a lot of light shined recently on the rampant sexism that women working in the industry face. There is even a website called Beer & Sexism which documents stories of women brewers and employees with experiences that range from mild (but thoroughly annoying) mansplaining to severe sexual harassment.

There is no universal blessing bestowed on women that means they’re going to make better beer but with women brewers representing only around 10% of the industry, its worth going out your way to support the underdog.

While it will probably be tough to find the New York-based Lineup Brewing on the West Coast, I’ll keep an eye out for Martinez’s brews.

Krista Scruggs — Vigneronne, Zafa Wines

This entry had me raising an eye brow and going “Whoa!”. Scruggs with her Vermont-based Zafa Wines is experimenting with co-fermenting wine grapes with farmed and forage apples as a sort of a wine-cider hybrid project that sounds crazy cool.

I have no idea how easy her stuff is to find but its worth the search to find what Scruggs describes on her website as “JUST FUCKING FERMENTED JUICE FROM RESPONSIBLY FARMED LIVING FRUIT.

Jeff Lindsay-Thorsen — Winemaker/Co-owner, W.T. Vintners/Raconteur Wine Company; Wine Director, RN74

I don’t hide my affections for W.T. Vintners’s wines like their delicious rosé and very Old Worldish 2015 Boushey Vineyard Rhone blend that beat out (for me) the 2014 Sadie Family Columella (which was nearly 3x the price) at this year’s Washington vs World Blind Tasting Event. Plus, the food and wine experience at RN 74 in Seattle is second to none.

This Madeira flight at RN74 featuring (left to right) a 1988 Malmsey, 1976 Terrantez and a 1948 Bual (!!!) is among my Top 10 lifetime wine moments for sure.


That said, I’m still a bit skeptical at how much influence winemakers and sommeliers have in the bigger scheme of the industry. Yeah, they can make great wine and put together a great list but for the majority of wine drinkers who are picking up a bottle of wine at the grocery store or Costco to take home for dinner, they’re more apt to be swayed by fancy packaging than by “terroir-driven, single-vineyard wines.”

Sorry, my cynicism is leaking out again.

Kelli White — Senior Staff Writer, GuildSomm

For me, personally, I will have to say that Kelli White has been the one figure on this list who has actually influenced my tastes and approach to wine. Over the last year since I’ve discovered her work on GuildSomm, she has become one of my favorite wine writers.

I’ve learned so much from her with this just being a small sampling of some of her outstanding work.

The Devastator: Phylloxera Vastatrix & The Remaking of the World of Wine

The Evolution of American Oak

Photo by εγώ. Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under free licenses.

The root of my Xinomavro obsession of late.

Gods & Heroes: Xinomavro in Northern Greece

Brettanomyces: Science & Context

Major Maladies of the Vine

The GuildSomm website is worth bookmarking just for her articles alone.

Hannibal ad portas

These next listings are probably the most realistic inclusions on Wine Enthusiast’s list because these folks actually have the position and power to influence the market in substantial ways.

Neil Bernardi – Vice President of Winemaking, Duckhorn Wine Company; General Manager, Kosta Browne

Duckhorn has grown immensely from it founding as a small Napa winery by Dan and Margaret Duckhorn in 1976. It’s becoming a large mega-corp in its own right with a portfolio of brands that includes Paraduxx, Goldeneye, Migration, Decoy, Canvasback, Calera and Kosta Browne. This is a story not that far off from that of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates which started as a small Washington winery and now has a portfolio that includes more than 26 brands like 14 Hands, Columbia Crest, Erath, Borne of Fire, Northstar, Spring Valley Vineyards, Conn Creek, Patz & Hall and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.

Duckhorn’s growth is on a steep trajectory and I don’t see their strings of acquisitions slowing down. A big question, especially as they acquire more vineyards and contracts, is whether they will continue to keep their brand holdings in the upper premium range or expand more of their value offerings like Decoy.

Katie Jackson — Vice President of Sustainability and External Affairs, Jackson Family Wines

Photo by 	Jim G. uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Vineyards outside Kendall-Jackson’s Wine Center in Santa Rosa.

Yeah, Jackson Family Wines is huge with over 30 brands in California (including La Crema, Siduri, Brewer-Clifton, Byron, Cambria, Freemark Abbey, Cardinale and Copain), a growing presence in Oregon (buying Penner-Ash and Willakenzie among others) as well as wineries across the globe. They make (and have no problem selling) more than 3 million cases a year of their Vintner Reserve Chardonnay.

That translates to a lot of influence and sway in the industry so it is heartening to read about Katie Jackson’s effort to promote sustainability across her family’s empire including the public release of sustainability reports. Just a few days ago it was announced that more than three-quarters of the company’s vineyards (which includes 12,000 acres under the Kendall-Jackson label alone) are certified sustainable.

That’s a significant needle mover that will certainly have a long term impact on not only the wine industry but on the health of the environment as a whole. While I can often be dour on large wine companies, I have to sincerely applaud Katie Jackson and the Jackson family for these efforts.

Maybe there is hope for my cynical heart yet.

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Bordeaux Futures 2017 — Beau-Séjour Bécot, Canon-la-Gaffelière, Canon, La Dominique

After covering the 2017 Bordeaux futures offers of Clos de l’Oratoire, Ch. Monbousquet, Ch. Quinault l’Enclos and Ch. Fonplegade in our first visit to St. Emilion, we return now to look at the offers for the Premier Grand Cru Classé ‘B’ estates of Ch. Beau-Séjour Bécot, Ch. Canon-la-Gaffelière and Ch. Canon as well as the Grand Cru Classé estate of Ch. La Dominique.

While we are 10 entries deep into this series, first time visitors are always well-advised to check out the the first Bordeaux Futures 2017 post covering the offers of Palmer, Valandraud, Fombrauge and Haut-Batailley that gives an overview of what we are looking for here at SpitBucket in deciding on whether to Buy or Pass on these 2017 offers.

You can also check out the links at the bottom to see other offers that we have reviewed in this series.

Now onto the offers.

Ch. Beau-Séjour Bécot (St. Emilion)

Some Geekery:

The Ancient Romans were one of the first to cultivate vines in what is now Beau-Séjour Bécot more than 2000 years ago. During the Middle Ages the property came under the stewardship of the monks of Saint-Martin de Mazerat who also managed what is now Ch. Canon.

The exterior of Beau-Séjour Bécot.


Stephen Brook notes in The Complete Bordeaux that eventually the property came under the ownership of the Lord of Camarsacs. In 1722 when the daughter of one of the lords married into the Carles de Figeac family, the estate was given to the new couple as dowry.

One of their descendants, General Jacques de Carles renamed the property Beauséjour (meaning “good stay”) in 1787. By the early 1800s, Clive Coates describes in Grand Vins that the large estate was ranked highly in prestige in St. Emilion just behind Ch. Belair, Troplong-Mondot, Ch. Canon and Ausone.

In 1869, the estate was split between the heirs of Pierre-Paulin Ducarpe with his son getting the half that is today Beau-Séjour Bécot and his daughter, who married into the Duffau-Lagarosse family, inheriting the part that is now Ch. Beauséjour Duffau-Lagarrosse. In 1955 both estates were classified as Premier Grand Cru Classé ‘B’.

The Bécot family, who already owned Ch. La Carte, purchased Beau-Séjour in 1969–affixing their name and later expanding it with their holdings at La Carte and acquiring the nearby Trois Moulins vineyard. However, the use of these other vineyard plots in the Grand Vin of Beau-Séjour Bécot was not previously approved by the governing authority of the St. Emilion classification so in 1986 the estate was demoted to Grand Cru Classé.

With the aid of consultant Michel Rolland, the Bécots worked 10 years to improve the vineyard quality of the new parcels and agreed not to use any parcels deemed inferior by the authorities for the Grand Vin. When the 1996 classification was released, Ch. Beau-Séjour Bécot was restored to its Premier Grand Cru Classé ‘B’ ranking.

The author touring the estate with Caroline Bécot.


Today the property is still in the hands of the Bécot family with Juliette Bécot managing the estate alongside Julien Barthe. In 2018, Michel Rolland left as consultant and was replaced by Thomas Duclos.

The 2017 vintage is a blend of 80% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Franc and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. Around 6000 cases are produced each year.

Critic Scores:

93-96 Wine Spectator (WS), 93-95 Wine Enthusiast (WE), 93-94 James Suckling (JS), 92-94 Wine Advocate (WA), 91-93 Vinous Media (VM), 93-95 Jeff Leve (JL), 91-94 Jeb Dunnuck (JD)

Sample Review:

Coming from an incredible terroir located on the limestone plateau just outside the village, the 2017 Château Beau-Séjour Bécot is a medium-bodied, refined, incredibly elegant 2017 that offers awesome notes of crème de cassis, crushed violets, earth, and a saline-like minerality. Winemaker Thomas Duclos compares the 2017 to 2012, saying the wines will put on weight in barrel as well in bottle. Their 2017 is a fresh, vibrant wine and has tons of potential. The blend is 80% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Franc and the rest Cabernet Sauvignon, with the Merlot brought in from the 14th to the 22nd of September, and the Cabernets on October 28 and 29. The wine will spend 16 months in 65% new French oak, with the balance in stainless steel, amphora, and larger oak. — Jeb Dunnuck, JebDunnuck.com

Offers:
Wine Searcher 2017 Average: $58
JJ Buckley: $59.94 + shipping (no shipping if picked up at Oakland location)
Vinfolio: No offers yet.
Spectrum Wine Auctions: No offers yet.
Total Wine: $59.97 (no shipping with wines sent to local Total Wine store for pick up)
K&L: $59.99 + shipping (no shipping if picked up at 1 of 3 K & L locations in California)

Previous Vintages:
2016 Wine Searcher Ave: $74 Average Critic Score: 93 points
2015 Wine Searcher Ave: $77 Average Critic Score: 93
2014 Wine Searcher Ave: $59 Average Critic Score: 91
2013 Wine Searcher Ave: $57 Average Critic Score: 90

Buy or Pass?

Compared to its peers in the Premier Grand Cru Classé tier, the wines of Beau-Séjour Bécot have always struck me as solid (if not slightly underrated) values.

The 2011 was very tight in 2016 and is still slowly starting to come out of its shell.
This makes me think that the 2017 is a wine that will probably need a good 10+ years itself.

My esteem for the estate rose even more during my 2016 visit to the region where I was also introduced to Juliette Bécot’s very delicious Joanin Bécot label from her Cotes de Castillon estate. Both the 2012 and 2015 of that label have been screaming good values under $30 that I eagerly seek out at retail stores and on restaurant wine lists.

While the 2017 will be a compelling buy for many Bordeaux fans, my only hitch is that my past experiences with the wines of Beau-Séjour Bécot have taught me that these wines need time in the cellar and rarely deliver much pleasure early in their life. While that is great for “cellar investment” years like 2015/2016, that is not my objective for futures buying with the 2017s.

So I will Pass on this offer even though it is a solid buy. However, I will certainly be buying some of the 2017 Joanin Bécot when it hits retail stores in 2019/2020.

Ch. Canon-la-Gaffelière (St. Emilion)

Some Geekery:

Canon-la-Gaffelière is a relatively young estate that was previously known as Canon Boitard (after an early 19th century owner) and La Gaffelière-Boitard with La Gaffelière coming from the medieval term for “lepers” and denoting the area’s previous history as part of manor grounds for a hospital that treated leprosy. Eventually the two names were combined in the 19th century to its current incarnation of Ch. Canon-la-Gaffelière.

The modern history of the estate began in 1971 when Count Joseph Hubert von Neipperg purchased the property from Pierre Meyrat, a former mayor of St. Emilion. In 2012, the estate was promoted to Premier Grand Cru Classé ‘B’.

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

Stéphane Derenoncourt, the consultant behind the von Neipperg wines, has a very distinctive style.


Today von Neipperg’s son, Stephan, manages the estate along with fellow Premier Grand Cru Classé ‘B’ La Mondotte as well as Clos de l’Oratoire, Ch. Peyreau, Ch. d’Aiguilhe in Cotes de Castillon, Clos Marsalette in Pessac-Léognan, the Sauternes Premier Cru Ch. Guiraud, Capaia in South Africa and Bessa Valley in Bulgaria.

Stéphane Derenoncourt is the longtime consultant who early on began Canon-la-Gaffelière’s conversion to organic viticulture with the estate being 100% certified organic in 2014.

The 2017 vintage is a blend of 60% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Franc and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. Around 5000 cases a year are produced.

Critic Scores:

94-95 JS, 91-93 WA, 90-93 WS, 92-95 VM, 93-95 JL, 92-94 JD

Sample Review:

The 2017 Canon La Gaffelière is superb. Compelling in its aromatics and overall balance, the 2017 has so much to offer. All the elements simply fall into place. As is the case with all of Stephan von Neipperg’s wines, the 2017 is wonderfully fresh and nuanced, with less muscle than in the past and noticeably more finesse. Bright floral and mocha notes add lift to the dark red stone fruits. What a gorgeous wine this is. Tasted two times. — Antonio Galloni, Vinous

Offers:
Wine Searcher 2017 Average: $75
JJ Buckley: $79.94 + shipping
Vinfolio: No offers yet.
Spectrum Wine Auctions: $467.94 for minimum 6 bottles + shipping (no shipping if picked up at Tustin, CA location)
Total Wine: $78.97
K&L: $79.99 + shipping

Previous Vintages:
2016 Wine Searcher Ave: $92 Average Critic Score: 93 points
2015 Wine Searcher Ave: $99 Average Critic Score: 94
2014 Wine Searcher Ave: $83 Average Critic Score: 92
2013 Wine Searcher Ave: $73 Average Critic Score: 91

Buy or Pass?

If you pay attention to Wine Spectator’s yearly Top 100 list, few names appear more frequently than Canon-la-Gaffelière which has been ranked #7 (2014 vintage, 2017 list), #2 (2010 vintage, 2013 list), #23 (2009 vintage, 2012 list) and #95 (2008 vintage, 2011 list) in the last 7 years. To say that Canon-la-Gaffelière has been on a roll lately is an understatement.

Photo by Dave Minogue. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.0

When you can buy 3 bottles of Canon-la-Gaffelière for the price of 1 bottle of Opus One and get something of very similar style and quality (if not better), it’s a no-brainer for me.

As I noted in my review of Clos de l’Oratoire’s 2017 futures offer, I find the style of Derenoncourt and von Neipperg to be very “New World-ish” so I always evaluate the pricing of their wines on the scale of equivalent priced Napa wines more so than other Bordeaux.

Compared to wines like Opus One, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Silver Oak, Duckhorn and Caymus, I find that there is virtually no contest in the value that Derenoncourt and von Neipperg’s Bordeaux wines provide in delivering lush, hedonistic power for much more compelling prices.

And the wines always seem to be reliably approachable for early consumption. While, on the flip side, I tend to avoid buying Canon-la-Gaffelière and Clos de l’Oratoire in stellar vintages where I’m looking for more classic and age-worthy Bordeaux, these wines fit the bill perfectly for the “cellar defender” role I’m seeking out of vintages like 2017. That makes them an easy Buy, especially when the prices are right.

Ch. Canon (St. Emilion)

Some Geekery:

This photo was taken in the limestone caves of Beau-Séjour Bécot but through here you can access the caves of Ch. Canon which is only separated by a gated door.

Like neighboring Beau-Séjour Bécot, Ch. Canon was once an ecclesiastical vineyard ran by the monks of Clos St. Martin in the 1700s. It was during this period that much of the extensive limestone caves that still connect Beau-Séjour Bécot, Ch. Canon and Clos Fourtet were quarried out with the limestone used to build many chateaux in the Libournais.

The estate was known as Domaine de Saint-Martin in 1760 when it was purchased by Jacques Kanon, a privateer from Dunkirk who served as a lieutenant in the Royal Marines during the Seven Years’ War and earned his fortune from looting and piracy. However, the name of the domaine did not change to Ch. Canon until 1853 when it was owned by the descendants of Raymond Fontemoing who purchased Domaine de Saint-Martin from Kanon in 1770.

The Fontemoing family already owned the famous Chateau Canon in the Canon-Fronsac area which Clive Coates notes in Grand Vins was fetching the highest wine of any Libournais wine in the late 18th century.

The Fontemoings wanted to avoid confusion between their two properties and kept them separate until the wines of St. Emilion began earning more prominence on the market. By the mid 1850s, the newly rechristened Ch. Canon was ranked among the top 4 estates of St. Emilion alongside Ausone, Belair and Magdelaine.

The modern history of Ch. Canon was kick started in 1996 when the estate was sold by the Fournier family to the Wertheimer brothers, Alan and Gerard, who owned the luxury brand Chanel. Today it is part of a portfolio that includes the Margaux 2nd Growth Rauzan-Ségla, Ch. Berliquet in St. Emilion and St. Supéry in Napa Valley as well as the negociant firm Ulysse Cazabonne.

Under the Chanel Group’s ownership, significant capital was invested into replanting the vineyards and renovating the cellars. John Kolasa was brought on to manage Ch. Canon (as well as the other Bordeaux estates) where he stayed till 2015 when he was succeeded by Nicolas Audebert who formerly managed the LVMH Argentine project of Cheval des Andes. Thomas Duclos was also brought on that year as a consultant.

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

The vineyards of Ch. Canon.

The vineyards of Ch. Canon are smack dab in the heart of St. Emilion’s famous limestone plateau with additional parcels on the slopes neighboring Angelus and Ch. Quintus. In recent years, the owners have acquired Chateau Matras and Chateau Cure Bon with the INAO permitting some of the hectares from Cure Bon to be used in the Grand Vin.

The 2017 vintage is a blend of 73% Merlot and 18% Cabernet Franc. Around 6,000 cases a year are produced.

Critic Scores:

94-96 WA, 93-96 WS, 94-95 JS, 93-95 WE, 92-94 VM, 94-97 JD, 94-96 JL

Sample Review:

Another successful year for Canon; not as voluptuous as in 2016 or 2015, but it has a wonderful salinity and a crisp, fresh curl to the fruit. They aim for crystalline flavours, vibrant fruit and a sense of forward motion, and for me it has that again this year. The flavours of blueberries, blackberries and soft, smoky almonds are drawn out through the palate, and by the time it has finished you are ready to go again. It has an austerity that is overridden by the juice, not quite overriding the vintage, but it’s a delicious wine that again showcases the beauty of limestone. 50% new oak. Thomas Duclos is consultant here, and it really is a great year for the estates that he works with. (94 points) — Jane Anson, Decanter

Offers:
Wine Searcher 2017 Average: $94
JJ Buckley: $95.94 + shipping
Vinfolio: $96.00 + shipping
Spectrum Wine Auctions: $581.94 for minimum 6 bottles + shipping
Total Wine: $94.97
K&L: $94.99 + shipping

Previous Vintages:
2016 Wine Searcher Ave: $153 Average Critic Score: 95 points
2015 Wine Searcher Ave: $271 Average Critic Score: 96
2014 Wine Searcher Ave: $91 Average Critic Score: 92
2013 Wine Searcher Ave: $66 Average Critic Score: 91

Buy or Pass?

I’ve never been very impressed with John Kolsa’s style at Ch. Canon (or Rauzan-Ségla for that matter) so this is an estate that is usually not on my radar. I will say that the 2014 Canon was intriguing at the 2017 UGC Bordeaux tasting though. Given that that year’s wine was finished and bottled by Audebert and Duclos, I may have reason to give Canon another look.

But 2017 is not a vintage I’m using for revisiting or taking flyers on new estates and winemaking teams. Looking at the price history of the last 4 vintages of Canon, I won’t deny that there is clearly value here in the 2017 pricing and I can see this being a very compelling offer for other Bordeaux fans. I’m just more incline to be cautious which is leading me to Pass on buying this as a future.

Ch. La Dominique (St. Emilion)

Some Geekery:

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

Ch. La Dominique

Ch. La Dominique is named after the Caribbean island of Dominica where the estate’s 18th century owners also had property.

The modern history of the estate began in 1933 when it was purchased by the de Bailliencourt family who own Ch. Gazin in Pomerol. The de Bailliencourts sold La Dominique in 1969 to billionaire Clément Fayat who made his fortune in the construction industry. Today it is part of a portfolio that includes Ch. Clément-Pichon in Haut-Médoc and Ch. Fayat in Pomerol.

In 2007, Fayat brought in Jean-Luc Thunevin (of Château Valandraud fame) to consult. He also purchased nearby Ch. Vieux Fortin, merging their 5 hectares of vines into La Dominique’s holding. The estate is experimenting with biodynamic viticulture.

Located in the western end of St. Emilion on the border with Pomerol, La Dominique has exceptional terroir neighboring Cheval Blanc and Ch. Figeac in St. Emilion as well as La Conseillante and L’Evangile across the way into Pomerol. From the rooftop of their restaurant, La Terrasse Rouge located among their vineyards, you can see the vineyards of Ch. Petrus as well.

The 2017 vintage is a blend of 70% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. Around 7000 cases a year are produced but with significant frost damage experienced in 2017, production this year is likely closer to 3500 cases.

Critic Scores:

92-94 WE, 92-93 JS, 90-93 WS, 89-91 VM, 91-93 JL

Sample Review:

70% frosted so they had more Cabernet Sauvignon (10%) and Cabernet Franc (20%) in 2017. This is 50% of production. Inky dark with purple rim. Dark, rocky/mineral fragrance. Juicy and scented on the palate, with some red as well as black fruit. Super-polished tannins that are a fine framework for the fruit. Refined, not over-oaked. Long. (17/20 points) — Julia Harding, JancisRobinson.com

Offers:
Wine Searcher 2017 Average: $57
JJ Buckley: No offers yet.
Vinfolio: No offers yet.
Spectrum Wine Auctions: No offers yet.
Total Wine: $59.97
K&L: No offers yet.

Previous Vintages:
2016 Wine Searcher Ave: $62 Average Critic Score: 92 points
2015 Wine Searcher Ave: $58 Average Critic Score: 92
2014 Wine Searcher Ave: $51 Average Critic Score: 91
2013 Wine Searcher Ave: $41 Average Critic Score: 89

Buy or Pass?

The restaurant also had a killer collection of vintage Armagnacs.


Visiting the vineyards of La Dominique and their La Terrasse Rouge restaurant was one of the highlights of my 2016 Bordeaux trip. This site truly has remarkable potential but not a single one of their wines really left any kind of impression.

While I adore Thunevin’s work at his own personal estate of Valandraud and his consulting work at Fleur Cardinale, I have a hankering suspicion that the business goals of La Dominique are more geared towards tourism than necessarily raising the quality of their wines above other Grand Cru Classé. And with pricing closer to 2015/2016 levels than 2014 this is an easy Pass for me.

More Posts About the 2017 Bordeaux Futures Campaign

Why I Buy Bordeaux Futures

*Bordeaux Futures 2017 — Langoa Barton, La Lagune, Barde-Haut, Branaire-Ducru

*Bordeaux Futures 2017 — Pape Clément, Ormes de Pez, Marquis d’Alesme, Malartic-Lagraviere

*Bordeaux Futures 2017 — Lynch-Bages, d’Armailhac, Clerc-Milon and Duhart-Milon

*Bordeaux Futures 2017 — Clos de l’Oratoire, Monbousquet, Quinault l’Enclos, Fonplegade

*Bordeaux Futures 2017 — Cos d’Estournel, Les Pagodes des Cos, Phélan Ségur, Calon-Segur

*Bordeaux Futures 2017 — Clinet, Clos L’Eglise, L’Evangile, Nenin

*Bordeaux Futures 2017 — Malescot-St.-Exupéry, Prieuré-Lichine, Lascombes, Cantenac-Brown

*Bordeaux Futures 2017 — Domaine de Chevalier, Larrivet Haut-Brion, Les Carmes Haut-Brion, Smith Haut Lafitte

*Bordeaux Futures 2017 — Beychevelle, Talbot, Clos du Marquis, Gloria

*Bordeaux Futures 2017 — Carruades de Lafite, Pedesclaux, Pichon Lalande, Reserve de la Comtesse de Lalande

*Bordeaux Futures 2017 — Vieux Chateau Certan, La Conseillante, La Violette, L’Eglise Clinet

*Bordeaux Futures 2017 — Montrose, La Dame de Montrose, Cantemerle, d’Aiguilhe

*Bordeaux Futures 2017 — Clos Fourtet, Larcis Ducasse, Pavie Macquin, Beauséjour Duffau-Lagarrosse

*Bordeaux Futures 2017 — Kirwan, d’Issan, Brane-Cantenac, Giscours

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Playing the Somm Game in Vegas

“Unicorns aren’t real, but the house advantage is.”

I just got back from a weekend in Las Vegas where I lost far more than I care to admit at the casinos.

Growing up in St. Louis with church bingo and riverboat casinos, I will always have soft-spot for the gambler’s heart.

But man does it suck losing.

However, as I’ve gotten older I’ve found one game that I love playing in Vegas where I’m a sure bet to come out a big winner–the Somm Game.

How to Play

It’s a simple game. You go to a nice restaurant with a thick, Bible-size wine list.

Give the sommelier your budget, what food you are ordering, let them know you are open to anything and then let them take it from there.

That’s it. That’s the game and the payoff is almost always better than anything you’ll find at the tables or slots.

Why the Somm Game works

First off, your objective is to have a great dining experience. You know who else shares that same objective? The sommelier. Their entire job is to give you a memorable experience so the house odds are already in your favor.

Just like I’m sure you perform best at your job when your clients let you do your thing, so too do sommeliers really get a chance to shine when you simply trust them to do what they are trained to do—which is far more than only opening bottles and pouring them into decanters.

And *spoiler alert* sometimes they have bottles like this just “lying around”.

Sommeliers are professionals and many have spent years honing their craft, studying, tasting and traveling the world of wine. With certification programs from the Court of Master Sommeliers, Wine & Spirits Education Trust, International Sommelier Guild and the like, the quality of wine education in the industry has never been higher. Why let that advantage go to waste?

And it is an advantage–one that even the most savvy and experienced wine drinkers don’t readily have.

Look I know my fair share about wine. I can open up a wine list and recognize most every name and region on it. I can hold my own rattling off producers, soil types, grapes varieties and facts. But I’ll tell you what I don’t necessarily know—how everything on the list is drinking now and what exactly will pair best with the particular flavors of the chef’s cuisine.

No matter how much a person knows about wine, the odds are that the sommelier team knows their own list and their own food at least a little bit better than you do. Especially at a restaurant with a good wine program that involves frequent tastings and pairing exercises, they’re going to have a leg up on you with what is drinking great right now and is pairing well.

“But Amber, I don’t want to get ripped off by restaurant mark ups!”

Okay, I know restaurant mark ups can be painful to swallow. Believe me, it’s even tougher when you’ve been in the business and know intimately what the typical wholesale and retail prices are of the wines you frequently see on wine lists.

But here’s the beauty of playing the Somm Game and trusting the sommelier to make the wine picks—most likely you’re going to avoid getting the crazy mark up wines and instead get the gems that the sommeliers themselves would pick for their own dinners.

By trusting the sommeliers you are far less likely to get “ripped off” by markups than you would be ordering on your own. They don’t need to sell you the crazy high mark up wines because your fellow diners are already buying those wines and paying the “Ego Tax” on them.

The “Ego Tax”

General rule of thumb–if an average wine drinker would recognize the name on a wine list then you are probably going to pay an “ego tax” ordering it.

Restaurants are businesses and all businesses aim to make a profit. With margins on food being so tight, it naturally falls on the beverage side of the business to earn healthy returns.

In the wine industry, there are certain well known brands that restaurants know will sell off their wine list without any effort. These are your Jordan, Caymus, Rombauer, Veuve Clicquot, Dom Perignon, Opus One and Silver Oak type wines of the world.

There is no need for effort because wine consumers will order these wines on their own as frequently these are the only names on the list they recognize. Often their ego (either hubris or an irrational fear of looking helpless) keeps them from seeking the sommelier’s assistance so they retreat to the comfort of a known quantity.

But these “known quantities” are often the highest marked up wines on the entire list!

That hesitance to relinquish control and trust the sommelier to guide you out of the realm of the “the same ole, same ole” is not limited to just “regular wine drinkers”. It hits folks who “know wine” and have been around the industry. I mean come on! We don’t need help. We know how to order wine and what’s good!

And that is why restaurants make bank off of the “Ego Tax”.

Which is fine, I suppose, if you are living off an expense account and paying with someone else’s dime. But most of us in the real world aren’t expense account dandies so it’s pointless to be paying the “Ego Tax” when all we’ve got to do is trust the somm and have some fun.

The Somm Game in Action

When I play the Somm Game, I start by introducing myself as a wine geek and telling the sommelier that all I want to do this evening is “geek out” a bit. Sometimes in the conversation that follows I will mention my wine industry background but that is rarely brought up. My approach is to present myself as just a geek that trusts and respects the sommelier’s judgement and expertise.

I give them a budget and tell them that I’m open to anything–glass pours, half-bottles, full-bottles. I recommend going a little higher in your budget than you would usually give yourself for ordering a single bottle because the more flexibility you give the somms, the more fun you can have. Trust me, it will pay off dividends.

I share with them what food I’m ordering–again emphasizing my openness in going with whatever the sommelier thinks will work best whether it be glass pours for each course or half/full-bottles, etc.

Then I sit back and have fun.

This weekend I had the opportunity to play the Somm Game at two restaurants–Lago by Julian Serrano at the Bellagio and at Aureole by Charlie Palmer at Mandalay Bay. Both restaurants have tremendous wine programs overseen by Master Sommelier Jason L. Smith, Executive Director of Wine for MGM Resorts International, and Mandalay Bay Director of Wine Harley Carbery.

When playing the Somm Game, it helps to increase your odds by playing with a stack deck.

Lago

At Lago, we were served by head sommelier Jeffrey Bencus, an Advance Sommelier who is on the cusp of achieving his MS. Talking with him, we found out that he has separately passed his theory and tasting exams for the Master Sommelier certification–just not within the same testing cycle.

On my own, when out for a nice dinner I usually aim for a bottle in the $250-300 range so I gave Jeffrey a budget of $350 and laid out the perimeters above. I told him we were geeks and opened to pretty much anything.

The style of cuisine at Lago is small plates so we started off with short rib cannelloni and red wine risotto.

These were red wine heavy dishes but we were delighted when he brought out a half bottle of 2015 Jean-Philippe Fichet Meursault.

Granted, coming from the tremendous 2015 vintage this wine was already playing with a full house.

With plots in the enviable “second crus” of Les Chaumes de Narvaux (upslope from the Premier cru vineyards of Les Bouchères and Les Gouttes d’Or) and Le Limozin (flanked by 1er crus Les Genevrières and Les Charmes) as well as 65 to 75+ year old vine plantings in Les Clous and Les Criots, this village-level Meursault was delivering premier cru quality pleasure.

Textbook Meursault with subtle butteriness, hazelnuts and that liquid-rocks minerality that makes this place so special for Chardonnay. I don’t remember what the restaurant price was, but the Wine Searcher Average for the 2015 was $65. Well worth finding.

The following course was Italian sausage skewers with red pepper sauce and a filet with a Gorgonzola demi-glaze. Originally Jeffrey was thinking a classic 2012 Brunnello di Montalcino but decided to geek it up more for us with a 2012 Mastroberardino Radici Taurasi from the legendary Campanian producer. I was quite familiar with Mastroberardino and their flagship Taurasi but my initial instinct was that a 2012 would be far too young.

But, again, here is where a somm’s expertise and experience with their own wine list pays off.

With nothing more than a splash decant the Radici was absolutely singing with the savory floral and spicy undertones of Aglianico complimenting not only my steak but also my wife’s Italian sausage with its sweet roasted red bell pepper sauce.

Black olives and black fruit with a long savory finish. A masterful wine from Mastroberardino that was drinking surprisingly well for a young Taurasi.

The Wine Searcher Average for this wine is listed at $47 but that is skewed a little by some discount Hong Kong retailers. In the US, it is far more common to find it retailing for $55-60.

For dessert we had a creme brulee and citrus cannoli and boy did we hit the jackpot with the Somm Game!

My wife and I were flabbergasted when Jeffrey brought out a tiny 187ml split of 1993 Château Pajzos Tokaji Esszencia.

I don’t think this wine was even on the wine list!

While I’ve had Tokaji several times, this was my first experience trying an Esszencia because of how rare (and expensive) it is. Made from the free-run juice of dried botrytized grapes, residual sugars can go as high as 85% and take over 6 years to ferment because of how sweet and concentrated it is. Tokaji Esszencia is truly one of the wonders of the wine world.

This wine was the #3 ranked wine on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list in 1998 and was described as “a perfect wine” with 100 pts from Robert Parker.

And it was just….wow!

I think I finally found a wine that broke my mental 94 point barrier. It’s been over four days since I had this wine and I can still taste the amazing concentration of liquid figs, honey, cognac and lingering spice.

Folks….this is a WHITE wine!

Incredibly difficult to find retail due to its limited supply (only 165 cases made), the Wine Searcher Average for a 500ml of the 1993 Pajzos Esszencia is $698.

A stunning treat and life-long memory.

All together, the three wines were well around our $350 budget. As we were finishing up dinner while savoring that amazing Esszencia, I noticed the table next to us had ordered a bottle of 2006 Opus One which was $995 on the Lago’s restaurant list.

While I’m sure they enjoyed that bottle of Opus fine enough, I can’t help but think that we came out WAY ahead in our wine and food pairing experience by paying around a third of what they did.

Heck, all three of the wines we had which included one 375ml half bottle, one 750ml bottle and one 187ml split was less at restaurant mark-up than what one single bottle of 2006 Opus One averages at retail price.

That folks….is winning big with the Somm Game.

Aureole

The next night we visited Aureole at Mandalay Bay where we rolled the dice for the Somm Game with Kyran O’Dwyer, an Advance Sommelier since 2006.

While Kyran didn’t have an extra 187ml bottle of an uber-rare wine lying around, he had his own ace up his sleeve and delivered a remarkable and personalized experience that far exceeded our expectations.

We didn’t finish this bottle till just before dessert and it paired exquisitely with every dish we had.

Giving him the same $350 budget, the first roll came up sevens when he brought out a perfectly geeky Champagne–the Drappier Quattuor Blanc de Blancs featuring some of the rarest grapes in Champagne.

A blend of 25% Arbane, 25% Petit Meslier, 25% Blanc Vrai (Pinot blanc) and 25% Chardonnay to round it out, the wine was aged 3 years on the lees before being bottled with a dosage of 4 g/l. The Wine Searcher Average for it is $61 but most retailers in the US have it closer to the $120 release price noted by Wine Spectator. However it is incredibly difficult to find with most retailers (like K & L) getting less than a couple cases.

But oh is it worth the hunt!

This is a “unicorn Champagne” like the ones I’ve been on the prowl for since I finished reading Robert Walters’ Bursting Bubbles. High intensity aromatics that continually evolved in the glass with a mix of citrus lemon custard and orange blossoms with some creamy creme brulee action. Exceptionally well balanced between the creamy mousse, racy citrus notes and dry dosage, the long finish brought out intriguing salty mineral notes that lasted for several minutes after you swallowed.

For appetizers my wife got a black garlic Cesar salad while I had the foie gras du jour–which was seared foie gras with a balsamic berry reduction paired with a French toast concoction that had the chef’s homemade nutella filling. While we enjoyed the Champagne, he gave us each an additional 2-3 oz “taster pour” of the 2014 Braida Brachetto d’Acqui to go with the foie gras.

The wine was lively and fresh with ample acidity to balance the sweetness.

A seriously good sweet wine worth geeking out over.

The wine tasted like you were eating ripe strawberries picked straight from the bush. In a market flooded with Moscatos, Roscatos and Stella Rosa, sweet wines often get a bad rap as overly simple but tasting a wine like the Giacomo Bologna Braida Brachetto d’Acqui is a great reminder about how joyful and delicious “simple sweet wines” can be. At a retail average of $18 a bottle, it is also a great deal for folks wanting to trade out of the same ole, same ole for something new to try.

For dinner I had braised short rib ravioli with a smoked tomato cream sauce while my wife had one of the most delicious vegetarian lasagnas that we had ever tried. It must have had at least 20 layers of fresh pasta, butternut squash, sage, spinach and mascarpone. My ravioli was great but her lasagna was outstanding.

Of course, these dishes were quite different and not necessarily the easiest to pair with the same wine. Truthfully, on my own, I probably would have “wimped out” and took the easy route of ordering a village-level Burgundy with the thinking of acidity for my tomato cream sauce while some earthiness could play well with the lasagna without being too big or tannic. Not a perfect pairing but a serviceable one.

But Advance Sommeliers do not settle for serviceable.

One of the tell-tale signs of a good restaurant wine program is when the wine list has gems like this Portuguese Douro on it. Few people are savvy enough to recognize or order them but the sommeliers know what’s up.

Instead, Kyran surprised me with a 2012 Prats & Symington Post Scriptum de Chryseia from the Douro. I was already very familiar with the Symington family’s stable of Port houses like Cockburn, Dow, Graham, Warre and Quinta do Vesúvio but wasn’t aware of this particular Douro red wine label.

A blend of 53% Touriga Franca, 45% Touriga Nacional and 2% other Portuguese varieties, the wine was remarkably “St. Emilion-like” with a beautiful mix of blue flowers, dark fruit and savory baking spice notes on the nose. Far from being “too big” or “too tannic” for the vegetable lasagna, the wine was beautifully balance with juicy medium-plus acidity and velvety medium-plus tannins.

If this was a blind tasting and I pegged it as a St. Emilion, I would have been expecting it to be in the $45-55 range retail for a bottle. But here is where the savvy of a good sommelier comes into play because this absolute gem of a wine from a very underappreciated region is a total steal at around $26 a bottle retail.

The wine list price for this bottle was $67 which, compared to the usual 3x retail mark up common in the industry, was a great deal in its own right. Frankly, you would be hard-pressed to find a better bottle than this on most restaurant’s wine lists for less than $80.

We would have been more than happy with only this bottle for both our main courses.

But, again, Kyran when above and beyond as he brought my wife out a glass pour of the 2015 Domaine Laroche Vielle Voye Chablis to compliment her vegetarian lasagna. Sourced from 70+ year old vines, this village-level Chablis way over delivered and is another great value at $36 a bottle (and probably a $20-25 glass pour, at least).

The wine….they just kept coming!

Then for dessert my wife went with a blood orange creamsicle parfait while I ordered a maple brown butter creme brulee (my favorite dessert if you haven’t guess yet). Once again Kyran decided to individualize the pairing for us with my wife getting a glass of the 2008 Jackson Triggs Vidal Ice Wine from Niagara that was chock-full of orange blossoms and apricot notes while I got a 2011 Kracher Beerenauslese from Burgenland that had amazing lightness in the mouthfeel despite its rich concentration.

And coming…..
Like a hot slot machine.

With Wine Searcher averages of $93 and $61 respectively, my wife and I rarely buy full bottles of dessert wines because we never finish them. For us, it’s worth paying a little bit of a premium to enjoy them by the glass pour at a restaurant with a nice dessert. Yet, I rarely ever feel like I am paying a premium compared to the amount of pleasure I’m getting with the pairing.

With an end total of 2 bottles, 3 glasses and two taster pours over the course of a fabulous dinner with a personalize touch made this another jackpot win for the Somm Game. There is truly no way that I could have spent my money better that evening than just letting Kyran run the table with his fantastic pairings.

That is the beauty of the Somm Game.

Yes, it’s still gambling

And the house is going to get its share.

Of course, I could have likely bought (assuming I could even find them) bottles of the wines I had at each dinner for less than $350 on the retail market but that’s the same truth when comparing the cost of the food ingredients if you cooked the meal at home versus what you paid at a restaurant for a dish.

No one should approach the Somm Game or buying wine at restaurants with the perspective of beating retail prices. It’s never going to happen. These restaurants are businesses with overhead and staff that deserve to be paid living wages and benefits.

I’m not advocating the Somm Game as a way of “beating the house” though I do wholeheartedly endorse it as a way of getting the most out your money and having a kick-ass experience.

There is really not a dollar amount that you can put on your own personal pleasure or the joy of trying something new.

You “come out ahead” when you end up getting more than you expected with a tremendous evening of great wine, great food and great memories that happened just because you let the professionals do the very thing that they are really good at doing.

No, there is not guaranteed 100% success each time you play. Sometimes you may be at a restaurant that doesn’t have a serious wine program with trained sommeliers. Sure you can still roll the dice but, as with all forms of gambling, there is always a chance you will crap out.

I recommend checking out the wine list and asking questions of the staff to get a feel if this is the type of place that is worth playing the Somm Game at.

But in Las Vegas, with its high density of outstanding restaurants and sommeliers, I’ve found no surer bet.

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Getting Geeky about Malbec

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

What’s In a Name?

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

However, the first written account of Malbec was actually in the Bordaux region of Pomerol in 1761 when the grape was called Noir de Pressac (black of Pressac), likely referring to the individual who first cultivated the grape. From Pomerol, the grape made its way to the Left Bank region of the Medoc where it was called Èstranger (stranger) or Estrangey.

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

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

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

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

Malbec in Bordeaux

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

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

However, the later half of the 19th century would usher in the decline of the variety due to its sensitivity to coulure and mildew. Following the devastation of phylloxera, many growers who did replant choose to replace Malbec in their vineyards with the more popular and easier to grow Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Into the 20th century, Malbec still maintain a presence, particularly in the Right Bank, but the devastating frost of 1956 killed off a significant number of plantings and practically signal the death kneel for the grape in Bordeaux.

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

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

Malbec in Argentina

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

Malbec vines growing in Argentina.

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

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

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

Malbec in the United States

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

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

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

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

Red Willow Vineyard in Washington State.


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

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

Want More Malbec?

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

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60 Second Wine Review — 2004 Opus One

A few quick thoughts on the 2004 Opus One from Napa Valley.

The Geekery

Opus One was founded in 1979 as a joint partnership between Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Ch. Mouton-Rothschild.

In his 1989 book, California’s Great Cabernets James Laube describes Opus as one of the “First Growths” in California back when they were making around 11,000 cases a year.

The 2004 Opus One is a blend of 86% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Merlot, 4% Petit Verdot, 2% Cabernet Franc and 1% Malbec with around 22,000 cases made.

The Wine

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

Simple black currant fruit characterize this wine.

Medium intensity nose. A mix of dark fruits that aren’t very defined, noticeable oak spice but also some tertiary tobacco notes.

On the palate those dark fruits become slightly more defined as black currants and bring an herbal element with them. Medium-plus acidity adds freshness and balances well with the velvety soft medium-plus tannins. The mouthfeel is the best part of the wine by far. The mix of oak and tobacco spice are still present and last thru the moderate length finish.

The Verdict

This was the third time I’ve had Opus after tasting the 2009 at an event and 2011 at the winery. I was very underwhelmed with both but have been told repeatedly by wine folks that “Opus needs time” and that it’s unfair to judge them with less than 10 years of bottle age. After trying an Opus now with more than 13 years of bottle age, I have to wonder what follows the old proverb after “Fool me thrice…”.

Especially at the $300+ price point (with the 2004 now around $450 a bottle), I can name dozens of Bordeaux wines at or below that level that deliver way more value and pleasure. From Napa, there are bottles from Chappellet, Groth, Bevan, Frank Family, Moone-Tsai, Diamond Creek, Blankiet, Dominus and more that I would be happily content with having 2-3 bottles of for the price of one Opus.

It’s not a horrible wine but it is distinctly one that you are paying more for the name than anything else and, frankly, I’m done paying.

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Getting Geeky with Bunnell Malbec

Update: If you want even more Malbec Geekery, check out my post for this year’s Malbec World Day.

Going to need more than 60 Seconds to geek out about this 2009 Bunnell Family Cellars Malbec from the Northridge Vineyard on the Wahluke Slope.

The Background

Bunnell Family Cellars was started in 2004 by Ron and Susan Bunnell. A botanist by training, Ron’s interest in wine led him to UC-Davis to study for a masters in viticulture.

From Davis, Bunnell went to work at some of California’s oldest wineries such as Charles Krug and then Beringer where he was mentored by Patrick Leon (of Mouton Rothschild and Opus One fame) and Jean-Louis Mandrau (of Ch. Latour fame) who were consultants for Beringer along with emeritus winemaker Ed Sbragia.

He was working at Kendall-Jackson with Randy Ullom when he got the opportunity to move to Washington State to take over the red winemaking program for Chateau Ste. Michelle in 1999. In this position he followed in the footsteps of Mike Januik and Charlie Hoppes who left to work on their own projects. Here Bunnell worked closely with Renzo Cotarella of Antinori for Col Solare.

Leaving Chateau Ste Michelle in 2005, the inaugural 2004 vintage release of Bunnell Family Cellars was quick to earn accolades in the Washington wine industry.

Apart from Bunnell’s great wines, every Washington wine insider knows that if you are in wine county in Eastern Washington, one absolute must-stop is always Susan Bunnell’s Wine O’Clock Wine Bar and Bistro in Prosser. Fabulous food, wine and ambiance that I would put against any bistro in Seattle, Walla Walla or the Bay Area. Truly a gem.

In addition to their Bunnell Family Cellars (BFC) line, the Bunnells also produce a dedicated label for their Wine O’Clock bistro, a RiverAerie line named after their homestead overlooking the Yakima River and the wines for Newhouse Family Vineyards which is done in partnership with Steve Newhouse, owner of Upland Vineyard on Snipes Mountain.

The Vineyard

Photo by Williamborg. Released on Wikimedia Commons under PD-self

The Saddle Mountains of the Wahluke Slope.

This 2009 Northridge Malbec is from the Bunnell’s Vins de l’endroit series or “wines of a place” aiming to highlight some of the unique terroirs of Washington–in this case the Northridge Vineyard owned by the Milbrandt family.

Located on the western edge of the Saddle Mountains in the very warm Wahluke Slope AVA, the vineyard was first planted by Butch and Jerry Milbrandt in 2003. Situated above the flood plain, the shallow soils of Northridge are a very old mix of sedimentary caliche and basalt. The high elevation promotes a wide diurnal temperature variation of 40-50 degrees from daytime highs in the summer to nighttime lows. This allows the grapes to maintain acidity and freshness as they develop ripe tannins and dark fruit flavors.

Below is a very cool video (3:16) from the Milbrandt’s YouTube channel that features a tour of the Northridge Vineyard with their viticulturist Lacey Lybeck and Milbrandt’s winemaker Josh Maloney.

The Wine

Medium-plus intensity nose with a mix of black fruits–blackberries and black cherries–with red fruits like pomegranate. Surrounding the fruit is savory black pepper spice and bacon fat that gets your mouth watering before you even take a sip. Underneath there are some tertiary tobacco spice notes wanting to peak out but, overall, this is still a primary fruit driven bouquet for an 8+ year old wine.

On the palate, the richer darker fruits carry through but still taste quite fresh with the medium-plus acidity. The black cherries in particular have that ripe, plucked-off-the-bush juiciness to them. Again, surprisingly young tasting for a Washington Malbec–a style of wine that I often find starts to taste faded after 6-7 years. The maturity of the wine reveals itself with medium tannins that are very velvety at this point and quite hedonistic with how they wrap around your tongue. Once you get past the textural hedonism, the intellectual hedonism kicks in on the long finish that carries the savory bacon note with just a tinge of smoke.

Around 166 cases of the 2009 Bunnell Northridge Malbec were made.

The Verdict

Photo by Sgt Earnest J. Barnes. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD US Military

The savory bacon notes coupled with the lush dark fruit in this Bunnell Malbec make this wine a real treat to enjoy!

What is most remarkable with this 2009 Bunnell Northridge Malbec is that it taste like a Washington Bordeaux blend blend had a baby with Rhone Syrah from Côte-Rôtie. A very delicious combination of rich fruit, mouthwatering structure and savory complexity.

I usually feel that wine drinkers pay a premium for Washington Malbec because of their novelty and that rarely do they exceed the value you get from Argentina. That is definitely not the case with this 2009 Bunnell Malbec. At around $35-40, it is worth every penny and well worth the hunt to find.

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Quilceda Creek Release Party

If you ask Washington wine lovers what are the “cult wines” of Washington–the Screaming Eagles, the Harlans or the Grace Family Vineyards of the state–one name that would be unanimously mentioned is Quilceda Creek.

With the mailing list long since closed, and a healthy waiting list to boot, my wife and I were lucky to get on the members list back in 2009. Each year we look forward to the release of the Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Below are some of my thoughts from this year’s release party.

But first, some geeking.

The Background

Quilceda Creek was founded in 1978 by Alex and Jeannette Golitzin. Alex’s maternal uncle was the legendary André Tchelistcheff who helped Golitzin secure vineyard sources and provided barrels from Beaulieu Vineyards. At the time of Quilceda’s founding, there were only around 12 wineries operating in Washington. In 1992, their son Paul joined the winery and today manages both vineyard operations and winemaking.

In addition to Tchelistcheff, the Golitzins can also count Prince Lev Sergeyevich (1845-1915/16) of the House of Golitsyn as another winemaking ancestor. Sergeyevich was the official winemaker to Czar Nicholas II with the sparkling wines produced at his Crimean winery, Novyi Svit, served at the Czar’s 1896 coronation. It is believed that Sergeyevich’s sparkling wines were the first “Champagne method” bubbles produced in Russia.

Quilceda Creek has received six perfect 100 point scores from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate–for the 2002, 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2014 Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2014 Galitzine Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon from Red Mountain. In 2011, the 2005 Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon was served by the White House for a state dinner with Chinese president Hu Jintao.

The winery has been featured several times on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list, including twice being named #2 wine–in 2006 for the 2003 Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and in 2015 for the 2012 edition of that wine.

The Vineyards

Photo by Williamborg. Released on Wikimedia Commons under PD-self

Kiona Vineyard on Red Mountain–which played an important role in the early wines of Quilceda Creek.


Paul Gregutt, in Washington Wines, notes that in the early years of Quilceda Creek, Otis Vineyard in the Yakima Valley was the primary source of fruit.

In the 1980s, the focus moved to Red Mountain with Kiona Vineyards providing the fruit for several highly acclaimed vintages. Eventually Klipsun, Ciel du Cheval and Mercer Ranch (now Champoux) were added to the stable.

Today, Quilceda Creek focuses almost exclusively on estate-own fruit, making four wines that are sourced from five vineyards.

In 1997, Quilceda Creek joined Chris Camarda of Andrew Will, Rick Small of Woodward Canyon and Bill Powers of Powers Winery/Badger Mountain to become partners in Champoux Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA. First planted by the Mercer family in the 1970s, fruit from Champoux Vineyard has formed the backbone for nearly all of Quilceda Creek’s 100 pt wines. In 2014, when Paul and Judy Champoux decided to retire, the Golitzins purchased their interests in the vineyard.

The author with Paul Golitzin.


In 2006, they acquired a 4.5 acre parcel next to Champoux which they named Palengat after Jeannette Golitzin’s side of the family. Located on the south slope of Phinny Hill, the vineyard was planted between 1997-2002.

In 2001, the Golitzins partnered with Jim Holmes of Ciel du Cheval Vineyard to plant a 17 acre estate vineyard, the Galitzine Vineyard, on Red Mountain next to Ciel du Cheval. The vineyard takes its name from an old spelling of the family’s surname and is planted exclusively to clone 8 Cabernet Sauvignon. Originally derived from 1893 cuttings taken from Chateau Margaux in Bordeaux, clone 8 is highly favored by acclaimed Cabernet Sauvignon producers.

Planted in 2010, Lake Wallula Vineyards in the Horse Heaven Hills is 33 acres planted exclusively to Cabernet Sauvignon on a plateau overlooking the Columbia River.

The Wallula Vineyard near Kennewick was developed by the Den Hoed family in 1997 in partnership with Allen Shoup (now with Long Shadows Vintners).

The Wines

In addition to tasting and releasing the 2015 Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, the 2015 Columbia Valley Red blend was also tasted.

2015 Columbia Valley Red Blend is a blend of 81% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Franc, and 4% Petit Verdot that was sourced from the Champoux, Galitzine, Palengat and Wallula vineyards. Essentially a “baby brother” to the flagship Cab and vineyard designated Galitzine and Palengat, the CVR is selected from declassified lots that have been aged in 100% new French oak 18-21 months.

The 2015 Columbia Valley Red blend (CVR) just wasn’t doing it for me at this tasting.


Medium intensity nose. Surprisingly shy as this wine is usually raring to go. Some dark fruits–blackberry and cassis–and noticeable oak spice.

On the palate, those dark fruits carry through but become even less define than they were on the nose. Medium acidity and a bit of back-end alcohol heat contribute to the disjointed feeling with this wine. The medium-plus tannins are firm but do have a soft edge that adds some texture and pleasure to the mouthfeel. Moderate length finish of mostly heat and oak.

2015 Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is 100% Cab sourced from the Champoux, Lake Wallula, Palengat and Wallula vineyards. The wine was aged 20 months in 100% new French oak.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Rich dark fruits with razor sharp precision–black plums, blackberries and even blueberries. There is also a woodsy forest element that compliments the noticeable oak spice.

On the palate, a lot more of the vanilla and oak baking spice notes carry through–particularly cinnamon–that adds a “pie-filling” richness to the wine. However, the medium-plus acidity balances this hefty fruit exceptionally well to add elegance and freshness. High tannins are present but like the CVR have a soft edge that makes this very young Quilceda Cab surprisingly approachable now. You can very much feel the full bodied weight of its 15.2% alcohol but, unlike the CVR, there is no back-end heat tickling the throat. Still only a moderate length finish at this point but the lasting impression is the juicy, rich fruit.

The tasting and barrel room of Quilceda Creek in Snohomish.


The Verdict

This tasting was a complete role reversal of the CVR and Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Usually it is very consistent that the CVR is happily ready to be consumed young while the Cab needs some cellar time to fully integrate and shed the baby fat of oak.

Though that “baby fat” of new oak is still present in the 2015 Columbia Cabernet Sauvignon, the precision of the fruit and elegance is striking right now. This is, by far, one of the best tasting new releases of the Columbia Valley Cab that I’ve had. While I’m still concerned with the high alcohol level, I’m very optimistic about how this wine will age and develop in the bottle.

While I was able to get this for the member’s price of $140, the Wine Searcher average for the 2015 is now $218. Putting this in context of similar priced Napa Valley wines like Opus One, Caymus Special Select, Pahlmeyer Proprietary, Joseph Phelps Insignia, Stag’s Leap Cask 23, Mondavi To Kalon and Dominus—there is no doubt that the Quilceda Creek Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon belongs in that league and should probably be batting clean-up in that line-up.

Pallets of the 2015 Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Even at the member’s $140 a bottle price, this is still over a million dollars worth of wine.

The CVR was $42 for members ($65 on Wine Searcher) and is usually one of the most screaming deals in wine. I would compare previous vintages of the CVR to $70-100 Napa wines like Silver Oak, Frank Family, Groth, Cakebread and Caymus and watch the Quilceda Creek Columbia Valley Red blend blow them out of the water.

But this 2015 vintage…I don’t know. It’s very possible that I got an awkward bottle or that the wine, itself, is just in an awkward phase of its development. It’s worth keeping an eye on but till then I would recommend the almost ironic advice of enjoying your 2015 Quilceda Creek Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon now while waiting for the “baby brother” 2015 CVR to age.

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Petrus — The Super Bowl of Wine

I finally got a chance to try one of my bucket list wines–a bottle of 2006 Petrus from Pomerol. My wife and I originally bought it for our early December wedding anniversary, but then I got a cold, so we shelved that idea.

We were going to open it up for Christmas Eve, but another cold hit. So we decided to hold off till we both were 100% healthy and entirely on point with our tasting sensibilities before cracking into this baby. My tasting notes (and whether I think it is worth the cost) are below after a bit of geeking.

The Geekery

What makes Petrus, Petrus?

As Clive Coates notes in Grands Vins: The Finest Châteaux of Bordeaux and Their Wines, the phenomenon of Petrus as a cult wine for Bordeaux lovers is a relatively new creation. As recently as the post World War II years leading up to 1955, the wine merchant Avery’s of Bristol had exclusive rights to buy up virtually all available allocations of Petrus–which it usually did–but would struggle to find buyers.

While there is some evidence of winemaking at the estate dating back to the 1750s, the first recorded mention of Petrus can be found in the 1837 notebooks of the merchant house Tastet and Lawton. Here the estate was owned by the Arnaud family and considered the third best property in Pomerol behind Vieux Château Certan and Trotanoy. In pricing, it fetched far less than the top estates of the Medoc and only a third of the top estates of St. Emilion such as Ch. Belair. But its reputation for quality was soon to be discovered, as David Peppercorn noted in his work Bordeaux. At the 1878 Paris Exhibition Petrus won a gold medal–becoming the first wine from Pomerol to earn such an achievement.

The fortune (and pricing) of Petrus began to change in the 1920s when its owner, M. Sabin-Douarre, started selling shares of Petrus to the proprietor of his favorite restaurant in Libourne, l’Hotel Loubat.  The restaurant’s owner, Madame Loubat, continued purchasing shares from Sabin-Douarre until she was the sole owner of Petrus.

The Loubat and Moueix Era

When my wife and I were in Bordeaux, we drove around for at least 40 minutes through Pomerol trying to find Petrus. We kept passing by the property. It was so unassuming and not what we expected.

Stephen Brook notes, in The Complete Bordeaux, that at this point Petrus was being priced on par with the Second Growths of the Medoc. However,  Mme. Loubat wanted everyone to know the high quality of Petrus and began demanding higher prices.

In 1943, she hired Jean-Pierre Moueix as the sole agent in charge of not only distribution of her wine but also production. Soon Petrus was never priced below the acclaimed Premier Grand Cru Classé ‘A’ estate of Cheval Blanc. It was also beginning to rival the First Growths of the Medoc.

Moueix started out owning Ch. Fonroque in St. Emilion before beginning his négociant business–mostly to help sell his estate wine. When Mme. Loubat passed away in 1961, she bequeathed Moueix a single share of Petrus while splitting the rest between her niece and nephew. Over the next few years, Moueix gradually bought out Loubat’s heirs and assumed full ownership of Petrus by 1969.

Today the Moueix family owns several estates in Bordeaux including Trotanoy, La Fleur-Pétrus, Hosanna, Latour à Pomerol, La Grave, Lafleur-Gazin and Ch. Lagrange in Pomerol; Ch. Bélair-Monange and Clos La Madeleine in St. Emilion as well as Dominus, Napanook, Othello and Ulysses in Napa Valley.

The Blend (or lack thereof)

While historically Petrus has kept a small parcel of Cabernet Franc on the property, they have been gradually replacing them all with Merlot. The 2006 vintage I tasted was 100% Merlot.

Why So Expensive?

The grounds of Petrus with vineyards to the right. The weather was gorgeous the week we were there, with it only raining on our last night, so we didn’t get to experience the muddy clay sticking to our shoes.

Petrus certainly has distinctive and unique terroir.  Wine writer Oz Clarke describes it in his work Bordeaux as “…one of the muddiest, most clay-clogged pieces of land my shoes have ever had the ill luck to slither through.”

Petrus sits on a “button-hole” of blue muddy clay which covers a subsoil of gravel that is followed underneath by a virtually impenetrable layer of hard iron-rich crasse de fer. The soil is around 40 million years old compared to the 1 million-year-old gravel soils surrounding the Pomerol plateau. The dense, hard smectite clay causes the vine to struggle as its roots cannot penetrate deep.  However, the soil amply retains moisture. This trait becomes invaluable during warm years and dry summer months when the risk of hydraulic stress is high. As Jeff Leve of The Wine Cellar Insider notes, there is no other wine producing region in the world that has this soil structure.

There are about 50 acres of this unique soil in Pomerol.

While neighboring estates like Vieux Château Certan, La Fleur-Pétrus, La Conseillante and L’Evangile have some parcels featuring this terroir, Petrus is the only estate exclusively planted on this soil with 28+ ha. Additionally, Petrus is located on the top of this gently sloping button-hole which allows for better drainage during wetter years.

The vines of Petrus are relatively old with some parcels dating back to 1952. The root systems of other parcels are even older because of (interestingly enough) the 1956 frost that devastated the Right Bank. It killed nearly 2/3 of Petrus’ vines. However, Mme. Loubat refused to replant completely and instead attempted the untested technique of recépage. She ordered her workers to graft the new vines onto the established root-stock. The move was criticized by viticulturists and other estate owners who thought that these vines would only produce for a few vintages. However, decades later these vines are still viable.

High Priced and Labor Intensive Viticulture

I wasn’t brave enough to go up and touch the building.

The Moueix family spares no expense when it comes to tending the vines, with severe yield restrictions of 32 to a max of 45 hl/ha (3 tons an acre) with some years going as low as 17.5 hl/ha. In contrast, many well-regarded estates frequently harvest at 60-70 hl/ha.

If inopportune rains hit close to harvest, Moueix will rent a helicopter to hover over the vines and dry them off. In 1992, they covered the entire vineyard in plastic sheeting to avoid excess moisture seeping into the ground. They wanted to avoid any chance of the rain plumping up the berries and diluting flavors.

Like with top Sauternes, harvest is done at Petrus on a berry by berry basis with vineyard workers manually picking the individual grapes off the vines. These 100% de-stemmed berries are then hand sorted with an optical sorter joining the process only since the 2009 vintage.

Limited Supply and Very High Demand

After fermentation and malo, the wine is aged in 50% new French oak for 18-20 months before going through a rigorous selection process. During this time the winemakers narrow the barrels down to only the very best that will go into the final Grand Vin. Anything that doesn’t meet the grade is sold off as anonymous Pomerol. It’s every Bordeaux insider’s dream to figure out where these “discard barrels” of wine go.

Here is where we ultimately get down to the most significant cost driver. Each year, the estate produces only around 2,500 cases (30,000 bottles) of a single wine.

I honestly don’t think they will ever make gummy bears from Petrus like they do with the 5 million+ bottles of Dom Perignon.

Compare this to the 31,000+ cases of Ch. Latour, the 10,000+ cases of Opus One or even the 5 million+ bottles of Dom Perignon produced virtually every year. The scarcity and high demand mean that so few people will ever get a chance to try this wine. Those that do, unfortunately, have to pay dearly.

The Wine

So how was it? I knew that this was a wine that really should’ve been holding onto for at least 15-20 years and, even then, given a good several hours of decanting. But this was more about sharing a moment with my wife.  So we popped it open when she got home and watched it evolve as we cooked and savored dinner.

Pop and pour

Medium intensity nose. Red fruits–plums, raspberry and a little earthy funk that is not defined but intriguing.

Palate has medium-plus acidity, very juicy and fresh, with medium tannins and medium-plus body. The red fruits carry through and then WHOA the mid-palate jumps with an assortment of spice that I will need some time to piece out. Minute and half long finish right now.

After an hour and a half in the decanter

Nose is now medium-plus intensity with the spice notes coming out more with a little herbal thyme. The fruit is also more rich deeper and dark–like Turkish fig and black currants.

The palate is still juicy with medium-plus acidity. The spices are getting a little more defined–making me think of Asian cuisine with tamarind fruit, star anise, coriander seed and pink peppercorn.

After 3 hours

Would St. Peter rob Paul to drink Petrus?

Still medium-plus intensity nose but a little tobacco spice has joined the party. Still has the mix of Asian spice with black currants and a smidgen of eucalyptus. Pretty remarkable how this keeps evolving. Truthfully, I can only imagine how much more evocative this would get if I had the patience and restraint to milk this out over several more hours.

The palate is still incredibly juicy with medium-plus acidity.  The wine seems to works against any desire to ration and be restrained.  The mouthwatering acidity makes you want to take another sip and then another. The tannins have gotten more velvety at this point. The finish has topped out at about 2 minutes with the cornucopia of spices being the last notes.

The Verdict

So is it worth $2600 (when I got it in November 2017) to now at $3000 a bottle?

Kinda.

It truly is a remarkable wine that enchants you as it continuously evolves in your glass. Not just hour by hour but sip by sip. It’s an experience that I’m quite pleased to have had but, at the same time, it is not necessarily an experience that I feel compelled to ever splurge on again.

As I mentioned in my reviews of the Samuel Adams’ Utopias and the Pappy Van Winkle 20 yr, a lot of the cost (and subsequent pleasure) for these Veblen goods often comes from the hunt to finally acquire them. For me, getting a chance to try a Petrus was a bucket list item–just as jumping out of an airplane and meeting Jancis Robinson is. It is always a thrill to check a bucket list item off.

I’ll also somewhat borrow an analogy from my Behind the Curtain post about wine pricing. In many ways, drinking a wine like Petrus is like attending the Super Bowl.

How much would you pay for one night of entertainment?

With only around 70,000 tickets for a single game each year, how many people in their lifetime get a chance to watch the game in person?

Ask yourself, how much of a premium would you pay for the privilege of attending a game that could very well suck (especially if your team loses)? And what are you really paying for but just a single night of an experience that is over after a few hours? How different is that from sharing a single bottle of wine?

My wife is a native Boston girl who was a Patriots season ticket holder during the crappy years. We finally went to Super Bowl in 2017 when the Pats played the Falcons.

Now compare that to how much you pay to attend a regular NFL playoff game, a regular season game, a college game or even your local Friday night high school game? Of course, you can argue about the potentially superior play of NFL players playing at the pinnacle of their profession but, likewise, you can debate the potentially superior terroir of Petrus, the craftsmanship of Pappy Van Winkle, the uniqueness of Utopias, etc.

The truth of the matter is–no one needs to attend the Super Bowl just like no one needs to try Petrus. There are a lot of great football games at all different levels. Likewise, there are lots of great wines at all different price points. Whether or not it is “worth it” is purely about how much the experience means to you.

For me, they were both worth it.

After attending the Super Bowl once and tasting Petrus once, I treasure both experiences. I am grateful that I had those opportunities.

But I don’t feel like I ever need to do either again. When I think of all the other things I could do for the same costs (travel, enjoy multiple bottles of Ch. Angelus, Ch. Palmer, etc.), I am content to happily check those things off the bucket list and move on to the next experience.

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