Tag Archives: Paso Robles

Hospice du Rhône Weekend 2018

The BBQ prep for the closing dinner.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top 3 Geek Moments

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

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

Which along those lines….

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

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

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

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

Though speaking of that movie…

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

Top 10 (non-seminar) Wines of the Event

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Palate Fatigue and a little clicky culture

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

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

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


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

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

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

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Quick Thoughts — Day 1 Hospice du Rhone

I’m in Paso Robles this weekend attending the Hospice du Rhone. Look for a fuller review about the festivities and if I think the cost of a Weekend Pass (and travel to Paso) is worth it to be posted sometime next week.

But, in the meantime, here are a few quick thoughts from Day 1.

Seminars

Seminar One: South Africa’s Cinsault Renaissance — Very eye-opening. Cinsault is not a grape on many folks’ radar and, especially in the US, neither is South Africa but there are exciting things going on here. The diversity in styles from light, easy drinking and fruity to meaty, spicy and deep reds is remarkable.

All the wineries featured were stellar but the star of the show was Tremayne Smith’s The Blacksmith wines–particularly his Prince of Bones Cinsault.

The author meeting Adrian Hoffman of Hoffman Vineyard.


Seminar Two: A 6th Generation Crusade in the Barossa Valley — This was a particularly fascinating seminar for someone familiar with Washington State wines to sit in on. I was surprised at how similar Barossa was to Washington with numerous vineyard growers who only grow grapes to sell to wineries that do not own any vineyards. What’s different though is that apparently Barossa has a lot more “corporate vineyards” ran by vineyard management teams rather than small family growers.

This seminar focused on wines made by 4 wineries with fruit from Hoffman Vineyard and 6th generation Barossa farmer, Adrian Hoffman. Once again the wines were stellar but I was particularly impressed with Soul Grower’s Shiraz sourced from 100 year old vines at Hoffman and Chris Ringland’s Dimchurch cuvee.

Rosé Lunch

The Rosé Lunch included a very lovely memorial to the late Robert Haas of Tablas Creek and Seth Kunin of Kunin Wines. It also featured some delicious food that highlighted rosé’s versatility in food pairing with everything from Chicken Provençal, pork cassoulet to olive oil cake pairing wonderfully with the assortment of dry rosés on each table.

Opening Tasting

There were a lot of hits and misses here. I’m a bit concern about the prevalence of volatile acidity (VA) in several domestic examples. Nothing was full-blown vinegar or nail-polish (which are the more obvious signs of VA) but several wines had the subtle oxidize fruit notes on the nose and prickly “tomato ketchup” acid note on the tongue that trip my VA detector.

Truly some remarkable stuff coming from Santa Barbara County.

Among the hits though were several wineries from Santa Barbara County including the aforementioned Kunin Wines, Potek Winery and Bien Nacido Winery.

This cool-climate area is well known as “Sideways Country” for their Pinot noir but the Rhone varieties from this region were some of the most exciting wines at the tasting.

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The next few months will be a busy travel season with upcoming trips to Las Vegas for the Wine Spectator Grand Tour, to Burgundy for 5 days touring wineries and vineyards and to the Vodka Belt of the Baltic Sea countries of Sweden, Finland, Russia and more.

I won’t be able to post as frequently to the blog during that period but I will still be posting updates and cool stuff on other social media channels.

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The Winery Twitter Dance

Recently The Drinks Business reported that major spirit brands like Beefeater, Drambuie and Bacardi are abandoning Twitter and lessening their marketing focus on social media.

A primary reason for the withdrawal that was cited by the beverage analyst firm YesMore was that the labor commitment with maintaining multiple social media accounts–with not only Twitter but also Facebook, Instagram and other venues–was too high.

But let’s be frank here. With the average salary of an entry-level social media coordinator being around $38,000 a year, there is likely a larger reason why these multi-billion dollar corporations like Diageo, Bacardi and Beam Suntory are not interested in investing essentially pennies into having an active social media presence on platforms like Twitter.

They don’t think it’s worth the money.

Now if the big brands don’t think there is a solid return on investment with being active on Twitter, what about the small winery?

For many wineries, especially small family wineries where the owner is often the winemaker as well as the tasting room manager and janitor, there is likely not an extra $38K a year in the budget for a social media coordinator. For them, the decision to invest in Twitter or other social media is an investment in time and energy–which is often more valuable than money.

So the question again is “Is it worth it?”

And if so, how can wineries maximize the very limited and very valuable resource of their time and energy on social media platforms like Twitter?

Anecdotally, looking at my own Twitter feed with the wineries I follow and interact with as @SpitbucketBlog, the lay of the land looks fairly similar to the results of the YesMore study of major spirit brands. While there are a few exceptions (which I note below), many wineries seem to have abandoned Twitter in spirit, if not in action.

Those who do “engage” on Twitter often really aren’t engaging at all but rather fall into the routine of posting only random “bottle porn” shots of their wines in pretty portraits with maybe an occasional food pairing suggestion. (The “bottle porn” ill is an even bigger problem on Instagram whose format encourages its inane use.)

Photo by No machine-readable author provided. Ile-de-re~commonswiki assumed (based on copyright claims). - No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=931732

Just as you hope that a good label will help you stand out from the “wall of wine”, an engaging Twitter account can help you stand out from a timeline of bottle porn.

Making Twitter work for wineries

I’m going to break a little cold hard truth here and speak directly to the wineries. Just because you make wine doesn’t mean people want to drink it. While Mr. Rogers knows how special you are, in the beverage industry you have to work a lot harder to stand out from the pack.

On a daily basis, there are dozens of other beverage options competing for the attention of your potential customer. When they walk into a restaurant or bar and pick up a wine list, that number can jump to hundreds. Walk into a wine shop and you’ve got thousands of options.

Your bottle can’t speak directly to the customer from the shelf but you can on Twitter.

Engagement should be your first and foremost priority every time you or a winery employee logs onto Twitter. The point shouldn’t necessarily be to sell wine but rather to sell yourself–your story and what makes your winery unique.

And, truthfully, you do have a unique story. While you are “just making wine”–like your thousands of competitors–there are thousands of little decisions you are making in the vineyard and the winery that leave an indelible imprint on your wine. Share them. Share that part of you that you are putting in your wine.

Let people see some of the the wonders and mysteries of wine. When you are in the wine biz and surrounded by it all the time, every day, it is easy to forget how cool it can be to “regular folks” to see what bud break is or what a bubbling ferment looks like. The vast majority of wine drinkers have no idea how canopy management or green harvesting influences the end quality of wine. What do winemakers look for when picking out barrels and how do you “feed yeasts”?

These are things that make wine drinkers who are scrolling through a timeline of nothing but useless bottle porn stop and actually read your tweets.

Say No to Bottle Porn

One of the worst things a winery can do is get lazy and just post bottle porn pics on their timeline. What is bottle porn? Random pics of wine with little to no information outside of things like “Hey, it’s sunny out! Great day to open up our new Chardonnay!”

Maybe a winery will spice it up just a tad with a food pairing suggestion but it’s still pretty useless.

Yeah, we get it. You make wine and you want to sell it. But how does that make you different from the thousands of other wineries out in the world and on Twitter? It doesn’t.

Photo By Denkhenk - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9655331

What’s in the blend? How was it made? What’s the story of the vineyard or winery? Who knows!?!? It’s just bottle porn.

And that’s the rip. In a competitive market like wine you want to stand out. Lazy bottle porn just keeps you chained to the pack of Twitter clones posting the same random bottles pics. It doesn’t matter if they have different wine labels or set in an exotic setting like a fire by a ski slope. It all looks the same.

Like regular porn, it’s pretty easy to get “desensitized” to bottle porn with the vast majority of Twitter followers just scrolling right past your tweet. That’s the lesson that the big corporations in the spirits world learned. Sure a Tweet is a heck of a lot cheaper than a billboard or magazine ad buy but they are far less effective.

If posting random bottle porn is all that you are willing to do to keep your winery’s Twitter active then why even bother? You might as well follow Bacardi and Beefeater to Twitter retirement.

But if you do want to take advantage of the potential reach that Twitter offers, here are three winery accounts that I recommend every winery take a look at.

A Few Great Winery Twitter Accounts to Follow

Rabbit Ridge Winery (@RabbitRidgeWine) — If I had to point to one account that I would encourage other wineries to emulate, this would be it because here is a winery that actually engages people–not only about their own wines but about wine in general. A small family winery in Paso Robles, I suspect that owner Erich Russell himself does most all the tweets because this account has a personal feel to it. Far from just being a “brand”, Rabbit Ridge has a personality to it that says there is a real person behind the keyboard and, most importantly, a real person behind the wine.

But this feel of a person behind the keyboard goes two ways. The problem with a lot of winery Twitter accounts is that they come across as too robotic and too promotional. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is for a winery to be engaging rather than static and solely promotional. The way you engage with other Twitter users should be approached the same way you engage potential customers–are they just wallets that (hopefully) buy your product or are they people that you are sharing the work of your land and your hands with? Rabbit Ridge Winery is a great example of an account that makes potential customers on Twitter feel like they are actually people who the family of Rabbit Ridge wants to share their story and love of wine with.

Tablas Creek (@TablasCreek) Anyone who has read my Wine Clubs Done Right post knows that I admire the business acumen and customer focus approach of this Paso Robles winery. That same savviness shows in their social media approach where they let consumers get a behind the scenes view of the vineyard and winemaking process.

While Rabbit Ridge and Tablas Creek are probably at the upper end of exceptional engagement, it is still possible for wineries to “up their game” and get more mileage out of Twitter without being quite as active. Below is one such example.

Lauren Ashton Cellars (@LaurenAshton_WA) While not immune to the siren song of occasional bottle porn, one thing that Lauren Ashton does exceptionally well is encourage people to come and engage with them at various tastings they do outside of their winery.

And their timeline has several more examples where an actual person, name and face, is introduced to perspective customers with a personal invite to meet them at an offsite event. It’s promotional but still engaging and even if that is the bare minimum that wineries on Twitter do, it’s still elevating the Twitter game and helping them stand out from the crowd of lazy bottle porn.

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Event Review — Stags’ Leap Winery Dinner

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

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

The Background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gorgeous Viognier that is well worth seeking out.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stags’ Leap Winery Assistant Winemaker Joanne Wing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall Impressions

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

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

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

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Getting Geeky 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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Wine Geek Notes 4/9 — Organic Wine, 2017 Bordeaux and Component Wines

Photo by Hudson C. S. de Souza. Released on Wikimedia Commons under  CC-BY-SA-4.0

Here is what I’m reading today in the world of wine.

Isabelle Legeron MW: why it matters what wine we drink and food we eat by Alistair Morrell for The Buyer (@TheBuyer11)

I recently finished reading Clark Smith’s Postmodern Winemaking: Rethinking the Modern Science of an Ancient Craft where he advocates for a balance between winemakers using all the tools at their disposal (like reverse osmosis, cross-flow filtration, etc) but not lose sight of “soulful winemaking” and letting the wine tell the story of where it came from. It’s almost a contradictory position that is the vino-equivalent of the Kobayashi Maru.

Throughout the entire book, Smith advocates for, above all, more transparency in winemaking. A winemaker shouldn’t use any tool or additive that he or she would not feel comfortable openly talking about. In that regard, he and Master of Wine Isabelle Legeron would be kindred spirits.

In her interview with Alistair Morrell, Legeron draws the connection between consumers’ concerns over sourcing and knowing what’s exactly in their food and how that is changing the wine they are drinking. However, as I discovered in researching for my article about Vegan wines, the wine industry has a bit of a halo effect that has long been given a free pass in most consumers’ minds because—it’s just grapes, right? Well….not exactly.

Like Smith, I don’t think winemakers should be demonized for using technology but I also find sympathy with Legeron’s view that consumers should know what kind of chemicals are being used in the vineyards, what additives like Mega-Purple or oak chips do and what in the world was done to make a wine like Apothic Brew exist.

The article also touches on some of the issues that “natural producers” dealt with in the troublesome vintage 2017 which brings me to my next article of interest.

Photo by Benjamin Zingg, Switzerland. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.5

Ch. Rauzan-Ségla in Margaux

The 2017 Bordeaux Barrels Diary: A View from the Top at Château Canon by James Molesworth (@JMolesworth1) for Wine Spectator (@WineSpectator)

As the 2018 en primeur tastings wrap up, we’re getting ready for the start of the 2017 Bordeaux Futures campaign. I’m buckling down into my research as I plot my own personal strategy and purchases. I bought very heavily in the 2015 and 2016 campaigns so I naturally expect to buy much less in 2017.

But I’ll still buy something. My initial instinct is that 2017 could serve as a fair “cellar defender” vintage meant to be open for more short term consumption. I use the term “cellar defender” because my cellar will now have a nice stash of 2015/2016 that I will need to fight off the temptation to open too soon–a fate that has unfortunately befallen many of my 2009/2010 gems. If I want to get the full value of my pleasure investment in these potentially great 2015/2016 wine, I will need to have a few good “sacrificial lambs” to help keep my grubby paws off the good stuff.

The key will be in sorting through the hype and fluff to find the real value. I don’t want to pay filet mignon prices for my mutton.

The Chanel Group’s holding of Ch. Canon, Ch. Rauzan-Ségla and now Ch. Berliquet intrigue me because the first two have undoubtedly been on the upswing and reaping the benefit of investments in the vineyards and winery. Rauzan-Ségla has particularly impressed me with delivering quality results in the troublesome 2012 and 2013 vintages. While I would not want to go into the $100+ range, if the 2017 is priced in the $75-80 range like those 2012/2013s then I might be intrigued.

However, having the Chanel team now at Ch. Berliquet (which is priced in the $35-40 range) could be some very enticing mutton

Making Varietal Wines in Bordeaux by Vicki Denig (@vicki_denig‏) for Seven Fifty Daily (@SevenFiftyDaily). Brought to my dash via John Corcoran (@jncorcoran1).

Going along with my Bordeaux mood, I got very excited reading about this new project with Michael H. Kennedy II of Component Wine Company in Napa (a protege of Aldo Sohm) and Château Lynch-Bages to come up with a special series of varietal wines from some of the Cazes family’s holdings in the Left Bank.

While blending is always going to be intimately connected with Bordeaux, the chance to try the individual components in isolation (from such a high quality producer) is worth geeking out over. Of course it will depend on if the price is crazy or not. While I expect to pay $100+ for Ch. Lynch-Bages, I’m not sure a varietal Cabernet Franc from them at that price is going to entice me. My optimistic hope is that these Component wines will be priced more in the $35-45 range.

I signed up for Component Wine Company’s mailing list to keep an eye on this project and will post any updates.

What’s On Deck for SpitBucket

In addition to getting knee deep in readings about the 2017 Bordeaux vintage and Futures campaign, I’m also prepping for my upcoming trip to Paso Robles for Hospice du Rhone at the end of this month and a trip to Burgundy at the end of May. So expect to see a few more posts geeking out about Rhone varietals and a couple more installments in my “Keeping up with the Joneses in Burgundy” series.

My top wine at the 2017 Wine Spectator Grand Tasting was this Adobe Road Cabernet Sauvignon from the Beckstoffer Vineyard Georges III in Rutherford.

In the middle, I’ll also be attending the Wine Spectator Grand Tour Tasting in Las Vegas. You can check out the first part of my three part series from last year’s Grand Tour Tasting here.

While my blog postings won’t be as frequent during my travels, I will still be posting regularly to Instagram and Twitter so feel free to follow me on those platforms as well.

Cheers!

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Getting Geeky with Gramercy Picpoul

Going to need more than 60 Seconds to geek out about the 2015 Gramercy Picpoul from Walla Walla.

The Background

Gramercy Cellars was founded in 2005 by Master Sommelier Greg Harrington and his wife, Pam. Prior to starting a winery, Harrington managed wine programs for restaurants owned by Joyce Goldstein (Square One in San Francisco), Emeril Lagasse, Stephen Hanson and Wolfgang Puck (Spago). At the time that Harrington passed his MS exam in 1996, he was 26 and the youngest person to have achieved that honor.

According to Paul Gregutt, in Washington Wines, while sommelier-turned-winemaker is somewhat common in California and other parts of the world, Harrington was the first to traverse that path in Washington State.

In 2006, Gramercy started a partnership with Jamie Brown of Waters Winery that eventually led to the development of Wines of Substance (later sold to Charles Smith) and 21 Grams (now owned by Doug Roskelley and Mike Tembreull, owners of TERO Estates and Flying Trout Wines).

In 2008, Harrington was named by Seattle Magazine as “Best New Winemaker in Washington” and followed that up in 2014 as the magazine’s “Winemaker of the Year“.

Along with Harrington, the wines of Gramercy Cellars are made by Brandon Moss who joined the winery in 2009 after stints at King Estate in Oregon, Indevin in New Zealand and Waters in Walla Walla.

Drawing from Ampélographie Viala et Vermorel. Uploaded by JPS68 via photoshop to Wikimedia Commons under PD Old

Picpoul blanc grapes by Viala et Vermorel


Gramercy started making Picpoul in 2013 because the variety was a favorite of Pam Harrington. That first vintage came from Olsen Vineyards in the Yakima Valley from a block that was scheduled to be uprooted and planted over to Grenache. The cuttings were sourced from Tablas Creek Vineyards in Paso Robles from original vines at Château Beaucastel in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

Subsequent vintages of Gramercy Picpoul have been sourced from Los Oídos Vineyards located in the Blue Mountains of Walla Walla which are managed by Ken Hart and sustainably farmed. In addition to managing Los Oídos, Hart was also involved in the planting of Ash Hollow, Nicholas Cole, Pepper Bridge and Seven Hills East vineyards and today helps manage the vineyards of Abeja, àMaurice, Dunham and Walla Walla Vintners.

The Grape

According to Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes, the first mention of Picpoul (or Piquepoul) was of the black skin variant in 1384 near Toulouse in the Occitanie region that borders Spain. The name is believed to have been derived from the Oc dialect words picapol or picpol which loosely translates to a “place with a peak” and may refer to the cliff-side vineyards where the grape was planted.

The first account that explicitly described the white skin mutation of Picpoul was in 1667. There is also a pink-skin Picpoul gris that is nearly extinct. All three color variants are part of the 22 grapes that are authorized to be grown in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

A Picpoul de Pinet from the Languedoc.


In 2009, there was over 3500 acres of Picpoul blanc planted in France–mostly in the Languedoc area where it is the notable variety of Picpoul de Pinet–the largest white wine producing AOC in the Languedoc. The grape is valued in the white wines of the Languedoc and Provence for its high acidity and lemon, floral aromatics.

In the United States, Tablas Creek was the first to plant Picpoul blanc in 2000. In California, Tablas Creek has noted that the variety is early budding but late ripening and tends to produce rich tropical fruits along with its trademark “lip stinging” acidity. Several producers in Paso Robles will occasional produce bottlings of Picpoul blanc including–Adelaida Cellars, Denner Winery, Derby Wine Estates, Halter Ranch, Lone Madrone, Bending Branch Winery and Broc Cellars.

Outside of Paso Robles, the grape can also be found in Calaveras County where Twisted Oak Winery and Forlorn Hope make varietal examples as well as in the Arroyo Seco AVA of Monterrey County which supplies Picpoul for Bonny Doon. In Arizona, Cimarron Vineyard in Cochise County is growing Picpoul blanc for Sand-Reckoner Winery and in the McLaren Vale of Australia, Picpoul blanc has been produced by Coriole Vineyards since 2015.

In Washington, outside of the Los Oídos Vineyards supplying Gramercy, the grape is being grown at Boushey Vineyards, Corliss Estate’s Blue Mountain Vineyard in Walla Walla and at Tanjuli Winery’s estate vineyard in the Rattlesnake Hills AVA.

The Wine

Photo by Vegan Feast Catering. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

The lemon custard aromatics and creaminess of this 2015 Gramercy Picpoul is just one of the many complex layers to this wine.

High intensity nose. There is a lot going on here. Initially it starts out very floral and lemony with subtle pastry crust like a lemon custard tart. Underneath the lemon zest is some dusty gravel mineral notes. In a blind tasting, this would have my brain start thinking white Bordeaux. There is also a white floral note in the background that is not very defined.

But on the palate the wine switches gears and starts getting more tree fruit oriented with spicy d’Anjou pears and the floral notes morphing more into lemon verbena. The custard note from the nose carries through adding a richness to the mouthfeel–creamy but not buttery like a California Chardonnay. Even with this weighty creaminess the high acidity is quite present, offering exquisite balance and freshness. The gravel mineral notes come through and have a “crushed rock” element that is almost electric. The long finish brings a subtle hint of hazelnut that would have me wondering in a blind tasting if this was a village level Meursault.

The Verdict

Incredibly complex wine that jumps out of the glass and leaves a lasting impression on the palate. At around $20 bucks this is an absolute steal for all that this wine delivers.

But even if you can’t find a bottle of Gramercy’s Picpoul, do yourself a favor and find any bottle of Picpoul to try. If you are looking to trade out from your same ole, same ole Sauvignon blanc and Pinot gris, this grape is perfect.

Picpoul has the freshness and zip of a great Sauvignon blanc but with some of the spice of Gruner Veltliner and depth of a well made Chardonnay. Examples from Picpoul de Pinet can be had for $10-13 and are often far superior to what you usually find among Sauvignon blanc, Pinot gris/grigio and Chardonnay in the under $15 category.

This is definitely a grape that should be high on any wine geek’s list to try.

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Getting Geeky with Soaring Rooster Rose of Counoise

Going to need more than 60 Seconds to geek out about the 2016 Soaring Rooster Rosé of Counoise from Tagaris Winery.

The Background

I talked a little about the Taggares family and Tagaris winemaker, Frank Roth, in my 60 Second Review of the 2015 Tagaris Pinot noir from the Areté Vineyard.

In addition to the 200 acre Areté Vineyard, Tagaris also owns the 100 acre Alice Vineyard on the south slopes of the Saddle Mountains in the Wahluke Slope AVA. Named after owner Michael Taggares’ mother, this vineyard is home to many grape varieties that are unique to Washington State such as Counoise, Grenache, Tempranillo and Mourvedre.

Located near Weinbau and Rosebud vineyards is Tagaris’ third estate vineyard–the Michael Vineyard–that is also planted to unique varieties like Carménère, Cinsault, Barbera and Sangiovese.

The 2016 Rosé of Counoise was made via the saignée production method where juice from red Counoise must is “bled off” and fermented into a rosé. In her book, Rosé Wine, Master of Wine Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan describes how during this point the must has a higher level of alcohol compared to the short maceration method. As an extracting agent, the alcohol leaches out more color and flavor from the skins producing deeply colored and richer flavored rosés.

The Grape

Photo by Vbecart. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Counoise grapes growing in a vineyard owned by the Syndicat des Vignerons des Côtes du Rhône, Châteauneuf-de-Gadagne, Vaucluse.

Jancis Robinson notes in Wine Grapes, that Counoise is a very old grape variety, distantly related to Piquepoul, that was first mentioned in Avignon in 1626. The French poet Frédéric Mistral (1830-1914) claimed that the grape was of Spanish origins, being first brought to the Rhone in the 14th century during the papal reign of Urban V by a vice-legate named Counesa.

While Harry Karis, in The Chateauneuf-du-Pape Wine Book, believes that Counoise originated in Provence, it was in Châteauneuf-du-Pape where the grape first gained renown in the 19th century as a key component in the blends of Château la Nerthe made by Joseph Ducos. Baron Pierre Le Roy de Boiseaumarié of Château Fortia, who helped write the original AOC laws of the region, was also a fan of the variety and made sure it was included as a permitted grape for red Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

More recently both Domaine du Pégau and Château de Beaucastel have championed usage of Counoise in Châteauneuf-du-Pape–even though today it only accounts for around 0.4% of all plantings. In fact, over the last couple decades Beaucastel has been decreasing their plantings of Syrah in favor of Counoise, feeling that the grape’s natural acidity, spice and late-ripening qualities serve as a better compliment to Grenache and Mourvedre. Making up to 10% of the blend for their CdP rouge in some years, Beaucastel uses the highest proportion of Counoise in the region.

Outside of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the grape can also be found in neighboring Gigondas and several villages permitted to use the Côtes du Rhône-Villages appellation. It is also grown in the Ventoux and can be used in the rosé wines of Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence. In these rosés, Counoise usually sees brief skin contact as part of the short maceration method with the Counoise contributing fresh acidity, spices and dark berry fruits. For the red Counoise wines of Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence, aromas of chocolate and leather can also emerge.

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

Counoise vine growing outside the tasting room of Tablas Creek in Paso Robles.


In the United States, Tablas Creek brought cuttings of Counoise from Château de Beaucastel to California in 1990. From there it spread to other Rhone Rangers in Paso Robles and then up north to Randall Grahm’s Bonny Doon winery in Santa Cruz where Grahm often blends it with Cinsault. In the Livermore Valley, the Wente family makes a small-lot varietal example of Counoise.

The winemaking team at Tablas Creek notes that the grape is prone to oxidation which makes it a useful compliment to the reductive nature of Syrah and Mourvedre in blends.

In 2000, Doug McCrea (of McCrea Cellars/Salida) convinced Jim Holmes of Ciel du Cheval Vineyard on Red Mountain to plant Counoise from Tablas Creek cuttings. By 2012, the acreage of Counoise in Washington had grown to 15 acres with plantings in the Yakima Valley vineyards Meek and Airfield Ranch, the Alice Vineyard in the Wahluke Slope, the Needlerock Vineyard in the Columbia Valley as well as Forgotten Hills Vineyard and Morrison Lane in Walla Walla. In Washington Wines, Paul Gregutt notes that John Farmer, one of the first to plant Rhone varieties in the Horse Heaven Hills, also sought out cuttings to plant at Alder Ridge Vineyard.

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

The Wahluke Slope AVA with the Saddle Mountains in the distance. The Soaring Rooster Rosé of Counoise comes from the Alice Vineyard in this AVA.


In addition to Tagaris Winery, varietal examples of Counoise can also be found in Washington from Cairdeas Winery, Cana’s Feast, Côtes de Ciel, Lindsay Creek Vineyards, Martin-Scott Winery and Syncline.

The Wine

Medium-plus intensity nose. A mix of raspberry and dark berry fruits. There is also a blue floral element that is intriguing.

On the palate, the dark blackberry fruits dominant more and add a bit of weight to this rosé. While there is a lot of fruit, it’s dry. There is also some texture you feel on the tongue. It’s not bitter or pithy like phenolic extract but, again, adds to the overall weight of the wine. Medium-plus acidity adds a juicy freshness with even a bit of minerality peaking out on the moderate length finish.

The Verdict

With the weight and dark fruits, this is a rosé for red wine drinkers. Its full body and richness opens it up to interesting food pairing possibilities. After reading Simonetti-Bryan’s Rosé Wine, I think I’ve found a rosé to experiment with for some of the more robust pairings I mentioned in my review of the book like lamb and beef brisket.

For $12-15, this 2016 Soaring Rooster Rosé of Counoise is a very solid dry rosé that gives drinkers a lot of food pairing versatility as well as a chance to geek out with a very cool grape.

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Wine Geek Notes 3/6/18 — Reverse French Paradox, Damaged Wines and Washington Vineyards

Photo by Alec Vuijlsteke. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0
Here is what I’m reading today in the world of wine.

Interesting Tweets and Weblinks

In France, is wine still a national treasure? Or is it a health risk? by James McAuley at The Washington Post. Brought to my dash via Eric Orange of LocalWineEvents.com (@worldwineevents)

Apparently the health minister of the country that gave us the French Paradox is railing against the consumption of any type of alcohol, including wine, touting the bold statement that “’In moderation’ shouldn’t be used anymore”. Yikes! Needless to say French vignerons (and the French President) aren’t pleased.

Personally, I think that while we shouldn’t sugarcoat the negative impacts of alcohol consumption, I firmly believe that “In Moderation” is a vital outlook for all things in life–including wine.

Damaged Wines to Hit the Market by W. Blake Gray (@wblakegray) for WineSearcher.com (@WineSearcher). Brought to my dash via Rabbit Ridge Winery (@RabbitRidgeWine).

Kind of like with used cars, wine buyers should be mindful of the possibility of hurricane, flood and fire damage wines hitting the market. Gray gives a lot of great tips from expert Maureen Downey (@moevino) on what to keep an eye out for. I found this quote from Gray the most helpful.

Photo by Mario Fornasari from Ferrara, Italy. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

I would probably give wines that survive an earthquake a few weeks to recover from the “bottle shock” as well.

It’s important to note that heat-damaged wine is not immediately ruined. Heat affects the tannin structure of wine in unpredictable ways.

Some wines might even taste better shortly after being exposed to heat, but they will not last long in the cellar. Downey said when she knows she has a heat-damaged wine, sometimes she shrugs her shoulders, drinks it and wonders what it might have been if properly stored.

— W. Blake Gray, March 6th, 2018

This is a takeaway you can use even if you have the unfortunate incident of “wine trapped in a hot trunk” during the summer. Accept that you probably lost some positive attributes. Give it at least a week to settle from the shock and plan to drink it soon. While miracles do exist and potentially the wine could still age and give pleasure, it’s better to err on the side of caution and enjoy it sooner rather than later.

Taste Washington Wine Month

While doing some research for my 60 Second Review of the Gifford Hirlinger Malbec, I stumbled across the very cool website Everyvine.com! I haven’t fully explored the site yet but I totally geeked out on their vineyard search feature.

Here is a detailed Google Map image of 102.55 acres of Ciel du Cheval Vineyard on Red Mountain.

Here’s Owen Roe’s Outlook Vineyard.

Here’s Pepper Bridge Vineyard.

You can zoom in on particular blocks and see where the different varieties are planted, get details about climate, topography and soils. Lots of fun stuff!

Washington wine grape 2017 harvest down by 16 percent by Andy Perdue (@GreatNWWine) for Great Northwest Wine. Brought to my dash via WinesNorthwest (@WinesNorthwest).

The headline sounds more jarring than it really is. Yes, the 2017 harvest was down but it was down compared to the record setting 2016 harvest that was the largest in Washington State history. Even Perdue notes in the 2nd paragraph that 2017 still tied 2014 for the second largest harvest in state history.

In a tweet reply, Lagana Cellars from Walla Walla (@LaganaCellars) highlights this and also gives some great insight about the vintage.

BTW, if you are not following Lagana Cellars on Twitter, you should. Like Rabbit Ridge Winery that I linked to above, I find lots of great content and behind-the-scene perspective from these winery accounts. They have great social media people running them. If you are in Washington, definitely check out Lagana’s wines as well. They were one of the stand-outs at my recent Walla Walla tasting. Haven’t had Rabbit Ridge yet but I’m sure I’ll rectify that in April when I’m down in Paso Robles.

But, headline and tweets aside, the big reason I linked to the Perdue article above was this fascinating little nugget about Riesling.

Riesling fell to 33,000 tons from 41,300. This is widely viewed as a market correction by Chateau Ste. Michelle, the world’s largest Riesling producer.

Whoa! When Chateau Ste. Michelle is pulling up Riesling vines, something is going on. I kind of get the idea of “market correction” but it doesn’t feel like we’re at a market saturation point for Riesling. If anything, I would think we’re getting close to being over saturated with Cabernet Sauvignon but Cab is Still King and still being planted like crazy.

This thing with Riesling is something worth exploring a little more. This year’s Riesling Rendezvous is in Australia with the event coming back to Chateau Ste. Michelle in 2019. I wonder if we’ll have more clarity about this “market correction” by then.

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What’s fine (and not so fine) about Vegan Wines

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Veganism is described as one of the fastest growing lifestyle movements in the world. Some estimates claim that in the United states alone, there was a 500% increase between 2014 and 2017 in the number of Americans (around 19 million) identifying as vegan.

For the wine industry, that is a sizable demographic that retailers and wineries have value in marketing to.

So what makes a wine “vegan-friendly”?

For the most part, veganism is a code of conduct that avoids using any animal products or by products as well as anything that has been tested on animals. There are various reasons why people adopt veganism but often ethical concerns about the treatment of animals and impact on the environment are cited.

While wine is often assumed to be vegan, the use of animal-based fining agents such as casein (milk protein), albumin (egg whites), isinglass (fish bladders) and gelatin (animal collagen) in winemaking is problematic for many vegans.

Let’s Talk About Fining Agents

As Alison Crowe notes in The Wine Maker’s Answer Book, fining agents are used to help clarify and stabilize wine by binding to molecules such as proteins and excess tannins. These are items that can cause unsightly haze in the bottle, aggressive bitterness on the palate, off odors and flavors. The agent binds to the target molecule to form larger structures that eventually precipitates and settles to the bottom of tank or barrel as sediment.

Bruce W. Zoecklein et. al in Wine Analysis and Production classified the various fining agents into 8 categories based on their nature.

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

Isinglass and bentonite fining trials.


1.) Earths like bentonite and kaolin
2.) Proteins like the animal based ones above
3.) Polysaccharides like gum arabic and Sparkolloid
4.) Carbons like activated carbon
5.) Synthetic polymers like polyvinylpolypyrrolidone (or PVPP)
6.) Silica gels like silicon dioxide or Kieselsol
7.) Tannins often derived from insect galls on oak leaves though oak chip fining can also fall into this category.
8.) Others which includes both enzymatic fining (more fining aids rather than fining agents) and chelators that assist in the removal of metals such as “blue fining” with potassium ferrocyanide (illegal to use in the United States).

The different fining agents work on principles of electrical charge (like positively charged gelatin reacting with negatively charged tannins), bond formation (like the carbonyl group of PVPP bonding with the hydroxyl group of tannins) and by absorption/adsorption (like activated carbon absorbing off odors or bentonite adsorbing proteins).

There are positive and negative attributes to each fining agent with no one fining agent being perfect for every situation.

Animal-based Fining Agents

Egg whites (Albumin) Used primarily to remove excess tannins. Works by forming hydrogen bonds with the hydroxyl groups of tannins. Compared to other fining agents like gelatin, albumin tends to remove less positive flavor and aroma traits. Egg whites have a long history of use in winemaking in places like Bordeaux and Burgundy. The usual addition is 1 to 3 egg whites per 225L (59 gallon) barrel.

Casein (Milk protein) Used primarily to remove browning or pink color in white wine. Can also be used to remove some off odors. Works by adsorption and attracting negatively charged particles. Like with egg whites, it has a long history of use in wine production, particularly with the great white wines of Burgundy. It also has the benefit of reducing the concentration of iron and copper in wine. In red wines, it can negatively impact the wine by removing the polyphenol resveratrol that has been associated with various health benefits.

Gelatin (derived from the boiling of animal tissues like bones and tendons) Used primarily to remove excess tannins. It has a positive charge that reacts to the negative charge of harsh tannins. It can be prone to over-fining that can strip a wine of positive flavors and aromas.

A heat stability trial for rose wines that have been fined with isinglass.

Isinglass (derived from the air bladder of fish like sturgeons). Used primarily to help clarifying wines, remove excess tannins and to “unmask” or bring out varietal character.

Chitosan (derived from chitin in the exoskeleton of crustaceans) Used primarily to remove haze causing proteins from white wines. A positively charged agent, it often needs to be paired with a negatively charged fining agent like Kieselsol to be most effective.

Blood Albumen (derived from the blood of ox and cattle) historically used but illegal in the United states, France and several other countries.

Vegan-friendly Alternatives

The website Barnivore is a database of wines and other liquors that have been vetted by users to be either “vegan-friendly” or not. In answering queries about their use of animal based fining agents, many wineries share their alternative methods.

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

Letting the wine settle and clarify on its own before racking into another container is one method to avoid using fining agents.


One common method is the use of time and gravity to let the wine settle and clear out on its own. This is the technique used by Baldacci in the Stags Leap District and many other wineries. Depending on several factors like the health of the grapes, method of pressing, pH and temperature, this method could take several months and even then the wine might not be completely stable. Some wineries facilitate this method with the use of mechanical centrifuges and ultra-filtration but these carry the risk of being overly aggressive and potentially stripping the wine of positive flavor and aroma attributes.

Along those lines, many wineries adopt a hands-off method of not fining or filtering their wines at all. This is the method used by many high-end wine producers like Black Cordon and Kapcsandy in Napa Valley. This does carry the risk of haze and sediment developing in the bottle but the risk is often presented to consumers as a trade-off for having potentially more complex and flavorful wines.

The most used “vegan-friendly” fining agent is bentonite, a type of clay that can dramatically swell in size to adsorb protein molecules. This is the method used by wineries like Chinook in Washington State, Ideology in Napa Valley, Spier in South Africa and many others. One big drawback is that it causes significant loss of wine volume due to the heavy sediment it creates. As much as 5-10% of volume could be lost. Roger B. Boulton et al notes in Principles and Practices of Winemaking that these voluminous bentonite lees also create a large amount of solid waste that can have an environmental impact (such as sealing percolation ponds) if not properly disposed. In red wine, there is also a risk of color loss.

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

The lees sediment and volume loss from bentonite can be significant (between 5-10%). Using counter-fining agents like isinglass can help with lees compaction but would obviously make the wine not vegan-friendly.

Some wineries like Amici use the technique of “yeast fining” for wines like their 2013 Russian River Pinot noir. This involves adding fresh yeast to a wine where their cell walls (which are about 30% positively charged proteins) can adsorb many polyphenols and compounds that can cause off odors. It brings the risk of the yeast breaking down as lees, releasing sulfur compounds and enhancing reductive notes. Also, if not removed by filtration, the yeast in the bottle can start re-fermenting any residual sugars–causing spritziness in what is, otherwise, supposed to be a non-sparkling wine.

PVPP is a synthetic polymer that can remove bitter tannins and brown discoloration from white wines. Like casein, it can remove the polyphenol resveratrol from red wines. There is also a risk of overfining with the PVPP binding to desirable tannins and anthocyanins needed for structure and color.

Sparkalloid is a blend of polysaccharides and diatomaceous earth (fossilized algae) that can be used to clarify white wines. It does take significant time to eventually settle and creates a fair amount of waste with the DE that requires proper disposal.

Activated Carbon can be used to remove off-odors such as mercaptans (rotten eggs, burnt match). It does have the risk of overly oxidizing wine as well as stripping color and resveratrol from red wines.

New Developments on the Horizon

Ronald S. Jackson notes in Wine Science that fears about the prions potentially in gelatin and “Mad Cow” disease, encouraged studies into the use of plant proteins like wheat gluten as a substitute for gelatin. (Note: most gelatin used in US winemaking is derived from pigs rather than cows) Likewise, a New Jersey company has been experimenting with using pea proteins in conjunction with bentonite and silica as an alternative to gelatin.

Interest in food allergies have also spurned innovations with Scott Labs developing a technique to isolated chitosan from the fungus Aspergillus niger (instead of shellfish and crustaceans) that can be used as a fining agent.

The California based ATP Group has developed a way to extract tannin powder for fining from white wine grapes instead of insect galls to help soften tannins.

In 2016, a Swiss company announced that they were experimenting with the use of UV light to soften tannins in lieu of using animal-based protein fining agents.

The Biodynamic Quandary

While wineries can avoid using animal products in the winery, there is a question of whether wines produced from fruit sourced from biodynamic vineyards are truly “vegan-friendly”. This is because several of the “preparations” used in biodynamic viticulture require the use of animal products such as cow horns (BD 500 and 501), stomachs, intestines and bladders.

In an anecdotal account of a visit with the vineyard manager of the biodynamic Pinot noir producer Sea Smoke, Kirsten Georgi (The Armchair Sommelier), describes how the “Biodynamic approach” to removing gophers without the use of poisons or chemicals involves trapping several gophers, killing them, burning their ashes and spreading those ashes over the vineyard during winter solstice as a means to “scare off” the rest of the gophers. This method of “peppering” vineyards with the ashes of pests is not unique to Sea Smoke with recipes on biodynamic websites recommending its use for everything from weeds, snails and insects to mice, rats, rabbits and opossum.

Photo by Mark Smith. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Manure composting at a biodynamic vineyard in Tasmania.

Despite these practices, organizations like PETA recommend biodynamic wineries as “vegan friendly”. The UK website Vegan Wines Online notes that while “…natural animal products can however be used in the growing process all the biodynamic wines they sell are somehow suitable for vegans.

Even organic viticulture could be problematic with the use of animal-derived bone and blood meal being used in lieu of chemical fertilizers. There is even debate if manure, as an animal by-product, is acceptable. Like honey and milk, manure doesn’t require killing the animal but still often requires farming to acquire.

There is also the question of whether the increased presence of insects in healthy and vibrant vineyards that eschew the use of chemicals can make a wine less vegan-friendly due to the higher incidence of insects as MOG (material other than grapes) getting caught up in the harvest. On the Barnivore website, Calcareous Vineyard in Paso Robles expressed this reservation though their wines were still classified as “vegan friendly”.

More Manipulated=More Vegan-friendly?

With the concerns of high insect MOG, biodynamic viticulture and organic animal-derived fertilizers, is it possible that the vineyards that can produce the most “vegan-friendly” wines are really the ones being farmed with heavy saturation of pesticides (no insect MOG there) and chemical fertilizers? Mass produced wines like the PETA recommended Sutter Home and Moët & Chandon often employ these conventional, chemical dependent styles of viticulture.

While avoiding using animal-based fining agents to remove excess tannins and haze forming proteins, big mega-corps can use other tricks to manipulate the wine with things like lab designed enzymes, oak adjuncts and Mega Purple which will “smooth out” bitter tannins and cover up off-flavors.

Just a single drop of Mega Purple had this white Riesling looking and smelling like a Grenache rose. Crazy stuff.


Sure, Charles Shaw reds (Two Buck Chuck), Sutter Home Cabernet Sauvignon, Meiomi Pinot noir and Yellow Tail reds are made without animal fining agents but should vegans (and really all wine drinkers) be concerned with what other products are being used to make these wines?

And while it can be exciting to see advances in the use of pea proteins and fining agents derived from fungi like Aspergillus niger, its worth asking if these are only adding to the laundry list of the 60+ (and counting) additives that can be used in winemaking–taking it even further away from being just “fermented grapes”?

Now What?

While I’m not vegan myself, I wholeheartedly support anyone that chooses to live their life by convictions that eschews the use of animal products. I respect their ethical concerns for the treatment of animals and the impact on the environment that using animal products have. It’s also not my wish to stress out vegans who just want to relax and enjoy a nice bottle of wine.

But I do believe it is fair to think about the big picture involved in many seemingly “vegan-friendly” wineries that utilize viticulture and winemaking practices that may not align with the ethical and environmental concerns of many vegans.

However, it is clear from sites like Barnivore that there are tons of environmentally conscious wineries (many of which are even owned by vegans) that are producing vegan-friendly wines. They may not be the easiest to find at grocery stores or restaurant wine lists that can be dominated by the portfolios of the large mega-corps but these often small family-owned wineries are well worth seeking out and supporting.

And that’s something that I think both vegans and non-vegans can drink to.

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