Tag Archives: Petite Sirah

Hunting Unicorns in the Stags Leap District

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

Stags Leap Palisades

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shafer Cabernets.

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

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

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

Lust

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

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

Steltzner Sangiovese

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steltzner Sangiovese ($55)

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

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

Steltzner Sangio

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

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

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

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

The Wine and Verdict

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

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

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

Ilsley Seis Primas ($79)

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

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

Ilsley Seis Primas

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

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

The Wine and Verdict

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wine and Verdict
Swallows at Clos du Val

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

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

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

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

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

Quixote Malbec ($80)
Quoixote shower

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

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

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

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

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

The Wine and Verdict
Quixote Malbec

The 2015 Quixote Stags Leap Malbec.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yup. Totally fangirl’d.

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

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

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

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

Yes! A Stags Leap District Fiano!

Pine Ridge Petit Verdot ($75)
Pine Ridge map

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

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

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

Regusci Zinfandel ($60)
Screenshot of The Taste podcast

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

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

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

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

Stags’ Leap Winery Ne Cede Malis ($150)

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

Stags’ Leap Winery Winemaker Joanne Wing.

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

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

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

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

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

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Geek Notes — New Wine Books For February

January and February are the doldrums of winter. They don’t feature the festivities of December–only snow, freezing cold and dark gray days. It just plain sucks. But eventually March and spring will be on the horizon.

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

One of the trademark clues of Gruner Veltliner in a blind tasting is the presence of white pepper. This comes from the compound rotundone that forms naturally in the grapes.

While we’re popping vitamin D supplements and counting down the days till pitchers and catchers report, let’s take a look at a few new and upcoming wine books.

The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting, Third Edition by Neel Burton (Paperback release February 3rd, 2019)

I own the original 2014 edition of Burton’s book that he did with James Flewellen. It is handy but, in all honesty, I’m not sure it’s correctly named.

What I had initially hoped for was a book that would teach you some of the tips and tricks to blind tasting. Like for instance, if you detect black or white pepper in a wine, you should know that is caused by the compound rotundone.

There are only a handful of grape varieties that contain this compound–most notably Syrah, Grüner Veltliner, Mourvèdre, Petite Sirah and Schioppettino. Detecting this during a blind tasting flight is a huge clue. Furthermore, anecdotal and some scientific analysis has shown that cooler climates and vintages increase the concentration of rotundone and “pepperiness” of the wine. This can be another clue in nailing down wine region and vintage.

That was the kind of insight and details that I was hoping for with Burton and Flewellen’s book. You get a little but not quite to the extent I was looking for in a book marketing itself as a blind tasting guide. Instead, The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting tilts more to the “Guide to Wine” side offering a (very well done) overview of the major regions and wines of the world.

Chapter 4 does walk you through the blind tasting process and the Appendix gives a “crib sheet” of common flavors and structure which is very useful. But that’s about it.

However, I’m still buying this new edition
blind tasting crib sheets from Burton's book

Example of the blind tasting “crib sheets” in the appendix of the first edition of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting.

That’s because it’s an excellent guide to wine that is similar to Rajat Parr and Jordan Mackay’s The Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste: A Field Guide to the Great Wines of Europe. Burton’s book doesn’t list benchmark producers like Parr’s book does but they both highlight the distinction of terroir that shows up in the wines from various regions. They’re a bit like condensed versions (362 and 352 pages, respectively) of Karen MacNeil’s Wine Bible (1008 pages) with a bit more focus on the taste profiles and terroir of each region.

I’ve gotten plenty of good use out of the first edition of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting to make the new version a worthwhile investment. Plus, it is possible that this updated version will go more into those blind tasting details that I crave.

The Chinese Wine Renaissance: A Wine Lover’s Companion by Janet Z. Wang (Hardcover released on January 24th, 2019)

Back in November, I highlighted Loren Mayshark’s Inside the Chinese Wine Industry which has been a great read. As I noted in that edition of Geek Notes, China is a significant player on the global wine market. While the interest of the industry has been mostly on their buying power, the large size and diverse terroir of mainland China offer exciting potential for production.

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

A bronze Gu, or ceremonial wine vessel, from the Shang Dynasty dating to the 12th or 11th century.

It is in the best interest of any wine student to start exploring Chinese wine. I recently got geeky with Grace Vineyard Tasya’s Reserve Shiraz and can’t wait to find more examples. In addition to Mayshark’s book, Suzanne Mustacich’s Thirsty Dragon: China’s Lust for Bordeaux and the Threat to the World’s Best Wines has been highly informative as well.

But both of those were written by non-native writers. That is what make’s Janet Z. Wang’s Chinese Wine Renaissance intriguing. Wang spent her childhood in China before moving to the United Kingdom as a teenager. There she studied Chinese history and culture before developing an interest in wine while at Cambridge.

Now she runs her blog, Winepeek, and contributes to Decanter China. In between her writings, she teaches masterclasses on Chinese wine.

On her blog, she has a slideshow with wine tasting suggestions that gives a sneak peek into what her book covers. With a foreword and endorsement from Oz Clarke, I have a feeling that Wang’s book is going to become the benchmark reference for Chinese wine.

Decoding Spanish Wine: A Beginner’s Guide to the High Value, World Class Wines of Spain by Andrew Cullen and Ryan McNally (Paperback released on January 24th, 2019)

Kirkland brand Champagne

Now granted, Costco doesn’t sell many Cremants. This might explain why the Costco Wine Blog folks were so blown away by this $20 Champagne. But compared to many Cremant de Bourgogne and Alsace in the $15-20 range, it was fairly ho-hum.

Andrew Cullen is the founder of CostcoWineBlog.com that has been reviewing wines found at Costco stores for years. While I don’t always agree with their reviews (like my contrarian take on the Kirkland Champagne) I still find the site to be an enjoyable read.

Beyond the blog, Cullen has co-authored quick (around 100 pages or so) beginner wine guides to French, Italian and now Spanish wines. He also wrote the even quicker read Around the Wine World in 40 Pages: An Exploration Guide for the Beginning Wine Enthusiast.

While these books aren’t going to be helpful for Diploma students, they are great resources for folks taking WSET Level 1 and Level 2 as well as Certified Specialist of Wine exams. I particularly liked how Decoding Italian Wine went beyond just the big name Italian wine regions such as Chianti, Brunello and Barolo to get into under-the-radar areas like Carmignano, Gavi and Sagrantino di Montefalco.

Plus for $9-10, the books are super cheap as well.

French Wines and Vineyards: And the Way to Find Them (Classic Reprint) by Cyrus Redding (Hardcover released on January 18th, 2019)

This is for my fellow hardcore geeks.

I am a sucker for reprints of classical texts. I especially adore ones featured in the bibliographies of seemingly every great wine history book. Such is the esteem that the British journalist Cyrus Redding holds among Masters of Wines like Hugh Johnson, Jancis Robinson and Clive Coates.

Cartoon from Punch, September 6, 1890, page 110 Artwork by Edward Linley Sambourne (January 4, 1844–August 3, 1910). Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD Old

Redding passed in 1870 so he didn’t get a chance to witness the full scale of devastation on French vineyards caused by phylloxera.
This cartoon is from an 1890 magazine that describes the pest as “A True Gourmet” that targetted the best vineyards.

First published in 1860, French Wines and Vineyards gives a snapshot of the French wine industry in the mid 19th-century. Written just after the 1855 Bordeaux classification and only a few years before phylloxera would make its appearance in the Languedoc in 1863, Redding documents a hugely influential time in the history of French wines.

Pairing this book with a reading of the 19th-century chapters in Hugh Johnson’s Vintage and Rod Phillips’ French Wine: A History would be a fabulous idea for wine students wanting to understand this key period.

One additional tip. Hardcover editions of classic texts look nice on the shelf. But if you’re a frequent annotator like me then you probably want to go paperback. Forgotten Books released a paperback version of Redding’s work back in 2017 that you can get a new copy of for less than $12 right now.

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Cannonball Run and Review

The 1981 Burt Reynolds film Cannonball Run is a classic campy action film. But it’s also one of those films that can get a little cringe-worthy watching it in a modern light.

CannonBall Run posted. Uploaded to Wikipedia under Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11146898

Based around a fabled cross-country race, the film has an all-star cast that includes Reynolds, Farrah Fawcett, Dom DeLuise, Roger Moore, Dean Martin, Jackie Chan, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Fonda, Mel Tillis and Terry Bradshaw as well as a heap of “good ole boy” bawdiness.

Fawcett’s character gets kidnapped to be a fake patient in Reynolds’ souped up ambulance. She’s drugged by a creepy doctor (played by Jack Elam) when it’s convenient for Reynolds to use her unconscious body to avoid speeding tickets.

When she comes to, she sleepily smiles and asks if any of the men laid a finger on her while she was out. The joke was that the only thing they did was give her “a little prick” (of a needle, har, har). But, of course, everything is okay because she eventually falls for her captor. Never mind that he didn’t care to even want to learn her name at the beginning and just called her “Beauty”.

Then there was the Vixen Team played by Marcie Thatcher and Jill Rivers who responded to every obstacle in their path by unzipping their racing suits to show more cleavage.

Yet as problematic as Cannonball Run is by today’s standards, it’s hard to judge it too harshly. It was certainly a different time 37 years ago and Cannonball Run was never meant to be taken as a serious film. It was always just a silly, popcorn muncher.

Why am I waxing philosophically about an old Burt Reynolds film?

You could blame a late night Netflix binge. But really why we’re here is because of my recent experience with the Cannonball Eleven wines from Share a Splash Wine Co.

While the Cannonball brand was built on value oriented supermarket wines in the $10-15 range (the popcorn munchers of the wine world), the Cannonball Eleven series is marketed as a more elevated and terroir driven offering.

It’s more Academy Award nominated Boogie Nights Burt Reynolds than Cannonball Run Reynolds–with certainly less “Captain Chaos”.

Intrigued by Cannonball’s all-star cast of Dennis Hill (formerly of Seghesio, Alexander Valley Vineyards, Martin Ray and founding winemaker of Blackstone) and Ondine Chattan (formerly of Ridge, Cline and Geyser Peak), I decided to give these new wines a try.

Full Disclosure: These wines were sent to me as samples.

The Background

Cannonball Wine Company was founded in 2006 in Healdsburg, Sonoma by Yoav Gilat and Dennis Hill.

Focusing on under $20 wines blended from a variety of California regions, the company eventually grew to include a portfolio of brands like Angels & Cowboys Wines, High Dive (a collaboration with Napa Valley winemakers Scott Palazzo of Palazzo Wines and Peter Heitz of Turnbull Wine Cellars) and the Marlborough winery Astrolabe.

In 2017, Cannonball Wine Company relaunched itself as Share a Splash Wine Co.

The Wines

2017 Cannonball Eleven Sauvignon blanc Dry Creek Valley ($24.99)
Cannonball Sauvignon blanc

I’m not a big fan of grassy and green New Zealand Sauvignon blancs so this tropical but elegant Cannonball Eleven Sauvignon blanc hit a lot of pleasure notes.

A 100% Sauvignon blanc, the wine was primarily fermented in stainless steel with a small portion fermented in (presumably neutral) French oak barrels. Around 14,000 bottles were made.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Very tropical with lots of citrus starfruit and melon notes. What’s interesting is that you can get both the zest and pulp aromatics from the fruit. No sign of oak on the nose.

On the palate, the medium-plus acidity makes the tropical fruit tastes very fresh and juicy. Still no oak flavors but the medium body weight of the fruit is balanced by a creamy texture that isn’t that dissimilar to a white Bordeaux. The moderate finish keeps with the fresh tropical flavors but tilts more towards the zestier aspects of the fruit.

2017 Cannonball Eleven Chardonnay Sonoma Coast ($34.99)
Cannonball Chardonnay

I gave these wines nearly a month from when I received them to settle down from travel shock.
I suspect the awkwardness of this Chard is due to its youth,

A 100% Chardonnay, this wine was fermented in a combination of stainless steel and French oak barrels (20% new and 15% second fill). After fermentation, 40% of the wine was aged 8 months in neutral French oak barrels sur lie. Around 15,000 bottles were produced.

Medium-minus intensity nose. Tree fruits like apple with some pastry tart elements. A little vanilla and baking spice from the oak. Rather muted even as the wine warms in the glass.

On the palate, the apple notes carry through and also spice d’Anjou pear with them. There is still some of the pastry baking elements but the presence of oak is much more toned down. Medium-plus acidity gives balance to the medium-plus body fruit. There’s texture to the mouthfeel but it isn’t very malo driven. Unfortunately everything just quickly fades on the mid-palate ending on a practically non-existent finish.

2016 Cannonball Eleven Merlot Sonoma County ($34.99)

A blend of 94% Merlot with 6% Petite Sirah sourced from the Dry Creek and Russian River Valleys. The wine received a cold soak prior to fermentation in stainless steel before being aged in French oak barrels for 6 to 20 months. I suspect that probably the Petite Sirah was aged closer to the 6 month mark while most of the Merlot lots in the blend were aged longer.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Lots of oak with noticeable vanilla as well as chocolate latte aromatics. It’s a very toasty latte like the burnt coffee base of Starbucks. Underneath the oak and chocolate is some dark fruit but it’s hard to make out at this point.

On the palate, the chocolate definitely carries through and so does the dark fruit which become more defined as cherries. But also here is where a distinct streak of pyrazines, particularly jalapeno, emerges. Medium acidity adds a soft lushness to the medium-plus tannins. It’s just enough to hold up the full-bodied fruit. The moderate finish unfortunately lingers on the chocolate-covered jalapenos.

The Verdict

The Dry Creek Sauvignon blanc is by far the strongest of the three Cannonball Eleven wines I tried. It’s clearly California with the warm climate fruit but it has an elegant structure and mouthfeel that you don’t often find in California Sauvignon blancs. It’s versatile as an easy drinking sipper but has the depth to be a solid food pairing wine.

Compared to its peers, I would put the Cannonball Eleven above the similarly priced Emmolo and Duckhorn and not that far off from the $30-35 Cakebread Sauvignon blanc.

I suspect that the Sonoma Coast Chardonnay is in an awkward phase. It tastes a bit disjointed with some of the baby-fat of oak on the nose and the fruit quickly fading on the palate.
It seems to have decent structure and probably will improve with at least 6 months more bottle age. With its acidity and balance I can see this improving even for another 2 to 3 years.

But right now it reminds me more of the $13-16 Kendall Jackson Grand Reserve than it does other Sonoma Coast Chardonnays like Amici and Paul Hobbs’ Crossbarn which can often be had in the $23-26 range. With a price in the realm of Ramey, Failia and Patz & Hall’s Sonoma Coast bottlings, it’s hard to say the Cannonball Eleven Chardonnay is justifying that at the moment.

Oh but that Merlot…
Cannonball Merlot

Yeah, not my thing.

The only Cannonball Eleven wine that wouldn’t personally buy is the Merlot. The combination of overt oak, chocolate and pyrazines just isn’t my style. The best way I can describe this wine is as a bowl of chocolate covered cherries and jalapenos.

Maybe we did have some “Captain Chaos” after all.

I can possibly see this wine working for folks who aren’t as sensitive to pyrazines. If you can look past the green notes, it does have jammy, chocolately fruit with a lush mouthfeel. However, you can find wines in that style (particularly California red blends) for far less than $35.

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60 Second Wine Review — Saxum Broken Stones

A few quick thoughts on the 2015 Saxum Broken Stones from the Willow Creek District of Paso Robles.

The Geekery

Saxum Vineyards was founded in 2001 by Justin Smith and has quickly ascended to cult-status for their Rhone blends–earning numerous 100 point scores and critical acclaim. In 2010, the James Berry Vineyard Red Blend was named the #1 Wine of the Year by Wine Spectator magazine.

While most of Saxum’s wines are single vineyard cuvees such as the James Berry Vineyard and Terry Hoage Vineyard, Broken Stones is a blend of multiple vineyards that are all farmed sustainably.

The 2015 Broken Stones is a blend of 48% Syrah, 21% Mourvedre, 20% Grenache, 10% Petite Sirah and 1% Roussanne. The wine was aged 18-20 months in 75% new French oak barrels before being bottled unfined and unfiltered. Around 1100 cases were produced.

The Wine

Medium intensity nose. Rich dark fruit of blackberries, blueberries and black currants. Very sweet smelling with a little blue floral notes and baking spice like cinnamon.

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

The bouquet of this wine reminds me of cinnamon french toast with lots of jammy fruit.

On the palate those dark fruits come through and are quite jammy. However, the wine doesn’t taste sweet at all. Medium-plus acidity helps balance the very full-bodied fruit but it’s not quite as mouthwatering or juicy as I would hope. The medium-plus tannins are present but are very silky. That texture and mouthfeel are probably the best part. Moderate finish sticks with the big fruit and lingers with noticeable back-end heat of alcohol (15.6%).

The Verdict

This is a big, big wine that is a bit too big and jammy for my personal tastes. With the healthy dose of Syrah and Mourvedre, I was hoping for more savoriness and spice but the rich dark fruit runs the show.

At $130-150, there is certainly a premium for this mailing-list only cult producer but it is a distinctive style that will be worth it to some people–such as fans of Mollydooker’s Velvet Glove (ave $170) who would find this right in their wheelhouse.

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Getting Geeky with Conundrum Rose

Going to need more than 60 Seconds to geek out about the 2016 Conundrum Rosé.

The Background

Conundrum is made by the Wagner family who founded Caymus Vineyards in Napa Valley in 1971.

Along with Caymus and Conundrum, the Wagners have developed a portfolio of wine brands made by Chuck Wagner and his kids, Charlie and Jenny, including Mer Soleil, Old Cannery Row, Red Schooner, 1858 Wines and Emmolo.

Chuck’s other son, Joe Wagner, also makes several wines with Copper Cane Wine & Provisions including Belle Glos, Elouan, Tuli, Beran, Torial, Carne Humana, The Willametter, Napa Quilt and BÖEN.

With the Caymus Special Selection, the Wagners hold the distinction of being the only winery to produce a wine that has twice been named the number one wine on Wine Spectator’s yearly Top 100 list for the 1984 and 1990 vintages.

The Conundrum series of wines were introduced in 1989. That first wine was a white blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc, Sémillon, Viognier and Muscat Canelli/Moscato. Over the years the brand has expanded to include a red blend (primarily Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon), a sparkling wine (Pinot gris, Viognier, Muscat Canelli and Chenin blanc) and, since 2016, a rosé.

Vineyards and Production

The fruit for Conundrum are sourced throughout California. Vineyard sources over the years have included the North Coast wine regions of Napa and Solano County, the central coast areas of Monterey, San Benito and Santa Barbara County as well as the inland vineyards of Tulare County south of Fresno.

My Conundrum hat autographed by Chuck Wagner.

The wines are made in Monterey County by Chuck’s son Charlie with Jon Bolta assisting and overseeing the white wine production.

The 2016 Conundrum rosé is made from the Valdiguié grape sourced from Paso Robles.

It is not widely published how many cases of the rosé are produced but previous vintages of the Conundrum Red have topped 120,000 cases and nearly 90,000 cases for the white.

The Grape

The Valdiguié grape originated in Southwest France, likely in either the Tarn-et-Garonne or Lot-et-Garonne departments. Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz note in Wine Grapes that the first documented mention of the grape, under the name of Valdiguier, appeared only in 1884 which leads to a few theories about Valdiguié’s origins.

One theory involves a landowner from the late 18th century in the village of Puylaroque in the Tarn-et-Garonne named Valdéguier who propagated different grape varieties in his courtyard garden. Another theory centers around a grower named Jean-Baptiste Valdiguié. In 1845, he had a vineyard in the hamlet of Tressens near Puylaroque where he may have propagated the grape.

Around this same time, in the neighboring department of Lot-et-Garonne, there was a vineyard worker named Guillaume Valdiguier who may have propagated Valdiguié from an abandon vineyard once owned by the Templiers monastery in Aujols.

Map created by קרלוס הגדול . Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

The Garonne river (highlighted in box) flows through Southwest France and eventually meets up with the Gironde estuary in Bordeaux. It is likely that the Valdiguié grape originated somewhere in this area.

A parent-offspring relationship between Valdiguié and the nearly extinct Fronton grape Mérille of the Lot-et-Garonne has been suggested by ampelographers but so far has not been confirmed by DNA analysis. Prevalent in Southwest France in the 19th century until phylloxera, Mérille was once one of the minor blending grapes of Bordeaux.

In the early 20th century, Valdiguié’s tolerance to powdery mildew and reliable yields saw its plantings greatly expand. It reached a peak of 4,908 ha (12,128 acres) in 1958. But the grape eventually lost ground to other more popular plantings. By 2008, there were only 145 ha (358 acres) planted in Southwest France, Provence and the Languedoc.

Valdiguié in California

In California, growers misidentified Valdiguié as the Gamay grape of Beaujolais (Gamay noir). It’s productivity help the grape became a popular planting in the decades following Prohibition. Over 6000 acres of “Napa Gamay”  was planted by 1977. The grape was often fermented using the carbonic maceration method commonly used for Beaujolais Nouveau to produce fruity, easy drinking wines with moderate alcohol.

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

While Valdiguié is grown in several places in California, the fruit for the 2016 vintage of the Conundrum rosé was sourced from Paso Robles. Pictured is a Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard from the region.

In 1980, the French ampelographer Pierre Galet noted that Napa Gamay was actually Valdiguié.  Napa Gamay is still officially recognized as a synonym for the variety. However, most producers today label their wines as Valdiguié.

As in France, acreage of Valdiguié began steadily dropping as other varieties earned greater focus and market share. As of 2017 there was 251 acres of the grape. Significant plantings can be found in Napa Valley, Suisan Valley, Solano County, Lodi, Redwood Valley, Paso Robles, Mendocino County, Monterey and the Madera AVA.

In the Calistoga AVA of Napa, the Frediani vineyard has old vine Valdiguié that were planted as early as 1935.

Beyond Conundrum, other notable producers of Valdiguié include Forlorn Hope and Driscoll Wine Co.’s vineyard designated wines from Frediani Vineyard, J. Lohr and the pétillant naturel (Pet-Nat) Valdiguié made by Cruse Wine Co. and Broc Cellars.

The Wine

Medium-plus intensity nose. A mix of cantaloupe fruit and subtle rind-like earthiness. There is also red fruit that isn’t as defined or dominant as that melon and rind note.

On the palate, the cantaloupe comes through with medium-plus acidity adding freshness. It is actually quite vibrant for a 2 year old rosé. The rind notes also carry through with a pithy, phenolic texture. Those phenols adds medium-minus bodied weight to this dry rosé but doesn’t stray to bitterness. The red fruit becomes a little more pronounced as strawberries but fades quickly with the finish.

The Verdict

At $18-22, you are paying a tad bit of a premium for the geeky variety. But it is not that out of line for the uniqueness and quality of the wine. I was expecting this wine to follow suit with the Conundrum White and Red and have noticeable residual sugar. Instead this rosé was distinctly dry and well made.

While many mass-produced rosés decline in quality after a year in bottle, the Conundrum rosé still has freshness and vibrancy. However, the short finish and nondescript red fruit does give away its age. If you have a bottle, I would recommend drinking it soon or look for a newer vintage.

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60 Second Wine Review — Ridge Lytton Springs

A few quick thoughts on the 2013 Ridge Lytton Springs from Sonoma County.

The Geekery

The modern history of Ridge began in the 1960s when several Stanford engineers–Dave Bennion, Hew Crane, Charlie Rosen and Howard Ziedler–started making wine from the legendary Monte Bello vineyard. In 1969, Paul Draper joined the winery where he stayed as head winemaker and CEO until his retirement in 2016.

The Lytton Springs Vineyard in the Dry Creek Valley was first planted in the 1900s. While it has been an estate vineyard of Ridge since 1991, the winery has been working with Lytton fruit since 1972.

The vineyard is field-planted but is divided into 30 parcels that are harvested and fermented separately. This allows the winemaking team to make individual decisions on each parcel such as fermenting the Petite Sirah as whole berries instead of crushing.

The 2013 Lytton Springs is a blend of 74% Zinfandel, 16% Petite Sirah, 8% Carignane and 2% Mataró/Mourvèdre. The wine is aged in 100% American oak (20% new) for 14 months. Around 12,400 cases were made.

The Wine

Photo by nsaum75 ¡שיחת!, Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

The rich American oak and smokey spiciness of this wine adds an intriguing Mexican chocolate element.

Medium-plus intensity nose. A mix of dark, ripe fruit–blackberry and currants–with anise and black pepper spice. With some air a smokey element from the barrels come out.

On the palate those dark fruits carry through and taste riper, almost like pie filling. However, the medium-plus acidity more than balances the full-bodied weight of the fruit. Medium-plus tannins are ripe with the vanilla from the oak rounding them out. The oak also adds intriguing chocolate notes which, coupled with the spices from the nose, is reminiscent of dark Mexican chocolate. Long finish lingers on the chocolaty spice.

The Verdict

Tasting wines like the Ridge Lytton Springs is a great reminder of how complex old vine Zinfandel and field blends can be.

As much as I adore Bordeaux blends and varieties, it’s not always the easiest task to find something this delicious in the equivalent $35-40 prince range from those grapes.

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Getting Geeky with Otis Kenyon Roussanne

Going to need more than 60 Seconds to geek out about the 2013 Otis Kenyon Roussanne from Lawrence Vineyards in the Columbia Valley AVA.

The Background

Otis Kenyon was founded in 2004 by Steve Kenyon who still runs the winery today with his daughter, Muriel.

The winery’s name comes four generations of Otis Kenyons with the original John Otis Kenyon, a dentist by training, being a notorious figure in Walla Walla for burning down a competitor’s office when the later starting stealing half of Kenyon’s clients.

The labels of Otis Kenyon wines pay tribute to this family history in a playful manner with a silhouette of the original Otis Kenyon with singed edges as well as a red wine blend, Matchless, featuring an open matchbook on the label. The winery’s “business cards” are also matchbooks filled with actual matches.

Along with sourcing fruit from throughout the Columbia Valley, Otis Kenyon has an estate vineyard, Stellar Vineyard, located in the Rocks District of Milton-Freewater on the Oregon side of Walla Walla.

The wines are made by Dave Stephenson, who founded his eponymous Stephenson Cellars in 2001. Prior to working at Otis Kenyon, Stephenson started his career at Waterbrook and today consults for several boutique wineries.

Around 247 cases of the 2013 Otis Kenyon Roussanne were made.

The Vineyard

Sourced page https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/babe8d_812edf6fe37b403ebaa7687e2760dd66.pdf

Map showing the proposed Royal Slope AVA (in yellow) where Lawrence Vineyards are located. Prepared by Richard Rupp of Palouse Geospatial.

The Lawrence Vineyards are located on the Frenchman Hills of the Royal Slope of the Columbia Valley basin and includes six named sites–Corfu Crossing (first planted in 2003), Scarline (2003), La Reyna Blanca (2010), Laura Lee (2008), Solaksen (2013) and Thunderstone (2015). The Lawrence family also manages the nearby Boneyard Vineyard that includes five acres of Syrah. All the Lawrence Vineyards are sustainably farmed.

While managing 330+ acres of plantings the Lawrence family also own Gård Vintners which produces around 6000 cases a year sourced from their estate grown fruit and made by Aryn Morell. Together with Morell they also produce Morell-Lawrence Wines (M & L).

The Roussanne used by Otis Kenyon cames from 2007 plantings of the Tablas Creek clone in Corfu Crossing which sits on a south facing slope at an elevation that ranges from 1,365-1,675 ft. The soils here are a mixture of silt and sandy loam on a bedrock of fractured basalt.

Photo by  Peter Ellis. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.5

Riesling sourced from Lawrence Vineyards has been used in some of the state’s most highly acclaimed Riesling wines.

In addition to Otis Kenyon, M & L and Gård, other wineries that source fruit from Lawrence includes Latta Wines, Southard Winery, Cairdeas, Armstrong Family, Matthews Winery, Pend d’Oreille as well as Chateau Ste. Michelle for their top-end Riesling Eroica.

Other varieties that the Lawrence Vineyards farm include Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Malbec, Merlot, Mouvedre, Pinot noir, Chardonnay, Pinot gris, Sauvignon blanc and Viognier.

The (future) AVA of the Royal Slope

The proposed Royal Slope AVA was formerly delineated and submitted for AVA approval in early 2017. It includes the south facing slopes around Royal City located between the established AVAS of the Ancient Lakes and Wahluke Slope. Within the AVA is a sub-region of the Frenchmen Hills. The lead petitioner for the AVA was geologist Alan Busacca, former professor at Washington State University and Walla Walla Community College who also wrote the successful petitions for the Wahluke Slope, Lake Chelan and Lewis-Clark Valley AVAs.

The topography can range from relatively gentle to fairly steeper slopes of up to 22 degrees in the Frenchmen Hills region. The soils are fairly uniformed in their mixture of sandy and silty loam river deposits covering layers of fractured basalt left over from a period of intense volcanic activity during the Miocene Epoch. These soils are very high in calcium carbonate which may contribute to the strong minerality that wines from the Royal Slope tend to exhibit.

Throughout the growing season the region sees heat units (growing degree days or GDD) ranging from 2700 GDD to over 3000 GDD making it one of the warmest wine regions in the state. However the areas bordering the Ancient Lakes AVA to the northeast can be considerably cooler.

Charles Smith’s highly acclaimed K Vintners Royal City Syrah is sourced from the Stoneridge Vineyard in the proposed Royal Slope AVA.

Elevations range from 900 feet to upwards of 1700 feet with the higher elevation sites seeing much more diurnal temperature variation from the daytime highs to very cool temperatures at night which maintains acidity and keeps the vine from shutting down due to heat stress.

The proposed AVA contains 156,389 acres of which around 1400 have already been planted. Other notable vineyards in this proposed AVA includes Novelty Hill Winery’s estate vineyard Stillwater Creek, Frenchmen Hills Vineyard and Stoneridge

The Grape

Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz note in Wine Grapes that the first recorded documentation of Roussanne occurred in 1781 describing its use in the white wines of Hermitage. The name Roussanne is believed to be derived from the French term roux and could refer to the russet golden-red color of the grapes’ skins after veraison.

DNA analysis shows that there is a likely parent-offspring relationship with Marsanne but it is not yet known which variety is the parent and which is the offspring.

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

The reddish bronze hue that Roussanne grapes get after veraison likely contributes to the grape’s name.


In the northern Rhône regions of St. Joseph, Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage, Roussanne adds acidity, richness and minerality when paired with Marsanne. It can also be used in the sparkling Northern Rhone wines of St. Peray. As a varietal it can have a characteristic floral and herbal verbena tea note.

Unlike Marsanne and Viognier, Roussanne is a permitted white grape variety in the red and white wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape where today it makes up around 6% of the commune’s plantings as the third most popular white grape behind Grenache blanc and Clairette.

From a low point of 54 ha (133 acres) in 1968 plantings of Roussanne steadily grew throughout the late 20th century to 1074 ha (2654 acres) by 2006. Outside of the Rhone, the grape can be found in the Savoie region where it is known as Bergeron and is the sole variety in the wines of Chignin-Bergeron. In the Languedoc-Roussillon it is often blended with Chardonnay, Bourboulenc and Vermentino as well as Grenache blanc and Marsanne.

Roussanne is a late-ripening variety that is very prone to powdery mildew, botrytis and shutting down from excessive heat stress towards the end of the growing season.

Even in ideal conditions, Roussanne can be a troublesome producer in the vineyard with uneven yields often caused by coulure (also known as “shattering”) when the embryonic grape clusters don’t properly pollinate during fruit set after flowering. A significant cause of this is poor management by the vine of its carbohydrate reserves which the vine begins storing for the next year after the harvest of the previous vintage. Other factors at play can include nutrient deficiencies in the soil–particularly of boron and zinc with the later often being exacerbated in high pH soils.

Photo by Mark Smith of  Stefano Lubiana Wines Granton Vineyard Tasmania. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

During fruit set (shown here with Merlot), flowers that weren’t pollinated will “shatter” and not develop into full berries. This creates uneven yields with clusters having a mix of fully formed and “shot” berries. Roussanne is particularly susceptible to this condition.

Other varieties that are similarly susceptible to coulure include Grenache, Malbec, Merlot, Muscat Ottonel and Gewürztraminer.

A Case of Mistaken Identity

Prior to phylloxera, Roussanne was relatively well-established in California in the 19th century with plantings in Napa, Sonoma and Santa Clara where it was often blended with Petite Sirah. However, following phylloxera and Prohibition in the 20th century, most all Roussanne vineyards were uprooted.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, producers in California began experimenting again with the variety. In 1994, Chuck Wagner of Caymus Vineyards in Napa purchased 6400 Roussanne vines for his Mer Soleil project. The vines he purchased came from Sonoma Grapevines owned by the Kunde family who originally sourced their cuttings from a vineyard owned by Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon (who did not know that Kunde was going to commercially propagate them). The Bonny Doon cuttings came from a visiting Châteauneuf-du-Pape winemaker.

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

Many plantings of Roussanne in California in the 1980s and 1990s turned out to be Viognier (pictured).

Four years later a visiting viticulturalist identified the plantings in the Mer Soleil vineyard not as Roussanne but rather as Viognier–an identification that was later confirmed by DNA testing at UC-Davis. The discovery unleashed a cascading effect of lawsuits and countersuits from various parties involved as well as a hunt for true Roussanne plantings in California.

Tablas Creek Winery in Paso Robles began importing their Roussanne cuttings directly from their sister-property, Château de Beaucastel, in Châteauneuf-du-Pape in 1989. Additionally, John Alban began sourcing authentic Roussanne cuttings in 1991 with nearly all of the 323 acres of Roussanne vines in California (as of 2017) now being descendant from the Tablas and Alban vines.

Roussanne in Washington

Paul Gregutt notes in Washington Wines and Wineries that Roussanne in Washington “… can taste like a real fruit salad mix, everything from apples, citrus and lime to peaches, honey and cream.”

The grape was pioneered in Washington by Doug McCrea, the state’s original Rhone Ranger, of McCrea Cellars and Cameron Fries of White Heron Cellars in the 1990s. While varietal examples can be found, the grape is mostly used as a blending component in Rhone-style blends with Grenache blanc, Viognier and Marsanne.

Along with Doug McCrea of McCrea Cellars, Cameron Fries of White Heron Cellars (pictured) helped pioneer Roussanne in Washington State.


By 2017, there were 71 acres of Roussanne planted in Washington.

In addition to the plantings of Lawrence Vineyard, there are notable acreages of Roussanne on Red Mountain at Ciel du Cheval Vineyard, Stillwater Creek, Boushey Vineyard in the Yakima Valley and at Alder Ridge, Destiny Ridge and Wallula Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills.

The Wine

Medium intensity nose–tree fruits like spiced pear and apricot with a citrus grassy component that could be verbena.

On the palate the wine is very full-bodied and weighty with almost an oily texture. The spiced pear notes definitely come through with that herbal citrus tinge. Medium-plus acidity is still giving the wine freshness and balancing the weight. The moderate length finish ends on the pear and herbal notes.

The Verdict

I’m usually skeptical about how well many domestic white wines age but this 2013 Otis Kenyon Roussanne is holding on quite well for a 4+ year old white. The acidity seems to be the key and is a helpful balance to the full-bodied fruit.

The big weight and texture of this wine is reminiscent of a lightly oak Chardonnay with no malolactic and would serve as a good change of a pace for not only a Chardonnay drinker but also a red wine fan who is craving something very food friendly to go with heavier cream sauces, pork and poultry dishes.

At $25-30, this wine offers a fair amount of complexity and is definitely worth trying.

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Hospice du Rhône Weekend 2018

The BBQ prep for the closing dinner.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top 3 Geek Moments

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

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

Which along those lines….

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

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

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

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

Though speaking of that movie…

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

Top 10 (non-seminar) Wines of the Event

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Palate Fatigue and a little clicky culture

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

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

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


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

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

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

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Event Review — Stags’ Leap Winery Dinner

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

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

The Background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gorgeous Viognier that is well worth seeking out.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stags’ Leap Winery Assistant Winemaker Joanne Wing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall Impressions

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

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

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

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Apothic Brew Wine Review

Last night I did a very mean thing.

I had several friends (wine industry folks, connoisseurs and newbie/casual wine drinkers) over for a blind tasting of Cabs and Cab-dominant blinds. While I forewarned them that I was going to toss a few “ringers” into each group like another grape varietal and a cheap under $10 Cabernet Sauvignon, I didn’t warn them about this.

I didn’t tell them that I was going to subject them to Gallo’s latest limited release–Apothic Brew.

But as with my exploration of the trend of aging wine in whiskey barrels, I wanted to get as much objective feedback as I could. Let’s face it, it’s hard to approach something like cold-brew infused wine without any preconceptions. You are either going to have a visceral nauseating reaction to the idea or squeal in delight at the possibilities.

While certainly not perfect (or academic), I figured my 27 friends from various backgrounds, age groups and wine experiences were good guinea pigs to give Apothic Brew a somewhat fair shake. The results of the tasting are down below but first some geeking.

The Background

According to Gallo’s marketing, the idea of Apothic Brew came to winemaker Deb Juergenson last year while working the long hours of harvest where she frequently enjoyed staying caffeinated with cold brew coffee. Noticing the similarities between the flavors of red wine and cold brew, Juergenson decided to experiment with infusing the two. Lo and behold, only 5 to 6 short months later Apothic Brew was released on the market in time for April Fool’s Day.

Cute story but I sincerely doubt it played out like that.

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

From 2015 to 2017, sales of cold brew have grown by 430%

Gallo is one of America’s most successful companies selling more than 80 million cases of wine a year with nearly $5 billion dollars in revenue. They also have one of the largest and most savvy marketing departments in the industry.

There is no way that this (non-vintage BTW) Apothic Brew wasn’t being laboratory crafted, tested and developed for years.

It’s very likely that the market analysts at Gallo spotted early on the emerging cold brew trend that really took off in 2015 but has certainly been around longer as well as millennial wine drinkers openness to try new things and saw an opportunity.

E.J. Schultz noted in Ad Age in a 2013 interview with Stephanie Gallo, V.P. of Marketing E. & J. Gallo Winery, that “Unlike previous generations, young adults will try anything, including wine served over ice, from a screw-top bottle or even out of a box.”

With the successful launching of limited release editions of Apothic Crush and Apothic Dark (which later became year-round offerings) as well as Apothic Inferno, Gallo is following a popular recipe of crafting a finely tuned marketing campaign based around the latest wine trends and the “limited availability” of their new wine. As Christine Jagher, director of marketing at E. & J. Gallo, describes in a recent interview:

“We will often tease their release to get our loyal followers excited for what’s to come,” Jagher says. “If we can catch their attention at the right time, they will already be searching for a new item by the time it hits the shelves. They will also be likely to help spread the word among their friends and family.” — as quoted to Andrew Kaplan for Seven Fifty Daily, September 27, 2017

That said, it’s hard to find any concrete details about the wine itself. The label lacks a vintage year and only notes an alcohol percentage of 13.5%. But the bottle says zilch about what’s inside. The original Apothic Blend is based on Zinfandel, Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.  Apothic Crush is a blend of primarily Pinot noir and Petite Sirah so really this wine could be made of just about anything.

It’s a mystery how exactly the wine was “infused” with the flavors of cold brew.  Is it even real coffee? Was a new oak chip/Mega Purple  additive created?

While typical cold brew coffee has around about 26 milligrams of caffeine per fluid ounce compared to 27 milligrams for a standard hot brew coffee, Danielle Tullo of Cosmopolitan notes that Apothic Brew has less caffeine than a standard cup of decaf.

The Blind Tasting

I deliberately placed the wine at the very end of each tasting group. My primary purpose was to make sure that the coffee notes in the wine didn’t wreck my friends’ palates. I wasn’t exactly having the Apothic Brew “compete” with the other wines. My friends knew that there were ringers (a cheap under $10 Cab and a completely different grape). So they were at least expecting something in the $7-15 Apothic price range in the group.

By the time each group got to the last wine, there were vocal and immediate reactions of “Whoa” and “What the hell is this?”.

Some examples of the blind tasting notes on the Apothic Brew from people of various backgrounds–including wine industry folks, casual drinkers and wine newbies.

The most common descriptor was “not horrible but not good”.  Quite a few wondered if I slipped in a non-wine ringer like watered down Kahlua or a “weird stout beer” with another popular guess being a cheap under $10 Cab with Zinfandel blended in.

While “coffee” was obviously the most common tasting note descriptor, the next common descriptors were tannic and tart.

My (non-blind) Notes

Tasting before the blind tasting, I found it had a high intensity nose of coffee. Rather than cold brew it smelled more like a can of Folgers coffee grounds. The coffee really overwhelmed the bouquet, making it very one-dimensional.

On the palate, the coffee certainly carried through but at least some fruit emerged with red cherry notes. Medium acidity offered decent balance to keep it from tasting flabby but it didn’t taste very fresh either. Medium tannins had a chalkiness to them. Coupled with the very thin fruit, the wine felt a little skeletal. Noticeable back-end heat suggested the alcohol is probably higher than the 13.5% listed. However,  the body was definitely medium rather than full. The finish dies pretty quickly.

The Aftermath

A “Red Russian” invented by my friend with a 1:1 ratio of Apothic Brew to milk served over ice.

After the tasting, one of my friends had the idea to add milk and ice to Apothic Brew to make a “Red Russian” cocktail. It was actually kind of tasty! Certainly weaker and tarter than a true White Russian with Kahlua, but drinkable and an interesting riff on the cocktail.

We also experimented with treating the Apothic Brew like a mulled wine by heating it up. We didn’t have mulling spices or dried fruit to add sweetness though. Overall, I would say this experiment was far less successful than the Red Russian. The coffee notes became more pronounced but so did the tartness and thinness with a bitter aftertaste.

Surprisingly, the Apothic Brew tasted better the next day. It actually smelled and tasted more like cold brew with some chocolate notes emerging to add flavor.

Should You Buy It?

While the Red Russian was the best, I was surprised at how much better the Apothic Brew tasted the next day–even out of a plastic cup.

I think the descriptions “watered down Kahlua” and “not horrible but not good” are probably the most apt. The Apothic Brew is certainly different but it’s not disgusting.

The wine’s definitely targeting cold brew fans more than wine drinkers. However, it does have potential for experimentation with wine-based cocktails (a la the Red Russian).

Ideally for its quality level, the Apothic Brew should be priced more inline with the $7-9 regular Apothic Red Blend or the $8-10 “hard cold brews” in the market but expect to pay a premium for its marketing budget with the wine priced in the $14-18 range.

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