Tag Archives: Ridge

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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Geek Notes — Top Audiobooks on California Wine History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Getting Geeky with Rabbit Ridge Petit Verdot

Going to need more than 60 Seconds to geek out about this 2011 Rabbit Ridge Petit Verdot from Paso Robles.

The Background

Rabbit Ridge Petit Verdot

Erich Russell founded Rabbit Ridge winery in 1981 in Healdsburg, Sonoma. Originally a home winemaker in San Diego, Russell’s wines caught the attention of the winemaking team at Chateau St. Jean who offered him a position. From there he spent time at Simi and Belvedere Winery before starting out on his own.

Over the years, Rabbit Ridge has earned numerous accolades and acclaim. They’ve had 3 wines featured on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list. Connoisseur’s Guide named Russell it’s “Winemaker of the Year” in 1998. Wine writer Jay McInerney noted in his 2002 work Bacchus and Me: Adventures in the Wine Cellar that if you wanted to guarantee yourself a good bottle of Zinfandel, seek out the “R wineries” of Rafanelli, Ravenswood, Ridge, Rosenbloom, Renwood and Rabbit Ridge.

In 2001, the winery moved to the central coast of California. Here, the Russell family planted 200 acres on the west side of Paso Robles. Today the winery produces around 10,000 cases from their sustainably farmed fruit.

Rabbit Ridge is a family operation from top to bottom with Erich and Joanne Russell running the estate with their daughter, Sarah Fleming Garrett, and her husband Brice. In addition to working at Rabbit Ridge, the Garretts also have their own label, Serrano Wine, that was launched in 2018 in the Willow Creek District of Paso Robles. According to Barnivore, all the Rabbit Ridge wines are “vegan friendly” with only bentonite and yeast fining used.

The 2011 Petit Verdot is sourced from estate fruit with a little bit of Cabernet Sauvignon blended in.

The Grape

Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz note in Wine Grapes that the first mention of Petit Verdot was in Bordeaux in 1736. However, the grape may not have originated there. Ampelograhical evidence of similar varieties suggest that Petit Verdot may have been a domesticated wild vine that originated somewhere in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques department south of Bordeaux on the border with Spain.

Photo by Eric 先魁 Hwang. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Petit Verdot grapes growing in Portugal.

The name Petit Verdot references the small berries with thick skins that produce green (French vert) and acidic flavors if the grape doesn’t ripen fully. A very late-ripening variety, Petit Verdot is often harvested several days or even a couple weeks after Cabernet Sauvignon.

Despite contributing deep color and spiciness to blends, the risk of not fully ripening caused Petit Verdot’s plantings in Bordeaux to sharply decline in the 20th century to around 338 ha (835 acres) in 1988. However, global warming has sparked renewed interest with a jump to 526 ha (1300 acres) by 2009. Mostly grown on the Left Bank, classified estates that have notable plantings of Petit Verdot include Ch. Margaux and Palmer in Margaux, Pichon Lalande in Pauillac, Léoville Poyferré in St. Julien and La Lagune in the Haut-Medoc.

Petit Verdot in the US

Varietal versions of Petit Verdot have always commanded a premium in the United States. The reason has been because of limited supply and planting compared to other varieties. Matt Kramer notes in his 2004 book New California Wine that while a ton of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon would average around $3,921 and Pinot noir $2,191, Petit Verdot usually cost around $4,915 a ton to harvest.

Today, there are 2,897 acres of Petit Verdot planted throughout California with Napa, Sonoma and Paso Robles being the home for a majority of those plantings.

Outside of California, the grape can be found in Virginia, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, Texas, Pennsylvania and Washington State. In Canada, it is also grown in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia and the Niagara Peninsula of Ontario.

Photo taken by self and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD-user

Petit Verdot leaf growing at the Hedges Vineyard on Red Mountain.

Red Willow Vineyard pioneered Petit Verdot in Washington State in the mid-1980s. Here Master of Wine David Lake encouraged Mike Sauer to plant UCD clone-1 Petit Verdot in his Yakima Valley vineyard. However, as Paul Gregutt notes in Washington Wines, those early plantings failed and the blocks had to replanted with new clones in 1991.

In Walla Walla, the Figgins family of Leonetti planted Petit Verdot at the Spring Valley Vineyard.  Today Petit Verdot is still a significant component of their Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. Other early plantings of Petit Verdot in the 1990s took place at the Mill Creek Upland vineyard in Walla Walla, Destiny Ridge in Horse Heaven Hills and Ciel du Cheval on Red Mountain. As of 2017, there were 254 acres of Petit Verdot in Washington State.

The Wine

Medium-plus intensity nose. Brambly fruit like elderberry and boysenberry with some blue floral notes and forest floor earthiness. With a little air some tobacco spice and a distinct streak of graphite pencil lead emerges. The nose reminds me a bit of Cabernet Franc.

On the palate those dark brambly fruits carry through. The wine has full-bodied weight but I wouldn’t have guessed a 14.8% alcohol. There is no back-end heat or jammy fruit. Moderate oak contributes some baking spice but doesn’t play much of a role. Medium-plus acidity gives the fruit freshness and balances well with the ripe, high tannins. This wine is mouth-filling and mouthwatering. Moderate length finish brings back the spice and minerally graphite notes.

Some Personal Thoughts

I have to confess a bias of sorts. Stories like that of the Russells and Rabbit Ridge fuel and sustain my love for the world of wine. It’s so easy to get lost in the doldrums of supermarket shelves dominated by portfolio of brands owned by a handful of mega-corps that you lose sight of what wine is really supposed to be about. Wines like this remind me of why I geek out about wine.

The 2014 Rabbit Ridge sparkling Pinot noir Brut was also really tasty as well. Look for a 60 Second Review of this wine in December.

I’ve been following Rabbit Ridge Winery on Twitter and highlighted them in my article The Winery Twitter Dance as one the best winery Twitter account worth following. While I don’t know the Russells personally, it’s hard not to feel like I do because of all the great behind the scene tidbits that they share about the hard work and joys that comes with managing a small family winery. Likewise with the Serrano Wine Twitter, you feel like you are with the Garretts on their journey in launching a new winery from the ground up.

For folks like the Russells, the wine that you open up to share on your table with family and friends isn’t just a brand. It’s their life work and the result of hours upon hours of toil, and gallons upon gallons of sweat, spent over every step of the process. From first putting the vines into the ground to finally the cork in the bottle, they’re putting a part of themselves into each wine.

When you share their wines, you’re not sharing something thought up during a marketing department’s brainstorming session and tested on focus groups. Instead, you’re sharing something that was dreamed up by person who looked out at a vineyard or into a great glass of wine and thought “I could do this. I should do this.” and tested that dream over and over again on their own table–with their own family and friends.

The Verdict

I opened this bottle of 2011 Rabbit Ridge Petit Verdot with higher expectations than I do for a commodity brand.  And I certainly savored that it lived up to those expectations. At $20 (yes, $20 for a varietal Petit Verdot!), this wine has character and complexity that opens up even more in a decanter over the course of dinner.

No, it’s not a jammy, hedonistic red like many Paso wines can be. Its best role is definitely on the table where its acidity and structure can shine with food. But it is a bottle way over delivers for the price and worth trying.

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The Fanatical But Forgotten Legacy of Martin Ray

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

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

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

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

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

The Invasion of Quantity over Quality

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

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

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

Martin Ray in the 1960s.

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

Post-Prohibition Blues

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

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

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

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

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

Martin Ray was different.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sky’s The Limit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His life’s work. Finally completed.

Rediscovering Martin Ray

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

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

Lindsey Haughton and Bill Batchelor of Martin Ray.

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

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

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

The Wines

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

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

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

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

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

A gorgeous Pinot that way over delivers for the price.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Zinfandel — The “Craft Beer” of American Wine

Photo from the Provincial Archives of Alberta. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons with no known copyright restrictions

In 1915, on the eve of Prohibition in the United States, there were over 1300 breweries across the country. Collectively, they produced around 60 million barrels. While the growing behemoths of Anheuser-Busch and Pabst Brewing Company had national scale, the vast majority of these breweries were small regional players.

In 1940, seven years after the repeal of the Volstead Act, that number of breweries was nearly halved to 684. Yet the country was still producing almost 55 million barrels. However, production and distribution was rapidly being consolidated around the big breweries.

By 1980, there were only 101 breweries in the United States cranking out nearly 200 million barrels. The ten largest breweries were responsible for nearly 94% of that.

This was the state of the beer industry on the eve of the Craft Beer Movement. And it truly was a movement–one spearheaded by folks who only wanted something different from the mass proliferation of American lagers.

Chanpuru — “Something Mixed”

I’ve been binge watching Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, trying to get through all eight seasons on Netflix before it leaves their listings on October 1st.

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

Also good to know that the Okinawan diet includes plenty of beer!

The Season 6 episode on Okinawa, introduced chanpuru. Bourdain described this as the Okinawan idea of eating something different every day and enjoying the richness of variety.

Considering that the Okinawa diet and lifestyle is legendary for promoting long life and contentment, this was certainly a concept that resonated with me–especially being part of a generation that is notoriously “…open to new experiences, new regions and new grape varieties.”

Which brings us back to Zinfandel and the lessons of craft beer.

The craft beer category in the United States has evolved to encompass envelop-pushing styles and new ideas. However, at the root of the movement was a desire of beer lovers to get back what was lost before Prohibition.  They wanted to reclaim the traditional styles and varieties of beers that existed before.  All across the country were unique brews that were influenced by local German, Austrian, Irish and Latin immigrant communities.

The majority of beer drinkers had “moved on” and were content with their mass-produced lagers. But a tiny segment of passionate beer lovers knew that this country’s brewing heritage was a worthwhile story to explore. If the big brewers weren’t going to explore it, then these beer lovers were going to take the mantle themselves.

They not only found their chanpuru but made it their own.

Heritage Vines — Heritage Wines

Photo by Simon Davison. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Zinfandel vineyard first planted in 1910 in Saratoga, California. Even the “young” 1976 vines are over 40 years old.

First introduced to California during the Gold Rush of the 1850s, Zinfandel has always been an American wine with an immigrant’s story–likely coming to the US as a Croatian vine (now known to be Crljenak Kaštelanski/Tribidrag) that was part of an Austrian nursery collection.

Once the grape reached California, it was spread widely across the state–particularly by Italian immigrants who established numerous old vine vineyards in the North Coast that are still treasured today.

The Hungarian immigrant Agoston Haraszthy, the “Father of California Viticulture,” didn’t bring Zinfandel to the US. However, as Thomas Pinney notes in his A History of Wine in America, Volume 1, Haraszthy did much to propagate and promote the variety.

By 1888, Zinfandel was the most widely planted wine grape in California with around 34,000 acres. Even after Prohibition, Zinfandel still maintained significant plantings with Master of Wine Benjamin Lewin noting in Claret and Cabs that in the mid 20th century, Zinfandel far outpaced Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley with many Napa “clarets” actually being Zin-based.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that Chardonnay (and in the 1990s Cab) eventually surpassed Zinfandel as the most widely planted variety in California. However, with over 44,000 acres, Zinfandel remains the third most widely planted grape in California.

A Sleeping Giant

Master of Wine Morgan Twain-Peterson of Bedrock Wine Co. and Tegan Passalacqua of Turley Wine Cellars both serve on the board of the Historic Vineyard Society. Here they are giving a presentation on old vine vineyards at the 2018 Hospice du Rhone.

Interwoven within those 44,000+ acres are plots of old vine Zinfandel that are increasingly being highlighted by wine producers and organizations like the Historic Vineyard Society.

Scattered across the state of California–from Sonoma to Amador County, Lodi to Paso Robles, Santa Clara Valley to Cucamonga Valley–each of these old vine vineyards are planted with stories that span several decades. In the case of the Zinfandel vines in the Grandpere Vineyard in the Sierra Foothills, those stories have been shared for nearly 150 years.

For a generation of consumers that crave experience and authenticity, connection and chanpuru–few wines can craft a better calling card for Millennial wine drinkers than Old Vine Zin (the real stuff, not the marketing fluff–which is fodder for another post).

But are Millennial drinkers interested?

Perhaps.

Two articles that came across my Twitter dash today provoked this post. In one, Mike Veseth (@MikeVeseth) examined trends in the US Wine Market highlighted by Nielsen data was reported in Wine Business Monthly. In the other, Winesearcher.com’s Liza B. Zimmerman wrote about the big takeaways from the recent Silicon Valley Bank’s State of the Wine Industry report.

I found it curious that this grocery store display of “Beginner’s Wines” under $20 didn’t feature any red wines–only Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc and Riesling.

After noting Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay’s sustained dominance in both case volume and sales value, Veseth was surprised to find that the number one variety regarding average bottle price in the United States was Zinfandel at $11.19 a bottle–beating out Pinot noir’s $10.43 average. Along with his surprise, Veseth expressed a desire to see more research into this development.

Of course, correlation does not imply causation and all that. But maybe there is a link between this and the  Millennial “frugal hedonist” described in Zimmerman’s WineSearcher.com piece.

While the under $9 category of wines is slumping, adventurous Millennial drinkers are branching out more into the $8-14 range. Like craft beer drinkers before, Millennial drinkers are willing to spend a little bit more. But it has to be something that appeals to their wanderlust hedonism and cravings for what new and interesting.

Few varieties offer a better (or more frugal) bang for the buck in quality than Zinfandel.

Yeah….I’ve been low on Merlot. But given these options, you really can’t blame me for heading over to the Zin aisle.

There is not a huge quality gap between an $8 Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Pinot noir and a $14 example. However, when you get to Zinfandel, there is a much more noticeable jump in quality. Try tasting a $8-9 Bogle and Seven Deadly Zins against $12-14 examples from the Sobon and Maggio-Reynolds families. Even relatively large wineries like Ravenswood, Klinker Brick and St. Francis make tremendous Zins in that range.

The jump to $15-25 Zinfandels also offers exponentially higher quality than you find in Cabs, Merlot and Pinots. Offerings from wineries like Rosenblum, St. Amant, Seghesio, Truett Hurst, Carol Shelton, Ridge and Renwood are drenched in value.

Then when you start exploring the character-driven wines of single vineyard, old vine Zinfandels from producers like Turley, Bedrock, Carlisle, Bella, Robert Biale and the higher-end Ridge wines, you find heaps of wines in the $40-60 range that would blow most $100+ Napa Cabs out of the water.

Even Turley’s entry-level Juvenile Zin at $30-38 offers more character and complexity than a lot of Cabernets twice its price.

Zin-ful Thoughts Part II

Now I’m not saying that cheap, crappy Zin doesn’t exist.

If there is a dollar to be made and a brand to be mass produced, you know that one of the big mega-corps are going to capitalize on it.

Just look at what has happened to the craft beer segment which has become a feeding frenzy of acquisitions by the big beer firms trying to conquer the craft market by gobbling up brands like old European powers colonizing Africa and the New World. Just as beer drinkers have to be open-minded, but weary, so too should wine drinkers. They will always be well served by frequently asking who made the wine that is in their glass.

Still, these mass-produced (and sometimes “faux old vine”) Zins aren’t all bad. A mass-produced cheap Zin is on par with a mass-produced cheap Cab, Merlot or Pinot. If not better.

Above all, what I am saying is that there is a special heritage here in the United States with Zinfandel. It’s a heritage too valuable to be lost to the dust bin of history.

Just like craft beer drinkers reclaimed their heritage, we also have an opportunity to reclaim a bit of ours. We can stick with the same ole, same ole or add a little chanpuru to our drinking options.

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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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Product Review — Restaurant Crystal Clean Wine Glass Cleaner

A few thoughts on the Restaurant Crystal Clean: Professional Wine Glass Cleaning Liquid by The Mill River Company.

Product Specs

Made from all natural plant-derived ingredients that are 100% biodegradable, the bottle notes that the cleaner is also hypoallergenic and has not been tested on animals.

The Mill River Company’s website claims that it is used by over 200 wineries including Ridge, Clos du Val, Gary Farrell, Pina Vineyards, Caymus, Araujo Estate, Bonny Doon, Jordan, Ovid (do they even have a tasting room?) and numerous restaurants and wine bars.

A 16 oz bottle runs about $28 dollars on Amazon. It claims that because it’s “ultra concentrated”, it is more cost effective than other cleaners with one bottle able to clean 2200+ glasses at the cost of less than 1 penny per glass.

How to Use

One drop, scrub and rinse with hot water.

The directions say that it can be used as a rinse aid in dishwashers but I don’t trust my dishwasher with my wine glasses so I explored the hand wash option.

The instruction said to squirt a drop in a glass, wash with a soft sponge or cotton scrubber and rinse with hot water. One drop did get it nice and soapy but after the rinse with hot water, I had water spots and streaks that I needed to polish off.

I tried it with cold water and while it looked cleaner at first, after the glass dried I had fewer streaks but I still needed to get the polishing rag out.

Soaking in cold water before rinsing in cold water.

The bottle gave instructions on how to make a squirt bottle glass cleaner by mixing 1.5 oz into a gallon of cold water. I decided to try that ratio in my sink and let the glasses soak in the solution before cleaning them and rinsing in cold water. That turned out to be the winning recipe as the glasses came out brilliantly perfect.

The Verdict

I suspect that the laundry list of wineries, restaurants and wine bars that are using Restaurant Crystal Clean are using it as a rinse aid with an industrial dishwasher designed for wine glasses and it probably works really well.

The difference between doing one drop with hot water rinse (left) and the soaking in cold water in the sink (right).

While I am pleased with the results after soaking the glasses in the cold water solution, I’m very skeptical that I’m going to get 2200+ glasses worth of cleaning from the 16 oz bottle. Perhaps doing the one drop per glass and letting it soak in cold water will get me more mileage but I suspect that I will end up experimenting more with the soaking trick but with a scaled down ratio from the 1.5 oz/gallon.

However, after hosting a few wine tasting parties where I had a couple dozen dirty glasses and a few decanters that needed to be clean, the sink trick worked really well. The glasses do come out spotless and streak free with no traces of soap or odor. It may work out more realistically to costing 5-10 cents per glass but that is, for me, an acceptable cost to have perfectly cleaned wine glasses.

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