Tag Archives: Robert Brittan

60 Second Wine Review — Ayoub Blanc de Noir

A few quick thoughts on the 2014 Ayoub Blanc de Noir Pinot noir from the Dundee Hills.

The Geekery

Ayoub Wines was founded in 2001 when Mo Ayoub planted 4 acres of vines in the Dundee Hills. The first few vintages of Ayoub were made by Josh Bergström at the Bergström Winery until space was finished at Ayoub’s home to accommodate production.

Winemaking was turned over to former Stags’ Leap Winery winemaker Robert Brittan (who also makes the wines for Winderlea) and eventually production was expanded from 400 cases a year to around 2000 cases.

The estate vineyard is planted to 5 clones of Pinot noir–667, 777,114, 115, 04. The Blanc de Noir (white Pinot noir) is made by harvesting the red Pinot noir grapes and quickly pressing them to avoid skin contact and color maceration. This style is becoming more common in Oregon with several producers experimenting with different methods (such as harvesting and pressing like Champagne grapes to vin gris production).

The Wine

Medium-plus intensity nose with an intriguing mix of ripe white peach and red plum notes. Very rich and fleshy aromatics with some subtle oak baking spices in the background.

On the palate those rich fruit flavors carry through with very full-bodied weight. However, the ample medium-plus acidity gives its exceptional balance that keeps the palate from being weighed down. The oak notes on the nose become more faint and give way to exotic Asian spices like tumeric, star anise and, particularly, ginger. The long finish lingers on those spices and the red plum notes.

Photo by Evan-Amos. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC-Zero

Very rich and fleshy red plum notes characterize this white Pinot noir.

The Verdict

There were a lot of similarities with this Ayoub wine and the Henri Gouges La Perrière White Pinot from Nuits-St-Georges (especially with the exotic spices) and I enjoyed geeking out over both wines.

I won’t deny that at $45-55, this is a premium for an Oregon white wine but it’s undoubtedly a very character-driven and interesting wine that I would put on par with some of the state’s great red Pinots in the same price range.

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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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60 Second Wine Review — CADE Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon

A few quick thoughts on the 2012 CADE Estate Cabernet Sauvignon from Howell Mountain.

The Geekery

CADE Estate was founded in 2005 on Howell Mountain by the managing partners of the PlumpJack Group–John Conover, Gordon Getty and Gavin Newsom–where it is part of a portfolio that includes PlumpJack Winery in Oakville and Odette Winery in the Stags Leap District as well as restaurants, hotels, wine shops and event spaces. The name CADE is a play on the Shakespearen term “cades” for wine barrels shipped from Bordeaux to England.

Danielle Cyrot, a UC-Davis grad, is the head winemaker. After working harvest internships at Artesa and Schramsberg, Cyrot spent sometime in Australia and Alsace before coming back to Napa Valley where she worked for six years under Robert Brittan at Stags’ Leap Winery. Following her time at Stags’ Leap, Cyrot was the head winemaker at St. Clement before joining CADE at the beginning of the 2012 harvest.

The 2012 Howell Mountain Estate Cabernet Sauvignon is 93% Cabernet Sauvignon and 7% Merlot with 5790 cases made.

The Wine

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

Rich blackberry notes characterize this full-bodied wine.

Medium-plus intensity nose. A mix of dark fruits–blackberries and black currants–and some tarry tobacco smoke. Around the edges there is also a dark chocolate note that hints at the oak to come.

On the palate those dark fruits come through and are very rich and weighty. You can tell the high 15.2% alcohol of this Cab. Medium-plus acidity give much needed balance but could probably use a tad more. The high tannins are present but have a sweet velvet edge to them from the oak. The tarry tobacco notes from the nose is more muted on the palate but the smokiness returns for a moderate length finish.

The Verdict

This is a big, big wine that is holding up well at over 5 years of age. At $110-120, it is priced in line with its high-end Napa peers.

While the CADE paired fine with my steak, it’s full-bodied and highly extracted nature would make it difficult to pair with much anything else.

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60 Second Wine Review — Winderlea Shea Pinot noir

Some quick thoughts on the 2011 Winderlea Shea Vineyard Pinot noir.

The Geekery

Winderlea was founded by Bill Sweat and Donna Morris in the Dundee Hills in 2006. The name “Winderlea” comes from the Vermont home of the founders and means “wind in the meadow”.

The wines are made by Robert Brittan who previously spent more than 30 years in California working at blockbuster estates in Napa Valley such as Far Niente and Stags’ Leap Winery before pursuing his passion for Pinot noir up in the Willamette Valley.

According to John Winthrop Haeger’s Pacific Pinot Noir, Dick Shea got the inspiration to plant Shea Vineyard in the late 1980s from Mark Benoit, son of the owner of Chateau Benoit that is now Anne Amie Vineyards. Shea and Benoit thought that the sedimentary soils of the Yamhill-Carlton District had just as much potential to produce distinctive Pinot noirs as the volcanic red soils of the Dundee Hills.

It is now considered one of the top vineyards in all of Oregon with a very exclusive list of wineries sourcing fruit from it including Winderlea, Archery Summit, Bergström, Ken Wright, Penner-Ash and St. Innocent.

The 2011 Shea Pinot spent 10 months in French oak barrels (13% new) with around 390 cases produced.

The Wine

Medium plus intensity nose–lots of red berry, cherry and spice notes. With a little air some floral elements come out adding more layers.

Photo by Veganlover1993. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0

The inviting black tea notes I find in this Winderlea Pinot noir I see often in Pinots from Yamhill-Carlton


On the palate, those cherry notes come through but the spice notes become more black tea like. Medium plus acidity gives nice juiciness to the fruit while medium tannins gives grip to the wine. The spice notes lingers for a long finish.

The Verdict

The 2011 vintage was cool but it’s a vintage that showcases a winemaker’s skill in crafting elegant and age worthy Pinots.

This 2011 Winderslea Shea is just starting to come into into its own and at around $65-75 certainly deserves its place as a top shelf Oregon Pinot from one of the Grand Cru vineyards of the state.

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