Tag Archives: Sonoma wine

Geek Notes — New Wine Books for January

I’ve spent the last few days doing my civic obligation of jury duty, so I haven’t been able to post as much. Then, of course, there has been travel and the holidays. But as 2018 crawls to an end, I’ve found time to explore a few intriguing new titles.

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

Grapes drying to produce the Lombardy DOCG wine of Moscato di Scanzo.

Now I know that at the start of the year, some folks like to dabble with “Drynuary.”  Advocates view it as an opportunity to “dry out” after the bacchanal of the holidays. I’ve never been a participant, but I respect those who give it a go. After all, they do say “absence makes the heart grow fonder.”

However, I tend to favor the English author Thomas Fuller’s spin on that phrase.

“Absence sharpens love; presence strengthens it.”

So even if you’re cutting back on wine to start the year, you can still resolve to strengthen your geekiness in 2019 with some fun wine books.

Into Italian Wine, Fourth Edition by Jack and Geralyn Brostrom. (Released in paperback Dec 24, 2018)

I was shocked to see the updated (226 pages) study guide for the Italian Wine Professional (IWP) course available for purchase by itself. Usually, you have to sign up for the course to get your hands on this text. Of course, that includes online/classroom study and exams. The price and timing will vary depending on the provider. For example, the Napa Valley Wine Academy is offering an 8-week online course for $795.

screen shot on chablis from WSG Burgundy course.

A screenshot from the Wine Scholar Guild’s Burgundy Master Level course conducted by Don Kinnan.

The benefits of taking these types of specialist courses (there is also the Wine Scholar Guild that offers many certifications) is mixed. I’ve taken a few of the WSG offerings (Bordeaux & Burgundy) and learned a lot. I’ve founded them to be well-designed and highly immersive. For someone that wants to dive deep into a topic (and are okay with the cost), they’re well worth it.

But for industry professionals looking to buff up a resume? I’m more skeptical. Especially compared to credentials like the Wine & Spirit Education Trust and Court of Master Sommeliers, I don’t think these certifications hold much “sway.” If you’re going to spend upwards of $1000 for something that will pay dividends on a resume, you are far better off looking at things like the Level 2 Certified Sommelier Examination and the WSET Level 2 or even Level 3 Advance.

The Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) and Certified Wine Educator (CWE) from the Society of Wine Educators can offer some resume benefits. But as a CSW, I can tell you that I’ve gotten far more credibility and job prospects from my WSET certifications. My winemaking and wine marketing & sales certificates from the Northwest Wine Academy have also helped but those cost me a bit more than $1000.

However, I don’t want to discount the value of the knowledge you can get from these courses.
Map provided by Benanti Winery. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Sicily is becoming one of the hottest wine regions in the world with wines from the Etna DOC, in particular, gaining attention. It probably won’t be long before this area gets promoted to a DOCG.
Wine students are well served becoming familiar with these wines.

As I noted above, there is a lot of good stuff here. That is why picking up essentially the textbook for the IWP at $49 is appealing.

I borrowed a copy of the 3rd Edition from a friend who paid for the full course. I was super impressed with how in-depth it covered nearly all of the 74 DOCG and most of the 300+ DOCs of Italy, including many of the intricacies of their various wine laws and regulations.

It’s far more scholarly than many wine books covering Italy. The closest would be the slightly outdated Vino Italiano: The Regional Wines of Italy (2005) by Joseph Bastianich and David Lynch. But even though the later has over 544 pages, I found that the IWP study guide included more precise details about the wine laws for many of the DOC/Gs.

The Cultivation Of The Native Grape, And Manufacture Of American Wines by George Husmann. (Released on paperback Dec. 18, 2018)

This historical encyclopedia of native American and hybrid grape varieties is 188 pages of pure geeky candy. Candy that I was super excited to see available for less than $7! It’s also a book that has a soft spot in this Missouri girl’s heart.

George Husmann was a 19th-century viticulturist who is considered the “Father of the Missouri Grape Industry.” Many people don’t realize how vibrant the Missouri wine industry was before Prohibition.

German settlers were reminded of their homeland when they stumbled upon the Missouri Rhineland in the 1830s. They planted vines in what eventually became the American Viticultural Areas of Hermann and Augusta. More than a century later, Augusta would beat out Napa Valley for the distinction of being the very first AVA created.

Photo by W.C. Persons. Released on Wikimedia Commons under PD-Art (PD-1923)

The American Wine Company of St. Louis was also a significant wine producer up until World War II. They created Cook’s Imperial sparkling wine before the brand moved to California after Prohibition.
Here workers in 1916 are bottling and corking wines at the Cass Avenue winery.

After Missouri entomologist Charles V. Riley discovered phylloxera as the cause of the epidemic that was devasting wine regions across Europe, it was rootstock cuttings of Missouri vines that helped saved the European wine industry.

By the start of the 20th century, Missouri was the second largest grape producer in the country–second only to California. Stone Hill Winery in Missouri, founded in 1847, was the 3rd largest winery in the world. Each year it would produce more than a million gallons of wine.

For folks who want to geek out more, the first volume of Thomas Pinney’s History of Wine in America (especially chapter 7) gives great insight into the long forgotten glory days and impact of the Missouri wine industry.

A Time Capsule of Geekiness
Photo by Don Kasak. Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-2.0

The native Norton grape, member of the Vitis aestivalis family, has long been an important grape of the Missouri wine industry.

Husmann’s 1866 The Cultivation Of The Native Grape is a time capsule about what the world of American wine was like in the mid-19th century. Many modern sources of American wine history (like Pinney) frequently cite this and other Husmann works such as The Muscadine Grapes, An Article on Pest Resistant Vines and Grape Investigations in the Vinifera Regions of the United States in their bibliographies.

Wine students don’t necessarily need to read these historical books to pass exams. But they do color in the portrait of American wine history in ways that many modern wine books can’t match. However, I don’t suggest paying a premium for these old books. But when you find them on the cheap, take a flier and broaden your perspective.

Dancing Somm: Life of the Napa and Sonoma Wine Sherpa by Sandrew Montgomery. (Released on paperback Dec. 16, 2018)

Sandrew Montgomery is a long time Napa fixture. He has worked at or been intimately involved with many of the region’s most iconic wineries. These include Far Niente, Chateau Montelena, Shafer, Caymus, Dominus and Opus One among many others. He’s also spent a significant time of his career in Sonoma. Here he has worked with legendary figures like Merry Edwards, Mike Benziger, Jeff Kunde, Sam Sebastiani and Jess Jackson.

Dancing Somm is a memoir of his long career and the developments he’s seen in the two valleys. As a wine historian and educator, he’s had a front row seat to many changes and events.

Compared to the scholarly and journalistic approach taken by James Conway in Far Side Of Eden and Napa at Last Light, I expect Montgomery’s memoir to offer a more personal and joie de vivre perspective. It’s another angle wine students can use to understand Napa and Sonoma’s remarkable growth over the last 40 years.

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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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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 joined 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 in making Pinot noir, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon wines that he felt 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 cellar 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 home grown 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 allowed 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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60 Second Wine Review — Adobe Road Bavarian Lion Cabernet Sauvignon

A few quick thoughts on the 2013 Adobe Road Cabernet Sauvignon from the Bavarian Lion Vineyard in the Knights Valley of Sonoma.

The Geekery

Adobe Road Winery was founded in 2002 by race car driver Kevin Buckler and his wife Debra.

One of the early winemakers was Franc Dusak who worked on the 2004 to 2008 vintages. He was eventually succeeded by Michael Scorsone who was winemaker at Adobe Road for seven years with Palmer Emmitt assisting him until the two left to start their joint project Emmitt-Scorsone Wines.

Prior to taking over the head winemaking duties at Adobe Road, Scorsone previously worked with Ehren Jordan at Failla and with Thomas Rivers Brown and Fred Schrader at Boars’ View.

In 2015, Garrett Martin joined Adobe Road as winemaker after stints at Joel Gott and working with Massimo and Mario Monticelli at their consulting firm.

The Bavarian Lion Vineyard in the Knights Valley is located in the shadow of Mt. Saint Helena and is owned by Pierre Ehret. The vineyard is sustainably farmed.

Among the other wineries who source fruit from Bavarian Lion is Rodney Strong Vineyards who produced a great 2 minute video that shows the vineyard and explains some of the uniqueness of the Knights Valley.

The 2013 Adobe Road Bavarian Lion Cabernet Sauvignon is 100% varietal that spent 28 months aging in French oak (90% new). Around 350 cases were made.

The Wine

Medium intensity nose. Mix of red and dark fruits–plums and cherries–with some tobacco spice.

On the palate more red fruits carry through that are amplified by the high acidity. Medium-plus tannins hold up the medium-plus body of the fruit but overall the wine feels a bit hollow. Moderate length finish brings back the tobacco spice.

The Verdict

While I loved the 2013 Beckstoffer Vineyard Georges III that I had at the 2017 Wine Spectator Grand Tour, the Bavarian Lion didn’t wow me–especially for its $80-100 price point.

It reminds me of the Silver Oak Alexander Valley with both wines needing to be priced a lot lower.

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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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60 Second Wine Review — Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon

A few quick thoughts on the 2012 Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon from the Alexander Valley.

The Geekery

Founded in 1972 by Tom and Sally Jordan with the goal of making Bordeaux-style Cabernet Sauvignon in Sonoma, Jordan Winery remains family-owned today with son John Jordan managing the estate.

To assist with the vineyard plantings and inaugural vintages, the Jordans hired André Tchelistcheff as consultant to work with winemaker Rob Davis–who is still in charge of wine production at the winery.

Located in the Alexander Valley close to the east side of the Russian River near Geyserville, Jordan Winery own 112 acres of estate fruit that is sustainably farmed. For the 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, they utilize their own estate fruit as well as that from 16 contract vineyards.

The wine is a blend of 77% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot and 2% Malbec with 90% of the fruit coming from the Alexander Valley, 8% from Mendocino County and from 2% Dry Creek Valley. Around 81,000 cases were made.

The Wine

Medium-intensity nose with a mix of red and dark fruit–currants and cherries. Subtle French oak baking spices like cinnamon and clove round out the bouquet.

Photo by George Chernilevsky. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD-self

A nice mix of red and dark cherries characterize this wine.

Those mix of red and dark fruits carry through on the palate with medium-plus acidity and very ripe medium-plus tannins. The oak becomes a bit more pronounced with vanilla and toastiness joining the spice notes from the nose. Moderate length finish ends on the still lively and juicy fruit.

The Verdict

In a blind tasting, I more likely would’ve peg this for a Washington Cabernet than necessarily a California one. It’s clear that Jordan values more balance and elegance versus the hedonistic, lushness you see in many Cali Cabs.

At $55-65 retail (and quite a bit more at restaurants), you are paying a bit of a premium compared to what you could get for equivalent pricing in Washington (or Bordeaux). But there is no doubt that this Jordan Cabernet is well made and enjoyable to drink.

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60 Second Wine Review — Kicker Cane Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

A few quick thoughts on the 2014 Kicker Cane Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon from the Francis Ford Coppola Family of Wines.

The Geekery

Kicker Cane is made by the Coppola family whose modern history in winemaking dates back to the 1970s when Francis Ford Coppola purchased the historic Inglenook estate in Napa.

James Laube notes in California’s Great Cabernets that originally Coppola wanted to keep a low profile in the wine industry and had André Tchelistcheff oversee the management and winemaking of his early vintages.

Today the Coppola family’s holdings have grown into an extensive portfolio of wines that includes Francis Ford Coppola Presents, Director’s Cut, Sofia sparkling wine, Archimedes, Storytellers Wines, Votre Santé, Press Run Wine, Virginia Dare Winery and American Pioneer Wine Growers along with Inglenook (formerly Rubicon Estate and Niebaum-Coppola) and Kicker Cane.

The Kicker Cane series of wines are produced by Sandy Walheim and focuses on Cabernet Sauvignon grown in different regions of the North Coast with particular highlights on the the Rutherford AVA in Napa Valley and Alexander Valley AVA in Sonoma County. Prior to working for Coppola (where she also heads up winemaking for Virginia Dare), Walheim worked in Napa at the Robert Mondavi Winery, Beringer, Cain Vineyards as well as at Simi Winery in Sonoma.

The Wine

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

Very strong oak flavors characterize this wine.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Red fruits–currants, plums and cherry–with noticeable oak spice and coconut.

On the palate, those red fruits carry through and have a juicy element with medium-plus acidity. The oak also carries through and makes it present known. Ample vanilla adds weight to the ripe medium-plus tannins. Moderate length finish ends on the oak spice.

The Verdict

At $18-23, this is a very oak-driven Alexander Valley Cabernet (a la “a baby Silver Oak”). It  would certainly appeal to those who enjoy those oaky styles.

It does have enough acidity for balance though. That would make this wine a solid restaurant pour and pairing for weighty dishes like meat.

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Zin-ful Thoughts

For a de facto Zin-ful Thoughts Part II see my post Zinfandel — The “Craft Beer” of American Wine

Joseph Swan Zinfandel from the Bastoni Vineyard in the Fountaingrove District of Sonoma County.Originally planted in 1906, the vineyard was significantly replanted in 2005.

In honor of the upcoming ZAP 2018 Zinfandel Experience in San Francisco, the Lodi Winegrape Commission released a very informative FAQ page on Zinfandel written by sommelier Randy Caparoso.

I must confess that being based in the Pacific Northwest and a bit of a Francophile, my experience with Zinfandel has been limited—mostly the uber jammy and commercialized examples from producers like Rombauer, Michael David and Klinker Brick. We do grow a little bit of the variety here in Washington State (65 acres as of 2017) but many of the examples that I’ve tried have been a bit underwhelming.

A trip last year to Joseph Swan Vineyards in Sonoma started to change my perception of Zinfandel. Here I found examples of this “big bruising grape” that were elegant, spicy and downright mouthwatering. So I was very intrigued to read Caparoso’s post and ended up learning a lot.

Some of the cool things (not all Zin related) I learned from Caparoso’s post:

1.) One of the reasons why Zinfandel likely became such a popular and widely planted grape in California during the 1800s was because of how easy it is to grow, particularly in the goblet “bush vine” style. Growers could just stick cuttings into the ground, without the expense and labor of trellising, and tend to the vine with the relatively low-maintenance spur-pruning system. Add to the fact that Zin produces reliable yields, it makes sense why this was a choice variety for many of the European immigrants who planted the early California vineyards.

2.) Due to the decline in popularity of White Zinfandel, overall plantings of Zinfandel have decreased which means that when the 2017 USDA acreage report comes out, it will likely show Zinfandel as the 4th most widely planted wine grape in California behind Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. I wouldn’t shed a tear for desperate housewives as pink Moscato is there to fill their empty glasses. I’m sure Zinfandel fans are not going to mind.

I appreciated how the Sobon Primitivo was full bodied with rich dark fruit without being overtly jammy.
The Rocky Top was spicier and more my style but the Primitivo had it charms.


3.) While Buena Vista, established in 1857 in Sonoma, is widely credited as being the first commercial winery in California, that honor actually belongs to the Vignes Winery that was established in Los Angeles in 1833 by Jean-Louis Vignes. In the Zin hotbed of Amador County, d’Agostini Winery was founded a year before Buena Vista in 1856 with the cellars and vineyards now owned by Zinfandel specialist Sobon.

4.) While currently terms like “Old Vine” and “Ancient Vine” are unregulated and can apply to anything that a winery’s marketing team wants it to, there is a movement in Lodi and other Zinfandel regions to adopt something similar to the Barossa Old Vine Charter. This charter established designation of 4 tiers of “old vines” covering a span of vine ages. On the LoCA FAQ, Caparoso gives his suggestions on tiers beginning with ‘Old Vines’ denoting vines at least 50 years of age going up to ‘Historic Vines’ that are over a 100 years of age.

5.) It’s hard to define a “Lodi-style” of Zinfandel because many of the region’s largest producers (like Michael David & Klinker Brick) tend to produce a very commercialized style of Zinfandel that often sees a significant portion of Petite Sirah blended in as well as judicious oaking.

My Zin-exploration plans for the year

Located across the street from the Mancini Ranch (notably used by Carlisle), the vines here are over 100 years old

I want to explore more terroir driven examples from vineyard designated bottlings of Zinfandel. At Joseph Swan, in addition to trying their Bastoni Vineyard pictured above, I also got a chance to taste a bottling from the Zeigler Vineyard in the Russian River Valley. This one had a intriguing floral smokiness to it that I didn’t find in the more peppery Bastoni. It was almost as if a Pinot noir and Syrah had a baby. It was very fun trying these two Zins side by side. They had a streak of similarity but were very different.

I also want to hunt for this elusive “Lodi-style” that is hiding under the shadows of the area’s big producers. I’ve had the opportunity to try wines from St. Amant Winery that Caparoso highlights as one of Lodi’s Zinfandel specialists. Here, again, trying two different vineyards side by side was incredibly fascinating with the century plus vines of their Marian Vineyard (planted in 1901) showing spicy, dark fruit notes while the Mohr-Fry (planted in 1945) was more more berry fruit and floral.

Some of these differences could be terroir, some could be vine age. I want to learn more about that.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Zinfandel#/media/File:Crljenak_kastelanski.jpg

A Crljenak Kaštelanski vine from the village of Kaštel Novi in Croatia. Read the Wikimedia Commons link for some more fascinating info about this vine from the photographer User:Amatulic!


A holy grail of geekdom for me would be to get my grubby little hands on a Croatian Zinfandel. When I visited Croatia in 2016, I was quite disappointed in that all I could find among reds was Plavac Mali, which was a tasty grape but no Crljenak Kaštelanski.

Finally, I want to keep a more open mind about Washington (and Southern Oregon) Zinfandel. I have a hunch that two factors that have been driving their (in my opinion) underwhelming style has been a combination of very young vines (I couldn’t find any info on what is the oldest planting of Washington Zin but I would be shocked if it was more than 25 years) and that many winemakers here haven’t figured out what they want to do with the grape yet.

We produce so many exceptional red wines from varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah that I feel like producers are throwing the techniques that have made those wines successful against the wall and seeing what sticks. A Zin that taste like an oaky Cab or a more alcoholic version of Syrah is not very appealing. On the flip side, Washington-versions of the jammy commercialized Zins aren’t very exciting either.

The art of winemaking involves a lot of trial and error so this seems like something that will work itself out. There are just too many talented winemakers in the Pacific Northwest to think that someone is not going to hit on something delicious when it comes to Washington Zinfandel.

Till then, I’ll keep my eyes open and drink up where I can.

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