Tag Archives: Stags Leap District

Sculpting Soapstone in Napa

I wrapped up my week-long press tour of the Stags Leap District yesterday. You can look forward to me spending the next couple months working through my notes in between other writings and reviews. For those that want a sneak peek of some of the insights and themes that I’ll be writing about check out the SpitBucket Instagram page. There I’ve posted pictures and thoughts from many of the wineries that I’ve visited.

Photo By Lysippos - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Before the trip, I wrote about some of the questions and expectations that I had going in. A large part of my role in Friedenreich’s research entourage was to bring a Millennial perspective with an eye towards what the future of the Stags Leap District could be. While that is a role that I’m apt to fill, the WSET Diploma student and wine marketer in me is also conscious of the present reality of business.

Many times in between my Millennial “what if” questions, I found myself taking a step back to think about what I would do if I were a general manager, COO or president of a Stags Leap District winery.

Honestly? There is not much that I would do differently.

Though I still see challenges ahead, I couldn’t find fault in how well-executed all these operations were. It’s clear that these wineries have found a recipe that works for them and have spent considerable time, thought and capital into honing and perfecting that recipe. They’re all working hard to maximize the gifts of terroir like a sculptor skillfully chiseling away to reveal the beauty of the piece underneath.

However, they’re not chiseling their work into granite.

The nature of the wine industry is inherently transient. It’s an agrarian product that is a consumable good. There will always be factors at play (climate change, demographics, consumer trends) that will weather even the mightiest of edifices. No matter how much care, attention and capital that you invest, everything you do will always be chiseled in soapstone.

Quixote Malbec

There is some sexy Malbec being made in the SLD. These wines combine the spiciness of Argentine Malbecs with the seductive texture of Stags Leap District wines.

Even the fabled European wine regions spent centuries, if not millennia, figuring themselves out.

Cabernet Sauvignon, which is the backbone of the great wines of the Medoc, is still in its adolescence in Bordeaux. The Bordelais have been making wine since the Romans while Cab only appeared on the scene in the late 18th century. And even then, it took some time to catch on. During the 1855 classification, many of the grandest estates of the Left Bank relied heavily on grapes like Malbec and Merlot.

The soapstone sculpture of Bordeaux has changed many times over the years. With climate change, it’s already starting to change again with a growing focus on Petit Verdot and even Malbec making a return.

With Cab barely out of the womb in Napa, why should we not expect its form to change as well?

Now I’m not discrediting the beauty of Napa and, particularly, Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon. I had many delicious examples which I’ll be writing about on this blog. But while not as numerous, there were certainly several “unicorn” wines of other grapes that had me excited about what the future sculpture of SLD could be.

Some strawmen, some strong points.

Now back to those Millennials and the future challenges they may pose.

Often I heard the strawmen assessment that Millennials would come around once they had more money. However, there were also some excellent points which I’ll tackle in future pieces.

One is that education will be paramount in reaching Millennials. That does present the challenge of how do you entice anyone to want to be educated. But I also think it offers a double edge sword. One that can both cut Napa/SLD producers just as much as it can clear the path.

Another strong point is that rather than thinking of demographics, producers should market to “tribes”–i.e., a tribe Cab-lovers. This was argued exceedingly well by Russ Joy, the general manager of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. That tribal spin invites personalization with a sense of community and identity. A sort of “hipster” approach, which is somewhat ironic.

Malk Vineyards

This tiny little patch of vines in the foreground is Malk Family Vineyards. Beyond the dirt road is Steltzner, then Joseph Phelps, then Mary Jane Fay Vineyards (fruit sold to Shafer), then Odette and FINALLY you get to the Silverado Trail.

But probably the point that I could appreciate the most was the blessing of small production.

This was made quite clear at the tiny 2-acre estate of Malk Family Vineyards. With only a few hundred cases, the Malks don’t need to focus on chasing the market. Anyone who finds them (and believe me, the drive to find them is a bit of a hunt), is someone who is already passionate and committed.

That small production provides a bit of cover that will undoubtedly help many producers weather the changes–regardless of what they’re carving.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

Napa Valley — Boomer or Bust?

I’ve entered the lion’s den.
Photo By Aaron Logan - from http://www.lightmatter.net/gallery/albums.php, CC BY 1.0,

This week I will be in Napa assisting Kenneth Friedenreich, author of Oregon Wine Country Stories, with research on the Stags Leap District for the sequel in his Decoding the Grape series.

Surprisingly, no one has written a dedicated book about the district yet. With 2019 being the 30th anniversary of the AVA’s establishment, a deep dive into the legacy and future of this influential region seems long overdue.

That puts me on a fact-finding mission with Friedenreich and two of his other compatriots as we embark on a schedule of winery visits and interviews. In many ways, I am the odd duck in this entourage being not only the only woman but also a Millennial seeing Napa Valley beside the eyes of three Boomers.

Past and Present

The dichotomy will be rich as Friedenreich, Doc Wilson (a longtime fixture in the Oregon wine scene) and Mark, a pediatrician from Portland, represent the bread and butter of Napa Valley.

Photo By LEONARDO DASILVA, CC BY 3.0,

Are legends still exciting?

They are the generation that took with gusto an appreciation for fine American wine. For the last 40 plus year, every Napa vintner that has had an inkling of success achieved that by courting the Boomers.

While the recipe has varied somewhat over the years, the entire business model and marketing of Napa has been oriented towards enticing and exciting this large and lucrative demographic.

And it has remained a lucrative demographic even as the Boomers settle into retirement. They (along with the smaller Generation X) are still the ones buying the high priced and highly prized bottles that have paved Napa’s reputation with gold. That’s a reality that no vintner can ignore.

But what of the Future?

On the surface, I’m probably the ideal Millennial consumer that Napa wineries could hope for. I’m highly engaged with wine and willing to travel. I crave experiences which is something that Napa has spent decades perfecting. And, most keenly, I’m in a position of financial stability where I could afford to join wine clubs and regularly buy $100+ bottles if I wished.

Pritchard Hill at sunset

I will say that the view from Pritchard Hill is awe inspiring.
It does add a bit more character than the highly manicured vineyard lawns of the valley floor.

I might be a minority among my cohorts, but there are other Millennials like me, and we are the future bread and butter.

And with auspicious timing. For just as some industry folks are beating the strawman that Millennials will come running as soon as they have more money in their pockets, here I am representing the best-case scenario that Napa vintners could hope for.

How are they planning to reach me?

While Friedenreich is going to write his retrospection of the Stags Leap District from his Boomer perspective, he’s very conscious of the contemporary. One of the things that I’ll be contributing to the team is being the canary in the vineyards.

Will the Stags Leap District (and Napa in general) still be relevant in another 30 years?

Yes, Cab is King but for how long?

Even if I can afford $100+ bottles, what is the distinct value that makes getting these wines worth buying instead of a nice whiskey or the myriad of other options I have?

I’m from a generation that is notoriously in love with great stories so how are today’s SLD and Napa wineries communicating their stories? Do they feel authentic? Is it presented in a way that I can connect with and relate to?

The old recipe is not going to work.

Photo By Jim G from Silicon Valley, CA, USA - Darioush Winery, Napa Valley, California, USAUploaded by Josve05a, CC BY 2.0,

I mean, yeah, that kind of looks interesting… I guess.

To be brutally blunt, Napa can be really boring.

The marketing to my generation has been trying to sell us a luxurious lifestyle that is rather generic.

Oh, beautiful people in a beautiful place. That’s nice.

Open up Instagram and you see a countless stream of beautiful people in beautiful places. There’s nothing special about that messaging. Been there, done that. Scroll.

Adding a glass of high priced Cab or Chardonnay doesn’t make the #NapaStyle filter feel any more unique or authentic. At worst, with literally hundreds of wineries delivering the same message, it feels fake and basic.

So what Napa will I see this week?

Will I see producers following the old recipe of success that has served them so well? Perhaps. With Boomers and Gen Xers still buying, it would be foolish to abandon it altogether.

But what I am hoping to see is a glimpse of planning for the future. I’d like to see a Stags Leap District and a Napa Valley that recognizes that the old #NapaStyle filter is a recipe for Millennials to keep scrolling past.

What I want is Napa unfiltered.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

Nathan Fay’s Leap of Faith

Over the next several months I will be working on a research project about the stories and wines of the Stags Leap District. In 2019, this Napa Valley region will be celebrating the 30th anniversary of its establishment as an American Viticultural Area. So in between my regular features and reviews, you can expect a fair sprinkling of Stags Leap geekiness.

Stags Leap Fay bottle

My review of the 2011 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Fay Vineyard is down below.

Today the wines of the Stags Leap District are part of the robe that drapes Napa Valley in prestige and renown. However, originally that wasn’t the case. As the sleepy valley shook off the dust from decades of Prohibition and ambivalence, this little pocket in the shadow of the Vacas was dismissed as too cold for Cabernet Sauvignon.

While ambitions were growing up-valley in places like Oakville and Rutherford, the Stags Leap District was known for cattle and prunes. It took a single wine, from three-year-old vines, to shake the world into casting its gaze on this three-mile long “valley within a valley.”

But before anyone had reason to give the Stags Leap District a look, Nathan Fay took a leap.

The Origins of Fay Vineyard

A native of Visalia in the San Joaquin Valley, Nathan Fay moved to Napa in 1951. He purchased 205 acres in 1953 that was once part of the Parker homestead dating back to the 1880s. The land included several acres of prune trees that were a popular planting in the valley.

But following World War II, the fortunes of the Napa prune industry was on the decline. As William Heintz noted in his work California’s Napa Valley: One Hundred Sixty Years of Wine Making, Napa prunes were facing stiff competition from large-scale producers in the Sacramento Valley. Not only was the production bigger, but so were the prunes. Their size, Heintz shared, made them look more appealing in supermarket cellophane bags than their less plump Napa cousins.

Photo by Kduck94558. Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

The Stags Leap Palisades frame the east side of its namesake district and profoundly influences the terroir.

Then Napa’s most lucrative export market for prunes, the United Kingdom, shriveled as cheaper options from Hungary became available. Faced with these prospects, Fay sought the advice of the University of California-Davis. They encouraged him to switch to viticulture.

But the experts at Davis cautioned Fay against planting “warm weather grapes” like Cabernet Sauvignon, noting the chilly maritime winds that funneled up through the Stags Leap District in the late afternoon.

They didn’t take into consideration the influence of the Stags Leap Palisades. Fay had noticed, how during the heat of the day, these hills of volcanic rock would absorb the sun’s warmth. In the evening, after the wind had passed, they would radiate it back to the land. Fay also knew that the famous region of Bordeaux, well known for Cabernet, had its own maritime influences to deal with.

A Hunch and Some Hope

Conversations with the Mondavi brothers of Charles Krug gave Nathan Fay a hunch that there was a market for Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. In 1961, he took the plunge, planting the first sizable acreage of Cabernet south of Oakville. When those 15 acres of vines came of age, the Mondavis were his first customers with Joe Heitz of Heitz Cellars soon following. Then came George Vierra of Vichon, Frances Mahoney of Carneros Creek and others looking to buy Fay grapes.

By 1967, Fay was expanding his plantings, moving from the deep alluvial soils on the west side of his property to the shallow volcanic soils closer to the Palisades. With the help of his friend, Father Tom Turnbull, Fay planted 30 additional acres of Cabernet Sauvignon.

The Wine That Started It All?

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

Warren Winiarski in 2015, many years after his fateful meeting with Nathan Fay.

While the 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars gets the glory of winning the Judgement of Paris, in many ways that bottle was the moon reflecting the light of a 1968 Cabernet Sauvignon made by Nathan Fay. It was the pull of this wine, made from Fay’s vines, that changed the gravitation of Warren Winiarski’s career–and perhaps that of the entire Napa Valley.

George Taber describes Winiarski’s 1969 visit with Fay in his book Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine. Winiarski had finished the first two vintages as the inaugural winemaker of Robert Mondavi Winery and was looking to start his own operation.

He had planted a few acres up on Howell Mountain but found that his Cabernet Sauvignon buds were not taking to their grafts due to insufficient water in the soils. Winiarski was intrigued by irrigation techniques that Nathan Fay was experimenting with on his property. So he went down the Silverado Trail to pay him a visit.

While the two gentlemen discussed farming, Fay took Winiarski to a small building across from his house along Chase Creek where he kept barrels of his homemade wine. While Fay sold most of his grapes, he saved enough to make a few cases each year.

Tasting this young and roughly made wine, Winiarski found the aromatics and texture to be unlike anything else he had tried in Napa. The experience impacted him so dearly that when the land next to Fay’s vineyard, the 50 acre Heid Ranch, went up for sale the following year, Winiarski sold his Howell Mountain property and purchased the site.

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and the Fay Vineyard

Photo by Jim G from Silicon Valley, CA, USA. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Entrance towards the winery and tasting room of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.

The wine that beat some of the best of Bordeaux was not made from Fay grapes. The fruit for that 1973 bottling came from the young vines next door where the two sites shared the same deep alluvial soils. Most of the Cabernet buds Winiarski used for the new vineyard were from Fay’s vines with a few from Martha’s Vineyard in Oakville as well.

In 1986, Nathan Fay was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Wanting to scale back, he negotiated a sale for most of his vineyard to Winiarski. By 1990, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars was producing a vineyard-designated Fay Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. Fay passed away in 2001 with Winiarski acquiring the rest of this fabled vineyard from Fay’s heirs in 2002.

In 2007, Winiarski sold Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and its vineyards to a partnership of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and the Antinori family. He agreed to stay as a consultant through the 2010 vintage and winemaker Nicki Pruss remained through 2013. That year, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates brought Marcus Notaro down from Col Solare in Washington State to take over the winemaking.

Since 2006, Kirk Grace, the son of legendary Napa cult wine producers Dick and Ann Grace of Grace Family Vineyards, has been the vineyard manager. During his tenure, Fay and Stag’s Leap Vineyard have converted to sustainable viticulture, earning Napa Green certification in 2010.

A Stable of Wines
close up of fay label

Since Winiarski’s retirement, bottles of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars wines no longer feature his signature above the establishment date.
They do, however, note his 1976 triumph in Paris.

The Fay Vineyard is one of four Cabernet Sauvignon bottlings that Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars produces. Kelli White notes in Napa Valley Then & Now that, along with Cask 23 and S.L.V., Fay is always 100% Cabernet Sauvignon and estate-grown fruit. The entry-level Artemis is made from mostly purchased fruit and will often include Merlot and some Malbec.

Both Fay and S.L.V. will see around 20 months aging in 100% new French oak. The Cask 23, which is a blend from the two vineyards, will have 21 months in 90% new French oak. The Artemis is usually aged for 18 months in a mixture of American and French oak barrels with only about a quarter new. While the winery typically makes these wines every year, the quality of the 2011 vintage led them not to release a Cask 23.

Review of the 2011 Fay Cabernet Sauvignon

Medium intensity. Noticeable pyrazines right off the bat. Green bell pepper that overwhelmingly dominates the bouquet. Tossing it in the decanter for splash aeration allows some tobacco spice to come out, but it’s green uncured tobacco. Fighting through the greenness finally brings up a mix of red cherry, currant and a faint floral note that isn’t very defined.

On the palate, the green bell pepper, unfortunately, carries through but the medium-plus acidity adds more lift to the red fruit flavors. It also highlights the oak spice of cinnamon and allspice. Medium-plus tannins are soft with the velvety texture you associate with a Stags Leap District wine. They balance well with the medium-bodied fruit. Moderate finish still lingers on the green with the uncured tobacco hitting the final note.

The Verdict

Photo by JMK (JohnManuel). Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-2.5

Folks that are less sensitive to pyrazines might not mind this 2011 Fay. But for me, getting past the green bell pepper was a tall order

It would be incredibly unfair to harshly judge the terroir of the Fay Vineyard and winemaking of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars based on a 2011 wine. While there were some gems from that troublesome vintage (Chappellet, Paradigm, Barnett Vineyards, Corison, Moone-Tsai and Frank Family being a few that I’ve enjoyed), you can’t sugarcoat the challenges of 2011. The cold, wet vintage made ripening a struggle. Come harvest time many wineries had to be aggressive in the vineyard and sorting table to avoid botrytis.

While I applaud Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars for realizing that this vintage didn’t merit producing their $250-300 Cask 23, it’s hard to say that it warranted making a $100-130 Fay Vineyard either. I’m not a fan of dismissing vintages wholesale but 2011 is a year that you have to be careful with.  Great vineyards and winery reputation (or glowing wine reviews) won’t spare you from striking out on expensive bottles.

If you’re going to seek out a Fay Vineyard Cabernet, there is a charm in finding some of the Warren Winiarski vintages from 2009 and earlier. But I would also be optimistic about the more recent releases from the new winemaking team as well. While they might be different in style compared to the Winiarski wines, better quality vintages will be far more likely to deliver pleasure that merits their prices.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

Two Great Videos About the Stags Leap District

I’m currently working on a research project about the Stags Leap District in Napa Valley. Despite the region’s fame, I’ve discovered that there aren’t many resources covering the Stags Leap District as its own entity. Virtually every wine book groups the AVA within the patchwork quilt of the greater Napa Valley with maybe a couple pages, at most, dedicated to it.

Photo by Kduck94558. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under  CC-BY-SA-4.0

A vineyard shadowed by the basaltic palisades in the Stags Leap District of Napa Valley.

Which is a shame. As you peek under the covers and explore this dynamic wine region, it’s almost impossible not to see how distinctive this area and its wines really are.

Over the next couple months, I will be writing several posts about the Stags Leap District and sharing more of my research. But, for now, I want to highlight two great videos on YouTube that are worth watching.

An Introduction to the Stags Leap District’s Terroir

This short (1:19) video features winemaker Michael Beaulac of Pine Ridge Vineyards. He gives some great insights about the uniqueness of the Stags Leap District’s soils. This is important because the Stags Leap District was the first AVA in Napa to be designated based on the distinctiveness of its soils.

Beaulac highlights the importance of the Stags Leap Palisades in influencing the climate of the AVA. You also get a nice view of these rocky, basaltic outcrops of the Vacas in the video as well.

The Very Interesting History of How The Stags Leap District Became an AVA

Next year will be the 30th anniversary of the establishment of the Stags Leap District AVA. And, whoa nelly, was it a journey to make that happen!

Photo by Jim G from Silicon Valley, CA, USA. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars is today one of the flagship wineries of the Stags Leap District. But during the AVA’s creation, they were one of its fiercest opponents.

No one knows that story better than Richard Mendelson, the attorney who was driving force behind the AVA petition. This video is a bit longer (40:24) but Mendelson gives tremendous background on the process that started in the early 1980s and didn’t come to fruition till 1989. And he definitely covers the challenges and drama over the name! However, I was most fascinated by the struggle that went into delineating the boundaries of the AVA. In some ways, it seems like “wind” played more of a deciding factor than soils.

I also highly recommend Mendelson’s book Appellation Napa Valley. This covers not only the Stags Leap battle but also the work that went into the establishment of all the other major AVAs of Napa.

Mendelson, who also worked on the petitions of the Rutherford, Oakville and Paso Robles AVAs as well as the failed Rutherford & Oakville Benches applications, is a well known expert of wine law. So if you want to get super geeky, you can check out his more technical books Wine in America: Law and Policy and From Demon to Darling: A Legal History of Wine in America.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

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.

 

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

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.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

60 Second Wine Review — Brilliant Mistake Cabernet Sauvignon

A few quick thoughts on the 2014 Brilliant Mistake Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley.

The Geekery

Brilliant Mistake was founded in 2013 by John and Stacy Reinert with Rebekah Wineburg making the inaugural vintage, sourcing Cabernet Sauvignon from vineyards in Rutherford and the Stags Leap District.

With a background that included stints at Tenuta dell’Ornellaia, Staglin, Rudd and Buccella, Wineburg finished the 2013 vintage before returning to Buccella and later moving on to Quintessa. She was succeeded at Brilliant Mistake by Maayan Koschitzky, a protege of Philippe Melka.

An Israeli native, Koschitzky started in the wine industry with Margalit Winery in Galilee before moving to Napa Valley in 2011 to work at Screaming Eagle and then Dalle Valle.

At this year’s Premiere Napa Valley, Brilliant Mistake was one of the top selling lots at the auction joining the likes of Chappellet, Shafer Vineyards and Ovid to help raise more than $4.1 million for charity.

The Wine

Photo by Keith Weller, U.S. Department of Agriculture. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD-author

Rich dark fruit like plums characterize this Napa Cab.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Very rich dark fruit–black plums, blackberry and noticeable oak spice.

On the palate, those rich dark fruits carry through. However, I was pleasantly surprised at how well balanced the richness was with the medium-plus acidity. The noticeable oak spices of clove, cinnamon and allspice are also present. But the oak is well-balanced with the sweet vanilla playing a supporting role in rounding out the high tannins. Very full bodied and seductive mouthfeel with a long, minute-plus finish that lingers on the juicy black fruits.

The Verdict

This is your classic, hedonistic Napa Cabernet Sauvignon but an exceptionally well made one. It seduces you with the bold, rich dark fruits. But it certainly toes the line with enough acidity and structure to keep it from being sweet and one dimensional.

While it’s drinking absolutely scrumptious now, I’m skeptical at how much better it will get with bottle age over the next 5-10 years.  Compared to its Napa peers, the wine is well priced at $150-175 a bottle. However, I can see this wine eclipsing the $200 mark soon enough.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

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.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

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

Photo by www.Pixel.la Free Stock Photos. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-Zero

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

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

So what makes a wine “vegan-friendly”?

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

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

Let’s Talk About Fining Agents

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

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

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

Isinglass and bentonite fining trials.

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

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

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

Animal-based Fining Agents

Egg whites (Albumin)

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

Casein (Milk protein)

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

Gelatin (derived from the boiling of animal tissues like bones and tendons)

Used primarily to remove excess tannins. It has a positive charge that reacts to the negative charge of harsh tannins. It can be prone to over-fining that can strip a wine of positive flavors and aromas.

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

Isinglass (derived from the air bladder of fish like sturgeons)

Used primarily to help clarifying wines, remove excess tannins and to “unmask” or bring out varietal character.

Chitosan (derived from chitin in the exoskeleton of crustaceans)

Used primarily to remove haze causing proteins from white wines. A positively charged agent, it often needs to be paired with a negatively charged fining agent like Kieselsol to be most effective.

Blood Albumen (derived from the blood of ox and cattle)

Historically used but illegal in the United states, France and several other countries.

Vegan-friendly Alternatives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PVPP and Other Methods

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

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

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

New Developments on the Horizon

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

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

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

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

The Biodynamic Quandary

Are wines produced from fruit sourced from biodynamic vineyards truly “vegan-friendly”? Several of the “preparations” used in biodynamic viticulture require the use of animal products such as cow horns (BD 500 and 501), stomachs, intestines and bladders.

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

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

Manure composting at a biodynamic vineyard in Tasmania.

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

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

What about the presence of insects in healthy and vibrant organic vineyards? Does that makes a wine less “Vegan-friendly”? Eschewing the use of chemicals often means more insects as MOG (material other than grapes). Absent expensive sorting these bugs can get caught up in the harvest. On the Barnivore website, Calcareous Vineyard in Paso Robles expressed this reservation though their wines were still classified as “vegan friendly”.

More Manipulated=More Vegan-friendly?

Are the most “vegan-friendly” vineyards the ones being farmed with heavy saturation of pesticides and chemical fertilizers? It seems like it when you compare it to organic and biodynamic vineyards with high insect MOG and animal-derived fertilizers.

Mass produced wines like the PETA recommended Sutter Home and Moët & Chandon often employ these conventional, chemical dependent styles of viticulture.

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

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

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

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

Now What?

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

I do believe it is fair to think about the big picture involved in many seemingly “vegan-friendly” wineries.  Often the viticulture and winemaking practices they use may not align with the ideals of many vegans.

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

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

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

60 Second Wine Reviews — Darioush Cabernet Sauvignon

Some quick thoughts on the 2013 Darioush Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley.

The Geekery

Back in 2004, Matt Kramer pegged Darioush Winery as “One to Watch” in his book New California Wine, and his words have proven apt as Darioush has become one of the “must visit” estates in Napa Valley.

The winery was founded in 1997 in the Stags Leap District by Iranian immigrants Darioush and Shahpar Khaledi. The site of their winery on the Silverado Trail used to belong to Altamura Winery before the later moved down to Wooden Valley near the city of Napa.

The 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon is sourced from estate fruit in Mount Veeder and Oak Knoll District AVAs and from hillsides vineyards in the greater Napa Valley AVA. The wine is a blend of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Merlot, 3% Cabernet Franc, 3% Malbec and 2% Petit Verdot that spent 22 months aging in 85% new French oak. Around 9,155 cases were made.

The Wine

Medium intensity nose. Dark fruit (blackberry, black plum) with noticeable vanilla and oak spice.

The mouthfeel is huge! Very full bodied and almost thick with high tannins and dense dark fruit. I felt like I was chewing this wine more than I was chewing my steak.  Medium plus acidity added a saving grace of juiciness to keep my palate from wearing out. Long finish brought some spice.

The Verdict

Photo by Jim Gateley. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 3.0

The Darioush Winery in Napa Valley. Like the wine they make, it’s BIG!

Big, big, big wine with lots of character. It probably would’ve benefited from a good 2 hour decant which my dinner didn’t afford.

Still, it paired well with my steak and was worth the restaurant mark up. At around $95-110 retail, it is worth the money for someone who wants a huge, brooding red wine that is almost a meal in itself.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!