Many people enjoy their vino without knowing where or whom has contributed to their treasured tasting. Well I think it is appropriate to point out some stellar wines to try during African American History Month both for educational and pleasurable purposes! Please peruse this informative article that shares 31 Black Owned Wine Businesses to get started before February ends!
In the article you will find featured, as well as pictured above, Winemaker/Proprietor Mac McDonald of Sonoma County-based Vision Cellars (center). With us is star sommelier Tonya Pitts of One Market restaurant in San Francisco (left), along with myself and fellow judges at the Annual KRSH FM Thanksgiving Wine Picks team last fall.
Also included in the article is Brown Estate, their fabulous Zinfandel is made with fruit from the family’s high-elevation vineyard in the Vaca Mountains above Napa Valley.: Here is a special selfie with Coral Brown (bottom right), before our special Napa Valley Zinfandel Advocates & Producers seminar at the CIA at COPIA.
The top right photo features Football legend Charles Woodson, who launched his Napa-based Charles Woodson Wines with business partner Rick Ruiz in 2001.
Last month we were in Santa Rosa, my wife and son returned to a treasured park only to find it surrounded by burnt out lots. The park was only grazed with crisp leaves and they were able to play their requisite basketball. However, as they put it, felt like being in a forest.
A recent article I wrote, Out of the fires: Wildflowers and Pink Winefor Valley of the Moon Magazine is a look at the natural rebirth of some affected wineries. The view above from my house during the fires, at the extreme end of southern Sonoma County, and beyond into the entire Bay Area, we all experienced the devastation from afar.
So have we, of course, been following the recovery: Great news sources are the Press Democrat special section Rebuilding the North Bay, as well as this Facebook PageRebuild NorthBay Foundation. The emblematic winery Paradise Ridge can be a reminder to us all that LOVE is leading us through!
Based at Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon, the International Pinot Noir Celebration has brought joy to wine fans who love drinking world-class wines made with variations of this noble grape grown in Oregon, California, Burgundy and other special regions around the globe. This year’s festivities in late July marked a chance to learn about where Pinot Noir has come over the past three decades and how the special combination of French soul and Oregon soil helped make the Willamette Valley one of the top wine growing regions of the world.
It is a journey that began four years before “Papa Pinot,” the young American adventurer David Lett of The Eyrie Vineyards, planted young samplings of the first Pinot Noir grapes near Corvallis, Oregon in 1965; another early pioneer to see the potential to plant world-class vines in the region was Frenchman Joseph Drouhin, who came to the region to sell his family’s wine from Burgundy in 1961. But it wasn’t until 25 years later that Drouhin’s daughter Veronique laid the foundation to accomplish this dream when she visited the region and interned with upcoming wineries Adelsheim Vineyards, Bethel Heights and Eyrie in 1986.
The following year, Veronique and her family established Domaine Drouhin Oregon. Today, the majestic winery in the Dundee Hills represents a signature French accent that helped put Willamette Valley and other segments of Oregon on the world wine map to stay.
To celebrate the 30-year anniversary of these accomplishments, the Grand Seminar at this year’s festival, moderated by wine critic Eric Asimov of the New York Times, was aptly titled The French Adventurers: Burgundians Making Pinot Noir in Oregon. Here is the SawyerSomm synopsis of the seminar and the a few Domaine Drouhin wine reviews.
Like her father Joseph, who originally visited the Willamette Valley in 1961, Veronique Boss-Drouhin immediately saw the promise of the region primarily located west of Highway 101 and the Pacific mountains between Portland and Eugene, when she first visited the area in 1986. Although the region did not have the limestone soils of Burgundy, Drouhin loved the cool climate and the various forms of basalt and volcanic soils that make it a prime region to grow the Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris grapes she studied while attending the University of Dijon in the mid-1980s. However, it wasn’t until 1986 that the family’s dreams of planting vines in the region started to become a reality.
When the first 96 barrels of DDO wines were made the following year, the family didn’t own a winery or had to source the grapes they worked with. But after the original Pommard and Wadenswil clones of Pinot Noir were planted and the winery was finished a few years later near Dundee, the winery has become one of the most celebrated Pinot Noir producers in the United States.
In the words of John Paul, proprietor of Dundee-based Cameron Winery, who spoke briefly at the IPNC seminar, “Veronique and her family brought the legitimacy that the Oregon wine industry really needed.”
Domaine Drouhin 2014 Roserock Zephirine, Eola-Amity Hills / $60 – 97 pts
Although it’s a relatively new planting on the southern edge of the exciting Eola-Amity Hills appellation, winemaker Veronique Drouhin-Boss loves the possibility of this new DDO estate vineyard. The quality of the fruit shows in this new release, which is from the warm vintage of 2014. Rich, supple and concentrated, the wine starts with attractive aromas of dark fruits, potpourri, fresh tea leafs, blood orange peel and licorice. The flavors are equally deep, with deep notes of black plum, raspberry, wild strawberry, red cherry, mineral, chewy tannins, structure and layers of savory spice on the finish.
Domaine Drouhin 2012 Cuvée Laurene, Dundee Hills / $70 – 96 pts Soft, subtle and graceful. Lovely aromas of ripe red fruits, cola, earth tones and baking spice. Lively flavors of dark cherry, wild berries, plum, cocoa, fresh sage and forest floor. Overall, elegance and finesse from start to finish, with the structure and natural verve showing with more time in the glass. A classic signature of the DDO style.
But first, a little background. . . Chouriço is Portugal’s answer to the Spanish Chorizo. Typically cooked over a clay assador, a mini, portable indoor grill, chouriço is one of Portugal’s prized culinary specialties. It is often enjoyed sliced as an appetizer alongside bread, cheese and olives. Pair this delicacy with Dow’s 2015 Vale do Bomfim ($13 SRP), a product of the Symington Family Estate. The compelling aromas showcase rich black fruit, lending to flavors of blackberries and plums on the palate. Lively acidity and freshness help cut through the fat of the chouriço, making it a perfect pairing.
Don’t forget the veggies! Our family favorite of the past few years is grilled Caesar Salad. Yes, even the young lad goes for this one. A great way to round out the heartier sausage and cheeses, plus add a bowl of freshly picked blackberries to finish things off (found along innumerable rural roads in Sonoma & Napa Counties).
If only I could be in two places . . . why my obscure obsession with the coast of Oregon? Because I lived there of course! In Astoria to be exact, for two years of my High School career. A place that is still warm to my heart as well as the memories of delicious sea food. While I will be returning this summer for the many-year HS reunion, perhaps there are others that can be there this weekend for the official 35th Annual Astoria Warrenton Crab, Sea Food & Wine Festival. Running Friday April 28 through Sunday April 30th, swing by and enjoy if you happen to be in north west Oregon!
Time to get your tickets, while they last, to these two exclusive events at Flavor! Napa Valley.
From Vineyard to Bottle: Exploring Napa Valley with Iconic Winemaker Heidi Barrett Moderated by wine, food and television star Leslie Hartley-Sbrocco of KQED’s “Check, Please!”, this exclusive seminar and tasting is focused on Heidi’s secrets behind the way she captures the deep, rich and complex flavors of the fruit she works with from premier vineyards in the wines she makes for her La Sirena and Barrett & Barrett labels, as well as other special selections from the highly-touted Napa Valley brands Paradigm, Fantesca, Kenzo Estate and Lamborn Family Vineyards. Thursday, March 23, 2017 2:30 PM – 4:00 PM
Icons Dinner honoring legendary winemaker Heidi Barrett
Celebrate some of our favorite food and wine icons at this exclusive dinner at the Silverado Resort and Spa: A multi-course dinner will be paired with outstanding, rare Napa wines.
Host Chef Jeffrey Jake (Silverado Resort and Spa), Matthew Accarrino (SPQR), Stuart Brioza & Nicole Krasinski (State Bird Provisions and The Progress), Waldy Malouf (CIA), Ken Frank (La Toque) and Michael Schulson (Schulson Collective) Thursday, March 23, 2017 6:00 PM – 10:00 PM
Hope to see you there to celebrate and imbibe! Cheers, Christopher
Located in the northwest corner of Spain, for centuries the Galicia region has been known for its abundance of fresh seafood, gorgeous beaches, plush landscape, and the visual tapestry created by its classic combination of Gothic and Baroque architecture. But more recently, this magnificent maritime province has started gaining more recognition for another one of its treasures: Albariño, one of the worlds most distinctive and delicious white wine grape varieties.
Known for its thick skin, green hue and relatively high juice level, the Albariño grape is primarily grown in granite and sandy loam soils in the Rias Baixas region, located between the famous monastic city of Santiago de Compostela to the north and the Portuguese border to the south. Due to its close proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, rivers and estuaries (rias in Spanish), the climate is typically mild and often quite damp.
To compensate for these wet conditions and the natural vigor of the Albariño vines, most of the vineyards are trained with a traditional parra system, a seven-foot high canopy hoisted by granite posts quarried locally. This arbor-like arrangement is similar to the pergola system in Italy, which helps vineyard owners circulate air to avoid mildew and spread the leaves in order to capture as much sunlight as possible.
Currently, there are five sub zones of within the Rias Baixas denominacion de origen region established in 1988: Val do Salnés, Condado do Tea, O Rosal, Soutomaior, and Riberia do Ulla. Within these boundaries, more than 6,500 farmers have planted over 20,000 individual plots—some as small as only a half an acre.
During harvest in September, each producer is focused on creating their won signature style which showcases a balanced amount of ripe fruit flavors, bracing acidity, texture, and freshness on the finish. Thanks to the integration of new technology in the region over the past two decades, the process has been made much easier and the quality has steadily increased. As a result, the number of fine producers in the region tripled from 60 in 1990 to 192 in 2005.
However, it wasn’t until the past decade that the wines from Galicia became widely available in the New World—particularly in the United States, which has quickly become the region’s largest export market. So much like the great Spanish reds from Rioja, Priorat and Riberia del Duero have gained recognition in the international wine market, the same is true in the white wine category as delectable Albariños from Rias Baixas are now giving the fine Rieslings from Germany or Gruner Veltliners from Australia a run for the money with sommelier and consumers across the America.
Exploring the Rias Baixas Style
With these thoughts in mind, the Sawyer-Casale Wine Education Series invited a group of talented winemakers from Sonoma County and Napa Valley to a special blind tasting focused on a set of the higher-end offerings from the Rias Baixas ranging from $19.99 to $44.99.
The special guests participating on the panel included: winemakers Michael Havens (Cave Dog Wine), Michael Scorsone (Emmitt Scorsone Wines) and Alex Beloz (Tricycle Wine Co); sommeliers, wine buyers and wine consultants Darvarti Ananda (Basalt Restaurant), Brandon McEntire (Morimoto Napa), Sydney Paris (Massale Vintures), Bob Orlandi (Aabalat Fine and Rare Wines) and Mike Short (formerly of Sonoma & Glen Ellen Markets); our gracious host Don Sebastiani, my colleague Keith Casale, and myself.
All the wines were tasted blind and ranked on a 1-6 scale. #1 being the highest ranked of the bunch, #6 being the lowest. The five imports from Rias Baixas were purchased from K & L Wine Merchants in San Francisco, www.klwines.com; while the ringer, a domestic Albarino from the Napa District of Carneros, was provided by Michael Havens, who now makes a similar style under his new label www.cavedogwine.com in Napa.
Clockwise (L to R) To prime our palates before the blind tasting, we sampled a special offering of Albarin from Cangas in the Asturias region of Spain, which is known for its cheeses and cider; Classic #SawyerSelfieDeluxe with fellow Albarino tasters (l to r): Keith Casale, Michael Havens, Sydney Paris, Bob Orlandi, Darvarti Ananda, Mike Short, and me; Seafood extravaganza! At lunch, fabulous Albarino pairings prepared by Sonoma-based Chef Jason Meyer; The magnificent of selection of ultra-premium Albarino wines tasted from premiere producers Adegas Valtra, Pazo de Senoras, Do Ferreiro, Palacio de Fefinanes and Forjas de Salnes from the Rias Baixas region of Spain and a library selection of Abrente from the Carneros District of Napa Valley.
Here are the summaries and rankings of the wines we tasted blind:
Details: On the banks of the Mino River across from Portugal; Adegas Valtra is a cutting-edge winery that specializes in farming and working with special strains of Albarino. The oldest strain on the farm is in the Finca Garbato block, which has its own unique microclimate.
Panel descriptors: Slightly green hue with bright and expressive aromas of white spring flowers, tutti fruiti, fresh citrus, mustard seeds and wet stone. Lively flavors of fresh melon, mango, lemon pith, candied pineapple, and hints of raw almonds, dill and white vinegar lead to a long waxy finish. 13%
Group discussion: Overall, the team liked this wine quite a bit, particularly the alluring aromas, fresh fruity flavors, oily texture and vibrant acidity. However, Bob thought the finish was slightly short and not much on the front of the palate. Sydney also thought the wine was slightly astringent. For that reason, he suggested it would be a good pairing with creme fraiche. Keith agreed and made note of the slight hint of residual sugar and petrol he picked up on the mid-palate. The group agreed that it had enough weight to be paired with a fatty fish dish. Group Ranking: #2 of 6 (tied) / Price: $19.99
Pazo de Senorans 2014 Albarino, Rias Baixas
Details: Near the town of Meis in the historic Val do Salnés subzone of Rias Baixas, Pazo de Senorans winery is highlighted by an organically farmed estate vineyard that includes the traditional pergola-style trellis system and granite posts. Many of the grapes they work with are from some of the older vines. As a result, the winery has become one of the most respected Albarino producers in the world.
Panel descriptors: Waxy aromas with notes of ripe stone fruits, anise, wild herbs, smoke, and a drizzle of honey. On the palate, the wine is lean and gritty. Crisp flavors of white peach, pear, lemon, lime, granite, pine, and a delicate finish. 12.5%
Group discussion: For starters, there was a lot going on in this wine. McEntire, for instance, was intrigued by the slight funk factor in the aromas that included decomposing flowers and overripe pineapple and followed through with the slightly tropical notes in the flavor profile. Short felt the nose was faint, he really enjoyed the slightly creamy texture, tart flavors, and crisp finish. While Havens also liked the wine, he detected a high level of SO2, a technique that can hide sweetness. The team agreed that the lean character and burst of bright acidity would make this wine very appealing to people who like the more complex styles of Chablis and Pinot Grigio. Group Ranking: #2 of 6 (tied) / Price: $19.99
Do Ferreiro 2014 Albarino, Rias Baixas
Details: Founded in 1973, Do Ferreiro is one of the older wineries in the Salnés Valley. Along with 10 hectares of organically grown grapes on the estate property, proprietor Gerardo Mendez farms 130 plots in the valley. For the 2014 vintage, the 15-50 year old vines used in this blend are grown on a mixture of sand and granite-based soils. Beyond Albarino, the other specialty of the Do Ferreiro brand is Oruja, a traditional style of brand made with grape pomace. In Spanish, the traditional term aquardiente de oruja means “pomace firewater.”
Panel descriptors: Lovely light emerald hue. Lofty floral aromas of fresh citrus, green apple jolly rancher, fresh herbs, peppercorn, and sea foam. Pronounced flavors of crisp apple, green fig, lime, lemon zest, and fresh pineapple. Full-bodied with round mouthfeel, bright acidity, creamy texture, and touch of sweetness on the finish. 12.5%.
Group discussion: The panel thought this wine was young, generous and sophisticated. Sebastiani liked the floral aromas and racy acidity. Sydney noted the way the flavors integrated with the tension generated by acid and skin contact. Casale thought it was solid, well-balanced, and liked the way it opened up in the glass. The only downside was that it was young and tasted much more complex when we enjoyed the open bottles with lunch. As a group, we agreed it would be fun to taste this wine after a few more years in bottle. Group Ranking: #4 of 6 / Price: $25.99
1583 by Palacio de Fefinanes 2014 Albarino, Rias Baixas
Details: Within the stone walls of a fortress in the coastal resort town of Cambodos, Palacio de Fefinanes was established in 1904. According to proprietor Count Juan Gil Gonzalez de Careaga, who began the commercial venture at the winery in 1985, the key to the Fefinanes brand is purity. To make this happen, the winery procures Albariño grapes from over 50 separate old vine growers. Today, the top fruit is used to make 1583, a very elite high-end offering named after the birth year of the Viscount of Fefinanes, who built the historic Fefinanes castle in 1647. The first vintage of this wine was produced in 1995.
Panel descriptors: Big, weighty, wild, and complex. Deep aromas of butterscotch, fresh citrus, ripe melon, lemon verbena, mint, and mineral. Vibrant fruit flavors of ripe peach, honeydew, cantaloupe, kaffir lime, almonds, and zippy acidity. Silky texture, rich mouthfeel, and lingering notes of roasted nuts, sea salt and enchanting savory notes lead to a long, elegant finish. 12.5%
Group discussion: Beyond the lovely aromas, Scorsone loved the peach and citrus overlay of the flavor profile, as well as the overall balance of the wine. Davarti and Sebastiani both thought it was a great food wine. And McIntire said he’d love to match the complex flavors of the wine with spicy Indian or Vietnamese-style cuisine. Overall, the mastery of this wine is based on how the naturally sweet flavors combined with the high level of crisp acidity and oak aging create a rich and smooth texture. A magnificent wine to drink now or cellar for 5-10 years. Group Ranking: #1 of 6 / Price: $39.99
Details: Of the five subzones of Rias Biaxas, the Salnes Valley is the oldest, largest, and most affected by the cool, wet and damp conditions caused by its close proximity to the ocean. As a result, the wines tend to be soft, round, and often quite salty. Forjas de Salnes is a boutique family-owned winery known for this style. At the high end of their portfolio, the fruit for the Leirana Albarino comes from stately old vines at the Finca Genovera Vineyard, owned by a 90-year old woman and a portion of the vines are 150-200 years old. History in ever sip!
Panel descriptors: Full-body with a pale yellow hue. This expressive wine features sexy aromas of spring flowers, pie crust, stone fruit, citrus, honeycomb, mineral, and sea smoke. On the palate, the flavors are layered with ripe apple, Asian pear, quince, grapefruit pith, nougat, cinnamon, and a harmony of sweet, sour and salty notes on the finish. 12.5%
Group discussion: While the wood influence was more pronounced than the other examples in this flight, the salty character and style of winemaking helped showcase the crisp and clean attributes of this wine. But in the end, everyone had a different view of this high-end offering. Casale and Sebastiani, for instance, used terms like “yeasty,” “earthy” and “salty” in their descriptors. Others felt it was slightly sour and bitter. And while Short liked the well-rounded mouthfeel, he felt the wine needed more acidity to support its weight, especially on the finish. Group Ranking: #5 of 6 / Price: $44.99
Abrente 2012 Albarino, Napa District, Carneros
Thanks to his travels as a young man, Napa Valley-based winemaker Michael Havens has been in love with Albarino long before wines from Rias Baixas hit the US market on a large scale. As a result, he was one of the first winemakers to start working with the grape in the new world. For that reason, he was generous enough to slip a library selection of the Abrente 2012 Albarino, which he made with fruit grown in Carneros, into our blind tasting. Today, Havens bottles his annual releases of Albarino under his Dog Wine Cave label.
Panel descriptors: This special cellar selection has a light hay color with green edges. In the glass, the aromatic notes are bursting at the seams with ripe melon, apricot, lime oil, candied pineapple, petrol, savory herbs, and stones. On the palate, vivacious flavors of ripe peach, golden delicious apple and pineapple combine with hints of yellow heirloom tomatoes, white pepper, and roasted nuts.13%.
Group discussion: After the wines were revealed at the end, Havens said the wine was made in 100% stainless steel tanks with whole clusters that went direct to press and spent three months on the lees (with skins). Despite being a year or two older than the other wines in the blind tasting, the purity of the fruit showed. As a result, the panel was impressed by the wine’s mouthwatering character, generous flavors, vibrant acidity, and the long follow-through on the finish. Overall, a very lovely fruit-forward style of Albarino from America. Group Ranking: #6 of 6 / Price: $24.99
Bodega Vidas 2013 Siete Vidas Albarino, Cangas
Details: Outside of the Rias Baixas region, Albarino is also a popular grape to grow in Cangas, where the grape variety is called Albarin. So to prime our palates, prior to tasting the grouping our team ranked, we sampled this delicious release from Bodega Vidas.
Panel descriptors: Very floral with notes of lavender honey, light mineral, butterscotch, pineapple, and vanillin. Lively flavors of slate, almond, pineapple, white peach and apple. Medium-bodied wine with layers of fruity flavors and lavish texture 12.5%.
Group discussion: Overall, the wine was very well received. Havens liked the complex nose, nice phenolics, and firm structure. The team also liked the wine’s combination of minerality and grainy texture, neutral oak, medium to high acidity, and round mouthfeel. Not ranked / Price: $27.99
On the gastronomical side, Albariños pair nicely with spices, salsas, olives, shellfish, grilled fish, white meats, classic Spanish ham and medium-bodied cheeses. They also work great served chilled as aperitifs or by themselves in the afternoon or evening during the warmer months. For more information about the Rias Baixas region, the producers, finished wines and more food pairings, visit www.riasbaixaswines.com.
Also, stay tuned for our new reports on high-end Champagne and Super Tuscan-style wines coming up in late December and early January. In the meantime, holidays cheers to our great followers and the fabulous winemakers, wine buyers, and sommeliers that have participated on the panels for the Sawyer-Casale Series in 2016. More to come in 2017!
As is the case with any family-owned business, collaborative efforts between older and younger generations can have a huge impact on the success or failure of the brand over time.
As proprietors of the oldest continuously operating family-owned winery in America, a major turning point for the Wente family happened in 1912 when aspiring second generation winegrower Ernest Wente persuaded his father, the winery patriarch Carl H. Wente, to import cuttings of the Chardonnay from the nursery at the University of Montpellier in France.
At the time, the main white grapes planted by the Wentes and other vineyard owners in the rising wine region of Livermore Valley were Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. After getting permission from his father and help from Leon Bonnett of University of California at Davis, Ernest planted the budwood and other cuttings sourced from the nearby Giersburger Winery in Pleasanton.
After forty years of experimentation, the two sources formed the basis of what is now called the Wente Clone of Chardonnay. With the continued success of the clone and fanfare from the media, the plantings of Chardonnay in California increased from 2,700 acres in 1970 to 45,000 acres in 1988. Today, there are almost 100,000 acres of the varietal planted in the state—nearly 80 percent of which is either Wente Clone 4 or special variations of its genetic cousins, including clones 5, 17, 72, 97 and the Hyde-Wente selection.
During that period, Ernest and his brother Herman would go on to establish a reputation as one of the top producers of fine wines in America—including the family’s release of a series of the nation’s first labeled bottles of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon in 1933, long before the term “fighting varietals” became en vogue.
In addition to the original 47 acres purchased by CH Wente in 1883, the family began developing new vineyards on special sites they purchased in Livermore Valley, including the Beyer Ranch, Hayes Ranch and the historic Cresta Blanca property, where the first winery in the valley was founded by Charles Wetmore in 1882. And following the advice of professors at UC Davis, the family was also among the first to invest in cool-climate properties in the cool-climate growing areas that would later become the Arroyo Seco and Monterey appellation of the Central Coast.
Today, the journey continues for the fourth and fifth generations of the family led by siblings Carolyn, Philip and Eric Wente, who took over operations in 1977.
As the first female CEO of the company, Carolyn has gone on to lead the charge of the expansion and growth of the Wente Family Estate portfolio, which now includes the premium brands Wente Vineyards, Murrieta’s Well, Double Decker, Hayes Ranch, and Entwine (a joint project done in association with Food Network). For wine culture, she also played a major role in establishing the Livermore Valley wine country lifestyle by launching Visitors Center and The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards in 1986 and The Concert, an annual series that attracts top music performers to the valley.
After graduating from UC Davis in 1975, Carolyn’s brother Philip took over the role as head of operations for the expansion and redevelopment of the Wente family properties. A few years later, he collaborated with Concannon Vineyards and other local winegrowers to make Livermore Valley an appellation in 1982. And in 1990, Philip teamed up with South American winemaker Sergio Traverso to purchase and preserve the historic Murrieta’s Well Estate Vineyard and Winery, where the original cuttings from Chateau d’Yquem and Chateau Margaux were planted in the 1880s.
As new estate vineyards came online in the 1980s, Philip and Carolyn’s brother Eric led the global expansion of Wente Family Estate brands, which are now represented in 70 countries around the world. As current Chairman of the Board of Directors for WFE, Eric currently oversees the family’s operations which includes 3,000 acres of vineyards, a Greg Norman-designed championship golf course, an award-winning restaurant, and a sustainably-certified cattle ranch.
In addition to providing guidance and financial support for the Livermore Valley and Arroyo Seco wine commissions, Carolyn, Philip and Eric have each served as president of the California Wine Institute, the largest political policy and wine advocacy organization in the state, which their family helped start more than 80 years ago.
While building exciting new estate brands and preserve the legacy of the family; the strategic decisions, innovations and accomplishments made by these three siblings has opened the doors for new possibilities created by the fifth generation as well.
Embracing the Small Lot concept
Today, the leader of this next generation is Eric and his wife Arel’s son, Karl Wente. Although he worked summers at Wente Vineyards when he was young, Karl’s real journey to becoming the winemaker didn’t start until he enrolled in the Viticulture and Enology programs at UC Davis, after completing his degree in Chemical Engineering at Stanford University.
It was during this informative period that Karl teamed up and his uncle Philip on a unique project focused on exploring the old heritage blocks of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir that were that were planted at the estate by the generations before them. In following the classic techniques used by their forefathers, they sampled grapes from the individual vines and tagged the plants with distinctive flavors that set them apart from the rest.
The experience provided Karl with a more personalized perspective on how his family’s heritage clones and other special selections planted on estate properties influence the flavor profiles of the finished wines from vine to the bottle.
“That experience reinforced the simple truth that humans like to chase flavors that are the most yummy,” says Karl in his exclusive interview with The Tasting Panel. “They are moments I will never forget.”
As a result, the budwood from the selected vines was used to develop an exciting new series of estate vineyards. While these young plantings progressed, Karl received his Master degree from UC Davis and spent the following year fine-tuning his winemaker skills, working harvests at Peter Michael Winery in Sonoma County and Brown Brothers in northern Victoria, Australia. After returning back to the Wente Estate in Livermore, he started an innovative series of Small Lot and Nth Degree programs in 2002.
Today, the Wente wine program is firing on all cylinders. In comparison to the larger production wines sold under the Wente Vineyards label, the Small Lot and Nth Degree wines are made on a more boutique scale of 3,000 cases each. For this reason, the fruit for each program is carefully selected by Karl and Philip.
According to Philip, the ultimate goal of the Small Lot program is to create site-driven wines that are expressive, thought-provoking and unique. “Owning our estate means we have the ability to go out and play with the vines in order to take grape quality to a higher level of uniformity, so you are literarily able to touch every cluster before it’s harvested. By doing this in small quantities of 200-300 cases, if the experiential block doesn’t turn out the way you wanted it, you haven’t sacrificed that much.”
From the point of a winemaker, Karl concurs. “My goal is to make each wine separately to showcase its own level of elegance, intensity, and ultimately let the vineyard speak to you,” he says. “As the name of the Nth Degree implies, as a winemaker my job is never done. To me that’s the beauty of growing grapes and making wine. Every vintage is different. And Mother Nature always has the last laugh, so you have to stay on your toes.”
In the Vineyards
To make this happen, the newer vineyards are designed with more attention to detail. In addition to matching the soil, climate conditions and rootstocks with the appropriate varieties and clones; other important changes have included the use of more innovative trellis systems and row orientations, closer vine spacing, sap flow sensors and improved drip irrigation systems, and aerial images to monitor the vines in each individual block.
Over time, these changes have not only improved the health of the vines and the quality of fruit, but also allowed the family to triple or quadruple the vine count per acre.
To preserve and protect the estate properties, the Wentes began developing their own “Farming for the Future” program in the early 1990s. This integrated system of sustainable farming practices is centered around enhancing the vitality of the soils by creating more biodiversity in the vineyards with the use of compost, cover crops, beneficial bugs, bird boxes, as well as innovative recycling techniques, energy and water conservation practices, and other eco-friendly applications to help maintain a harmonious balance between the family’s properties, vineyards, and estate wineries. This foreword thinking approach earned the Wente Family Estates one of the first Certified California Sustainable designations in 2010.
“In making these changes, we basically transformed the whole viticultural system,” says Eric Wente. “After that, the key has been learning how to execute on a yearly basis as the vineyards mature.”
In the cellar
Like the generations before him, Karl does not rest on his laurels in the cellar.
In general, Chardonnay clusters from Arroyo Seco spend an extra month on the vines in comparison to the ones grown around Livermore. This factor, combined with the deep, rich soils in the region made famous by world-class produce and Steinbeck novels, results in more intensive tropical fruits flavors than the slightly leaner and more minerally expressions from the Chardonnays made with fruit from Livermore Valley.
The isolation of these special flavors is based on picking date, lees contact and the use of special oak barrels that complement the signature styles that set the annual releases of the Riva Ranch, Mountain Dew, Nth Degree and Eric’s Small Lot Chardonnays apart from all the rest.
Another inspiring white wine is the Louis Mel Sauvignon Blanc, which is named after the legendary winemaker who brought in the original cuttings of the varietal to Livermore Valley from Chateau d’Yquem.
“With Sauvignon Blanc, my point of view is the raw flavors of a small oyster from British Columbia on the halfshell and the intangible burst of mineral and bright acidity that dazzles the palate,” says Karl, who now lives in the house on the Murrieta’s Well property that Mel built in the 1880s.
Granted, this style was not easy to perfect—as proven by Karl’s inaugural vintage in 2002, which he admits was too ripe. Since then, he’s started to pick earlier and the difference shows.
“What I’ve found is that if Sauvignon Blanc tastes perfect on the vine, then you’ve missed the mark by a week,” says Karl. “And although the flavors don’t present themselves right away, they will later express themselves in the glass.”
On Red Winemaking
This focus on perfection carries over to the red wine programs as well.
For starters, Karl has a sign hanging on his wall that reads “Love the wine you’re with.” So in addition to working with classic varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petite Sirah and Syrah that thrive in the warm climate conditions of Livermore Valley and Pinot Noir grapes grown in cooler-climate area of Arroyo Seco, Karl and Philip have also been experimenting with newer plantings of Malbec, Graciano, Tempranillo, Barbara, Counoise, Grenache and other intriguing red varieties.
“Inevitably, I’m going to touch and fall in love with working with all of these special grapes along with way,” says Karl, with a chuckle.
To increase the level of quality of the fruit, the red grapes are now harvested at night in small increments of a ton or half-ton and sorted on tables before entering the winery. To maximize flavors of each batch, the berries are fermented in small insulated punch-down tanks that allow Karl and his team to easily control the process.
“Realistically, you only have ten days from the time you pick the grapes until you are able to hit the target of color, intensity, stability, the right tannins and mouthfeel,” says Karl. “On top of that, you only get one chance per year. So every decision matters.”
In addition to working with the Small Lot artisan wine series, Karl oversees the production of the larger volume Wente wines that also represent expressions from the estate. For that reason, he’s always happy to receive feedback when he’s out on the road or simply hanging out with customers who are participating at the festive tasting events, concerts, The Winemakers Studio, or culinary experiences hosted at the Wente properties in Livermore.
“To me, feedback is so important. For that reason, I love tasting with anybody that has a point of view. I’ve got thick skin and I know that everyone doesn’t have to love everything. But at the end of the day, a great wine teaches us all lessons.”
Of course, Karl doesn’t do it all this by himself. For the bigger wine projects, his go-to man is Brad Buehler, who has been making wine with Wente family for over 30 years. There are also young rising stars like Andy Ridge and Elizabeth Kester, who were recently promoted to winemakers for Wente Vineyards, and veteran winemaker Robbie Meyers, who Karl first met when he interned at Peter Michaels in Knights Valley, is the head winemaker at Murrieta’s Well.
Karl’s sister Christine is a spokesperson for the company and President of the Wente Foundation for Arts Education, a non-profit organization committed to raising money to support art education programs in Livermore and around the United States. And Philip and Carolyn’s children also work in the wine industry with exciting projects with Constellation Brands, Huneeus Vintners, and Spain wines. And in addition to the production of wine, the Wentes have also earned a reputation for finding the right people to hire for hospitality, sales and marketing, and administrative positions that stay on for the long-haul.
According to Carolyn, it comes down to hard core values. “We work very hard and follow through on what we say we’re going to do. We’re there to help people and respect others. It’s about integrity, sustainability and excellence. Like our parents did, it’s our responsibility to be innovative, building great teams, instilling confidence in our workers, and ultimately create and deliver world-class wines that make Livermore Valley a true wine country destination.”
With Halloween now descending upon us, there are so many merry people dressed as ghosts, ghouls, witches and skeletons to celebrate this sacred holiday. But for some, it’s a real-life occurrence at different times of the year. One of those people is gifted winemaker Pam Starr of Crocker & Starr Winery in St. Helena.
Starr didn’t believe in spirits until 2004. But that changed when she purchased a house in Browns Valley west of Napa. In addition to having a lovely hillside view of the valley, the house also came with a set of spirits who lived near the window in her bedroom.
“They would rattle the window from the inside. God, they were loud!” says Starr during our interactive discussion about ghosts and spirits at Crocker & Starr in mid-October.
After having many encounters with the spirits, Starr discovered her friend was a practicing witch. And after a deep discussion and a few bottles of wine, it was determined that the best method to get rid of the spirits was to use the traditional method of burning sage. The only catch was that she could only invite friends with personalities strong enough to persuade the uninvited guests to return to the spirit world.
Once ready on that fateful night of 2006, the team Starr assembled included herself, the witch, and another friend that couldn’t wait to help the cause. Here’s a summary of the de-ghosting process:
Step 1: Light the sage on fire then blow it out to allow smoke to fill the house. Step 2: Go to all the corners of the house and start telling the spirits what you want them to do. Step 3: Use friendly lines to get your point across. The quotes used included: “This is not your place any longer.” “Go in peace.” “Go be with your others.” “You need to go back to the place where you belong.” “It’s time for you to return to your friends in the spirit world.” Step 4: Cross your fingers and hope for success!
As it turned out, the ritual worked. As a result, Starr and her husband never had another encounter before they sold the house earlier this year.
[Photos: Winemaker Pam Starr of Crocker & Starr says she had spirited encounter inside the old chapel that found a new home on the winery’s estate in St. Helena; The beautiful new Lokoya tasting room on Spring Mountain west of St. Helena; At Freemark Abbey north of St. Helena, there has been a sighting of a ghost that is believed to be Josephine Tychson, the woman winemaker who founded the 16th bonded winery in Napa Valley on the property in 1886; A look at the Crocker & Star wine label.]
That’s the good news. But Starr has also had numerous encounters with spirits at the ancient winery and historic grounds that she and her business partner Charlie Crocker brought back to life when they started the winery in 1997.
According to Starr, every spirit is different. For instance, at the Casali—the old brandy house on the estate which was originally developed by the Dowdell family in the 1890s—the spirits are quite friendly.
“I really believe that the spirit there really had fun with brandy,” she says, as she points towards a classic photo of the people who worked on the property in 1890s. “It’s just a really good ghost. But it definitely has the ability to say when the party is over.”
As an example, Starr told a story about a party that was going sour in the Casali. “Until that point it was a fun gathering, but I think the ghost was done with the crowd. It was at that point that a man started drinking more wine and got in another man’s face. Nothing happened, but everyone decided to leave immediately thereafter. It was the spirit’s version of crowd control,” say Starr, with a chuckle.
On the darker side, another spirit lives in the old chapel on the estate property purchased by the Crocker family in the 1970s.
“Somebody move that cherub and cross closer to the door,” quipped Starr, as we approached the petite white chapel with blue trim. “That spirit in there is not my friend.”
The history behind the building is intriguing. Built with local redwood in 1910, the original home of this quaint chapel was next to Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. As a native of the city and with a long family history with the Catholic community, Charlie and his siblings were approached to see if they were interested in providing a new home for this registered chapel. As a result, Charlie was able to relocate building on the southern edge of the estate in the 1990s.
Starr’s haunting experience occurred when she guided a tour for a small group of visitors through the interior of the building a few years ago. It was a very cold morning. So after walking past the four pews on her way towards the pulpit, she vividly remembers seeing beautiful sunlight streaming in through the window facing Howell Mountain to the east.
“I was wearing a long sleeve black sweater and the sunbeams provided a little extra warmth. Then, all of a sudden, I felt a strange vibration on my arm. Upon rolling up the sleeve, a giant black bumblebee came flying out,” she said in a coarse voice.
“There was no way a bumble bee would be buzzing around on such a cold day. Let alone, suddenly appearing in the arm of my sweater. It freaked me out.”
Although Pam’s wedding was held in front of the chapel, she’s never been back inside. “I don’t know what that spirit was thinking. But I’m not going in that building ever again. Obviously I’m still offended by my experience.”
Pam is not alone with ghost stories in Napa Valley.
Another person with some insight is Ted Edwards of Freemark Abbey Winery. Located on the northern side of St. Helena, the historic winery recently went through a marvelous restoration process. In addition to transforming the interior of the old stone building into an expansive tasting room and wine library; the building is also the new home to Two Birds, One Stone, one of the hippest new restaurants in Napa Valley, featuring the tasty delights of star chefs Sang Yoon and Douglas Keane.
Recently, I sat down with Edwards and tasted through a sampling of new releases and library wines while we talked about the intriguing ghost encounters on the property.
As the first woman winemaker in Napa Valley, the original owner Josephine Tychson and her husband moved from San Francisco to St. Helena in the 1880s. After a hard fight with tuberculosis, he passed away. But alas, Josephine moved on to start the 16th bonded winery in Napa Valley in 1886.
The original wines were made in barn structures on the property. In addition to having vineyards around where the current winery stands, there were more also planted on the hillside across the road near the house where Josephine lived until she sold the winery to Italian immigrant Antoine Forni in the late 1890s.
After renamed the winery Lombarda Cellars after the small region of Italy where he grew up, Forni built the original stone building on the property. The construction was started in 1898 and finished in 1906, the same year as the famous San Francisco earthquake.
There are no records of who owned the property after Forni closed the winery at the beginning of prohibition. But Edwards says it’s been suggested that there was “activity” on the property when it was a ghost winery.
In 1939, Charles Freeman, Mark Foster and Abbey Ahern purchased the property and brought it back to life. They renamed it Freemark Abbey, which is a shortened version of their three names scrunched together.
Since joining the team in 1980, Edwards has vivid memories of suspicious creaks and other noises that sounded like footsteps and voices when he would shut off the lights in the cellar late at night. But the most noteworthy occurrence happened when an intern saw a woman walking across the catwalk in the cellar. “It spooked her,” says Edwards.
At the magnificent new Lokoya site on Spring Mountain, winemaker Chris Carpenter said he’s convinced that one of the previous owners still resides in the caves below where the gorgeous new tasting room is located.
Carpenter and vineyard manager Mariano Navarro have also had similar experiences at the ancient stone winery on the historic La Jota Vineyard property on Howell Mountain. The structure was completed in 1898 by Frederick Hess, who made wine on the property until prohibition. But until William and Joan Smith purchased the property in 1974, it too became a ghost winery.
“These old buildings have stories to tell,” says Carpenter, who also noted that more ghost sightings are still pending.
With these thoughts in mind, mark your calendar to be part of Flavor Napa Valley on March 25, 2017. That is the day that Pam Starr, Ted Edwards, Chris Carpenter, myself, and other special guests will rekindle the stories about ghosts and spirits while tasting through a stellar lineup of wines from each of these haunted sites at the special “Ghost Wineries of Napa Valley” at the Rudd Center at the Culinary Institute of America. For more information, visit www.flavornapavalley.com.
For your hedonistic pleasures for the fall and winter months of 2016, here are three new spirited red wine releases from Napa Valley that I recently reviewed.
Freemark Abbey 2013 Merlot, Napa Valley
Although some people believe Merlot is dead, Freemark Abbey winemaker Ted Edwards is the first to say that the noble grape variety is now stronger than ever. The latest example is the Freemark Abbey 2013 Napa Valley Merlot, a spirited blend made primarily with fruit from the Keyes Vineyard on Howell Mountain, Stagecoach Vineyard on Atlas Peak, and the Dos Rios and Cardinale vineyards in Yountville. Soft and elegant, this lively wine is bursting at the seams with expressive flavors of dark cherry, ripe berries, milk chocolate, wild herbs, chewy tannins, and deep, rich finish. $34/btl. www.freemarkabbey.com.
Crocker & Starr 2013 Casali 6 Red Wine, St. Helena
As an alternative to the latest offerings from witch’s caldron and eye of newt, try winemaker Pam Starr’s newest offering of the Casali series. In Italian, casali means “farmhouse.” This unique proprietary blend of Malbec and smaller portions of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc was inspired by Pam’s visit to the Mendoza region of Argentina in 2012. Luxurious flavors of ripe plum, blueberry, lavender, vanilla, licorice, and cardamom are caressed with a smooth texture, bright acidity, and a long finish. $80/btl. www.crockerstarr.com.
Lokoya 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, Mt. Veeder
From the Loyoka Appellations Collection from rugged vineyards at elevations of 1,100 to 2,500 feet above the valley. This fantastic new release features deep and dense flavors of briary blackberry, dark cherry, mint, citrus peel, allspice and chocolate truffle supported with chewy tannins, firm structure, and long graceful finish as it opens up in the glass. $375/btl. www.lokoya.com.
In the meantime, on behalf of SawyerSawyer.com, my staff,
and the Sawyer family, Happy Halloween!