California 2018 – Part 1
“We covered a lot of ground from the Willamette to the Santa Ynez hills and much in between, with a terrific group of buyers (Oceana, Agern, Vintry Fine Wines and Corkbuzz). As much as we think we know about these terrific winemakers, we learned so much more from visiting their vineyards and having the opportunity to peek into the future with them.
These are all personal wines; they directly emanate from the character of the vintner. I would daresay that in attitude and practice, our portfolio of American winemakers takes a very European approach, which I find very exciting and promising.
After an early AM drive to the Portland airport we flew down to San Francisco and drove up to Sonoma to visit Scott Rich of Talisman. He makes wines in an industrial park, something that seems to be quite common these days. When Manfred Krankl did this 30 years ago it was considered outré. Now it is quite common; we saw at least three of these wine “ghettos” on our trip.
Scott produces 2500-3000 cases of vineyard-specific wines each year at Talisman. Interesting enough, he made the first sparkling wines for Tony Soter when Tony moved to Oregon. Scott was the winemaker at Etude in California with Tony Soter so his Pinot Noir chops are first rate. Scott is 100%Chickahominy Indian, a Virginia tribe dating back to Jamestown (they saved the settlers through some tough winters.) Scott works as ecologically as possible but in some surprising ways. For instance, he eschews capsules because their creation, shipping and use contributes heavily to pollution. He is dedicated to reducing the carbon footprint so he uses domestic glass, old-fashioned cold-glue labels and unbleached kraft-paper boxes using only vegetable dyes; his operation is solar-powered.
His wines aren’t bad either. He typically uses around 25% whole cluster and is rather hands-off in his winemaking. His elevage is very long, which he feels reduces the oak imprint, though new oak is around 67%. All of these vineyard sites sang clearly through each wine.
Gunsalus 2013 is a vineyard in the Green Valley which overlaps the Russian River and Sonoma Coast. He calls this warm region the banana belt. Its grapes are the first to ripen, and produces mouth-filling Pinots with ample fruit and spice; long and flavorful.
Red Dog 2013 is from Sonoma Mountain, higher elevation and from the northern end of the Sonoma Valley; it produces more focused wines than Gunsalus. Not as round but a more iron, iodine nose, more spice and structure. This harvests 2-3 weeks later than Gunsalus. It was bottled last July 15. Then we tasted a 2007 Red Dog but exclusively from the Dijon Clone and a Red Dog from the Pommard Clone. This made for a very cool comparison. The Dijon was more evolved and leathery; the Pommard fresher and meatier with more bass notes.
Weir 2013 – Yorkville Highlands are in Mendocino County, and are northerly and cool; the wines show a direct correlation to their terroir (as do all of his wines). A bit lighter than the above wines but much more complexe. Lacey aromatics, a delight to drink and think about.
The 2013 Adastra was just so much eucalyptus. I find these the most forward bottlings and most obvious. Not necessarily a bad thing. We also tasted a 2013 Adastra “Méthode Valise”; a cute name for cuttings that were brought back from DRC. He does this wine 100% whole cluster. This was a solid monolith of Pinot fruit that needs a lot of time.
The Starscape 2014 from Russian River was a new vineyard for me. This is in the Adastra category of pleasing but not very complex. All on the pleasure as was a 2009 Adastra which was chewy with a saline note.
We tasted some older wines which were evolving slowly and quite beautifully. A Wildcat Mountain 2009 from Los Carneros, a Weir 2009 and a Carneros 2001 which he called Kathy’s Cuvée made from the Swan Clone.
Scott is a thoughtful winemaker who equally understands the pleasure to be derived from each site. He gets the yin and yang right.
We drove an hour up north to Healdsburg to visit Davis Family Vineyards. Guy was off at a big charity event in the south, so the young and passionate Cooper Davis showed us around. The “front yard” of his house is surrounded by Zinfandel vines planted in 1896 which Guy brought back to life when he bought the property. He is very proud of these vines, as you can imagine. We went over to the winery to taste their lineup starting with a Rose de Noir sparkling. 2017 marks the winery’s 20th anniversary. Gorgeous aromatics, clean light Pinot Noir fruit from the Green Valley, a very cool vineyard. We also tasted a 2015 Rose de Noir with 26 months tirage, not surprisingly fatter than the 2017.
The 2016 Cuvée Luke was done all in stainless steel without malo. Very tasty with a strong note of the 17% Viognier in the blend.
The 2015 Pinot Noir RRV is their flagship blend from four primary vineyards. This is classic, forward, dark fruits, slightly cinnamon, Russian River Pinot Noir. A total crowd pleaser of deliciousness done right. 100% native yeasts.
We skipped over the other PN cuvées (his choice not ours) and went directly to the 2015 Campbell Ranch, my favorite PN in his lineup. 900 ft elevation, brilliant tension in the wine, high-toned and complex, long. 8-9 months in barrel, 20% new oak. They age the barrel wood themselves for three years to ensure the staves are properly seasoned.
Of course, the 2015 Old Vines Zinfandel from 122-year-old vines was brilliant. Duh! It is a challenge to harvest this vineyard, as clusters can fully ripen 4-6 weeks apart so they need to do 6 passes. Bright yet deep blueberry fruit blended from various micro-fermented cuvées. The acidity is brilliant, not at all heavy and a reasonable 13.6 to 14.1% alcohol.
The 2014 Soul Patch Syrah is co-fermented with Viognier. Very pretty if a bit closed on the fruit side. Needs time to open.
The wines are normally left to age one year in bottle after their elevage in barrel. The corks were pretty cool, being made from sugar cane husks; zero cork taint problems. They started this program with their 2015s.
The Davis wines have a very open, pleasing style in the best sense. These are smartly made wines that should have a lot of fans.
That night we ate at a brilliant new restaurant in Healdsburg named Valette for the chef, Dustin Valette. Alex Crangle of Balo Vineyards joined us. I causally threw this visit into the mix and it turned out to be one of the most exciting and dynamic interchanges of the trip! Alex is a very cool guy, having been a beer maker before turning to wine; also interested and deeply knowledgeable about many subjects, including koshi. This wasn’t a formal tasting but we did drink quite a variety, starting with three mind-bending ciders (one made with hops that was a perfect crossover for beer drinkers) and the best Pét-Nat that anyone at the table ever tasted. When asked why 99% of the Pét-Nats are so bad and dirty, Alex just said: “that’s because they don’t know what the hell they are doing!” Of course his white Pinot Noir (very rare) was brilliant as was his red. Everyone at the table was hanging onto his every word, quite the rock star.
Woody Hambrecht of Alysian had to jump on an airplane, however he got his new winemaker, Joe Ryan, to meet us at his home in the mountains above Dry Creek to taste with us the next morning. We just drove and drove higher and higher with the house numbers literally going up and down – Rebekah jumping out of the car to figure out our next move – but we carried on and at nearly the top of the mountain we found our Shangri-La. What a beautiful spot. Joe pointed out that the mountain folk want their own AVA, separate from the valley Dry Creek vintners and from what we saw and tasted it makes perfect sense. It was also interesting because from our high perch we could look across the valley to Spring Mountain where we were headed that afternoon.
We tasted in Woody’s kitchen and the first wine that Joe showed us was the 2017 Alysian Sauvignon Blanc. As it turns out it was pure delight. This is the third vintage of this wine and they got it right. No coincidence that Woody brought on some proper talent with Joe Ryan, having been the winemaker at Flowers and Porter Creek. I was quite happy that Woody made this important move. The wine is made on native ferment, and he created a delicious balanced wine in a very warm year. This is the Musqué clone of Sauvignon Blanc, noted for making some of the best SBs in CA. The grapes come from these high-elevation vineyards (1200 feet).
Next came the 2017 Floodgate Rose. In the hands of the talented Joe Ryan, the wine was a perfect example of high-quality California Rosé. The fruit comes from the Yorkville Highlands, 50% Carignan, 35% Old Vines Zinfandel, 10% Syrah and 5% Grenache; whole cluster pressed, stainless-steel fermented, aged on the lees.
The 2014 Alysian Chardonnay is made in 35% new French oak barrels but the malo is stopped. Good thing. This wine was classic, big-fruited Cal Chard that just touches the electric fence of fruit salad but stays the course with enough acidity to keep it in line.
The 2016 Floodgate PN is a winner as it has been in the past. The provenance is the Sonoma Coast: bold, straightforward, delicious Pinot Noir and amazing value.
The final Pinot was the Alysian Rochioli Allen. There is a reason that Rochioli has the reputation that it enjoys: I have never had anything less than brilliant from this vineyard, truly a special spot for Pinot Noir. Our guests commented how much they enjoyed this bottling because it was more elegant and complex than wines made by other well-known producers from that vineyard. Woody’s grandfather, still living on the estate, was an early investor/supporter of Rochioli so they will always get fruit from this very special vineyard.
The last wine we tasted before visiting these amazing vineyards was a 2015 Syrah co-fermented on 20% Viognier. Viognier plays an important role in these co-ferments adding lift and aromatics as well as setting color in the Syrah. Great acidity, which is never a problem on these mountain vineyards; they never need to adjust their wines.
Then down the mountain and over to Napa and up Spring Mountain. These back-country mountain vineyards are so interesting; they are completely rural and quiet, belying the image of northern California as a touristic hootenanny. The feeling was more akin to driving the back roads of French or Italian wine country and visiting winemakers/ farmers who are a natural extension of the land they tend. We arrived at Smith Madrone to a crystal clear, but cool, blue sky and a very warm, enthusiastic reception from the Smith Brothers, Bonnie and Julie Ann, dogs and – big surprise – Stu’s son Sam. I had never met Charlie Smith but he is cut from the exact same piece of rugged cloth as his brother Stu, down to his stylish hirsute jowls, ticks and jokes. Charlie took us thorough a quick and to–the–point tasting in their barn of a winery while Stu cooked up the buffalo burgers from an animal he shot.
The Smith Madrone wines don’t mince words, they get right to point. Growing grapes up at this elevation gives their wines a perfect tension and balance that allows them to do a minimal amount to get delicious wines into the bottle.
The 2015 Chardonnay is barrel-fermented in 75-80% new oak. Big but fresh. Charlie believes that their hillside fruit eats up new oak so he is not afraid to use a lot of it. I don’t disagree. The used barrels go to the Cabernet program. He does “lots of bâtonnage” about twice/week.
The Cabernet is their most important wine, making 1200-2500 cases depending upon the vintage. Growing grapes up here is a lot more variable then on the valley floor. The 2014 is blended with 8% Cab Franc and 7% Merlot (proportions vary by vintage). Charlie is very proud of his Cab Franc, pointing out how expensive it has become to purchase. He also was forthright (as he is about everything) that the 13.9% alcohol on the label is dead accurate, unlike a lot of wineries who fudge it by up to a whole degree. Their Cab is elegant, balanced with beautifully managed tannins. Gorgeous berry fruit. Managing tannins is very important to the Smith brothers, and they accomplish this in the way they press and fine. He likens his Cabs to St Estèphe, which I thought was the perfect Bordeaux analogy; taught but elegant, dense with fruit but not flamboyant or loud.
The 2012 Cook’s Flat is not a wine I taste every day. The name refers to George Cook, the first owner of the property, deeded by President Chester A. Arthur in 1885. Cook’s Flat was the local old-timers’ name for the eight-acre plateau-like vineyard block which was replanted in 1972, a year after the Smiths re-planted this abandoned mountain property. It is the best of their best, a blend in 2012 of 58% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Cabernet Franc and 17% Merlot. Compared to their normale bottling, it is broader and darker with great power and length. This is a winery selection.
A great way to finish the tasting was with their 2015 Riesling. Charlie pointed out there used to be a lot more of it in Napa and that they have been believers in this varietal from the get-go. It is 7g/L rs, just a notch over dry (which would be 3.5g/L). Structure drives this wine, which can age easily 20 years.
The tasting seemed to be just a small part of their plans for our visit, because we had to get to our long and leisurely lunch overlooking the valley before getting to the main event: skeet shooting and target practice. These guys love their guns and it was a blast (excuse me) to pick up the old M16 and shoot at targets while another group picked up a shotgun; Charlie winged out biodegradable orange clay pigeons over their steep vineyards for the skeet-shooters. There were quite a few good shots in the group (not me, but I did finally manage to hit the target).
I can honestly say I never had a winery visit like at Smith Madrone; these guys and their wines, their attitudes, cannot be replicated. There is something special that drove them up this mountain, an iconoclastic, curmudgeonly mentality that informed the rightness of planting up here when everyone else said they were crazy. The results speak for themselves.
We had a long drive to the SF Airport, which included a spectacular approach to the Golden Gate Bridge, and a delicious meal at Wursthall in San Mateo. This is J. Kenji López-Alt’s paean to a German beer hall and the saying is most definitely correct, great wine requires a lot of good beer.”