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“Christmas With The Devil” Or “Why I Still Don’t Hate California Wine”

Vinted on December 29, 2008 under California wine, commentary, wine review

“The elves are dressed in leather
And the angels are in chains

The sugar plums are rancid

And the stockings are in flames!”

– from “Christmas with the Devil” by Spinal Tap

Amidst the elite wine world personalities, there are a handful of famous names that hate the modern style of California wines. Actually, “hate” is a strong word. But hate them they do. They consider these wines almost evil, as if they were the tool (or at least the preferred quaffs) of Satan himself.

As for me, I am not among them (neither an elite famous wine personality, nor a hater of big, bold CA wines).

God knows that I’ve got no issue with a wine “fruit bomb,” provided that big, bold, and powerfully alcoholic is the best expression of that winery’s fruit. What I don’t like is when wines are busty for the sake of the almighty dollar (as in, forgoing an expression of terroir and / or style to instead chase after the palates of a few wine critics, whose increased scores can mean a price point increase of 30% or more per bottle on the wine market). Homogenization is a perversion of this style of wine marketing. But it’s not the fault of this style of winemaking in and of itself.

So, for the 2008 Christmas dinner at Chateau Dude, I decided to raid the sample shipping boxes for the biggest, boldest CA wines to pair with grilled lobster tail, bison steak, and various cuts of Angus beef (all expertly prepared by my brother-in-law).

The lineup?

Franciscan’s 2006 Cuvee Sauvage Chardonnay (Carneros, about $40), and a 2005 Robert Mondavi Cabernet Reserve (where else… Napa, about $140).

The story behind The Franciscan (does anyone else think that name sounds like a potential Monty Python skit?): 15 months sur lie in 100% new oak, fermented with wild yeasts using 15-20% of the barrel wines, 14.5% abv; various 90+ point ratings ensued.

The Mondavi? 18 months in 100% new French oak, hand harvested & sorted, a tiny amount (5%) of Cabernet Franc thrown in, 15% abv; 90+ point reviews ensued.

You get the picture. Christmas with The Devil, I thought.

The Franciscan (I just love how that sounds) was the more unabashedly Californian. It doesn’t get much bigger than this, it’s a wine that struts it’s stuff. There is so much vanilla and oak, I actually picked up a hint of cream soda-pop among the citrus, apple, and even banana (banana cream pie, anyone?). What rescues this potent beast from potenital oak hell is the acidity – for CA, the acidity is downright racy. Yes, it pairs amazingly well with grilled lobster. I’m not sure what else it would pair well with, and I enjoyed it, but I’m not gonna go so far as to call it a “triumph of viticulture and winemaking.”

As expected, the Mondavi was a killer match with steak. I decanted this puppy for nearly four hours before serving it. At first, coming out of the decanter, it was all black cherry compote - and I mean, spread-it-over-toast first-thing-in-the-morning compote. With time in the glass, things got decidely more complex: figs, plum, red currant, hints of cedar, a little olive. The finish carried quality fruit and spice and was more than respectibly long. I really felt as though it needed abotu six years in the bottle to really integrate, and I didn’t find the high abv too overpowering.

These are both very good wines. Whether or not they’re worth the price is a discussion I leave up to you (more on my take on paying for the cache factor of CA wines can be found in my recent articles about Opus One).

The problem is not that wines like these are being made. The problem is that too many wines like these that shouldn’t be made are being made.

If there’s something to hate here, it’s not the original CA blockbusters – it’s the greedy drive of copycat wineries the world over chasing after a buck, forgoing the individuality of their vineyard sites and the best quality of their fruit. We can and should challenge those wineries to do better; if we end up with the ubiquity of the ‘Bic Mac’ of wines, then I have truly seen The Devil, and The Devil is us!

Anyway, let’s fire up that grill, shall we?


Cheers!
(images: spinaltapfan.com, 1WineDude.com)

Prime Time: Another New Kid on the ‘Napa Cab’ Block

Vinted on December 8, 2008 under California wine, wine review

Remember our not-so-old friends, Volta? Seems there are a few other winemakers out there who do, too.

Take Ted Henry of the newly-minted wine producers Prime Cellars in Napa.

“I was in Volta‘s Winemaker Massimo’s class at UC Davis,” Ted told me. “We used to drink beers together in his Silver Oak days…”

As it turns out, Volta isn’t the only tiny Napa winery that kicked off an innagural, premium Cabernet release in the 2005 vintage. The promising 2005 red wine harvest in Napa also saw the birth of Prime Cellars (who recently contacted me to send me a sample after reading Volta’s first-ever review here at 1WineDude.com), founded by UC Davis alumni and marching band-mates Ted & Lisa Henry, and Curtis Mann (handling winemaking, marketing, and sales chores, respectively).

Unlike Volta, Prime is going for a less high-octane Cab. (their 2005 release clocks in at 13.6% abv, which is about a full percent lower than Volta’s Cab)…


The back-label on their first release, dubbed “District 4″ Cabernet, does the best job of summing up the story of their endeavor so far: “Hand picked… Small Lot… French Oak… Empty bank account.”

Let’s check out the wine…

2005 Prime Cellars “District 4″ Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley)

Sourced from Grasso Vineyard in Napa’s east hills (Coombsville), which is a relatively cool growing area that can still achieve ripeness for traditional Bordeaux varietals like Cab Sauv.

The vitals: 100% Cabernet Sauvignon (Clone 7 on 1103P rootstock), 3 day cold soak, 23 days on the skins, 22 months spent in New French, used French, and new Hungarian oak (1/3 in each).

My thoughts: Even though this wine is lower in alcohol (13.6%) than the typical bordering-on-port style of CA Cab popular today, the first thing that hits you about this wine is that it smells (and looks) powerful.

The nose is dominated by black plum, with a hint of dried black fruits and elegant spice (rather than hefty oak). After several minutes in the glass, pepper and dried herbs start to creep out, and once in a while you sniff some wet dirt (but in a good way).

Take a sip, and and the fruits get a little more red (cherries and currants), but still “feel” dried. The tannins are smooth but almost coffee-thick, and the coffee notees stick around on a finish that is almost half a minute long.

Like it’s prime number namesake, Prime’s District 4 achieves an excellent balance, with almost nothing in divisive proportion; its fruit, tannic & acidic structure, alcohol, and spice seem measured out in harmonious doses with almost recipe-like precision. While in balance, these elements haven’t blended harmoniously together yet – it needs time, either by an hour or two in a decanter, or prefreably 4 years (in a bottle, of course).

This first Prime Cellars release is only 147 cases – so you’ll probably want to visit their website if you want to get your hands on it; chances are it won’t show up at your local wine shop yet.

Although I undermine my perception of ay sort of wine expertise when I say things like this, I need to tell you that I’m stumped as to wether or not the `05 District 4 will ever capitalize on its integration potential.

But I suppose I’d put more money on that than one me being able to hold out 4 years before drinking another bottle.

Cheers!
(images: 1WineDude.com, PrimeCellars.com)

Blind Tasting Smackdown: East Coast Vs. West Coast!

Vinted on November 14, 2008 under best of, California wine, Penns Woods, pennsylvania, wine tasting

Actually, it’s not so much a smackdown as, it turns out, a comparison of apples and oranges. Or, a comparison of Old World style vs. New World style.

After visiting both Opus One and Penns Woods Winery, located on the Left and Right Coasts, respectively, I thought it would be interesting to host a blind tasting between the 2005 vintages of both winery’s Bordeaux-style red blends.

What would a clash of the titans like this prove?

Not much, it turns out, but it was an enlightening experience, and one that you will want to read if you appreciate differing styles of fine wines, and are interested in a bit of a litmus test on how far wines from both coasts of America have come…

Or, if you want to read the extremely geeky musings of two wine dorks.

Your call…

Anyway, for this blind tasting, I was reunited with my 2WineDudes partner in crime, Jason Whiteside, who was in town taking a few of his exams for the WSET Diploma in Wine & Spirits. The wines (hereby referred to as Wine 1 and Wine 2, until such time as their true identity is revealed) were decanted a few hours before our tasting, and neither Jason nor I knew which wine was poured into which decanter. Both wines were then poured into separate (but identical) Riedel wine glasses.

Following is the uber-geeky tasting play-by-play:

The Visuals

  • Jason: “There’s really good color in both of these wines. Wine 1 is Ruby with a nice garnet hue, and it fades more at the rim than Wine 2, which suggests that it wasn’t handled as gently. Wine 2 is deep ruby with blue tinges and nice pink legs.”
  • Joe: “I really want to drink both of these suckers.”

The Nose

  • Jason: “I definitely get a Pennsylvania harvest/Autumn leaf aroma on Wine 1. Lots of smoke, not quite as complex as Wine 2. Plenty of bright red fruit, with black cherry, currants, spice (coriander and cocoa), and Macadam/tar. The finish on Wine 2 is waaaaay long and the wine is more concentrated – bakers chocolate is going on here, Lots of oak, menthol, and heat. Wine 1 might have had more exposure to oxygen and is a little more reductive. “
  • Joe: “Wine 1 is more subtle on the nose. I’m getting a lighter red fruit on it than Wine 2, which suggests PA more than CA. Wine 2 is very dark with more fruit, I’m thinking figs, mint leaf and plums. I’m not going to spit either of these, though…”

The Palate

  • Jason: “Wine 1 is mineral-forward. The finish isn’t extraordinary, but it’s good. It’s got medium intensity and great acidity; it’s just really well-balanced. It’s very Italian in style, weight, and acidity. If you hadn’t told me these wines were from PA and CA, I’d have thought this wine was from Tuscany. Wine 2 has more dry extract, it’s got to be riper, thicker-skinned grapes. Wine 1 has to be PA, and Wine 2 is from CA.”
  • Joe: “Wine 1 has ‘greener’ fruit to me. I would’ve expected a little more on the length of the finish though, based on how well the wine showed up on the nose and on the visuals. Wine 2 has more oak tannin, I think, and good acidity; it feels like a wine built for a “longer haul” to me. By the way, what the hell is dry extract?”

The Verdict

  • Checking in with Mrs. Dudette confirmed our assessment that Wine 1 was Penns Woods Ameritage, and Wine 2 was Opus One.
  • Jason: “At a quick glance, these wines look and feel very similar. But when you investigate them more deeply, they are very, very different wines. What’s striking is how the different raw materials – the grapes – come through, even with two flawlessly crafted wines; which these both are.
  • Joe: “Totally agree. Bottom line for me is that Penns Woods is aiming for an Old World style, and the wine totally begs to be sampled with food. Opus has more of a New World/CA thing going on. Both are clearly made with passion. Let’s get stupid on the rest of this stuff!

There you have it. East Coast meets West Coast turns out to be more like Old World Italy meets New World California. Who’da thunk it?

Cheers!
(images: 1WineDude.com)

“A Sense of Urgency”: The Reinvention of Opus One from the Ground Up

Vinted on November 5, 2008 under best of, California wine, winemaking

Every living thing at Opus One, whether it be person or grape vine, needs to have a sense of urgency.”

It was yet another gorgeous, sun-filled day in Oakville, the fog having completely burned off, the sunshine making quick work of the remnants of the previous evening’s chill still present in the air. I was trying very hard not to hate everyone who lived in the area. I’d also not had adequate time to absorb enough caffeine to put myself in an appropriate (aka “sane”) state of mind – my appointment with Opus One began at 9:30 AM. That’s, like, what, three hours before I should be awake when in CA after a night of “extreme” wine tasting ?

Michael Silacci, Opus One’s winemaker since 2004, was addressing a small group standing in the vineyard lots adjacent to the famed winery building that, from highway 29 either looks like a temple to modern viniculture, or an invading spacecraft (depending on your point of view of Opus’ wines). Dressed in jeans and a fleece, he was obviously feeling at home in the vineyard. I think he’d probably had more coffee than me.

I was on a ‘technical tour’ of Opus, with a group that included winemakers and interns from local wineries (Harlan, and Tandem), representatives from winemaking properties in Argetina, France’s Medoc, and Australia, and little old me (at the invitation of Roger Asleson, Opus’ Director of PR). Roger had previously extended an invitation to tour the winery, and “drill down to another level of detail to show what we’ve been working on in the vineyards and in the cellar for the last several years.”…

Full disclosure: I’ve long been a fan of Opus’ wines. But even for hard-core fans there is no escaping the criticism that Opus has, at times, under-delivered for their price-point. In my experience, this negative perception is driven primarily by two factors:
1) Disappointingly inconsistent `98, `99, and 2000 offerings, produced during a time when their previous winemaker “wasn’t as present” (according to some of the Opus staff) – while those same wines remained expensive enough to be out of reach for many wine consumers.
2) Opus’ uncanny ability to receive rating scores in the low 90s from the establisheed wine magazines, prompting consumers to wonder why they should pay twice the amount for Opus than for higher-scoring, neighboring Napa wines.


…even for hard-core fans there is no escaping the criticism that Opus has, at times, under-delivered for their price-point…

Standing outside of the winery, my thoughts moving slowly from coffee to the possibility of a wine tasting, someone in our group asked Michael about the appropriate level of winemaker involvement in the vineyard. Michael squinted in the early afternoon sun, holding his hands above his eyes to block the growing potency of the incoming rays. “The best thing that you can put in a vineyard is your own two feet,” he answered. “We spend a lot of time in the vineyard. We have people here who do both viticulture and viniculture.”

Maybe things were a little different around here.

Another difference at Opus that would have been blatantly obvious to even the casual observer: some of the vineyard plots were completely empty; others were nursing young, small, and fragile new vines. According to Roger, Opus is embarking on a 25 year program to “replant nearly the entire vineyard.”

If Opus is trying to reinvent itself, it’s doing it literally from the ground up.

After finding himself with a glut of interns, Michael put them to good use, evaluating and scoring 266,000 vines in all four parcels of Opus’ estate vineyards, and creating a digital map of vine health. The results spurred the redevelopment program, the data and helped to gain the buy-in of the program from the shareholders. The vine pruning is now all Guyot, and kept fairly low to the ground, to better control vigor and discourage carbohydrate storage. “The vines are becoming more resilient, and I’ve noticed a difference in the texture already,” said Michael.


Every living thing at Opus One, whether it be person or grape vine, needs to have a sense of urgency.”


More vineyard changes are afoot, but less obvious than the above ground replantings. Vine nursery quality control systems have been put in place, as has a redesigned water management system better suited to the gravelly veins that span out under Opus’ vineyard soil towards the Napa river. In the brightening sun illuminating the young vines, Michael explained that the new system “encourages the roots to grow as quickly as they can and as deeply as they can.”

A 25-year redesign commitment during an economic downturn? Isn’t the stock market squarely in the toilet? Most CA wineries that I’ve talked to that have seen their fine wine sales drop upwards of 25 percent.

“We’re not seeing a softening,” Roger told me earlier that morning. “We still can’t get Opus One to everyone that wants it. People are still ‘lining up’ for our wines, but the line is maybe half a block long, instead of being three blocks long.”

Turns out this is due to yet another change at Opus, one that helps them get their wines to where the money is: over 30% of their sales are overseas, via négociants in Bordeaux who in turn sell Opus on the international markets. Using négociants avoids cannibalism between Opus’ markets, and affords them more agility than most large wineries in distributing their wine to areas of stronger sales, better weathering the current stockmarket slide.

It was early, and I was low on coffee, but certainly thinking clearly enough to wonder: if your shareholders have approved a 25 year replanting program, and you’re not hurting for cash, then what’s with the sense of urgency?

“We went from relying on the team from Mondavi, and using their equipment, to having nothing – and having to put a team together quickly,” said Michael. A bit of background: since the sale of Mondavi’s wine holdings to Constellation Wine Brands in 2004, Opus One has had to do things differently. Things like buy new equipment, and make totally autonomous decisions in vineyard management, sales & marketing, and administration. It now seems Michael’s personal mission is to keep momentum behind those changes, and reward individually accountability in the vineyard and the winery, without losing site of the vision established for Opus One by its founders.

Opus One’s origin story is a tale now well-familiar to most California wine lovers. In 1978, the late Napa pioneer Robert Mondavi teamed up with the late Bordeaux iconoclast Baron Phillipe Rothschild (of Mouton-Rothschild, the only 1855 classified growth ever to get promoted to Premier status), to create a joint venture a stone’s throw from Mondavi’s winery in Oakville. The two men sealed the deal via a handshake in the Baron’s office, which also happened to be the Baron’s bedroom, where he did “90 percent of my business” (my kind of Baron!).

Their idea, Opus One, aimed to use New World fruit (and technology), balanced with Old World Bordeaux winemaking, to produce (according to Mondavi) a wine of “bottled poetry,” made by “a vibrant business instiution designed to last a hundred years and more. We had only one criterion: The Best.” Whether or not Opus One has lived up to that original aim is a matter of “love-to-hate-it” conjecture: a topic that well-off wine consumers love to debate ad nauseum, and pundits love to dismiss outright (even if they’ve never actually tasted the wine).

Fast-forward to 2004: Michael has been named winemaker, Opus One (along with the rest of the Mondavi wine empire) is part of Constellation Wine Brands, and Michael is sitting on jury duty, day-dreaming about how to raise engagement at the recently sold Oakville icon. It’s long been known in the corporate world that higher engagement leads to higher quality products and better business results. And higher engagement starts with getting employees psyched about their day-to-day work. During his jury-duty day-dreaming, Michael decided to challenge the Opus One employees – all of them – in an interesting way: In an effort to encourage independent decision making and “cross pollination” of roles within Opus, small teams would be formed across all functions (including cellar & vineyard management, PR and accounting). Each team would be responsible for a small amount of wine – all aspects of that wine – from vine to glass. Decisions on every aspect of the vine and wine would be made by the teams themselves, not by Michael. Even though each team had only a small amount of vines under its remit, their total would potentially equate to a few hundred thousand dollars worth of wine at retail.

…Whether or not Opus One has lived up to Mondavi’s original aim to be “The Best” is a matter of “love-to-hate-it” conjecture: a topic that well-off wine consumers love to debate, and pundits love to dismiss (even if they’ve never actually tasted the wine)…

How did the staff take it? “They’re scared to death!” Roger told me. They’ve got a decent track record, though: so far, their lots have made it into the final blend of either Opus One or the estate’s second wine, Overture.

“The more you challenge people, the greater they rise to the occasion,” Michael told us while standing in the midst of Opus’ large, engraved (and nearly spotless) tanks on the winery’s ground floor. “What’s the ‘pectin’ [in winemaking]? It’s humans. People hold it all together.” Renewed by their newfound sense of ownership, the staff’s input has started to change other aspects of Opus’ winemaking. “We went from racking based on a calendar to racking based on how the wine is developing” explained Michael.

Our group strolled along the outer edge the winery, where Michael showed us some of the new (and also engraved) harvesting equipment that Opus One had to procure when Mondavi was sold. About 60 percent of harvesting is now done at the ungodly hour of 3AM PT. Why would Michael torture Opus’ vineyard workers in this way? “In the evening, the vine rehydrates, and that extra intake of water helps to dilute the sugars,” resulting in lower alcohol levels for the finished wine. “It’s also better for the cellar, since they have fruit at 8AM, right when they get in.” At least the bleary-eyed harvesters are given hot chocolate, lattes, and coffee during the proceedings (now a harvest-time tradition at Opus).

“We want to be around in fifty years, one hundred years…”

We worked our way out of the warn Northern CA sun and down into the grand chai, Opus’ Rothschild-inspired barrel room. Michael likened it’s semi-circular windowed view to a nursery, and the barrel-staining process (used to hide spots left over from barrel sampling) to a bib. “Let’s go in and see our babies” he said as he led us into the chai.

Changes are afoot in that quiet, reverent space as well. To minimize the potential of bready off-aromas, lees wine is no longer used to stain the barrels. Wood rails were removed to cut down on moisture retention, and other anti-microbial actions are in progress. The barrel coopers (all 14 of them – “they’re a part of our team” said Michael) are brought in at regular intervals for a complicated series of barrel sample tastings that help determine the best blend for the finished wine. Why all the complexity?

“We’re constantly trying to fine-tune what we do,” explained Michael. Extending the nursery analogy, Opus’ all-French oak barrels are single-layered before racking, to maximize attention to the “babies” during the most formative first 8-9 months of their little lives. From there, it was onto the adjacent tasting room, to see if all of the attention, changes, and raised engagement actually make a difference where it most counts – in the wine.

Earlier in the day, sans coffee but buoyed by how pleasantly everyone treated me at Opus, I asked Roger Asleson how he felt about the perception that Opus One has underperformed. “We want to be around in fifty years, one hundred years,” he answered. “The key is balance” – of the wine, of Napa with Paulliac, of providing approachable, excellent wine now and experimenting for the long term goal of being “one of the best wines in the world.” While the current criticism is important to Opus, in terms of a 100-year timeline, “it’s a blip on the radar.” No questioning the Bordeaux influence in that statement…

In the underground tasting room, Michael poured the 2005 and 2004 vintages for our group to sample. Seated at the circular “reserve” tasting table, sipping the wine, the conversation naturally became more intimate. The group members asked Michael what he thought of the big wine magazine scores for these Opus vintages (both received 90 points in Wine Spectator).

“I don’t make wine for scores,” he answered, “I want to respect the vineyard. I’m looking for balance. I want people to imagine it’s as if they’re reading poetry.”

When you don’t differentiate based on scores, you can do it based on price point, which has been both the boon and the bane of Opus One since it released its first vintage for $50 a bottle (a then brazen amount).

“I don’t make wine for scores. I want to respect the vineyard. I’m looking for balance. I want people to imagine it’s as if they’re reading poetry.”

At 25,000 cases, poetry can sometimes be difficult to pen. Balancing early approachability with long-term aging potential adds to the trickiness. My take on the tasting: it was almost like trying two entirely different wines. And both of them were very, very good.

The 2005 was the thicker of the two, all black plum and pepper at first, with mushroom and blueberries coming a few moments later. The mouthfeel was noticeably smoother than the 2004, the finish was long with an almost BBQ like char. After a few minutes, mint leaf was jumping out of the glass. Its acidic structure made it more approachable than the 2004 as well.

The `04 was classic CA Cab: currants, black tea leaves, plum, and a bit of french bread aroama floating on top (ok, maybe that last bit isn’t exactly classic CA). The tannic structure was firm, as was the acidity, suggesting a long, long life ahead. The finish was ridiculously long – I think I can still taste it – with toffee and brandy notes. A few minutes later, black licorice took over. It’s like an elegant eighteen wheeler (if there is such a thing) – a wine built for the long haul.

If poetry means being able to appreciate an effort as a work of art, with unfolding levels of complexity, returning to find new and interesting elements each time you revisit it, then I’d say these wines were pretty close to being poetic. Whether or not it’s $160+ worth of being poetic will, undoubtedly, still be matter of “love-to-hate-it” conjecture.

I can hear the pundits debating it already…

Leveling too much criticism on Opus One based on price and magazine scores, rather than on experiencing the wine itself, might be missing the point. “We’re not photographers, we’re film makers,” said Michael, referring to the winery’s long-term view, which seems to be shared by everyone that I ran into at Opus.

Earlier that day, while touring the winery laboratory, the noises of various analysis equipment humming away in the background, we asked Michael if the current bio-dynamic craze might come to influence Opus. Turns out they are experimenting with bio-dynamics already, but are still looking for the right balance, using one of their best vineyard lots.

Experimenting on a prized lot? Isn’t that a bit risky?

Michael seems easy going about the potential dangers, and I wondered if his laid back demeanor belied a more intense passion to drive changes at Opus, or at least hid the trepidation of having to convince shareholders that this kind of risk-taking is worth it. If it made him nervous, he sure didn’t show it.

“If you don’t put something at risk,” he said, “you’re not going to take it seriously.”

For now, the risks seem to be paying off, for those who can still find – and afford – a bottle of his Oakville poetry.


Cheers!
(images: 1WineDude.com)

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