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Napa’s Wild Weather Summer: Dispatches from the Vineyard

Vinted on September 29, 2010 binned in California wine, wine news

“Strange year!”

That’s the (apt) summary that winemaker and grower Steve Matthiasson gave me when I asked him how things were looking in Napa as they approached harvest of what has been one of the craziest growing seasons in recent memory.

There’s been much speculation in the wine press as to the impact that the bizarre Summer weather patterns would have on the quality of the fruit that will shortly be going into Napa’s wines, so I reached out to Steve for an update, because he’s probably the most passionate person I know when it comes to making great wine and growing great fruit in the Valley (since he does both, and does them both very well).  A somewhat narrow view, arguably, but I’ll take a dispatch from the field over speculation, any day.

The short version of the Napa 2010 story is that it’s not all gloom-and-doom, but it does seem to be a case of feast-or-famine and a potential study in extremes.

While some varieties in particular, and some pockets of the Valley in general, are taking a nasty hit, others have fared pretty well – and some growers may actually be onto fruit that could result in extremely high-quality wines, despite the atypical weather…

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“Deep” Freeze = “Deep” Discounts? Thoughts on N. Cal’s Strange Summer Days

Vinted on August 23, 2010 binned in California wine

It’s not really a deep freeze, of course – it’s simply been a wet and (very) mild Summer in Northern California.  Just about anything with leaves that produces fruit was weeks behind schedule in terms of ripening. If you scan the ‘global interwebs’ on the topic, it might strike you that the sky is about to fall with a thud on the entire wine business in Napa and Sonoma.

But most of the Napa and Sonoma vintners to whom I’ve spoken in the last few weeks don’t seem all that worried.  Which is a good thing, since the rest of the wine world was worried enough for all of them put together.

Certainly grape growers, already under pressure from the economic downturn, are feeling the heat (so-to-speak) about the late ripening, even if most of California’s residents aren’t.

Here on the Right Coast, we were baking as if in an oven for the better part of the Summer of 2010, and I enjoyed the cool breezes that came in recently on the heels of some long-overdue rainstorms; and with them, a breath of fresh air about the whole N. CA 2010 vintage doomsday prophesies, courtesy of Ed Thralls over at WineTonite.com.

In a (fairly) recent post, Ed did a little bit of comparative analysis on the 2010 vintage thus far, and came up with an interesting conclusion…

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Turn Turn Turn: A Time For A Right Banker In Napa Valley?

Vinted on August 18, 2010 binned in California wine, on the road

To Everything (Turn, Turn, Turn)
There is a season (Turn, Turn, Turn)
And a time to every purpose, under Heaven
The Byrds

Let’s play a little game of word association.  I say “Carneros” and you say… ___________.

Budding wine geeks and geekettes out there would likely answer “Pinot Noir” or “Chardonnay” or “Sparklers” or “Unimpressive-In-Recent-Vintages.”

But the answer we’re looking for today is… wait for it…

Cabernet Franc.

Yes, way.

Our story today not only involves Carneros, it also involves turns, banks, and several groan-worthy, near-pun plays-on-words.  Oh, yeah, and some very good wine as well (you didn’t think I leave that part out, did you?).

A couple of weeks back, I dragged my worn-out and slightly-hungover bones over to the fine Farmstead restaurant in St. Helena to meet up with former investment-banker turned wine brand owner (and first-class personality dynamo) Emily Richer.  Over a “light” lunch of amazingly fresh garden produce made into phenomenal but artery-clogging, buttery delights, Emily and I chatted (and chatted, and chatted – we’re both talkers) about her new wine venture, Virage Napa Valley.  Emily had come with a preview, label-less bottle of Virage’s inaugural release.

It’s from Carneros.  But it’s not a Chard, a Pinot, or a sparkler.

It’s a blend made primarily from Cabernet Franc.  And it’s pretty damn good.

Is Emily nuts for trying to establish a new brand in today’s hostile market – especially when she’s banking on a variety that still isn’t relatively well-known to most wine consumers (and even to some wine store employees)?  Her backers don’t seem to think so…

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Crouching Price, Hidden Ridge: When Lowering a Wine’s Price Can Work

Vinted on August 9, 2010 binned in California wine, on the road

Hidden Ridge Vineyard is technically in Sonoma County, though it’s a stone’s throw from Pride Mountain Winery and is pretty close to Napa, as the crow flies.

But in order to actually get to Hidden Ridge’s insanely, almost Mosel-esque steep vineyards in any reasonable amount of time, you’d need to travel as the crow flies.  As in, by helicopter (not that I’ve seen any crows flying helicopters… but it could happen, right?).  Or, you can do what I did on a recent press trip, which is visit Hidden Ridge Vineyards by way of Lynn Hofacket’s four-wheel-drive truck.

Which is to say, you can be tossed around like a rag doll in the back seat of Lynn Hofacket’s four-wheel-drive truck while traversing the rocky, twisting and winding “roads” that lead you to the vineyard owned by Lynn & Casidy Ward.  I’d love to provide directions, but I’m pretty sure my memory of the trip was compromised by the multiple concussions I endured during the drive.

The vineyards at Hidden Ridge might be elevated (some as high as 1700 feet), but the winemaking approach of consulting winemakers Marco DiGiulio and Timothy Milos is fairly down to earth.  Several years ago, Lynn was advised to “throw that damn thing away” when he tried to produce a refractometer in the vineyard to measure grape ripeness.  Now, he and the winemaking team simply taste the grapes to determine the best time to pick.  “Brix aren’t measured until the wine is in the tank” Timothy told me when we toured the ridiculously steep (on up to 55 degree slopes) rows of vines on the Hidden Ridge property.

Lynn is fond of telling stories, most of which are about California wine industry types and aren’t really fit for “printing” here, but the most interesting story when it comes to Hidden Ridge, for me, is the wine itself – most notably, it’s price.  Or I should say, its prices

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