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Hourglass Recent Releases (Or, “Reports Of Napa’s Vintage From Hell Might Be Overblown”)

Vinted on January 24, 2013 binned in crowd pleaser wines, kick-ass wines, wine review

I, along with a small cadre of other wine media peeps, recently got invited to one of those on-line Q&A / sample tasting thangs highlighting recent releases from high-end Napa Valley producer Hourglass (so named due to the shape of their vineyard holdings, which form part of the narrowest spots in the North-South winegrowing continuum that makes up the Valley).

Hourglass founder and Napa native Jeff Smith is a bit of a friend, and it took me a lot of prodding over dinner last year to get him to talk for even brief periods about happenings at Hourglass (and spill the beans that he would be parting ways with longtime consulting winemaker Robert Foley, and bringing on Cade / Plumpjack alumnus Anthony Biagi).

I figured that I owed Jeff one from that dinner, and hadn’t done an on-line tasting in a while, so I thought, “what the hell, send me the half-bottle samples and let’s do this; also, Mrs. Dudette gets all googley-eyed when expensive reds show up at the door.” Of course, it’s always fun to watch winemakers and proprietors that you know personally grapple with the uncomfortable scenario of being left alone to fend for themselves live on camera (in this case, they fared pretty well, actually). And at the very least, I figured it would be a chance to see what Biagi did with the blends, and get a feel for how much negative impact the touted-as-epically-horrendous 2010 Napa vintage actually had.

If the 2010 Hourglass releases are any indication, turns out the answer to the question of how much gloom-and-doom is to be expected from Napa’s 2010 vintage is “not that much…”

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Churchill’s Vintage Port Recent (And Not So Recent) Releases

“You can beat the sh*t out of something, and all you get is powdered sh*t!”
– Johnny Graham

As part of some prep work for recently-published Playboy Port Primer (For Your Holiday Port-ing Pleasure), in November I was a guest of importer Frederick Wildman for a lunch/tasting and dinner/tasting with Johnny Graham, the force behind relative Port newcomer Churchill’s.

The F-W folks didn’t actually know that I was sort-of on assignment for my Port Primer, but it turned out that Johnny Graham – to whom I now owe a return on a much-needed pre-dinner beer that he bought me en route to the evening event – had so much Port worth talking about that I wanted to highlight him here. I think I also owe him a beer for providing the above quote, which slipped out when we were tasting through some of the Churchill’s lineup at F-W headquarters before our dinner, while we were discussing wines that exude finesse as well as natural concentration, versus those that simply display an overly-extracted sense of concentration (for an example of the former, try Churchill’s elegantly understated Ten Year Tawny Port, which I likened to Sancerre – seriously – in terms of its prettiness).

Anyway, the highlight of the visit was a trip to NYC’s Hearth restaurant, where I finally got to see/taste what all the (well-deserved) fuss was about when it comes to Paul Grieco (and his massive soul patch), who did an admirable job pairing an entire multi-course meal to vintage Port selections from Churchill’s (not an easy feat, even if the wines are quite good, since they’re also quite demanding, and in some cases quite sweet – in short, a culinary mine field).

Graham’s family Port biz started in the 1800s, and he told me that he was “fortunate, in my youth, I was able to taste vintages like the 1908s; Vintage Port can age 20, 50 years or more, and there just aren’t many wines that can do that.” To that end, given the sh*tload of non-sh*tty wines we tasted that evening, I hope you’ll forgive me the  list-and-review style format post, but I thought it worthwhile to give you the scoop on several past vintages of Churchill’s Vintages… including a sneak-peak at the yet-to-be-released 2011…

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Winemaking, Sashimi Style (Melville Estate Recent Releases)

Vinted on October 18, 2012 binned in elegant wines, kick-ass wines, on the road, overachiever wines, wine review

“We don’t make wine. We grow wine. We’re more like ‘sashimi style’ winemaking.”

On a cool morning that will later turn into a blustering day in the midst of a small August heat wave, Chad Melville seemed to be feeding me what ought to be a standard marketing line about winemaking. The kind that end in phrases like “optimal ripeness.”

Suuuure, you don’t make wine; it’s all about the special land upon which your grapes grow… the one that is kissed by col fog in the morning, and bathed in sunlight and warmth during the day. And he is the sales director for his family’s Lompoc, CA wine business, after all (businessman father Ron Melville founded Melville after getting bit by the wine bug in undergrad, and then setting up a grape growing operation in Knight’s Valley; brother Brent is the vineyard manager).

But there was a problem with Chad’s sales pitch about their by-hand fifteen thousand case production: it didn’t come off as a pitch. No references to optimal ripeness, no rococo-esque flourishes of over-endorsement or self-aggrandizement. Chad’s non-pitch was interjected with the firsthand knowledge of a guy who helped to establish and develop the vineyards and business that his family owns, and who previously assisted in winemaking at the estate (winemaker duties are now headed up by Greg Brewer).

In other words, I bought it, because my bullsh*t meter was barely registering a tick. And after I tasted through Chad’s family’s wines – which are high quality while also being almost fiercely unadorned – I’d say the BS meter had some hard evidence to back up its initial assessment…

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Out From Napa’s Shadow (High End Wines Shine At Taste Of Sonoma 2012)

Message to Sonoma: you’re no longer in your neighbor Napa Valley’s shadow.

You’re not the uncool kid at the dance, the next-to-last picked for the two-hand-touch football game during recess, or the slightly-less-talented and almost-as-comely sister when compared to Napa, at least not on the high-end of the vinous spectrum.

That bit of news flash will come as no surprise whatsoever to those producing and enjoying the best that Sonoma has to offer, many of whom I suspect will email me with encouraging (read: angry) words to let me know just how late I am to that party, but it might make those less familiar with Sonoma’s best wines reconsider their options when next given the opportunity to sample them. And reconsider they should, because Sonoma has probably never produced high-end wines quite as good as those that they’re making now.

That was the main takeaway for me when I attended the 2012 Sonoma Wine Country Weekend festivities as a media guest, a multi-event held across the Labor Day weekend and culminating in an Indian-themed (yeah, I didn’t get it, either) auction (their 20th) that raised over $1.6 million for Sonoma-area non-profits. Auction highlights for me included chatting about wines of character with real character viticulturalist Phil Coturri, talking with screenwriter-turned-proprietor Robert Kamen about penning The Professional (because that flik is just awesome), and drinking a bit too much of Joel Peterson’s gorgeously spicy 1997 Ravenswood Belloni Vineyard Zinfandel blend (spookily, Joel had near-perfect-detail recollection of our first meeting back in 2008…).

But I found my highest highlight (if you will) before the auction event, at the “Club Reserve” area of the 33rd annual Taste of Sonoma event (held at MacMurray Ranch)… because that’s where I got properly schooled in real high-end Sonoma juice…

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