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History in the (Wine) Making: The Inaugural Vintage of Rockaway Vineyard

Vinted on August 18, 2008 binned in wine blogging, wine review
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HiYa! If you're new here, you may want to Sign Up to get all the latest wine coolness delivered to your virtual doorstep. I've also got short, easily-digestible mini wine reviews and some educational, entertaining wine vids. If you're looking to up your wine tasting IQ, check out my book How to Taste Like a Wine Geek: A practical guide to tasting, enjoying, and learning about the world's greatest beverage. Cheers!

Here’s a question for you budding wine history buffs out there.

To make it challenging, it’s in the form of an SSAT ‘association’ test question. You know, the ones you had in grade school, that were so odd that they presumably measured your ability to mimic the exact thinking process of the test question authors:

Rodney Strong is to Sonoma as
A) Dandelion is to Space Shuttle
B) Robert Mondavi is to Napa Valley
C) Absquatulate is to Pedantic
D) PLCB is to Communism

The CORRECT Answer is B) Robert Mondavi is to Napa Valley.
[ If you picked A), you may want to seek professional help, by the way. ]

Though not quite as famous a household name as Mondavi, Rodney Strong did every bit as much to put Sonoma wines on the map as Mondavi did to promote his beloved Napa Valley. Like Mondavi, Strong recognized the potential of a unique spot of California land to become more than just an assembly line for cheap jug wines, and pioneered Sonoma until it could stand with sure footing on the world stage of fine wine production.

Planting his first vines in 1959 (when there were less than 20 wineries in the U.S., and table fruit was seen as the future of Sonoma agriculture), Strong spearheaded a quality movement that resulted in an explosion of Sonoma wineries, some capable of producing wines that are considered among the world’s best.

There were detractors. Regarding them, Strong once said, “You are never going to please everybody, and if you try, it is the shortest route to mediocrity you will ever find.

Those are not the words of a follower. There the words you say when you are trying to make history.

Rodney Strong Vineyards (the winery founded by Strong) is still going, well, strong. And like their namesake, they are also making wine history…


Over the last ten years, Tom Klien, owner of RSV, has been quietly setting the stage to create the ultimate expression of Strong’s dream of fine Sonoma wine – by crafting a flagship ‘winery-within-a-winery’ brand, with the potential to achieve cult Cabernet status. The result is Rockaway Vineyard, which is releasing its inaugural vintage (2005), on September 1st.

Klien began Rockaway by purchasing – and then replanting – choice vineyards in the northern stretches of Alexander Valley. He then brought together a near dream team to make wine from those plots. According to RSV’s PR Director, Robert Larson, “the team assembled to make Rockaway favorably compares with any in the world. Rick Sayre [RSV's primary wine-maker] has the history at Rodney Strong to know and grow the capability of quality production. [Winemaking consultant] David Ramey has the known capacity to make extraordinary wine. Gary Patzwald is as good as they come when it comes to an amazing palate and an incredible commitment to nailing the details. Doug McIlroy [director of wine-growing] has an incredible background and years of experience growing wine in Sonoma County. Bob Steinhauer is very well regarded in the winegrowing world due to his time with Beringer.”

If you want to create the ultimate expression of Sonoma Cabernet, then you’d better pick an amazing spot for your vines – because land in CA wine country isn’t exactly being given away. RSV thinks that they’ve found such a sweet spot for Rockaway.

“CA viticulture and winemaking is ever-evolving, and the high-end game includes narrowing down to sweet-spots in a variety of ways,” says Larson. “There are single rows and plots within vineyards that taste better than others. You’ll notice, by viewing our website, that we communicate the vineyard’s USGS coordinates, which is our way of saying that place is, above all else, the most important factor in quality wine.”

Google-mapping GPS coordinates to show off your vineyard plots? Now that’s confidence.

And it seems well-founded: southwest facing slopes, with good elevation (approx. 750 ft), the chosen Rockaway plots are made up of gravelly clay and sandstone, with good drainage. All the elements are there for excellent CA Cabernet. On paper, at least.

So what do they do with that fruit, now that their primo vines are producing some fit for vinifying? Back to our friend, Mr. Larson: “Rockaway is completely made from free-run juice, and from only the best rows/vines on the vineyard. Everything that can be done to ensure getting perfect berries into the fermentation tanks is done. The grapes are sorted in the vineyard, picked into half-ton bins and delivered early in the morning, right next to the tank where they’ll undergo fermentation. There, they are cluster sorted again, de-stemmed, and berry sorted, prior to being gently pumped – using a pump like used for fruit-cocktail, very gentle – into tanks. Every detail and decision in building the winery-within-a-winery was about preserving the fruit.”

In other words, if you’re sitting on potentially amazing fruit, don’t f–k it up.

Alright, so it’s quality from the word go – on paper. How does vintage numero uno taste? Here are the vitals: 92% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Malbec, 4% Petit Verdot; 24 months in 100% French Oak barrels; 15.4% abv (yowza!).

Rockaway’s color is gorgeously opaque, almost inky. At first, the nose reveals about as much as trying to look at a Picaso through a glass of this sucker’s dark color. It starts closed, like a powerfully clenched fist. And then, with some air, come hints of black fruit, cassis, and oak; they are not overwhelming, but they are as pure as the wine is dark. In your mouth, prune flavors dominate, finishing long and strong with hints of raisin and alcohol (at 15%+ abv, there’s just no getting around that).

As closed and powerful as Rockaway is, it’s suprisingly accessible now (it just needs meat, and a lot of decanting). It’s got plenty of potential to get better with ageing; there’s just enough pure fruit to stand up to all of that booze. In about 6 years, a miracle might occur in that bottle… It’s as good and solid a young Cab. as I’ve ever tasted out of California – complexity TBD, but the purity of fruit is right there. Reminds me a bit of Opus One (but likely way cheaper, and with a little more California swagger).

You might be wondering what the ‘big boys” of wine media think about Rockaway’s inaugural effort. You know, Robert Parker, Wine Enthusiast, etc., etc., etc.

Well, we don’t know, because they haven’t published their reviews yet.

And that’s the final bit of pioneering history-making surrounding this stellar first effort from Rockaway. Upon its release, reviews of this wine are hitting the blogosphere before they are hitting Wine Advocate, Wine Enthusiast, Wine & Spirits, and other “traditional” wine media.

That’s because, for what may be the first time ever, a high-end wine debut is in the hands of wine bloggers simultaneously as the long-established wine mags.

What a second… Wine Bloggers’ reviews are hitting before Robert Parker has the chance to give this wine 90+ points and send the purchase price into the stratosphere? What the hell are Rockaway thinking? Are they clinically insane? Why on earth would they do that?

I posed this question (sans the effusiveness, and without questioning his sanity directly) to Rob Larson: “Pulling the trigger is based on a hunch, and a gut feeling about how people are gathering information and forming their buying decisions on this style and level of wine.”

And here you thought that wine bloggers were just a bunch of wannabe wine critics.

Not any more, apparently.

Seems that Rodney Strong’s pioneering, history-making spirit that helped to put Sonoma on the map has done something else: it’s helped to put Wine Blogging on the map as well.

History in the making, indeed.

If you want to get your hands on Rockaway, you’ll need to sign up on the mailing list. I suggest you do it quickly, ’cause just like a fashionable cult Cab., it’s an allocated brand – the mailing list is the only place it will be available to wine consumers.

Tell ‘em 1WineDude sent ya. And while you’re at it, ask them to save me another bottle…

Cheers!

Full disclosure: 1WineDude.com is part of a group of bloggers who have received Rockaway for reviewing purposes. For more on this historic release, follow these other fine wine bloggers:

(images: 1WineDude.com, RockawayVineyard.com)

Are Wine Bloggers Insecure? (Hint: Not Quite…)

Vinted on August 14, 2008 binned in commentary, wine blogging

Are wine bloggers insecure?

Wait a second… why are you asking? You trying to say I’m not any good?? Who the hell do you think you are, anyway, buck-o!!?!??

Ahem.

Sorry about that. Seems that some topics can touch a bit of a nerve when it comes to blogging – especially wine blogging.

You see, the upside of wine blogging is the total freedom from the aspects that can sometimes hamper more traditional wine media (deadlines, 100 pt rating system, advertising conflicts of interest, editing…).

The downside of wine blogging is the total freedom from the aspects that can sometimes help more traditional wine media (editing, enforcement of quality writing standards, bona-fide wine tasting credentials…).

If you look at some of the topics that wine bloggers have been discussing lately, quite a few of them are in the area of establishing credibility, codes of conduct, and highlighting quality. Here are some examples, and these are just a sprinkling of topics that I found from one source alone!:
A call for wine blogging standards; effect of wine blogs in the real world; questions about the quality, impartiality, and professionalism of bloggers; how to recognize the best in wine blog writing.

After perusing this stuff, I started to wonder why wine bloggers seem so, well, fixated on the topic of credibility. Does the answer to gaining credibility for wine bloggers lie in the quality of our content? Or in gaining real-world wine certifications? In banding together as a community? All of the above?

Or are we running the risk of appearing as if we’re just trying to allay our own fears and insecurities because we’re not part of the world’s “traditional” wine media at the moment – who, let’s face it, give us barely a passing mention and more-or-less treat us as a group of well-meaning but ne’er-do-well wannabes? We’re kind of like the Canada to their USA; the New Zealand to their Australia; the Wales to the their England.

“Ha ha-ha,” they chuckle as they watch us from their desks in their magazine offices, “aren’t those wine bloggers so darn cute…”

Just for fun, I decided to post the question to the Wine Bloggers Group over at the Open Wine Consortium. I was so struck by the quality and openness of the answers, that I wanted to highlight some of the responses from other wine bloggers here at 1WineDude.com. They demonstrate a level of maturity, honesty, and grit that I would argue isn’t highly valued in more traditional wine media. What they don’t demonstrate… is insecurity. Enjoy!…


Mike @ TheNakedVine.net:

“Anyone who starts a blog believes that they have something to say that’s relevant, and that goes for anyone from teenagers pining away while listening to the latest Conor Oberst offering to million-hit-a-day political blogs. All of us want to be part of the larger conversation. One of the traps that many people who blog, including us, fall into is trying to sound too much like the “traditional” wine media. Our biggest problem is finding a consistent audience. And THAT is where the insecurity comes in…the fear that we’re not being heard.”

Bradley Cooper @ Wine & Vince BC:

“Some very popular wine bloggers are, to me, almost unreadable. On the other hand, there was a wine blogger I followed and thought was hugely talented who got bored and abruptly stopped.
There has to be some desire to exhibit your wine-related expressions. These expressions can take many forms but whether we do it with photography, charts, writing or design, it all comes down to sharing ideas in a community that cherishes the form if not the result.”

Carol Bancroft @ Pour More:

“I find it interesting how seriously people take blogs in general (and some wine blogs are no exception). For me, it’s a hobby. And the way I look at it — if someone finds information that I wrote educational or helpful, then that is very cool. But I’m not going to spend all kinds of time worrying about how credible I am or whether I’m meeting someone else’s set of standards. Sometimes a blog is just a blog.”

Nick Gorevic @ WineScholarship.com

“I think anyone who’s reviewing wines should have a statement about how their ratings work and whether or not they receive any compensation from the winery or commission for sales in some way. Something about what qualifies them to taste would be nice, too. Those are two things a lot of people feel Robert Parker would not honestly be able to write down, by the way.”

Michael Wangbickler, DWS @ Caveman Wines:

“The beauty of blogging is that it is NOT like traditional media. That’s the point. Traditional media absolutely has it’s place, but blogs fill a particular need. More and more, readers are turning to blogs because they are seeking the opinion of peers rather than the “establishment.” There is increasing mistrust of traditional media, and bloggers are increasingly becoming the influencers. That’s the whole appeal of social media. It’s generally open-ended but self policed, and not controlled by big corporate entities with political agendas. Bloggers should be proud of their maverick status, not insecure.”

Hip2Wine.com:

“I do not think a wine blog should be evaluated on whether there is an about page that lists certifications etc. A blog is a place that can be free from popular media constraints. Wine writing in general is not overly accessible, which is the biggest reason I started writing about wine, to make a space where that’s not the case. Blogs are a chance to write about wine in new ways.”

Lia Huber @ Swirling Notions:

“You build credibility by doing something well–whether it be blogging about restaurants or food cultures, the balance of a wine or the ambiance of a meal. If you do that, people will want to continue to read your words, and if you don’t, they won’t.”

Dirty South Wine:

“I’m not sure about insecure, but I think a lot of wine blogs are recreating the wheel into the shape of a wheel. When I look at blogs, I don’t want to read just reviews and scores, but I want to read about someone’s experience with the wine. Where were they? What was the setting? Did something funny happen? Was the wine worth the price? If I want only notes and scores, I can just go to cellartracker.com. Though I have some certifications, I keep those off my site. I’m a consumer and don’t want to be confused as an expert (which I’m not). I’d take incredible vs credible any day.”

Cheers!

(images: xinister.com, despair.com)

Back to My Roots: 3 Wine Lessons from a Magnum Opus (WBW #48)


This ultra-exciting edition of Tales of the Purple Monkey has Plumboo and I once again taking part in the Wine Blogging Wednesday blog carnival! Because it’s an anniversary edition of WBW, it’s being hosted this month by cool-guy and WBW founder Lenn Thompson at Lenndevours.

I say “ultra-exciting” edition because Lenn’s theme has Plumboo and I going back to our “wine roots” (read Lenn’s post for more details). Well, back to my wine roots anyway – Plumboo is a plush toy with a plastic squeek for a head, so I’m not sure he’s got any roots worth getting into.

Going back to my roots is ultra-exciting for me, because it gives me a chance to explore why I got into wine in the first place. And it has to do with a wine that everyone loves to hate (oooohhhh… drama!).

I’m talking about that over-the-top, over-priced, and oft-overlooked Oakville stalwart, Opus One.

Go on. Make fun of me.

You know that you want to. You snob!

Love it or hate it, Opus One is the wine that made me serious about vino. Before I get into that, let’s get a little background for those of you unfamiliar with the big O.O. …


Opus One is a joint venture international premium wine venture between Napa legend Robert Mondavi and Bordeaux legend Baron Philippe Rothschild. The aim: produce and ultra-premium Bordeaux style wine, made with the best fruit that Napa had to offer.

This style of international collaborative winemaking is fairly common now, but when founded in the late `70s, Opus One was pioneering stuff. It also made Napa Valley wine more serious – after all, a First Growth was now involved. Oh, MY!

O.O. (located on the main drag in Napa) is a modern temple to high-end winemaking. Touring the O.O. facility literally changed how I look at wine. I’ve spent a lot of time working for major CPG companies, so I’m no stranger to touring manufacturing facilities – and what I saw at O.O. floored me.

Here was a winery that was combining high-quality ingredients (arguably the best fruit that Oakville / Napa has on offer), old school techniques and know-how, ultra-modern equipment, and expensive “by hand” techniques to make a premium product. I could immediately draw parallels to the manufacturing practices of premium chocolate brands like Ethel M.

So why does everyone love to hate this wine?

Well, for one thing, it’s totally over-the-top. There is usually very little that is subtle about this wine. It also takes years to develop, and often comes across as astringent and tough when it’s opened too early. It’s also very expensive – usually $150-$200 per bottle.

Are you paying for the snooty chic factor? You bet. But you’re also paying for the result of really, really expensive production techniques, such as hand-sorting the best fruit for the final blend.

And here’s the thing – you’re also paying for a really, really good wine.

I’ve been drinking through my small cache of 1998 Opus One for a few years now. I picked up a few bottles of the 1998 O.O. because `98 was supposed to be a ‘bad’ year for wine in Napa. Despite that, Opus made a wine that I thought (to the best of my then burgeoning wine geek ability at the time) had some ageing potential. It turns out I was right.

The `98 O.O. is drinking beautifully right now (see my mini reviews here and here). Is it as complex as as First Growth Bordeaux? Not really. But halfway through a glass of that explosive fruit, you won’t give a sh*t about that.

O.O. is oft-maligned because it’s priced like a Bordeaux, so people expect it to act like a Bordeaux.But this is not Old World, sporting a monocle and a tux sophistication, people. It’s California used-to-be-a-hippy and now owns an Internet company, sporting a pony-tail and mock turtleneck sophistication. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

What did Opus One wine teach me?

  1. Not every wine is worth it’s price to everybody.
  2. Never overlook a wine just because it gets bad press – make your own judgments.
  3. Trust your wine instincts (and your own personal palate).

Many years on, these lessons still serve me well, and I pass them on when I teach others about wine. Or to anyone within earshot when I’m tipsy and waxing wine philosophical.

Those lessons are deep-rooted into my wine soul. Just like one of those fabulous Oakville vines…

Cheers!

(images: 1winedude.com, czaplamusic.com)

International Conflict and Wine: Georgia’s Treasures Under Fire

Vinted on August 12, 2008 binned in commentary, wine news


Just to bring a bit of palpable focus to the ongoing conflict in Georgia, I thought I’d highlight a few of the wine-related impacts of the fighting that is making worldwide news headlines:

Georgia’s Caucasus region is widely believed to be the birthplace of wine, based on archeological findings of the oldest known cultivated vines. Georgian wine is still made, and its unique tastes and grape varietals (most notably Saperavi) are highly regarded, with their wines being widely sold in Europe – with the potential to generate increased sales in the international wine market, as well…

The current conflict is taking its toll on Georgia’s wine trade. Russia, probably the largest purchaser of Georgian wine, had already placed a block on sales of Georgian wine. As you can imagine, most business in Georgia has slowed during the conflict, and among those protesting Russia’s actions this week have been importers of Georgian wine.

Here’s hoping that the conflict ends as soon as possible – and that Georgian wine, and the historical wine treasures of Caucasus, escapes relatively unscathed.

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