Ask your local sommelier for a wine recommendation and you’re likely to get a suggestion for some obscure, enamel stripping high acid low alcohol wine from France or a place you haven’t heard of, right? At least, that’s what wine critics at big name wine publications would have you believe.
It’s not like there isn’t truth to that stereotype. A good sommelier won’t do those things. However, an average or below average sommelier will perpetuate the stereotype and get you to drink something they like to drink along those lines—not that you’d like it. The good somms, especially Master Sommeliers have evolved and will steer you to a wine you will like without making you feel silly. If you want Silver Oak with your halibut and that makes you happy, so be it.
There’s friction between the sommelier community and major wine publications (and their reviewers). On one side, the sommelier is perceived as a snooty know-it-all who turns their nose up at any wine over 14% alcohol made with new oak. On the other side, the wine critic representing a pay-to-play business who’s lifeblood is advertising dollars from major wine conglomerates who just happen to end up gracing a majority of the Top 100 list each year. Coincidence?
Knowing who to trust for wine recommendations isn’t hard. Not one other person can possibly know what you as an individual likes to drink. The best wine for you is the wine you like.
Let’s look at the motivation behind wine publication recommendations. First, it’s important to note wine publications are a business motivated by the almighty dollar. Wine critics cover a region regurgitating the same content (worded differently) over and over in an effort to fill pages of a magazine that’s 50% advertising. “Chewy dense tannins and refined oak”… Sound familiar? The wine critic is not trained to follow any industry standard nor do they have any accreditation—it’s just their opinion. Anyone can give an expensive wine a high rating, especially if the producer is an advertiser. Expensive wines aren’t hard to figure out—someone at your table is bound to like it.
The sommelier is motivated by….well, now let’s look at that. It’s not money. Sommeliers are motivated by something entirely different. The sommelier fights for artists. Small, independent producers with no advertising dollars who happen to make great wines need a champion, and that champion works the floor at finer restaurants.
The sommelier is more of a filter of typicity. Each grape is supposed to taste like something specific. Merlot has a benchmark. Chardonnay has a benchmark. Riesling has a benchmark. When a winemaker hits the bullseye of what the grape is supposed to be, from the place its grown it gets closer to the center of that grape’s typicity. Often times those producers are relatively unknown from places you wouldn’t think to look. And yes, sometimes the best examples of typicity are lower alcohol wines with less oak. Not always, but often.
Anyone can oak the crap out of a wine and get points. Too much oak usually means higher prices and higher scores. But not necessarily recommendations from sommeliers as the wine loses its typicity. Take the 2009 Chateau Monbousquet from the right bank in Bordeaux for example. Robert Parker gave the wine 95 points. But smell the wine and it neither smells like Merlot, nor does it smell like the place its grown . It smells like a lot of crazy wine making techniques. Some wine lovers and collectors like that, which is fine. But the typicity of the grape is way off.
At the end of the day, sommeliers are value shoppers. They’re constantly trying to find the best examples of typicity for each grape at the best possible price, no matter the region. You might get some unexpected recommendations from regions you didn’t expect, such as Domaine Skouras Megas Oenos from Greece ($25 retail) or Graci Etna Rosso ($26 retail). If you like Cabernet based wines from Bordeaux, you might like the Skouras. If you like Pinot Noir, you might like the Etna Rosso.
Aside from typicity, the sommelier is also looking for structure. If you were to make a movie, you’d have a “good guy” and a “bad guy”. The tension between good and bad creates drama. All the supporting cast adds to the story and makes the drama more intriguing. A wine has tension between sugar and acid. They are the main building blocks to the story. Drama between the two makes the wine interesting. All all the additional flavors serve as a supporting cast.
Wines with impeccable balance between sugar and acid are wines you’d probably hear as a suggestion from your sommelier. It’s like a friend recommending a good movie. A sommelier is likely to recommend “Forrest Gump” to you while a wine publication is motivated to recommend “Transformers” to you.
If you cross paths with a sommelier who isn’t listening to you and just wants to recommend a wine they like, they’re doing it wrong. Call them out on it. If they listen to you and your likes, then steer you to something they think you’ll like based on what you described, you probably have a good sherpa of value.
The Importance of Family
As a doe-eyed newbie I felt like the new kid on the first day of kindergarten when I got into the wine business. In October, 2003 the country was entering into a recession, there was a heat wave killing people in Europe, Chicken n’ Beer by Ludacris was the #1 album in the country, and I had just left my job at NIKE after eight years of branding and marketing.
When you reboot your life and career, there’s usually a catalyst for the change. In this case, it was my family. My Mom's body was breaking down and her Multiple Sclerosis was starting to take its toll. It was a proverbial fork in the road decision—stay at my dream job working for the company I always wanted to work for, or go take care of family. After about two seconds, the road leading to family was an obvious choice. But what to do about a job? At that moment in time with nothing to lose I decided to follow the advice of ‘do what you love’. I collected wine so why not try a career in the wine business? After moving to Denver, I took the first step hand selling wine in a local wine shop. The very first bottle I sold was a bottle of 2002 Wente Riva Ranch Chardonnay.
Let’s look at that word, ‘family’. We’re all were born with one. Even if we haven’t met everyone in our family or don’t particularly want to be around our family, we are genetically linked to other human beings. In the world of wine, ‘family’ is used far less domestically than in other parts of the world where multi-generational families have made wine for centuries. In the U.S. we have winemaking families like the Wagners (Caymus, Mer Soleil, Belle Glos), the Trefethens, the Hirsch’s, Sokol Blossers, Figgins (Leonetti) among others.
But no winemaking family has the historical depth and breadth quite like the Wente family of Livermore, California. They mention being the longest continuously running family winery in the U.S. (135 years) almost matter-of-factly when talking about the history of their little corner of the world. At one point in the 1800’s, Livermore was one of America’s premiere wine producing regions.
Ask any vineyard manager growing Bordeaux grapes (especially Sauvignon Blanc) in California if they have a “Wente clone” in the vineyard and chances are they do or did. In 1882 Charles Wetmore famously brought Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon vine cuttings from Chateau Yquem as well as cuttings from Chateau Margaux in Bordeaux to Livermore. Wetmore travelled back to France in 1889 with his wine and won Grand Prize at the Paris Expo giving America its first win internationally. His Cresta Blanca wines along with Chateau Wente were some of the first wines made with the clones.
Wetmore’s early success and Livermore’s location thirty miles south of the bay area could’ve led to the region becoming “the Napa Valley” of California, yet over a century later and Livermore valley is yet to realize its potential. Carolyn Wente and the family’s tireless work in the valley suggests the best days are still ahead. To this day, Wente honors Charles Wetmore with their Wetmore Cabernet Sauvignon.
Home is where the History Is
Upon arrival at one of Wente’s two Livermore locations, there’s a sense of visiting the family in their living room. On two separate visits, a Wente family member stopped by to greet my wife and I. Chief winemaker, Karl Wente recently joined us on the tasting room patio mere days before harvest to discuss vintage 2014 and the responsibility of upholding the Wente name.
“Do you feel a lot of pressure keeping the family name in good standing?” I ask sniffing and sipping a surprisingly accurate Cabernet Franc. “I grew up around these vines and got to know the fruit as a kid,” he tells us. “We have consistent vineyards that produce consistently quality grapes year in and year out. I just try to get out of the way of that”.
Charles Wetmore may have been onto something. Livermore’s unique combination of sandy gravel soils peppered with random Limestone deposits along with its warm days and cool foggy nights near the ocean put the region more on par with Bordeaux’s Maritime right bank climate. Conversely, Napa and Sonoma feature a Mediterranean climate with more volcanic mother soils and alluvial deposits.
Out of the entire lineup of wines, the Sandstone Merlot was a hair-blow-back ringer. Wente may be known for its Chardonnays, however, this $20 bottle is on the money for what Merlot can or should be. No wonder, as it’s grown in shallow well-drained gravelly soils not much different than its right bank brethren.
As sommelier’s, we look for typicte, or the accuracy of what the grape should taste like from the place it’s grown. Wente Sandstone Merlot is the benchmark of not only what Merlot should be from Livermore, but from the entire state of California.
Other standouts from the Wente lineup include the Cabernet Franc and winery-only GSM blend. Although higher in alcohol and oak than I’d like, it did represent what we love about Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre. Roasted meats, smoke, iodine, black and dark red fruits all working in concert with one another.
For visitors and wine lovers alike, it’s not hard to find a Wente made wine to put on the dinner table. But just in case, Wente’s new Winemaker Studio offers visitors the opportunity to make their own wine. Part rustic cafe, part laboratory, Wente’s Winemaker studio lets you play mad scientist with your favorite blends.
On this day we did the sniffer seminar. 20 glasses of clear liquid were all lined up in a row with each one smelling like one specific wine smell ranging from “cat pee” to “cassis” and “tobacco”. Half the fun is trying to guess what each smell is, the other half is the social element challenging fellow sniffers sitting around the table.
I smell wine for a living, so I thought I’d crush everyone, yet I did the worst only getting 3 smells right.
Visitors have a myriad of ways to enjoy their time when visiting Wente in Livermore. Once the itch to taste wines at the tasting room gets scratched, and class is dismissed in the Winemaker Studio, one might play a round of golf at the golf course, or better yet, roll into town for a little BBQ then take in a concert at the winery (which is what we did). Tony Bennett was playing on my birthday, so we spent the summer night under the August sky taking in the sounds of a living legend while sipping on Wente Pinot Noir.
In a strange twist of fate, Colorado's legendary wine guy, John Verdeal (the guy who first hired me into the wine industry in 2003) was sitting at the next table over. It was a reminder of the importance of family, friends and why we enjoy wine in the first place. As for Wente, the family winery is in good hands for the near future and years to come.
Right smack dab in the middle of the state of California sits the Santa Lucia Highlands in the massive Salinas valley—California's prime agricultural region located 20 miles southeast of Monterey between the Gabilan and Santa Lucia mountain ranges. They grow everything there from lettuce to raspberries, and chances are your local grocery store may have produce in their store grown in Salinas.
Right around 1971 a few guys got together and said, "you know, we could grow grapes here". Richard Smith was a young family man working for a company that was looking for new places in California to grow vines. After analyzing the region's sand and clay soils, sun exposure and other variables, he realized this was a place that could grow some decent wine grapes. The company he was working for balked, but he saw potential. Early plantings of Bordeaux varietals seemed like a good idea as Bordeaux the wine region is also composed of sand and clay soils. But the first bottlings came out tasting too green. The Merlot was underripe and the Cab Franc undrinkable.
After a spending a few vintages farming the land with his family, Smith realized it was too cold here for those thick-skinned grapes. But maybe Pinot Noir and Chardonnay could flourish. Smith was one of the first growers to switch vine spacing from 12x6 spacing to 6x6 spacing, allowing 3 tons an acre. Smith turned his growing into a family operation with sons and grandsons joining the family business. The family produces wines under the Paraiso label, and coming soon under the Alexander-Smith label.
Off the coast of California near Monterey is where you'll find the 'big blue hole' in the Pacific Ocean. That's where a deep trench in the ocean floor can be found that's deep enough to hold cold arctic water. The wind comes off the ocean where that deep hole sits and with it comes cold temperatures during the growing season that winds its way down the Salina valley.
Temperatures can reach 80 degrees by 11am, but around lunch time the wind starts picking up and cooling the vineyards. Temperatures can drop off dramatically in the afternoon. So the grapes get the two best things they love—sunshine and cool temperatures. Particularly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The result is a long, gentle growing season. Soils are clay loam or sandy loam and not very deep. There’s no water unless growers add it as these are on alluvial benches.
Still Just a Baby
If your child was born when the Santa Lucia Highlands were established as an official wine growing region, your child would just be graduating from high school now. In just under 20 years, winemakers have gone from standing start to world class region. Conversely, another Pinot Noir and Chardonnay producing region in France called Burgundy got a 400-year head start, yet wines from both regions show up on America's top wine lists and collectors cellars.
On a recent sunny Saturday Master Sommelier, Fred Dame led a panel of SLH winemakers at Mer Soleil winery in a library tasting. Master Dame seems like the best sherpa to lead any wine tasting, but this one was special to him as he was born and raised up the road in Monterey. He cut his teeth in the early days on the floor at the Sardine Factory, then went on to pass the Master Sommelier exam and founded the American chapter of the Court of Master Sommeliers in the mid 1980's. He and Bill McIntyre shared stories of the 'early days' when McIntyre was a delivery driver delivering wine to Dame before he started his own winery (the #2 wine in this panel tasting).
SLH has come a long way in a short amount of time. The learning curve around clone selection, row spacing, trellising and vinification has been dramatic. Wheras Burgundy or Oregon’s Pinot Noir’s have beautiful earthiness from the soil coming out in the wine as damp soil, coffee grounds, dried leaves and turned earth, SLH Pinots are grown in sand and clay which can lead to earthy aromas but I didn’t see that as much on this day.
The panel looked at three pinots—2007, 2008 and 2010 respectively. A few things stood out as we went through the lineup: the quality potential in the region is obvious, but without many vintages in the cellar nobody really knows how well the wines will age. As Master Dame pointed out, it doesn't matter as 90% of wine is consumed within a few days of purchase. Pinot Noir, however, if it is to be taken seriously is one grape we want to see age for a while in the cellar. And the acid profile of SLH seems to give that backbone the wines need to get better over time, not much unlike Burgundy.
The three wines we looked at on this day:
2007 Paraiso “Faîte” Pinot Noir - Moderate ruby color fading out to a rust/ruby rim with watery meniscus. Ripe red and black fruits, pomegranate, cranberry, crisp apple skin and still youthful, mountain ridge of acid right down the middle with lightly integrated new and neutral oak. The resonating acid will keep this party going for years, in fact, it’s probably just now ready to drink but it’ll be even better given 10 years in the bottle. “Faite” is a French word that means pinnacle. Pinot Noir lovers who dig the “hippy” style of Pinot (ie.. lighter and more feminine) will like this effort from Paraiso. Long, pretty finish showing what’s possible in SLH.
2008 McIntyre “Estate” Pinot Noir - 60 acres purchased in 1987. In the early days grapes were sold to J. Lohr until they could work out the wrinkles, then started making their own. “In Burgundy their precision is like a sniper with a laser scope, but here we’re still like a shotgun that scatters. We’re still learning about our vineyards and want to make changes to refine the farming techniques." Moderately ruby colored ‘cowboy wine' with bright, almost-underripe red fruits on the nose with maraschino cherry and cranberry coming forward the most. Reductive new oak laid as a foundation with a summer mix of red berried fruits on top almost like a picnic table. In recent vintages the vineyard manager lays white reflective cloth on some of the vines to minimize afternoon sunlight until rows can be replanted.
2010 Testarossa “Fogstone Vineyard” Pinot Noir - Young and sexy, and ironically more evolved fruit than the two older wines. Darker fruits like black cherry and non-fuits of RC cola, apple skin, spice box and red carnations, ready to drink now with the help of toasty oak. Aromatic and fun to drink now with a little bit richer foods as this is also a ‘cowboy’ wine. The winemaker referred to himself as a 'grape whisperer' while his marketing gal referred to him as a 'savant'. I'm not sure either of those are correct (or if anyone should refer to themselves as such), but Director of Winemaking, Bill Brosseau took the reins at age 23 and hasn't looked back. He grew up playing in the vines and knows what he wants from each of his growers.
Santa Lucia Highlands reminds me of another youngish wine growing region that makes exceptional age worthy wines. Walla Walla is around the same age as SLH and both regions are short on library wines that show off how well the wines can age, but over time we'll add both the conversation of where America's best wines are created.
When I told some friends I was going to visit Opus One on my birthday they scoffed. “Ooooh, GOD! They are sooo pretentious there!” they said. “Don’t forget to kiss the ring on the way in”.
I brought my Mom and Mrs. B along for the ride because, hey, it was my birthday. Not sure what experience others had at Opus One but what we found on our visit was one of the warmest, most down to earth winery visits I’ve ever experienced…anywhere. And that’s saying something as I’ve probably been to over 500 wineries around the world.
Robert Mondavi is easily the person I admire the most in the wine industry, so to see Opus One three decades after he cofounded it was personally rewarding. His vision, his passion, his standard of excellence and his soul are still part of the DNA that is at the heart Opus One. What I saw on this day wasn't the Opus One brand but rather Mondavi's fingerprints that were still all over this place.
Chief Winemaker Michael Silacci and PR Director, Roger Asleson met us in the front lobby for a short introduction and conversation about Opus One’s history. In my head I’m thinking, “okay, when’s it going to feel stuffy?” Silacci’s easy going demeanor and laid back style was warm and engaging. His black horn rimmed 1960’s hipster glasses with salt and pepper speckled hair began to remind me of a cross between Gene Hackman in Enemy of the State and Mr. Natale, the coolest teacher at my high school.
Silacci’s seasoned veteran worldliness gave a glimpse into a yoda-like genius intellect matched only by an unabashed humility and a patience to teach. It was obvious this dude was cool as hell and knew his stuff. But he never made any of us feel stupid about asking anything. Moreover, he took time out of doing something probably more important to spend time with our little group. Our day was just beginning.
Over the course of our time together, we’d come to learn Silacci’s role as Chief Winemaker wasn’t only about upholding the Opus One standard of quality set by the founders (discussed in part 1) but he nurtured people at the winery much like the vines—with patience to help everyone grow and flourish over time.
Precision in the Vineyard
Any winemaker will tell you work in the vineyard is where good wine is made. If you don’t have good fruit coming into the winery, you aren’t going to make good wine.
Michael Silacci and his team use cutting edge technology to manage every single grape cluster in every row. When interns from the Baron Philippe de Rothschild side of the partnership came over from Bordeaux they weren’t simply put into the winery to clean tanks. Instead, Silacci challenged them to truly get to know each vine by mapping out and digitally track every single vine in the vineyard. A daunting task in any vineyard, but at Opus One it was a major undertaking.
The result allows Silacci’s winemaking team to manage every vine as an individual living thing with its own personality. The visual grape analyzer pictured above gives the winemakers an accurate portrait of the sugar content leading up to harvest. They constantly monitor grapes from around the vineyard throughout each day.
Winemaking is a bit like being a painter. A good painter has a palette of colors to dip their brush into when creating a work of art. The better the control over the colors, the better the artist is. Instead of colors in a palette, a winemaker has individual lots or tanks. By keeping grapes, rows or blocks separate during production allows the winemaker freedom to pull from different parts of the “terroir” to paint a masterpiece. At Opus One, the winemaking and viticulture team painstakingly manage every vine so it produces the best possible fruit that goes into the final work of art. When it comes to blending the final wine, Silacci and his team taste through every single individual lot as if picking colors from their palette.
It’s important to remember Opus One was created to be a American “first growth” modeled after the great houses of Bordeaux where red wines are blends made primarily from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. When those grapes come together with the right amount of each, it can be magic in a bottle (see reviews below). Great care is taken throughout every step of the winemaking process, including hand soaking corks in a solution that removes any corked bottle causing bacteria.
Tradition and Innovation in the Winery
To this day Opus One still embraces the soul of the two founders. Balance and tension between French and American, Old and New, Tradition and Innovation is what gives the wines their identity. The word that kept popping up was, 'DNA'.
As harvest gets under way each year, shallow bins of pristine fruit come into the winery with the utmost care to insure the weight of grape bunches don’t squeeze juice out of the grapes prematurely. From there they go through an initial hand sorting picking out only the best fruit. It's at this point where many luxury wineries would be satisfied with the quality of grapes going into their wine.
In the relentless drive to create the wine Robert Mondavi and Philippe Baron de Rothschild envisioned they take it a step further. If you've never seen a laser fruit sorter it is one of the coolest inventions in the wine industry. Seriously, it's cool as hell.
Pre sorted grapes come cruising down the conveyor belt into the sorter. A laser "eye" rapidly looks at every grape and quickly identifying the "good" grapes and the "bad" grapes. As the grapes fall into the press little air blowers kick out the bad grapes. Watch as Michael throws in a random leaf to demonstrate how the eye sees it, then kicks it out. Only the absolute best grapes make it into the tank:
Two hours have passed and we don't want it to end. Our hosts have filled our heads with enough winemaking geekery to fill a semester at UC Davis. It wouldn't have been as interesting if Michael and Roger's experience wasn't matched by their wit like when I wasn't looking and Roger busted my Mom for illegal parking in the winery:
So then we moved down into the barrel room where future vintages of Opus One were nestled into their slumber in prime French oak casks in a temperature controlled room under ground.
Oak is an ingredient that doesn't get talked about enough in winemaking and tasting. What was the percentage of new oak? What's the toast level? How much of it was new and how much was neutral? These different facets all add up to the oak influence on a wine. Add too much oak and it becomes an oak bomb covering up fruit and terroir. Add too little and the wine can be wimpy.
Here they seem to find the right balance of oak satisfaction providing enough but not so much it overpowers the main attraction—the fruit. These wines are meant to age and they are modeled after the great Bordeaux houses. To that end, oak isn't just a flavor, it's an ideal meant to compliment texturally and well as sensuously.
When a red wine is sitting in the tanks after pressing it’s like a child waiting to discover the world outside. The core personality is there and the fruit is primary, but the wine isn’t mature enough to be on its own. In the barrel wine becomes more of an adolescent looking forward to leaving the close protection of the winemaking team. The fruit is still primary but now there’s other things rounding out its personality, like oak nuances. Continuing in its evolution, red wine grows up and becomes an adult in the bottle leaving the nest (or winery) out into the world. Whether it’s a twenty five year-old adult just starting out on its own or a senior citizen, an adult doesn’t want to lose the child within (the fruit at the core).
All the painstaking work in the vineyard, and all the technology in the winery would be nothing if the wine didn’t become the thing Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild envisioned in 1979. We found on our visit that Opus One’s legacy is cemented in place.
Our small group moved into the tasting room adjacent to the barrel room where a little birthday surprise was waiting. The folks at Opus One heard it was my birthday (probably from Facebook) and started the tasting off with a little Champagne...which was nice.
Krug Champagne - What can you say? It’s Krug Champagne! The best thing about enjoying that bottle of Krug wasn’t how good the wine was, it was the fact the people at Opus One understood the concept of ‘surprise and delight’. They didn’t need to acknowledge it but they did. And what better way to freshen up your palate before tasting through the library wines of Opus One.
1982 Opus One - Still so youthful with evolved baked red, black and blue fruits wrapped around a sturdy structured core. This wine was old school Napa and only the third vintage in Opus One's history. I imagine the winemaking team was starting to really fire on all cylinders by the time they were bringing in fruit from the 1982 vintage.
Before the valley took off and winemakers started equating oak usage to quality and price in the mid-1990s, wines were made for longevity rather than immediate drinking. This one was no different. If tasted side by side with first or second growths from 1982, Opus One would definitely stand up and have a loud voice in "who's the best wine on the table?" conversation. Still has life ahead of it.
2004 Opus One - Michael Silacci’s second vintage and it’s apparent he’s got a handle on the fruit in the vineyards. Just over ripe red rhubarb, choke cherries, black cherries show off less tart fruit notes and developing black and blue fruits in equal harmony as if to suggest the perfect blend of grapes showed what the future would hold. Damp earth is starting to emerge with silky cocoa slippers hidden underneath the luxuriously textured moderate tannins. Still plenty of time ahead, but developing nicely.
2005 Opus One - The vintage was a pretty stellar vintage in many parts of the world, at least in the Northern Hemisphere. Bordeaux, Tuscany, Piedmont and most red wine producing regions of the U.S. enjoyed warm temperatures with enough cool nights to give wines ageability. Not as open as the 2004 on this day, but precocious enough to draw you in for a later date with greatness.
2009 Opus One - Using the child, adolescent, adult analogy above the 2009 would be the college student about ready to graduate and set out on its own. Under ripe primary dark red fruits with slight herbal rose stems, ripe black plums and already seamless oak integration. Colors in the glass went the darker side of Ruby town with a thin watery meniscus around the rim. A big vintage to be sure as temperatures were hot, most likely leading to primary fruit that may not age as gracefully as the 1982 or 2004 but will still be great to drink in 7-12 years.
After tasting through the wines one word kept popping into my mind—consistency. Thirty-plus years of an icon isn't very long in wine terms but it was apparent Opus One the brand was in good hands and kept its direction close to the trajectory set out when hair styles were big and disco was king.
We had spent the better part of an afternoon with Michael and Roger but didn't want it to end. It was almost 3pm and we hadn't eaten lunch. Luckily, Rutherford Grill was close by and the wait was short. We enjoyed our hosts so much we invited them to lunch. And to our great surpass, they joined us!
We continued a great conversation, the kind Ernest Hemingway must've had sitting at a table side bistro in Paris on a buzzing Friday night. We ordered more Champagne and opened more Opus One while savoring grilled artichokes and French Dips.
It's safe to say this winery's legacy is in good hands and the evolution of an icon is on schedule.
Twenty years ago if you were in a restaurant and ordered a bottle of Opus One you were important. You were a fine wine connoisseur and you liked the best. Opus One raised the bar for Napa Valley and for domestic wine. If you were drinking Opus One you were drinking a regal wine that presidents and diplomats held in high regard.
If you were drinking Opus One you had arrived.
Perhaps that luxurious brand positioning started to work against the winery in the 1990’s as production increased and Opus One was everywhere. It was no longer scarce and no longer carried the prestige it once had, especially as new cult producers with small productions and high ratings like Harlan Estate, Bryant Family, Araujo, Maya and Shafer Hillside emerged from Napa. Robert Parker wasn’t giving Opus One 100-point scores. Sommeliers and serious collectors shied away from increasing prices and increasing production in favor of new producers.
After Opus One and Robert Mondavi Winery were acquired by Constellation Brands in 2004, this once family owned winery was now in the hands of a large cooperation. While the business and revenue generating conversation may have changed people's like or dislike of Opus One, the purpose of this post is to honor the founders and acknowledge that much of the original soul of Opus One is still there. It never went away.
America’s original ‘First Growth’
America’s wine making history is a blip on the radar compared to the wine making histories in countries like Greece, Italy, France or Germany where there’s well over one thousand years of production. History has a way of upholding the best producers over time. In Bordeaux for example, the 1855 Classification determined first, second, third, fourth and fifth growths aka left bank producers deemed the “best” by ranking. At that time in 1855 the right bank was considered inferior for wine production whereas today in 2013 right bank producers like Le Pin or Petrus might be held with higher esteem than the left bank first growths (or on the same level).
The point being is that was over one hundred and fifty years ago — “recent” in old world wine terms. Conversely, Napa Valley only gained popularity on the world stage as a quality wine region about thirty years ago (in our life time) — a mere drop in the bucket on the wine timeline. Compared to those old world wine regions, we’re infants over here in the new world just learning to walk.
If we were to do a classification rating and put a stake in the sand proclaiming our “first growth” wineries, Opus One would likely be on that list (founded in part by an actual first growth winery owner, Baron Philippe Rothchild of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild fame). Before there were domestic “first growths” there was Opus One. One of, if not THE original Cult wine. Grace Family and Caymus Special Selection are certainly on that short list as well.
Old world wine families might flick their cigarette butts in disgust and let out a “pffffft” when I ask you to go back in history with me to the birth of this icon. It was waaaay back in the late 1970’s. Robert Mondavi’s namesake winery was hitting on all cylinders and his first-in-the-valley tasting room was attracting more people to Napa.
The remarkable vision of the two cofounders might seem obvious today, but back in the mid 1970’s nothing was guaranteed. It took the fortitude and belief from two men who saw what was possible, even though there was little proof their idea could work.
To list all the innovative contributions Robert Mondavi made to the wine industry could fill a book, but his coup de gras may have getting Baron Philippe de Rothschild to go in on an ambitious project in Napa Valley.
Mondavi and Baron Philippe's collaboration would bring a balance and tension between old and new, French and American, Tradition and Innovation.
Mondavi and de Rothschild were at the top of their game. It was the mid-1970’s and Napa had just shocked the world by winning the Judgement of Paris. Robert Mondavi was quickly becoming an international icon. Napa didn’t have the booming tourism industry it has now. There was no social media or internet to discover a largely unknown wine region.
Baron Philippe had acquired other Bordeaux houses during his lifetime including Chateau d’ Armailhac and Chateau Clerc Milon as well as expanded into Chile through a partnership with Concha y Toro. He and Mondavi found a mutual connection of passion and excellence in their winemaking approach. Mondavi was leading a renaissance in California and the time was right for a joint venture.
In 1979, set out to establish an American “first growth” that would set the bar high enough to put Napa on the world stage. Mondavi not only understood the American palate, but he was responsible for broadening wine drinkers’ tastes by marrying wine to other luxury lifestyle enjoyments like music, the arts and of course good food.
The name, Opus One was chosen to be timeless yet exude a sense of time and place. They also wanted a latin name that would be recognizable in both French as English. Baron Philippe came up with the name which is inspired by the word, “Opus” which is a musical expression denoting the first masterpiece of a composer.
Part 2 of the story will feature behind the scenes winemaking technology and reviews of some Opus One library wines from 1982, 1991, 2004, 2005 and 2009.
The first cigarette I ever had I smoked behind Grandpa's barn. It made me dizzy, and I coughed a lot. "Don't worry, that always happens with the first one," said Grandpa. "Try another one." And you know, he was right. -Jack Handey
It’s funny the things you remember from childhood. I don’t remember the first tooth I lost, or the first time I was able to ride a bike without falling over. But some some odd reason I remember the first bottle of wine I ever laid eyes on. It was one of those bowling pin shaped bottles of Chianti wrapped in a wicker basket. Maybe it was the texture of the exterior or the round squatty shape. Over the years I would see that bottle over and over, often times with a candle crammed into the top of it with layers of candle wax dripping down the side.
A bottle of Chianti isn’t particularly the best bottle to remember, but it was somewhat iconic. Many of us grow up associating the word, “Chianti” with that bottle.
Here’s a pop quiz—what bottle comes to mind when I saw the words, “Chianti Classico”? Therein lies the fork in the proverbial road of cross slicing (aka that immediate image that pops into your mind as an association to a word). My hope with this article is after you finish reading it (or get distracted by Facebook) is to get you to picture something other than a wicker-laden glass candle holder when you hear the words, “Chianti Classico”.
Being a sommelier is a daily reward of a lifestyle that most people plan as vacations. When the folks at the Chianti Classico Consorzio asked if I’d like to come visit with a small group I first did what most Italian men do. I shook my head and said, “no” with my bottom lip sticking out and arms crossed. “No” again just for good measure. “No” with a little extra ‘hhhh’ on the end.
They weren’t phased, but before they could hang up and said, “okay” because I think that’s how you’re supposed to negotiate in Italy. I’m studying to take the Advanced Sommelier exam, which means I need to taste lots of wine and understand why it is what it is in the glass. Color, aromas, structure all point to the unique conditions where the grapes grow. Any time I can be immersed in a region like Chianti Classico it only helps in my studies.
On a map, Chianti and Chianti Classico can best be described as a donut and donut hole where Chianti Classico is the donut hole in the middle. It represents a place that’s supposed to be better than regular ol’ Chianti with slightly different laws that allow for a bit higher alcohol and a bit more oak aging.
There’s an important thing that happened recently for Chianti Classico wines. The Chianti Classico 2000 study was a major initiative that the entire region took part in in an effort to match the best Sangiovese vines to the best growing conditions. You see, the region is old. I mean really old. Grand Duke Cosimo III de’ Medici carved out the subzone in 1716, but the region didn’t get its DOCG status until 1984. Over time, the hillsides were planted with hundreds of different Sangiovese clones—not necessarily matching the right clone to the right site. Many of those clones were inferior and things were just a mess. So the Consorzio got together in 2000 narrowed down the number of clones to a dozen or so, and they found the most ideal places to plant each clone to bring out the best of Sangiovese.
Thirteen years later we’re starting to see a dramatic increase in quality in Chianti Classico wines as a result of that major Chanti 2000 effort. In fact, there’s a brand new category of Chianti Classico wine being introduced in 2013 called Gran Selezione with new oak aging laws (at least 30 months in oak) and a new level of quality.
To understand the different levels of Sangiovese quality, we can break it down into categories. First, all of these wines come from the Tuscany region. Second, it's good to know Chianti and Chianti Classico are regulated by the DOCG laws (ie..aging, grapes allowed, minimum alcohol etc..). Third, it's useful to know wineries who don't want to adhere to the DOCG laws can put themselves into the IGT category which gives much more freedom to use whatever grapes they want, which is why "Super Tuscans" are bigger and bolder. They tend to use higher amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah in their wines that DOCG laws forbid. The DOCG laws are there to basically guarantee a certain level of quality in the wines based on alcohol level, oakiness and purity of the region. Each additional tick of alcohol or aging makes the wine "bigger" and arguably "better".
Chianti DOCG requirements
Must be 70-100% Sangiovese Minimum alcohol level must be 11.5% Wines may not be released until March 1 of the year following harvest (not very much barrel time)
Chianti Riserva DOCG requirements
Must be 70-100% Sangiovese Minimum alcohol level must be 12% Wines must age 2 years starting January 1 of the year following harvest (to add more oak and body)
Chianti Classico DOCG requirements
Must be 80-100% Sangiovese (other grapes are often Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot) Minimum alcohol level must be 12% Wines may not be released until October 1 of the year following harvest
Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG requirements
Must be 80-100% Sangiovese (other grapes are often Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot) Minimum alcohol level must be 12.5% Wines must age 24 months starting January 1 of the year following harvest w/ 3 of those months in bottle
Chianti Classico Gran Selezione DOCG requirements (based on Chianti Classico 2000 study)
Must be 80-100% Sangiovese (other grapes are often Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot) Minimum alcohol level must be 12.5% Wines must age 30 months starting January 1 of the year following harvest w/ 3 months in bottle Wines must also be estate grown fruit.
Brunello di Montalcino DOCG Requirements
Just to confuse consumers more there's another region in Tuscany that makes Sangiovese. Brunello di Montalcino (and Rosso Montalcino) may have the perception of being "better" but that's only because the word, "Chianti" isn't in its name. On the quality scale above it's on par with Chianti Classico. Is Brunello really better? If it is, only by a slim margin. It might be a little bit bigger or a little bit more, but it's definitely more expensive and usually not ready to drink when young unlike Chianti Classico. Must be 100% Sangiovese Minimum alcohol level must be 12.5% Wines must age 2 years in oak plus 4 months in bottle
During my 5 days in the region, there was a blind tasting featuring 5 Brunello di Montalcino wines vs. 5 Chianti Classico wines from the same vintages. Winemakers from both regions and attendees weren't able to differentiate which was which. My point—Chianti Classic is a good option because it's accessible sooner and it's usually more affordable.
Part 2 of the 5 Days in Tuscany story features the wine and food of the region...
When thinking about the wines of Washington state many wine drinkers may lump Walla Walla together with wines from the Columbia Valley. The former is a wine region at the southeast corner of the state with a total of 1800 acres planted (which is small). The latter is basically the entire middle 1/3 of the state. Columbia Valley is where large producers like Chateau St. Michelle produce hundreds of thousands of cases of value-driven wines. Conversely, Walla Walla is a region full of small producers crafting smaller amounts of higher quality well-priced wines.
The two regions are cut from a similar cloth, but they’re personalities are as different as two siblings can be.
On #CabernetDay 2011 there was a massive tasting in Napa valley with close to 200 winemakers, sommeliers and other professional wine palates. Close to 100 world class Cabernet-based wines were tasted over four hours from regions like Bordeaux, Napa, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Loire Valley and Washington state.
Wines on display that day were wines like Penfold’s Bin 707, Chateau Montelena, second growth Bordeaux’s, Vilafonté from South Africa, Cullen from Margaret River, Frog’s Leap, Couly-Dutheil Clos de L’Echo Chinon from Loire valley and Jordan to name a few.
At the end of the event attendees were asked to pick their favorite favorite wine, and wouldn’t you know it the most popular wine was 2001 L’Ecole No. 41 Walla Walla Cabernet Sauvignon, which sold for about $30 retail upon release.
The following year on #CabernetDay 2012 again there was a large tasting, and again there were high caliber wines from different regions. And again L’Ecole No. 41 was a favorite—this time it finished in the top 3 with the 2005 vintage (1995 Ridge Monte Bello came out on top).
It was a glimpse into the untapped potential of Walla Walla’s true ranking on the world stage of wine regions. Perhaps none of us realize how good Walla Walla wines can be because it’s such a young region. The oldest wineries have only been around since the mid 1980’s and the region wasn’t officially established as an AVA until 1984.
“I love cellared wines! One of the great things about making wine in Walla Walla is occasionally going back in time with an older vintage. This ’97 surprised me with its color, aroma, texture and fruit. Both vineyards were actually rather young in 1997, yet still they offered a glimpse into what they could or would produce several decades later, absolutely amazing! This is agriculture in its purest form, plain and simple and I love it.” - Rick Small, Woodward Canyon
There are no vast libraries of older vintages for us to look at. Only a few coveted library wines from Chris Figgins at Leonetti, Marty Clubb at L’Ecole No. 41 or Rick Small at Woodward Canyon offer any glimpse into Walla Walla’s ageability. Unfortunately, there’s just not enough of the older vintages in existence.
To put it in context, there were less than 5 wineries in Walla Walla in 1984, 11 wineries in 1995 but now there are well over 100 and that number is growing. You’d be hard pressed to find red wines from before the mid-1990’s. In wine years that was like, yesterday.
Walla Walla’ Rich History
After WWII a U.S. census showed Walla Walla had more millionaires per capita than anywhere in the country. Back then, rolling hills of wheat were a consistent crop for large breweries, Budweiser being the biggest customer. Anyone with land and wheat could sell their product hand over fist, especially land in the rain shadow of the nearby Blue Mountains where wheat was harvested three times more than other places.
The early influx of wealth helped establish the region and city of Walla Walla. But the history of winemaking goes back even further than that. According to Norm McKibben, one of Walla Walla’s forefathers, French traders came to the region in the early 1800’s by river to trade wares at the Fort Vancouver and Hudson Bay outpost. Apparently the French brought grape vines with them wherever they went. They would plant and cultivate vines in their explorations. To this day, there are still french streets names and family names rooted in Walla Walla’s long history.
Italian immigrants also played a large role in the region by bringing vines with a tradition of growing, making and drinking wine. They planted vines with the intent of making homemade wines. The Pesciallo family is credited with starting the first bonded winery, Blue Mountain Vineyards in the 1950’s.
Walla Walla World Class Wines are Underpriced
In youth, most Walla Walla wines exhibit dark, purple-hued fruity wines with a vein of black cherries, ripe plums and an iron component that can best be described as lemon butter cookies. Grapes are picked with brix in the mid-20’s when skin to juice contact will be concentrated. The resulting wines offer a seamless evenly textured wine with equal balance between fruit and acid.
A shorter growing season with longer days of sunlight where the sun sits lower on the horizon due to Walla Walla’s distance from the equator, combined with schist covered Basalt gives the wines power and finesse without angular edges. By nature, the wines will be opulent with an inherent silky texture upon release. Maybe that’s why we don’t see older Walla Walla wines—they’re so good upon release who wants to wait?
Over time, the ripe fruits start to show more dried fruit characteristics, and that initial seamless texture only gets softer and silkier. While that might sound good, the best part is the price. Walla Walla’s wines are very well priced at around $35-$50 a bottle on average compared with $50-$200 in Napa or Bordeaux. They may be some of the highest quality, lowest priced wines from anywhere in the world.
For me personally, I like Walla Walla red wines around 8-12 years old. That’s when the power and finesse really converge to a sweet spot unlocking an “X -factor” in the wine. Where many regions hang their hat on one grape, Walla Walla seems to have a hard time picking one because so many do so well. And that’s a good thing.
Strong contenders for Walla Walla’s flagship grape could be Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or maybe even Cabernet Franc.
Hillside plantings with wind blown silt known as loess provides ample drainage for red grape varietals. In a small strip of land on the Oregon side of the state line there’s a dried out river bed where large round rocks resembling golf balls make up “the rocks”. That’s where Christophe Baron of famed Cayuse Vineyards planted Syrah vines in ankle bending rocky soils resembling Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Newcomer Dusted Valley planted right next door several years ago, and their wines are just about to hit the market.
the "rocks" where Dusted Valley is growing and producing Syrah
I’ve had a chance to taste a few older Walla Walla wines in 2012 and can say I might end up on the show, Hoarders. Here’s a few library tastings that show the beauty of Walla Walla’s graceful ageability:
1997 Woodward Canyon Cabernet Sauvignon ($40 release price) - Rick Small was in the right place at the right time when he started Woodward Canyon. He’s the Berry Gordy of Motown, the Dave Brubeck of jazz, the Henry Ford of cars...Rick was one of the first to do it right and set the standard.
He planted vineyards on family land in the 1980’s and really helped attract future winemakers to the area through mentorship and leading by example. This is one of the few wineries that has older library wines to show off, and the good thing is they’re located right next door to one of the other early pioneers at L’Ecole No. 41. Nowhere else in the valley are you going to find the older vintages that these two possess.
Woodward Canyon's Rick Small did it right from the start
I’ve visited Rick a few times over the years, and each time we go out to the vineyard, not only to look at vines, but to pick fresh herbs from his sustainably farmed garden. Rick’s latest love is wood fired pizzas in his own pizza oven out in back of the winery.
The 1997 is from a bottling that would later become his Old Vines line of Cabs. Made from 60% Woodward Canyon vineyard and 40% Pepper Bridge vineyard this 100% Cabernet Sauvignon is only 13.3% alcohol and might fool a blinder taster into thinking this was a first or second growth Bordeaux.
95% opaque garnet colors in the glass gave way to signs of age around the rim where the color lightens to a 50% opaque garnet/ruby color with a weeee bit of tear staining.
A clean, elegant moderate nose of baked choke cherries, baked black cherries, stewed plums and baked rhubarb pie at the core were wrapped together with a ribbon of lemon butter cookie, raisins and a slight sign of oxidation—the kind you like to smell in fine Bordeaux.
Many of those enticing aromas were confirmed on the palate—again with the baked cherries, cooked plums, baked rhubarb along with some damp tobacco leaf, jellied Thanksgiving cranberry and a slight showing of black olives. There was a little mocha thing happening on the finish that I thought might be from Merlot, but since none was added it's most likely from oak.
I like Rick's wines and have been drinking them over the years since living in Oregon. You don't just put the empty bottle in recycling and forget about it—he gives you something to talk about and makes you think about the wines even hours after you've enjoyed them.
2002 Pepper Bridge & 2006 Amavi ($50 & $25 respectively) - There's a few important things to know here. The first is both wineries are sister wineries to one another. The second is they were both created with the help of Walla Walla founding father, Norm McKibben. Norm had the vision to do a lot of things in Walla Walla, one of which was the buy a stellar plot of land known as Les Collines Vineyard. If you see that on the label—buy it, whatever it is!
Les Collines fruit is like the hot girl at the party—it's pretty and everybody wants to get their hands on it. Master Sommelier, Greg Harrington sources Les Collines fruit for his highly acclaimed Gramercy Cellars wines.
In addition to bringing Les Collines online, Norm and the Pepper Bridge team also helped develop another important vineyard called Seven Hills. Located on the Oregon side of the border not far from the "rocks", Seven Hills is where much of the growth is happening in Walla Walla. They have their own commercial on-site composting operation that, for anyone who grows plants, would blow you away.
If you look at the Woodward Canyon wine above, 40% of the fruit came from Pepper Bridge vineyard. So what I'm saying is these two wineries are making wines from some of the best fruit sources in Walla Walla, sources that they helped develop.
Winemaker, Jean-François Pellet opened the 2002 Pepper Bridge Cabernet Sauvignon when I visited in September. Much like in Napa and Sonoma, Mother Nature also smiled upon Walla Walla with a near ideal growing season. Jean-François notes, "this rich, polished and multifaceted Cabernet Sauvignon entices you with layers of sweet black cherry, ripe plum, licorice, cedar, and spice flavors with a subtle touch of mineral. This highly concentrated wine offers an incredible blend of power and finesse with a long and persistent finish."
#CabernetDay crowd favorite two years running
2001 L'Ecole No. 41 Cabernet Sauvignon ($35 release price) - This is it. This was the wine that stands head and shoulders above all the other world class wines presented during #CabernetDay. Marty Clubb of L'Ecole and Rick Small are next door neighbors. They've both been around and have seen the valley grow from a tiny industry with less than five wineries to a burgeoning region making world class juice.
The 2001 was right in the drinking window when we had it last year. Instead of giving all the wonderful tasting notes, I can just say this was a reminder of why we drink wine. Every now and then a bottle comes along and provides that "OMIGOD" experience. From novice wine lover to experienced taster, there's something about this wine that pretty much anybody would love.
It was cashmere in a glass with plenty of X-Factor and personality. We had a few bottles but already drank them all like a bunch of piglets...we couldn't wait!
2010 was a classic vintage in Oregon and Washington. As the wines from the vintage start to enter the market, wine lovers might feel like a kid in a candy store with all the choices of what to buy. Here's a few brands you may or may not have heard of, but are worth discovering.
"2010 was the best vintage I've ever seen at Leonetti." ~ Chris Figgins, Winemaker
Just in case you aren't able to get your mitts on 2010 wines, stay tuned because 2011 is right behind it and is shaping up to be similar in terms of vintage characteristics and quality. Back to back growing seasons with cooler temperature and extended days of ripening into October set the stage for ideal levels of sugar and acidity in the grapes at harvest.
Troon—Applegate Valley, Oregon
In recent years Southern Oregon has been enjoying a growth spurt as more wine lovers discover the grape varietals that benefit from warmer temperatures as well as micro climates in the Umpqua, Rogue, Illinois and Applegate Valleys near Roseburg. While the Willamette Valley terroir is well-suited to thin skin varietals like Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay, Southern Oregon features 'signature grapes' Syrah, Zinfandel and Tempranillo. Other grapes being planted include Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Vermentino, Albariño and Viognier depending on elevation of the vineyards.
Mother nature created this little corner of the world situated between the Willamette Valley 5 hours drive to the north, and Napa/Sonoma 8 hours to the south. Marine climate and varying elevations offer a range of soil types from volcanic to sandy loam and hard clay.
Dick Troon realized the potential forty years ago (just a few years after David Lett planted the first vines at Eyrie) when he planted his Zinfandel vineyard.
- 2008 Troon Zinfandel Reserve - Applegate Valley Really a bit of surprise to see how good this wine was. The Troon Reserve Zin has the best of both worlds—spice laden ripe red fruits with moderate alcohol at about 14.1%. Who knew Zinfandel could grow well in Southern Oregon?
- 2008 Syrah Reserve - Applegate Valley If tasted blind, this might be mistaken for a Washington state Syrah. Opaque purple-black color with sweet ripe Oregon blackberry, plum and prune with medium French oak influence (thankfully). Drink now after decanting or wait 3-5 years.
- 2009 Old Vine Meritage - Applegate Valley Decent blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc from 35-year old vines. Wasn't blown away by it, structure was lacking acidity for me but a riper style with moderate oak influence will appeal to wine drinkers.
Seven of Hearts—Willamette Valley, Oregon
Oregon has plenty of good producers crafting great wines—do they need another? In this case, yes. A pleasant surprise in 2012 has been the discovery of this winery founded by ex-Silicon Valley resident Byron Dooley and his wife Dana. It's unfortunate their production is small because the wines are delicious and really well made.
The Dooley's left Silicon Valley after the 2000 bubble burst and made as stop in Napa where Byron earned a viticulture and winemaking degree from Napa college. In 2004 they moved north to the Willamette Valley where they established a 12-acre vineyard in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA. Seven of Hearts was born in the interest of creating limited production wines that represent the place they're grown.
2010 Chatte D'Avignon Grenache/Syrah/Mourvedre - Columbia Valley Wow. In a word, WOW. If tasted blind this wine might be mistaken for Saint-Joseph or Crozes Hermitage in northern Rhone. Although those are Syrah only wines, the distinct black pepper and smoked meat notes are similar. Very good wine for $25.
2010 Chateau Figareaux Cabernet Franc - Columbia Valley Sourced from grapes on the Oregon side of the Columbia Valley, this is part of the Bordeaux varietal program featuring wines that are precise, structured and impeccably balanced. I've often wondered about Cab Franc's potential in Columbia Valley. Like many of the wines from this producer, the Cab Franc is an ideal representation of the grape and the place it was grown. Distinct characteristics of black fruits, spice, more black fruits woven together with moderate French oak and structured acidity.
2009 Pinot Noir - Willamette Valley At $20 a bottle this is a steal. It's not very often you can find a wine with complexity, balance and finish at this price point. I had to do a double take at the price. My guess was $35 a bottle. Like the Luminous Hills Pinot Noir, it's a "hippy" style that's lighter in color and style.
2010 Luminous Hills Pinot Noir - Yamhill-Carlton Out of a field of stellar 2010 Pinot Noir's from the Willamette Valley comes an instant classic. More of a hippy style Pinot with light feminine characteristics from the light brick red color to the floral aromas coming out of the glass. If you were teaching a class about what a text book Pinot Noir might look like, you'd use this wine. Precise, balanced, low alcohol with firm acidity and moderate oak all play supporting roles for the lead character, which is beautiful red fruits that deliver a 5-star performance.
Gramercy Cellars—Walla Walla, Washington
Master Sommelier, Greg Harrington has been responsible for some of the most prestigious wine lists in the U.S. (and he was the youngest person to pass the Master Sommelier exam at age 26). So in the spring of 2004 at a backyard picnic in Brooklyn, Greg and his wife, Pam tasted wines from Washington state that displayed something special. The Harrington's went to Walla Walla where they went on a marathon tasting trip that convinced Greg this was the place he could realize his dream to make wine. Gramercy Cellars was born.
You'd expect someone with a trained palate to craft great balanced food-friendly wines with limited oak influence in a way that represents the grape and the place the grape is grown. In its short history, Gramercy Cellars has partnered with some of the best vineyards and accomplished just that.
2010 Gramercy Cellars Walla Walla Valley Syrah - Walla Walla This was my birthday wine this year. Actually, that should read, "wines". Multiple bottles were ordered and they all went bye-bye during a party with fellow wine professionals. A wine like this one are a strong argument for Syrah being Washington's best grape. Although it's opaque in color, minimal winemaking, restrained extraction and moderate oak offer an impeccably balanced wine weighing in a 13.9% alcohol.
2010 Gramercy Cellars The Third Man GSM - Columbia Valley The website description says it best: "The wine is fresh, red berry dominant with smoke and mineral. We managed to capture the liquor-esque fruit that grace the best Southern Rhone wines, without having the wine turn out over extracted or heavy. Think the greatest Luden's red cherry cough drop you have ever had. And its herbal as Grenache should be."
2009 Gramercy Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon - Walla Walla Limited production 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from two estate vineyards. I had a chance to taste this wine at TEXSOM along with all the Gramercy wines. In a blind tasting this wine will have enough personality or terroir to stand out. As I was thinking about how to describe the wine to you, again Master Harrington does it better on the site: "The 2009 is massive with red and black fruits, herbs and earth. This is definitely not the first wine to open in the box. Give it some time or at least throw it in a decanter overnight. Patience is definitely rewarded."