New Cult Wines, by winemaker Heidi Barrett?

wines by Heidi Barrett

wines by Heidi Barrett

TASTING OF JOHN SCHWARTZ WINES, INCLUDING 3 BY HEIDI BARRET – Artisan Wine Depot, Mountain View, California (10/29/2010)


Artisan Wine Depot is a compact warehouse space in southern Mountain View that is filled to near bursting with wines, including some well chosen closeouts, and where local wine figure Christine Tran, a certified sommelier, is the buyer. In recent months, they have been offering an increasingly active and interesting lineup of tastings. One of those recently spotlighted wines being produced by longtime Wente executive and restaurant developer John Schwartz, who has a few wine projects going with formidable partners, including legendary winemaker Heidi Barrett, with whom Schwartz has been friends since childhood. The Heidi Barrett project wines, particularly the Merlot-dominated Amuse Bouche, are the best. The quality all of Schwartz’s wines seem to share, however, is a hyper aggressive pricing structure.

Coup de Foudre

One of Schwartz’s project is Coup de Foudre, where his partner is Danielle Price, Director of Wine for Wynn Resorts. The winemaker is Kent Jarman. These are ripe, hedonistic, oaky and pricey offerings. The Depot is selling the Pinot Noir, which is tasty for an over-the-top ripe style, for an over-the-top $125. They’re asking $95 for the Cabernet, which is selling elsewhere for as much as $120. These wines aren’t my style, although they’re well made for what they are. In my view, however, they’re definitely over priced.

  • 2008 Coup de Foudre Pinot Noir – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Rita Hills – Sta. Rita Hills
    Medium cherry red color with clear meniscus; big cherry, cherry syrup, brown sugar, blueberry nose; rich, cherry and raspberry syrup palate with integrated oak and depth; medium-plus finish 92+ pts. (a Pinot for big Cab lovers) (92 pts.)
  • 2008 Coup de Foudre Cuvée 37.2 – USA, California, Napa Valley, Stags Leap District
    Very dark red violet color; dark berry, plum, oak, cedar nose; oak, ripe plum, berry palate with firm, sweet tannins, needs 6-8 years; medium-plus finish (43% Merlot, 29% Petit Verdot, 14% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Syrah) (92 pts.)
  • 2008 Coup de Foudre Cabernet Sauvignon – USA, California, Napa Valley
    Opaque purple red violet color; oak, berry, ripe plum, lavender nose; tight, ripe berry, plum, vanilla oak, boysenberry palate with firm, sweet tannins, needs 7-8 years; medium-plus finish 91+ pts. (85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Petit Verdot, 6% Merlot) (91 pts.)

Sinatra Family

John Schwartz wines

John Schwartz wines

Schwartz is also managing partner of Sinatra Family Estates. According to Decanter, “Fewer than 500 cases are available in strictly limited allocations of the blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, sourced from a 5-hectare vineyard near Calistoga.” I was quite underwhelmed by the ripe and simple Sangiovese, with grapes shipped in from Tuscany, which they’re selling as La Voce. The Cabernet isn’t bad, but not worth its price tag of over $90 either, unless you’re really into collecting all things Sinatra. Clearly this is a vanity project of the Sinatra family, with nothing much to distinguish the wines at this point besides Sinatra-collectible packaging.

  • 2008 Famiglia Sinatra La Voce – Italy, Tuscany
    Dark red violet color; nice tart red fruit, dried red berry, sandalwood, roses nose; soft, simple, tart red fruit, tart raspberry palate; medium finish (92% Sangiovese, 8% Colorino) (88 pts.)
  • 2008 Sinatra Family Estates Cabernet Sauvignon Nothing But the Best – USA, California, Napa Valley, Calistoga
    Very dark red violet color; blackberry, boysenberry, blackberry preserves, vanilla nose; rich, ripe blackberry, berry, boysenberry palate, needs 2-3 years; medium-plus finish (80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc, 10% Petit Verdot) (91 pts.)

Amuse Bouche

Amuse Bouche is Schwartz’s original project with Heidi Barrrett. There’s supposed to be an art component to this, with well known artists like LeRoy Neiman and Wayne Thiebaud being commissioned to create label art for a particular vintage (a la Chateau Mouton). The first vintage was 2002, and the vinous inspiration is the Merlot dominated wines of Pomerol. The ’08 is a very nice California Merlot, with 5% Cabernet Franc, but $225 a bottle (on the mailing list) seems pretty pricey for California Merlot, even a very good one. The Vin Perdu is a blend that varies from year to year of top vineyard blocks of different varietals. For ’08, the blend was predominantly Petit Verdot and Syrah. The packaging itself has to cost some money, as it features, “one-of-a-kind flip lenticular labels, using lenses to showcase moving visual images”–in this case, the changing image of a bottle of wine hovering above a top hat being transformed into a rabbit by a magician’s wand. The wine is well made, if oaky, but hardly worth the asking price of over $100 (just $95 at Artisan).

So back at the beginning of the ’00s, when cult Cabs were still riding high, it must have made some calculated business sense to try to launch yet another cult wine, this time based on Merlot, with a partner who was an established cult winemaker. In these days, though, it’s hard to imagine that a wine company based around a $225 flagship California Merlot is really a sustainable business model.

  • 2008 Amuse Bouche – USA, California, Napa Valley
    Very dark cherry red color; berry pie, blackberry preserves, blackberry nose; rich, high pitched, ripe blackberry, berry, mulberry palate, approachable already; medium-plus finish (94% Merlot, 6% Cabernet Franc) (93 pts.)
  • 2008 Amuse Bouche Vin Perdu – USA, California, Napa Valley
    Dark purple red violet color; tar, olive, herbaceous, toasty oak nose; tight, ripe plum, tart cassis, red berry palate, needs 5-7 years; medium-plus finish (44% Petit Verdot, 39% Syrah, 9% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Cabernet Franc) (91 pts.)

Au Sommet

According to SF Gate, “Heidi Peterson Barrett (Screaming Eagle, Dalla Valle, Paradigm) and John Schwartz, already partners in the Amuse Bouche winery, are teaming up with viticulturist Jim Barbour (Grace, DR Stephens) on a new wine called Au Sommet. Sourced from an 8-acre vineyard at 2,100 feet elevation, across the road from John Kongsgaard’s new property, it will produce about 475 cases of a single Cabernet, with the inaugural 2008 vintage due in 2010.” So their inaugural product is a pretty green, herb and menthol-noted Cabernet, with some aging potential. Would I ever pay $250 for it? When there are really great Cabs and Bordeaux easily available for less than one-fifth the price? No, I think not. Even for the scarcity? According to their website, due to their small production, 350 cases for ’08, “allocations will be strictly limited to one 3-pack per customer.” That’s a pretty tired gimmick too. Will Au Sommet be any more successful at establishing itself as the next big cult Cab than Amuse Bouche was in becoming Napa’s Chateau Petrus? Again, no, I don’t think so. Times have changed, and you can’t just charge huge prices out of the gate and “sharply limit allocations” for a brand new wine and expect to get on the radar of wine collectors any more. There’s got to be something special going on, or at least 99-100 Parker points. This wine only got 94, which seems pretty inflated to me. They do seem to be saving money on label design this time, though–this has to be the plainest looking $250 bottle of wine I’ve ever seen.

I greatly admire Heidi Barrett, who is indeed a talented winemaker with an impressive track record. Maybe she needs to get a business partner, though, who has some better ideas for trying to launch a successful wine company than the tired “charge huge bucks and limit allocations” approach.

Heidi Barrett with daughter Remy

Heidi Barrett with daughter Remy

For my ratings on current releases of Heidi Barrett’s Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Muscat and blend under her own label, La Sirena, see: http://www.rjonwine.com/cabernet-sauvignon/sf-vintners-market/

  • 2008 Au Sommet Cabernet Sauvignon – USA, California, Napa Valley, Atlas Peak
    Very dark red violet color; black plum, menthol, tea, olive, intriguing green herb nose; tight, plush, tart plum, berry, subtle green herb palate with sweet tannins and integrating oak, needs 3-5 years; medium-plus finish (92 pts.)
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10 Responses to New Cult Wines, by winemaker Heidi Barrett?

  1. John Schwartz says:

    Richard–Your piece just came across to me (from my daughter doing some research) from a few months ago. I know it is not widely read–none of us even have heard of your name before–and despite the many misguided comments, the one copied below is truly unecessary. Until you know someone (or at least met them) and know all of your facts, these types of comments simply are not productive and reflective of someone struggling for attention. Please continue to enjoy wine!

    “I greatly admire Heidi Barrett, who is indeed a talented winemaker with an impressive track record. Maybe she needs to get a business partner, though, who has some better ideas for trying to launch a successful wine company than the tired “charge huge bucks and limit allocations” approach.”

    • Richard Jennings says:

      John,
      Welcome to RJonWine.com. I try to meet a lot of people in the wine business, but it’s pretty impossible to meet all of them, especially if they don’t come to represent their own wines at local tastings. Anyway, I’m sure you are a wonderful guy in person, like most wine people. My comments weren’t directed to your personality, though. They were directed to your apparent wine business strategy, which I can judge by the wines you are producing and the prices you’re charging for them. And you’re not just doing it with one or two wines–there’s a clear pattern to it. Hence my comments in my post, which I stand by. If you have an argument to make that isn’t based on trying to belittle the writer, I’m open to hearing it, and I’m sure my readers would be as well.
      –Richard

  2. Brian says:

    I certainly will never buy this guy’s wines after his snarky comments here.

  3. Larry Stein says:

    John, I assume you had to do some biz development and marketing research before determining the launch strategy for your wines. Well, you should’ve done some research on Richard before making your reply. Check CellarTracker and Wine Berserkers.com.

    BTW, I’m in full agreement with Richard. Just so you have some sense of where I’m coming from, I joined my first professional tasting group in 1979. I was in the wine trade from 1984-88 (Do a search on Draper & Esquin, one of the stores where I worked). I’ve observed what’s happened in CA wine for 3+ decades. You probably don’t want or care about my opinion, but I think you’ve got a lot of chutzpah to charge that much for a new operation. PT Barnum, indeed.

    When you have the track record of Ridge Montebello Cabernet, maybe then you can do that. Oh yes, the cost of Montebello is only $85.

    And don’t get me started on my feelings on the state of Napa Cab today. Those flavor descriptors, blueberries and chocolate, shouldn’t even be in the same zip code as Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines.

  4. Chris Leshock says:

    John,

    I disagree with John Schwartz, it is not necessary to “know someone (or at least met them) and know all of your facts” before making commentary about a person or product. Its helpful, but not necessary. Has Robert Parker or James Laube met every winemaker of the wines they have reviewed? Probably most, but not all. While you say “these types of comments simply are not productive…”, I would argue that Richard’s comments are very productive in encouraging a dialogue on the subject matter. I have never met Richard, yet I have read HUNDREDS of his wine reviews on CellarTraker, agree with a vast majority of them, and think he is very much on the mark with his comments on Heidi Barret’s recent wine projects. The comments could be considered curt, but he got his opinion across.

    If you disagree with Richard, say so and why, being constructive and additive to the discussion. But the reason you gave is unrealistic and unsupported, adding nothing to the discussion.

  5. Juliana says:

    I doubt John Schwartz actually commented back to this guy. I don’t think he spends time prowling the internet for disparaging blogs. I think you have every right to voice your opinions and I’m not saying what you said was unjustified, I just don’t think a wine big-shot actually left a comment.

    • Richard Jennings says:

      Juliana,
      It was John Schwartz. His email (which I can see as administrator of the site) is @amusebouche. His comments are very consistent with what I would expect him to say, given what I’ve read and heard about him.
      –Richard

  6. Skye Lewis says:

    I agree with Juliana, I think anyone can say whatever they want but I too highly highly highly doubt a wine big shot and a superstar in the industry browses the Internet looking to get in blog battles. Seems more like a publicity stunt or maybe bitterness after having been denied a tasting… Just my two sense and I doubt you can analyze what he would say since you’ve never even met him.

  7. Patrick Chapman says:

    The other side of the John Schwatz coin:
    The guy started out delivering newspapers on his Schwinn bike at age 13! He’s worked
    diligently throughout his life and is the poster boy for the axiom, “good luck is when
    preparation meets opportunity.”

    In addition to his passion for wine, he also has a passion for the underserved.
    He founded a non-governmental organization (NGO), American Assistance for Cambodia, in the early ’90s in Cambodia to help educate impoverished and abandoned children. This includes a program called Girls Be Ambitious – to help keep girls in school and Bright Future Kids Home/New Life Orphanage, a place for children who have lost their parents to AIDS/HIV.

    John is a giver not a taker.

    So many factors to consider when you’re talking about the cost of a bottle of wine.
    Two big ones: tonnage of fruit per acre and what percent of new French oak is used.
    Like the cost of a hotel room – it’s all demand based pricing. If Amuse Bouche sells out
    at $300 per bottle. . .does it cost too much? It’s all relative.

    • Richard Jennings says:

      Patrick,
      Thanks for your comment. As it happens, I also had a newspaper route, but from age 11. (My bike was also a Schwinn, for what it’s worth, but I think that was pretty much the only producer specializing in children’s bikes in those days.) I also have worked diligently throughout my life. I started two non-profit organizations that did tremendous work around AIDS awareness nationwide, and I have worked primarily for non-profits most of my life. I would never put forward any of those facts as justification for offering overpriced wine, but maybe that’s just me. 😉

      –Richard

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