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.)
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 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.)
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.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.)