A friend invited me to meet her and a couple of her friends up at a winery in Lake County that I had not yet visited and whose wines I had not yet tasted. I checked out the winery’s website, and became intrigued. It’s a huge property in an isolated area of Lake County that has been known as the High Valley AVA since 2005. The estate, originally a cattle ranch and wildlife preserve called High Serenity Ranch, was purchased by Jerry Brassfield in 1973. He started planting vines in 1998, advised by winemaker David Robinson, and built the winery in 2003. The property currently includes 2,500 acres, 160 of which are planted to vines. Those vines are an astonishing array of varieties–for California in general and Lake County in particular, including Gewürztraminer, Johannisberg Riesling, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, and on the red side, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Malbec, Merlot, Mourvedre, Petit Verdot, Petite Sirah, Pinot Noir, Syrah and Zinfandel. Elevations of the vineyards range from 1800 to 3,000 feet. David Ramey has been the consulting winemaker since 2009. The production capacity of the impressive winemaking facility is over 100,000 cases a year, and they have tunneled out some of the largest and longest wine storage caves in North America.
I was free that day, so even though getting to the winery meant nearly a three-hour drive one way from San Francisco, I was intrigued enough to say yes to meeting up with my friend at Brassfield. After making the trip, though, tasting through the wines and touring the elaborate facilities, I was left truly puzzled about what is going on there. The owners have clearly sunk a phenomenal amount of money into the plantings; a huge and impressive winemaking facility; a gaudily decorated visitor center and tasting room replete with statues, chandeliers and fountains moved to the location from places of historical interest (e.g., a fountain that used to reside at Clark Gable’s Malibu estate); a half-mile long, tree-lined grand entrance to the place; and a mouth-dropping, enormous series of wine caves. There’s nothing commensurately grand or special in any way about the wines, however. There seems to have been an excess of ambition–in planting a great deal of vineyards, and building an enormous winemaking facility and set of caves–without a real plan to execute on the making of wines befitting the investment in plantings and buildings.
Jerry Brassfield, who owns this project with wife Su-San, is the founder and owner of GNLD (the acronym for Golden Neo-Life Diamite), a nutritional supplement multi-level marketing company he started in 1958 that has apparently made him a large fortune. He’s clearly spent a sizable amount of this fortune on his second shot at a winery–his bio indicates that he bought one with his brother in the ’70s that lost money and so they sold it. As I read through the GNLD websites and their inflated claims of saving peoples’ lives through vitamins and making its MLM marketers incredibly successful business people (e.g., “With a GNLD business, the sky is the limit and you can build your business as big as your individual ambition, talent and energy permit”), I get the same sense of grandiosity and show over substance as I did in visiting the winery. I also note that the winery’s literature, and the staff when I visited, claim that David Ramey, who has been a consultant to Brassfield since 2009 has recently become their actual winemaker, replacing previous winemaker Kevin Robinson. (And half the items on the Trade & Press section of Brassfield’s website are media profiles of David Ramey that make no mention of his connection to Brassfield.) I checked this out with David when I saw him at Family Winemakers in San Francisco last month, and he told me that he is not Brassfield’s winemaker, and that he appreciated knowing his role was being misrepresented. He was going to see that such claims stop. (I note that Mr. Robinson also has yet to update his profile on LinkedIn, as it still shows his current occupation as Brassfield’s winemaker. And on a page about their former winemaker that is no longer accessible through the winery’s website, but that I was able to easily locate through Google, Brassfield previously claimed, in consistently hyperbolic fashion, that, “In its short history, under Kevin’s direction, Brassfield Estate Winery has won more than 500 awards at the nation’s most prestigious wine competitions, including being selected as one of the top 100 best valued wines in 2010 by Wine Enthusiast. Robinson is also recognized for spearheading and writing the High Valley Viticulture (AVA) petition.”)
The legendary David Ramey did advise Brassfield on coming up with a more focused marketing approach, and assisted in the design of six wines, which are the only wines Brassfield is now featuring on its website. David also indicated to me that someone else had at some point advised Mr. Brassfield that to get to a profitable level, he should plan on a facility that could produce 60,000 cases a year. Brassfield arbitrarily decided to double that figure, which is how the gigantic winery, and its vast caves, apparently came about. The demand side of the equation, however, is sorely lacking. They are not currently making anything like 120,000 cases, and David indicated that he’s unaware of any realistic plans to do so. They are selling a comparatively small amount of wine. I guess Mr. Brassfield hasn’t yet figured out how to turn wine into a MLM, network marketing operation.
For my detailed tasting notes on all the wines, see below.
Among the whites, the best was the 2010 Pinot Grigio, which sells for $15 (the vintage that the website trumpets as marking “the debut of David Ramey as our winemaker”). I was much less impressed by the 2010 white blend, called Serenity.
- 2010 Brassfield Estate Winery Serenity High Serenity Ranch – USA, California, North Coast, High Valley
Light yellow color; lifted, light lemon, light grapefruit nose; rounded, creamy textured, tart peach, ripe lemon, oak palate; medium finish (84 pts.)
- 2010 Brassfield Estate Winery Pinot Grigio High Serenity Ranch – USA, California, North Coast, High Valley
Light yellow color; ripe peach, ripe apple, lifted nose; peach, tart apple palate, light and simple but refreshing; medium finish (88 pts.)
- 2009 Brassfield Estate Winery Sauvignon Blanc High Serenity Ranch – USA, California, North Coast, High Valley
Very light yellow color; light, grapefruit, peach nose; simple, ripe grapefruit, peach palate; short finish (86 pts.)
- 2009 Brassfield Estate Winery Chardonnay High Serenity Ranch – USA, California, North Coast, High Valley
Light yellow color; creamy lemon, vanilla nose; tasty, ripe lemon, vanilla nose; tasty, creamy textured, ripe lemon palate with near medium acidity; medium finish 87+ points (87 pts.)
This was not a very good rosé. In fact, it’s among the worst California rosés I’ve had in the last couple years. It bears evidence of the ubiquitous smoke taint of the 2008 vintage in California.
- 2008 Brassfield Estate Winery Pinot Noir Rosé High Serenity Ranch – USA, California, North Coast, High Valley
Light orange pink color; light smoke, light watermelon nose; light smoke, light watermelon palate; short-medium finish (81 pts.)
The best of the reds were the 2005 Syrah Monte Sereno and the 2005 Zinfandel Monte Sereno. The 2010 Pinot tasted highly acidified, the 2005 Syrah Round Mountain Volcano was quite reduced, and the 2009 Zin Volcano Ridge was oaky. The rest of the wines were just okay.
- 2010 Brassfield Estate Winery Pinot Noir High Serenity Ranch – USA, California, North Coast, High Valley
Medium cherry red color with pale meniscus; ripe raspberry, cherry, berry nose; soft, tart raspberry, tart cherry palate that tastes acidified as the acidity is too broad and unintegrated to be natural; medium finish (83 pts.)
- 2006 Brassfield Estate Winery Cabernet Sauvignon High Serenity Ranch – USA, California, North Coast, High Valley
Dark red violet color; lifted cassis, French oak, boysenberry, berry nose; soft entry, ripe cassis, boysenberry, berry, cedar palate; medium finish 86+ points (86 pts.)
- 2006 Brassfield Estate Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Monte Sereno – USA, California, North Coast, High Valley
Very dark red violet color; deep, cassis, blackberry nose; rich, velvety textured, ripe cassis, blackberry palate; medium-plus finish (88 pts.)
- 2009 Brassfield Estate Winery Eruption Volcano Ridge – USA, California, North Coast, High Valley
Nearly opaque red violet color; rich, deep red berry, plum, black fruit nose; tight, plush, ripe black fruit, berry palate with a little reduction; medium-plus finish (37% Syrah, 30% Mourvèdre, 14% Grenache, 10% Petite Sirah, 9% Malbec) (88 pts.)
- 2005 Brassfield Estate Winery Syrah Monte Sereno – USA, California, North Coast, High Valley
Dark magenta color; rich, tart black fruit, tar, baked black fruit nose; tasty, tart black fruit, tar, roasted plum, cold climate Syrah palate; medium-plus finish (91 pts.)
- 2005 Brassfield Estate Winery Syrah Round Mountain Volcano – USA, California, North Coast, High Valley
Dark magenta color; reduction, tart black fruit, stinky nose; reduction, tart black fruit, inky, tar palate; medium finish (83 pts.)
- 2007 Brassfield Estate Winery Malbec Volcano Ridge – USA, California, North Coast, High Valley
Dark red violet color; rich, deep, red berry, plum, violet nose; tangy, tart plum, roasted plum palate; medium-plus finish 87+ points (87 pts.)
- 2006 Brassfield Estate Winery Petite Sirah Volcano Ridge – USA, California, North Coast, High Valley
Very dark red violet color; roasted plum, ripe red currant, cassis nose; tart roasted plum, herbs, charcoal palate; medium-plus finish 88+ points (88 pts.)
- 2009 Brassfield Estate Winery Zinfandel Volcano Ridge – USA, California, North Coast, High Valley
Dark purple red violet color; light berry, blackberry nose; oak, tart berry, black cherry palate with smooth, sweet tannins; medium finish (84 pts.)
- 2005 Brassfield Estate Winery Zinfandel Monte Sereno – USA, California, North Coast, Clear Lake
Medium red violet color with pale meniscus; roasted plum, fine French oak nose; tasty, tart roasted plum palate with a pepper kick, more like a Syrah than a Zin, but tasty; medium-plus finish 90+ points (90 pts.)
The late harvest Riesling had some good flavors and a little balancing acidity; the Zin-based sweet wine was mostly reminiscent of prune juice.
- 2008 Brassfield Estate Winery Riesling Late Harvest Susan’s Passion – USA, California, North Coast, High Valley
Medium golden yellow color; lifted, lemon curd, apricot, honeysuckle nose; tasty, honeysuckle, apricot, baked peach, lemon curd palate with some acidity; medium-plus finish 88+ points (88 pts.)
- 2005 Brassfield Estate Winery Zinfandel Elevado – USA, California, North Coast, Clear Lake
Medium dark red violet color; smoky, roasted plum, tangy prune juice nose; smoky, ripe roasted plum, charcoal palate; long finish (82 pts.)