Brassfield Visit: Grandiose Facilities Do Not Necessarily Make Great Wines

one of the chandeliers at Brassfield

one of the chandeliers at Brassfield

BRASSFIELD VISIT: GRANDIOSE FACILITIES DO NOT NECESSARILY MAKE GREAT WINES – Brassfield Estate Winery, High Valley Appellation, Lake County, California (8/14/2011)

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.

fountain from Clark Gable’s Malibu estate

fountain from Clark Gable’s Malibu estate

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.

steel tanks and small barrels

steel tanks and small barrels

Whites

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.

Brassfield white wines

Brassfield white wines

Rosé

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.

Reds

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.

Brassfield Syrahs

Brassfield Syrahs

Sweets

The late harvest Riesling had some good flavors and a little balancing acidity; the Zin-based sweet wine was mostly reminiscent of prune juice.

part of the finished portion of the extensive Brassfield caves

part of the finished portion of the extensive Brassfield caves

part of unfinished Brassfield caves

part of unfinished Brassfield caves

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One Response to Brassfield Visit: Grandiose Facilities Do Not Necessarily Make Great Wines

  1. David Tong says:

    I’ve tasted a couple of wines from Brassfield – they were a sponsor of the SAP Open tennis competition in San Jose a year or so ago. I don’t recall what they were and made no notes other than a mental one to avoid them in the future. I purchased glasses of red and white; the white was mediocre supermarket plonk, the red was undrinkable.

    Interestingly the Brassfield family also own the Heart O’ the Mountain winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

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