Andrew Murray to Expand; Leasing Former Curtis Winery & Vineyard

Richard Jennings
January 14, 2014
Andrew Murray and wife Kristen
Andrew Murray and wife Kristen outside their tasting room in Los Olivos

Andrew Murray is a name those of us who love American Rhone-style wines have seen on bottles of small lot Syrah and popular, value-priced Rhone blends for years. Andrew started Andrew Murray Vineyards with his parents in 1990, so he’s been in the wine business for nearly 24 years now.

Andrew first made wine from his family’s estate vineyard in Santa Barbara’s Santa Ynez AVA off Foxen Canyon Road near the AVA’s northern boundary. When that property was sold in 2005, Andrew had to relocate both his winemaking and much of his grape sourcing, buying fruit from as far away as Paso Robles, Lodi and other parts of the Central Coast.

But thanks to a new long term lease on the former Curtis Winery and Vineyard, owned by the Firestone family, Andrew has just announced he is officially “coming home” with dedicated grapes and a major winemaking facility in Santa Ynez once again, this time on Foxen Canyon Road itself.

Curtis Vineyards
Curtis Vineyards

When I first met Andrew in April last year, I expected him to be an older gentleman, like myself. Instead, he’s a boyish looking 41-year-old. What’s his secret? Andrew started making wine when he was only in his teens.

Andrew was all of 16 when he was exposed to wine while touring France with his parents. That’s when a bottle of Phillipe Faury Condrieu turned him on to Viognier—then a virtually unknown variety in the U.S.—and to fine wine in general. Andrew and his parents, L.A.-based restaurateurs Jim and Francis Murray, were staying and eating at an inn called L’Espérance in the Burgundy village of Vézelay. In honor of that experience, Espérance is the name Andrew gave to the AMV GSM blend.

After the France trip, Andrew started college at Berkeley. He ultimately decided to transfer to U.C. Davis, though, to learn winemaking. His Berkeley academic adviser counseled him to work first in Australia, to get some practical winemaking experience before starting at Davis.

So at age 18, Andrew went to work for Robert Bowen at Capel Vale in Western Australia where he made his first wine. He ended up staying nearly a year. Andrew credits Bowen for educating him about the wines of different regions, helping him to develop his palate and further inflaming Andrew’s passion for wine before he arrived at Davis.

In the meantime, Andrew’s parents bought a 200-acre ranch in Santa Barbara County’s Santa Ynez Valley. They were acquainted with winemakers there—Au Bon Climat’s Jim Clendenen and Foxen’s Bill Wathen and Dick Doré—who suggested their land would be good for growing grapes, specifically Rhone varieties. So that’s what the Murrays proceeded to do.

Andrew was very keen to plant Viognier, so the Murrays obtained cuttings identified as Viognier from a local nursery. The grapes produced by most of that budwood, however, turned out to be Syrah. Apparently the cosmos was redirecting Andrew to the grape he was to excel at.

The first vintage of wine under the Andrew Murray Vineyards label was 1993. For the first few years, most of what they produced was Syrah. By 1996-1997, however, Andrew was experimenting with Rhone blends and other single Rhone variety bottlings, like Roussanne and Mourvèdre.

By the end of Andrew’s first winemaking decade, Robert Parker called AMV “one of the shining stars in the Santa Barbara firmament” while the San Francisco Chronicle named Andrew a “winemaker to watch.”

Andrew Murray Dec 2013

By 2005, the vineyard plantings on the Murray ranch had grown to 42 acres. Andrew also purchased grapes from other area vineyards, including Bien Nacido in Santa Maria Valley and Melville in Sta. Rita Hills. He even sourced from Paso Robles and other parts of the Central Coast for his lower priced bottlings. His parents, however, were looking to retire, which meant selling their property, including the estate vineyards and the winemaking facility they had built on Foxen Canyon Road, adjacent to Zaca Mesa.

The sale of the ranch and winery, to Santa Monica real estate developer John Zahoudanis, closed in January 2006. Zahoudanis thereafter launched Demetria Estates. Andrew kept the Andrew Murray brand name and Los Olivos tasting room, but had to locate another winemaking facility and new grape sources.

Andrew leased the former Firestone Walker brewery, located in the canyon lands far behind Firestone Vineyard, and revamped it into a state-of-the-art winery. Locals know the somewhat remote facility as “Area 51.” Andrew has continued to make a range of Rhone-oriented wines there—everything from single vineyard Syrahs that sell from $30 to $38—my favorite of which is the Watch Hill Vineyard—to blends meant for everyday consumption priced as low as $11 and $13 at some retail outlets.

Andrew also began to bottle the bulk of his wines under screw cap in 2006. He started this as an experiment in 2003—out of a desire to ensure that his wines made it to the consumer as fresh as possible by minimizing the possibility of cork taint. He had first bottled a portion of the AMV reserve Syrah under screw cap with the rest under cork, much like Plumpjack did starting with their 1997 Reserve Cabernet.

Andrew told me, however, that he has tired of constantly having to explain the merits of screw caps, using up precious minutes of sales call time in parts of the country that have less knowledgeable wine cultures. So he is switching to equally taint-free Diam corks for future releases of AMV wines that are meant to be more ageworthy.

Some of Andrew’s value priced wines are offered under Andrew’s “This is E11even” label—the name being a reference to the amplifier volume dials marked as going up to 11 instead of the standard 10 in the heavy metal mocumentary “This is Spinal Tap.” These are good quality, inexpensive wines, made for early drinking. He’s currently producing a white blend, red blend and Pinot Noir under this label.

Andrew’s biggest seller, accounting for 6,500 of his total annual 12 to 20 thousand case production, is the AMV Tous les Jours Syrah. It is widely available throughout the country at an average of $15, and is a delicious Syrah at the price. I rated the 2011 edition 91 points.

When I was back in Santa Barbara last month, Andrew told me he had been approached earlier that year by his long time friend and Area 51 landlord, Adam Firestone, who asked him, “How are you doing at Area 51? Have you outgrown it yet?”

Adam Firestone and Andrew Murray
Adam Firestone and Andrew Murray

Andrew reflected that AMV wines were, at that point, selling out more rapidly than he wanted—within three to six months after release—suggesting there was greater demand than they were currently supplying. He had considered charging more for the wines, but the idea of growing capacity and being able simply to sell more wine at fair prices had stronger appeal.

The Firestone family, which had sold off the Firestone Vineyard brand and 380 acres of estate vines to Foley Wine Estates in 2007, had retained their Curtis Winery on Foxen Canyon, along with 200 acres of vineyards. By 2013, however, the Firestones’ hugely successful beer operations were taking increasing amounts of the family’s time, leaving little bandwidth for focus on the remaining wine business.

Adam offered Andrew the chance to expand AMV by leasing both the Curtis Winery and its estate vineyards, which are planted about 50% to Rhone varieties. Ultimately an agreement was reached, effective this month, under which AMV is leasing the Curtis vineyards, leasing and remodeling the Curtis facility, and taking over the production of Curtis and Jarhead wines for the Firestone family.

Andrew plans to use about 50 acres of Rhone varieties from these vineyards for AMV wines. Other varieties from these vineyards will be used to make Jarhead and Curtis wines, with excess fruit being sold to other local wineries. Andrew will also continue to source Grenache and other varieties from Paso Robles and Santa Barbara growers.

The Curtis label will continue as limited production bottlings made by AMV in arrangement with the Firestone family. Meanwhile, Andrew explains that Area 51 will be turned into a cooperative type of winemaking facility he hopes will continue to be an incubator for new labels. Former Curtis winemaker Ernst Storm, whom I profiled here, will move to that facility to focus on his Storm Wines.

Andrew tells me his family will keep the popular Los Olivos tasting room open for the foreseeable future, but that, after winery renovations over the next several months, visitors who want a deeper experience will be able to tour the winery as well as attend special events there.

Andrew, one of the lucky few of us who found his life’s calling in the wine business even before he was old enough to buy wine legally, tells me he’s on a mission “to make better wines every year of my life.” With access once again to “estate vineyards,” where he will have more control over the viticulture and day-to-day management, as well as a larger facility for practicing his craft, I have no doubt he will continue to achieve that goal.

For my tasting notes and ratings on some of AMV’s current offerings, as well as on the Curtis Wines I tasted on an earlier trip last year, see below.

Andrew Murray
Andrew Murray wines

  • 2012 Andrew Murray RGB Camp 4 Vineyard – Santa Ynez Valley
    Bright light yellow color; lifted, aromatic bright, lemon juice, citrus nose; tasty, focused, clean, medium bodied, lemon juice, juicy, mineral, bright citrus palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (50/50 co-fermented Grenache Blanc/Roussanne; 13.8% alcohol) 91 points

  • 2011 Andrew Murray RGB Camp 4 Vineyard – Santa Ynez Valley
    Light yellow color; tart apple, ripe pear nose; tasty, fresh, juicy, apple, apple sauce, ripe pear palate with good acidity; medium-plus finish (no oak, inhibited malolactic) 89 points

  • 2012 Andrew Murray Espérance – Central Coast
    Very dark ruby color; roasted black fruit, roasted beets, tar, liquid pepper nose; ripe, juicy, tart black fruit, black pepper, tart black plum, tart berry, black currant palate; medium-plus finish (60% Grenache, 25% Syrah, 15% Mourvedre) 92 points

  • 2011 Andrew Murray Espérance – Central Coast
    Very dark ruby color; earthy, reduction, tart roasted black fruit, charcoal, light pepper nose; fresh, reductive, roasted black fruit, pepper palate; medium-plus finish 88+ points (60% Grenache, 25% Syrah, 15% Mourvedre; 15% alcohol) 88 points

  • 2011 Andrew Murray Syrah Watch Hill Vineyard – Santa Barbara County
    Opaque purple red violet color; appealing, pepper, tar, charcoal nose; tasty, poised, complex, pepper, roasted black fruit, mineral, tar palate with good acidity; medium-plus finish (with 4% co-fermented Viognier) 93 points

  • 2011 Andrew Murray Syrah Tous les Jours – Central Coast
    Very dark ruby color; fresh, appealing, roasted black fruit, charcoal nose; tasty, roasted black fruit, charcoal, light pepper, tar palate with good acidity; medium-plus finish (great value at $15-16) 91 points

  • 2010 Andrew Murray Syrah Terra Bella Vineyard Paso Robles
    Very dark purple red violet color; appealing, roasted plum, tart black fruit, pepper, charcoal nose; tart roasted black fruit, pepper, charcoal palate with good acidity; medium-plus finish 91+ points

  • 2008 Andrew Murray Syrah Watch Hill Vineyard – Santa Barbara County
    Opaque black-tinged purple red violet color; appealing, liquid pepper, roasted plum, roasted meat nose; rich, velvety textured, tart berry, tart black fruit, tar, pepper, black berry palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (14.9% alcohol) 93+ points

  • 2004 Andrew Murray Syrah Roasted Slope – Santa Ynez Valley
    Very dark ruby color; maturing, barbecue sauce, roasted beets, tart black fruit, baked black fruit nose; medium bodied, tar, roasted black fruit, pepper palate; long finish (4-5% Viognier; 14.9% alcohol) 92+ points

  • 2001 Andrew Murray Syrah Estate Grown – Santa Ynez Valley
    Bricking dark red violet color; roasted beets, raspberry puree, tart black fruit nose; juicy, roasted beets, tart black fruit, black currant, tar palate; should go 8-10 years; medium-plus finish (13.9% alcohol) 91+ points

  • 2011 Andrew Murray This is E11even Unplugged – Santa Ynez Valley
    Light green-tinged yellow color; appealing, ripe pear, ripe lemon nose; clean, juicy, green pear, tart peach palate; medium finish (50% Chenin Blanc, 50% Sauvignon Blanc; old vine vineyard) 89 points

  • 2011 Andrew Murray Pinot Noir This is E11even – Santa Maria Valley
    Dark ruby color; oak, green peppercorn, roasted plum nose; fresh, tart cherry, green peppercorn palate with good acidity; medium-plus finish 88+ points (13.5% alcohol; 3-5% whole cluster; 5 clones: 2A and Dijons) 88 points

  • 2010 Andrew Murray This is E11even Big Bottom – Santa Ynez Valley
    Dark purple red violet color; appealing, fresh, menthol, ripe currant nose; fresh, ripe red currant, black currant, cassis palate; medium-plus finish (14.5% alcohol; blend of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon) 89 points

Curtis
Curtis Wines 2

  • 2011 Curtis Viognier Santa Barbara County – Santa Barbara County
    Light green-tinged yellow color; clean, very tart peach nose; crisp, tasty, tart peach, ripe citrus, mineral palate; medium finish (14.3% alcohol; fermentation in stainless steel; 10-15% malolactic) 90 points

  • 2011 Curtis Heritage Blanc – Santa Barbara County
    Light straw yellow color; tart green fruit, green mango, tart green melon nose; crisp, tart green fruit, citrus palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (blend of 34% Grenache Blanc, 33% Roussanne, 33% Viognier; 14.3% alcohol) 89 points

  • 2012 Curtis Heritage Rosé – Santa Barbara County
    Light pink orange color; appealing, tart Rainier cherry, tart tangerine, pink grapefruit nose; tasty, clean, very tart Rainier cherry, very tart orange, mineral palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (38% Grenache, 32% Mourvedre, 27% Syrah, 3% Cinsault; 13.8% alcohol; excellent rosé at $22 SRP) 92+ points

  • 2010 Curtis Heritage Cuvée – Santa Barbara County
    Dark red violet color; aromatic, tart berry, dried berry, ripe black fruit, tar nose; complex, tasty, balanced, ripe berry, baked berry palate with a smoky quality; medium-plus finish (38% Mourvedre, 26% Grenache, 25% Cinsault, 11% Syrah; 14.5% alcohol; 16 months in oak, 15% new; great barbecue wine for $24 SRP) 91 points

  • 2010 Curtis Mourvedre Santa Barbara County – Santa Barbara County
    Very dark red violet color; aromatic, dried red fruit, funky, dried mushroom nose; tasty, tart berry, dried berry, mineral, light licorice palate with mid-palate fullness; good now but could use 2-3 years; medium-plus finish (14.3% alcohol; 16 months in oak, partially on lees, 25% new; 369 & SS clones) 91+ points

  • 2010 Curtis Syrah – Santa Barbara County
    Very dark red violet color; appealing, tart blackberry, lifted, tart berry, tar nose; tasty, poised, medium bodied, tar, tart black fruit, mineral, light pepper palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (14.4% alcohol; 20-25% new French oak for 16 months) 92 points

Curtis Wines

Rock Star Champagne Grower-Producers: Serge Mathieu and Chartogne-Taillet

Richard Jennings
December 27, 2013

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cow sculpture at Serge Mathieu

Two stars of my Holiday Champagne Buyers Guide this year–Serge Mathieu and Chartogne-Taillet–are grower-producers whose wines express a sense of place. Both are also terrific values amongst my most highly rated Champagnes this year.

I visited both producers in Champagne in September. I’d previously been familiar with Chartogne-Taillet, whose wines have noticeably improved in recent years, but Serge Matheiu was a new and most welcome find.

As we approach New Year’s Eve celebrations, I want to highlight these two producers for their painstaking efforts, in the vineyard as well as in the cellar, yielding Champagnes of true, delicate beauty and artistry.

Serge Mathieu

The Mathieu family has grown grapes in what is now the Aube region of Champagne since the 1700s. In the 19th century their tiny village of Avirey-Lingey boasted 80 inhabitants and 400 hectares of vineyard. The commune was one of many in Champagne that suffered a great deal of damage in World War I. One hundred years later the village’s population has increased to 180 but vineyard acreage is down to 120 hectares.

Over the decades the Mathieus amassed parcels of vineyards that today total 11 hectares. Serge Mathieu first started working with his father France in 1958. Up until 1970, like other growers in the area, they sold all their grapes, mainly to Marne Valley producers, since it was costly and difficult to build cellars in the area. In 1970, however, they produced their first 5,000 bottles of Champagne.

Serge’s daughter Isabelle, who had studied languages in school, joined the operation in 1987. She focused on finding export markets for the wines, which up until then were virtually all sold within France. Within a dozen years, the family was exporting 60% of their production.

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Serge Mathieu and Michel Jacob

In 1996, Isabelle married Michel Jacob, a grower from a neighboring village. By 1999, he was farming the estate’s vineyards, while Serge trained him on cellar work. Ultimately Serge also passed on winemaking responsibilities to Michel, who has proven to be not only a thoughtful farmer but also a winemaker with a wonderfully light touch. The result is some of the most ethereal, artful and delicious Champagne I had the pleasure of enjoying during my week’s visit to Champagne. Since I returned home, I’ve been trying these wines out on fellow Champagne lovers who have also been impressed.

The Serge Mathieu vineyards are planted 80% to Pinot Noir and 20% to Chardonnay. The Pinot Noir averages 50 years old, with the oldest vines having 57 years. The Kimmeridgian limestone soil here is very rocky, with an abundance of limestone rocks lying on the surface.

Michel is quite modest about his efforts in the vineyard. When Serge asked him to take over the estate, Michel told him he was going to use his own methods, like ploughing the rows again with horses to reduce soil compaction. He now practices what he calls “environmentally friendly viticulture.” He told us that, based on his experience of farming here for 17 years, he notices when things are “not quite right.” Nonetheless, he claims, “The more I go forward the less I know. I could open a museum of bad ideas.”

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Michel and Isabelle

The 2013 vintage was a difficult one in this village, with 60-70% of the potential crop having been destroyed by a major hailstorm in June. Usually Michel produces five cuvees, but he plans on only four for 2013. In a normal year, Serge Mathieu produces over 100,000 bottles, 85% of which is exported, to a total of 34 countries.

The day we met with Michel and Isabelle, Michel was preparing for picking to start the following morning. He was going to be out in the vineyard by 6 am, while his team of pickers was set to arrive at 8.

Michel showed us the very efficient cuverie and its 8,000 kilo pneumatic press they acquired 10 years ago that has helped reduce oxidation. Michel told us he hates both oxidation and sulfur. He explained that he uses 40% of the typical amount of sulfur other producers employ at the end of the cycle—usually 30 to 50 parts per million instead of 100. For the last three years, he has also employed “jetting” to help reduce oxidation at disgorgement. Jetting uses microscopic needles to create an oxygen barrier of foam in the bottle.

Michel uses no oak on the wines, explaining he wants “just to emphasize what the grapes give.” Each year they replace one of their old inox tanks with a new one made of stainless steel. The wines also go through complete malolactic fermentation.

Unlike every other producer we met with in Champagne, Michel says that he uses some taille—juice from the second grape pressing—in blends. He does so, he says, “because we have good, clean taille.” A chalkboard graph in the cuverie indicates precisely what is expected to go into each cuvee, identifying the tank number, vintage and percentages.

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The vintage Champagne, in years when they produce one, is made exclusively from Pinot Noir. It ages five to six years on its lees, and one more year in bottle before release. Typically they make an Extra Brut from Pinot Noir, with a dosage (i.e., sugar solution addition for rounding out the wine before bottling) of about five grams; a Tradition Brut Blanc de Noirs, entirely from Pinot Noir, with slightly higher dosage; a Brut Select, with about 80% Pinot Noir and 20% Chardonnay; a Prestige Cuvée that includes a large proportion of Chardonnay (30%); and a delicious rosé.

The rosé is a blend of red and white wines, with the addition of 13% still red wine. In Michel’s view, after many blindtastings, he finds he always prefers rosé Champagnes made with the addition of red wine for color and complexity, rather than those made with maceration and skin contact. This is consistent with my experience to date.

We got to taste through each of the cuvées, and two editions of the vintage Champagne—the 2006 and 1998—in the domaine’s light and airy reception facility that is charmingly decorated with art pieces, many of which are quite whimsical. One can also get a sense of the couple’s humor and creativity from the fun animation on their website.

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chandeliers at Serge Matheiu reception offices

I was thoroughly charmed by the wines. They have the delicacy and ethereal quality I highly prize in wines in general, but that is often missing in Champagne. They were among my most highly rated wines of the trip, and the relatively low prices—low $40s for all but the vintage bottlings–make them extraordinary bargains. Serge Mathieu’s West Coast distributor is Charles Neal Selections; in the New York area the wines are available through Regal Wine Imports.

Chartogne-Taillet

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Alexandre Chartogne

Chartogne-Taillet is a longtime family operation now run by 30-year-old Alexandre Chartogne. Importer Terry Theise has called him “the most exciting young producer in Champagne.” I am inclined to agree.

The family’s vineyards are in the Montagne de Reims village of Merfy, lying along the southern end of the Massif de Saint-Thierry. The south and southeast facing hillside vineyards here were developed by the monks of the Abbey of Saint-Theirry starting in the 7th century. By the 9th century, this had become the highest concentration of vineyard land in Champagne. The Chartogne-Taillet vineyard parcels, a total of 12 hectares, include the Chemin de Reims vineyard mentioned in viticultural accounts dating back to the 800s.

Sadly, Merfy and its vineyards were virtually destroyed during World War I. For a three month period, eight to 10 bombs were dropped every day in the area. As a result, when the pricing structure that gave rise to the Échelle des Crus designations of Champagne villages as grand cru and premier cru were established in the years following the war, Merfy was not included.

The family dates its tradition of winegrowing back to one Fiacre Taillet in 1485. A descendant of this grower, born in 1700 and also named Fiacre, kept a detailed journal recording each vineyard, its yields, the weather and prices received. Alexandre proudly showed us a photocopied version of Fiacre’s writings, which has been bound as a book. Fiacre’s offspring kept up the journal, and Alexandre’s parents, Philippe and Elisabeth continued the tradition. Alexandre keeps a similar record since taking over from his parents in 2006.

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The modern history of this estate dates from Oscar Chartogne’s arrival and acquisition of his first vineyard in Merfy in 1870. His daughter Marie married Etienne Taillet in 1920. Their combined parcels and the old cellars under the house in the center of Merfy formed the basis of the current operations.

There’s a wonderful interactive map of Merfy showing the placement of the village’s vineyards, including the ones the family owns, on the Chartogne-Taillet website here. The family’s 13 parcels include three on sandy soil that contain ungrafted vines. The vineyards are planted to a mix of the Champagne varieties Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, along with a small amount of the historic Champagne variety Arbanne in the Chemin de Reims vineyard.

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Alexandre’s parents did not push him to join the family business. He first obtained a degree in management and worked for Volkswagen for five years. In 2005, however, he worked with Champagne innovator Anselme Selosse at the same time as he joined his parents in the business. Now, it is hard to imagine anyone more passionate about his vineyards and the magical process of winemaking than the gentle but highly animated Alexandre. The combination of his soft-spoken, carefully chosen words and rapidly changing facial expressions makes him a thoroughly entrancing communicator.

In the vat room, one finds a fascinating assortment of barrels, stainless steel tanks, Nomblot cement eggs and amphorae. Experiments with the amphorae reportedly did not go so well, since the waxed sealant could be tasted in the wine. Alexandre is very excited, however, about the cement eggs. He explained that the continuous Brownien movement of the juice throughout this container keeps the lees, which protect against oxidation, always in contact with the wine, allowing him to reduce the amount of sulfur needed for bottling. Alexandre claims to be able to get by with SO2 at only about 20 parts per million.

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What really got my attention was when Alexandre used a thief to extract samples of his vins clairs for us—the still wines that are blended prior to the secondary fermentation in bottle. I’ve tried vins clairs from a number of major houses, including wines made from their very best vineyards. They are usually highly acidic and angular. Sometimes they have long finishes, but they are never fully satisfying as dry wines on their own. By contrast, I would happily enjoy the vins clairs I sampled at Chartogne-Taillet as fresh, dry wines. No wonder the final cuvees prepared with this delicious raw material are so impressive.

Alexandre typically makes eight or nine cuvées per year. Five to six of those are vineyard or parcel designated cuvées. The Cuvée St. Anne is a bottling that the estate has been making for a long time, consisting of a blend of wines made from all their Merfy parcels. It usually contains Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, and is vinified in stainless steel tanks, using ambient yeasts. The Fiacre is also a bottling they have been producing for many years, made from the older vines from two parcels. It’s a blend of about 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Meunier, with six to seven grams dosage. It has been made in even-numbered years from 2002 to 2008.

Les Barres is a very interesting bottling made from ungrafted Pinot Meunier vines averaging 60 years of age. It is vinified in neutral oak and receives no dosage. It is a very characterful wine, with minerality and salinity, and packs a long finish. The rosé, Le Rosé, is made exclusively from Pinot Noir raised in stainless steel tanks with a dosage of 5.5 grams.

Each of the cuvées has a distinct personality. They spend eight to 18 months aging in the cellar room before bottling, without filtration. All are distinguished by their minerality, which inspires me to think of them as Chablis-like Champagnes. In all, 80,000 to 100,000 bottles are produced per year.

Another astonishing feature about the vat and cellar rooms is that, following Alexandre through the place, one enters one unexpectedly large cave-like room after another. Much like Dr. Who’s Tardis spaceship, there is a great deal more to Chartogne-Taillet’s compound and underground cellar than one would ever imagine from its modest exterior doorway.

Chartogne-Taillet Champagnes, especially the Cuvée St. Anne bottling, are widely available in the U.S., thanks to the efforts of Terry Theise and importer/distributor Michael Skurnik Wines. The Cuvée St. Anne averages $46. The individual parcel and vintage bottlings available here run from $50 to the low $60s.

For my tasting notes on wines from each of these producers, see below.

Chartogne-Taillet
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  • NV Chartogne-Taillet Champagne Cuvée St. Anne
    Light straw yellow color with abundant, steady, tiny bubbles; focused, ripe apple, tart pear nose; tasty, clean, fresh, crystalline, tart apple, very mineral, chalk, saline palate with mouthwatering medium acidity; medium-plus finish (60% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot Noir; 4 grams dosage; blend of family’s parcels throughout Merfy) 91+ points
  • 2006 Chartogne-Taillet Champagne Brut Millésimé
    Light golden yellow color with abundant, speedy, tiny bubbles; appealing, mature, yeasty, honey, almond, white chocolate nose; creamy textured, delicate, almond, almond cream, mineral, pear cream, biscuity palate; medium-plus finish (60% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay; disgorged 12/8/12) 93+ points
  • 2008 Chartogne-Taillet Champagne Brut Millésimé Merfy
    Light yellow color with abundant, speedy, tiny bubbles; tart pear, tart green apple nose; delicious, delicate, focused, very minerally, saline, lime, tart pear, palate; good now but should go 10-15 years; long finish 93+ points
  • NV Chartogne-Taillet Champagne Les Barres Extra Brut Les Barres
    Light yellow color with few, tiny bubbles; lemon chiffon, lemon bar, fresh green apple, chalk nose; fresh, delicious, characterful, tart green apple, lime, mineral, saline palate; long finish (2008 fruit) 93+ points
  • NV Chartogne-Taillet Champagne Brut Rosé
    Light salmon pink color with abundant, steady, tiny bubbles; appealing, intriguing, lightly savory, light mushroom, golden raspberry nose; very tasty, delicate but flavorful, juicy, tart golden raspberry, Rainier cherry, mineral palate; medium-plus finish (60% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot Noir; all 2010; disgorged Jan. 2013) 94+ points

Serge Mathieu
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  • NV Serge Mathieu Champagne Brut Select Côte des Bars (Aube)
    Light yellow color with steady, abundant, tiny bubbles; very appealing, delicate, almond, lightly yeasty nose; tasty, almond, mineral, ripe lemon palate; medium-plus finish (80% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Noir; 8.4 grams dosage; all 2006 fruit; disgorged 11/12) 92+ points
  • NV Serge Mathieu Champagne Cuvée Tradition Blanc de Noirs Brut
    Very light peach yellow color with abundant, steady, tiny bubbles; floral, almond, candied almond, light reduction, ripe white grapefruit nose; tasty,tight, delicate, ripe white grapefruit, mineral, lemon palate; medium-plus finish (8.6 grams dosage, Pinot Noir from 2008/2009) 94+ points
  • NV Serge Mathieu Champagne Cuvée Prestige Brut Côte des Bars (Aube)
    Very light yellow color with steady, tiny bubbles; very appealing, ripe pear, lightly yeasty, ripe lime, almond nose; absolutely delicious, fresh, clean, ripe lemon, lime, mineral, ripe white grapefruit palate; medium-plus finish (70% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay; 8.6 grams dosage; 2007-2008 vintage; disgorged 11/12) 95 points
  • NV Serge Mathieu Champagne Extra Brut
    Light peach yellow color with abundant, steady, tiny bubbles; very appealing, floral, ripe peach, lillies nose; delicious, poised, elegant, delicate, tart peach, mineral palate; medium-plus finish (Pinot Noir from 2008 & 2009; 5 grams dosage; disgorged 10/12) 94 points
  • 2006 Serge Mathieu Champagne Brut Millésimé
    Light yellow color with steady, abundant, tiny bubbles; yeasty, almond, light hazelnut nose; delicious, very delicate, lightly yeasty, almond, green almond, mineral palate; medium-plus finish (6 grams dosage) 95 points
  • NV Serge Mathieu Champagne Brut Rosé
    Very light pink color with speedy, abundant, tiny bubbles; very appealing, strawberry, tart cherry. light golden raspberry, almond nose; delicious, vinous, delicate, complex, tart raspberry, blood orange, tart cherry, mineral, lemon palate with bright acidity; medium-plus finish (68% Pinot Noir, 20% Chardonnay, 12% red wine; 9.6 grams dosage; disgorged 10/12) 94 points

Thanksgiving with the Mondavis: A Family Reunited and its Rich Legacy

Richard Jennings
November 27, 2013

Michael Mondavi Family Estate Luncheon
Mondavi family members at the home of Michael and Isabel Mondavi

The memorable events described in this piece actually occurred this past weekend–i.e., the weekend before Thanksgiving–and consisted of three lengthy meals instead of one. Their theme and focus, however, were shared histories and an appreciation of the fruits of a long family legacy. Thanksgiving was the spirit then, albeit a little in advance of the calendar.

The Mondavi family dates its winemaking origins in the U.S. to Italian immigrant Cesare and Rosa’s wine grape shipping operations, beginning in Lodi, California, and then, with the 1943 acquisition of the Charles Krug winery in Napa, moving into winemaking.

It was son Robert Mondavi who had urged his parents to buy Charles Krug, which they ultimately did on the understanding that Robert and brother Peter would be jointly in charge of operations there. Peter focused more on the winemaking and vineyard management side while Robert, the dynamic entrepreneur, built up the sales, marketing and public image. Together they helped make Charles Krug one of the five top Napa producers by the early 1950s, along with Beaulieu, Beringer, Inglenook and Larkmead.

Robert and Peter, who were born only about a year apart and who both graduated Stanford University, had different visions for the business and were frequently in conflict. They famously came to blows in 1965, at which point Robert left the business to start the Robert Mondavi Winery. Lengthy litigation between Robert’s camp and the rest of the family led by Peter and their mother Rosa, then Charles Krug’s President, ultimately resulted in a division of Mondavi family assets. Among other things, Robert acquired the famous To Kalon Vineyard that had long been the primary source for Charles Krug’s Vintage Selection Cabernet. Peter remained with the Charles Krug name and much of its former operations while Robert, with sons Michael and Tim, and daughter Marcia, turned to expanding the Robert Mondavi brand.

Those efforts included the Opus One partnership with Baron Rothschild of Mouton Rothschild and a series of acquisitions and joint ventures with numerous other wineries in California, Australia, Italy and elsewhere. Significant debts and continued expansion led to the family taking the business public in 1993. Robert’s charitable largesse and business reverses ultimately led to Robert Mondavi Winery and all its assets being sold to Constellation in 2004. Following that sale, the only Mondavi who remained on the Robert Mondavi Winery payroll for a significant length of time was Robert’s wife Margrit.

Meanwhile, following Robert’s departure from Charles Krug, Peter Mondavi, Sr., steadily continued to build that brand’s operations, supported since the early 1980s by sons Marc and Peter Mondavi, Jr. In 1999, they launched a $25.6 million nine-year project of replanting the majority of their 850 acres of vineyards and upgrading the winery.

Peter Mondavi Sr. Birthday Celebration at Charles Krug Winery
Peter Mondavi, Sr., center, with sons Peter Jr., left, and Marc

Starting in about 2003, Robert and Peter Mondavi, Sr., reconciled, thereafter meeting for lunch or dinner on a monthly basis. In 2005, the two made a wine together—a single barrel of Cabernet Sauvignon based wine that was sold as “Ancora Una Volta,” meaning “once again.” In the following years, other members of the formerly estranged branches of the Mondavi family started doing holiday dinners and other events together. This past weekend’s events, then, were partly a celebration of the family’s reconciliation and current harmony.

The idea for a series of family events over one weekend was born when Tim Mondavi’s family started planning for the opening of Continuum’s new winery at about the same time as Peter’s family began to organize a gala opening of the new Charles Krug Visitor Center—occupying the winery’s historic Redwood Cellar—to coincide with the family patriarch’s 99th birthday. With those two events in the works, family members reached out to Michael Mondavi about the possibility of a third event spotlighting Michael’s family’s current operations.

As a result, my intense and delightful immersion with the extended Mondavi family—i.e., nearly all the descendants of Cesare and Rosa Mondavi, including the children and most of the grandchildren of both Robert and Peter Mondavi, Sr.—commenced this past Friday with a late afternoon visit to the Continuum vineyard on Pritchard Hill followed by a Thanksgiving themed dinner at the newly finished winery there.

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Carissa Mondavi, Tim Mondavi and Marcia Mondavi Borger at Continuum’s vineyard

It was Tim Mondavi who, from 1974 through 2004, was the winemaker for Robert Mondavi Winery. The focus of his current project, founded in 2005 with his father Robert and sister Marcia Mondavi Borger, is one artisanal Bordeaux blend wine called Continuum. (There’s also a second wine, from young vines, called Novicium.) The 2010 Continuum we sampled that evening was my wine of the weekend, and one of the best California Bordeaux blends I’ve tasted all year.

Saturday afternoon was Tim’s older brother Michael’s turn. Michael, who had been involved in winemaking early on at Robert Mondavi Winery, ultimately became its President and CEO, being active primarily in marketing, acquisitions and joint ventures. In the same year as the winery’s sale to Constellation, he established Folio Fine Wine Partners, which imports the wines of Marchese di Frescobaldi and provides marketing services to a few dozen wine brands from several countries. The following year he launched Michael Mondavi Family Estate, producing wines with his wife Isabel and children Rob and Dina.

Michael Mondavi Family Estate Luncheon
Peter Mondavi, Sr., and Michael Mondavi with 1965 Charles Krug Vintage Selection

Michael and Isabel hosted a lunch at their elegant home–with uncle Peter Mondavi, Sr., on hand–that included not only Michael and Isabel’s wines, but also two older bottlings highly significant to the history of the family.

Saturday evening concluded with a tour of the impressive new Charles Krug Visitor’s Center—a creative reworking of the massive old Charles Krug winery that was originally built in 1872—ending with a joyous celebration dinner there in honor of the 99th birthday of Peter Mondavi, Sr.

During the course of these events, I got to spend time with many Mondavi family members, most of whom seem to be working in some aspect of the wine business. That includes fourth generation Mondavi family winemakers Rob (son of Michael), Angelina (daughter of Marc, granddaughter of Peter, Sr.) and Carlo (son of Tim). I came away very moved by the mutual respect and admiration that now reigns in the family. I was also delighted to learn about the huge amount of activity various members of the family are engaged in, and to taste the fruits of some of that activity.

In addition to the projects mentioned so far, Peter Sr.’s sons Marc and Peter Jr., who are jointly in charge of operations at Charles Krug, are producing a Cabernet Sauvignon from the family’s Howell Mountain vineyard called Aloft. Their collaborators in that project are vineyard manager Jim Barbour and leading Napa winemaker Thomas Rivers Brown. Marc’s four daughters—as loving, mutually supportive and formidable a team of siblings as one could imagine—have launched their own label called Dark Matter, producing small quantities of Zinfandel.

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Cousins Angelina and Rob Mondavi

The oldest of those daughters, Angelina, is an accomplished winemaker, with a masters in oenology from the University of Adelaide and international harvests under her belt thanks to multiple stints in Australia, Argentina and California. In addition to the Dark Matter project, she serves as assistant winemaker to Jayson Woodbridge of One True Vine, LLC, for whom she helps to create Hundred Acre, Cherry Pie, and Layer Cake. She and cousin Rob Mondavi, son of Tim, also have a project together called Fourth Leaf.

Rob is responsible, along with Director of Winemaking Tony Coltrin, for the wines of Michael Mondavi Family Estate, which include the labels M by Michael Mondavi, Isabel Mondavi, Emblem, Oberon, Spellbound and Hangtime. Rob’s sister Dina, who had been an account manager for Southern Wine & Spirits, is part of the tasting panel for many of those wines, and is active in marketing for Folio Fine Wine Partners. Meanwhile Tim Mondavi’s son Carlo, who works with his father at Continuum, is also making a Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir under a new label yet to be announced.

At the three events, we sampled a number of the family’s wines, including the 1965 Charles Krug Cabernet Sauvignon Vintage Selection—the last wine that Robert and Peter Mondavi made together before Robert’s departure in 1966. I’ve had this wine on a few of occasions now and it’s still in great shape, with plenty of fruit, as many of the Charles Krugs from that era are.

The Mondavi family legacy looms large in the history of California wine, thanks not only to Robert and Peter’s early success with Charles Krug, but also Robert’s tireless promotion of Napa and California wines around the world. I have enjoyed the recent vintages of Charles Krug, Continuum and Michael Mondavi Family Wines that I’ve sampled, and look forward to tasting and reporting on those projects further as well as on what the fourth generation is up to.

Peter Mondavi Sr. Birthday Celebration at Charles Krug Winery
Peter Mondavi, Sr., surrounded by his granddaughters and, to his left, Robert Mondavi’s widow Margrit

For my tasting notes and ratings on the wines I sampled at the events this past weekend, see below.

Historical Mondavi Family Wines
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  • 1965 Charles Krug Winery (Peter Mondavi Family) Cabernet Sauvignon Vintage Selection – USA, California, Napa Valley (11/23/2013)
    Bricked medium dark red violet color with clarity; appealing, mature, black currant, bay leaf, tart plum nose; mature, poised, balanced, tart berry black currant, tart black raspberry, dried fig, mushroom, leather palate with lift; fades some after 20-25 minutes in the glass; long finish (last vintage that Robert and Peter Mondavi worked together; 13.5% alcohol; recorked in 1992) 94 points

  • 1974 Robert Mondavi Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve
    From 2.5 liter bottle – cloudy, bricked, dark red violet color; mature, tart raspberry, talc, mulberry, dill, tobacco nose; mature, blackberry, blueberry, tart berry, black currant jam, mulberry palate; medium-plus finish (Michael & Tim Mondavi’s last vintage together) 93+ points

Charles Krug – Peter Mondavi, Sr., and Family

  • 2012 Charles Krug Winery (Peter Mondavi Family) Sauvignon Blanc Limited Release Charles Krug Vineyard Estate
    Light lemon yellow color; very aromatic, lemon grass, tart grapefruit nose; tasty, tart grapefruit, mineral palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish 91 points

  • 2005 Charles Krug Winery (Peter Mondavi Family) Pinot Noir Limited Release Dr. Maurice Galante
    Bricking black tinged dark cherry red color; black cherry, cola, strawberry jam, ripe raspberry nose; mature, silky textured, black cherry, cola, classic Russian River palate with good acidity and firm, sweet tannins yet; medium-plus finish 92 points
  • 2010 Charles Krug Winery (Peter Mondavi Family) Cabernet Sauvignon Vintage Selection
    Opaque red violet color; appealing, seductive, blackberry syrup, ripe black currant, mocha nose; tasty, rich, ripe black currant, blackberry syrup, mocha, cedar palate; good now but could use 2 years; long finish (97% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Cabernet Franc, 1% Merlot; 21 mos in 100% new French oak) 94 points
  • 2010 Charles Krug Winery (Peter Mondavi Family) Family Reserve Generations
    Nearly opaque red violet color; black currant, blackberry, cedar nose; rich, opulent, blackberry, black currant palate with integrating oak and firm, sweet tannins; needs 4 years; medium-plus finish (77% Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% Merlot, 8% Petit Verdot, 2% Cabernet Franc) 93 points
  • 1983 Charles Krug Winery (Peter Mondavi Family) Cabernet Sauvignon Vintage Selection
    From 12-liter bottle – bricked opaque red violet color; mature, mushroom, tart berry nose; mature, mushroom, tart plum, red currant palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish 91 points
  • NV Charles Krug Winery (Peter Mondavi Family) Zinfandel Port Lot XVI
    Very dark ruby color; appealing, berry liqueur, mulberry, chocolate cake nose; rich, tasty, berry liqueur, black cherry, ripe black currant, mulberry palate; long finish 93 points

Michael Mondavi Family wines

  • 2012 Isabel Mondavi Chardonnay Carneros
    Light medium straw yellow color; focused, appealing, tart pear, apple nose; tasty, poised, tart pear, tart apple palate with near medium acidity; medium-plus finish (simultaneous alcoholic and malo fermentation; 1/3 new oak; constant lees stirring) 91+ points
  • 2010 Isabel Mondavi Pinot Noir
    Black tinged medium dark ruby color; appealing, focused, ripe cherry, tart raspberry, roses nose; tasty, poised, delicate, silky textured, tart cherry, tart raspberry, mineral, roses palate with medium acidity; could use 1-plus year; medium-plus finish (33% new French oak; 3.73 pH) 93 points
  • 2009 M by Michael Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon
    Very dark purple red violet color; intense, lifted, tart black currant, violets, blackberry nose; tart black currant, black currant jam, tart berry, blackberry, boysenberry, boysenberry syrup palate with open knit structure; could use 2-3 years; medium-plus finish (96% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Petit Verdot) 92+ points
  • 2010 Emblem Cabernet Sauvignon Oso Vineyard Napa Valley
    Very dark ruby color; appealing, dark chocolate, tart blackberry nose; tasty, tight, tart berry, dark chocolate, tart black currant palate with firm, sweet tannins; needs 3-plus years; medium-plus finish (14.2% alcohol) 92 points
  • 2011 Emblem Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley
    Very dark ruby color; ripe black fruit, tart berry, tart blackberry, roast coffee nose; tart black currant, blackberry, berry syrup, roast coffee palate, lacking structure; needs 2-3 years; medium-plus finish (14.4% alcohol) 89 points

Tim Mondavi family wines
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  • 2006 Continuum Proprietary Red
    Opaque red violet color; appealing, ripe black currant, tart black berry, light pencil lead nose; tasty, plush, black currant, blackberry, blackberry syrup, milk chocolate palate with violets on finish, sweet tannins and good acidity; medium-plus finish (59% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Cabernet Franc, 16% Petit Verdot; 100% To Kalon Marjorie’s Vineyard; 95% new French oak) 93 points
  • 2010 Continuum Proprietary Red
    Opaque red violet color; appealing, aromatic, focused, tart black currant, pencil lead, tart blackberry, bittersweet chocolate nose; delicious, ripe black currant, unsweetened dark chocolate, pencil lead palate; with fine delineation; long finish (71% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Cabernet Franc, 11% Petit Verdot, 4% Merlot; 92% Pritchard Hill; 80% new French oak) 95 points

Two Talented Expat Winemakers in California: Ernst Storm and Guillaume Fabre

Guillaume Fabre, at home, with his Clos Solène wines
Guillaume Fabre, at home, with his Clos Solène wines

Winemaking in California has very much been shaped and influenced by a long line of experienced growers and winemakers who moved here from other winemaking countries.

There were the Italian, French and German immigrants in the mid- to late-1800s, many of whose descendants are still in the business today. They planted the mixed black vineyards, a small number of which remain as jewels of California viticulture. There were the likes of Agoston Haraszthy from Hungary, Gustav Niebaum of Finland and German-born Charles Krug who brought new varieties and techniques that had a lasting impact. They were followed by giants like Georges de Latour and Paul Masson from France and Russian-born and French-trained André Tchelitscheff. Other influential expat winemakers have included Mike Grgich from Croatia and, in more recent decades, Bordeaux’s Philippe Melka.

I’m delighted to report that the tradition of young winemakers coming from elsewhere to make wine in California continues. Two of the newer arrivals making stunning wines employing sensibilities and techniques they brought with them from their native winemaking regions are South African Ernst Wolf and Languedoc-Roussillon native Guillaume Fabre.

Ernst and Guillaume have at least a few things in common. They’re the same age–34. Both are drawn as much to farming and viticulture as they are to making wine. Both have “day jobs” at large wineries and make only small quantities of wine under their own labels as a side project. Both impress one as very grounded, and quite serious about their work. Nonetheless, the two are also undeniably charismatic. Ernst has even been the subject of a couple of mini-documentaries to date. Both also have a penchant for wearing shorts.

Ernst Storm with Sophia
Ernst Storm and Sophia

Ernst was the first to arrive here, in 2003. Ernst had been exposed to wine when he spent the end of his teenage years growing up in South Africa’s cool Walker Bay appellation in the Western Cape. He followed older brother Hannes in studying winemaking, completing his studies at Elsenburg Agricultural School near the town of Stellenbosch. Hannes is now winemaker at famed Chardonnay and Pinot Noir specialist Hamilton Russell in Walker Bay.

Ernst worked for a year as winemaker at South Africa’s Amani, where he developed his fondness for Sauvignon Blanc. Driven by a desire to experience a Northern Hemisphere harvest, Ernst then took a job at Renwood in California’s Sierra Foothills.

After two years learning the tricks of working in the very warm climate of the Sierra Foothills, Ernst went looking for a cooler region conducive to the more balanced, lower alcohol wines he prefers. He found it in Santa Barbara County, whose Mediterranean climate reminds him of the Western Cape. He landed a job there as assistant winemaker at Firestone. When Firestone was sold to Foley in 2007, Ernst stayed with the Firestone family’s remaining wine project, Curtis, where he was named winemaker in 2008. Curtis produces about 13,000 cases combined, under both the Curtis and Rock Hollow labels—primarily Rhone varietals from estate fruit. The wines there are very good, and relatively value priced.

Ernst launched his own label, Storm Wines, in 2006 after obtaining a few barrels of Pinot Noir fruit from Le Bon Climat Vineyard. He now produces about 500 cases of Santa Ynez Valley Sauvignon Blanc, a blend of grapes from four different valley sites, and about 300 of Pinot Noir—a Santa Maria bottling with fruit from both Le Bon Climat and the Presqu’ile Vineyard, and a Sta. Rita Hills from two blocks of the John Sebastiano Vineyard. With the 2012 vintage, he’s adding a vineyard designate Sauvignon Blanc from Presqu’ile grapes for a total of four different bottlings.

Ernst likes his Sauvignon Blanc to exhibit cool climate freshness and acidity so he picks at about 22.5 brix, aiming to achieve alcohol levels from 13 to 13.5%. The grapes are picked at night and dry ice is used to keep them cool, with 50% getting skin contact overnight. The grapes are then fermented at cold temperatures—up to 52 degrees Fahrenheit—to lock in the fresh green fruit and box tree flavors. Ernst also practices a technique he learned in South Africa of including some clean lees from the previous year, which have been kept very cold, to add extra texture and mouth feel to the wine. The wine spends about five months on the lees with stirring only three or four times, to help retain the wine’s own natural carbon dioxide.

The result is minerally, tart green fruited wine with mouthwatering acidity and firm texture, reminiscent of the finer wines from France’s Sauvignon Blanc specialized Sancerre appellation.

The Pinot Noirs, which are also below 14% alcohol and gently handled during the winemaking process, are complex and quite distinct, clearly indicative of their respective terroirs. The Santa Maria exhibits the red fruits, spice, structure and good acidity of that appellation, while the Sebastiano Vineyard is more powerful and rich, with darker red fruits showing. Both the 2011s I sampled would benefit from a couple of years of bottle age.

Guillaume Fabre grew up in the Languedoc-Roussillon city of Narbonne. His family produced wines for three generations in the Corbières appellation from an old vine vineyard they owned consisting mostly of Carignane. Guillaume worked in the vineyards from an early age. He pursued a major in winemaking, enology and vineyard management at the Lycée Charlemagne in nearby Carcassonne, graduating in 2001. He was then selected to manage the 60 hectare property owned by Domaine Sica in Minervois, where he spent two years.

Meanwhile, his parents sold the vineyard in Corbières and bought 60 acres in the Côtes du Bourg appellation of Bordeaux (Château Guionne) in 2000. While visiting his parents there in 2002, Guillaume had an “electric” first encounter at church with a young woman who had grown up there. She soon left for studies in Spain, however, and Guillaume returned to Minervois before taking an internship at L’Aventure in Paso Robles in 2004.

L’Aventure, one of the leading producers of Paso Robles, was founded by another French expat, Stephan Asséo, in 1997. Stephan had departed his native St. Émilion in search of ideal soils and a lack of the kind of rigid regulation (in terms of specified grapes and vinification methods) he had grown to resent in France. I highlighted the excellent latest vintage of Rhone-style wines from L’Aventure in my last post here.

After finishing his internship, Guillaume returned to his parent’s property in Bordeaux. While there, he fortunately reconnected with the young woman from church, Solène, who became his wife. The two moved to Paso Robles in 2006, with Guillaume taking the position of assistant winemaker at L’Aventure where he still works.

Solène Fabre of Clos Solène
Solène Fabre of Clos Solène

In 2007, the couple launched their Clos Solène label. The name pays tribute to the imaginary vineyard in which Solène played as a child in Bordeaux, her “clos.” Solène recollects that when she first moved to California, her palate “was still very French,” so she had a hard time drinking the heavy wines produced in the Paso area. She asked Guillaume to make something she could enjoy with food. Their first wine was a Roussanne, Guillaume’s favorite white variety and the first kind of wine he drank as a child.

The 2011 edition of this wine, called Essence de Roussanne, is a fleshy, lightly oily textured, minerally beauty. Guillaume reports that the 2007 Roussanne, which he sampled at Clos Solène’s first winemaker dinner in March this year, was still “delicious” and should go at least another two years.

The Clos Solène rosé, La Rose, is inspired by the great rosés of Bandol. It’s one of the best California rosés I’ve ever tasted. It’s a saignée bleed from Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre with the juice co-fermented and aged three months in stainless steel tanks. The rosé and Roussane in particular exhibit a delicacy and strong acidities that suggest Mrs. Fabre’s role as muse plays a key role in the ultimate character of these wines. They don’t call to mind the concentrated and powerful wines of L’Aventure, as good as those are for the style, at all.

Clos Solène’s primary vineyard source is the Russell Family Vineyard, which abuts L’Aventure’s property. This is a high density planting dating back to 1998. Guillaume does the farming there and buys the white wine grapes by the ton and the reds by the acre. Additional grapes are sourced from L’Aventure, James Berry Vineyard and Caliza Vineyards.

As a side project with the Russell family, Guillaume makes a very affordable and tasty rosé called La Grande Côte. Guillaume also serves as winemaker for a small Paso-based project called PharaohMoans, a partnership of John Schwartz and Chef Bryan Ogden.

This year, Guillaume and Solène released eight different bottlings amounting to a total of 550 cases. This includes another white, a Viognier/Roussanne blend; two Syrah/Grenache blends; a Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre blend called Harmonie; and a Syrah blend with two Bordeaux varieties, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon, called L’Insolent. Guillaume also made a wonderful Banyuls inspired sweet wine, largely from Grenache, called Sweet Clementine. For my tasting notes on five of these wines, along with Ernst’s wines, see below.

When Guillaume made his first red, he wanted to use skin contact for three to five days, with a very cold soak. He found this improved the aromatics, so he has continued that approach, usually employing a 10-day cold soak at 48 degrees after destemming. He also practices the unusual “horizontal” method, after putting all the fruit in barrels, of laying the puncheons lengthwise and turning them from six to 30 times per day—a more gentle process of mixing the fermenting berries and juice that avoids pump overs or punch downs. He micro vinifies the red grape lots, keeping them all separate for about 11 months until blending.

Guillaume Fabre in the vineyard at L'Aventure
Guillaume Fabre in the vineyard at L’Aventure

Both the Storm and Clos Solène wines are available in small quantities, primarily through their mailing lists, for which one can sign up on their respective websites. One can also sample the Clos Solène wines by appointment at the collective tasting room in downtown Paso Robles called Paso Underground.

I recommend keeping an eye on these two very talented and serious winemakers. Their trajectories so far make it safe to predict they will join the ranks of expats here with long and influential careers.

Clos Solène

  • 2011 Clos Solène Roussanne Essence de Roussane – USA, California, Central Coast, Paso Robles
    Light lemon yellow color; appealing, butter poached pear, peach flesh, light lanolin nose; lightly oily textured, fleshy, lanolin, tart pear, mineral palate with good acidity; medium-plus finish (15% alcohol) 92+ points

  • 2011 La Grande Cote L’Estate – USA, California, Central Coast, Paso Robles
    Light salmon pink color; pink grapefruit, white grapefruit nose; tasty, delicate, tart pink grapefruit, mineral, tart cranberry palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (46% Mourvedre, 30% Syrah, 24% Grenache; 14.2% alcohol) 92 points

  • 2012 Clos Solène La Rosé Paso Robles – USA, California, Central Coast, Paso Robles
    Bright light pink color with 1.5 millimeter clear meniscus; very appealing, tart strawberry, very light berry nose; tasty, juicy, light, bright, tart cranberry, mineral palate with good acidity; medium-plus finish (saignee bleed off each variety then co-fermented in stainless steel for 2 months; 14.5% alcohol) 93 points

  • 2011 Clos Solène Harmonie – USA, California, Central Coast, Paso Robles
    Very dark red violet color; appealing, aromatic, baked black fruit, baked cherry, ripe cherry nose; complex, tasty, juicy, light-medium bodied, tart cherry, ripe cherry, ripe raspberry palate; medium-plus finish (41% Grenache, 37% Syrah, 22% Mourvèdre–less Grenache based than usual because so much Grenache was killed by frost in 2011) 92+ points

  • 2011 Clos Solène La Petite Solène – USA, California, Central Coast, Paso Robles
    Very dark red violet color; baked black fruit, honey, ripe berry nose; tasty, light-medium bodied, juicy, tart berry, ripe raspberry palate with good acidity; medium-plus finish (70% Syrah, 30% Grenache; neutral oak; 15.3% alcohol; pH 3.6, TA .6) 90+ points

  • 2011 Clos Solène Sweet Clementine – USA, California, Central Coast, Paso Robles
    From 375 ml – very dark ruby color; Banyuls-like, baked berries, chocolate, baked black fruit nose; complex, juicy, baked berry, raspberry liqueur, baked cherry palate, sweet but balanced; could use another 1-2 years; long finish (97% Grenache, 3% Syrah; picked at 28 brix; 15.5% alcohol with 100 grams RS; 50% new oak) 94 points

Storm

Storm Wines
Storm Wines

  • 2012 Storm Wines Sauvignon Blanc – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Ynez Valley
    Light yellow color; fresh, tart grapefruit, tart green fruit nose; tasty, very tart grapefruit, tart lime, minerally palate with mouthwatering acidity; reminiscent of an excellent Sancerre; medium-plus finish (13.5% alcohol; 3.33 pH, .64 TA) 92+ points

  • 2011 Storm Wines Pinot Noir John Sebastiano Vineyard – USA, California, Central Coast, Sta. Rita Hills
    Dark red violet color; very appealing, buoyant, tart cherry, spice nose; tasty, youthful, rich, tart cherry, spice, cinnamon palate with medium acidity; good now but could use 1-2 years; medium-plus finish (13.9% alcohol; no whole cluster; 115 clone; 3.69 pH; 6.3 TA) 93 points

  • 2009 Storm Wines Pinot Noir – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Maria Valley
    Dark red color; light roses, rosehips, tart cherry, spice nose; poised, tasty, tart cherry, cranberry, earth, dried leaves, rosehips palate with medium acidity; could use 2 years; medium-plus finish (13.5% alcohol; 3.5 pH; 15% whole cluster; 15% new oak; blend of 777 clone from Presqu’ile vineyard and 113 from Le Bon Climat) 92 points

Concentration & Complexity: Four Historic California Vineyards

Richard Jennings
August 14, 2013

Old vines at Whitton Ranch Old Patch
Old vines at Whitton Ranch Old Patch

I find being in and around vineyards uniquely soothing and nurturing. Maybe it’s because they are usually part of a pastoral landscape. I may be triggered too by knowing they are devoted to producing a special product—one that brings pleasure and conviviality.

I find it especially delightful to visit a very old vineyard. The gnarly vines in these vineyards, which can live to be well over 100 years old, often develop large weathered holes in the middle of the trunk that make you wonder how the vine still produces fruit given that it appears to be hollow. These kinds of vineyards have special stories to tell. They also produce incredible wine.

In advanced age, a vine’s vigor is greatly reduced and it produces relatively small amounts of fruit. That fruit usually has significantly greater flavor concentration than fruit from younger vines. Unlike other very concentrated types of wine, however, concentration resulting from advanced vine age tends to produce very balanced wines—with plenty of acidity and good tannin structure to support the sugars and richly concentrated fruit.

hollow old vine at 101 Vineyard
hollow old vine at 101 Vineyard

These are the reasons I jumped at the opportunity to join the Historic Vineyard Society tour again this year visiting some of California’s oldest vineyards. The non-profit Society was founded by several prominent California winemakers to catalog California’s heritage vineyards and to identify and preserve the diversity present in their field blend plantings. The annual tour—this was its third year—is the organization’s primary fundraiser as well as a great way of raising awareness regarding these special vineyards.

In my report on last year’s tour here, I summarized the history of wine grape plantings in California and the state’s heritage of vineyards composed of a mix of black grapes. I also explained there why the oldest vineyards still in production date back to the mid-1880s, after they were replanted on phylloxera resistant rootstock following the devastation of the state’s vines by the same destructive louse that devastated the vast majority of Europe’s vines from the 1870s to 1890s.

One of the vineyards we visited this year—the Whitton Ranch Old Patch, source of much of the fruit that makes up Ridge’s famous Geyserville Zins—dates back to this period. The others on our tour were the Seghesio Family Chianti Station, which dates back to 1910; Henderlong Ranch, planted in 1927; and Turley’s 101 Vineyard whose exact age is unknown but which contains vines pre-dating Prohibition.

Our tour guides were Ridge winemaker David Gates, Seghesio family member Ned Neumiller, Turley winemaker Tegan Passalacqua, and Nalle winemaker and proprietor Doug Nalle.

Following our afternoon in the vineyards, we ended with dinner and a tasting of 14 wines from these and other older vineyards at Seghesio Family Vineyards. The standout wines of the evening were the truly fabulous old vine Zinfandel that Nalle makes from the Henderlong Vineyard—one of the greatest and most complex Zins I’ve ever tasted; Turley’s 101 Zin; the Seghesio Sangiovese from the Chianti Station old vines; and the latest edition of the Ridge Geyserville, from the 2011 vintage.

winemaker founders of Historic Vineyard Society
winemaker founders of Historic Vineyard Society

For my tasting notes on all 14 wines from older vines poured during the dinner, including a couple of unusual white wines, see the end of this report. Here is what I learned about each of the four vineyards we visited on May 11.

Whitton Ranch Old Patch

The original vines here were planted in what is now Sonoma’s Alexander Valley appellation in the early 1880s by A. Boutin, an orchardist who was a colleague of Luther Burbank. Boutin called his estate “Heart’s Desire.” The highly unusual spacing here—8.5 feet between rows and 4.5 feet between vines—is attributed to the dimensions of the wide tiller Boutin used to prepare the ground. It was the same tiller he used, attached to his team of horses, for planting fruit trees.

Old Patch is a traditional field blend of Zinfandel (60%), Carignane (25%), and lesser quantities of other black grapes such as Alicante Bouschet, Grenache, Mourvedre, Petite Sirah and Syrah. Some of the rarer vines have been identified in the past year through DNA testing as St. Nicaire and Petite Bouschet. The vines that thrive generally in old vine vineyards like this in California are Zinfandel and Carignane, which are not susceptible to the wood diseases that tend to kill off Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Verdot after 50 to 60 years.

Petite Bouschet vine at Whitton Ranch
Petite Bouschet vine at Whitton Ranch

The Trentadue family owns the vineyard. Leo and Evelyn Trentadue, owners of a successful jewelry business based in Santa Clara Valley, south of San Francisco, had first purchased the Monte Bello Vineyard there. They sold that historic vineyard to Ridge after buying Whitton Ranch in 1966 and moving north the following year.

Of the vineyard’s 36 acres, almost one-half when the Trentadues purchased it were planted to Chenin Blanc, French Columbard or badly virused Merlot. Ridge took a 32-year lease on the property, with the understanding that Ridge would replant the white and virused vines and hire Leo and Evelyn’s son Victor as vineyard manager. Victor now also farms other vineyards for Ridge that Ridge has purchased since 1990.

When replanting, Ridge’s team used field selections of Zin from the older vines, taking some from Whitton Ranch, as well as from two other old vine vineyards: Picchetti and DuPratt. Ridge is trying to duplicate the mix of vines at Whitton Ranch, using cuttings from this and other old vine vineyards, in its newer vineyard plantings, like they did when they replanted part of the historic Fredson Ranch Vineyard in 2000.

The soil here includes relatively young alluvial soils from the Russian River, including a lot of gravel, on top of a water table that is fairly high in the Spring. David Gates calls this combo a “sweet spot” for Zin. David told us they can irrigate the vineyard, but usually don’t.

 David Gates at Whitton Ranch

David Gates at Whitton Ranch

David explained that you can easily identify the old vines both from the very wide diameter of the trunks and because they tend to lie lower to the ground, typically below knee level, than more recent plantings.

Chianti Station

The Chianti Station Vineyard was originally planted on the western bench of what is now the Alexander Valley appellation by the founder of the Seghesio Family Winery, Edoardo Seghesio, in 1910.

Ned Neumiller at Chianti Station
Ned Neumiller at Chianti Station

Edoardo’s descendant, Ned Neumiller, the fifth generation of the family to be involved in making wine in California, told us that Edoardo, who had arrived here from Piedmont, Italy, in the 1880s, had planned to return home to marry his sweetheart who was waiting for him there. His supervisor at Italian Swiss Colony, where he worked from 1886 to 1902, convinced him, however, to await the arrival of the supervisor’s niece, Angela Vasconi, who was on her way by boat from Italy. Edoardo and Angela married in 1893, and became a formidable team, with Edoardo focused on the vineyards and making the wine while Angela took care of marketing and sales.

The couple purchased a modest house on 56 acres of prime vineyard land in 1895, and Edoardo first planted Zinfandel. In 1910, Edoardo and Angela purchased additional land surrounding the railroad station in what was then known as the village of Chianti. That same year Edoardo planted a 10-acre vineyard on this property to a field blend of Sangiovese.

As a winemaker at Italian Swiss Colony, Edoardo had worked with Sangiovese. Four different types or “clones” of Sangiovese have been identified in the one and a half acres of original vines that remain from the 10 acres Edoardo originally planted. One of these clones has very small berries. Another, which Ned referred to as “Mutt and Jeff,” consists of both small and large berries. The third is a standard type of Sangiovese clone, while the fourth has elongated clusters and produces lighter colored wines. All are planted on St. George and 1212 rootstock.

Ned told us this was the oldest planting of Sangiovese in the U.S. It is not strictly dry farmed, since it’s in a location that receives a lot of sun, but they use the drip irrigation, installed in 1987, as little as possible.

old vine Sangiovese at Chianti Station
old vine Sangiovese at Chianti Station

In addition to the Sangiovese, the vineyard contains small amounts of Canaiolo Nero, and the white grapes Malvasia and Trebbiano. The latter are the 10 vines found in the last four rows. Ned’s grandfather told him they were “payment to the pickers,” but those grapes now generally go into the blend produced from this vineyard.

Ned told us that Sangiovese grapes are prone to bleaching, so they like to leave the lateral shoots to grow to give the bunches more shade. Ned told us they use cover crops to limit the need for commercial fertilizer. They try to grow the cover crop as tall as possible and then use a spader that ploughs it back into the ground. They let it dry and sit for four weeks, then finish it off with a disk.

The old Sangiovese vines are head trained, also known as Gobelet, with two buds per spur. Ned told us the vines were ready for another pruning pass to open up the center of the vine.

The vineyard is regularly swept by eight- to 10-mile-an-hour winds, which keep the vines dry, reducing the chance of mildew and rot.

This is one of the first blocks the Seghesio team picks, generally at about 26 brix. Seghesio employs a crew of about 27 pickers, many of which are the same year after year through the H2A immigration program. Agricultural employers can join this program, as Seghesio did nine or 10 years ago, if they provide the workers housing and pay a higher than average age. The program requires that the workers return to their home country within 72 hours of the end of harvest.

The Seghesio crew picks overnight, starting at 2 am, and can bring in up to 116 tons per day. Seghesio currently owns a total of less than 10 acres of old vines, averaging about 60 years old. This includes the Rattlesnake Hill Vineyard across the road from Chianti Station, which was planted during Prohibition mainly to Sangiovese with a little Zinfandel, and which goes into the Chianti Station label sold through the Seghesio tasting room.

Edoardo and Angela actually once owned the 1,100 acre Italian Swiss Colony vineyards which they bought shortly before Prohibition in the belief that Constitutional amendment would never finally be ratified. The family was primarily a bulk wine producer for many years. It wasn’t until 1983 that Edoardo and Angela’s descendants first bottled wines under the Seghesio Family label.

Henderlong Ranch

This vineyard was planted primarily to Zinfandel on St. George rootstock in 1927 by Fred and Ruby Henderlong, the grandparents of Doug Nalle’s wife Lee. It is located in what is now the Dry Creek Valley appellation in Sonoma County, and consists of 945 vines on gravelly clay loam with eight foot by eight foot spacing. In addition to the Zinfandel, which makes up 96% of the vines, it also contains about two percent each of Petite Sirah and Carignane, as well as a few Valdiguié vines.

As is generally true in Dry Creek Valley, mornings are foggy, the sun returns in the afternoon, and nights get quite cool. These conditions allow for gradual ripening, leading to harvest usually by mid-September.

Doug and Lee Nalle at Henderlong Ranch
Doug and Lee Nalle at Henderlong Ranch

Doug Nalle, who started Nalle Winery in 1984 after working in the wine business for over 10 years, and who lives on the property with Lee, told us that although the soil is ideal, his preferred climate can be found about two miles north, where a little less morning fog leads to less mildew and rot pressure. He describes the area where Henderlong is located as the “coolest spot in Dry Creek Valley” since winds come up off of the nearby Russian River and head north. He explained that on an average day, “if it’s about 84 degrees here, it’s 92 degrees up at the dam.”

The clay in the soil retains sufficient moisture into the summer to allow dry farming. According to Doug, Dry Creek Valley’s bench land is “everything from Dry Creek Road up to the slopes.” To the left of the road is the “bottom land,“ which Doug says is “too cold and wet for Zin.” Sauvignon Blanc does well there.

In Doug’s succinct view, “There’s a lot of mystique about old vines. Some of it is BS, but most of it is pretty good.” He is also a big fan of the field blend found in many historic California vineyards. In his view, this blend gives greater complexity to the wines, giving them “a little more color, structure, and other flavors.” Zin, by itself, “tends to be a little hollow in the middle,” according to Doug. The mix of grapes including Petite Sirah and Carignane “adds structure, fills it out.” He told us the Zin from this vineyard has good acidity, “but normally you would want a little more Petite and Carignane” than the nearly four percent planted there.

The Henderlongs lived here for 40 years. Their sons, including Lee’s father, later farmed the property before it passed to Lee’s cousins, the Saini family. Doug and his son Andrew tell the Sainis how they want the vineyard farmed. They let Doug and Andrew do the “fine tuning,” like the leaf pulling. Doug and Andrew had recently pulled off, just prior to bloom, the suckers—shoots appearing from the ground, apart from the trunk–on the vineyard’s left side, which ripens earlier.

Old vines at Henderlong Ranch Vineyard
Old vines at Henderlong Ranch Vineyard

Doug explained that “things can go wrong during bloom,” so they leave some extra clusters on through blooming. Wind moving around and through the budding grape clusters enables them to self pollinate. One typically expects about two thirds of the clusters to bloom and set fruit. Doug told us, “if bloom was perfect, without too much wind or any heavy rain, you would end up with twice as much fruit” as they typically get. In 2011, only one-third of the fruit set.

flowering clusters at Whitton Ranch
clusters in bloom at Whitton Ranch
Yields from this vineyard vary from 2.5 to 3.5 tons per acre. They make 50 to 60 cases of wine per ton. Yields in 2012 reached an extraordinary 4.5 tons after three thinning passes.

Doug and Andrew make their complex, delicious Zins from the Henderlong Vineyard fruit by using open top fermenters. They rarely punch down, preferring to pump over with gentle irrigation two to three times per day. The fermenting temperature gets up to the low 90 degrees. They press a little before the fermentation gets to dry, and the wine goes into neutral oak barrels for 20 months.

101 Vineyard

Larry Turley found this two-acre, old vine vineyard through an ad that appeared in the local classifieds in 1995. It is located in Alexander Valley south of the town of Geyserville, boxed into a small area between the 101 Freeway from which it takes its current name and old railroad tracks that have been out of use since about 1992. The owners who sold it to Turley did not know when the vineyard had been planted, but the diameter of the older vine trunks and the mix of vines, including a section of Blue Portugieser that was subsequently pulled out, places it in the pre-Prohibition era.

Tegan Passalacqua with newer vines at 101 Vineyard
Tegan Passalacqua at 101 Vineyard

After purchasing the vineyard and determining that only about 25% of the vines were still alive, Turley’s team replanted in 1996 with trellised Zinfandel. Turley winemaker Tegan Passalacqua told us Turley no longer uses a trellis system when they plant Zin, preferring to head prune. The current varietal mix is 95% Zinfandel and 5% Carignane. The unusual spacing is 12 feet between rows and five feet between vines, similar to that of the nearby Whitton Ranch Vineyard.

The vineyard is non-irrigated and organically farmed. It is typically harvested the first week of September and yields wine with high natural acidity—between 3.38 and 3.45 finished pH. Tegan attributes the high acidity to the steady moderate wind that blows through the vineyard, and to the gravelly clay soil.

According to Tegan, once the grapes on the part of the vineyard on the slope–which flowers and goes through verasion first–begin to “dimple,” the grapes are ready to pick. They pick the old vines separately, putting the production from the younger vines in their Juveniles blend. Every year since 1997 the fruit from the old vines is responsible for Turley’s lowest production single vineyard bottling, called “101,” averaging 150 cases a year and sold only through their mailing list.

I got to try this concentrated beauty during the dinner tasting, and it is delicious and capable of long aging.

For my notes on the wines based on old vine vineyards that we sampled at the dinner, see below. If you have not yet tried a wine based on one of California’s heritage, old vine vineyards, one or more of these would be an excellent place to start.

standout wines at Historic Vineyard Society 2013 dinner
standout wines at Historic Vineyard Society 2013 dinner
Bedrock

  • 2012 Bedrock Wine Co. Mourvedre Ode to Lulu Rosé – USA, California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Valley
    From magnum – light yellow pink color; tart peach, light cantaloupe, tart orange nose; tasty, balanced, juicy, tart peach, tart Rainier cherry palate; medium-plus finish 92 points

  • 2008 Bedrock Wine Co. Syrah Lauterbach Hill Russian River Valley – USA, California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley
    Bricking very dark red violet color; very aromatic, savory, pepper, rosemary, dried herb nose; tasty, lavender, pepper, dried berry, tart black fruit with firm tannins yet; could used 2-plus years more; medium-plus finish 93+ points

  • 2011 Bedrock Wine Co. Sémillon Lachryma Montis, Botrytized Old Vine Monte Rosso Vineyard – USA, California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Valley
    From 375 ml – light medium orange color; baked pear, apricot jam, orange marmalade nose; rich, syrupy, baked pear, baked apricot, apricot syrup palate with low acidity; long finish 91 points

Carlisle

  • 2011 Carlisle The Derivative White – USA, California, Sonoma County
    Light medium lemon yellow color; intriguing, aromatic, lemon oil, floral, sunflower oil nose; appealing, complex, oily textured, tart peach, safflower oil, orange oil palate; medium-plus finish (66% Semillon, 24% Muscadelle, 10% Chaselas; 13.7% alcohol) 92+ points

Heart’s Desire

  • 2008 Heart’s Desire Zinfandel Ponzo Vineyard – USA, California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley
    Bricking very dark red violet color; mature, dried black fig, dried berry, tar nose; tasty, mature, rich, dried berry, black fig, raspberry coulis, black cherry palate; medium-plus finish (13.4% alcohol) 92 points

Nalle

  • 2010 Nalle Zinfandel Henderlong Ranch – USA, California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
    Dark ruby color; appealing, aromatic, dried berry, ginger spice cake, dried black currant nose; tasty, complex, dried raspberry, dried cherry, ripe raspberry, cinnamon, raspberry coulis palate with a core of tart cherry; medium-plus finish (13.9% alcohol; one of the best Zins I’ve ever tasted, from vines planted in 1927) 95 points

Ridge

  • 2011 Ridge Geyserville – USA, California, Sonoma County
    Dark ruby color; tart berry, dried berry, dark chocolate nose; tasty, complex, dried berry, licorice, tart black cherry, mineral palate; medium-plus finish (76% Zinfandel, 16% Carignane, 4% Petite Sirah, 1% Alicante Bouschet, 1% Mataro; 14% alcohol; best young Geyserville on release ever?) 93+ points

  • 2008 Ridge Mazzoni Home Ranch – USA, California, Sonoma County
    Dark ruby color; intriguing, baked berry, berry compote, ripe black fruit, pepper nose; tasty, complex, peppery, tart black fruit, dried berry palate; medium-plus finish (50% Zinfandel, 49% Carignane, 1% Petite Sirah; 14.5% alcohol) 93 points

Robert Biale

  • 2011 Robert Biale Zinfandel R.W. Moore Vineyard – USA, California, Napa Valley
    Medium dark ruby color; lifted, white pepper, tar, dried currant nose; dried black currant, tar, licorice, dried berry palate; could use 2-3 years bottle age; medium-plus finish (15.5% alcohol) 92+ points

Seghesio

  • 2011 Seghesio Family Vineyards Zinfandel Home Ranch – USA, California, Sonoma County, Alexander Valley
    Very dark cherry red color; lifted, tart raspberry, dried berry, chocolate nose; rich, poised, silky textured, chocolate raspberry, ripe raspberry, dried berry, sandalwood palate with good balance; medium-plus finish (14.8% alcohol) 92+ points

  • 2009 Seghesio Family Vineyards Sangiovese Chianti Station – USA, California, Sonoma County, Alexander Valley
    Medium dark red violet color; aromatic, ripe red berry, ripe red currant dried berry, tar nose; tasty, complex, dried berry, red berry, mineral, spice palate with medium acidity; could use 2-plus years; medium-plus finish (probably the best California Sangiovese I’ve ever tasted, from very old vines–planted in 1910) 93+ points

Turley

  • 2009 Turley Zinfandel Vineyard 101 – USA, California, Sonoma County, Alexander Valley
    Nearly opaque red violet color; appealing, lifted, ripe berry, baked black cherry, black raspberry nose; rich, delicious, black cherry, black raspberry, black currant palate; long finish (15.7% alcohol) 94 points

  • 2003 Turley Zinfandel Keig Vineyard – USA, California, Napa Valley
    From magnum – cloudy, bricking dark magenta color; maturing, dark chocolate, black pepper, dried mushroom nose; appealing, mature, black trumpet mushroom, dried mushroom, tar, dried berry palate; medium-plus finish (15.5% alcohol) 92+ points

  • 2008 Turley Zinfandel Fredericks Vineyard – USA, California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Valley
    Bricking dark purple red violet color; dried berry, ripe berry, tar, spice nose; complex, rich, ripe berry, licorice, dried berry, tar palate showing a little heat; medium-plus finish (15.9% alcohol) 92+ points

Sanford & Benedict: Historic Vineyard’s Story Told for First Time by Co-Founder

Richard Jennings
May 29, 2013
Michael Benedict, speaking for the first time publicly since 1980 about the history of Sanford & Benedict (photo courtesy Baron Spafford)
Michael Benedict, speaking for the first time publicly since 1980 about the history of Sanford & Benedict (photo courtesy Baron Spafford)

Sanford & Benedict is one of California’s most historically significant and renowned vineyards because it proved two things: Santa Barbara County is a superlative spot for growing Pinot Noir, and the portion of the Santa Ynez Valley where it is located, now known as the Sta. Rita Hills appellation, is a fabulous cool climate location for vines in general.

The two men responsible for the significant achievements of this vineyard are Richard Sanford and Michael Benedict. They were partners from 1970 to 1980, when Richard Sanford sold his interest in the vineyard and went on to found Sanford Winery. Michael remained in charge of the vineyard, which was, for a time, renamed the Benedict Vineyard, until he and his financial backers sold it on in 1990 to a British couple who, in turn, brought Sanford back in to manage the vineyard.

Richard Sanford has been justly celebrated as a California Pinot Noir pioneer, Sta. Rita Hills founder and organic wine producer, becoming the first Santa Barbara vintner to be inducted into the Vintners Hall of Fame at a ceremony I attended in February 2012. His former partner Michael Benedict has, however, kept a low profile in the wine world since his departure from his eponymous vineyard, refusing even to comment for articles about the history of the vineyard and his and Sanford’s pioneering accomplishments.

That changed last week, when a group of Santa Barbara County winemakers met in the old barn at Sanford & Benedict, which had served as the winery during Sanford and Benedict’s tenure there, to hear Michael Benedict talk about the vineyard’s first 20 years. I was fortunate to be included in this august gathering, and to join with the assembled winemakers in tasting and hearing about some of the wines made from this special vineyard, including a couple of older examples. The co-host for this event with Michael Benedict was current Sanford winemaker Steve Fennell.

May 23 gathering to hear from Michael Benedict (photo courtesy Baron Spafford)
May 23 gathering to hear from Michael Benedict (photo courtesy of Baron Spafford)

The winemakers on hand were basically a who’s who of Santa Barbara County vintners, including long time winemakers Greg Brewer, Ken Brown, Matt Dees, John Falcone, Richard Longoria, Chad Melville and Billy Wathen; and newer winemakers Gavin Chanin, Dieter Cronje, Ryan Deovlet, Matt Murphy, Raj Parr  and Justin Willet. 

Benedict began his recollections in the late 1960s, when he and Sanford became sailing buddies, making periodic trips off the coast of Santa Barbara County. At the time, Benedict was an academic, a botanist with U.C. Santa Barbara, and Richard Sanford, who had graduated with a degree in geography from U.C. Berkeley and served as a navigator on a U.S. Navy destroyer during the Vietnam War, was working in video production. 

According to Benedict, he and Sanford used to talk about the “looming” wine business. Mondavi and others in Napa had begun receiving a lot of attention in the late 1960s. Michael told us, “There was a lot of capital chasing vineyard ideas, and a lot more capital available than people willing to put it to use.”

Michael had worked as a botanist on Santa Cruz Island where a vineyard—the Justinian Caire Co. Vineyard–was planted in the 1880s that had been very successful. Unfortunately, when Prohibition came, all the vines there were ripped out, on the theory that vines in this remote location would be particularly attractive to bootleggers. 

Michael became fascinated by trying to work out why they had planted the vineyard on the island in the first place instead of in a more convenient location on the mainland. He knew the climate there well. He then started thinking about the effect of sunshine and cool weather on grape vines. He started compiling data on that from various regions in France and the West Coast of the U.S. 

What he found was that the existing “California vineyard” was generally too hot to grow French wine varieties well. He thought about areas in California with cooler climates and longer growing seasons, and ultimately saw the opportunity in Santa Barbara County to try something new.

Together, Michael and Richard developed an idea for the Santa Barbara area that was attractive to investors. Originally the idea was just that Santa Barbara County was a really good place to grow grapes. Uriel Nielson’s vineyard, planted in the Santa Maria Valley in 1964, had proven that. Nielson was growing grapes—Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling–and selling them to Napa producers at premium prices. 

Michael and Richard bought Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling cuttings from the Nielsons and propagated them as rooted stem cuttings in 1970 for a vineyard location that they hoped soon to find. That year, Michael told us he spent a lot of time on the road checking out the climate and plantings up and down the West Coast, including the Willamette Valley, Okanagan Valley and Sonoma. He told us he ended up publishing a piece on potential areas for vineyards with lots of sunshine where the temperature did not get very hot. 

Michael and Richard identified an area in the Santa Ynez Valley where the climate was really good, not just for Burgundian varieties, but simply similar to the weather in “maritime France.”  Michael (presumably alongside Richard—-Michael told the story in the first person, but it tracks with Richard’s published recollections of driving around the area with a thermometer sticking out of the windshield of his 1950 Mercedes) drove around looking to find a place in the area that stayed below 80 degrees during the hottest times, ideally in the high 70s. 

Sanford & Benedict Vineyard looking north, toward Sea Smoke
Sanford & Benedict Vineyard looking north, toward Sea Smoke Vineyards on opposite foothills

Finding the land in the particular location in the valley that became Sanford & Benedict was then, according to Michael, just a matter of luck. The particular real estate just happened to be available. Its owner had bought the 473-acre parcel south of the Santa Ynez River–which had once been dry farmed for beans and barley–after the announcement that a dam was going in nearby, thinking the land could be developed as lake front property and a resort. When the dam project got cancelled, the land prices in the area plummeted. 

Michael and Richard made an offer to lease with an option to buy in five years, allowing them to get in with relatively little cash outlay. They planted their Cabernet and Riesling vines on their own roots there in 1971. 

Over the preceding year, after obtaining the cuttings from the Nielsons, Michael told us he’d come across information on work done by Louis Martini, Martin Ray and others who had experience trying to grow Burgundian varieties in California. As a result, he and Richard both started getting more excited about the possibilities of growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in cooler parts of the Santa Barbara area.

Karl L. Wente, third generation winemaker/owner at Livermore’s Wente Brothers and a protégée of Martin Ray and Paul Masson, recommended that Michael and Richard take some of the extra Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vines Karl had started for his vineyard in Arroyo Seco. He insisted they were the best choices available for planting these varieties because Martin Ray had told Karl these clones or selections would make the greatest wines. So they went with Wente’s advice and took 9,000 rooted vines from him.

Michael made it clear to us that the Pinot Noir they received from Wente and planted at Sanford & Benedict was not technically Mount Eden clone. That particular, cleaned up, virus-free clone was not released until 1980. What they planted is simply what Karl Wente had obtained from Martin Ray’s Mount Eden Vineyard. Michael described them as suitcase clones “from Chambertin via Paul Masson, via Martin Ray, via Wente.” So they are properly referred to as a selection from Mount Eden.

Original, own-rooted Mount Eden selection Pinot Noir at Sanford & Benedict
Original, own-rooted Mount Eden selection Pinot Noir at Sanford & Benedict

They planted the vineyard basically without irrigation and it grew for 20 years without irrigation. They did water the young vines for the first year only by digging a basin around them and using a contraption on a truck to give each new vine about one and a half gallons at a time. The second year they relied on natural rainfall. The roots went deep, according to Michael, “because the vines had no choice.”

In 1975, they made their first wine, three barrels of Pinot Noir, in a spot near Michael’s house at the back of Sanford & Benedict. The extract levels and balance of that wine suggested they were really onto something. Ken Brown, who founded Byron and who now runs Ken Brown Wines, told me he remembered tasting that first wine with Michael and Richard. It stuck in his mind as a revelation and inspiration.

In 1976 Sanford and Benedict made their first commercial release, the 1976 Sanford & Benedict Pinot Noir, which was released in 1978. Firestone had built a big winery but had no grapes yet, so they made their first wines there.

This initial commercial vintage received unusually high acclaim. Robert Balzer wrote about it for the Los Angeles Times in an article entitled “American Grand Cru in a Lompoc Barn.” Dan Berger, also writing for the Times, called the Pinot “a wine of cult proportions.”

In 1976, Michael told us they refurbished the old barn on the property –- the one with a layer of yellow lichen on the front in which we were assembled for this event –making it into what it looks like today. They had to reinforce and insulate it. They left the doors open to let the cold air blow through. At night, according to Michael, it was generally always in the low 50s. On the roof, they installed a row of misters. Michael explained that if they kept the roof slightly moist the barn “acted like a swamp cooler refrigerator.” Their first open top fermenters were made from white oak by a friend, Gary Gordon, who owned a hot tub factory. 

Old barn that once housed Sanford & Benedict Winery (photo courtesy Baron Spafford)
Old barn that once housed Sanford & Benedict Winery (photo courtesy Baron Spafford)

Michael told us that the Cabernet they had planted was often green and had the usual problems of cold climate Cabernet. They also planted Merlot. Michael claimed that from 1976 to 1979 they made great Cabernet and Merlot. The wine was labeled Cabernet, the bottles had red capsules, but the wine was really a blend. Bill Wathen and Rick Longoria also both made Merlot from the vineyard. Michael said the Riesling also did well there. He opined that the vineyard is simply, “a great site for vinifera.” Nonetheless, due to the increasing demand for Pinot Noir, the Cabernet, Merlot and Riesling were eventually grafted over to Pinot Noir.

In 1980, Richard sold his interest in the vineyard to Michael and the other investors. In interviews, Richard’s repeated explanation for his departure at that time has been that it was “hard to make wine by committee.” He went on to found Sanford Wines with his wife Thekla in Buellton in 1981. In 1982 they planted the small Rancho El Jabali Vineyard on their own home property to the east of Sanford & Benedict. Michael continued to operate Sanford & Benedict from that point, growing the grapes, selling off most of the production and making a small amount of wine.

For a time in the mid- and late ‘80s, the vineyard became known as the Benedict Vineyard. Toward the end of our session, Richard Longoria poured us a fabulous 1987 Pinot Noir he had made, that smelled just like a great old Barolo and still possessed amazing power and structure, that was designated “Benedict Vineyard.”

older wines at May 23 tasting (photo courtesy Baron Spafford)
older wines at May 23 tasting (photo courtesy Baron Spafford)

Michael told us he found managing the vineyard in the late 1980s very challenging, so he and his investors took the opportunity to cash out in 1990. The buyers were British wine collectors Robert and Janice Atkin. According to Michael, the Atkinses asked Michael to stay on but Michael recommended that they work with Sanford instead. According to published accounts based on Sanford’s side of the story, the Sanfords were silent partners in the deal with the Atkins.

At any rate, in 1990 Richard Sanford began managing Sanford & Benedict, using most of the vineyard’s fruit for his own Sanford Winery. 

In 1991 irrigation was installed. This initially led to a huge increase in yields—going from about three quarters of a ton to the acre to nearly five tons an acre. John Winthrop Haeger in his 2004 book North American Pinot Noir records the opinion of Au Bon Climat’s Jim Clendenen that the irrigation had a “negative impact on quality” for about five years, until 1996. Yields have since stabilized at about two to two and a half tons per acre.

Sanford planted La Rinconada Vineyard on adjacent property to the west in 1995. In 2000, he planted La Encantada Vineyard also in Santa Rita Hills. By then Sanford Winery was producing nearly 50,000 cases of wine annually, making it one of Santa Barbara County’s biggest producers.

In the late 1990s the Sanfords started erecting Richard’s dream winery on the La Rinconada Vineyard site. It was built with handmade adobe bricks, stone and recycled timbers. They ultimately finished in 2001, with the initial four million dollar cost estimate having ballooned to $10 million or so. 

Wine sales, unfortunately, dipped in 2001 and lenders needed to be paid. In 2002, the Sanfords received a cash infusion by entering into a marketing relationship with Paterno Wines International (now Terlato Wines International, based in Chicago). 

With sales continuing to remain slow over the next few years, capital calls reportedly allowed the Terlato Wine Group ultimately to gain a majority share in Sanford Winery. In 2006, Terlato–which also owns Alderbrook Vineyards in Dry Creek Valley, and Chimney Rock and Rutherford Hill wineries in Napa, among other properties–bought out the Sanfords completely, taking over the Sanford name, winery and estate vineyards.

Steve Fennell (left) with Michael Benedict (photo courtesy Baron Spafford)
Steve Fennell (left) with Michael Benedict (photo courtesy Baron Spafford)

Steve Fennell, who started as winemaker at Sanford in 2006, brought the gathering up to date on what had transpired at Sanford in connection with Sanford & Benedict since that time. Steve told us he had gotten to know Michael over the last year. Almost three years previously, Michael had first called him looking for cuttings from Sanford & Benedict. 

In 2006 and 2007, the Terlato-owned Sanford Winery purchased fruit from Sanford & Benedict. In 2007, the Terlatos recognized the quality and potential of the vineyard and purchased it from the Atkinses, thereby reuniting Sanford Winery with its longtime fruit source. At that time, the vineyard comprised 134 planted acres. 

The Terlato team then surveyed the vineyard for virused and otherwise unhealthy plants.  In 2008 they replanted 35 acres. In 2010 they planted an additional 11 acres, so there are now a total of 145. In 2011 they replanted 26 acres, along with implementing a major retrofit of the old, healthy vines, changing them from California sprawl to a parallel, divided canopy with four canes on the healthy vines. The lead viticulturalist on this was Erik Mallea, who was then employed by Coastal Management Services. The Terlatos brought Erik and the farming in house in 2013.

After the replanting and new plantings, there are 53 acres still remaining from the ‘70s; 22 more are plantings from the early ‘90s. The original plantings are on their own roots (or vinifera roots anyway, in the case of some original plantings of Cabernet and Riesling that were grafted over to Pinot Noir). Young vines comprise 70 acres. The vineyard is now planted to 11 different clones of Pinot Noir, along with 23 acres of Chardonnay and seven of Viognier. 

The rows of the original plantings are spaced 12 feet apart. The intermediate plantings, from the early ‘90s, are 10 feet apart. The newest plantings are only six feet apart.

It’s actually a 500-acre ranch. The elevation from the lowest to highest point of the ranch varies by about 1,000 feet. Steve estimates they could plant another 50 to 60 acres. Areas near and along the ridge would get too much wind, so vines there would not ripen—the wind at a certain point causes the plant to simply shut down. The existing vineyard has a gentle northern slope and forms a large bowl, which helps protect the vines to some degree from the constant wind that blows through the area from the ocean. Another challenge is getting sufficient water to some parts of the potential new planting areas. 

view to the east from Sanford & Benedict, showing a portion of the ridge
view to the east from Sanford & Benedict, showing a portion of the ridge

For Steve it’s been fascinating working with both Sanford & Benedict and La Rinconada next door, as he finds the wines from the two neighboring vineyards always distinctly different. They currently retain about 70% of the Sanford & Benedict fruit for Sanford Winery, selling the remaining 30% to other producers, with the largest amount going to Au Bon Climat. For the Sanford wines designated as Sanford & Benedict, they usually blend at least two or three blocks. Which ones they ultimately use depend on the vintage.

“The remarkable thing,” Michael Benedict told us, “is the dirt out there. It’s probably one of the two or three greatest locations in the Santa Rita Hills.” 

Michael did not go into the significance of the soils in any detail, but Matt Kramer, in his 2004 volume entitled New California Wine: Making Sense of Napa Valley, Sonoma, Central Coast, and Beyond, opines that what the Santa Rita Hills location offers is not just a cool climate, very similar to that in Santa Maria Valley, but its special soils. He explains these include, “Botella clay loam or Montery shale. It’s a blackish loam soil capable of imparting a distinctive, appealing earthiness to Pinot Noir. Botella clay is what makes Sanford & Benedict Vineyard so distinctive.”

Michael did, however, echo the sentiments of the assembled vintners currently making wine from the vineyard when he said, “This place has been tended from the beginning with lots of love and care, and continues to be.” He told us he made some wine in 2012 from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay there, and finds it extraordinary how good the raw material is. According to Michael, “the wines are getting better and better.”

After Michael and Steve spoke, we tasted several wines based on Sanford & Benedict grapes made by some of the assembled winemakers. At the end of the program, we adjourned for lunch outside in front of the old barn, and sampled a few more wines, mostly from Sanford & Benedict grapes. My tasting notes for all of the wines from Sanford & Benedict fruit appear at the end of this post, below.

Raj Parr told us he first started buying fruit from Sanford & Benedict for his Sandhi label in 2009. He explained that, over the years, he had mistaken Sanford & Benedict wines many times in blindtastings for Burgundy. What Raj says he finds interesting about the vineyard is the vine age, that the older vines are own rooted, and that the vines face north, “all of which seems to contribute to the wines’ freshness and acidity.”

Ryan Deovlet began buying fruit from Sanford & Benedict three years ago; 2010 was his first vintage from the vineyard for his relatively new Deovlet label. Now he’s getting three tons of fruit. He gets his fruit from block T15, a block of old vine Chardonnay.

Own Rooted Original Chardonnay planting in Sanford & Benedict's Block T3
Own rooted original Chardonnay planting in Sanford & Benedict’s Block T3

Jonata winemaker Matt Dees explained to me that Jonata doesn’t grow Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and that they looked for old vines for their Burgundian varietal project called The Hilt. They get some Chardonnay from Sanford & Benedict, from block T3, and also some fruit from the Solomon Hills. Matt finds the extract on the Sanford & Benedict Pinot Noir, which they get from old vine blocks T1, T2 and T3, very high. Tyler owner/winemaker Justin Willett thinks the high extract levels are probably due to their own rootedness, which give them lots of structure. 

In 2008, Jonata took over farming of blocks T1, T2 and T3. They decided to change the trellising to vertical shoot positioning and as soon as they did, were rewarded by two severe frosts that left them only one quarter ton per acre. They ultimately switched to quadrilateral cordons, which have worked well according to Matt. Matt also told us that Esca disease had shown up on some of the vines in 2011, adding a black pepper spice note to the fruit.

Gavin Chanin gets fruit for his new Lutum project, a joint venture with Sonoma based winemaker Bill Price, from blocks T5, 6 and 10. This includes some of the new plantings. He first visited the vineyard in 2004, which was his first year working harvest at Au Bon Climat. 

Gavin is intrigued by how deep the wines are from this site, “elegant, with fruit, structure and spice.” According to Gavin, what distinguishes this vineyard is “perfect climate with amazing soil that’s been farmed better and better every year since 2004. So that leaves us no excuses on the winemaking side.”

Interestingly, despite the huge acclaim for the early wines from Sanford & Benedict, few initially followed the pioneers into this section of the Santa Ynez Valley. Lafond had planted there the same year as Sanford and Benedict. Babcock followed in 1978. Plantings there only really took off beginning at the end of the 1990s. Vineyards were planted at Clos Pepe and Melville as well as Sea Smoke and Fiddlestix. The petition to establish the Santa Rita Hills AVA was submitted in 1998 and ultimately approved in 2001.

In sum, it appears evident that Richard Sanford and Michael Benedict’s instincts regarding planting in a cooler site like this portion of the Santa Ynez Valley certainly paid off. They also appear to have been fortunate in getting a good selection of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Karl Wente as the base for their vineyard. They also lucked into benefiting from the Santa Rita Hills’s soils, which seem to have a special affinity for Pinot Noir. 

It appears to be quite fortunate that the vineyard is now in the hands of well funded, solid stewards who respect the legacy they have acquired—the Terlatos—and that, as a result, the vineyard is probably the healthiest it has ever been. 

The Sanford & Benedict Vineyard has already achieved a lot in proving that Santa Barbara can produce excellent Pinot Noir and that the Sta. Rita Hills appellation is one of the best cool climate vine growing locations in the state. Under its current management, the vineyard appears poised for continued success and achievement as the source of special fruit for potentially wonderful wines.

Santa Barbara County winemakers who gathered to hear from Michael Benedict (photo courtesy Baron Spafford)
Santa Barbara County winemakers who gathered to hear from Michael Benedict (photo courtesy Baron Spafford)

Here are my notes on the wonderful Sanford & Benedict designated wines we tasted on this memorable occasion.

Older Examples

  • 1987 Longoria Pinot Noir Sanford & Benedict
    Bricked medium red color; appealing, mature, incense, dried cherry, old-Barolo-like nose; mature, silky textured, very spicy, dried berry with prodigious extract; long finish (13.4% alcohol; smelled and tasted like a mature Barolo, I’ve never tasted a California Pinot like it, truly memorable) 95 points
  • 1979 Sanford & Benedict Pinot Noir Sanford & Benedict
    Bricked medium red color; mature, tobacco, dried cranberry nose; firmly structured yet, tobacco, dried cranberry, mineral palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (past its prime, but reminiscent of Williams Selyem Pinot Noir from a similar vintage) 90 points

Younger Chardonnays
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  • 2008 Brewer-Clifton Chardonnay Sanford & Benedict
    Light lemon yellow color; reduction, tart lemon, saffron nose; tasty, almond, ripe lemon, saffron, mineral palate; medium-plus finish 93 points
  • 2011 Deovlet Chardonnay Sanford & Benedict Vineyard
    Light yellow color; a little reduction, almond, tart pear nose; poised, rich, almond, tart pear, tart lemon, mineral palate; could use 2 years of bottle age; medium-plus finish (an exciting Cali Chard; 13.4% alcohol; picked at about 22.5 brix; 1/2 malo) 93+ points
  • 2011 Sandhi Wines Chardonnay Sanford & Benedict
    Light medium lemon yellow color; tart lemon, tart pear, lemon oil, white jasmine, almond nose; rich, tasty, firmly textured, ripe lemon, tart pear, mineral palate with medium acidity; should age very well; medium-plus finish (13.2% alcohol per Raj; picked at about 21 brix; 25% new oak; full malolactic; from vines planted in early ’70s) 93 points
  • 2011 Tyler Chardonnay Sanford & Benedict
    Light yellow color; very appealing, almond, hazelnut, pear, butter nose; tasty, poised, creamy textured, tart pear palate; medium-plus finish 93+ points

Younger Pinot Noirs

Sanford Pinot Noirs and Chardonnay
Sanford Pinot Noirs and Chardonnay
  • 2012 Lutum Pinot Noir Sanford & Benedict
    Barrel sample – very dark ruby color; appealing, tart berry, tart cherry, pepper nose; tight, tart cherry, tart pepper, mineral palate with a sense of dried herbs; will need 3-plus years; medium-plus finish 92-93 points
  • 2011 Sanford Pinot Noir Old Block Sanford & Benedict
    Pre-release – medium dark ruby color; very appealing, roses, tart cherry, rosehips nose; tight, tart cherry, cranberry, tart raspberry, mineral palate; could use 2-3 years bottle age; medium-plus finish (not yet labeled) 93+ points
  • 2011 Sanford Pinot Noir Sanford & Benedict
    Dark ruby color; appealing, bright red fruit, tart cherry, ripe raspberry nose; tasty, poised, light-medium bodied, silky textured, tart cranberry, very tart cherry, mineral, sous bois palate; medium-plus finish 93 points
  • 2010 Sanford Pinot Noir Sanford & Benedict
    Opaque red violet color; very appealing, ripe raspberry, tart cherry, raspberry jam nose; tasty, creamy textured, ripe raspberry, raspberry jam palate with good acidity; medium-plus finish 92 points
  • 2009 Sanford Pinot Noir Sanford & Benedict
    Very dark ruby color; appealing, ripe cherry, black raspberry, baked raspberry nose; tasty, tightish, tart raspberry, black raspberry, baked raspberry, baked strawberry, ripe cranberry palate; medium-plus finish 92+ points
  • 2011 The Hilt Pinot Noir Old Guard
    Dark ruby color; very appealing, aromatic, tart cherry, tart berry, green herbs nose; tight, rich, tart cherry, cranberry, mineral palate with medium acidity; needs 3-4 years; medium-plus finish (picked at 21.5 brix; 100% destemmed) 92+ points
  • 2011 Tyler Pinot Noir Sanford & Benedict
    Very dark cherry red color; very appealing, tart cherry, forest floor, savory, light green peppercorn nose; tight, silky textured, tart cranberry, mineral, green peppercorn palate with lots of extract; could use 3-plus years; medium-plus finish (from top 4 rows of block T13) 92+ points

Il Caberlot: A Love Story

Richard Jennings
February 13, 2013

2/6/13 Carnasciale Il Caberlot Dinner at Murray Circle

In the week we celebrate Valentine’s Day it seems only fitting for a wine blog to acknowledge that the key ingredient in many of the world’s most extraordinary wines is love.

This important truth was brought home for me again last week in the course of sampling a 10-year-vertical of one of the world’s very rare wines. Not only is it the exclusive wine made from a particular variety—the Caberlot grape—it is also made in small amounts. It is then bottled and labeled by hand, with artistic flair, only in magnums.

This wine—Podere Il Carnasciale’s Il Caberlot—was the project of an extraordinary couple whose love story began in 1963.

That was the year Bettina Schnabel, a statuesque young beauty, met husband-to-be Wolf Rogosky in Berlin. Later that year, Bettina remembers seeing Jack Kennedy make his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech. Only a few months later, she found herself joining thousands of other Berliners in the streets to mourn Kennedy’s death.

2/6/13 Carnasciale Il Caberlot Dinner at Murray Circle
Bettina Schnabel Rogosky

Bettina is the daughter of Ernst Schnabel, a German writer and pioneer of the radio documentary who wrote the first book about Anne Frank. Wolf was also an aspiring writer.

Wolf ultimately became the creative director for GGK, an international advertising agency. While they were still living in Germany, in 1972, the couple bought a house and several acres of property on top of a hill in Tuscany that was full of olive trees. Eventually they started to think about making wine there.

The couple moved to New York City in 1976 where they stayed until 1982. IBM and Swiss Air were among Wolf’s accounts. He also came up with a very successful and long running campaign for Jägermeister (“I drink Jägermeister because . . .”).

In 1982, the couple returned to Europe, settling in Paris, but also spending substantial time in their Tuscan home. They tasted some wines at Restaurant Cibrèo in Florence that impressed them that turned out to have been made by enologist Vittorio Fiore. They met Fiore and talked to him about their desire to make wine. Fiore in turn introduced them to an agronomist, Remigio Bordini, who had identified what he believes to be a natural crossing between Cabernet Franc and Merlot that was discovered in an abandoned vineyard near Padua in the 1950s.

On learning of this grape the couple thought it might be the perfect basis for a wine of unique character that they hoped to produce. They never tasted wine from this grape prior to reaching the decision to plant it on their property, as no wine had yet been made from it. They simply had faith in Dr. Bordini’s description of the grape and its characteristics. Dr. Bordini ultimately agreed to raise the necessary vines in his nursery for the Rogoskys to plant.

The couple then sought permission from local authorities to install a small vineyard in place of some of the trees on their property. Their request for a permit was denied. Ultimately nature intervened when a severe frost in the winter of 1985-1986 destroyed dozens of their trees. They now had room to legally plant less than an acre of vines where only trees had stood for over 200 years.

In 1986, Fiore helped them plant the vineyard with Bordini’s vines. For luck, Wolf placed in the ground under the first vine an unopened bottle of 1985 Sassicaia, then the greatest of the so-called Super Tuscan wines (wine made in the Chianti region of Tuscany without following the then prescribed appellation rules). Following Fiore’s advice, they planted with high density spacing using the gobelet alberello method of tying the vine to a supporting stake. The plants are pruned to allow only five bunches per vine.

The couple made a small quantity of wine from the 1988 vintage from sufficiently mature vines in Bordini’s vineyard. They bottled the wine in magnums—having enough juice to fill 300 bottles. The lucky few who got to taste this initial vintage started a buzz about it. In 1989 they made a similar quantity, partly with grapes from Bordini’s vineyard and partly with their own grapes. They lost their 1990 vintage entirely to marauding wild boars who invaded the vineyard three nights in a row. Thus the first vintage entirely from their own vineyard was the 1991.

The couple lavished tremendous attention and care on the vines, doing everything in their small vineyard by hand. They used no chemical fertilizers or pesticides. When harvest time came, the grapes were picked in several passes over as long as three weeks. They carefully selected only the individual berries that were ready to be picked. As Bettina explains, their philosophy was, and is, “What you would not put into your mouth will not go into the wine.”

The wine was very gently vinified and then aged in French barriques, spending additional time in bottle before the wine was sold.

In 1996, after they finished bottling their 1994 vintage together, Wolf and Bettina went to town to have dinner. Right outside the restaurant, Wolf suffered a massive heart attack and died.

Wolf’s ashes were buried in the garden outside the kitchen window. Bettina looks to that spot regularly, sometimes seeking guidance as to what Wolf would do.

With Wolf gone, Bettina says she knew the wine would be her legacy, and that she would continue with the same team to produce wine from the vines on which she and Wolf had lavished so much care and attention.

Having now tasted ten vintages that Bettina and team have made following Wolf’s passing, beginning with the 1996 vintage, I marvel at the quality and complexity of the wine. Each vintage is distinct, with some showing more the characteristics of fine Merlot, or the Merlot and Cabernet Franc blends from Bordeaux’s Right Bank, while others are more reminiscent of great Syrahs from Hermitage and Cornas, with intense white and black pepper aromas and flavors, along with truffle, mushroom and other delightful notes. All of them are excellent, and my favorite of all, the 1996–the first wine Bettina and team made following Wolf’s passing–is just astonishingly good. I rated it 98+ points.

We sampled the wines over dinner at Murray Circle Restaurant at Cavallo Point, which is located just over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. Executive Chef Justin Everett created some beautiful dishes–like porcini tagliatelle with soft cooked egg, pancetta, grilled hedgehog mushrooms and black truffle–that added to the special quality of the evening. The stars of the night, though, were our rare magnums of this extraordinary wine, and the elegant Bettina Rogosky herself.

2/6/13 Carnasciale Il Caberlot Dinner at Murray Circle

Bettina carried on with her plans made with Wolf to expand their tiny production by planting two additional vineyards further down the same hill, in 1999 and 2004, for a total of five planted acres. A third new vineyard, not yet in production, was planted in 2011. The new vineyards have been planted east-west instead of north-south so as to better accommodate the effects of global warming. As of 2012, they now have a capacity to produce 3,000 to 3,500 magnums of Il Caberlot.

One of the couple’s sons, Moritz, a fashion designer who lives in Paris, assists with harvest and all relations with their clients; despite the wine’s small quantities, they have customers in 24 countries. In 2002 Bettina found a new winemaker experienced in Burgundy to make the wine, enologist Peter Schilling.

In 2000, Bettina introduced a second wine, called Il Carnasciale. It is based on a selection of barrels that she and her team—Schilling, Moritz, Bordini, Fiore, and Schilling’s assistant Marco Maffei—taste blind to determine which have the structure and ageworthiness to go into the Il Caberlot, and which are going to be approachable sooner for the second wine.

The winemaking continues to be as gentle and thoughtful as the viticulture and harvest. After destemming, the grapes are gently fermented at relatively cool temperatures in small stainless steel vats. The grapes from each separate pass through the vineyard and from each vineyard are vinified separately. The fermentation cap is broken twice a day by hand. Malolactic fermentation occurs in barrel, and the wines are then aged in French barriques, of which traditionally about 70% are new (they began to decrease this percentage of new oak in 2009). After aging 22 months in barrel, the barrels selected for the second wine are bottled and released six months later. The wine that goes into Il Caberlot is bottled by hand and unfiltered in magnums that then spend 18 more months aging in the cellar.

The distinctive Il Caberlot labels feature a handpainted “X,” the work of a local artist friend, that varies slightly with each vintage. They have a color palette of 10 different colored papers for the labels, so each vintage also has its own color background. Bettina individually hand numbers each of the magnums. A final small feature of the label is a little man’s head with a hat.

2/6/13 Carnasciale Il Caberlot Dinner at Murray Circle

It comes from a family crest for the Schnabel family Bettina received when she sent away for the history of her family name many years before. She added a line under the man’s nose representing being up to their noses in wine. The little red triangle on the end of the man’s hat is a reference to the days when all the wines sold from their wine club had a triangular red sticker added to the label. They call the little man a “Schnabelino.”

Rare Wine Co. was named the U.S. importer for Il Caberlot and Carnasciale in 2005. RWC also imports a small allotment of the delicious and highly sought after olive oil that is made from the 600 olive trees remaining on the property.

2/6/13 Carnasciale Il Caberlot Dinner at Murray Circle

As Bettina told us, she and her neighbors who make wine, including nearby Fattoria Petrolo, carefully avoid making much comment on each other’s wines. They reserve all their competitive spirit for praising their own olive oils.

I had to ask Bettina before the evening was over whether they were considering a DNA test for the Caberlot grape, so as to officially determine the variety’s parentage. She said she and Dr. Bordini have considered it, but at this point, they’re not sure they want to know.

I have to wonder whether almost any wine grape variety given this much care, attention and love might not also make exceptional wine. We have no other wine from this grape to compare it to, so it’s impossible to know how much the high quality of Il Caberlot is attributable to the variety and how much is owing to the Rogosky team’s loving ministrations. Personally, I’m betting that the latter is mostly responsible.

For my tasting notes on these wonderful wines, see below:

10 YEAR VERTICAL OF PODERE IL CARNASCIALE IL CABERLOT WITH BETTINA ROGOSKY – Murray Circle Restaurant, Cavallo Point, Marin, California (2/6/2013)

2/6/13 Carnasciale Il Caberlot Dinner at Murray Circle

Our magnums for the tasting came mostly from Rare Wine Co.’s cellars, except for the 1996 and 2000, which Bettina had hand carried in her luggage. The bottles were opened three and a half hours before the start of the dinner and double decanted.

  • 2009 Podere Il Carnasciale Il Caberlot Toscana IGT – Italy, Tuscany, Toscana IGT
    From magnum – opaque purple red violet color; very appealing, intense, fresh cracked black pepper, lavender, Provencal herbs, tart plum, charcoal, black currant nose; delicious, intensely flavored, densely textured, complex, charcoal, black pepper, mineral, roasted black fruit, bittersweet chocolate palate with medium acidity; could use 4-5 years of cellaring and should 30+ years; long finish 95+ points (95 points)
  • 2008 Podere Il Carnasciale Il Caberlot Toscana IGT – Italy, Tuscany, Toscana IGT
    From magnum – opaque purple red violet color; appealing, tart roasted plum, black pepper, tart currant, black truffle, light lavender nose; maturing, silky textured, black pepper, tar, very tart black plum, tart black currant, mineral, liquid pepper palate, like a delicious top Cornas; approachable now and should go 20-plus years; medium-plus finish 94+ points (94 points)
  • 2005 Podere Il Carnasciale Il Caberlot Toscana IGT – Italy, Tuscany, Toscana IGT
    From magnum – very dark red violet color; appealing, refined, roasted plum, black pepper, charcoal, dark Provencal herbs, lavender nose; delicious, roasted black fruit, black pepper, mineral, charcoal, tart black currant palate, reminiscent of a young Chave Hermitage; needs 2-3 years and will go 30-35 years; long finish 97+ points (97 points)
  • 2004 Podere Il Carnasciale Il Caberlot Toscana IGT – Italy, Tuscany, Toscana IGT
    From magnum – nearly opaque red violet color; very appealing, Cheval Blanc like, tart cassis, light charcoal, tart plum, black tobacco nose; focused, maturing, tart plum, tart black fruit, roasted black fruit, tobacco, mineral palate with subtle herbs and enlivening acidity; mature now and should go 20-plus years; medium-plus finish 94+ points (hail struck on 9/15, greatly diminishing yield, only 1800 magnums) (94 points)
  • 2002 Podere Il Carnasciale Il Caberlot Toscana IGT – Italy, Tuscany, Toscana IGT
    From magnum – very dark red violet color; very appealing, tart roasted black fruit, charcoal, lavender, black and white pepper, orange peel nose; delicious, focused, harmonious, roasted plum, pepper, lavender, mineral, espresso palate with medium acidity, like a great Allemand Cornas; delicious now and should go 25-plus years; long finish 96+ points (96 points)
  • 2001 Podere Il Carnasciale Il Caberlot Toscana IGT – Italy, Tuscany, Toscana IGT
    From magnum – very dark ruby color; maturing, dried porcini mushroom, tart plum, truffle, light green peppercorn nose; mature, velvety textured, tart plum, mushroom, dried porcini mushroom, beef pan droppings palate with firm, sweet and refined tannins, reminiscent of a mature Sassicaia; should go 30 years; long finish 94+ points (94 points)
  • 2000 Podere Il Carnasciale Il Caberlot Toscana IGT – Italy, Tuscany, Toscana IGT
    From magnum – very dark red violet color; mature, very appealing, mushroom, tart plum, cedar, light oregano nose, reminiscent of a maturing Pichon Baron; tasty, mature, velvety textured, elegant, tart black fruit, cedar, mineral, mushroom palate; lovely now and will go 20-25 years; long finish 95+ points (95 points)
  • 1999 Podere Il Carnasciale Il Caberlot Toscana IGT – Italy, Tuscany, Toscana IGT
    From magnum – nearly opaque red violet color; tart plum, smoke, tar, tart blackberry, roasted black fruit, charcoal nose; tasty, black pepper, ripe black currant, mineral, tar, espresso palate with definition and near medium acidity, like a Cheval Blanc from a big year, like 2000; good now and should go 25 years; medium-plus finish (95 points)
  • 1998 Podere Il Carnasciale Il Caberlot Toscana IGT – Italy, Tuscany, Toscana IGT
    From magnum – very dark red violet color; mature, sweet green herbs, tobacco, lavender, light brett nose, reminiscent of a mature Lynch Bages; delicious, velvety textured, tart black fruit, tobacco, mineral, tar, tart black currant palate, reminiscent of a mature Figeac; good now and should go 15-20 years; long finish (94 points)
  • 1996 Podere Il Carnasciale Il Caberlot Toscana IGT – Italy, Tuscany, Toscana IGT
    From magnum – opaque red violet color with slight bricking; very appealing, lifted, redolent, black pepper, tart currant, green pepper, charcoal, dried lavender nose; delicious, youthful, tart roasted plum, charcoal, tar, black pepper palate with concentration, focus and sweet pure fruit yet; youthful, and should go 35-plus years; long finish 98+ points (98 points)