An Interlude…

February 7, 2013

I’ve been working down in Southern California this week; pouring At Craft – Los Angeles and Mastro’s Steakhouse in Costa Mesa under the aegis of the Wine Artisans of Santa Lucia Highlands  (a collection of wineries that produce wine from this vaunted appellation and get together to market their wines). The response to the wines…2010 La Rochelle Rosella’s Vineyard Chardonnay, 2010 La Rochelle Soberanes Vineyard Pinot Noir, etc. was extremely good.

The rest of the week I worked with the salesteam from our broker R&R Wine Marketing, pouring wine for buyers in Orange County and San Diego. There are a number of new accounts who will be adding Steven Kent Winery and La Rochelle wines to their programs…very good week (more to come later on this).

Thursday night I had a great dinner at the Twisted Vine Wine Bar in downtown Fullerton (thanks Chris, Scott, Wes, and Brett for the great hospitality!). Fullerton is a college town and the downtown area reminds me a bit of State Street in Santa Barbara; a lot of cool bars and Twisted Vine foodrestaurants and a young vibe that college towns give off in waves. Twisted Vine is like this too. Great flights of microbrews, value-oriented reds and whites, and a special high-end Cab flight from PerryMoore (a Napa Cab brand owned by a new friend and R&R compatriot, Mickey Moore). The food was great too…Manchego meatballs in an amazing broth and potato and chorizo empanadas…really good!

The best part of the night, though, was totally unexpected. There is a fair amount of free parking in small garages downtown. Free parking – great; similar-looking buildings – not so grand.

As I was looking for my rental car in the garage I thought I parked in, I passed a group of about 10 teenagers hanging out. As I looked down a number of rows, pushing my car remote like a madman, I heard one kid playing a harmonica. He saw me too. Next thing I hear…

“There’s a white man wearing a suit {harmonica interlude}. Looking for his car…{harmonica interlude}. He can’t find it…{harmonica interlude}.

I had to chuckle. Eventually, I did find the car. It was in the building next door…I found it by sheer dumb luck.

Just another week in the wine life. Moments of exasperation, moments of success and the lack of it, and moments where the directionally challenged get called out by a harmonica-playing hipster. Wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Getting to the Bottom…

February 3, 2013

You’d think that when you nuture a wine from the grape to the bottle, tasting it from its youth, tracking each change, the effect of the new barrel on fruit, the growth of tannin, and the blossoming of balance and complexity..that each one would be as singular and unforgettable as one of your children.

Things don’t always work that way. Especially when you are tasting that wine blind with a bunch of really big wines.

I was pouring the 09 Lineage over the course of a few days last week  in Southern California, and I had the rare opportunity to have the wine newly opened three days in a row…and to taste the wine as it opened up over a multi-hour tasting. Then at the end of the week, I tasted the wine again, along with The Premier Cabernet 2009 in a flight of 8 very high-end wines from Napa.

The wine I thought was Lineage, was in fact The Premier; and the Premier ended up being a different wine, altogether.

The point is, I guess, that each time I taste wine…my own wine most assuredly, it is a new experience. No matter how well I think I know the wine, it has something special in reserve to show me, some new layer that I haven’t yet fathomed. This is one of the greatest things about wine: the truly great ones are bottomless…there is no getting everything, no understanding all that it has to offer; each tiime you taste it, there is a new level of complexity and a new level of potential beauty there.

Here’s hoping that the mystery never ends.

Expert Evaluation

February 1, 2013

Yesterday, our marketing company, Balzac Communications, set up a blind tasting of three flights of wines (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet/Bordeaux blends) that included ours and some of the best from Napa and Sonoma. The six participants, all Master Sommeliers, are some of the most accomplished and knowledgeable wine professionals and educators in the world.

The experience was wonderful for a bunch of reasons: I got to see how these really smart and passionate wine lovers approached the evaluation of these very different wines, how they each teased out personal priorities from those wines, and how they went about communicating their own very personal experience with the wines in a language that was helpful to us.

I came to this setting with very specific purposes in mind. In our own minds we are all first string players. The rest of the world (whichever world we happen to be participating in at any given moment) rarely sees us in the same light. Lineage and Steven Kent Winery’s The Premier are our two flagship wines. My personal mission, when it is all said and done, is to consistenly produce two wines that can be favorably compared to any great wine produced in the world. I want to make iconic wines…wines with a history, a pedigree, and an acknowledged reputation for greatness…all qualities that will take a career to achieve. Consequently, in tastings such as this, it is crucial that experts see our wines as belonging in a group that has already achieved some of the benchmarks that we are working to accomplish.

Equally as importantly, our winemaking team (Tom Stutz and I) would get a chance to taste our wines within a larger group that contained more wines that weren’t ours than that were.

There is a tendency for winemakers to gain a house palate. We work with our wines for a number of years before they are released, tasting them many times as they are elevated from grape to bottle. It is easy to fall into a trap where you ascribe too much “brilliance” to your own effort and don’t see the weaknesses in the wines because you don’t compare them often enough to a benchmark set in a way that hides what you think you know. Tim Gaiser, Steve Morey, Bob Bath, Peter Marks, Christie Dufaul – our MSs – not only have a great deal of tasting experience, but they also know how wine is made. So, many of the comments about the wines had winemaking techniques, decisions, and craft as an inherent part…again, a very helpful exercise for us.

It is important that we compare our wines against a very high standard often, and -from a business standpoint- it is important that we do well. Gratifyingly, we did very well. These kinds of results breed confidence and give us a sense that our own intuition about the Livermore Valley’s ability to grow world-class fruit has a semblance of reality behind it.

Having spent the last several days in the Southland (with another 4 to come next week), there were a number of things I liked:

  • The Ford Crown Vic from Thrifty Rent-a-car. On the road for hours at a time a very comfortable ride. Much better in the front seat than in the back…
  • The 100% Malbec from Buoncristiani Winery. All the blueberry compote one could want, and a plushness in the mid-palate that suited the variety beautifully.
  • The Aperol/Campari-Reposado-sweet vermouth concoction that Barry Richter of Testarossa Winery and I came up with while sitting at a bar. Weird, but delicious, take on both the Negroni and the Margarita…a Margaroni?
  • The camaraderie from other members of the In Vino Unitas group. We’re all small brands trying to sell wine direct in CA…a tough job when the overwhelming force of the large distributors and brands are brought to bear.
  • The Charcuterie platter – and especially the chick liver pate – at The Winery Restaurant in Tustin. Coupled with a traditional Negroni…the sweet, bitter, ginny, creamy, liver-y goodness was mind blowing.
  • The Patland Winery 2007 Cabernet, Stagecoach Vineyards. Showed gorgeous breadth of texture and flavor from mid-palate to finish. Better than their 2009 from the same site.
  • The response to our wines from the generous wine buyers in Orange and LA counties. We all believe ourselves (in our own heads) to be first string; it’s nice to find out other people think we can start too!

A Matter of Taste?

January 30, 2013

File this one under “Too Much Time Stuck in LA Traffic and Does Budweiser Know the Implication of Their Ad?:”

Like Budweiser, who produces 47% of all beer sold in the US, mega-wine companies are in a pitched battle everyday for the wallet of the consumer (the heart, mind, and tastebud rarely factor into this pursuit). And because the amount of shelf space in the big chains is limited, mega wine companies (the top 6 wine companies account for more than 80% of wine sold in the US) often buy small wineries to “add” more space to the shelves (Mirassou Vineyards increased the number of Gallo facings in 2002). What is important is the Nielsen scan data not the integrity of the brand or the way the wine actually tastes. We all do have to actually sell wine, ultimately.

Part of me is in awe of the crassness of the whole exercise as embodied by Budweiser’s campaign. The tagline: “Taste Makes an Entrance….” So, up to this point, we can infbudweiser-black-crowner that all of the other Bud beers had no taste (the other possibility, if we are thinking qualitatively, is that they tasted of sh*t).  It is rare that a company comes right out and says, “hey, this stuff tastes like crap, but look at the shiny new bottle.” Awesome.

And speaking of taste…in this case good and educated being the operative words, Joe Roberts, the blogger extraordinaire behind, shares some thoughts about a few La Rochelle wines here and Steven Kent wines here.

I’ve had a very busy start to 2013. In the first 29 days, I’ve made trips to Arkansas, Las Vegas, and Southern California in my on-going mission to tell the world about the good works the folks at Steven Kent Portfolio and the Livermore Valley are doing.

So, lots of travel means lots of hotel rooms, lots of meetings with great people, and lots of wonderful wine and food. Last night I poured wine under the auspices of a group called IVU (In Vino Unitas) – a collection of wineries (like us) who self-distribute in California. We were pouring at The Winery Restaurant in Tustin and the audience of restaurant and wine shop buyers seemed really interested in the wines.

I had the good fortune to share a drink and a Charcuterie platter with Master Sommelier, Steve Poe. I think we inadvertently discovered a new (and potentially classic!) cocktail/food pairing: a Negroni (all bittery, slightly sweet goodness) and the exquisitely gorgeous, house-made chicken liver pate that graced the platter with its creamy, earthy deliciousness. Together, new heights of flavor! Spectacular!

Just a tip…and I can’t believe how long it has taken me to cotton on ear plugsto this little miracle…when in a hotel surrounded by the running feet and joyous eructations of a group of high-schoolers on a field trip, the greatest gift you can give yourself…silicon ear plugs. Heaven.

Last week Tom Stutz, La Rochelle winemaker, and I ventured up north to Sonoma County to find out for ourselves how the season was progressing.

Our first stop was the furthest north and the newest: Saralee’s Vineyard, home of our sole Pinot Meunier fruit. The Pinot Meunier project started out as a way for us to add something a little different to our lineup of Reserve Room wines, and we have been very pleasantly surprised to see how well the wines have also done in restaurants and with the press. Our first two vintages came from the Four Sisters Vineyard in the Sonoma Coast appellation. In 2011, the fruit was no longer available so we were able to source from Saralee’s, a gorgeous Russian River Valley (RRV) appellated vineyard. As you can see from the photo to the left, veraison has begun in this block. The grapes start to darken and soften…6-8 weeks after the start of veraison, the fruit should be ready to harvest.

The next leg of the trip took us to the Green Valley sub-appellation of RRV and

Freestone Hill Vyd.

the Dutton-Morelli Lane Vineyard from which we get a couple of tons of amazing Chardonnay. Entering this vineyard, situated 765 feet above sea level, and which has a house on the northern end, is like going to a speakeasy. You have to go through an old barn outbuilding jammed full of weathered picking boxes, bolting doors back in place as you go. We  emerged from this dark warren into the absolute perfect sunlight of a July vineyard day. The Hyde Selection of an old Wente clone of Chardonnay had not begun to get that waxy opacity that signals the start of the ripening race. It shouldn’t be long though.

Dutton-Morelli Chardonnay

A few miles from Morelli Lane is the Freestone Hill Vineyard, one of our Grand Cru Collection Pinot Noir sites. We get Dijon 115 Pinot from a 1.5 acre block at the toe of the hill where this vineyard is planted. Tom likes this location as it is the warmest part of a cold-weather site. Yields here looked to be relatively significantly greater than last year.

El Coro – La Cruz Vyd.

After a quick lunch at my favorite place in Sonoma County – The Underwood Bar & Bistro – it was on to the Sonoma Coast appellation, Petaluma, the La Cruz Vineyard. This site is the estate vineyard of Keller Estate Winery and has been a fruit source for us since the 2007 vintage. We had gotten a number of different clones in the past but are now getting only Dijon 828. This site is spectacularly situated above the Petaluma River on the east side. Planted on very light, well-draining soil, the Pinot from here has been wonderful. This block of the vineyard, owned by the Keller family who made their fortune supplying the interior material for Ford cars in Mexico, is called the El Coro block; it is named for this statuary chorus pictured to the right.

Pinot at Donum Estate

Our final stop was in Carneros at the southern tip of Sonoma at Donum Estate Vineyard. Another Grand Cru Collection site, this 200-acre vineyard is managed by Anne Moller-Racke, President of the Donum Estate brand. We are the only other winery to whom she sells fruit. Originally part of the Buena Vista plantings, we have been getting fruit from this glorious vineyard since 2009. Our first offering from the site is now available to purchase on-line.

Overall, the season is progressing beautifully (knock on wood). The weather has been moderate with very few heat spikes, the yields look to be about average to slightly above average (and significantly bigger than last year), and all of our vineyard partners are, again, showing their passion and skill for grape growing.

We’ll give an update when we get back to the sites in about a month.

Take My Wine…Please

June 21, 2012

Joe Roberts of fame recently posted a video manifesto of sorts about how wine bloggers should behave when asking for samples from wineries.  It was commonsensical and appropriate: Observe the golden rule.

More important, from my perspective, was Joe’s statement, and I’m paraphrasing: as a community, wine bloggers are gaining more and more influence; if an individual blogger understands that she is part of a larger movement that behaves professionally, the community’s (read: the individual blogger’s) ability to gain access through samples, invitations to events, etc. will be enhanced. Couldn’t agree more.

But what this post really is…is an invitation to serious bloggers, videographers, and writers to request samples from me. I want you to taste my wines…and write/talk about them too, of course. Now, I know some will immediately remark on how self-serving this is…and I happily, enthusiastically, and with alacrity…admit it!

There are thousands of brands out there. The vast majority of which serve the very important purpose of making everyday wine that is affordable and drinkable.

My mission is different. I make wine from the Livermore Valley, an appellation that is blessed with the viticultural chops to make world-class wine. My flagship wine is called Lineage. Lineage is my family’s past; my future, and my only vinous weapon against Time’s implacable obligation to erase.  If Lineage becomes one of the handful of iconic wines every serious wine lover must have, then I have done my job. I’m devoting a career to trying to make it happen.

What’s important to remember is that the level Lineage attains isn’t up to me. It’s up to you. Ultimately, the quality of a wine will win out…but the wine first needs the context that only the press and restaurateurs and wine shops can give it.

So, there you go. I’m willing to lay myself out on the line, willing to take the responses as they come.

My preference is to sit down with you at my Winery to provide the context for Lineage and the other wines you taste. If you can’t make it to the Livermore Valley but are serious, and have been communicating about wine, I’ll share with you.

Just comment with your blog url and address, and I’ll get wine to you (while sample supplies last).

Wine’s Superego

June 20, 2012

Gritty, grainy, drying, grippy, emery board, ripe, fleshy, sweet, astringent,chewy,  fine-grained, structuring…Tannin be thy name.

Fruit and acid are the hip, well-dressed kids; the too-cool-for-school, let’s-smoke-pot-behind-the-7-11-rebels. Tannin is the righteous one; the responsible one that gives seriousness and meaning to wine.

If you’ve drunk Cabernet or Grenache or a young La Rochelle Pinot Noir – even – and felt the sides of your tongue or your cheeks go dry…that’s tannin for you. Derived from the skins and seeds of grapes and the wood from new-ish oak barrels, tannin is what gives ageability and a drying, astringent structure to young wines and allows them to age. Supergo to fruit’s id.

I had the chance to taste through a trial of wines today that had commercial tannins added to them. These tannins were natural, derived – too – from oak and grape skins, but they were meant to add to red wines what nature did not give them. The winemaker has many tools at her disposal to make wines better…and  what separates the good winemaker from the not-so-good one is the judiciousness with which those tools are used.

I tasted through several flights of wine, each of which had a control then varying amounts of a couple different kinds of tannin added. Unlike a series of fining trials tasted earlier (that’s another post), the control wines were aided, made more complete, by the structural addition of tannin. For a commercial winery that targets a specific consumer with wines that are carefully made to hit certain structural cues, this tool, used in a limited and intelligent fashion, can be very valuable.

Without a hill to die on, some people would have no fun at all.

So it’s the “balanced” wine crowd now…alcohol levels are too high in California they say. Or maybe it’s the “the pendulum is swinging back” pack with their  synecdoche argument.

Alice Feiring, in a Newsweek article linked above,  stops short of contending that there is a full-scale movement toward lower alcohol wines in California , but one could be forgiven for intuiting that the small set of examples she gives is meant to stand for a(n as-yet-unseen) stampede.

So too with Raj Parr and Jasmine Hirsch founders of the In Pursuit of Balance group who, in their search for “balance,” have found a shibboleth waiting there all along. To be fair though, Mr. Parr admits that wines can be in balance at higher alcohol levels but that alcohol, fruit, wood, and tannin find “harmony” when they are co-equal.

California is a really sunny place, most of the time. Grapevines produce sugar via photosynthesis. Sugar in the grapes gets converted to alcohol when they’re crushed and exposed to yeast. If you read “ripeness” as higher sugar content in the fruit, California is nearly always going to have riper fruit than most European producers (the laws in Europe have something to do with this as well).

So, if warmer weather leads to higher alcohol wines, what do you think cooler weather does?

In the last 2008 and 2009, generally considered fairly temperate years, the degree-days in the Livermore Valley were off of their 30-year average by nearly 3%. And in 2010 and 2011, quite cold years, the same value was off the average by 17.9% and 13.4% respectively.

Sometimes a mystery looking for a solution has one staring in its face. Could it be that winemakers are not changing their style as much as they are just taking what Nature has given them?