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Wed 11 Jan 2017

Buyer Freddy Bulmer: My 2016 Highlights

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I had to pinch myself a few times throughout 2016. Since landing my dream job as trainee buyer (and subsequently taking on buying duties for England, beers and accessories), I have been lucky enough to meet some amazing people, visit some beautiful places and experience some remarkable things.

One thing that will stick with me though is some of the fantastic people that I have been lucky enough to meet who, whilst all have stories of their own, always share one thing in common with me: a love of wine.

Putting together a list of just three bottles that really meant something to me from 2016 was not easy, as there were so many more that I wanted to select. However, I settled on three very special wines from three very special producers, in three completely different wine-producing regions of the world.

You can buy a convenient three-bottle mixed case of these reds for £38 – with UK delivery included – via thewinesociety.com.

1. Château Monconseil Gazin, Blaye Côtes de Bordeaux 2013 (£9.50 per bottle)

monconseil-gazin

My very first trip accompanying one of the buyers was in January 2016 when I went to Bordeaux with Head of Buying Tim Sykes. The main goal of the trip was to blend the new vintage of The Society’s Claret but while there we managed to fit in visits with a few other producers. Our last visit of the trip was to a small, humble producer in Blaye on the right bank of the Gironde.

After a few days of suits and ties and smart sales folk, it was lovely to meet a proper winemaking family. We weren’t talking to a sales representative or a marketing person but the owner and winemaker of a small and excellent-quality winery. Jean-Michel and Françoise Baudet are the couple in charge here, at one of the oldest wineries in Blaye. They love nothing more than driving visitors around their vineyards and talking them through the subtle nuances that each vineyard has on their wines. After the tour it was time for a bit of cake before going to the airport.

This was the first time that I felt like I got to the heart of Bordeaux; despite all the money in the region and all the marketing, it is people like these who live for the wine and who make good wines at very affordable prices.

This 2013 vintage of Chateau Monconseil Gazin was one which I remember for its soft tannins, fresh acidity and feeling of being complete, by which I mean everything was in harmony and as it should be. Fresh fruit is there, but it is soft and relatively gentle, with an appealing, simple charm. For me, this wine spoke of its place very well, from the freshness in the fruit on the highest vineyards, kept cool in the wind, to the ripeness of the fruit that bit closer to the river, where the temperature is moderated thanks to the influence of the Gironde.

2. Chianti Rufina Riserva, Villa di Vetrice 2011 (£10.95 per bottle)

grati-chianti

When I joined The Wine Society’s Buying Team, I was lacking in the foreign language department, other than a miniscule amount of Italian. In order to fit in to such a linguistically talented team of buyers, I had to brush up on it! After a number of Italian lessons, Sebastian Payne MW, our buyer for Italy, said: ‘If you really want to learn the language, you need to get out there!’ So I did.

I spent a couple of weeks working at wineries in Italy; firstly with the lovely folks at Vallone in Puglia but I spent the second week with the truly lovely, and truly Italian, Grati family in the Rufina Valley of Chianti.

I’ve never had a week where I felt so looked after and learned so much. The warm and incredibly intelligent Gualberto Grati and his sister Christi are now at the helm of their family winery, having taken over from their parents who live at Villa di Vetrice itself. I managed to experience all sorts of jobs which surround the harvest on my visit, from the picking of the grapes, to hanging up bunches in the vinsantaia (see above), to carrying out a whole experimental micro-vinification of the very rare grape variety sanforte.

Sitting around the family table for dinner at Vetrice on the first night of my visit, not being even nearly competent with my Italian, was a strange mixture of lovely and terrifying. However when, on the last night of my trip, Gualberto and I were invited for dinner with Christi, her husband Luca and their two daughters, I found I was able to have a conversation in Italian, the feeling of pride was really quite memorable. It was all thanks to the kindness and patience of this Tuscan winemaking family.

Their wine is really rather delicious too! This one combines the rusticity and ‘hands-off’ approach to winemaking found in the most authentic of Tuscan wines with such obviously excellent fruit, from a region that really seems born to produce wines. Silky smooth yet still fresh, thanks to the signature acidity of the Rufina valley. A charming, approachable and thoroughly enjoyable wine, whilst still smart and proper, much like the family who make it!

3. Hedges CMS Washington State 2015 (£13.50 per bottle)

the-hedges-family-washington

I’d never been to the USA before being lucky enough to get a place on a trip arranged by the Washington State Wine Commission. The bulk of the trip involved a small group of us visiting a number of wineries spread over five days. I wasn’t able to fly out to Seattle until the day after the rest of the group, which meant that I would be there a couple of days after they had all gone home again at the end of the trip. With that in mind, I had made plans to go and visit a couple of producers who we already worked with at The Wine Society, one of which was Hedges Estate.

I’d heard that Christophe Hedges was a pretty cool guy and I certainly wasn’t disappointed. He lives with his wife Maggie and their two young sons, in a beautiful white-stone house which is down the end of a dirt track, in the middle of the vineyards of Red Mountain. I drove down the track and pulled up outside the house, which was clearly still undergoing some construction work. I walked around the side and knocked on the door but there was no answer.

Eventually, this tall, muscular wine god of a man came around the corner. This was Christophe, who it turns out is not only a great winemaker but also a seriously good stonemason. So good in fact, that he built the house himself!

The Hedges family were like something out of a film – painfully good looking with perfect smiles and a sense of coolness and calm about them which makes you feel like they just love living life. When I went to visit them, I had just left the rest of the group who had flown home and as I got into my hire-car I distinctly remember a sudden sense of real loneliness, now finding myself in a small town in a country I had never been to before, almost 5,000 miles away from home. When I got to the Hedges’ home, it was like seeing old friends.

I tasted a lot of good wines with Christophe, many of which could have been featured here; but for me, this was perhaps the most approachable now. It encapsulates the terroir of Red Mountain, with a hint of earthiness and bright, fresh acidity. The complexity of fruit here is impressive, thanks to the clever blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah, making a wine which is juicy and bright, while maintaining a peppery touch and a firm backbone.

Enjoy!

Freddy Bulmer
Trainee Buyer

Buy the three-bottle mixed case for £38 – with UK delivery included.

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Wed 20 Jul 2016

USA Wine Workshop with Sarah Knowles MW

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On Saturday 2nd July we welcomed 37 members to The Wine Society to take part in a United States of America tutored tasting hosted by buyer Sarah Knowles MW.

With the sun shining over glorious Stevenage and a list of wines as flashy as Dorothy’s daps we knew we were in for a treat.

The tasting began with a flight of three fascinating chardonnays; firstly the Fess Parker Santa Barbara County Chardonnay 2014 (£13.95), a well-balanced, fruit-forward crowd-pleaser that shows that quality American chardonnay can be found for under £15.

This was followed by the Bergstrom Old Stones Oregon Chardonnay 2013 (£22), a completely different kettle of fish. From cooler-climate Oregon, this is a concentrated style of chardonnay that leaps out of the glass and lingers long on the palate – stylish. The last of the whites was the Ridge Chardonnay 2012 (not currently available), a real haymaker of a wine and the only one of our three to use American oak. Full, rich and intense with a nose reminiscent of caramel and brown sugar this screams out for food but its bodybuilder-esque physique can be easily enjoyed on its own.

I’ve long been preaching the Book of Zin, boasting its vibrant juicy fruit and velvety texture to all who can hear, but it seemed there were some yet to be converted to the dark side on Saturday when confronted with three zinfandels. The first two, The Society’s California Old-Vine Zinfandel (£7.50) and the Ravenswood Lodi Old-Vine Zinfandel (£8.95) are very much in the ‘American mould’ of Zin making – big, bold fruit with alcohol just a shade below 15%.

Zinfandel lineup

The third, the Broc Vine Starr Sonoma County Zinfandel 2014 (not currently available), is produced by Chris Brockway in his garage (seriously) but tasted more like it comes from a fancy estate in the northern Rhône with its peppery, syrah-like nose and elegant if slightly funky (due to being fermented with wild yeast) palate which, along with the other two, helped convert many to zinfandel and its varying styles.

Pinot noir was up next – Pedroncelli (£10.50) from the Russian River valley, Lemelson’s Thea’s Selection (£19.50) from the Willamette Valley and the Au Bon Climat from the Sanford and Benedict vineyard, Santa Barbara (not currently available).

Pinot noir lineup

This was another extremely interesting flight showing three distinct styles – the first being ripe, round, generous and affordable – another marvellous example of top-quality Californian wine that doesn’t break the bank! The Lemelson on the other hand is elegant and sappy with plenty of cherry and redcurrant flavour, great with food or on its own, and the third an example of Californian pinot at its absolute best. As with all Au Bon Climat pinot it was beautifully balanced with Burgundian leather and truffle savouriness supported by fine tannin and underlying red fruit.

To finish, we were treated to a trio of cabernets – an affordable, Bordeaux-styled blend from Sagemoor Farms Vineyard (£14.50) in the Columbia Valley, alongside a big, sophisticated and juicy Silver Oak Alexander Valley Cabernet (£65) packed with intense cassis, blackcurrant and vanilla oak, a great example of American cabernet that opened up beautifully after a few hours’ breathing.

Cabernet lineup

The final wine, taken from our Tastings Vintage stock, was a Ridge Monte Bello from 1995 – a real treat and one that drew a few gasps from those attending upon it being revealed. Despite being 21 years old it was still youthful and just starting to show the cedar and pencil-shaving charm that top-quality cabernet can give, alongside softened tannins and added ripeness expected from California – a truly stunning wine that was a fitting end to what was a fascinating and well-received workshop.

Matthew Horsley
Tastings & Events Host

Our programme of tastings and events for the rest of 2016 has just been published! View the calendar and book your tickets here

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Several members may already know this wine.

They may well have been recommended it by our Member Services team, received an e-mail campaign recently about how popular it is with staff, or seen it on our website.

The wines of McManis Family Vineyards just seem to keep cropping up! And, whilst reading Sarah Mercer’s writeup of their petite sirah for July’s Staff Choice, I was reminded why.

You can find a full archive of Staff Choices on our website here.

McManis Family Petite Sirah 2014
Sarah MercerThis is one of my favourite red wines and my firm choice for a BBQ when friends come over – which means it’s now their favourite too!

I first introduced it to them at a blind wine-tasting evening at mine. It was wine number 9, and it won hands down; ever since, I’m always asked ahead of an evening together whether I’m bringing ‘wine number 9’ with me!

The McManis family, who make it, have been growing grapes in California for five generations. Their large-capacity winery is dedicated to producing high-quality wines with ‘small winery’ methods, by fermenting and ageing in small lots. The result is a powerful, densely coloured, concentrated and full-bodied wine with smooth mocha and chocolate flavours. I recommend you give it a try!

Sarah Mercer
Assistant Merchandiser

£10.50 – Bottle
£126 – Case of 12
View Wine Details

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Fri 20 May 2016

Uruguay, its Wine and its Birds

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…and for those of a puerile disposition, I’m most definitely talking about the feathered variety!

Last year when Santiago Deicas of Familia Deicas (who own Uruguay’s largest wine company, Juanicó) visited our offices in Stevenage I realised that there was so much I didn’t know about this small South American country.

Santiago is used to this level of general ignorance when it comes to knowledge about his homeland and travels the globe telling people like me where his country is and how it is unlike the rest of South America before even getting started on discussions about wine.

Read about Santiago’s family’s wines on our website

One thing I was aware of was Uruguay’s connection with birds… and during our chat with Santiago, we did talk quite a lot about birds. In fact, I think this was the longest conversation I have ever had on the subject! Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, the name Uruguay means ‘River of the Painted Birds’.

The label of the just-shipped Juanicó Benteveo Chardonnay 2015 shows Uruguay's connection with its feathered friendsThe label of the just-shipped Juanicó Benteveo Chardonnay 2015 shows Uruguay’s connection with its feathered friends

The Southern Lapwing
Santiago also told me about the Southern Lapwing, or téro, the country’s national bird. This pugnacious little wader is also the mascot of the national rugby team, Los Téros. ‘It’s a very beautiful bird, but it’s fierce,’ Santiago tells me. Aggressive and highly territorial, the téro has a spike on the edge of its wing case and rather than nesting in trees, apparently it makes a hole in the ground, ‘So you never know if you are going to approach one,’ Santiago says, ‘suddenly they fly up and attack you… they really hurt… some people say they go for your eyes!’

The Southern Lapwing, Uruguay's national birdThe Southern Lapwing, Uruguay’s national bird

The way that Santiago talks about his national bird, you can’t help but get the feeling he has a sneaking respect for this little fighter. Well, I suppose that is also only to expected as Santiago used to play rugby for the national team himself, once upon a time.

Back to the vineyards
While the lapwing might be a threat to vineyard workers, the vines are also at the mercy of birds, it seems: ‘We have a big problem with birds,’ Santiago says. ‘Losing your whole harvest is a real threat.’

So what action can they take to protect their crop? ‘We have a couple of options,’ Santiago goes on to explain. ‘We don’t want to poison the birds; we can make loud noises to scare them off or put down repellents. In the old days we used falcons, but they didn’t work at weekends!’

So they have taken to putting down hail nets. ‘We have to put them above the vines and below to stop them getting in… they are really clever at finding a way in and always get the best grapes!’ But after trialling the hail nets they have found the system really works. ‘It makes a huge difference. It’s really expensive at first to put them up, but we are putting them into more and more vineyards,’ Santiago informs me.

One of the issues with the hail nets is that once they are in place it is no longer possible to work on the vines, to carry out canopy management, for example, but it also helps to protect against the wind, which I learned is also a common feature of the Uruguayan climate.

More curious nesters
Another unusual avian visitor to Uruguayan vineyards is the Rufous Hornero, or oven bird (the national bird of neighbouring Argentina), so called because of the shape of its nest which resembles a wood-fired clay oven.

These curious birds are not uncommon but not an awful lot is known about them except that they are largely terrestrial, spending much of their time strutting about the ground and that they laboriously build a new nest every year. The beautifully constructed nest gets taken over by other, presumably grateful but more lazy birds.

The beautifully constructed nest of the rufous horneroThe beautifully constructed nest of the rufous hornero

A more attractive visitor to the vineyards is the pretty kiskadees or Bentevéo as it is called in Uruguay (literally, ‘I see you well’ – because of its exuberant call!). It’s up to 30cm in length and feeds mainly on insects but can be quite aggressive too, seeing off much larger birds by calling harshly to its mates and mobbing them mid-air!

Given Uruguay’s rich bird life, it’s not surprising then that birds feature on some of Juanicó’s labels and it’s the pretty Bentevéo bird that’s on the newly shipped 2015 chardonnay (£7.25) which Santiago says is their best vintage yet.

Joanna Goodman
Communications Editor


Find out more about the the Deicas family and winemaking in Uruguay as well as an introductory offer on a new petit verdot under the Atlanticó Sur label.

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Thu 19 Nov 2015

The American Dream

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Last week, ‘Explore USA’ – The Society’s first North American wine offer in five years – was launched.

Explore USA - The Wine Society

I really feel that American wine has turned a corner over the last five years. It used to be a country polarised with generally dull and slightly too sweet bulk wine at one end, and very expensive cult wine (often very good but often almost impossible to get hold of) at the other.

However, with the expansion of viticulture across Oregon and Washington, and growing trends towards balance, more restrained use of oak and a reduction in the grapes’ ‘hang time’ in the vineyard, some wonderful wines which offer true value are making their way across the pond.

The spread from last Thanksgiving when I visited my sister in New York.The spread from last Thanksgiving when I visited my sister in New York.
A few American favourites
Wines like Parker Station Pinot Noir (£11.50), Pedroncelli Cabernet Sauvignon (£9.95), and Peltier Ranch Chardonnay (£7.25) offer great ‘bang for buck.’

Broc Vine Starr Sonoma County Zinfandel (£25) Broc’s Zinfandel and L’Ecole’s No.41 Semillon (£13.50) show what more experimental winemaker can do, whilst Elk Cove Pinot Noir (£25) and Bergström Old Stones Oregon Chardonnay (£19.50) prove that fine wine from the USA doesn’t have to break the bank (this pair is high on my Christmas Day wishlist – both are great with turkey).

Zinfandel: the perfect winter wine
As the weather darkens too, the perfect fireside glass has to be a rich and juicy zinfandel – The Society’s own (£7.50) hits the spot well.

If you needed any other excuse to try something new from the USA this winter, on the 26th November you could always pour yourself a glass of something star spangled to toast Thanksgiving across the pond!

Sarah Knowles MW
Society Buyer

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Fri 23 Jan 2015

Burns Night: Haggis Wines?

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Burns Night is fast approaching, arriving this coming Sunday. In anticipation of the coming night here are some of my choices for wine and spirits to toast, and then drink alongside the glorious haggis.

HaggisHaggis is a very robust dish with strong meat and spice flavours. Any lightweight wines will therefore be well and truly drowned out. In my opinion, the best options are therefore full-bodied and spicy reds of the Rhône, Greece and Lebanon.

Semeli Nemea Reserve 2010 (£10.95)
This is a wonderful example of agiorgitiko with firm tannins and red berry fruit. From a classic vintage in Greece this is a full-bodied and rich, yet fine and elegant wine that will continue to age for a further five years.

Gigondas Chateau Raspail 2011 (£14.95)
This is classic Gigondas, full-bodied, richly textured, spicy with ripe and round tannins with just the slightest oak influence.

Massaya Silver Selection Red 2010 (£17.50)
This cuvée is a blend of cinsault, grenache, cabernet and mourvèdre made with the help of Chateauneuf winemaker Daniel Brunier. This has wonderful blackberry notes with spice. It’s round, exotic and elegant with firm, ripe tannins.

Chateau Musar 2007 (£22)
One of the great cult wines of the wine-world coming from Lebanon’s most famous producer. This cabernet, cinsault and carignan blend has bags of character, it is powerful and concentrated with dark berry fruit and spice. This should be peaking around 2022 and lasting until 2027, but is drinking fantastically now.

Of course, if you are able and willing to experience the occasion in the true, traditional way then there is no better option than Scotch whisky. Of course it is advisable to have some of Scotland’s greatest export on hand even if serving wine, for after the meal.

The Society's Exhibition Speyside Single Malt Scotch Whisky, 12 Years OldLitre of The Society’s Special 16 Year Old Blended Scotch Whisky (£25)
If you are having a Burns Night party with the whole clan in attendance it may be an idea to keep aside the single malt and pass round glasses of this terrific blend. A blend of fine old malts and grains this has delicate smoke and honey here, with complexity and length reminiscent of far more expensive drams.

The Society’s Exhibition Speyside Single Malt Scotch Whisky, 12 Years Old (£32)
For those looking to splash out (hopefully retaining some liquid in the glass) this is a wonderful option from the Society’s Exhibition range. This 12 year old malt has classic Speyside qualities of wonderful dried fruit, sweet spices, nuts and citrus fruits.

Hugo Fountain
Trainee Campaign Manager

Mon 05 Jan 2015

Remembering Serge Hochar of Chateau Musar

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‘Wines are made to be opened and enjoyed. Tomorrow the wines may not be here or you may not be here.’ – Serge Hochar, November 2014

Serge Hochar Chateau Musar The Wine SocietySerge Hochar pouring Chateau Musar for Society members in June 2014
Lebanon’s great wine luminary Serge Hochar passed away last week whilst on holiday with his family in Mexico. He was 75.

Serge Hochar was the driving force behind Chateau Musar, having taken over the reins as winemaker from his father Gaston in 1959. At this time, the wines were sold exclusively in Lebanon, but under Serge’s stewardship Chateau Musar became one of the great internationally celebrated wines of the world.

However, Serge leaves far more than a monumental winemaking legacy. He will be remembered as much for his charismatic, eccentric personality and sense of fun, which touched everyone who had the chance to meet him.

The Wine Society’s first contact with Serge was during his UK visit in the late 1960s when he met with then Society buyer, Christopher Tatham, to taste the new vintages of Musar. The tasting was a success and The Wine Society became the first wine merchant in the country to ship the wines: the 1967 listed in April 1971.

Chateau Musar Wine SocietyThe first listing of Chateau Musar by The Society, from our 1971 List

Since then, Musar, especially the red, has always held a special place with members of The Society. It is a wine style like no other: both bewitching and baffling, reflecting Serge’s non-interventionist approach to winemaking, his courage to take risks and his determination to stick with his vision. As he once said, ‘I once produced a wine that was technically perfect but it lacked the charms of imperfection.’

It was family friend Ronald Barton of Château Langoa Barton in Bordeaux who persuaded the Hochars to plant cabernet sauvignon, adding to Musar’s exuberant carignan and cinsault bush vines in the Bekaa Valley. It is why Musar red can resemble claret one year and Châteauneuf the next, depending on which variety or varieties appear to hold the most promise.

In 1984 Serge was chosen as Decanter magazine’s first-ever recipient of the ‘Man of the Year’ award, for continuing production in defiance of Lebanon’s 15-year Civil War. And now, three decades on, the wines of Chateau Musar are exported globally with a fervent following around the world.

Serge Hochar with Wine Society Chairman Sarah Evans in May 2013Serge Hochar with Wine Society Chairman Sarah Evans in May 2013

Serge said: ‘I make wine on the edge, every vintage is different. There is no one Chateau Musar exactly like the other.’

Likewise, it is fair to say that there is no personality in the wine world like Serge. He will be missed.

Pierre Mansour
Society Buyer

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Wed 26 Nov 2014

Happy Thanksgiving!

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No, we’re not in America. However if you, like me, went to the NFL Wembley games last month; watch so many American crime/comedy dramas on TV that your accent is in danger of changing; or attend the opening of every new burger joint in town…

Tomorrow our cousins across the pond will be celebrating Thanksgiving, and why should they have all the fun?!

Thanksgiving Turkey and Pumpkin PieWhat wine to choose with the demands of Thanksgiving’s onslaught of savoury and sweet dishes?

This year I will actually be visiting my sister who lives in New York to see the Macy’s parade and eat turkey and pumpkin pie by her Chelsea (Manhattan, not SW3) apartment fire.

s California Old-Vine Zinfandel from The Wine SocietyVery few wines can stand up to the onslaught of savoury and sweet dishes all in one go, but luckily one American classic can – zinfandel.

Its characteristic unevenly ripening bunches mean that the resultant wines often have both a sweet raisin and sour-cherry note, the low tannin level and juicy acidity make it a pretty good pairing with turkey and cranberry sauce.

The Society’s California Old-Vine Zinfandel is a great example of this style. If you fancy giving it a go either with a late take on an American Thanksgiving dinner party, or indeed as a possible pairing for your Christmas turkey this year then I humbly suggest now the time to give it a try!

Sarah Knowles
Society Buyer for North America

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Wed 27 Aug 2014

California Earthquake: An Update From Delicato

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Earthquake damage at Saintsbury, Napa.Earthquake damage at Saintsbury, Napa.
Following the earthquake that struck south-west of the city of Napa, we received some encouraging news today from Delicato (producers of The Society’s California Zinfandel for nearly ten years).

Delicato grows grapes and produce wine across most of California (The Society’s Zinfandel comes from vineyards in the Central Valley and Monterey) and in Napa they have an estate (Black Stallion) and winemaking facilities. Although there has been some damage, fortunately there have been no significant injuries. We wish them well in dealing with the aftermath.

Pierre Mansour
Buying Manager

As I’m sure you are all aware, an earthquake with a magnitude of 6.0 occurred near American Canyon at 3:20 a.m. yesterday, and violently shook the southern Napa area. I am relieved to be able to tell you that all of our employees and their families are safe. While there is a considerable amount of damage done and a good amount of clean-up required in homes, thankfully there were only a few cuts and bruises suffered.

Black Stallion Winery came through the quake with only minor damage. As would be expected with such a significant earthquake, damage was limited to a few broken pipes, some loose stones in the façade and some broken glassware in the tasting room, but fortunately no barrels fell and no tanks fractured. We are beyond fortunate compared to many of our neighbors.

At Delicato Napa Bottling, closest to the epicenter, fire sprinkler lines shifted from their original position, a small amount of flooring buckled, and there was some damage to the sheetrock and ceiling tiles. Damage, however, was not as bad as might have been feared and the line is running this morning bottling Black Stallion Los Carneros Pinot Noir.

The Napa office suffered minimally as well. Most of the loss was limited to wine racks that fell over with some broken bottles, but no structural damage.

Our sincere thanks go to everyone who quickly responded after the earthquake to check the facilities and ensure that all equipment and wine was secure. During times of unexpected crisis, families come together to support and help rebuild and repair — and Delicato is no different. We will work together to clean up and repair what was damaged and remember to offer a helping hand to our colleagues who may need our support.

Chris Indelicato

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We were recently treated to a staff tasting and talk from California’s ‘Wild Boy of Wine’, Jim Clendenen, owner and winemaker at Au Bon Climat in Santa Barbara.

With his flowing locks, fast-pace talking, random asides and funny anecdotes, Jim does still cut something of the ‘Wild Boy’ image, but this all belies his 40 years’ winemaking experience and steadfast commitment to making classic, restrained, ageworthy wines. Jim speaks fluent French, has made wine in Australian and Burgundy, and knows his craft. If you were still in any doubt, just one taste of his wines would dispel this.

'The Wild Man' Jim Clenenden and The Society's fine wine manager Shaun Kiernan. No prizes for guessing which is which!‘The Wild Boy’ Jim Clenenden and The Society’s fine wine manager Shaun Kiernan. No prizes for guessing which is which!
The Au Bon Climat wines have been described as ‘Burgundian in sensibility but with Californian style’ and it’s the Au Bon Climat chardonnay and pinot noir that have made its name. Why Burgundy? These are the wines that Jim likes to drink himself – wines that won him over as a young student in France; wines with moderate alcohol, refreshing acidity, that can be drunk with food and that are capable of ageing.

Jim was studying for a law degree but a student trip to France introduced him to its wines and culture and he was hooked. He completed his law degree but decided to get into the wine trade rather than continue with law – he didn’t think at first that he could be a winemaker. ‘I turned 21 in Bordeaux, looking around I thought that you had to own a big château in order to make wine, but in Burgundy I saw that even if you just had a couple of rows of vines and a garage to make the wine in you could be successful.’

Returning to France, Jim spent time in Champagne and Burgundy travelling around and talking to winemakers. ‘I spent a lot of time in 1981 with the late Gérard Potel, a brilliant, very technical winemaker. I learned a lot from him.’ He also went to Australia to make wine for Tyrrell’s and McGuigan Wines in the Hunter Valley and ‘Australia’s second only barrel-fermented chardonnay’ in the Goulburn Valley in Victoria. ‘These were great days,’ Jim told us. ‘Everyone had an open attitude and we shared knowledge and experience.’

abc qupe2This kind of openness continues to this day – Jim still spends time in France and speaks to the friends he made on the phone regularly, exchanging ideas and advice. ‘There are lots of Burgundian kids coming to California to learn about winemaking from a different perspective,’ Jim tells us. Climate change is seeing an increasing amount of information and advice flowing back from the West Coast to the Burgundian Côtes. But Jim is quick to point out that they both learn from each other. He tells us that he has worked closely with Dominique Lafon on research into premature oxidation.

It was during one of his visits to Burgundy that Clendenen came up with the idea for one of his pet projects. Waiting at Dijon tasting for a delayed train he bought a copy of the magazine Bourgogne Aujourd’hui and was shocked to read that the famous Corton-Charlemagne vineyard was originally planted with pinot beurot (a clone of pinot gris), pinot blanc and aligoté. The story goes that it was Charlemagne’s young wife Hildegard who insisted on these grapes being planted around 800AD. Interestingly, when the wines of the region were widely acclaimed in the 8th century, it was probably field blends of the above grapes that were behind the wines, not chardonnay, the only permitted variety today. What caught Jim’s eye was the fact that the house of Louis Latour didn’t grub up their vines until 1836, some 70 years or so after the official edict. ‘They clearly thought this blend of grapes, which generally ripen earlier than chardonnay, worked well here; I was intrigued so decided to recreate the wine in California.’

Au Bon Climat

We tried the 2010 ‘Hildegard’ White Table Wine; on the nose there were hints of maple syrup and almonds with deceptively complex texture and palate. You certainly wouldn’t have thought it was made in California.

In fact you would be hard pushed to put any of the Au Bon Climat wines in California – they couldn’t be further in style from the high-octane, full-throttle, sweetly fruited wines that one might associate with the region. So how does Jim get that old-world restraint and finesse into his wines?

Au Bon Climat vineyardJim’s connection with Burgundy’s top winemakers we have covered. But Clendenen points out that the geography of his chosen region is very important. Au Bon Climat is based in the Santa Maria Valley in Santa Barbara County, three and a half hours south of San Francisco and a good deal south of the more famous Napa and Sonoma Valleys. ‘Napa is NOT a cool climate,’ Jim thunders. ‘They practice a lot of cool-climate techniques there but the grapes then end up lacking in phenolic maturity.’

In Napa there are two mountain ranges between you and the coast. This means that the climate ends up being quite continental and the summers are really hot. In Santa Barbara there are three parallel valleys running east to west. They filter in the fog and sea mist that rolls in from the Pacific Ocean, helping to keep temperatures down, extending the growing season and keeping a freshness in the wines. Clendenen says that he is often the last to pick. Adding acid back into the wines is common practice amongst Californian producers; in fact Jim says that they used to do this too until 2001 when a change to more organic farming methods meant this was no longer necessary.

Towards the end of the eighties the Au Bon Climat wines were scoring high with such influential tasters as Robert Parker and he was also shortlisted as one of the best wineries in the world. But when tastes changed generally (and Parker’s specifically), his same wines were no longer the gout du jour. Jim didn’t change what he was doing to follow fashion but continued to make the wines that he likes to drink. Today, a new generation of Californian winemakers are pursuing the cool-climate style of winemaking – often picking the grapes too early, Jim says, but then he does have considerable experience at this game and a hotline to his mates back in Beaune.

Joanna Goodman
News Editor

Find Au Bon Climat wines currently in stock here

Our opening offer of 2013 white Burgundies, the wines that first turned Jim’s head can be found here

Categories : Rest of the World
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