Grapevine Archive for California
Last week, ‘Explore USA’ – The Society’s first North American wine offer in five years – was launched.
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.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
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.
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.
Tastings and events manager Simon Mason reports on a thoroughly good evening in the presence of owner-winemaker of Frog’s Leap, John Williams
It is fair to say that very few Wine Society tutored tastings begin with a room full of members, their arms outstretched and fingers wiggling, being encouraged to think like a grapevine. Such is the persuasive power of Frog’s Leap owner and winemaker John Williams that all joined in, although I suspect far fewer kicked off their shoes as suggested to ‘feel the dirt between their toes’.
Frog’s Leap makes the most elegant, harmonious and in our view, magnificently ageworthy style of Napa Valley wine so we were delighted to be joined by John and his wife, Tori for a masterclass in organic farming and a fascinating critique of the current state of winemaking in the Napa Valley, all illustrated by a selection of Frog’s Leap wines from The Society’s current range as well as John’s own cellar.
John is a passionate advocate of organic vineyard practices and talks enthusiastically and convincingly about his philosophy. Viewed by some as an eccentric, it is clear that behind the light-hearted approach is some very serious and thoughtful winemaking. Taking us from his early days as a cheesemaker through his awakening interest in the world of wine (more pretty women and fewer cows were a big part of the appeal, apparently), John went on to talk about his time as winemaker at Stag’s Leap. There, he worked alongside André Tchelistcheff to produce the legendary 1973 Stag’s Leap that memorably rated top wine at the 1976 Judgement of Paris. Talking of the people and places he has worked, it is clear that John is deeply in love with wine and with his patch of land in the Napa.
We begin the tasting with an aperitif of Frog’s Leap Napa Sauvignon Blanc 2012. Crisp and refreshing and with a low (for the region) 12.7% alcohol, this is a perfect introduction to John’s philosophy of growing as perfect a grape as possible and then interfering as little as possible in the cellars. This also allows us to pick up the first hints of slate and minerality that we learn anchor the wine in the Rutherford region of Napa.
Moving on to a flight of zinfandels from 2010, 2008 and 1993 the last of which which was served in magnum (a problem for John as they are just too much for one person and just too little for two), John passionately outlines his belief that many wineries in Napa and beyond are going down a very negative path to produce fruit filled and highly coloured wines that are approachable when young and in the barrel merely to satisfy the tastes of certain influential US critics. Beautifully illustrated with a comparison to petals falling all too quickly from shop-bought flowers, it was hard not to agree with John as we tasted the still fresh 1993. Taking a vote, the 2008 was the members’ favourite of the three although I thought the 2010 to be deliciously vibrant and hope to tuck a few bottles away for twenty or so years just to check John is still practising what he preached.
We progress to three vintages of merlot: 2009, 2008 and 2002, the latter two again served from magnum. Merlot is John’s favourite grape and in his inimitable style, he tells us of his belief that the film Sideways has saved the grape in the US – following the film, all the bad winemakers switched from making awful merlot to making awful pinot noir, leaving merlot to those who knew what they were doing. Among the members present, the complex and still well-structured 2002 was the most popular of the three, but for me the 2008 was the star, with just the right amount of development to bring harmony to the wine as well as a fairly light 12.9% alcohol, which left it refreshing to taste.
Onwards to a pair of Napa cabernets from 2009 and 1998. John explained how many of his wines come under the category of ‘barely legal’ due to his frequent use of the minimum possible amount of stated grape variety. The 1998 cabernet sauvignon containing 77% cabernet sauvignon against a legal minimum of 75% which for John, creates greater nuance and complexity.
Discussing the challenges presented by farming organically in poor years, we learn that there are no such things as bad vintages, instead, John draws the comparison with parenting a difficult child – one accepts that they will present a challenge and then one works hard to bring them up to be the best that they can be, all the while preserving their own individual character.
Finishing the tasting with two vintages of flagship Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon, John explains how André Tchelistcheff first identified that there was something special about the Rutherford soil and coined the phrase ‘Rutherford dust’ to describe the distinctive aromatic characteristics of the area. Tasting the 2009 and 2007 Rutherford Cabernet, we were told to look for a texture like ‘running your hand over a piece of velvet, against the nap’. Both exceedingly youthful but still immensely drinkable, John’s reply to a member’s question about age worthiness in wines without massive amounts of tannins was entirely in keeping with the character of the man – it is like people, he explained – ‘If you are ugly when you are young, you are going to be ugly when you are old’.
A final few questions from members allowed John a chance to explain the history of the winery name (a contraction of Frog Farm where the early wines were made and Stag’s Leap where the first grapes were ‘borrowed’ from) as well as to share a few more anecdotes from his years in Napa. Highly entertaining and refreshingly honest, John’s passion and enthusiasm for his land and his grapes was wonderful to hear. Behind the quirky name and lighthearted delivery, however, is some seriously good wine that places Frog’s Leap in the pantheon of true Californian greats.
I have just heard from Delicato who produce The Society’s California Old Vine Zinfandel. They are upbeat about the 2012 harvest. Here’s their take:
‘The 2012 Harvest is in full swing throughout sunny California. Uninterrupted weather ensured that we had a good crop set with healthy-looking vine canopies. Vine vigour has been great with water and sunlight playing integral roles in development.
‘With the weather being as smooth and consistent as it has been, we’ve seen great flavour development and are expecting a fantastic harvest in front of us. To date we have started to bring in most of the whites, with Sauvignon Blanc hitting the Black Stallion Winery in the first few days of September. Pinot Noir and the other reds will begin to be picked around the middle of September. San Bernabe Vineyard is no exception to this year’s exceptional harvest with virtually every block looking stunning… all this and it appears that even the Giants are harvesting a spot in the playoffs coming in to the final three weeks of the season in 1st place!’
Two of the world’s great winemakers came to The Wine Society this week. Chief wine buyer Sebastian Payne MW reports on one very special day.
Paul Draper came to Stevenage to talk to 60 eager members of Wine Society staff about Ridge, the remarkable Californian winery, high up on the San Andreas fault at Santa Cruz, whose reputation he has established over 40 years.
After Stanford he became a sort of undercover roving ambassador for Jack and Bobby Kennedy in South America. With his fluent Spanish he kept open lines with the USA by listening and talking to leaders of rival parties in several volatile countries. (It would be encouraging to feel the USA had a similar policy today in the Middle East.) At one stage, because of his beard, he was even mistaken for Che Guevara and nearly blown up. He then moved to Chile working for a foundation that was developing various agricultural projects including wine making.
The Ridge story began when he was invited by three brilliant Stanford friends who had bought the vineyard to help them by making the wine. He was convinced because he had seen the potential of old vintages of cabernet and chardonnay made in the 1930s pre-Prohibition.
Ridge’s international reputation was made when its Montebello vineyard wine outshone top Bordeaux wines in Steven Spurrier’s Judgment of Paris tasting in 1973. Paul’s philosophy is that wine is made in the vineyard and should express its origin above all, not to be created to a formula in the cellar. “If you haven’t tasted great wine, how can you make it?” Good bottles were his mentors. The enemy is ‘consensus’ wine-making.
Though his zinfandel-based wines are usually 14º, the level at which the grape becomes fully ripe, he abhors the high alcohol levels so commonly found in Californian wines and Montebello cabernets have similar levels to Bordeaux. The proof is in the wines which have been consistently the most complex and delicious to be made in the USA over the last 40 years.
Candour, integrity and passion
Jean-Philippe Delmas’ story is quite different. He was practically born in a vat of Haut-Brion, where his grandfather made the wine for the family till 1961, when his father Jean-Bernard took over. Jean-Philippe worked for ten years alongside his father until 2004, the first vintage for which he was solely responsible.
The quality of the 2004, set beside such great vintages as 2005, 2000, 1998 and 1990 was a revelation, making one realise that Château Haut-Brion, the most senior of Bordeaux’s first growths, is also possibly the greatest and most complex of all. Jean-Philippe modestly says that his grandfather and father had to contend not only with many cooler vintages but also much leaner resources. The fact that Haut-Brion made no money between 1935 and 1975 shows a long-term commitment from its owner, Clarence Dillon and his family, unusual in a banker! His challenge is that he has no excuse. All of us 240 members and guests privileged to be at Merchant Taylor’s Hall were, I believe, convinced by Jean-Philippe’s candour, integrity, passion and deep understanding of this great vineyard which was reflected in magnificent wine.