Wine Producer Who Put Ultra-Premium Rosé On The Map Is Now Taking Another Leap For Terroir Expression

The smell of lavender filled the air while an enchanting scene was created by the purple flower spikes accenting tops of green foliage planted throughout the land. The sun, with its golden beams, gave everything a divine light so the olive and mulberry trees glowed and the landscape was further enhanced by the red clay soil adorned with limestone rocks and broken gravel. As shown in the paintings of the greats like Paul Cézanne, Provence, in southeastern France, was stunningly magnificent and even standing there in person, Marcel Ott still couldn’t believe what he was seeing with his own eyes. The picturesque scene was not only unbelievable for its sheer beauty but the fact that many owners were giving the land away almost for free was even more shocking. It seems impossible today that a piece of this French Mediterranean paradise could have been bought for so little, as it is known so well today with many people desperately wanting to win the lottery so they could have their slice of Provence heaven.

Domaines Ott, Château Romassan Rosé bottle
Photo Credit: Stanislas Desjeux

In 1896, Marcel Ott had just graduated from an agronomy engineering program in the northeastern French region of Alsace, which borders Switzerland and Germany, so he traveled around France to check out the vineyards in various wine regions. Phylloxera, an insect pest, had already devastated much of Europe, so much so that it is estimated that phylloxera cost France 10 billion francs (back in 1870’s money!). For over a decade, no solution to fix the phylloxera issue could be found and as one can imagine, having one of the most critical sectors of a country’s economy, growing grapes and making wine, taken away with no hope in sight was terrifying. By the end of the 1800s, a solution seemed to be found however, yet it was still risky considering that it would take time to see if phylloxera could truly be defeated, or perhaps another incurable blight could wreak havoc on the vines in the near future.

But Marcel took that gamble and bought his family’s first estate, Château de Selle, in 1912 in the Côtes de Provence, with a mission to elevate rosé wine to an ultra-premium category that would show how this style could express the captivating terroir of Provence. Eventually, his family wines, Domaines Ott, would become world-renowned and open the door for many other premium rosé wines.

Domaines Ott 

Over a century later, Marcel’s great-grandson, fourth-generation winemaker Jean-François Ott, oversees their estates and ensures his great-grandfather’s high standard for Provence rosé wines continues to live on with Domaines Ott. The bad image that still lingers on about rosé frustrates Jean-François, such as the misnomer that rosé cannot age, and when the subject is raised, he quickly replies to this misconception by simply saying, “No, a bad wine cannot age.”  

Three different soils of the three Domaines Ott estates
Photo Credit: Stanislas Desjeux

One of the things that created a cult following for Domaines Ott rosé wines among fine wine enthusiasts was their ability to express three distinctive terroirs in Provence. The first estate acquired by Marcel was Château de Selle, located in the appellation (designated wine area) called Côtes de Provence, which is situated on high limestone inland slopes with mild winters and dry summers with lots of sunshine. The second, which Marcel and his son acquired in the 1930s, Clos Mireille, also in the Côtes de Provence, overlooks the Mediterranean with the vineyards cooled by the sea’s spray but then warmed by the hillside air. Finally, in 1956, the last estate was acquired in another appellation of Provence called Bandol AOC – less than an hour west of Clos Mireille, named Château Romassan; the wine area of Bandol is unique as it is known for great red wines made mainly from the powerful Mourvèdre red grape variety. Clos Mireille is located in the heart of Bandol, where Mourvèdre does well in the poor, limestone soils that enjoy the extremely dry climate and abundance of sunshine – Bandol is one of the sunniest places in Provence.

Domaines Ott makes an ultra-premium rosé wine from each of these estates, which are bottled separately, to showcase the sense of place of each individual terroir and to display the fine wine ability of Provence rosés. But they also make a small amount of red wine from the Château Romassan and Château de Selle estates as well as a small amount of white wine from the Clos Mireille estate. 

Jean-François Ott says that it was a battle through the decades to get people to take rosé wine seriously, and even now, despite the overwhelming popularity of anything pink, he feels in some ways, the popularity itself has hurt the image as the market is mainly saturated with easy to drink, simple rosé wines that limit its image as being a non-serious libation that is best enjoyed when one doesn’t want to overthink what she is drinking. There is undoubtedly a time and place for such wines, but Jean-François is afraid that with its popularity, the idea that there are some rosé wines that are ideal for pairing with an exquisite meal, or ones that can show an incredible depth of complexity after being laid down to cellar, will be lost among the overall rosé wine trend that has been taking the world by storm. 

But today, Jean-François is highlighting their commitment to illustrating the high-quality potential of Provence rosé with the stricter selection of their Étoile bottling. 

Étoile Rosé 

2020 Domaines Ott, Étoile Rosé Photo Credit: Stanislas Desjeux

It was important to Jean-François’s great-grandfather to show the world the profound sense of beauty of Provence by capturing the different appellation terroir expressions from three different estates. He also had a vision of giving a sense of the stunning coastline by creating a bottle with curves that Provence itself inspired. Eventually, in the 1930s, Jean-François’s grandfather René Ott settled on the final shape, inspired by ancient Roman amphorae, which were tall, oval-shaped vessels with a narrow cylindrical neck. The shape of the Ott bottle is patented, but other Provence rosé producers have found a way to design a somewhat similar bottle that hints at the Domaines Ott bottle without infringing on the patent. It is still remarkable to think that one of the most iconic wine bottles did not come from a savvy marketing team, but instead, a small multi-generational producer who put everything on the line to bring respect to an underappreciated wine.

And Jean-François has stayed true to his paternal lineage, who has gifted him with some of the most outstanding rosé wines in the world, by keeping the bottle shape, keeping the individual bottlings of each estate and continuing the mission to always seek improvement in the winery and the vineyards by bringing more precision and clarity to the terroir expression.

And so, in 2019, a bottling that blended the portions from each of the three estates was released under the name Étoile which means “star” in French. “My family used to make this cuvée but only for ourselves,” Jean-François noted and he thought the time was right to show the next level of Provence rosé. The Étoile bottling expresses a “deep taste and silky texture” that is balanced by freshness and purity of fruit expression and it brings together all the best attributes of each estate together giving a complete picture of Provence, the place that captivated his great-grandfather all those years ago.

Clos Mireille Estate
Photo Credit: Domaines Ott

But honoring his lineage goes beyond just keeping the high standards that were first established, he is also determined to continue to push the envelope to keep raising the bar, even if it is by unconventional means. There is nothing odd about some of the changes, including starting the organic certification process (they will be officially certified organic for the 2022 vintage despite already being organic in practice) and aging in spherical ceramic vats for some of the wine for the Étoile bottling as it brings out more “aromatic precision” according to Jean-François. But he is conducting an unorthodox experiment in the vineyards by planting the Italian noble red grape variety Sangiovese on their estates in Provence, France, as he feels that maybe in 15 years it could be needed with rising temperatures due to climate change but time will tell if he does indeed use it in Domaines Ott rosé wines.

Through it all, he still keeps alive what has always been the most important thing to his family: the vineyards. “We spend 600 hours every year per hectare [2.5 acres] working outside,” and the quality comes “100% from the grapes,” noted Jean-François.

A Star Rooted in Humble Beginnings 

One could only imagine what Marcel Ott was thinking long ago as a young student risking it all to invest in land that seemed worthless at the time. Did he have any inkling that he would establish one of the greatest rosé wines in the world that was perfectly contained by one of the most iconic bottles in the world? Or was he just taken by the place, knowing he could end up penniless? Even if the French wine industry died at the hands of phylloxera, at least he lived in the closest thing that he could imagine to be heaven.

The one thing that is for certain is that an idealistic young man from humble beginnings was able to break barriers beyond anyone else’s imagination, and today, his high-quality rosé dream has become a standard that many other Provence rosé producers try to live up to yet still none are able to surpass.

Ott bottles that go back to the early 1900s
Photo Credit: Domaines Ott
2020 Domaines Ott, Étoile Rosé Photo Credit: Stanislas Desjeux

2020 Domaines Ott, Étoile Rosé, Vin de France, France: Étoile 2020 is the second vintage of Étoile as 2019 was the inaugural vintage. A blend of 80% Grenache (from Château de Selle and Clos Mireille) and 20% Mourvèdre (Château Romassan). This wine greets the taster with generosity and includes enchanting floral notes of citrus blossom and lavender that has ripe strawberries on the palate with zingy grapefruit and intense stony minerality with marked acidity along the superb length of flavor.

2021 Domaines Ott, Château de Selle, Rosé, Côtes de Provence, France: 55% Grenache, 30% Cinsault, and 10% Mourvèdre and 5% Syrah. At first it invites with savory notes of fresh thyme and rosemary that has mouthwatering acidity on the palate with lemon zest and quince flavors that finishes with wet stones and lots of energy.

2021 Domaines Ott, Clos Mireille, Rosé, Côtes de Provence, France: 70% Grenache, 25% Cinsault and 5% Syrah. A thrilling saline minerality from the first sip with bright acidity balancing the creamy texture with green mango and white peach flavors that has hints of desert scrub, finishing with seashell notes.

2021 Domaines Ott, Château Romassan, Rosé, Bandol, France: 55% Mourvèdre, 30% Cinsault and 15% Grenache. Cherry blossoms and raspberries on the nose intertwined with crushed stones that has a silky texture on the palate with a good amount of flesh mid-palate and has hints of anise on the finish.

2018 Domaines Ott, Clos Mireille, Blanc, Côtes de Provence, France: Blend of Sémillon and Rolle (Vermentino). Oyster shell, sea salt and lemon confit with honeysuckle in the background that evolves with savory notes on the palate such as bay leaf and a hint of white pepper with a creamy texture.

2017 Domaines Ott, Château Romassan, Rouge, Bandol, France: 90% Mourvèdre and 10% Grenache. Multi-layered fruit with black, blue and red berries that are enhanced by chili powder and smoked paprika notes that are grounded in smoldering earth with broad-shouldered tannins, which are well tamed and silky in quality, that are balanced by plush fruit finishing with power and delicious decadence.

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Woman From India Leads As Winemaker At Beloved Napa Winery To Build A Better Tomorrow After Tragedy

As the terrifying words and shocking photos showing fierce fires destroying thousands of acres of land flooded social media, it was hard to not feel helpless. The over 50 mph winds assisted the fire in covering so much ground in such a short time that people who thought they were out of harm’s way would quickly realize within the same hour that they needed to evacuate as soon as possible. The direction of the wind changed constantly making it impossible for anyone within Napa Valley and Sonoma County to know if they were truly safe, as fleeing one’s home had many downsides since temporarily living in a crowded community center seemed to be a torturous alternative, or much worse, one could accidentally drive into the heart of one of the fast and furious fires, trapped with no way out.

Many living outside of northern California stayed glued to the internet to see if friends or colleagues in the wine industry were doing okay. All the messages, photos and videos on social media platforms created a chaotic storyline of everything seeming to be destroyed. Several wineries were listed as being damaged, or in some cases, burning to the ground but most of it was misinformation causing unnecessary nervous breakdowns for the owners. Tons of winery owners took to Facebook to inform people that the damage reports were untrue. So many devoted Napa wine customers demanded pictures showing wineries had indeed burned down if anyone dared even to mention that such a thing happened.

Signorello Estate patio overlooking the vineyards Photo Credit: Signorello Estate

It seemed like all the wineries would luckily emerge unscathed from the horrific 2017 fires but then all of a sudden many posts started to talk about the great historic winery of Signorello Estate. As more and more shared on the internet that they had heard rumors about the winery burning to the ground, there was a backlash of people demanding to see a photo before such rumors were posted… and then there it was… a photo of Signorello engulfed in flames. A place that had many precious memories for people as Signorello was one of the first Napa Valley wineries, located along the Silverado Trail, with a professional kitchen and full-time chef to create magical wine and food pairing experiences, and so, many of their customers have had beautiful memories on their Italian Terrazzo-style patio overlooking the valley.

In the middle of the night, Signorello’s longtime winemaker, who had been with them for 20 years, Pierre Birebent, saw the buildings burn down with his own eyes. He went there with one of his guys, trying to put out the intense inferno until he was forced to leave as he gagged from the black smoke. Just a month after this terrible event, Pierre seemed like a broken man speaking about the experience at a conference and despite the family owner, Ray Signorello Jr., being adamant about the fact that they would rebuild, Pierre seemed less sure of how they could go on.  

Priyanka Dhar French

Ray Signorello Jr.
Photo Credit: Signorello Estate

Pierre ended up retiring, which is more than understandable, and so Ray Jr. was on a mission to find a winemaker who would not only help rebuild Signorello but take this opportunity to make it even better. The property was initially built in the 1970s as a retirement home for Ray Sr. and his wife, and then when Ray Jr. came on board and realized that top wineries highly prized their vineyards, he saw that they had the rare opportunity to make stellar Napa wine. Significant advancements had also been made in understanding vineyards’ soil and the best way to build state-of-the-art wineries and cellars, and so in some ways, he thought he was given a gift to redo things the right way.

Priyanka Dhar French
Photo Credit: Signorello Estate

Ray Jr. was able to find a rising Napa star, Priyanka Dhar French, who is a fierce champion of diversity in the wine industry – she is one of the youngest female winemakers to lead a Napa winery as well as one of just a handful of Indian winemakers in California. She has worked at such stellar wineries in California as Louis M. Martini, Stags’ Leap and Dalla Valle, and gained more international experience in New Zealand and the Hospices de Beaune in Burgundy.

Priyanka was born and raised in Mumbai, India, and her parents, both of whom are scientists, thought that she would become a scientist like themselves or at least a doctor or a lawyer. She received her undergraduate degree in food science, which would have been an acceptable career choice to her parents but the idea of working at a factory that was all about creating a formula that would just be churned out did not sit well with Priyanka as she also has a creative side. One day she went out to Sula Vineyards, one of the most prominent wineries in India, and as she sat in the tasting room, sipping wine and overlooking the vineyards, she said to herself, “Oh my god, this is the life.” She reached out to an uncle, a food and beverage director, about her idea of working in wine and he immediately told her to do it. He also encouraged her to get her Master’s degree in enology at U.C. Davis in California.

At first, the wine career path she chose was not so easy to understand from her parents’ point of view. Despite her talking about getting a Master’s degree in winemaking for over a year, once she announced she was accepted into the program, they responded that they thought she was joking. Her father used to joke that he would love to go into wine once he retires as he could not imagine it as a real job. But eventually, she won them over when her father came out to California to visit one of the wineries where she worked and he saw the lab, the winery, the cellar and the vineyards – that it was a tremendous amount of work to make great wine. After the visit, he called up the family back in Mumbai and said that her job was a “real thing,” and today, he gets to witness his daughter becoming one of the rising stars of the wine world.

The Future for Signorello Estate

Since Signorello’s backup drive for their computer burned in the fire, they were left with none of the data recorded over the years. Priyanka made sure to spend as much time with Pierre in the winery and vineyards, before his retirement, as she wanted to write down everything important. Also, Signorello’s vineyard foreman Carlos, who has been overseeing the vineyards for 36 years, is a great help to Priyanka every day.

When Priyanka had her first meaningful conversation with owner Ray Jr., the idea of elevating their practices to achieve even a greater level of winemaking and setting up a solid business that would survive for several generations was of the utmost importance. So Priyanka recommended bringing on two legends of the industry to help consult in overseeing the vineyards and building a new winery, consulting director of winemaking Celia Welsh and viticulturalist Steve Matthiasson. They started to dig several soil pits to understand the many layers underground that affect the vines in various places of the vineyard, as well as Steve creating a sustainable and regenerative environment that includes laying down some of the foundations for a potential carbon capture program that will be implemented once an economically feasible way is discovered so low-margin businesses such as wineries can implement such programs.

Signorello Estate Winery sign
Photo Credit: Signorello Estate

When it comes to the new winery and cellar, they have planned to build 18,000 feet of caves into the hillside on the estate that will act as a cellar for storing barrels and include some of the winemaking processes. Only non-flammable material is being used, such as concrete and glass, to build the structures, and there will be a huge high-pressure sprinkler pump that can either push out water or specific, fire-retardant chemicals. All entrances will be double sealed, and vents will be installed with special filters that will trap volatile compounds related to smoke. A full-time generator and fire pump will be on-site, and even if the winery doesn’t need it, the fire pump’s water source will be available to firefighters who may need to tap into it to save other properties.

Priyanka is extremely excited to get the opportunity to not only lead a great Napa winery into a better future but also to be given a chance to truly know the property from the bottom up as Signorello is starting from scratch – except when it comes to their vineyards as those were never damaged in the fire.

Tragedies Bring Out the True Character of Someone 

Hands filled with Signorello soil
Photo Credit: Signorello Estate

The 2017 fires not only destroyed a lot of homes and land but it also dampened the spirits of several residents, many still trying to recover from such traumatic experiences. Ray Jr. has another home in Canada and once he found out that his winery was burning down, he made sure he was there the next day. The area was evacuated and no one outside of first responders or media was allowed, so Ray Jr. joined a national TV news crew to visit his property; the structure was completely destroyed but the wine was safe within the sealed stainless steel tanks. 

At that moment, the cameras were rolling and could capture Ray’s reaction when he first saw his parents’ beloved dream burned to the ground. He immediately expressed gratitude that no one was hurt and when he saw the vineyards were untouched, he proclaimed at that moment that he would rebuild. Priyanka, who was working at Dalla Valle, said seeing Ray on the news was one of the most powerful memories she has from that time because while so many around her were getting pulled down into the darkness, here was a man who had lost so much, and within seconds of seeing the tremendous devastation, expressed grace rooted in a determination for a better future. And now she gets to be part of making that better future come true.

2019 Signorello Estate ‘Padrone’ Cabernet Sauvignon & 2019 Signorello Estate ‘S’
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd
2019 Signorello Estate’ Hope’s Cuvée’
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

2019 Signorello Estate’ Hope’s Cuvée’ Chardonnay, Napa Valley: Estate-grown Chardonnay fruit and unfiltered wine. The Chardonnay come from a part of the vineyard where the vines were planted in 1980, and it is a single estate block wine. It is an emotional bottle for Ray Jr. as Hope Signorello was Ray’s mother, and she is why they ended up in Napa, but unfortunately, she passed away pretty early on and she didn’t see the growth of this winery and where it ended up. And so, when she passed away, Ray Sr. and Ray Jr. named this wine Hope’s Cuvée as an homage to her. An enchanting nose with orange blossom, white flowers and stony minerality with rich lemon curd flavors on the palate and a beautifully textured wine that finishes with uplifting acidity. Only around 400 to 450 cases are made of this cuvée. $98

2019 Signorello Estate’ S’
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

2019 Signorello Estate S Napa Valley: S comes from a selection of acclaimed vineyard sites beyond the Signorello Estate vineyards and Ray Jr. describes it as a “modern, opulently styled Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon”. 2019 is the inaugural vintage of S Cabernet Sauvignon. 91% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Merlot and 2% Petit Verdot with fruit sourced from St. Helena, Rutherford and Howell Mountain, all farmed organically. Enticing nose with notes of black tea, blackberry liqueur and savory spices with hints of licorice and dark chocolate on the palate with juicy black cherries and broad yet silky tannins that give it power and elegance. $75

2019 Signorello Estate, ‘Padrone’
Cabernet Sauvignon
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

2019 Signorello Estate, Padrone, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley: Estate-grown fruit and unfiltered wine. 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Cabernet Franc, 3% Merlot and 3% Malbec. Complex nose of black truffles, espresso and granite balanced by rich cassis aromas that has a mixture of freshly picked fruit combined with more mature fruit flavors that has hints of cigar box and lavender dancing in the background. $175

Ray Jr. has come out with an affordable Cabernet Sauvignon called ‘Edge’ and it is sourced from premium vineyards in Alexander Valley, an appellation in Sonoma County that is known for its high-quality Cabernet Sauvignon. The price is $25.

2018 Edge,
Cabernet Sauvignon
Photo Credit:
Cathrine Todd

2018 Edge, Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County: 91% Cabernet Sauvignon and 9% Petite Sirah. Really impressive wine considering the price point! Freshly grated nutmeg on the nose and hints of crushed rocks with fine tannins along the palate with cocoa dust and blueberry preserves expressed on the sustained finish. $25

2020 TRIM
Cabernet Sauvignon
Photo Credit: Signorello Estate

Also, it was just announced that Ray Jr. is introducing new labels for his entry-level TRIM Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay-focused wines. The new labels debut with the 2020 TRIM Cabernet and the 2021 Chardonnay bottlings and highlight nutrition information and an ingredient list on the back labels. Both wines will be released late-June 2022 and are priced at $12.99 a bottle.

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The Wine Area In California With The Most Old Vines Makes Concentrated Reds But Also Unique White Wines

After a particularly grueling work trip of traveling through ten countries in ten days, Rodney Tipton told his wife that during the few minutes of downtime, he had the chance to listen to the song “Acquiesce” from singer K.D. Lang and that it inspired him to one day have a property and call it Acquiesce. His wife, Susan, asked where this property would be and he replied, “I don’t know, but we’ll be surrounded by land, watch the sunrise and sunset and we’ll be very happy there.”    

Susan and Rodney had paid more than their fair share of dues after several years of working in the corporate world and raising three boys while having to relocate to five different states. They lived in Europe for a time and Susan fell in love with white Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine, although Châteauneuf-du-Pape has always been known for their red wines. And so, she thought their Acquiesce dream of finding a piece of paradise could also include growing grapes and making wine.

They ended up in Lodi, California, with its long grape-growing history – the first vineyard planted in 1850. Just like the region where Châteauneuf-du-Pape is tucked away, in the Southern Rhône in France, both places generally have a Mediterranean climate with warm days and cool nights. Still, there are differences within the sub-regions of Lodi as well. Lodi’s most famous sub-region is called Mokelumne River and has a cooler climate moderated by delta breezes; Mokelumne River AVA (American Viticultural Area) is where the Tiptons established their Acquiesce winegrowing and winemaking estate. 

Lodi Wine Region 

Lodi The definitive guide and history of America’s largest winegrowing region by Randy Caparoso
Photo Credit:Cathrine Todd

Lodi is nestled between the inland ports of Sacramento and Stockton and lies just east of San Francisco. As temperatures rise in the valleys, cool air comes from the San Francisco Bay, the delta region, creating a very distinctive climate for Lodi. And despite Lodi making their name as a red wine region, as they have the highest concentration of old vines in the U.S. with red grape varieties such as Carignan, Cinsault and Zinfandel, the several pockets of micro-climates as well as a diverse array of soils surprisingly has made Lodi a region that can grow a plethora of grape varieties with over 125 currently in production.

To delve more into Lodi, an extraordinary book has just been released that goes into depth about every aspect of this wine region. Lodi!: The definitive guide and history of America’s largest winegrowing region by Randy Caparoso is the reference book that Lodi has always needed and Randy, with his extraordinary photography, brings the region to life. Randy actually moved to Lodi in 2010 when he was invited to help the Lodi Winegrape Commission with its social media and blog pages. So Lodi has been part of the air he breathes every day for over a decade. As a very talented writer and well experienced wine professional, he does justice to many of these multi-generational growers in this gorgeous book.

But when Susan and Rodney Tipton wanted to plant unconventional white grapes from Southern France such as Picpoul Blanc, Grenache Blanc, Clairette Blanche, Bourboulenc, Viognier and Roussanne back in the early 2000s, it was shocking because it was before Lodi became the wonderful wine region for its wealth of grape diversity. But Lodi farmers turned vineyard management company, Round Valley Ranches, were completely game when it came to helping the Tiptons work with these obscure varieties. It became an exciting journey for both that has contributed to Lodi becoming one of the country’s most exciting grape-growing regions. 

Old Vines

Vineyards in Mokelumne River AVA, Lodi
Photo Credit: Russo Photography via
Lodi Winegrape Commission

Stuart Spencer, executive director of the Lodi Winegrape Commission and winemaker and co-proprietor of St. Amant Winery, said they see many younger, talented winemakers who have full-time jobs at large wineries source grapes from Lodi for their personal passion project. The combination of unusual varieties, old vines and a relatively low price point are all factors that are extremely attractive to those who want to make great wine without having to answer to a corporation that is financially bankrolling a wine project. Lodi is also attracting legendary people in the wine business because of the treasures of old vines in their vineyards; Greg La Follette is one such person.

Nicknamed the “vine whisperer”, Greg has had a long history of helping to make high-quality wines starting with his mentorship under André Tchelistcheff, considered the godfather of California winemakers, at Napa’s Beaulieu Vineyards. Greg had an impressive education in Plant Biology and Chemistry as well as Food Science and Technology, but André taught Greg the “heart and soul” of wine. For the next 24 years, he worked with wine producers all over the U.S. as well as the world until he eventually started his award-winning project in California, focusing on single-vineyard wines, La Follette Wines, and then after that, he started another project called Marchelle Wines, focusing on old vines, and that is where Greg connected to Lodi.

Vineyards in Mokelumne River
Photo Credit: Russo Photography via Lodi Winegrape Commission

The Marchelle bottling of ‘Old Vine Red’ comes from 120-year-old vines in Lodi. Over time, it has become vital for the Lodi Winegrape Commission to connect people like Greg to Lodi’s old vine vineyards because if they can’t find people who appreciate these vineyards and pay a little more for these grapes, the vineyards will not survive. However, even with a wine made from 120-year-old vines, the price of Marchelle’s wine is still criminally low at only $36, as Lodi doesn’t have the same name recognition and pricing power as other California wine regions. But Lodi is used to being underappreciated; for years, big wine companies in other regions that are much more highly regarded have been blending Lodi grapes into their high priced wines – it is part of how Lodi grape growers have been making a living. But, hopefully, with new interest from talented wine producers who use 100% Lodi grapes and proudly place Lodi on the label, things will change.

Outsiders are not the only ones keeping these old vines alive as there have been locals who have been champions of these vines for a long time. Wine producer Klinker Brick Winery, run by Steve and Lori Felten, fifth-generation Lodi grape growers, are protectors of old vine Zinfandels that their ancestors planted back in the early 1900s. They have been guarding and managing their ancestors’ old vines as well as buying other old vine vineyards in Lodi as they know they are at risk.

Increasing the Diversity

Susan Tipton
Photo Credit: Acquiesce Winery & Vineyards

All those years ago, when Rodney talked to his wife Susan about their Acquiesce dream property, they could never imagine that they would become wine producers making only white wines from obscure white grape varieties in a red wine region. Susan has become quite the respected winemaker in her own right and their Acquiesce wines have opened the door to unlock a greater potential for the Lodi wine region. On top of that, they have been at the forefront of supporting organizations that increase diversity in the Lodi wine industry, so underrepresented minorities are provided financial support for education and resources for job placement.

The word “Acquiesce” means to surrender, to become quiet. And that is precisely what the Tiptons do, surrender to the vines and the world around them, where they can enjoy an inner silence that reveals to them what the vines are saying but also what people from all walks of life need. In a way, their Acquiesce dream has laid the groundwork for Lodi to take the region to the next level.

***Link to original article published in Forbes:

Acquiesce lineup of wines Photo Credit: Acquiesce Winery & Vineyards
Acquiesce lineup of wines Photo Credit: Acquiesce Winery & Vineyards

All of the three wines below come from the Mokelumne River AVA; below is a bit of information about this sub-region taken from Randy Caparoso’s book:

“The sandy component of the Mokelumne River area’s Tokay and Acampo soil series allows for ideal drainage, vine health, and naturally moderated grape yields. Since sand is one of the few mediums in which the root louse phylloxera is unable to proliferate, there are several thousand acres of ungrafted, healthy old vine plantings in the Mokelumne River appellation.”- excerpt from the book Lodi!: The definitive guide and history of America’s largest winegrowing region by Randy Caparoso

2020 Acquiesce Winery & Vineyards ‘Ingénue’ Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

2020 Acquiesce Winery & Vineyards ‘Ingénue’ Mokelumne River AVA, Lodi, California: A blend of Grenache Blanc, Clairette Blanche, Bourboulenc and Picpoul Blanc from estate fruit. A lovely floral nose with white peach flavors and hints of dried apricots with good weight on the body and a zingy citrus zest finish. $36

2019 Marchelle Wines ‘Old Vine Red’
Photo Credit:
Cathrine Todd

2019 Marchelle Wines ‘Old Vine Red’ Mokelumne River AVA, Lodi, California: 47% Carignan, 30% Cinsaut (a.k.a. Cinsault) and 23% Zinfandel from old vines in the Royal Tee Vineyard, the Bechthold Vineyard and from Spenker Ranch (120-year-old vines). This wine has so much vitality to it as well as a deep concentration with notes of baking spices, crushed rocks and tobacco leaf with juicy red cherry fruit on the palate with a long, expressive finish. $36

2019 Klinker Brick Winery, Marisa Vineyard, Mokelumne River AVA, Lodi, California: 94-year-old Zinfandel from the single vineyard called Marisa. A full-bodied, opulent wine that has plenty of verve to balance it out with rich blueberry pie flavors and notes of black pepper and gravel with soft tannins and a long flavorful finish. $28

2019 Klinker Brick Winery, Marisa Vineyard
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd
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Spanish Premium Wine Region Commits To 100% Tempranillo Wines

The kitchen in the Sanz home

The incredible smells of thick steaks cooking over a wood fire fueled by grapevines encourage drool to form at the guests’ mouths as they eagerly wait in anticipation for a meal of a lifetime. The large centuries-old kitchen had festive Spanish music playing in the background as the multi-course meal with free-flowing wine brought everyone along a journey that was a magical dining experience. All the good things in life could be enjoyed in one place, the home of a winemaking family who were also restaurateurs who loved nothing more than to host people in their ancient family home tucked away in a tiny town in the Spanish wine region of Ribera del Duero.

Enormous ancient olive oil presses at
Bodegas Severino Sanz

Although Ribera del Duero is a well-known wine region, some parts of the area are less known than others, such as where the Sanz family has their Bodegas Severino Sanz winery in the small town of Montejo de la Vega de la Serrezuela, which only has around 100 residents and one other winery in the town. The winery is run by three brothers who named it after their father, Severino Sanz, and not only does everyone in the family work hard to keep the winery and ancient family home going while juggling other jobs but they have also taken on the responsibility of recovering enormous ancient olive oil presses that are part of the legacy of the area as well as continuing the laborious task of propagating old bush Tempranillo vines by using the traditional “layering” technique in their vineyards.

Tempranillo Grape Variety 

Tempranillo is a native red grape from Spain that takes on different local names in various Spanish wine regions. In Ribera del Duero it is either called Tinto Fino or Tinta del País. The differences in names reflect how the variety has taken on slightly different characteristics over centuries due to the influence of its environment. Ribera del Duero is a much more extreme grape growing place, as opposed to its famous neighbor Rioja, as swings in temperatures can be pretty intense and it can get brutally cold there with frost issues. Due to such conditions, the Tempranillo grapes in Ribera del Duero typically have thicker skins and a more intense concentration of flavors. 

Just like Rioja, Ribera del Duero has blended small amounts of other native red varieties into their red wines. Yet, unlike Rioja, Ribera del Duero has a long history of using red Bordeaux varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. It was viewed at one time that Tempranillo needed some help from Bordeaux varieties to make high-quality wines that could compete on the same level as the top Bordeaux wines. Yet there have been famous producers such as Pesquera who have championed 100% Tempranillo wines in Ribera del Duero; however, it hasn’t been as easy for lesser-known struggling wineries in the area. But today, there is certainly now a strong commitment even among these struggling producers as many have come to the viewpoint that no other grape can do as well as Tempranillo in Ribera del Duero, Spain.

Bodegas Severino Sanz Vineyards

The Sanz family, who runs Bodegas Severino Sanz, actually takes their commitment to keeping the soul of Ribera del Duero Tempranillo alive by using the arduous “layering” technique. Grapevines can asexually reproduce and so if one buries a shoot coming off of an existing old bush vine right next to it in the ground, the buried shoot will be able to grow roots from the buds dormant in that shoot. Through time, a vine, which will be trellised as a bush vine, will grow and be an extension of that old vine. The mother and the new daughter vine (produced from the mother’s shoot) will stay connected, or sometimes producers like to cut the “cord”, but Bodegas Severino Sanz likes to keep them connected as long as they can. 

The new vines are called murón and hence why Bodegas Severino Sanz calls their wines “Murón” as it represents their commitment to keeping the DNA of the old vines alive for generations to come. Starting with their 2018 vintage, they began to use 100% Tempranillo instead of placing a small amount of 5% Garnacha, as they now feel there is nothing better than the Tempranillo from their vineyards.  

Iker Ugarte, family owner of Bodegas S. Arroyo and president of ASEBOR

Another multi-generational producer, Bodegas S. Arroyo, located in the heart of Ribera del Duero in Burgos, has noticed over time that no other variety adapts as well to the extreme climatic conditions in Ribera del Duero as Tempranillo, as it is a grape that many feel has been in the area for thousands of years even though it has only been appreciated in recent times. All of their red wines are made from 100% Tempranillo which is a strong statement as one of the family owners, Iker Ugarte, is the current president of ASEBOR, an association of Ribera del Duero wine producers.

A winery in another known area of Ribera del Duero, Valladolid, called Bodegas Señorío de Bocos, still has a small amount of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot planted in their vineyards which they plan to replant to Tempranillo since all of their wines are only 100% Tempranillo now.  

International Grape Varieties 

But despite the enthusiastic embrace of 100% Tempranillo wines, no one can deny that Ribera del Duero has some old, legendary plots of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. One of the greatest wine estates in the world is located in Ribera del Duero, Bodegas Vega Sicilia, and Bordeaux varieties are a part of their incredible history so there are still old Cabernet Sauvignon and old Merlot vines on the Vega Sicilia estate that makeup only a tiny portion of the blend in their iconic Unico and Valbuena 5 respectively.

Bottle of Bodegas Finca La Capilla Merlot in front of the vineyard where it is sourced

A boutique winery called Bodegas Finca La Capilla, which values the uniqueness of each of their Tempranillo vineyards located in the heart of Ribera del Duero, has kept an acre of old Merlot vines close to their winery still in production. It only makes a tiny amount but they said that their customers love it as it is a very complex, elegant wine with a good structure that perfectly expresses that plot and it sells out quicker than they can make it. And so, although they are big advocates for the great affinity for Ribera del Duero terroir that Tempranillo expresses, this small plot is best represented by 100% Merlot.

Legacy of a Place  

José Félix Sanz pouring wine for a guest

One cannot help but be in awe when observing the lengths the Sanz family goes to in order to keep the torch lit that keeps the legacy of their tiny town going, as many of the younger people are moving to bigger towns with more opportunities. Whether it is the unearthing of 100-year-old olive oil presses or hand layering old bush vines so they can propagate a child vine as close to the mother’s DNA or creating an unforgettable night for those visitors who drive out to the middle of nowhere to see them, it is all about keeping a wonderful way of life thriving.

One cannot help but observe that nothing makes the Sanz family happier than bringing joy to others – as all of it means nothing to them if the outside world cannot experience the paradise of food, wine, history and unbridled conviviality that the Sanz family keeps alive.

Bodegas Severino Sanz 2016 and 2018 Murón Crianza

Bodegas Severino Sanz

2021 Bodegas Severino Sanz ‘Murón’ Rosado (Rosé), Ribera del Duero, Spain: 100% Tempranillo. Fun aromas of dried watermelon and wildflowers with bright red cherry and good mid-palate weight.

2018 Bodegas Severino Sanz ‘Murón’ Crianza, Ribera del Duero, Spain: 100% Tempranillo. Aged in French oak for 12 months followed by five months in bottle. Deep, dark blackcurrant flavors with hints of earth and cumin with soft tannins and a touch of vanilla on the finish.

Bodegas S. Arroyo Lineup

Bodegas S. Arroyo 

2021 Arroyo, Rosado (Rosé), Ribera del Duero, Spain: 100% Tempranillo. Hint of white pepper on the nose with cherry candies and fresh strawberries on the palate.

2019 Arroyo, Roble, Ribera del Duero, Spain: 100% Tempranillo. Roble notes that it is a young wine that hasn’t spent too much time aging. In this case, it has spent four to six months in a combination of American and French oak followed by eight months in bottle. American oak and Tempranillo have had a long and wonderful partnership in Spain. A savory nose such as cured meats and dried thyme is balanced by blackberry fruit and hints of baking spices.

2018 Arroyo, Crianza, Ribera del Duero, Spain: 100% Tempranillo. Crianza is the next level up in aging and, in this case, spends 12 months in a combination of American and French oak followed by 12 months in bottle. Bacon bits, cumin and dusty earth on the nose with a touch of more texture and structure with sandalwood incense on the finish.

2016 Arroyo, Reserva, Ribera del Duero, Spain: 100% Tempranillo. Reserva is the next level in aging after Crianza, and so in this case, it is aged for 15 months in American and French oak followed by 24 months in bottle. Dried leaves, cinnamon and sweet tobacco on the nose with black cherry and espresso flavors on the full-bodied palate with well-integrated tannins.

2012 Arroyo, Gran Reserva, Ribera del Duero, Spain: 100% Tempranillo. Gran Reserva is the next level after Reserva, and in this case, it has been aged for 24 months in a combination of American and French oak followed by 36 months in bottle. Intriguing nose with smoldering earth, bright red cherry fruit, cocoa nibs and forest floor – really complex yet has a beautiful lifted purity of fruit among the complexity.

2014 Arroyo ‘Vendimia Seleccionada’ Ribera del Duero, Spain: 100% Tempranillo. The ‘Vendimia Seleccionada’ is a special selection from a top vintage aged 100% in new Allier French oak for 14 months. Brooding dark fruit on the nose with a richer body with licorice and dark chocolate flavors wrapped up in plush blackberry fruit.

Bodegas Señorío de Bocos Lineup

Bodegas Señorío de Bocos

2020 Bodegas Señorío de Bocos, Roble, Ribera del Duero, Spain: 100% Tempranillo. More than six months in 50% French and 50% American oak. Blackberry preserves and sweet spice on the nose and beautiful red fruit on the palate with round tannins.

2016 Bodegas Señorío de Bocos, Crianza, Ribera del Duero, Spain: 100% Tempranillo. More than 12 months in 30% French and 70% American oak followed by more than 24 months in bottle. Dried herbs and cumin seeds with broken rocks and sweet black cherry fruit with a slight grip to the tannins.

2015 Bodegas Señorío de Bocos, Reserva, Ribera del Duero, Spain: 100% Tempranillo. More than 18 months in 30% French and 70% American oak followed by more than 36 months in bottle. Blackcurrant jam with complex notes of fresh leather and bacon grease with a nimble body and fine tannins.

2019 Bodegas Señorío de Bocos ‘Autor de Bocos’ Ribera del Duero, Spain: 100% Tempranillo. ‘Autor de Bocos’ is a special selection bottling. More than 14 months in 100% French oak followed by more than six months in bottle. Multilayered fruit that includes red and black wild berries with a juicy, plush palate with hints of vanilla bean and tobacco and violets on the finish.

2020 Bodegas Finca La Capilla, Merlot

Bodegas Finca La Capilla

2020 Bodegas Finca La Capilla, Merlot, Ribera del Duero, Spain: 100% Merlot. Only around 6,000 bottles made. One sip and one realizes why they kept this Merlot plot as it is simply an outstanding wine. Dripping with elegance and finesse, this wine enchants and seduces with pristine blackberry and blueberry fruit, hints of broken limestone, pencil shavings and fresh porcini mushrooms that has a stunning texture, like fine lace, and a great precision across the very long finish.

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Mother Of Three Leaves Career In Medicine To Become California Winemaker

“I need to go to the bathroom!” one of the small kids shouted at Mom and Dad as the family drove from Sonoma to Santa Lucia Highlands in California. But this was not a typical family trip as the mother, Kerith Overstreet, had left a stable career in the medical field to be a winemaker and so she was traveling with her family to try to buy some Pinot Noir wine grapes from one of the most outstanding domestic Pinot Noir vineyards she had ever tasted: Garys’ Vineyard in Santa Lucia Highlands.

Kerith fell in love with Garys’ Vineyard before becoming a winemaker. She had read an article about Santa Lucia Highlands in The Wall Street Journal written by Dorothy J. Gaiter (Dottie) and John Brecher, who both called a wine made from Garys’ Vineyard “delicious!”. So after Kerith started her winery in 2008, one day she decided to call the producer who made the wine, “Hey, I have been making wine for two years, and I read this article in The Wall Street Journal about this vineyard called Garys’. Do you think you have any fruit?” And instead of laughing her off the phone, the man on the other end graciously invited her and her family to come to visit as she lived only a few hours away in Sonoma. 

Kerith Overstreet in her Bruliam Wines winery Photo Credit: Bruliam Wines

The minute Kerith’s family arrived at the winery, the child, who felt an overwhelming urge to go, jumped out of the car and headed towards the bathroom immediately. But her child wasn’t used to septic tanks out in the country that had a limited capacity of what could be flushed so after what seemed to be an eternity, waiting outside getting hammered by the Santa Lucia Highlands’ “actively unpleasant wind,” Kerith’s child came out and yelled, “Mom, I pooped so big that it won’t flush .” At that moment, Kerith just wanted to die and she thought to herself, “I am never going to get fruit.” 

Well, not only did she get some of the Pinot Noir from Garys’ Vineyard that day for her Bruliam Wines winery but it started a relationship that has her working with Santa Lucia Vineyard’s top-quality Pinot Noir fruit as well as her estate fruit in the Russian River Valley in Sonoma since that time.  

Single Vineyard Estates in Santa Lucia Highlands 

Garys’ Vineyard was planted by Gary Franscioni and Gary Pisoni in 1997 and they are among the grape growers who have helped put Santa Lucia Highlands on the map. Kerith spoke to Gary Pisoni’s son Mark on that fateful day, who is the vineyard manager at his family winery and estate, Pisoni Vineyards. The Pisoni family not only makes wine under the guidance of Gary’s other son Jeff, but they also sell their Pisoni Estate fruit to top producers and so it is one of the most famous single vineyards in Santa Lucia Highlands.

Pinot Noir grapes within Garys’ Vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands
Photo Credit: Garys’ Vineyard

Anyone serious about Santa Lucia Highlands wines is probably very familiar with the Pisoni Estate vineyard, located in the southern section of the Santa Lucia Highlands wine appellation. The Pisoni family has been farming for around 100 years, mainly dairy and other crops that they still farm. Jeff Pisoni spoke about his family estate’s wide assortment of soils due to the fault lines that “at one point lifted up” the Sierra de Salinas mountain range, and so they have a “variety of different soil types”.

The Pisoni Estate is highlighted on the newly released Santa Lucia Highlands AVA map released by wine publication Vinous,  founded by famous wine critic Antonio Galloni. This is the 14th map that Antonio has done for California, as there are seven for Napa Valley and six for Sonoma, and Antonio and his team’s goal is to create, “state-of-the-art cartography maps for American wines” that will become a reference point for the region. “The Vineyards of the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA” map breaks down all the single vineyards within the 18-mile long Santa Lucia Mountain range in Monterey County, California. Antonio has enlisted the help of revered Italian cartographer Alessandro Masnaghetti who has done an excellent job of expressing the sense of place for highly regarded wine regions such as Barolo, Barbaresco and Chianti Classico.

Vinous: The Vineyards of the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA by Antonio Galloni and Alessandro Masnaghetti
Photo Credit:
Cathrine Todd

The Vinous maps plan to achieve the same goals as the Masnaghetti maps of great Italian wine regions by expressing vivid topographical detail that influences the vineyards within that region. Still, they go a step further by adding smaller 3D maps that focus on key elements of the region as well as giving individual information for many vineyards on the back of the map to explore the nuanced differences – hence why Antonio likes to call them “narrative maps”. In each Vinous wine map, one of the most famous vineyards is dissected and therefore the Pisoni Vineyard is broken down to illustrate how the estate can be divided into “four ridge tops, each on a different alluvial fan and each with its own soil types.”

The map also breaks up the Santa Lucia Highlands into the North Bench and the South Bench. As mentioned before, Pisoni is located in the southern area of the appellation, but Garys’ Vineyard, another outstanding single vineyard estate, is located in the northern area, a.k.a. North Bench. Each vineyard has its own individual qualities and in the case of Pisoni it has varying differences among different plots within the same vineyard. Still, there are some general differences between the North versus the South sections of Santa Lucia Highlands as a whole region: the South has more pronounced elevations, poorer soils, water is scarcer and there is less moisture retention in the soil. Antonio Galloni noted that due to these differences, the South Bench would have wines that are generally deeper, darker and more structured as opposed to the more aromatic presence and red or purplish-leaning fruit found in the North Bench in regards to their Pinot Noir wines.

Adam Lee harvesting with his team
Photo Credit: Clarice Wine Company

Adam Lee, who initially became known as the winemaker for Siduri Wines, has his own winery today called Clarice Wine Company, named after his grandmother, and still consulting with other wineries, spoke about his personal experience of using the fruit from Garys’ Vineyard. “The great thing about Garys’ Vineyard is that it is fantastic fruit and I don’t need to do anything,” noted Adam. He further discussed how his Clarice Garys’ Vineyard employs low-intervention winemaking due to the grapes’ stellar quality. According to him, the stellar quality is not only due to the place but also to the exceptional management of each block by the Franscioni and Pisoni families.

Santa Lucia Highlands AVA 

Double L Vineyard site owned by Dan and Donna Lee of Morgan Winery
Photo Credit: Morgan Winery

Another well-known figure in the area is Dan Morgan Lee, no relation to Adam Lee. He has been a winemaker in Monterey County for over 40 years and started to focus on Santa Lucia Highlands around 20 years ago with his winery, Morgan Winery. Although the Pinot Noir wines from Santa Lucia Highlands have gotten a lot of attention, Dan said that Chardonnay initially put them on the map such as the ones made by Talbott Vineyards and his winery. But it makes sense since great Pinot Noir and outstanding Chardonnay go hand in hand in finding the ideal grape growing region.

Yet Dan is not only proud of their fabulous Pinot Noir and Chardonnay but that they continue to safeguard the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA name by making sure that only vineyards that fit particular criteria are included in the official appellation. A few years back, Dan initiated the need to have the wine region evaluated by a professional geographer and viticulturist who examined the geological formations. The areas that were truly highlands were added, or if already existing within the AVA were allowed to stay in it, compared to the flatter land removed from the appellation, so some land was added while a lot more land was taken out. It is undoubtedly an atypical course of action to have less total acreage after a new AVA assessment is done.

Passion Versus Obligation 

Pisoni Estate
Photo Credit: Pisoni Family Vineyards

But even though all the vineyard land fits the definition of highlands today doesn’t mean it has been easy to grow grapes there. Jeff Pisoni tells the story of when his father, a dairy and vegetable farmer, was driven by pure passion for growing wine grapes and making wine in the early ’80s; it would seem that Mother Nature was not too kind when it came to his wine aspiration. As mentioned before, their Pisoni Estate is located in the South Bench where water is scarce and the soils do not retain moisture well and so finding a water source was critical for growing quality grapes. His father needed a well driller to drill through seven feet of gravel and then 380 feet of solid granite – yes, that is 380 feet! Well, six well drillers later, he finally tapped into a water source.  

This is a great example of why Antonio Galloni loves California wines as, unlike European wines, which he is also a big fan of, many times the wine producer has done it out of passion against all odds compared to a European wine producer, as in many cases, the current owner may have felt an obligation to go into their multi-generational wine business. One area of the world is not better or worse and Antonio is the first to say that many European winemakers make great wines even if it is part of one’s duty to his family. Yet he is drawn to U.S. wines, and in this case, the wines of California, because people dream the impossible dream, and that is one of the reasons he is on a mission to create comprehensive wine maps for America that are on par with the most cherished maps of top European wine regions.

And the story of the passion that leads someone like Kerith to leave a secure life in the medical field to become a winemaker is certainly part of that American spirit. At first, she followed her obligation to her father, who wanted her to at least finish medical school, which she did, and after a residency and two fellowships, she took that leap of passion to make that impossible dream a reality.

***Link to original article on Forbes:

Santa Lucia Highlands AVA Seminar in NYC Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

Sparkling from North Bench:

2015 Caraccioli Cellars, Brut Cuvée, Escolle Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands, California: One of the distinguishing features of Escolle Vineyard is the production of grapes for sparkling wine and the Caraccioli family does a great job. Blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from this single vineyard. Hints of hazelnuts and stony minerality on the nose with a creamy texture from fine bubbles and zingy acidity. 

Chardonnay from North Bench:

2019 Hahn Estate, ‘Lucienne Chardonnay’ Lone Oak Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands, California: Nicolaus (Nicky) Hahn was one of the early settlers in the Santa Lucia Highlands and the family owns four different sites: the Lone Oak Vineyard in the North Bench and three in the South Bench. Rich nuttiness on the nose with a mixture of tropical and stone fruit on the palate with marked acidity.

Pinot Noir from the North Bench:

2019 Morgan Winery, Pinot Noir, Double L Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands, California: “The Double L Vineyard is a dramatic site. A thin strip of vineyards, Double L starts at River Road and runs all the way up the hillside, its narrow shape emphasizing the distinctive contours of the land and the exposed character of this part of the Santa Lucia Highlands.” Floral nose with hints of wet river stones and fresh raspberry on the palate with a light, nimble body.

2018 McIntyre Vineyards, Pinot Noir Estate Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands, California: Steven McIntyre is also an early pioneer and the McIntyre estate vineyard has some of the oldest Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vines going back to 1973. Dark cherry nose with a rich body and good mid-palate weight with hints of earthy notes on the finish.

2018 Bernardus, Pinot Noir, Rosella’s Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands, California: Rosella’s Vineyard is one of the Franscioni family vineyards which is one of the historic families in the region since their roots go back to the early 1900s and not only does the family themselves make a single vineyard wine with their Rosella’s site under their ROAR label, they also sell the fruit to high-quality producers such as Bernardus. “The slope starts at 250 feet and works its way up to about 450 feet in elevation at a five to seven percent incline.” Bright red fruit such as cherries and strawberries with an undertone of minerality with fleshy fruit on the body and broad tannins.

2018 Siduri, Pinot Noir, Rosella’s Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands, California: The same vineyard as above, the Rosella’s Vineyard, yet a more delicate wine with pretty floral notes and tart cherry flavor and lots of lift to this wine and overall finesse with fine tannins and a stony finish. Both wines share a great purity to the fruit quality.

2019 Clarice Wine Company, Garys’ Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands, California: As noted in the article, this vineyard was planted in 1997 by two pioneers of Santa Lucia Highlands, Gary Franscioni and Gary Pisoni. “Garys’ is unique for the North Bench in that its location, nestled between two creeks, is marked by a high presence of rock content that has been deposited over the millennia.” Complex nose of boysenberry, black tea, violets and tree bark with good flesh on the mid-palate with a good amount of tannic structure and marked acidity to make this wine very age-worthy.

2018 Bruliam, Soberanes Vineyard, Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands, California: Soberanes is right next door to Garys’ Vineyard, and owner/winemaker of Bruliam Wines Kerith Overstreet has been working with their fruit since 2010 – the first vintage for this vineyard. The Soberanes Vineyard is another joint partnership between Gary Franscioni and Gary Pisoni. “The vineyard is located just south of Garys’ in a section of the Santa Lucia Highlands that is marked by open, expansive vistas and southeast facing slopes that receive plenty of the sun and wind that are such signatures of the appellation.” Extremely enchanting wine with a mixture of red fruit (red currants, raspberries and cranberries) and a lovely perfume that makes one dream of a field of wild flowers with hints of forest floor all tied together with silky tannins and mouthwatering acidity. 

Pinot Noir from the South Bench:

2018 ROAR, Sierra Mar Vineyard, Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands, California: “Sierra Mar is one of the most dramatic vineyard sites in all of California. This land has been in the Franscioni family since 1930. The vineyards start at 650 feet in elevation and reach 1,000 feet, where the terrain features the decomposed granite soils typical of these hillsides.” Savory nose with rosemary and tobacco leaf intermixed with pretty notes of orange blossom and fresh blueberries that has big, bold tannins.

2019 Pisoni Estate, Pisoni Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands, California: Pisoni is undoubtedly one of the great “Grand Cru” vineyards of California, and the Pisoni family is an historic family in the region that goes back almost 100 years. “Pisoni can be divided into four ridge tops, each on a different alluvial fan and each with its own soil types, plus two transitional areas between those that result in a total of six variations.” A richly textural wine with juicy blackberry and blueberry fruit with smoldering earth, underbrush and dried violets with an extremely long, expressive finish.

Syrah from North Bench:

2019 Cattleya “The Initiation” Syrah, Soberanes Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands, California: Antonio Galloni said that despite Syrah not being the most popular variety in Santa Lucia Highlands, he thinks it is the “most exciting” because it is “very distinctive”. A lush wine with blackcurrant jam with plenty of structure to help lift such richness yet the tannins are round and approachable with a complex finish of granite, bacon bits and dusty earth.

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An Italian ‘Gamay’ Wine Calls Out To The ‘Daring’ Wine Drinkers

2020 Madrevite C’Osa, Gamay del Trasimeno Riserva, Colli del Trasimeno DOC
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

Crumbling brick tenement apartment buildings housing poor artists showed bursts of creativity illustrated on their dilapidated structures with provocative graffiti art. During the 1980s, the East Village in New York City was filled with burgeoning writers, musicians, filmmakers and painters who each followed the path least taken regarding their creative expression. Hence it was the epicenter for punk music and the home of Neo-Expressionism graffiti art, the latter being led by New Yorker Jean-Michel Basquiat, who lived in the East Village when he first made a name for himself. It was at once magically electric and disturbingly gritty yet it still attracted celebrities, those in the corporate world and the wealthy who risked having their throats slashed by heroin addicts desperate for their next fix as there was an irresistible pull to the explosion of emotions and raw talents that were spontaneously displayed daily.

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Neo-Expressionism graffiti art gave a voice to many who didn’t have one such as highlighting injustices towards Black Americans and marginalized working-class individuals such as cooks and janitors who were part of the general population’s everyday life yet were often invisible. Some art critics called Basquiat a “talentless hustler” yet almost 30 years after his untimely death, one of his paintings, selling for $110.5 million, commanded “the highest sum ever paid at auction for a U.S.-produced artwork.” Remarkable considering that Basquiat was Black, poor and had no formal art education, although he was deemed brilliant and an avid learner in his daily life so he did not have the typical pedigree to become an iconic artist. However, he has carved his place in history and opened the door for many others.  

The vineyard area of Trasimeno
Photo Credit: ©pierpaolometelli

The Italian wine producer Madrevite, tucked away near the border between Tuscany and Umbria regions in Italy, surrounded by hills and lakes, has designed a label inspired by the work of Basquiat. The wine is made from the local red grape Gamay del Trasimeno, and “it is a wine for the people,” as noted by owner Nicola Chiucchiurlotto who oversees his grandfather’s vineyards. The name of his top selection, Gamay del Trasimeno wine, “C’osa,” references a saying in the local dialect that questions, “who is daring?”

Wine for the Bold

Just like how the frequently characterized “loud” art of Basquiat appealed to people who wanted to be challenged, Nicola says that his Madrevite “C’osa” is made for a strong personality. The wine does not fit into any type of box in regards to being associated with a well-known wine area or to a famous Italian grape variety but also the grapes of the “C’osa” bottling are harvested last, the 2019 bottling was picked 25 days later than the other Gamay del Trasimeno wines he makes and so it is a bold wine that is made for a bold person.

It may seem utterly odd that a third-generation winegrower in Trasimeno would feel such a strong connection to a NYC graffiti artist as their worlds and experiences seem outwardly polar opposites. Trasimeno has the title of being “the green heart of Italy” because the lakes and hills create a protected area with a moderate climate and there are many sites with good sun exposure that are conducive to forests, olive groves and vineyards all thriving; in a way, a sort of green paradise. Conversely, Basquiat lived in a concrete jungle that was dangerous and dark. Yet, in a way, they are both alienated from the larger world of wine and art as each has taken an unconventional path to become known.

Nicola Chiucchiurlotto working with Gamay del Trasimeno grapes
Photo Credit: ©pierpaolometelli

Nicola already has a steep uphill battle with his Madrevite wines, which feature three different bottlings of the red grape Gamay del Trasimeno, when it comes to reaching wine drinkers in the U.S.. But his battle is even more complicated because the grape is actually part of the Garnacha (a.k.a. Grenache) family that is said to have traveled from Spain to Trasimeno in the 17th century. His grandfather, and much further past generations, have always called it Gamay del Trasimeno and despite it making the story of selling his wines that much more convoluted, it is important to him to respect the past while also bringing a playfulness and modern approach to express the spirit of these wines.

Who Dares?

Basquiat dared people in high society to look at the injustices of the marginalized people who struggled around them and he challenged stereotypes by showing the nobility of these individuals who were typically demeaned. But how he expressed his observations and commentary of such injustices made him special as the bold colors and overall raw quality of his work provoked visceral feelings while also creating a playful feeling that kept the viewer from being alienated by judgment. David Bowie spoke about the value of such paintings like the ones Basquiat created when he was in a movie about Basquiat released in 1996. “The idea is if you stand next to an art object, that somehow its mystic, goodness and high-mindedness will rub off onto you,” said Bowie.

And Nicola wants those who are bold enough, who dare, to open themselves to the experience of his Madrevite “C’osa” wine, despite the wine not seeming like the traditional Italian red wine that one comes to expect. But if Basquiat was able to open the hearts of the elite in the art world to the nobility that surrounded them every day within the invisible people who served them, Nicola could show the world that his wines have as much Italian nobility as those that are highlighted on the fine wine lists of some of New York City’s top Italian restaurants… but never forgetting to keep it fun, keep it playful and always make it a wine for the people.

***Link to original article published on Forbes:

Nicola Chiucchiurlotto sleeping with a bottle of Madrevite “C’Osa”
Photo Credit: ©pierpaolometelli

Madrevite is an organic producer who uses native yeasts in their ferments:

2020 Madrevite “‘Elvè”
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

2020 Madrevite “‘Elvè”, Trasimeno DOC, Umbria, Italy: 100% Grechetto that is placed through the Cryomaceration for 24 hours as it protects the color, aromatics and fruit. This is a “classic” white wine for the older people of Umbria, as Nicola describes it, as Grechetto has been considered one of the most important white grapes in the region for a long time. A subtle nose with nectarine and peach flavors on the palate and bright acidity.

2020 Madrevite “Il Reminore”
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

2020 Madrevite “Il Reminore”, Umbria Bianco IGT, Umbria, Italy: 100% Trebbiano Spoletino that also uses cryomaceration for 36 to 48 hours. Nicola says this white grape has become very popular with younger locals in the past decade as there are more aromatics than Grechetto. Floral nose with a fun salinity to this wine and more textured component with intense minerality on the finish.

The following wines are three different expressions of Gamay del Trasimeno:

2021 Madrevite “La Bisbetica” Rosé
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

2021 Madrevite “La Bisbetica” Rosé, Umbria Rosato IGT, Umbria, Italy: 100% Gamay del Trasimeno (Grenache). Orange color with highlights of pink that has a nose of fresh raspberry and cherries with the quality of crunchy fruit on the palate that had hints of lilacs intermixed.

2020 Madrevite “Opra”
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

2020 Madrevite “Opra”, Trasimeno DOC, Umbria, Italy: 100% Gamay del Trasimeno (Grenache). Dry herbs on the nose such as rosemary with layers of plum tart and blueberry preserves with a touch of dusty earth that has a good structure that lifts the richness of the wine.

2020 Madrevite C’Osa, Gamay del Trasimeno Riserva, Colli del Trasimeno DOC
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

2019 Madrevite “C’osa”, Gamay del Trasimeno Riserva, Trasimeno DOC, Umbria, Italy: 100% Gamay del Trasimeno (Grenache) that was picked 25 days later than “Opra” and one would think it would be fruitier but it wasn’t as there was just more of a sense of concentrated elegance. Rose petal, pristine red fruit, black pepper, fierce minerality on the nose, fine tannins on the palate and an overall balance of intense concentration of complex flavors with finesse. Surprisingly elegant wine especially considering it is for those who dare – but maybe, in this case, it is for those who dare to have their preconceptions challenged.

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$100,000 Wine Gamble Turned Into 100-Point Scores From Top Wine Critics

Lineup of TOR wines
Photo Credit: TOR Wines

Sitting on the back porch drinking a beautiful glass of Cabernet Sauvignon, the sunset painted the sky with colors of saffron and gold; there, a veteran wine producer in Napa Valley took in the recent catastrophe that destroyed so much of his community while he contemplated the luck of no loss of human life in the disaster, and less importantly, that five of his best barrels of wine survived. All of a sudden the song “That Old Black Magic” started to play in his head, and he knew “Black Magic” would be the perfect name for those special barrels of wine as it was a “black moment” for his winery as they lost a lot of wine yet at the same time those barrels have an “aura of real magic”.

That moment happened after the 2014 massive 6.0-magnitude Napa Valley earthquake that violently destroyed wineries, structures and catapulted people out of their beds around 3 am. The victims were randomly selected as “some wineries lost everything; some none,” according to the description that is laid out in Tor Kenward’s book Reflections of a Vintner. Tor, an iconic winemaker with almost 50 years of experience in Napa Valley, has witnessed Napa’s modern wine industry from its beginning with less than 50 wineries in the mid-1970s to the over 400 that exist today that are open for tastings and around 1,700 registered wineries according to the Alcoholic Beverage Control of California.

Reflections of a Vintner by Tor Kenward
Photo Credit Cathrine Todd

After the 2014 earthquake, Tor was on his porch, processing disturbing images of the horrible events of such a natural disaster mixed with the heartwarming feelings of seeing the Napa community come together when he was inspired to label those surviving barrels of great wine from the 2013 vintage at his TOR winery, “Black Magic”. Fate had undoubtedly been cruel as Tor lost 20% of his red wines during that vintage; that was compounded by the fact he didn’t have earthquake insurance at the time, less than 10% of Napa wineries had it, according to Tor. The “Black Magic” wine comes from plots located in the Vine Hill Ranch Vineyard, on the southern border of western Oakville in Napa. The wine would eventually garner four 100-point scores for the 2018 vintage, becoming known as their 400-point wine.

Black Magic

Tor, who loves blending wine from an “exceptional” single-vineyard, was able to work with the extraordinary Vine Hill Ranch because of a relationship that spanned several decades and is how he gets most of his stellar Napa fruit. This particular vineyard has displayed its greatness in the past in Beaulieu Georges de Latour Private Reserve bottlings made by the legendary André Tchelistcheff.

The 2013 TOR “Black Magic” blend is comprised of 99.5% Cabernet Sauvignon and 0.5% of Petit Verdot because Tor likes the sexy “mineral” note and aroma of “hot, wet granite” that comes out of the more “fruit-driven” Cabernet Sauvignon when a touch of Petit Verdot is added to the final blend.

Reflections of a Vintner by Tor Kenward
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

But for the 2016 vintage of Black Magic, Tor said that he and his longtime winemaker, Jeff Ames, decided to go into another unconventional direction with the wine, one that he labels as “a crime of the century”. 2016 is considered by most wine critics, as well as Tor, to be one of Napa Valley’s greatest. Serendipitously, the Cabernet and the Petit Verdot ideally ripened at the same time and so Jeff had the seemingly ludicrous idea to co-ferment together the Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot as it would fit perfectly into a four-ton tank and it might “be interesting”, resulting in a 55% Cabernet Sauvignon and 45% Petit Verdot blend. This gamble, which was highly unorthodox for a few reasons – co-fermentation and such a high percentage of Petit Verdot was unheard of in Napa – and it involved gambling with grapes that cost “north of $100,000”.  

Tor was afraid that it would be a Frankenstein sort of wine as he had never tasted another that tried such an unthinkable practice. Besides, being a small wine producer with no corporate money to cushion such a potentially expensive failure could be detrimental to his business. He also risked making a mess out of exceptional plots within a great vineyard, which could seem like a disrespectful act. Yet as other winemakers came to the defense of Jeff’s idea, Tor finally caved, and conversely, it made a perfect wine in Tor’s opinion and it changed the way they made wine at TOR winery.  

The 2016 “Black Magic” was scored highly with 98-point scores from top critics but the 2018 vintage, a vintage known for its superb expression of terroir, received four 100-point scores from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, Antonio Galloni’s Vinous, Jeb Dunnuck and the International Wine Report; and many people have said to Tor that it is a fantastic way to end a journey although Tor feels like the journey is just beginning for TOR Wines.

Reflections of a Vintner

And one cannot help but marvel at Tor Kenward’s journey when it is experienced through his book Reflections of a Vintner. He was born to bohemian parents who always had creative people who weren’t afraid to dream coming in and out of their Los Angeles house as his dad was a writer and his mom a painter. At one point, his family lived with the actor James Cagney (known to Tor’s family as Jimmy) for a time after they lost their home “to fire and flood”. Tor’s name, as well as the names of his siblings, came from characters in a play that his parents loved and despite his father and mother doing little to shape their children’s lives as adults, Tor felt the foundation for him had already been built by the amazingly passionate people who surrounded him very early in life. In many ways, he and his siblings had lived more life before the age of 18 than most people get to experience in a lifetime.

Tor Kenward and Andy Beckstoffer having lunch at the French Laundry Photo Credit: TOR Wines

After Tor came back from the Vietnam War, working in hospitals, he founded a jazz club with a few other music fanatics that led to them hosting events at various locations throughout California with some of the greats and along the way, he was introduced to great French wine, which would have a lasting effect on his life, as well as the Napa new kids on the block. In 1976, one of the biggest upsets in the wine world, the Judgment of Paris where French judges in Paris picked Napa Valley wines over top French wines in a blind tasting, inspired Tor to follow his passion for wine. He could never imagine that 45 years later he would win the 2021 Judgment of Napa Tasting with his friend and iconic grape grower, Andy Beckstoffer, with their 2016 TOR Beckstoffer To Kalon.

Tor ended up working for Beringer for 25 years, and he relishes the time he spent with a “core group of dreamers” during those formative years there, and for the most part that group stayed intact. During that time, he took winemaking courses at U.C. Davis and he spent a lot of time with some of the best of the best in the wine and food world. Later in her life, Tor became the constant escort for Julia Child and he marveled at her continuous enthusiasm to continually learn as she was always picking the brains of passionate, younger people who had different viewpoints about food and wine. Like many other winemakers in Napa, he was greatly influenced by the all-inspiring Robert Mondavi who never shied away from exclaiming that Napa made wines that were just as great as some of the top wines of the world. Mondavi was a much-needed source of inspiration for Tor and many others as the Napa crew would get tons of negative pushback from European-centric wine-loving sommeliers in New York City when Napa was first trying to make a name for themselves.

One day in the late 1970s stands out in Tor’s mind as being extraordinary, when he was invited to a lunch that included Robert Mondavi, Louis Martini, André Tchelistcheff and a few other experienced winemakers, where Tor kept his mouth shut so he could take in the wisdom. A debate started about which qualities make a wine great and give it longevity. Tor remembers words such as tannins (in the red wines), acid (in the white wines), pH, terroir and balance as being presented as answers in this lively discussion. But then, finally, André Tchelistcheffknown as America’s most influential post-Prohibition winemaker, gently said with his Russian accent, “No, it is the flesh – it is the flesh in the great wines I have made that seems to give them grace with age.” Tor gives the 1947 Cheval Blanc and 1959 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and La Tâche (DRC) as classic examples of where he was able to experience wines that had “flesh” that assisted them in their graceful aging like André Tchelistcheff had said that day.

For decades, Tor had always admired how the greatest producers in Burgundy focused on particular blocks within a vineyard and he was lucky enough to drink a lot of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti to aid in his education. And so Burgundy was the model for his own winery, TOR Wines, which he started in 2000, and its focus has been on single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay wines with each bottling made in small quantities.  

Fifty Years of Napa Valley in Two Hours 

First flight of wines at Fifty Years of Napa Valley in Two Hours tasting Photo Credit: TOR Wines

Back in April, Tor led a tasting for a small group in New York City to showcase his almost 50 years of being involved in the Napa wine world but he could not help but bring a few Napa gems from his cellar that went back to 1945 – a fiercely concrete way to show that Napa wines can have a long life. It was a way to viscerally understand Napa’s wine history and a glimpse into Tor’s wine career with many of the wines associated with long relationships with winegrowers such as with the legendary Andy Beckstoffer.

Tor has known Andy Beckstoffer for four decades, and they share the mission of fighting the good fight of keeping agriculture at the center of Napa Valley. Andy has even set up his will so each of his historic vineyards can never be sold by family members and each vineyard can only be used for growing vines. Napa has changed dramatically since 1968, noted Tor, and he and Andy fight battles every year to keep shortsighted winery projects from taking away what is at the soul of great Napa wines – extraordinary vineyards.

Once everyone got to the 2018 TOR “Black Magic”, 400-point wine, at the tasting he held in NYC, Tor prefaced the wine by saying that people either loved it or hated it. That may seem like an odd statement about a wine that garnered 100 points from four top wine critics but perhaps that is just a testament to Tor’s gratitude for his life. Today, without significant financial backing, it would be impossible for someone to start any winery in Napa and have opportunities to buy some of the best fruit, let alone a winery focusing on small bottlings of single vineyards and with such financial backing comes limitations. The co-fermented “Black Magic” would have never happened if big corporate money had been involved because the board would have never allowed Tor to take such a gamble. 

Tor has always gotten to be the dreamer he was raised to be and that is all that matters, so if someone comes along and negatively shoots down his “Black Magic” wine, he has already won at living… or maybe he just knows that it is an outstanding wine.

***Link to original article published on Forbes:

First flight with Tor of wines at Fifty Years of Napa Valley in Two Hours tasting
Photo Credit: TOR Wines

Current Release of TOR Wines:

2019 TOR Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

2019 TOR Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville, Napa Valley: Black cherry preserves balanced by pencil shavings and hot glowing wood embers that has tons of energy on the palate with layers of zingy red cranberry fruit combined with blackberry compote that has tannins with broad shoulders to support it. Only 375 cases made and suggested retail price of $110 per bottle.

2019 TOR Cabernet Sauvignon, Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

2019 TOR Cabernet Sauvignon, Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard, Oakville, Napa Valley: A pretty, perfumed nose with mix of wildflowers and baking spices that has notes of crushed rocks and fresh raspberries in the background that finishes with finely pixelated tannins. Really elegant! Only 250 cases made and suggested retail price of $300 per bottle.

2019 TOR Pure Magic Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

2019 TOR “Pure Magic” Vine Hill Ranch Vineyard, Oakville, Napa Valley: 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Petit Verdot from Vine Hill Ranch Vineyard like the original 2016 “Black Magic”. Broken earth and fresh tree bark immediately bring a strong sense of place to this wine with boysenberry fruit and dark chocolate notes coming after a few hours of decanting. The texture of these co-fermented wines are always a WOW factor as they have the right amount of flesh combined with elegantly structured tannins that give immediate hedonistic pleasure while also creating a drive and focus that refreshes the palate and makes it too easy to drink the whole bottle. Only 100 cases made and suggested retail price of $350 per bottle.

The Fifty Years of Napa Valley In Two Hours Tasting led by Tor Kenward in New York City on April 13th, 2022:

1945 Beringer Estate Red, St. Helena, Napa Valley: Tree bark, thyme and marked acidity – light and nimble. Notes by Tor Kenward: “This wine came from plantings around the Beringer St. Helena property. Based on old maps from the 1940s, it includes Cabernet Sauvignon and mixed black grape varieties popular at the time. It was stored in a corner of the original Beringer caves for 40 years. We worked hard to find the wine’s true identity – no one alive really knows. The Bordeaux bottle hints mostly to Cabernet Sauvignon.”

1958 Louis Martini “Mountain Cabernet” Monte Rosso, Napa Valley: A beautiful delicacy to this wine with floral and raspberry aromas – a heady wine. The famous Monte Rosso Vineyard is in Sonoma Valley but back in the 1950s it was labeled as Napa. Notes by Tor Kenward: “This is my last bottle. I’ve enjoyed sharing this gem over the years. Classic “Martini” style – soft, good core of fruit, beautiful perfume. Excellent vintage.”

1969 Heitz Cellar, Cabernet Sauvignon, Martha’s Vineyard, Napa Valley: Mixture of eucalyptus and fresh sage with crunchy cranberry on the long, vibrant finish. Notes by Tor Kenward: “I bought this wine in 1975 on a trip to Napa. Joe Heitz wouldn’t sell me the 1968. I never opened a bottle of Joe’s Martha’s bottling from the 1960s and 1970s that I have not loved. Martha May, owner, is a good friend.”

1977 Beringer, Cabernet Sauvignon “Private Reserve” Napa Valley: Really nice weight on the mid-palate with silky tannins and blackcurrant leaves and a touch of black cherry. Notes by Tor Kenward: “This was the first wine from the Lemmon/Chabot vineyard, and it was Beringer’s first Private Reserve wine. I was a judge at the Orange County Fair and I took shiners of the wine to see how it performed. My friend, Richard Arrowood, told me it was his favorite wine of the show. I went back to Beringer and encouraged the team to make this our first Private Reserve bottling. It was an easy sell.”

1988 Kenward, Cabernet Sauvignon “Home Cuvee” Napa Valley: Lots of juicy black fruit with structure giving it shape and fresh finish. #1 Red Wine Winner at California State Fair (Tor’s homemade). Notes by Tor Kenward: “From 1981 and for two decades, Beringer allowed me to make small lots of wine on the west side of the St. Helena property with equipment I bought and free labor – mostly friends, writers, trade, and dreamers. 1988 was a very good vintage, lost behind the legendary 1987, and with half the crop. I saved the California State Fair ribbon I received – a big ribbon saying, “Best Red Wine of Show.” Friend and Congressman, Mike Thompson, sent me a congratulatory letter which I also saved.”

1990 Kenward, Cabernet Sauvignon, State Lane, Napa Valley: Round tannins with ripe strawberry flavors and some baking spice with a touch of gravelly earth in the background. Notes by Tor Kenward: “This is our homemade wine from a property that is now owned by the Kapsandy family. The two vineyards that battled it out for the early Beringer Private Reserves were Chabot/Lemmon and State Lane. We marveled why the latter, near the Napa river, performed so well every year until we dug with backhoes and found more rock than rich alluvial soil.”

1991 Kenward Cabernet Sauvignon “Chateau La Tor” Napa Valley: Savory rosemary with sweet stewed cherries balanced by upheaved earth. Notes by Tor Kenward: “David Abreu and I planted our property – a small vineyard with four different clones – next to his Madrone Vineyard. First vintage, great year for Napa. The vineyard taught me many lessons about grape growing in the Napa Valley: clones and plant material matter.”

Then transitioned into younger vintages, first starting with a couple of Chardonnay wines:

2020 TOR Chardonnay, “Cuvée Susan”, Hyde Vineyard, Carneros Napa Valley: An enchanting nose of saline minerality and acacia with white peach flavors and hints of blanched almonds on the finish. Notes by Tor Kenward: “Our Hyde Cuvée Susan is from two blocks, one planted to the very shy bearing, shot cluster Wente – the other to the fuller cluster but aromatic Calera clone.”

2020 TOR Chardonnay, Torchiana Beresini Vineyard, Carneros Napa Valley: Overall elegance with aromas of honeycomb and salty lemon confit with wet stones. Notes by Tor Kenward: “The Beresini vineyard is planted to another Hyde Wente selection that is planted in the mother blocks at Hyde and go into the excellent Hyde and Villaine Commandant Chardonnay. Steve Beresini’s old vines are a testament to his farming, keeping these 30 plus year old vines alive and still producing a small but distinctive wine that has built a great following within our TOR circle.”

2003 TOR, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cimarossa Vineyard, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley: Dominated by blueberry and plum fruit with hints of graphite and lilacs with a rich textured body. Notes by Tor Kenward: “Cimarossa means “red hilltop” in Italian and that aptly defines this special hillside vineyard. Elevation is 2,100 feet where the soils are predominately red volcanic rock and dust. This was our first vintage worked from three different blocks.”

2009 TOR Cabernet Sauvignon, Beckstoffer To Kalon “Old B” Oakville, Napa Valley: Full throttle on the entry with lush cassis flavors and savory spice with complex notes of tar and smoldering earth with fine tannins and a pretty floral finish that was all finesse at the end. Excellent wine! Notes by Tor Kenward: “A coveted block in Beckstoffer To Kalon which Andy made available IF I picked at 24 Brix. Everyone in the vineyard picked much riper that decade, and Andy loved the old BV Reserves picked closer to 24 Brix. An anomaly for To Kalon, the vintage was excellent.”

2016 TOR “Black Magic” Vine Hill Ranch Vineyard, Oakville, Napa Valley: First time Tor co-fermented a wine; 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Petit Verdot from Vine Hill Ranch Vineyard. Deep ruby color with multi-layered black and blue fruit and hints of turmeric and curry leaves on the nose as it expands on the palate with blackberry liqueur and espresso notes… and what a great texture! Full body that has the right amount of tension balanced by, dare I say, flesh. Fantastic wine! Notes by Tor Kenward: “This was the first year Jeff talked me into co-fermenting our small Block of Petit Verdot with Block 7 Cabernet Sauvignon from Vine Hill Ranch Vineyard. It’s unlike any wine we made up to that time and became a model for future Magics.”

2018 TOR “Black Magic” Vine Hill Ranch Vineyard, Oakville, Napa Valley: 80% Cabernet Sauvignon and 16% Petit Verdot co–fermented and 4% Cabernet Franc blended. This wine got a lot of enthusiastic praise from everyone in the room as it is just a wine that blows one away. The wine seduces from the moment one smells it as it has lots of juicy and rich fruits singing and it is multifaceted in regards to complex flavors and textures; cigar box, exotic spice, stony minerality and hint of graphite with lots of energy, finely etched tannins and extraordinary length of flavor. Wow, wow, wow, wow! Feel lucky to experience it!! Notes by Tor Kenward: “A little bit of everything in our toolbox is in this wine. Co-ferments, best barrel selection, Vine Hill Ranch Vineyard, Beckstoffer To Kalon, and a dash of Pritchard Hill Cabernet. We worked on this wine to the very end when it “magically” came together. It garnered four 100-point scores from leading critics.”

2019 TOR Cabernet Sauvignon, Beckstoffer Dr. Crane Vineyards, St. Helena, Napa Valley: A lovely floral quality to the nose intermixed with cumin seed and cocoa powder that has delicious cassis flavors laced with a minerality that was sustained across the long, expressive finish. Notes by Tor Kenward: “Our first ever from this iconic site was fermented in a single four-ton closed top tank for 20 days. We were offered blocks from this vineyard previously, but waited until a block next to the quarry nearby was offered. All Clone 6. Not a typical Crane, distinctive perfume, well worth the wait.”

Myron Nightingale’s Old Solera Sherry, St. Helena, Napa Valley: Golden apples and walnuts with touches of butterscotch and zing of ginger. Notes by Tor Kenward: “This was hand bottled by Myron Nightingale and given to friends in 1980 from one barrel saved in the old Beringer caves. Very old Solera Sherry whose “mother” might date back to the 1800s from a Palomino vineyard on Spring Mountain, St. Helena, planted by Charles and Olga Beringer.”

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White Wines From Native Grapes Emerge In Top Spanish Red Wine Region

Bodegas Comenge estate
Photo Credit: Bodegas Comenge

When the Spanish Civil War ended in 1939, many areas in Spain were plunged into an economic depression where even highly skilled professionals such as doctors would barely make ends meet, such as the Comenge family. Despite the family struggling after the war, today, they own a gorgeous winery called Bodegas Comenge in the highly-respected wine region of Ribera del Duero that includes a lovely tasting room surrounded by their stunning vineyards. Still, none of that would be possible if it wasn’t for D. Miguel Comenge – the father of the founder of the winery

Álvaro Comenge, the sales director of Bodegas Comenge and the grandson of D. Miguel, has helped further the area’s innovation by funding a research and development department which is the foundation that their wines are built on. One such wine, which shows a new direction for Ribera del Duero, is the white wine made from a white native grape that in 2019 was allowed to qualify for Ribera del Duero D.O. status – a designation that indicates quality wine. 

D. Miguel Comenge’s Book
La Vid y Los Vinos Españoles
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

But none of Comenge efforts would exist if it wasn’t for D. Miguel, a doctor specializing in biochemistry, writing the first in-depth study of Spanish wine, which included scientific analyses of physical and chemical characteristics of 109 Spanish wines, written in 1932 and released in 1942. The book made it possible for the family to initially survive as it brought in money when times were tough, and the profits made it possible for D. Miguel’s son to establish a winery; his grandson Álvaro runs the winery today, and the book is still used at universities in Spain.

Albillo Mayor

It is an exciting time for Ribera del Duero as some winemakers can finally experiment with a white wine that is allowed to carry the quality designation of the region. It is called Albillo Mayor, many call it Albillo for short, but it is important to not confuse it with other Albillo grapes in Spain, such as Albillo Real, as they are different varieties. Albillo Mayor is a white grape variety that has typically been co-planted with Tempranillo and other red grape varieties – called field blends, and hence, the grapes were fermented together to make a light-colored red called Claret which was the everyday wine made over 50 years ago, according to Álvaro Comenge. The wine is still made today, but it is considered a darker-colored rosé for marketing purposes, and Comenge produces such a rosé made from a vineyard that is over 100 years old, planted with Albillo as well as native red grape varieties.

Albillo Mayor grape bunch
Photo Credit: Bodegas Valduero

But starting with the 2019 vintage, Bodegas Comenge is now able to make a 100% Albillo white wine from the same century-old vineyard that can be labeled Ribera del Duero D.O., and the region finally has its own white wine as Álvaro Comenge talked about how they were one of the very few, if not the only, high-quality wine region in Europe that did not allow a white wine to have high-quality status.

One cannot talk about the Albillo grape variety in Ribera del Duero without mentioning Bodegas Valduero. There are many great chefs, celebrities and wine connoisseurs who love the ultra-premium aged “Reserva” red wines of Valduero but it may not be widely known that they were the original protector of the Albillo grape, as they made the first 100% Albillo white wine in 1990. The winery is run by two sisters, one of whom, the winemaker, Yolanda Garcia Viadero, who, for decades, has been on a mission to show the world the great white wine that can be made from this grape and, hopefully, with more producers making it, as it is officially recognized as a quality wine from the region now, it will start to gain more notoriety around the world. While other producers were ripping out Albillo, Yolanda was protecting their plots of Albillo at Bodegas Valduero, and this producer is already well-known for being guardians of exceptional vineyards as they are the second-largest low bush vines estate at one of the highest altitudes in the region.

Other Local White Grape Varieties

Even though Ribera del Duero has officially recognized Albillo for white wine, conversely, other producers are making white wines out of other local grapes that have gained a following throughout the years, and the fact that these wines cannot be labeled as Ribera del Duero D.O. has not hurt their sales.

Old vine in Bodegas Viña Sastre vineyard
Photo Credit: Bodegas Viña Sastre

Known for their old vineyards that are either farmed organically and/or biodynamically, Bodegas Viña Sastre makes a white wine made from 100-year-old vines grown at 2,700 feet altitude from a white grape called Cayetana Blanca. This variety hasn’t gotten that much respect in Spain as it is usually a high-yielding grape that makes neutral wine, but this particular extremely low-yielding biodynamic vineyard produces a wine that has rich fruit flavors and floral aromatics. Jesús Sastre, owner, winemaker and vineyard manager, noted that his U.S. importer quickly sold out of this wine called “Flavus,” and it has gained a loyal following of wine drinkers who appreciate its beautiful qualities without needing the validation of being officially labeled as a higher-quality status wine.

Many Ribera del Duero wine producers have gone to their neighboring wine region Rueda to add a high-quality designated white wine to their portfolio by either buying a winery or having a wine made by another winery from the aromatic white grape variety Verdejo. The grape variety Verdejo is often referred to as the Spanish Sauvignon Blanc in the U.S. as they have a similar profile, and some of the wines will have a small amount of Sauvignon added to the final blend. Ribera del Duero and Rueda have had a great partnership as the latter has offered something desperately needed by the former, and they often join forces to market both of these wine regions in export markets.

One producer synonymous with ultra-premium Ribera del Duero wines, Bodegas Pago de Carraovejas, decided to make white wines from the Verdejo grape in a unique area of Rueda, in the town of Nieva within the Segovia province, which includes a small section of the Ribera del Duero region as well as part of Rueda. The winery they established in Rueda is called Ossian, and the wines have a cult following with their legendary “Capitel,” made from 200-year-old Verdejo vines, retailing around $125. Pago de Carraovejas was established by José María Ruiz, who represented Spain in the first-ever World Sommelier Contest in Milan, winning 5th place out of 60 participating countries. When he came back to Spain, he was energized by the world’s focus on gastronomy, and he was determined to be part of establishing great restaurants in Ribera del Duero, but he also wanted to make elevated wines ideal for the finest restaurants in the world.

Working the old vines on the Ossian estate in the province of Segovia Photo Credit: Ossian

The Ossian estate is made up of 22-acres of high-altitude (up to 3,000 feet), pre-phylloxera Verdejo vines that range between 100 to 200 years old, planted in sandy soil, hence why the vines were able to escape the insect pest that devastated many European vineyards as phylloxera can’t survive in sandy soil. The wines are complex, concentrated, terroir-driven and age-worthy Verdejo wines that sommeliers around Spain have cherished as a Spanish fine wine choice to match with food instead of a French white Burgundy.

These wines have proven that there are hidden pockets capable of producing outstanding white wines as well as red. A decision was made to label the wines under the broader Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y León designation, which covers a more extensive region. This designation is one step below the Rueda D.O. designation, which the wines could use. But since the wines do not represent the average easy drinking Rueda D.O. Verdejo wines and are reflective of these specific 22-acres, it makes sense to place them in a category that isn’t known for a particular wine profile. And these wines show that there are pockets within the Castilla y León area, which includes Ribera del Duero as well, that have vineyards capable of making outstanding white wine.

New Journey for Ribera del Duero

When it comes to finding the ideal winery techniques or a typical profile for a 100% Albillo white wine, Álvaro Comenge says that the region of Ribera del Duero is still experimenting and trying to find its way. His winemaker for Bodegas Comenge takes the wine through a complicated process of having one section of Albillo grape bunches go through cold maceration. At the same time, he freezes the other section of grapes as the freezing helps to “break down the structure” to “liberate more aromas.” Furthermore, they use Saccharomyces yeasts (the most common species for winemaking) and non-Saccharomyces (not as common) on different sections. Albillo is a grape variety with a range of aromas and flavors, but those aromas and flavors can be challenging to release from the grapes.

It is not surprising to hear about Álvaro encouraging his winemaker to go to such lengths to unlock the potential of the Albillo grape as he not only comes from a grandfather who wrote the first in-depth Spanish wine textbook, but his grandmother was just as impressive. She was the first woman in the area to study medicine, and she was taught by Santiago Ramón y Caja, a Nobel Prize laureate for medicine. And so it is in Álvaro’s D.N.A. to refuse to settle for the easy road of accepting what the world gives him by normal means. Pulsating in his blood is the need to explore and go beyond anyone’s expectations, and Ribera del Duero’s new white wine journey will only benefit from his family’s innovative spirit.

2020 Carmen by Comenge, Rosé
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd
2019 Comenge, Albillo Photo Credit:
Cathrine Todd

Bodegas Comenge

2019 Comenge, Albillo, Ribera del Duero DO, Spain: 100% Albillo from a 100-year-old vineyard. Nose of almonds and honeysuckle with lemon sorbet flavors along the rich, textural body.

2020 Carmen by Comenge, Rosé, Ribera del Duero DO, Spain: 50% Albillo and 50% local red varieties from a 100-year-old vineyard. This wine would have been called a Claret wine in the past, but today it is considered, for marketing purposes, a darker rosé. The white Albillo grape and the red varieties are fermented separately and then blended. Pretty violet notes on the nose and a mixture of wild blackberries and bright red cherries with a hint of crushed rocks in the background. 

2020 Valduero, Blanco Albillo
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

Bodegas Valduero

2020 Valduero, Blanco Albillo, Ribera del Duero DO, Spain: 100% Albillo. A lifted citrus blossom note on the nose with lots of stony minerality on the palate with white peach flavors and lots of weight on the body balanced by fresh acidity.

2018 Bodegas Viña Sastre ‘Flavus’
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

Bodegas Viña Sastre

2018 Bodegas Viña Sastre ‘Flavus’ Vino de Mesa, Spain: 100% Cayetana Blanca (also known as Jaén) from 100-year-old vines grown at 2,700 feet altitude using organic and biodynamic practices. A varietal Cayetana Blanca wine can only technically qualify for the lower Vino de Mesa designation, so it is not allowed to place the vintage on the front of the bottle, but I did confirm that this was the 2018 vintage. An explosion of flavor with lemon curd, peach pie and dried wildflowers with bright acidity and juicy body.

Ossian Vides y Vinos (Bodegas Pago de Carraovejas)

2018 Ossian ‘Quintaluna’ Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y León, Spain: 100% Verdejo from vines that average around 100 years old. Dried elderflower and orange zest dances on the nose with zingy quince paste flavors laced with minerality that finishes with mouthwatering acidity.

2018 Ossian ‘Capitel’
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

2018 Ossian ‘Ossian’ Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y León, Spain: 100% Verdejo from vines that average around 150 years in age. Multi-layered stone fruits with hints of anise seed and jasmine that has zesty lemon confit flavors on the palate with a smoky minerality, lots of energy and a fierce drive along the sustained finish.

2018 Ossian ‘Capitel’ Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y León, Spain: 100% Verdejo from 200-year-old vines. A smoky minerality is upfront with this beauty that evolves through time into spiced toast and fennel fronds that has irresistible flavors of pear tart with a knockout textural component that brings this wine to another level of elegance and complexity; an extraordinarily long finish.

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New Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Could Be The Next Iconic Wine Of Rutherford

2018 Stalworth
Photo Credit:
Mariana Calderon

Those wine drinkers who have enjoyed a wide range of fine wines worldwide may have only used the word “ethereal” when it has come to some of the most outstanding red Grand Cru of Burgundy such as Bonnes Mares or the even more elusive Romanée-Conti. And yes, the word ethereal may be defined as describing something so “light in a way” that it seems “too perfect for this world,” but with regards to wine, it takes on an even more remarkable meaning. It is a wine that is undoubtedly concentrated, complex and multifaceted, yet there is an overall quality of a stunning delicacy that takes one’s breath away. The great vineyards of Burgundy have seemed to have the original, unofficial rights to such a descriptor although there is a new wine from a vineyard in the Rutherford Bench, in Napa Valley, that inspires such a word.

It is shocking that such a word as “ethereal” would describe a Bordeaux let alone a Napa wine, and a Napa wine made from 100% Cabernet Sauvignon nevertheless. But that is what the newly released 2018 Stalworth wine from the Rutherford Bench exquisitely displays when its acclaimed winemaker, Celia Welch, beams as she talks about the “weightlessness” of the wine that has a knockout combination of that celestial character balanced with a delicious juiciness on the finish.

From the first taste, it does give one the aromas and flavors that are known among Rutherford Bench wines such as ideally ripened fruit with a touch of spice notes such as anise or a floral characteristic, although it was the texture of this wine that took it to another level. 

The name the “Rutherford Bench” is enthusiastically talked about among Napa wine lovers and in a direct scientific way, one can read about the process of benches forming in soils that are caused by geological occurrences that can cause a diverse mixture of soil types, such as the alluvial fan in the Rutherford Bench, to logically understand why it is special. However, most wine drinkers want to experience the most outstanding examples of what makes this revered area stand out beyond other neighboring areas in Rutherford and the rest of Napa Valley. The 2018 Stalworth is an opportunity to taste such an exemplary example.

Tim Persson 

Sabrina and Tim Photo Credit: Dawn Heumann

The co-owner and the captain at the helm of the Stalworth project is Tim Persson who, with his wife, Sabrina, took over his father-in-law’s wine business, Hess Family Wine Estates, and today it is called Hess Persson Estates. Tim took over the running of their wine estates after spending a significant amount of time with his father-in-law, Donald Hess, as many challenges presented themselves during the post-financial crisis back in 2010 and 2011 that affected the wide-ranging Hess enterprises around the world, and so, in 2012 Tim and his wife moved to Napa Valley so they could directly oversee the estate and family wine business.

Even in the multi-cultural area of Napa Valley, Tim’s background stands out as he was raised in one of the smallest African countries, Eswatini – Africa’s last absolute monarchy, previously known as Swaziland. After attending university in Europe, he became a corporate lawyer who practiced in New York and London; then Tim met his wife Sabrina and his path took an adventurous turn.

Tim does most of the work overseeing and leading the wine business as Sabrina keeps her psychotherapy practice going. She is a licensed psychotherapist which has come in handy with their wine business having to “navigate the series of setbacks and natural disasters” prevalent since 2014. But she still finds time to help out at their winery “behind the scenes” while juggling her practice and being very “hands-on” with raising their two children.

Some of those setbacks and natural disasters include the 2014 earthquake that destroyed one of their main wine cellars, the landslides in 2016 that cut off power and access to the winery, in 2017 the winery only being able to make a small fraction of its high-end wines due to the wildfires and the smoke from the wildfires in 2020 forcing them to make no Napa wine at all.

Yet Tim’s initial mission to “reestablish” the credentials of Hess with regards to making high-end Cabernet Sauvignon wines was never deterred. As he thought about the 30th anniversary of Hess Family Wine Estates, celebrated in 2011, it was now his responsibility to make sure that the winery stayed relevant for the next 30 years and that is where Stalworth came into the picture.


Tim Persson and Celia Welch blending Stalworth Photo Credit: Kim Serveau

Tim searched for a great Napa winemaker who would oversee the project of creating an iconic wine from the Rutherford Bench, raising the bar when it came to Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon wines. Despite there being a bunch of great winemakers in the area, he was determined to find someone who not only had a great understanding of what makes an outstanding vineyard in Napa but also had the lack of ego to allow that vineyard to speak for itself. And that is when Celia Welch’s name came up again and again as she was an expert when it came to making iconic Rutherford wines and so Tim and his wife sought out her various wines to taste, some easier to find than others, such as the hard to obtain Scarecrow. According to Tim, the lack of ego was evident in her wines, and he loved the “integrity, honesty and consistency of excellence” across all her different offerings. Tim and Sabrina’s connection to Celia was instant during their first meeting, and Tim noted that meeting Celia, unlike the rest of the Stalworth story, was smooth sailing from the first moment.

They found the ideal vineyard in the Rutherford Bench in 2015 but the back-to-back unfortunate events of extreme accumulation of drought from 2012 to 2015 as well as all the disasters suffered from 2014 to 2017, put off the first vintage of Stalworth until 2018 – considered a “spectacular year” that is “terroir-driven” according to Wine Spectator. Celia said that they had used that delayed time to truly understand that particular vineyard as well as have the time to experiment in the winery with the wines so they would be entirely prepared once they made the inaugural vintage. Also, the need to rebuild the winery, destroyed by an earthquake, helped to greenlight a tremendous amount of investment that would build a state-of-the-art winery giving them all the tools to reach greater heights.

Rebuilding the antique stone winery, originally built in 1903, took several years as there were many complications at every step of the process. When the new cellar opened with a celebratory dinner on August 14th, 2018, Tim googled the date right before he gave his opening speech at the dinner as he wanted to reference other historical events on that date, he realized that it happened to be the 4th anniversary to the date of when the winery was destroyed. 

Never Losing Sight of Being Fortunate

When it came time to name the wine, considering the very bumpy journey, Stalworth was ideal as it is a word that has evolved to describe someone who shows “determination, bravery and courage,” and Tim and his wife have certainly have had their dream, of evolving Hess Persson Estates to a higher standard of excellence, challenged in a multitude of ways.

The label features contemporary art that reminds Tim and Sabrina of their favorite poem called “The Journey” written by David Whyte. A section reads, “someone has written something new in the ashes of your life,” representing their chance to write something new in the ashes of the Hess winery.

Tim laughed when he thought about how unlucky his family viewed him as a child as he had almost broken every bone in his body during childhood and it seems that the barrage of unfortunate events with regards to the Stalworth project is just a continuation of his luckless tendencies, yet he has a very different perspective. “I cannot help but look at my life and think that I have been incredibly lucky,” he says with a strong sense of gratitude.

And the 2018 Stalworth certainly proves that he is indeed a very lucky man.

***Link to original article in Forbes:

2018 Stalworth Photo Credit: Mariana Calderon
2018 Stalworth and 2019 Stalworth Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

2018 Stalworth, Rutherford Bench, Napa Valley: 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Celia modestly pointed out that this vineyard in 2018 produced a Cabernet Sauvignon that was balanced entirely on its own with an extraordinary texture that is at once concentrated as it is refined with an overall “weightlessness” that does give it that remarkable ethereal quality, yet it finishes just as incredible as it starts with a juiciness that begs for another sip. The purity of the red cherry and blackberry fruit is stunning with those characteristic notes of anise seed and floral notes with tannins that are so fine they are imperceptible, yet they are obviously there supporting the wine along the long, expressive finish. Only 167 cases were made and it retails for $250 a bottle.

2019 Stalworth, Rutherford Bench, NapaValley: Mostly Cabernet Sauvignon with a minuscule amount of Malbec and Petit Verdot. Delicious cassis flavor to this wine that has lots of juiciness with blackberry preserves and baking spice with sweet tobacco leaf and crushed rocks all wrapped up in lush tannins and a superb length of flavor.

The 2019 is still in the preview stage and will not be released until most probably next year. But since it was showing so well, they are allowing media to try it. With regards to adding a slight amount of Malbec and Petit Verdot, Celia noted that it was more about “balancing the texture” as there might be either a dip in the mid-palate that needs to be filled in or maybe some rounding out as she always wants the last sip to be tasty as she wants to avoid any astringency. But she added less than a percent of each as she wants the wine to be a full expression of Cabernet Sauvignon and so the other varieties are just there to assist in bringing out the more complimentary elements of the Cab.

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Wine Grape Growers’ Old Vines In Chile Boosted After Devastating Earthquake

Waking from sleep with an increased heartbeat and overall sense of panic, the woman would often relive her typical nightmare of finding herself falling in various situations, although this time, the nightmare involved her riding a bus that fell off a cliff during an earthquake and that terrifying slow-motion moment of being in midair overwhelmed with frightening thoughts that at any second she would crash to the ground with shards of metal and glass flying everywhere. But she was able to set up a ritual of drinking warm water while sitting on her couch planting her feet firmly on the ground, saying to herself, “I am home, I am safe and the ground is stable,” and it instantly quelled her nerves.

Yet one night, at 3 am on February 27, 2010, she woke up in a cold sweat from one of the most intense falling dreams that she could remember, and so she got up quickly to get her glass of warm water and calm herself on her couch. But she could barely stand, many times falling to the ground as she tried to walk out of her bedroom and she felt she was still dreaming, still asleep, as she desperately tried to wake herself up. After three minutes, the ground ceased to move and after a few deep breaths, the woman realized that she had just experienced a severe earthquake in her home tucked away in the Maule region of Chile that she would later find out registered at an enormous magnitude of 8.8.

The earthquake caused a tsunami with 95-foot waves that killed more than 350 people staying in the coastal town of Constitución, in the Maule region. Since it happened in the middle of the night, many of the relatives and friends of those who died must have hoped that their loved ones were taken in their sleep as opposed to them being awakened by the earthquake and suffered a few minutes of terror before the gigantic wave crashed down. Even with Chile being well prepared for earthquakes and tsunami, in 2010 with earthquake building codes and extensive earthquake and tsunami training among first responders, schools and communities with drills and lessons that were learned from the magnitude-9.5 earthquake in 1960 – the largest earthquake recorded, there were still over 520 deaths, over 40 missing and presumed dead and USD $30 billion worth of damage.

Old Carignan vines Photo Credit: VIGNO – Vignadores de Carignan

Interestingly, these tragic earthquakes in Chile would greatly influence wine grape growing as a lesser-known red grape variety started its journey in Chile after the 1939 magnitude-8.3 earthquake that took place in the southern central part of Chile, leaving tens of thousands dead, and this grape would ultimately gain a cult following after the 2010 earthquake. That grape variety’s name is Carignan.

Old-Vine Carignan

According to South American wine expert Amanda Barnes, the red grape variety Carignan was planted in decent quantities after the 1939 earthquake in south-central Chile, as many of the wineries and vineyards were damaged and the grape would ideally help to bolster their industry. Chilean wine regions such as Maule and Bío-Bío in the south-central area of this long skinny country were known for growing the red variety País, planted in the U.S. centuries ago, known as the Mission grape, which had been considered an easy-drinking red with not much backbone that many locals would drink in Chile and so it needed a blending partner with the highly structured and weighty Carignan grape variety. Unfortunately, the government didn’t realize that Carignan was susceptible to mildew, so the project to plant more Carignan was abandoned. Amanda also noted that historically the North was given a lot more investment from the government in Chile than the South, and why today, in the South, there are many elderly men still farming small, dry-farmed old vines of Carignan in Maule, the most southern wine region in the Central Valley, as there was no investment or infrastructure built to help them either with replanting or selling to a big wine company.

Amanda Barnes in Chile
Photo Credit: Matt Wilson

But Amanda, who is an award-winning British wine and travel writer who has lived in South America since 2009, states in her highly regarded The South America Wine Guide (a book that has already won as well as was nominated for a couple of prestigious awards), “Maule is the grassroots of Chilean wine” and she continues by addressing that the region was erroneously seen as only having potential for cheap, bulk wine, as the “humble farming” families of Maule were no match for the “sexy new cool-coast regions”. Simply, this area didn’t have a chance to compete with the “wealthy investors that Maipo, Aconcagua and Colchagua” attracted. And hence, these families, producing wines from dry-farmed 50-year vines and older, some reaching over 100 years old, were forced to sell their grapes for almost nothing due to their lack of “market value and status”.

Amanda Barnes’ The South America Wine Guide
Photo Credit: Greg Funnell

But in the 1990s, a group of wine producers that included a wine journalist realized that low-yielding Carignan from these old vines could over-deliver more than anything they had tasted from the grape’s home in southern France or any place else. The stereotype of the overbearing bitterness and lack of charm that plagued Carignan was not common among these small family growers living in the “very dry and poor” Secano (translates to “rainfed”) area of Maule, and as they have learned better vineyard management, the wines have only increased in quality. These Carignan lovers formed a group that would regularly taste and discuss these wines, and since the market did not seem keen on trying them, they agreed the wines could only be appreciated by each other.


2019 Morandé VIGNO Photo Credit:
Cathrine Todd

That all changed with the 2010 earthquake that rocked the area, and the group of Carignan enthusiasts decided that the best way they could help the locals was to bring recognition to those remarkable vineyards and help raise the prices for these special vines. They formed an association called VIGNO (an acronym for Vignadores de Carignan) that would also become Chile’s first appellation in a way as it represents a designated area denoting the high quality, dry-farmed old vine Carignan vines in the Maule Secano area. 

VIGNO includes a group of 16 producers who have to abide by the following parameters to label it under the VIGNO name: sourcing grapes from dry-farmed, gobelet or bush trained vines that are at least 30 years or older located in the Maule Secano area, 70% or more of the blend must be Carignan and it must age for a minimum of two years in any vessel of the producer’s choosing. Also, the name VIGNO must be significantly bigger than the producer’s name on the label.  

Pablo Morandé is one of the producers who is part of the VIGNO group, and Amanda notes that he made his name as a “pioneer in Chile’s first cool-climate vineyard” in Casablanca back in the early ’80s. He has also made Carignan wines since the ’90s, but he said that no one was interested in the grape so he didn’t bother releasing it. Chile became known for its Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and eventually Carménère -people realized in the mid-90s much of the Merlot they loved was actually Carménère, as all the vines came from Bordeaux and Carménère is the lesser-known of the red Bordeaux varieties- and so if any wine drinker was going to have a Chilean wine from an atypical variety it was going to be Carménère, and that still holds true for many wine drinkers today. 

Today, Morandé makes VIGNO Carignan from vines that are at least 65 years old from one of these families that has been dry-farming bush vines for generations – the bottle retails for only $32. 

Tilling the soil at a Miguel Torres Chile vineyard Photo Credit: Miguel Torres Chile

The iconic wine producer originating in Spain, Miguel Torres, started their winery in Chile in 1979, and is part of the VIGNO group as well. Not only are they committed to promoting the old vines of Carignan, but Torres has been a big advocate of País, the local red grape originally from the Canary Islands, that previously used to make most of Chile’s homemade wines. But it was underappreciated for so long as it was made in a simple fashion, so many locals didn’t think much of it, and it took outsiders like Miguel Torres as well as others to realize the unique potential of the grapes that have vines that go up to 200 years old. 

Today Torres is the largest producer of País in the world with his delicious sparkling Estelado Rosé made from 100% País that comes from vines that range from 60 to over 100 years old from the Secano Interior DO – a designated area spanning across Maule as well as more southern areas of Bio Bío and Itata. Again, the Secano Interior is known for extraordinarily old Carignan and País vines because it was an underserved area of Chile in the past. Shockingly these bubbles filled with so much history only retails for $20. But the Torres team is also making red wines out of these remarkable País vineyards.

Bouchon wild País vines
Photo Credit: Bouchon Family Wines

It is impossible to speak about VIGNO as well as País without mentioning the producer Julio Bouchon and his Bouchon wines. Not only is he currently the president of VIGNO, but Amanda Barnes spoke about his evangelizing ability to convert the wine trade and consumers around the world to love País as much as he does, and Amanda notes that his País wines are some of the “best” in Chile. One of the wines he makes called ‘País Salvaje’ – Salvaje translates into “wild” – is made from wild País vines outside of an old País vineyard near a river creek. It is believed that workers were eating País grapes, and they threw the seeds into the river and the vines just grew upwards on trees. 

The age of these vines is unknown, but there are País vines nearby that are around 200 years old. The Bouchon ‘País Salvaje’ made from these rare vines retails at a jaw-dropping $20, and it is a beautifully complex wine. 

Lessons of Catastrophic Events

Initially, it seems almost impossible for most to see the good that comes out of catastrophic events, but for those few visionaries, who are the innovators and passionate evangelists in their particular industries, the opportunities to create a better world among their communities, not letting just a tragedy happen in vain, is crystal clear. And that is precisely what each of these VIGNO members has done for the area of Maule, as well as extending other projects that reach further south.

But it was not about these wine producers giving a handout, as not only does that financially work only in the short-term, but it doesn’t do anything to help with the basic need of someone finding value in their work. And in a way, the wine industry in Chile needs these small family growers with their gnarly old vines as much as they need the industry. These growers have been a great way to appeal to some of the up-and-coming sommeliers as these wines are authentically rooted in a long tradition, they are environmentally friendly with no irrigation, based on social responsibility – as they bring more money to poor communities – and let one not forget these wines are delightfully unique and fun to drink.

Chile has been fighting the idea that their wines are just cheaper, lower-quality versions of French or California wines, because Chile introduced their wines into the global market at a low price point, and hence, the misnomer that the wines are inferior has stuck. And therefore it has been a struggle to convince serious wine drinkers that Chile has wines that are genuinely unique to them, outside the entry-level offerings or even the expensive, high-scoring Chilean wines made by top producers who benefit from a tremendous amount of financial backing.

And the answer has been tucked away in vineyards among some of the poorest of the poor – it just took an earthquake and tsunami to finally see it.

***Link to original article published on Forbes:

2018 Miguel Torres, ‘Estelado’ Traditional Method Sparkling Brut Rosé
Photo Credit: Miguel Torres Chile

The below wines were tasted during the masterclass held by Amanda Barnes in New York in February of 2022.

2019 Carmen DO ‘Quijada’ Semillón Photo Credit: Carmen

2018 Miguel Torres, ‘Estelado’ Traditional Method Sparkling Brut Rosé, Secano Interior, Chile: 100% País, vines ranging from 60 to over 100 years old. Aromas of stony minerality and red cherries with strawberry skins on the palate and fresh acidity with a floral finish. Miguel Torres was established in Chile in 1979, and they are considered the pioneer of the modern wine industry and have a focus on Fair Trade practices and the social impact of País.

2019 Carmen DO ‘Quijada’ Semillón, Apalta, Chile: 100% Semillón made from vines planted in 1958. These grapes may come from the more established Apalta designated wine area, but the wine is undoubtedly a special offering with old vine Semillón vines. Intoxicating nose of honeysuckle and citrus blossom with juicy peach flavors and vibrant acidity evident on the palate. Carmen is one of Chile’s oldest wineries, founded in 1850. Their DO range highlights growers and distinctive terroirs and is a winery that employs experimental winemaking techniques.

2020 Longaví’ Glup!’ Cinsault, 2020 Rogue Vine ‘Grand Itala Tinto’, 2020 J. Bouchon ‘País Salvaje’ and 2020 Viña González Bastias ‘País en Tinaja’ Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

2020 Longaví’ Glup!’ Cinsault, Itala, Chile: 100% Cinsault from vines over 50 years old coming from the “heartland” of Cinsault in Chile – Itala. The 30% whole cluster fermentation certainly brings out the vivid bright black and red fruit yet there are also complex notes of broken earth with a lovely spiciness on the finish. Longaví was founded by Julio Bouchon and David Nieuwoudt in 2012 and started out focusing on Sauvignon Blanc, but today its focus is on old vines.

2020 Rogue Vine ‘Grand Itala Tinto’ Itata, Chile: 95% Cinsault and 5% País from vines planted in 1960. Herb-tinged red fruit that ranged from zingy cranberry to rich raspberries with a background of dried wildflowers with slightly firm tannins. Started in 2008 by Leo Erazo and Justin Decker, focusing on old bush vines in Itata that range from 70 to 150 years old with no irrigation, no rootstocks, planted in granitic rock, organic farming and low invention winemaking.

2020 J. Bouchon ‘País Salvaje’ Maule, Chile: 100% wild País vines with the age of vines unknown, although there are vines nearby that are around 200 years old. Lots of juicy, pure berry fruit with some hints of forest floor and pretty floral notes, and it is round and very inviting on the palate with tons of energy. Bouchon has been producing wines in the Maule since 1977 and has a focus on dry-farmed, old vines, a traditional family wine producer with an innovative outlook.

Destemming the grapes via zaranda
Photo Credit: Gonzalez Bastias

2020 Viña González Bastias ‘País en Tinaja’ Secano Interior, Chile: 100% País from vines over 200 years old. Before bottling, these grapes were destemmed via a zaranda, a traditional tool made of bamboo sticks, and matured in “tinaja”, 300-year-old terracotta amphorae. Notes of crushed flowers and pinecones with hints of dark chocolate orange peel and blueberry fruit on the palate with refreshing acidity. Viña González Bastias is a fifth-generation grower in Maule, run by Daniela and Jose Luis González Bastias, with old vines up to 200 years old. They are traditional farmers that make small production artisanal wines.

2019 De Martino ‘Old Vine Series Las Olvidadas’ Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

2019 De Martino ‘Old Vine Series Las Olvidadas’ Mezcla Tinta, Itata, Chile: 80% País and 20% San Francisco from vines ranging from 100 to 300 years old. The grapes are put through a zaranda as well and fermented together. Sour red cherry with bay leaf and fresh blackberry with hints of rosebud and tree bark and just an overall wild character with a touch of grip but plenty of fleshy fruit to balance it out. De Martino was started in 1934, and it is now a fourth-generation producer that likes to explore exciting terroirs that focus on the Itata area and old vines.

2019 TerraNoble ‘Grand Reserva’ Carignan
Photo Credit:
Cathrine Todd

2019 TerraNoble ‘Grand Reserva’ Carignan, Maule, Chile: 100% Carignan from vines that were planted in 1958. Brooding fruit and lit cigar invites one into a deeply concentrated wine with blackberry liqueur flavor and layers of complexity such as potpourri and new leather with marked acidity and structured tannins that give the concentrated fruit lift. TerraNoble was established in 1993 with its main focus being in the Maule, but they are also exploring other territories and being certified sustainable and vegan.  

2019 Morandé VIGNO Photo Credit:
Cathrine Todd

2019 Morandé VIGNO, Maule, Chile: Mostly Carignan with a small amount of Syrah and Chardonnay from a field blend over 65 years old. If one wants to experience the charm of Carignan, this is certainly a great wine to try with enchanting blueberry and blackberry fruit that expresses itself with ideal ripeness with soft acidity and hints of crushed granite and turmeric powder along the silky tannins with an overall elegance. Morandé was founded in 1996 by highly-respected winemaker Pablo Morandé. This wine is part of their ‘Aventuras’ line, representing their small production of experimental wines from their Aventuras winery that houses such fun vessels as cement eggs, ceramic tanks and amphorae, and much more.

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