Sunday, April 22, 2018

Review: Stewart 2015 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($50)

The color of this wine is so deep purple that it's almost too saturated for Pinot Noir, and the richness lasts through the intense first blackberry flavors, but then there's a decent amount of acid and tangy red fruit and brambly notes to bring it back into focus. My initial impression was that it's kind of heavy-handed, but by the second glass, I have to confess... it's growing on me. (90 Points)

Friday, April 20, 2018

Dalla Valle Vineyards Interview and Tasting

Last month, I was privileged to be invited to lunch with Naoko and Maya Dalla Valle of Dalla Valle Vineyards, a rightly revered estate located in Oakville on the bench overlooking Silverado Trail in Napa Valley.
Maya (L) and Naoko(R) Dalla Valle

If you're not familiar with Dalla Valle, it may be because you have never seen the brand in your local supermarket, or because they do not have an open tasting room in Napa Valley.

On the rare occasions that I've been invited (or weaseled myself in) to try coveted wines like Chateau Margaux, L'Ermita, Krug, or Lopez de Heredia, it's usually on their turf, and under highly controlled circumstances. It can be a lonely experience when you're just left alone in a grand reception room, or even when you're in a spiderweb-laced cellar with a few other tasters to try a few wines.

It can be alienating, and not an easy experience to share, because it's too precious. It makes me feel spoiled and I start to get suspicious about motives and who's watching - maybe because I don't feel worthy, I suppose. I also fell like if the company isn't special, and if my friends can't hang, then maybe it isn't so special after all.

And I suppose that's kinda why Steph Curry takes Drake to In-n-Out Burger after Warriors games.There's always that part of a grounded person that wants to suppress the pretentiousness and privilege.

But my lunch meeting with Naoko and Maya Dalla Valle was lovely. I found them to be very down-to-earth and personable. It was nice to meet on neutral turf and hear more about their story. I felt no desire to drive through In-n-Out after our lunch to cleanse or devile myself with a greasy burger.

Naoko and Maya don't do a ton of interviews. Why? Mostly because they don't have to, and that's a privilege that I can certainly appreciate. Naoko, in particular, seems to appreciate not being a center of attention. I get the firm impression that she'd rather be growing wine grapes and directing a complicated, small business than hosting showy events every other evening. If I were in her shoes, I think I'd feel the same way.

But since they have a new public relations firm that wants to get them out of the house a little more often, I was blessed with an appointment. And a lovely one it was. We met up at Wood Tavern on College Avenue in Oakland and had a great conversation and some very remarkable wines over duck confit and other delights. It was a genuine pleasure meeting them.

Maya, Tim T. and Naoko

Dalla Valle is a small, Family-owned Estate. Dalla Valle is owned by Naoko and Maya Dalla Valle. Naoko is the widow of the late Gustav Dalla Valle, and Italian Steve Zissou sort of figure, who founded the scuba diving equipment business Scubapro, and was an anthropological diver. Gustav died in 1995, and Naoko has held the reins of the estate ever since, overseeing a major re-planting in the mid-90's right after her husband's death. This estate-only wine  company only makes about 3,000 cases a year.

Initial Italian Influence and Tony Soter. It think it sometimes helps to understand what the impetus for company was, and in this case, there was Gustav's Italian inclination to try to do something Italian inspired. So they planted Sangiovese. Ten percent of the initial planting was Sangiovese.

Sangiovese performs extremely well on the mid-Napa Valley bench, but the profitability doesn't pencil out so well these days. Cabernet brings a much higher price per ton. Maya Dalle Valle told me that their early consultant, and noted Californa winemaking consultant Tony Soter, was the first to frankly tell her mom that she needed to re-think that plan and plant more Bordeaux varieties. From that point forward, Cabernet Franc figured even more prominently in the blends of Dalla Valle wines, which are largely based on Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.

"He (Tony Soter) was a philosophy major, and he really opened my eyes to winegrowing," Naoko said. "He was never trying to put his own stamp on the wines."

Dalla Valle and the Whole Cult Cab Category:

Dalla Valle is often lumped into the "Cult Cabernet" class that emerged in the mid-1990s and became even more coveted as those with virtually unlimited expendable income in California's tech boom sought out the best that Napa had to offer in the late 1990's. These were the wines that achieved superior critical scores, and were also so limited that everyone just had to have them.

Part of what that means is that for many, Dalla Valle is out of reach. Dalla Valle does not have a tasting room that you can just stop by. And if you don't rate, you will not be able to call for an appointment to stop by and hang out at Dalla Valle. The waiting list for their wines is significant, and those wines are hardly inexpensive. Their cheapest Collina wine is $100 on release, Dalla Valle's Cabernet Sauvignon is $200, and Dalla Valle Maya goes for $400 out of the gate. Rarity certainly factors into the price. They only make about 3,000 cases of wine a year, which is not a lot for any winery, especially for a brand as famous and venerable as Dalla Valle. It's a really small operation, and I think that's important to remember.

Along with Dalla Valle, Screaming Eagle, Harlan Estate, Araujo, Bryant and Colgin are usually included in that "cult" Cabernet  club. Prices of their wines can sometimes increase hysterically, and plenty of other ambitious souls are always ready to jump into the game.

Schrader, Scarecrow, Brand, Abreu, Bevan Cellars and others have jumped into the fray of mad-limited, high-scoring hipster brands, many of which make extraordinary wines. Just don't think that they are all equal.

For example, I have not been blown away by Screaming Eagle and Colgin. I think they are technically very well-made wines, and I can absolutely understand why many people love them, but they just aren't my style. There are some gonzo wines that I find to be excessive, and lacking the finesse and the subtlety that I believe goes hand-in-hand with greatness, and that's frankly true of a lot of so-called "Reserve" Napa Valley wines that are often way bigger and more aggressive than they should be.

Most of these so-called "cult" wineries have extraordinary talent both in the winery and in the vineyards, but they do diverge in style to some degree. Some swing for the fences in terms of intensity and volume. Some are more subtle. I would put Dalla Valle in the latter camp. One arrow in Dalla Valle's quiver is the estimable Michel Rolland, hero to some, villain to others. Back to that topic in a moment...

What Makes a Truly Special Wine

The best, most special wines have a 'sense of place,' meaning they don't pretend to be anything other than what they are and where they came from, and they're very clear about that. These things are not the easiest to talk about, because they involve the perpetually controversial topics of terroir and minerality and all of the things that amateur ignoramuses can't wrap their heads around in this industry, but I'll briefly say this... Dalla Valle wines come from the eastern side of the central Napa Valley zone known as the Oakville District. Believe it or not, I wrote the text for the website for the Oakville District of Napa Valley a number of years ago. It's really nerdy, but if you care about this sort of thing, it's arguably relevant.

Napa Valley is a pretty special place for growing wine, particularly once you get up off of the valley floor and onto the hillsides. The climate is near perfect and forever forgiving.

The eastern slopes of the Oakville District of Napa Valley, where Dalla Valle's estate is located, are dominated by the volcanic basalt bluffs of the Vaca Mountain range, but other gravelly rocks tumble down into the bench area where Dalla Valle is located. Dalla Valle's wines are often described as having a 'cinder' or 'campfire' note. I would attribute that in part to the volcanic part of the soil profile, which gives a soft, dark note to the wines. There is also a pronounced gravelly, brighter rocky note to the wines that might be more associated with the the western side of the valley, but I think you can also find it on the Eastern side of the valley, to some degree, from rocks tumbled down the hills over the years.

The geology of Napa Valley is insanely complex, and that's one of the reasons that you can have an exceptionally complicated wine produced on a relatively small parcel of land. That's part of what makes Napa Valley special - especially on the hillside and mountain sites on either side of the valley.

I just find Dalla Valle's wines to be very articulate, not over-ripe, and not overly mucked up with obnoxious new oak. They really do have a distinct personality and a sense of place.

OK, Let's Talk About Michel Rolland

Michel Roland, a consultant factor in many top wines, is incredibly gifted at blending wines. I have traveled the world and visited many wineries he has consulted for. The guy is a genius. He's the Rick Rubin of winemaking.

"People forget that he's really not so much a winemaker as a consultant, but a blender," says Naoko. "He usually comes in and creates a few blends, but he's usually right the first time."

But some people feel that Rolland's influence has been too widespread, leading to a homogenization of great wines across the international wine scene. I haven't met the guy personally, but I've visited a lot of wineries that he coaches and consults for all around the world, from Bordeaux to Argentina to California. In my experience, the wines tend to be really good. Personally, I think he's raised the bar substantially, especially when it comes to blending the final wine composed from a bunch of different barrels from different sites on a given estate.

The wines he works on always have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They have drama and personality. They tend to be seamless and precise. Michel Rolland certainly has all kinds of haters, all of whom can go to hell in my humble opinion. The man deserves great respect and has very much shaped the aesthetic of what modern wine should be, and that's why so many of his wines enjoy wide acclaim. Any aspiring wine consultants should be taking notes from Michel Rolland, not talking trash about him. Is there a Michel Rolland formula? Yeah, it's making great tasting wine. And he's probably a lot better at it than you are.

Phil Spector was a brilliant music producer. Phil Spector is also a lunatic murderer. Michel Rolland is a brilliant wine constructor, but he isn't a diabolical murderer. Like Phil Spector, he's also hardly a minimalist. His blends are symphonic. He's just really good at making great wine, and a lot of the criticism that has been leveled at him over the past fifteen years is ludicrous.

Someday someone will gracefully articulate an alternative aesthetic that has an equal, popular appeal to that of Michel Rolland's sense of balance in expensive red wine. At least with regard to high end Bordeaux-style wines, I don't think that there is a more coherent aesthetic at this point. If Michel Rolland is blending your wine and training your winemakers, you have an advantage, albeit an expensive one.

The Repetitive Side of Napa Valley

The overlap of talent at some of these wineries can be yawn-inducing in its repetitiveness. A short list of winemakers and consultants dominate the top 50 list of the most expensive wines from Napa Valley. That said, they do not all have the exact same aesthetic sensibilities, and perhaps you can chalk the difference up to terroir, coupled with the aesthetics of the owners if they are so bold as to assert their preferences.

If you are in the rare position of having the opportunity to taste a few of these from time to time, you can begin to form an opinion as to those that you think rise above the others.

One of the so-called cult wineries that I can endorse is Dalla Valle.

The wines are extraordinarily balanced and complex. They aren't gonzo, ultra-ripe, sappy wines like some other Napa Cult Cabs. They speak clearly of the east side of the mid-Napa, Oakville bench that they come from, they are refined, tasteful and incredibly layered and well-blended, and all from a compact, 20-acre estate.

The chief winemaker at Dalla Valle today is Andy Erickson, also a consultant to Spottswoode, another one of my absolute favorite Napa wineries. Michel Rolland flies in to make the final blend for the three reds. Erickson is reportedly comfortable with the fact that at some point, Maya will take over chief winemaker duties at Dalla Valle, and she seems a worthy candidate.

The Next Generation

It is anticipated that Maya herself will ultimately be the chief winemaker at Dalla Valle, taking over the family business from the famous consultants that have guided Dalla Valle's winemaking to date.

Maya Dalle Valle studied oenology, among other things, at Cornell. "I didn't want to go the easy way," she says. She did drift back home to her family's winery, and I'm not suggesting that's an easy pursuit, either. At Dalla Valle, she would be taking up a very big torch, and it wasn't necessarily going to be a simple legacy situation.

Her mother, Naoko was willing to give her a shot, but she wanted to make sure she was qualified, and we all know that sometimes our parents can be our harshest critics. "You know I won't hire you if you don't have the right degree," her mom reminded her.

Maya did stints as a production assistant with Rolland in Argentina as well as at Petrus, Chateau Latour, and Ch. Canon La Gaffeliere. To put it briefly, she has tasted a lot of great wine and knows how to make it. As the heir apparent, she has some real advantages.

To me, the best winemakers are the ones that have the best, most refined taste in wine. They know what great wine tastes like, so they have a target that they're trying to hit. The best of them think like critics, not in that they try to forecast what a particular critic will like, but in that they try to make wines with the hallmarks that a good critic looks for: precision and flair.

You might be surprised how few people have really spent their lives tasting great wines before they set out to be winemakers. Maya Dalla Valle is still young, but she already knows what great wine tastes like, and that is distinct head start.

One of the other most important things that great winemakers understand is that to make a wine that is compelling and thrilling, you have to first start with a really fine site that has first class potential. Next, you employ best practices and more in the vineyard. Finally, after harvest, you have to channel the true nature of the vineyard straight into the bottle without interfering with it too much, just gently polishing and managing the wine along the way. It think that has been the course for Dalla Valle for several decades.

The Wines Are Expensive. No joke. These Dalla Valle wines are very expensive, made from one of the legit best Cabernet and Cab Franc Regions in the world. Production of  Maya is nearing 1,000 cases at $400 release price per botle. The Napa Valley Cabernet is $200 per bottle release price, also about 1,000 cases per year. "Collina" is about $100  per bottle and though it is made from younger plantings aged about 7-8 years, they are already what would normally be considered fully mature.

Dalla Valle  2015 "Collina" Red Wine Napa Valley ($85) Super impressive, even at this price. I have no doubt the family could sell it for more, but Naoko says that she really wants to leave the door open for new and younger customers.It's made from younger vines than the other wines, but the vines are ten years old and fully mature. It's vibrant, fresh, focused and complex.  It's made from younger vines than the other wines, but the vines are ten years old and fully mature. Even at this price, I have to concede that it's arguably a great value. There are layers of nuance and sophistication that you just don't see in a lot of bombastic Napa Cabs that sell for well over $100. (94 Points)

Dalla Valle 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley ($200) One of the truly original "Cult" Cabernets, with only about 1,000 cases produced in a given vintage. Why is it so coveted? Well, not because it's one of those overblown, overripe, high alcohol trainwreck wines. It's way more subtle than that. This Dalla Valle Cabernet is a remarkably complex blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc from a relatively small 20-acre site. The nose is almost salty smelling, with crushed rock, dried flower, dried herb, graphite, gunpowder, smoke and black and red fruit aromas. It's beautifully balanced and seamless in the mouth. The oak is perfectly integrated. Everything is in it's place, and it isn't easy to separate out a lot of independent flavors, which is really the hallmark of an artfully blended wine. There's enough grippy, tarry tannin and sufficient acid to carry it for twenty years or more, and a lingering gravelly minerality on the finish. Truly special. (96 Points)

Dalla Valle 2014 Maya Propietary Blend Napa Valley ($400) Dalla Valle can rightly claim to be at the forefront of the "proprietary blend" not-Cabernet labeled Napa Bordeaux blend movement with this Cabernet Franc dependent blend. It's a deep, intense red with cassis, blackberry, tar, gravelly mineral notes and length to spare. It has a lot of the terroir in common with the Cabernet Sauvignon from Dalla Valle, but it is blockier, sturdier, and should be longer lived. At this age, I don't know that I could justify double the price of the Cabernet Sauvignon, but maybe, over time, this is a wine that outlives it by fifteen years. For me, it is a tad more intense, and should be longer lived, one for the ages. (96 Points)

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Review: Dutton Estate 2016 Kylie's Cuvee Sauvignon Blanc Russian River Valley ($25)

This lovely Spring white comes from Dutton Ranch's Shop Block and Cohen Vineyard in Green Valley. I love the way the green notes of Sauvignon aren't suppressed or covered up in this wine. There are pretty grass and clover aromas, lemongrass, pink grapefruit and yuzu flavors. Fermented in stainless steel and matured briefly in older, neutral oak barrels, it shows great restraint and purity, but has plenty of flavor. And a few more months in the bottle doesn't seem to have hurt this 2016 white wine one bit. Highly recommended! (92 points)

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Review: Goldeneye 2014 Confluence Vineyard Pinot Noir Anderson Valley ($84)

Goldeneye makes some of the most opulent, fine, and yes, expensive Pinot Noirs from Anderson Valley in Mendocino County, a region that has been quietly cranking out much of the North Coast's finest Pinot Noir and Chardonnay over the past two decades. This single vineyard wine from the Confluence Vineyard in the heart of Anderson Valley where the winery itself is located has deep berry fruit and is sweet and sour on the palate with an amalgam of conifer, soil, clove and gamy notes that give it a slightly wild, untamed quality. I mean that in the best possible way, too, in that as much as the wine is easily recognized as Pinot, it has tons of personality, making it easily distinguishable from run-of-the-mill Pinot Noir. And that's exactly what makes some wines worth a lot more money than others. (94 Points)

Monday, March 12, 2018

2005 Terra Valentine Wurtele Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley

For no reason at all, often the best reason, I decided to plunder my cellar on a solo night at home. A 13 year-old Napa Cabernet seemed like a really great idea, and I have long been a fan of Spring Mountain, Terra Valentine, longtime winemaker Sam Baxter, and the Wurtele Family (R.I.P. Angus Wurtele, a genuinely great guy,  who died in the fall of 2017).

I'm glad I picked out this wine tonight. It's beautiful, and a lovely interpretation of both Spring Mountain and Wurtele Vineyard.

What I have always loved about the Spring Mountain District is how a single vineyard can have so much complexity, because that part of the Mayacamas range has three geologic plates converging, and the soils are unusually complex, sometimes changing every few yards. What that can do, in these elevated, lean sites, is that it can give a wine all sorts of different nuances of texture and minerality within a relatively small single vineyard site. Then, when you also factor in all the environmental flavors contributed by the forest and scrub, you get some incredibly complex and varied wines, arguably the most complex and complete wines in all of Napa Valley.

Terra Valentine's Wurtele Vineyard has always made a wine that was almost Tuscan in its flavor profile in a way that's hard to describe. Here, this fully mature vintage of the wine just seems to reinforce that feeling. It smells of dried flowers, cinnamon, bay laurel and mint and it has a deep, dark, brooding core of black cherry, plum, and black olive flavors with a deep, saline minerality. Just reading those tasting notes, it might sound old, but that deep, dark red fruit core is perfectly in balance with all of the other dark, savory and mineral notes. In a lot of ways it tastes like an aged Tuscan Cabernet / Sangiovese blend just as much as it does like an aged Napa Cabernet. And it's kind of fascinating and curious in that way, because I don't think there are many other Spring Mountain District Cabernets that I would describe this way.

If you ever have an opportunity to visit Terra Valentine, don't pass it up. Usually all it takes is a quick call and advance reservation. The winery and buildings are profoundly infused with the spirit and sensibilities of the quirky engineer and inventor that founded the property and who built the winery with his own bare hands.

Happy 13th birthday. Here's lookin' at you, kid. (93 Points)

An Afternoon with Byron Kosuge

A week ago I sat down for an afternoon wine tasting with Byron Kosuge, a veteran winemaker and consultant for several wineries and estates in California, as well as Kingston Family Vineyards in Chile. He’s probably best known these days for his own B. Kosuge label. It’s still a pretty small brand, but the wines are subtle and understated, just like Kosuge himself.

Kosuge was fortunate to land his first wine job at Saintsbury, a rising star in the Carneros Pinot Noir and Chardonnay scene in the mid-1980’s. It was an exciting time for American Pinot Noir as Napa wineries focused on the cool southern part of Napa – Carneros – as a source of higher quality Pinot Noir.

After working his way up to the head winemaking position, Kosuge would help that Saintsbury cement itself as a leading California Pinot Noir and Chardonnay brand in the 1990’s.

To hear the story told through Kosuge’s own memories, it sounds like the story of an unassuming guy who was just tossed into the roiling surf of a fast-changing California wine trend. Sure, he did catch a big wave, but he also deserves credit for what he made out of that wave, at Saintsbury and beyond. 

His most recent work is a demonstration of what he has learned and what he has become. 
“I started out at Saintsbury after college in 1985. They had just built a winery and they were only making about 7,500 cases a year. Between ‘85 and the early ‘90s it grew a lot, up to about 40,000 cases. They also started buying vineyards and planted 3 estate vineyards.” Kosuge told me that watching those vineyards being planted and seeing the thought process that went into the process taught him a lot.  

“Working there turned me into a Pinot and Chardonnay guy, where before I didn’t have any specific ambitions,” Kosuge told me.  

These days, Kosuge comes across as really well grounded. He’s modest, thoughtful, introspective, and soft-spoken. He’s making a different style of wine than he did in the 1990’s. It’s a more minimalist, delicate style of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that’s less sweet and opulent, uses less new oak, and aims to make wines that are more bright and elegant.

Kosuge isn’t the only winemaker that has headed down this aesthetic path. He’s one of quite a few. Most of them are small producers that know that they’re catering to a fairly small, but fast-growing, audience that appreciates this fresher California style. But where some old school California Pinot and Chardonnay winemakers are still being dragged kicking and screaming into the modern era, Kosuge has been along for the ride all along and has invaluable perspective. And it shows in the nuanced ripeness, richness and elegance of his wines.

“My guiding principles: have changed over the years. I had two not-particularly-reconcilable guiding principles about making Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Burgundy was the model everyone wanted to emulate. People copied the techniques. On the other hand, it was also important for me not to try to make wines into something that they were not. California Pinot Noir and Burgundy just don’t taste the same. It wasn’t really possible to make California Pinot Noir taste like Burgundy through manipulation. I learned to appreciate Pinot Noir by drinking Burgundy and appreciated the perfumed style of wine.”

“It was a slightly uneasy compromise. “California shifted toward riper styles of wine and there were people richly rewarded for pursuing that style. I want to make fresher wines that aren’t Burgundy, but that have some of that energy. The way to get there is not to copy Burgundy. This process started around 2011. I started backing off of new oak, bottling earlier, and choosing the right sites is really important.”

For a lot of winemakers pursuing a more elegant style led to a migration of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay specialists from Carneros in the 1990s, to Russian River Valley in Sonoma, and then to even cooler sites on the Sonoma Coast, Anderson Valley in Mendocino County, and the high coastal and inland ridgelines of Mendocino County. 

Kosuge told me that in the 1990’s Carneros was a great source of grapes for larger Napa Valley brands that wanted to source decent Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes from the cooler southern end of the valley. There really weren’t that many boutique Pinot Noir and Chardonnay brands that were based in Carneros and that were really raising the bar. Saintsbury was one of them. Etude was another, and there were a few small brands like Ancien, but Carneros was essentially delivering the ripe, fruity style of grapes that would appeal to the same folks who buy big, rich Napa Cabernets. And some of the vineyard sites are better than others.

There are still great Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays made in Carneros. And Kosugue knows the best sites as well as anyone. Carneros still has a special place in his heart. “I do still make Carneros Pinot, but I try to make it in a fresh, energetic style. I’m not picking way earlier… well, a little maybe. I’m also drawn emotionally and intellectually to making wine in a relatively natural style. Not making ‘Natural’ wine per se, but not using a lot of remedial techniques.”

Today Kosuge makes about 1,200 cases of wine a year, most of it Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from the Sonoma Coast and Carneros, but he does consult with a number of other wineries, as he has done for years. His own wines are distributed by Swirl in California, Skurnik wines in NY, NJ, Connecticut, and he sells a bit in Massachussets and North Carolina.

“I started my own brand in 2004, but I had done a lot of consulting on Carneros projects, sometimes with larger wineries that were sourcing grapes from Carneros. It was fun being part of the brain trust of some of those programs,” said Kosuge.

 I had also met Courtney (Kingston) and started to work for her around the same time,” Kosuge explained. Kingston Family Vineyards is one of the handful of family-owned estates that has been pioneering the cool, coastal frontier of the Chilean wine scene in the last 15 years. Working with Kingston has been a great education for Kosuge, allowing him to work two harvests per vintage under circumstances that are both similar and different.

“My experience in Chile has been one of the most oenologically invigorating thing I have ever done. I first went down in December of ’02. I had met Courtney and talked about pioneering in Chile. At Saintsbury, I had some interns and assistants from New Zealand – there was a lot of back and forth. I thought they had an up and coming pinot industry, and I was really interested in working there. It’s beautiful, people are nice and I sniffed around for opportunities, but nothing really turned up.  Then the Kinsgston thing happened when the Kingstons visited Saintsbury doing their homework.  Our paths crossed several times in the late 1990s. In 2002, I went to Steamboat Pinot Noir Conference retreat in Oregon.”

The Steamboat Pinot Noir conference is sort of a ‘safe place’ for Pinot Noir makers from around the world to come together in a relatively private setting away from the bright lights to share ideas, tips, and receive some peer reviews. I haven’t been, but that’s my rough understanding of the concept.
“Courtney was there with a bunch of maps. Originally they wanted to be a named vineyard just selling grapes, but they decided they wanted to make some of their own wine. The big Chilean wineries only wanted to market and promote their own vineyards.  Making and marketing their own wine was the way for the Kingstons to develop their vineyard’s brand.” Said Kosuge.  He decided to sign on for the commute.

“A couple of years later, we shared the first wines with some tastemakers like Raj Parr and Debbie Zachareas and they thought the wines had some commercial potential,” said Kosuge

Working with Kingston was an eye-opener for me because I found Central Chile to be very similar to the Central Coast of California. The light was similar, and the plants even looked similar from a distance, even though they were different when you got up close. It didn’t take very long for me to figure out in the tough 2004 and 2005 vintages that the fruit behaves differently and needs to be treated differently in the winery,” Kosuge told me.  

“Chilean Pinot does not like new oak at all. It’s much more tannic, and the tannins are different than California Pinot Noir. After the first couple of years we had more used barrels to work with. It wasn’t easy to buy used barrels when we started. We needed to rethink the extraction and use less pumping over and punching down - that really started around 2011 or 2012. By then, the vines were getting more mature, which made me more comfortable picking earlier and using more whole clusters (including the stems in the fermentation). Dealing with some of those challenges in the first eight or ten years made me think a lot about how I make California wines and I started to think that I could apply some of the same techniques to my California wines - especially in the maturation process,” said Kosuge.

Kosuge has become fond of maturing wines in fashionable concrete eggs. He says he could use square concrete tanks, too, but he also notes that when you ferment wines in egg-shaped vessels they seem to circulate the must naturally and gently.  He first had an opportunity to work with them in Chile and now uses them frequently in California.

Making wine twice a year in North and South America meant that he could learn more quickly by trying more new things.

“Between 2004 and ’08 I was frustrated with how the flavors were developing in the Chilean Pinot Noirs. They have a bit of a tobacco, smoky, not exactly 'green' flavor. I had to acknowledge that it was part of the character of the fruit. If it got strong I didn’t like it, so I knew I had to work on my extraction techniques. It was nice to get taken out of my confort zone, and I think it made me a better winemaker,” Kosuge told me. 

Today Kosuge also makes wine for Miura and Small Vines in Sebastapol where he makes his own wines. He also makes a bit of wine for McEvoy Ranch (probably best known for their olive oil, and Alder Springs, a high altitude estate in Mendocino County.

“Alder Springs is not really a marine climate. It’s mostly between 2,000 and 2,800 feet in elevation, and that combined with how far north it is, gives you a short growing season. It’s cold in spring, hot in summer and cold again in fall,” said Kosuge. For his own wines, he works mostly with fruit from Sonoma Coast and Carneros, including vineyards like Hirsch on the Sonoma Coast and Manchester Ridge in Mendocino County.

I know… finally, right!

B. Kosuge 2015 Chardonnay Sonoma Coast ($35) Caramel, white peach, lemongrass lemon curd. A blend of two vineyards. 60% from Keller Estate’s vineyard and 40% brom Barlow. Made in Concrete eggs and oak. I wanted to work with something not as neutral as stainless steel but more neutral than oak. What is true about the eggs is that the wine is more in motion while active. I think that’s because of the motion, especially with malo, where the yeast and bacteria stay more suspended. (91)
B. Kosuge 2015 Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast ($30) I has a very pretty nose, and is made in a fairly lean style with strawberry ,black pepper and cherry, very lively on the palate with great acidity. It might be on the lean side for some, but it’s a good example of contemporary Sonoma Coast PN. (91)

Byron Says: “I’m not trying to hit 12% alcohol. My style is less sweet than it used to be. In 2004 to 2008 I used to make wines that tended to be over 14% and now then tend to be under. One factor is that the vines are older, and the growers are older and smarter. Many of the improvements have happened in the vineyard like deficit irrigation and vine nutrition. A lot of that happened in the 1990’s. At Saintsbury we sometimes picked riper to compensate for weaker viticulture practices. Now, 25 years later, if you want to pick at 23 brix, you can get it ripe at that sugar level.”

B. Kosuge 2015 ‘The Habitat’ Pinot Noir  Sonoma Coast ($45) Sourced from Barlow Homestead Vineyard  just outside of Sebastapol, which is very densely planted, and a relatively young vineyard planted around 2009. Blueberry, raspberry liqueur, white pepper, and sassafras notes with tangy acidity. It has an intriguing sweetness to the fruit character, but is a very dry, elegant wine. (93)

B. Kosuge 2015 Hirsch Vineyard Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast ($56) Hirsch Vineyard is a fine 
property, but it’s also an extremely cool site quite close to the Pacific and it does tend to make wines that are rather light, fragrant and on the lean side, even for my liking. I like this one more than some other wines I’ve had from Hirsch in the past. It’s perfumed and quite elgant with pretty wild strawberry fruit and great acid. It’s not deep or hearty or dark, but it is very pretty, if a tad fleeting on the palate. Not cheap, and probably not for everyone, but it’s a very interesting, cutting edge wine, and very well made at that. (90)

B. Kosuge 2015 ‘El Galpon’ Pinot Noir Carneros ($30) Supple and spicy with violet and  cinnamon notes on the nose, plum, white pepper, cherry, cola flavors.. Finishes lively. Not a lot of new oak on it. This wine is matures exclusively in concrete vessels. Galpon means shed / workshop . (91)

B. Kosuge 2015 “The Shop” Pinot Noir Carneros ($35) A little more oak here. 60% aged in oak, 40% in Concrete. Toastier, woodier nose with some floral violet and rose and herb notes. Sandalwood, very savory, salty, less fruity with supple plum, cherry flavors, cardamom, mint. More whole clusters to add some carbonic quality for fresh, grapey flavors. Not my favorite, but good. (88)

Next up is a Gamay – a variety that you won’t find much of in Napa or Sonoma these days.

Byron says: “In 2014 I went up to the Foothills and met with a guy named  Ron Mansfield and bought some Gamay budwood because I love Beaujolais. Gamay grapes were impossible to find in Napa and Sonoma. All of the true Gamay was up in El Dorado County, which seemed too far away to source. At The Shop they were willing to graft over ½ acre if I supplied the budwood and promised to buy all of the grapes. GoldbudFarms is Ron’s property.”

“It gets no carbonic maceration as you might get with traditional mass-market Beaujolais, but lots of whole clusters in the fermentation tank, punched down and pumped over. I treated it a little more delicately than I would pinot noir. It has a really low pH and more color than you might think. It really likes to age in concrete tanks.”

B. Kosuge 2016 Gamay Noir Carneros ($25) Kosuge says he is definitely aiming for more of a ‘cru’ style, high quality Beaujolais archetype. The wine has good depth, pretty grape, violet, aromas, but it is still reductive and, needs some air. Tasting it again over the next couple of days, it seems like a really nice wine, but it doesn’t really have the minerally profile that distinguishes Cru Beaujolais. It’s very good, but not spectacular. (87)

B. Kosuge 2016 Rosé Carneros ($18) This saignée from Carneros Pinot Noir and Gamay  grapes makes all kinds of sense. The saignee process involves draining a bit of pink tinted wine off of fully ripened lots of fermenting red wine and tends to result in rosés that are less floral and more fruity and fleshy. Unlike rosé wines made from grapes intended to make a rosé and accordingly picked earlier, it is essentially a by-product of making a red wine. But when you pick grapes when they are still fresh, as Kosuge does, you can make a lovely saignéee rosé. It’s fermented in neutral barrels, displays a bright pink color, watermelon jolly rancher flavors, strawberry, violet, and racy citrus notes. Delicious. (91)

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Robert Lloyd Chardonnays: 2015 Prescription Chardonnay and 2016 Lloyd Carneros Chardonnay Review

2015 Prescription Chardonnay Clarksburg, CA ($20) Rob Lloyd (Loyd Cellars, also worked at La Crema, Rombauer) makes this wine from a vineyard in Clarksburg (near Lodi in the Central Valley / Delta neighborhood) owned by James Reamer. It's a bombastic, fruit-driven Chardonnay with exotic papaya, apricot, nectarine, and citrus flavors, good body, and tons of flavor. It's also unoaked, so it doesn't have those toast and vanilla notes that would just be 'piling on' if they were there. It may have just a bit of residual sugar, but it's not sweet, just a legit fruitbomb. It reminds me a bit of Newton's 'Unfiltered' Napa Valley Chardonnay. I personally prefer a leaner, racier style, but I can see a lot of people appreciating this white, and some will absolutely love it. 88 Points

2016 Lloyd Chardonnay Carneros ($40)
This one is a little more by-the-book in style, a little more restrained, and probably more sophisticated by most measures. It's very fine quality with fuji apple, apricot and white peach fruit notes, well-integrated, creamy oak, plenty of flavor and a mellow, balanced finish. It's very much a Chardonnay for California Chardonnay lovers - sunny and generous, but it also is subtle and balanced. It won't dissapoint. 91 Points