Friday, August 17, 2018

Fort Ross Vineyard - Sonoma Coast

by Tim Teichgraeber

In March I had the great privilege of visiting Fort Ross Vineyard near the Sonoma Coast of Sonoma County, in what is now recognized as the Fort Ross Seaview AVA (American Viticultural Area). This is a relatively new AVA designated for vineyards that are above 1,200 feet and within a certain proximity of the Pacific Ocean.

I have a particular inclination toward these AVA designations that are built around distinctions of both location and altitude. In California the soils tend to be fairly young compared to a lot of wine-growing regions around the world. On the valley floors, the soils tend to be rather rich, and therefore not very well suited for growing great wine grapes. At higher elevations, the growing conditions change in a few regards, and the soils always become leaner and more rocky, yielding smaller crops of more intensely flavored, structured, and flavored grapes. Better grapes that make more interesting and longer-lived wines.

Fort Ross is a remarkably rugged site, and one that is notable for both its altitude and its proximity to the ocean.It's stunning, actually. What is fascinating about this site is that it clearly features the cold water influence of the Pacific Ocean that is constantly washing around out there. The air at Fort Ross is chilly, and the breezes are brisk.But because of its altitude, the vineyards are often basking in the sun, overlooking the reliable marine fog banks that otherwise shrouds the lower-lying coast.

Lester and Linda Schwartz purchased this 1,000 acre, heavily-forested and high-altitude ranch in 1988 and started to plant some of the first parts of the vineyards themselves in 1994. Today they have just 50 acres planted, mostly at elevations around 1,500 feet, on challenging slopes and swales just a couple of miles from the Pacific Ocean not too far from the town of Jenner. The scenery is epic, and so are the wines.

To me, the far west Pacific Coast stretch from Sonoma County up through Mendocino County is one of the most exciting wine regions in California, and perhaps in the entire world. California wines have proven themselves more than worthy on the international stage, but the vast majority of these best California wines are still enjoyed here in the West Coast of the United States. Few of them even make it to New York, maybe only a few bottles to a few fine restaurants. The wines made here defy the stereotype that California wines are clumsy fruitbombs. That is no longer the case.

In the last ten or fifteen years, winegrowers seeking increased elegance and refinement have been creeping into cooler climates near the very cold California Pacific Ocean, where very cool winegrowing conditions and maritime fog layers slow retard the development of grapes and ultimately produce higher acid, less fruity, more savory wines. Some would say that their overall aesthetics are more comparable traditional wines from Burgundy, the inspiration for all classic Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

These young blood Cali wines are much more elegant than California wines that came before them, but they aren't trying to be wines from Burgundy. They are reflections of their unique growing environment and climate, and they're every bit as special and articulate as the finest Burgundies. I personally think that the best of these wines are positively thrilling. They're completely different from, but on par with great wines from Burgundy, and retailing for $30 to $70, they are comparative bargains, at least in a global sense once you consider their rarity, quality(class) and reliability.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that these new wave California wines are reliably offering an alternative greatness: a new standard, a new measuring stick, especially insofar as wines under $100 per bottle are concerned. And no place that I know of is coming close in that price point, in terms of quality even as much as New Zealand wants to think that it is.

The worst cold-climate California wines can be disappointing, but that's what you get when you're making wines in very challenging conditions. If you've ever bought and drunk wines from Burgundy, the taste of disappointment is deeply etched into your recollection. For some people, not so much me, that's part of the charm.

For me, if I'm paying top dollar, I expect fantastic wine. And I think the cool spots of the North Coast of California is delivering that with pretty good regularity now that the best growers have settled in over the last 20 years. Once you discard the chaff (and there are mediocre wines made in these regions), I think you can easily argue that these elevated coastal regions are now making spectacular wines.

The weather is cloudy, cold and blustery when we arrive at Fort Ross tasting room, having driven out in the morning from Oakland through San Rafael, out to Bodega Bay and then up the spiraling Highway 1 into northern Sonoma County. That stretch of Highway 1 is simultaneously heaven and hell. If you're driving, you can't take your eyes off the road for a split second. If you're a passenger, you can't take your eyes off of the ocean, circling hawks, skunk roadkill, and the vast pastoral dairy farms, and you're probably more likely to get carsick. Even if you're driving, the magic isn't entirely lost on you. It's a wonder that this part of the world has been preserved in such a pristine state, and you have to tip your hat to the preservationists of northern California.

Soon after we arrive, the cold, misty, foggy sky parts and the sun comes out, at least for a little while. Tasting wine at the winery with a few friends who have arrived from and other industry fans. The sun parts and now we're all looking for sunscreen while we taste a few wines at the winery and chow down on oven-fired pizza.

At this altitude, the sun is pretty intense. The weather has shifted 180 degrees, and it will do so again in a couple of hours when the spring thaw once again gives way to the cold ocean fog. This happens when we take a tour of the vineyards after lunch in the Fort Ross' WW2-era Pinzgauer all-terrain vehicle. We ride in the back, like infantrymen headed into the shit, except that we're really just a bunch of buzzed winos juggling plastic half-glasses of Pinot Noir, trying not to spill them all over ourselves.

The Pinzgauer seemed like overkill until we routed onto the bumpy dirt roads heading to the vineyards. In parts, the vineyards were super-steep and had to be terraced, so getting from the lower sections of the vineyards to the upper parts would be possible with a 4WD in decent conditions, but in muddy conditions you would need a serious all-terrain vehicle.

I'm only sorry I didn't get a chance to drive the PG. That thing seems like a beast.

You hop out of the military vehicle and survey the situation like a general. There are these very young, vineyards, carved out of hillsides, and cleared out of pristine forests, on high hilltops not far from the coast. The soils are rocky, as you would expect at this elevation, with some limestone as well as some organic matter from what was a pretty richly forested environment. The steepest vineyards are terraced, and as in the case of much of Europe's most prized vineyards, that kind of challenge yields Fort Ross' finest wine. The climate seems right, if edgy, for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The soils are unconventional, and the terrain steep, overall an x-factor.

The vineyards shift around on these Pacific slopes, but you feel like you're always looking west, toward the ocean, maybe because that's just the best view. And you can see the Pacific ocean, but more importantly, you can feel it. The ocean is already kicking up a powerful wind again, turning off the sun and reminding us who is boss. After a quick photo session and a couple of gulps of wine, we retreat back to the tasting room for one more glass of red and a few minutes by the fireplace.

I have seen a lot of the finest vineyards that America, Europe, Australia, South America and and the Pacific Coast has to offer first hand. I have always been impressed with the wines from Fort Ross, but after visiting the vineyards, I can surely say that this is a special, extremely challenging site that will continue to produce extraordinary wines in the coming years.

I can't say enough about the people who develop sites like this. They are the true adventurers in America, just like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, except that this is California in 2018.

It is possible to be ahead of your time and to pay a big price for it. They say that you can tell a pioneer by the arrows in their back. I don't suppose that the Schwarzes are turning much of a profit on this operation, but the wines speak for themselves, and a great site usually proves to deliver great value over time, and in time this site will be famous. Probably world-famous, at least in wine geek circles. The potential is boundless, and the thing that I have always appreciated about California, and the North Coast of California in particular.It is eternally inspiring.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Review: Davis Bynum 2016 Jane's Vineyard Pinot Noir Russian River Valley, Sonoma County ($35)

 Well, this single vineyard Pinot is just lovely. It's pleasingly fresh and lively on the nose with blueberry, violet, cherry and crushed dried flower aromas, and it's simultaneously lively and deep on the palate with cranberry, cherry and blackberry flavors that finish with more acid than overwhelming oak. Made by winemaker Greg Morthole from Pinot Noir clones 2A, 23, 113, 114, 115, 667, 777, and Pommard. (92 Points) 
- Tim Teichgraeber

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Neil McGuigan Interview and Australian WineTasting

-Tim Teichgraeber

A few weeks ago, my good friend Bethany Burke from Palm Bay Imports emailed me to let me know she would be passing through town with prominent Australian winemaker Neil McGuigan and his export manager David Lunn in tow, and of course I was happy to accept the invitation. I have a great appreciation for Australian wine on lots of levels, from their technical winemaking techniques and technology, to their general enthusiasm, spirit, and knowledge of the global wine market.

I suggested we might do something a bit different, and meet at Blind Tiger, a hip, newish Asian fusion restaurant in the NOKO / Uptown district of Oakland. Australia is in the middle of Asia, so Aussies tend to be pretty comfortable with Asian food and I figured they might be game for an edgier restaurant suggestion. I don't think anyone was disappointed the food was great, even if it was a bit spicy for wine. It also so happened that there was a Warriors v. Rockets playoff game going on, so the travelers got a good, loud taste of Oakland spirit.

The Hunter Valley-based McGuigan makes some really good value priced varietal wines, like "The Plan" Chardonnay, Cabernet, and Shiraz, as well as some fairly high end wines like the "Hand Made" Shiraz and the pricey "The Philosopher" series. A little bit like the Penfold's or Hardy's brands, McGuigan is happy to deliver wines at just about any price point.

"We (Australia) had great results in the U.S. in the 1980's and 1990's making really voluptuous, fruit driven wines," McGuigan told me. "There have been a lot of changes since then. Back in the day, you would have the Rat Pack drinking bourbon on stage, right?. Now, when you watch an American sitcom, they're drinking wine."

It's true - Australian wine had a great, and well-deserved run in the American wine market in the 1990's. It also pretty much fell right on its face in the 2000's, in part because of (in my opinion some really boneheaded executive business decisions that wound up with one gigantic company, Southcorp, owning WAY too many iconic wine brands. Here is one article about how all of this developed. Southcorp and Fosters wound up cornering the market on Australian wine, cannibalized its own sales, and ran a bunch of brands straight into the sand by competing with itself. It was an example of industry consolidation gone completely mad. Watching it happen as an industry insider, it was like watching a train wreck in slow motion. And I reckon it set the Australian wine business in the U.S. back about 10-15 years.

McGuigan was fortunately not part of that Southcorp face-plant. McGuigan continues to operate a pretty successful nationwide brand that has weathered the storm, making wines from about 25% vineyards that his company owns, 50% of vineyards under contract from other owners, and 25% grapes or juice bought on the bulk market. He sources fruit from a number of really good spots around Australia, including Hunter Valley, Langhorne Creek, McLaren Vale, Barossa, Clare Valley and more. In that way, he has a lot in common with some of those big brands that were at least at one point controlled by the Southcorp / Foster's conglomerate.

Neil McGuigan thinks the time is right again for Australian wines in the American market. He notes that the exchange rate is very favorable. The dollar is strong again, and that means the relative cost of production in Australia is low. Aussies are not slack on marketing skills or market research. They are consummate pros. "I can tell you what the Australian or UK or American consumer is looking for," He told me.

To start, he whips out McGuigan 2016 "The Plan" Chardonnay from South Eastern Australia. "It needs to be obvious," he says, quite frankly.

We're all talking above the crowd noise as the game tightens, and the warriors fall behind by a few points. Every three point shot or major foul draws more noise from the other patrons watching the game on a projected screen, many of them just having bar snacks and drinks and hardly focused on dinner.

The Chardonnay is plump and fruity, as advertised, with bold mango, papaya and spice flavors. McGuigan tells me that yes, he does use oak staves to make this $12 Chardonnay. Using French barriques would be too expensive to price it that well for export to the American market. It's a pretty good value, and very flavorful. I think he's probably right that it's a good fit for the market.

We do have a healthy exchange of opinions about the American market for Chardonnay. In my opinion there still is a very healthy market for 'obvious' Chardonnay. No doubt about it. But at the higher end, the star American producers are creating demand for a more subtle, restrained style of new world Chardonnay. But, in fairness, that's not where Aussie invaders are seeking their landing point in the $12 to $15 range.

McGuigan's "The Plan" Cabernet Sauvignon was also quite nice, varietally correct and smooth with juicy black fruit, hints of mint and very straightforward. It's a damn good value, fruit forward, but doesn't seem overly processed like some of the more crass, flavored wines you can find in the price range.

McGuigan is also candid about leaving a bit of residual sugar ("RS" is what we call it in the business) in red wines. "We have never shied away from using RS in red wines, and now we really have the know-how," he told me. Residual sugar, or off-dry red wines has certainly been a growing trend in American red wine. I'm not sure that I'm really ok with that trend, but it is what it is, and until American consumers are ready to resist sweetened, seasoned wines, that may be a fact of life. Aussies, very new world winemakers in every way, will use every trick in the book to tackle the vital American market.

I personally have mixed feelings about this residual sugar in red wines trend. A good part of me feels that sprinkling everything with sugar is cheating. Especially if you don't acknowledge that you are doing it. If you want to put it on your label, fine, but if you're leaving sugar in your wines, let people know that that's what they're tasting.

Maybe these semi-sweet wines bring in new consumers, and if that's true, I think that's great, but I also think that if you are going to Starbucks these days and you think you're buying coffee when you're really buying an ice cream sundae, you probably need to be corrected. And the people selling these things need to be corrected.

Now, the 'seasoning' of residual sugar that McGuigan is talking about is pretty subtle, but it's still a touchy subject for me.

Somewhere in here, as the Warriors mount a comeback, I tried to explain the shooting prowess of Steph Curry, the "Baby-faced Assassin," Kevin Durant, and Draymond Green. I don't think Neil was really listening. NBA basketball just isn't a big deal in Australia. In fairness, I could barely hear him and David, either. The tasting and the game went on. Everybody was digging the food, and the wine was damned good, too.

We tasted a few vintages of McGuigan Hand Made Shiraz (about $40). The 2008 was savory, with red and black berry fruit, and a nice dose of sanguine iron-and-blood flavor. It was holding up pretty well. The 2010 was fresher, with pretty violet, blueberry, iron, red currant, raspberry notes and had a velvety mouthfeel. A bit more acid wouldn't have hurt., but a lovely wine. The 2014 was fresh and peppery, also quite sanguine or bloody, as good Syrah / Shiraz should be, savory, salty and seemed to have a little more acid and freshness.

We also tasted the 2013 McGuigan "The Philosophy" Cabernet Sauvignon / Shriaz Blend that combines fruit from a number of sources around Australia, including the Seven Hills area in Auburn, Clare Valley. plus fruit from Eden Valley, Barossa, Langhorne Creek. Selling for $125, it shows mint aromas, complex spice notes, and is fermented in open concrete containers before maturing in new and one-year-old French barrels for 24 months and resting 2 years in bottle prior to release. It's a good wine. I don't generally spend that much for a bottle of wine, ever, but I do appreciate that cool-climate fruit in the mix, and that it's not just trying to be more bombastic.

And the Warriors won, so there's that, too. Three championships in four years. I hope my new Aussie friends appreciated the Oakland energy as much as I appreciated their wines.

Review: Migration Charles Heintz Vineyard Chardonnay Sonoma Coast ($56)

This superb, small production (200 cases produced), cool-climate Chardonnay comes from a vineyard planted at 900 ft. elevation  on the Sonoma Coast, close to the Pacific Ocean, in Green Valley is green-gold in color with apricot, saltwater and fresh tarragon aromas and white peach, lemon zest, and watermelon (!) flavors with just a hint of butteriness. The oak is quite subtle - it fits the wine like a glove. It's a great example of the beautiful cool-climate Chardonnays coming off the chilly north coast of California these days, and just a thrilling wine, period. It hasn't much in common with a  white Burgundy, but it is every bit as brilliant and inspirational. (95 points)
-Tim Teichgraeber

Monday, July 2, 2018

Review: Duckhorn 2015 Atlas Peak Merlot ($75)

If you're a fan of Merlot, you're probably a fan of Duckhorn, a Napa brand that has been a tireless advocate of the variety. I really appreciate that Duckhorn has several Merlot offerings from different parts of Napa Valley, including Three Palms vineyard in Calistoga (in the northern part of the valley), another one from cooler Carneros at the southern end of the valley, and this hillside gem from Atlas Peak in the southeastern quadrant of Napa Valley. This one is less concentrated than Three Palms, and really reflects the cooler climate of the mountain with fresh violet and dried rose notes, juicy plum, raspberry and stony, tarry mineral notes imparted by the thin hillside soils. Only 485 cases produced. (94 points) 

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Review: Woodinville Whiskey Company Bourbon & Rye Whiskeys

Established in 2010 by Orlin Sorensen and Brett Carlile, this Washington State distillery is still in its infancy, but it has earned some accolades, and there is a former Maker's Mark distiller (David Pickerell) consulting on the project. Woodinville Whiskey Company works with grain from the Omlin family's own farm in Quincy, Washington.

This distillery's early efforts are quite good, so good, in fact, that the business has already been sold to Moet Hennesey USA in 2017, though the founders are still very much involved in production. Having grown up in Kentucky and being a great appreciator of quality Bourbon, I am seldom drawn to bourbons or other whiskeys made elsewhere in the U.S. by less experienced whiskey makers that usually sell for much higher prices because they are made in smaller batches at newer ventures.

That said, I know there are very good whiskeys produced, and small distilleries have popped up all over the country. Some will make it, and probably a lot will fail. It takes a long time to make great whiskey, so starting a company from scratch is a tough cash flow proposition. Most high quality Bourbon is aged at least 4 years in barrel, and the really good stuff is often 7 years old or older.

One thing that I like about Woodinville Whiskey Company, is that the product is all locally-sourced, from the corn to the barley, rye and water. That is always what gives a small distillery a chance to stand out from the crowd.

Woodinville Whiskey Company Straight Bourbon Whiskey ($40) This pot-distilled 90-proof straight Bourbon (straight means there is not added coloring or flavoring - always the hallmark of a serious whiskey) has decadent chocolate, butterscotch, and toffee aromas as well as some earthy and raspy, spicy notes from the barley and rye in the mashbill.

It is very well distilled, with a bit of lingering roundness on the palate and a bit of earthiness, that for me distinguishes fatter, pot-stilled whiskey or rum from slightly smoother continuous-stilled products. Maybe it's the pot still distillation in part, and maybe the limited production blending that displays some seams, but it comes across as an interesting, enjoyable, slightly rustic, and very worthwhile spirit.

 For a very young company, I'm impressed with this offering. It's interesting, has something unique to offer, and is well-made. I like it -- a very high quality non-Kentucky Bourbon that's well worth trying. (91 Points) 

Woodinville Whiskey Company Straight Rye Whiskey ($40) Rye-based whiskies tend to be a bit raspier and leaner than corn-based whiskies, which are generally relatively pretty round, plush, and fat, and then tend to derive their spicier notes and complexity from barrels.

I do appreciate rye whiskey, even if I don't often prefer it to Bourbon. There is something very genuine and working-class about rye. It's coarse, like a hand with callouses, it's no frills, honest, and hard-working. And Woodinville's is a very good one.

I really like the way this whiskey comes together. I think it's brilliantly constructed. This 100% Washington-grown rye whiskey smells like rye, then it blossoms and blooms in the mouth with added vanilla and spice notes, it blooms on the palate and then gently fades like the trailing edge of a firework. This is an extraordinary blend that's artfully put together and is nearly perfectly designed. Very impressive. (95 points)

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Review: Dry Creek Vineyard 2017 Sauvignon Blanc Dry Creek Valley ($20)

I'm bursting with excitement over this spring release from Dry Creek Vineyard! It's really just one more hit from a spectacularly good Sauvignon Blanc program, but this vintage is absolutely delicious and incredibly complex. The wine is made from several different Sauvignon Blanc clones, including some Musque clone, as well as a bit of Sauvignon Gris. The refreshing white is fermented mainly in steel, but some of it is matured in chestnut, acacia and French oak barrels. The result is a mouthwatering white with a bewildering spectrum of flavors, from lime and tangerine zest to melon, kiwi, pineapple, gooseberry and bitter almond. And priced at only $20 (on sale for as little as $15), it's a brilliant, state-of-the-art California Sauvignon Blanc worth tracking down. (94 points)
-Tim Teichgraeber