Team K&L: Melissa, Mumu, Susan & (Theo)bromine

By the time Susan and I wrapped up our visit at O’Shaughnessy, lunch was calling..as was our friend Melissa, who was to meet us down the mountain in St. Helena. Melissa, who also works at K&L Wine Merchants, was up for the day visiting several wineries too.

After a quick lunch “in town”, the 3 of us headed back up Deer Park Road for our afternoon appointment at Ladera Vineyards.

After our initial photo op in front of the winery, we were greeted by Jerry Baker, Ladera’s Vice President of Sales and Marketing. Jerry’s 30+ years in the wine business, including 15+ here in Napa definitely qualified him as a resource and authority on the wines and history of Napa Valley.

The chai of Nouveau Medoc Vineyard: est. 1886

Speaking of history, this particular winery certainly has an illustrious one.  In 1877, two Frenchmen, Jean Brun and Jean V. Chaix, found themselves enchanted with the land and potential of Howell Mountain.  Brun & Chaix quickly set about planting Bordeaux varietals and named their winery Nouveau Medoc Vineyard. With approximately 115 acres under vine, Brun & Chaix became California’s 13th licensed winery.

Yes, the engraved stone above reads: 1886.. the year that the beautiful stone winery of Brun & Chaix was completed. By California / Napa Valley standards this domaine definitely qualifies as “Old School”.

A 19th century gravity flow winery in action

An Italian stonesman by the name of Frank Guigni, along with a team of Chinese workers (most of whom had immigrated to California during the state’s gold rush of the mid 19th century) built the Brun & Chaix winery with rock from a quarry located on Howell Mountain.

The sweat, determination and ingenuity that went in to completing the stone structure is very evident as we toured the building.  Not only are the stone walls a formidable 30 inches thick, (how’s that for sweat and determination) but the entire winery was constructed such that the entire winemaking process would utilize gravity flow.

More specifically, grapes would arrive by horse on the top level of the building. Vinification would take place on the second, or middle floor, and ageing would take place on the lower or first floor.  At every step of the winemaking process, the wine would naturally flow downwards to the next level, thereby avoiding the use of pumps to transfer wine from one vessel to another. Not only was this less damaging to the wine, but gravity flow also proved to more cost effective.

Same as it ever was: The Ladera chai in the 21st Century

Fast forward to 1980, when the property (which endured a tumultuous 100 years of social, viticultural and political history) was purchased by Francis and Francoise DeWavrin. As former owners of Bordeaux’s Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion, the DeWavrin’s knew a thing or two about wine.

They renamed the property Chateau Woltner, replanted much of the acreage, this time including Chardonnay, and released their first vintage in 1985. When the DeWavrin’s decided to retire at the turn of the century, the domaine was sold to it’s present day owners, Pat and Anne Stotesbery.


Under this new ownership, the Stotesbery’s made several significant changes. First, the chardonnay vines were replaced with traditional Bordeaux varietals, most of which included cabernet sauvignon, along with merlot, petit verdot and malbec.

Second, the Stotesbery’s decided to both preserve and continue the tradition of the Howell Mountain property by giving the original Jean & Chaix cellar a complete renovation.  Today the building as been rightfully restored to its former magnificence, and looks pretty much just as it did 100+ years ago.

Third property was to be re-named Ladera, which translates to hillside or slope..naturally in reference to the topography of Howell Mountain itself.


Enlightened with this detailed history of the winery,  it was now time to taste some wine! Jerry took us through a selection of Ladera’s current releases.

First, Ladera’s 2009 Howell Mountain Sauvignon Blanc, which is grown on several of the cooler sites on the property, where red varietals such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot and petit verdot will not ripe adequately.

However these cooler sites are perfect for the production of crisp and brisk whites like this SB. Ladera practices about 15% barrel fermentation (the rest in stainless steel) in order to impart a bit of mid-palate richness to the wine.

Grapefruit, a bit of green melon and a hint of vanilla spice make this a great choice for folks in want of a crisp white that is not as stridently mineral or grassy as a Sancerre of New Zealand SB. $25

Next, Ladera’s entrée du gamme, or entry level so to speak, is their 2007 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Although comprised of 100% estate grown fruit, the vineyard sources include the property’s Howell Mountain (57%) as well as their Lone Mountain (43%) vineyard down at the foot of Mt. Veeder.

Lots of rich dark berried fruits and plum shine here, along with hints of dark chocolate and spice. Fine, ripe tannins and only a modest amount of noticeable oak make this cuvee ideal for enjoyment now and over the next 4-5 years. At under $40 a bottle, I think that it represents on the top values in Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. .not trying to be too big for its britches (not over ripe, over oaked), just a delicious and balanced representation of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.



Ladera’s two flagship wines come from two distinct locations at opposite ends of the Napa Valley. Tasted together, they represent a great exercise in the subtle differences that location or terroir will often impart to a finished wine.

The 2006 Ladera Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon comes from volcanic rich soils grown on gently sloping hillsides at an elevation of 1,600-1,800 feet above sea level. As they vineyards sit well above the fog line, the growing season is (relative to Napa Valley floor) a relatively long one. Fruit for the 2006 was harvested between late September and the first of November.

Ladera’s rendition of Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon is big, deep and full-bodied. Described as such, I still found it to possess a fine elegance..perhaps even gracefulness about it.  Dark berried fruits, black tea, dried lavender and a very fine mineral note running through the wine are for me characteristics point to a mountain wine grown on igneous soils like volcanic or granitic rock. (like the northern Rhone). $70.

In contrast, the 2006 Ladera Lone Canyon Cabernet Sauvignon hails from a steep vineyard site approximately 15 miles south Howell Mountain. Here, largely sedimentary soils composed of clay and loam provide the backdrop for Lone Canyon’s 75 acres of vineyards. In addition, the steep vineyards lie at an elevation of 1,100 feet above seal level.

Bigger, broader and a bit brawnier than its Howell Mountain cousin is how I would describe the 2006 Lone Canyon. In addition to blackberries and plums galore, there’s a dried fig nuance to this wine as well. In addition, it’s structure is definitely more rough and tumble.  The texture/mouthfeel is not as refined as the Howell Mountain, and the tannins are more strident to boot. $65

I would suggest hanging on to both of these wines for several years before enjoying them. I suspect that at point the subtle differences that I picked up will be even more evident and enjoyable..hopefully with a beautiful herb grilled steak or roasted leg of lamb!

Thanks to Jerry Baker and Ladera Vineyards for the great tour and tasting!

NEXT: A visit to Dunn Vineyards



It’s Friday morning and a few minutes shy of 10 am.  Susan and I have just made the beautiful drive on Napa Valley’s famed “road less traveled”, a.k.a. the Silverado trail.  As we drive north past winery legends like Clos du Val, Stag’s Leap Winery, and Joseph Phelps, Susan reminds me that we need to keep a keen eye out for Deer Park Road, which could prove to be difficult due to the heavy morning fog blanketing the valley.

a sea of fog..Howell Mountain

Well, we find it. At the well marked intersection of Deer Park Road and the Silverado Trail, we hang a right and begin our climb up, into and through the fog and into another vinous dimension. At around 1400 ft. above sea level, which is just about where the limit of the Howell Mountain AVA begins, we cut through the soupy mess and find ourselves bathed in a bright, crisp winter light.

We continue through the town of Angwin,  take a couple more lefts, rights and arrive at O’Shaughnessy Estate Winery right on the dot. From the gated entrance up to the winery itself, it’s another three quarters of a mile of so, which is the perfect opportunity to take in the beautiful scenery: Madrone oaks, pines and cypress.

Cabernet Sauvignon @ O'Shaughnessy


And of course vines, and lots of them.  As we were soon to learn, O’Shaughnessy encompasses approximately 100 acres of Howell Mountain hillside set on two vineyard sites.  The Del Oso and Ampitheater vineyards, which were planted between 1997-2002, include 29 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, and 6 acres are planted to the following blending varietals:

Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Merlot, Malbec, Carmenere and St. Macaire (a traditional Bordeaux varietal no longer cultivated in the region, but adopted in small measure in the US.)


21st century winemaking..

At the cellar door we’re met by Sean Capiaux, who is the head winemaker and COO at O’Shaughnessy.  A quick tour of the cellars, as well as a breakdown of the winemaking practices at O’Shaughnessy primed us for the tasting that was to follow.

Old world or New world? Bascially, the O’Shaughnessy winemaking ethos can be distilled or tweeted something like this: Neo-classic, using modern tools and analysis to make non-interventionist wine that is fermented naturally and bottled unfiltered and un-fined.

In addition to the modern stainless steel tanks, temperature control and automated pigeage, O’Shaughnessy boasts its own in house lab, which is ideal when timely decisions need to be made regarding the vinification and elevage process.

step back in time...

However state of the art is only one part of the larger picture at O’Shaughnessy. Make a sharp exit out the backside of the chai, and step back in time, to winemaking the way it’s been done for centuries..

to centuries old elevage techniques..

This 11,000 square foot cavern was dug out of the hillside directly behind the winery. 26 foot ceilings,  as well as the perfect ambient temperature for ageing red wine is where the O’Shaughnessy reds spend the better part of 2 years  in French oak barriques undisturbed as they mature.


amphora..oeuf or avocado?

Now what’s that? Along the wall, and tucked away within a separate little grotto we spotted this imposing concrete egg. I had seen these amphor-esque “oeufs” in France, and was curious to know what vinous project the O’Shaughnessy egg was incubating.

This concrete “avocado” (“..afterall, we are in California.” Sean states) contained 150 gallons (approx. 560 liters) of Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc that had been vinified and was presently undergoing elevage in this vessel.

Sean pulled out the ladder, climbed up and retrieved a sample for us to taste.  Bright and crisp citrus flavors, along with that requisite SB juicy bite of acid were matched by atypical minerality.  Atypical for California SB at any rate. This avocado SB took me closer to the Touraine in France’s Loire Valley, where I a more often find a more flinty or chalky quality to their sauvignon blancs. I suspect a bit has to do with the unlined concrete interacting with the wine.


With a tour of the winery and caves behind us, it was now time to taste some wine!

First up, the 2007 O’Shaughnessy Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon.

Composed mostly of Cabernet Sauvignon (83%) with smaller amounts of Merlot (6%), Malbec (4%), 4% Petit Verdot and St. Macaire (3%) from largely volcanic soils.

Lovely crushed red berry fruits..raspberry..dark cherry, damson plum, vanilla and black tea notes, along with fine medium+ tannins make for a rich, yet balanced “neo-classical” wine. I suspect that a beef tenderloin would be a great food/wine pairing.

Across the valley and some 15 miles to the south, O’Shaughnessy’s Mt. Veeder vineyard turns out a slightly more dense and strapping rendition of 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2007 vintage comes from vines grown on “Betty’s Vineyard” (named after co-proprietor Betty O’Shaughnessy Woolls), a steeply terraced site composed of largely sedimentary (ancient riverbed) soils.

Deep, black cherry, blackberry and smoked meat and a brambly quality along with coarser tannins make for a more rough hewn and less elegant wine (right now) than its more refined cousin to the north. Ideally, I would wait 3-4 years before enjoying this with grilled ribeye (more rustic and hearty than tenderloin).

We rounded out the tasting with this rich pinot noir from Capiaux Cellars.

Sean Capiaux established his eponymous winery back in 1994.  Single vineyard bottlings of pinot noir throughout California are the focus here.  Sean’s “neo-classical” winemaking ethos remains in play with the Capiaux wines as well. Indigenous yeast fermentations, no fining or filtering at bottling.

The 2008 Capiaux Pinot Noir from the Pisoni Vineyard (Santa Lucia Highlands) is big indeed, but in no way a bruiser. Admittedly, the 15.2% abv had me more wondering if this pinot would taste more like cough syrup than fine wine.

However my fears were more than assuaged upon tasting. Deep cherry notes, spice, cinnamon stick, a touch of black tea and a lushness that envelopes the mouth without seeming hot or syrupy.  I suspect that this king size pinot noir would be pretty awesome with say roasted duck, filet mignon or a hearty mushroom risotto.

Many thanks to Sean Capiaux and O’Shaughnessy for such a great introduction to the wines of Howell Mountain and then some!


The first official wine trip of 2011 took my colleague Susan Thornett and I up north to the Napa Valley. Some of you might recall that just about a year ago, Scott Beckerley and I braved the stormy weather and pouring rain for a trek up to Spring Mountain.

Well this time around the weather was much more amenable to our cause. Sunny skies (at least when we hit 1400 ft. above sea level) and a crisp 60 degrees F or so was just perfect for a wine adventure!

Howell at the Mountain..let's go!

So let’s get to it! In the next several weeks we’ll take a tour in, around and through the vineyards and wineries that make Howell Mountain such a unique place. We’ll be making visits to old school, new school and super new school (you’ll see what I mean) wineries:


Ladera Vineyards




I’ll also introduce you to the growers, winemakers and other Howell Mountain wine folk who so enthusiastically share their passion for the vines and wines of the region.

In order to get you up to speed so that we can hit the ground running, you’ll find a couple of handy maps below, as well as some key factoids on the region.

courtesy of Napa Valley Vintners

District: Howell Mountain

Region: Napa Valley

A.V.A. granted: 1983 (Napa Valley’s first sub-appellation)

Location: On the northeast side of Napa Valley in the Vaca Mountain Range and around the town of Angwin.

Latitude: 38.5 degrees

Elevation: Vineyards lie across the Napa Valley from and above the town of St. Helena. Virtually all of the vineyard sites lie above the fog line, between 1400- 2200 ft. above sea level. Most vineyards are planted at 1800 feet above sea level and on southwest facing slopes.

Climate: Cool days and warm nights, especially compared to the Napa Valley floor. Maritime with significant influence of winds from Pacific Ocean. Mornings are generally warmer than temperatures on the Napa Valley floor, however afternoon temperatures can be cooler due to Pacific maritime influences.

Annual rainfall: 40-50 inches (135cm)

Soil: Shallow soils composed of decomposed volcanic ash, volcanic rock and clay rich in iron provide poor fertility but very good drainage.

Chief Viticultural Hazards: spring frost, Pierce’s disease, phylloxera


courtesy of Howell Mountain Vintners and Growers Association


Principal Varieties:

Predominantly red: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Sirah, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Grenache

White: Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc

Total area under vine: 600 acres

Winemaking: Various, although leaning more towards traditional winemaking practices. Vinification mostly in stainless steel tanks for red and white wines. Most reds will age in barriques (225L) for 12-20 months. Many wineries do not fine or filter their red wine.

Number of wineries: approximately 30

Useful and important websites:

Napa Valley Vintners

Howell Mountain  Vintners and Growers Association

NEXT: A visit to O’Shaughnessy!


A Ridge Zinfandel retrospective and then some

Several weeks ago, my good friend Matthew suggested the following idea:  Hey, I have some bottles of wine that need opening, so how about if we do a tasting at your place and invite over some wine peeps? My answer: Hmm, O.K.!

The theme for the evening: A Ridge Vineyards Zinfandel retrospective, all pulled from M’s cellar.

In the wine world, Ridge is the stuff of legend. Located in the Santa Cruz mountains and about 1 hour 15 minutes from San Francisco, Ridge is world renowned for consistently producing some of the very best wines that the U.S.A has to offer. Along with a range of Zinfandel based wines from vineyards in Sonoma, Napa, and Paso Robles, Ridge also produces  Cabernet Sauvignon, a Bordeaux inspired red, and chardonnay from the Montebello vineyard located up in the Santa Cruz mountains.

The iconic 1971 Ridge Montebello Cabernet Sauvignon placed 5th (and above 9 other French and Califorina wines) at the 1976 Judgement of Paris blind tasting. On a more personal note, the 1978 Ridge Montebello Cabernet Sauvignon (purchased on a whim with my friend Eric)   is hands down the best California wine I have ever tasted. What a sublime and absolutely memorable experience.

Matthew has been a member of Ridge’s ATP (Advance Tasting Program)  for over a decade. Within that time Matthew has amassed a formidable collection of Ridge single vineyard wines, most of which include Zinfandel and Rhone based reds. So what’s a guy to do when the cellar is full and more wine is on the way? Open (more than) a few bottles and share them with your friends!

DB breakin' it down..Ridge style

Our tasting group that evening was comprised of myself, Matthew, Stephanie, Keelyn, Wolfgang and Wes. Serendipitously, one of the invitees that evening was my good friend Dan Buckler, Ridge’s Regional Sales manager and our special guest star. As we tasted through the lineup, Dan introduced each wine by detailing the history, geography, soil makeup and vinification practices of each wine.

A good student of the vine: Matthews' tasting notes

Below is list of wines that we uncorked, tasted and enjoyed that evening. My contribution to the evening involved an enormous crock pot of braised short ribs, mashed potatoes, and a garden salad to pair with this fine selection of hearty american Zins.



Flight # 1 Ridge Dusi Ranch Zinfandel (ATP)


Ridge’s Dusi Ranch bottling comes from a distance parcel of vines located on the estate vineyards in Paso Robles, California.

The Zinfandel vines here are approximately 87 years old, planted on original rootstock, and completely dry-farmed.

1998 Ridge Dusi Ranch California Zinfandel   14,9% abv

100% Zinfandel

1999 Ridge Dusi Ranch California Zinfandel    14,5% abv

100% Zinfandel

2000 Ridge Dusi Ranch California Zinfandel     14,6% abv

100% Zinfandel


Flight # 2 Ridge Pagani Ranch Zinfandel


The Pagani Ranch vineyard is planted to 30 acres of mostly 100 year old Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Mourvedre and Alicante Bouschet.

The gravely loam vineyard, situated along Highway 12 in the Sonoma Valley near Kenwood, experiences to cool, foggy mornings and warm days.

Pagani Ranch is generally cooler than either Geyserville or Lytton Springs.

1998 Ridge Pagani Ranch California Zinfandel  14,2% abv

88% Zinfandel, 9% Alicante Bouschet, 3% Petite Sirah

1999 Ridge Pagani Ranch California Zinfandel  14,1% abv

90% Zinfandel, 7% Alicante Bouschet, 3% Petite Sirah


Flight # 3 Mazzoni Home Ranch California Zinfandel  (ATP)


The Zinfandel, Carignane and Petite Sirah from the Mazzoni / Home Ranch Vineyard was originally planted by Italian immigrant Guiseppe Mazzoni and his fourteen year old brother in law Abramo Trusendi at the turn of the 20th century. The vineyard is situated on the west side of the Alexander Valley and just north of Geyserville. The head trained, spur pruned vines are planted in gravelly, clay loam soils and are dry farmed.

1999 Mazzoni Home Ranch California Zinfandel 13,7% abv

50% Zinfandel, 32% Carignane, 18% Petite Sirah

2000 Mazzoni Home Ranch California Zinfandel 13,7% abv

47% Zinfandel, 47% Carignane, 6% Petite Sirah


Flight # 4 Ridge Lytton Springs California Zinfandel


Ridge’s Lytton Springs vineyard lies just north of the town of Healdsburg in Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley.  Here, 100+ year old Zinfandel vines, along with a smattering of Carignane, Petite Sirah, Mataro (Mourvedre) and Grenache are planted on benchland soils comprised of gravel and clay. Each varietal is fermented separately using only natural yeasts in order to preserve the individual characteristics of the fruit from the vineyards.

1999 Ridge Lytton Springs California Zinfandel  14,5% abv

70% Zinfandel, 17% Petite Sirah, 10% Carignane, 3% Mataro (Mourvedre)

2000 Ridge Lytton Springs California Zinfandel   14,8% abv

80% Zinfandel, 20% Petite Sirah



Flight # 5 Ridge Geyserville California Zinfandel


Ridge’s Geyserville estate vineyards are located on the western side of the Alexander Valley in Sonoma County.  Warm days, coupled with cool evening breezes and morning fog provide an ideal growing environment for Zinfandel. In fact, the Zinfandel vines grown at the Geyserville estate are the oldest that Ridge farms. A section of the vineyard known as the “Old Patch” is planted to vines that are 130+ years of age! Throughout the past century, Zinfandel, as well as other “mixed blacks” (Petite Sirah, Carignane, Mataro) have made the deep gravelly loam strewn with river rocks their home.

1998 Ridge Geyserville California Zinfandel   14,1% abv

74% Zinfandel, 15% Petite Sirah, 10% Carignane, 1% Mataro (Mourvedre)

1999 Ridge Geyserville California Zinfandel   14,8% abv

68% Zinfandel, 16% Carignane, 16% Petite Sirah

2000 Ridge Geyserville California Zinfandel    14,9% abv

66% Zinfandel, 17% Carignane, 17% Petite Sirah


Flight # 6 Ridge York Creek California Zinfandel


The York Creek vineyard represents Ridge’s sole Napa Valley vineyard site. The vineyard is located at the western edge of the Napa Valley on Spring Mountain and just north of the town of St. Helena. Amidst a plentiful forest of native Madrone oak, the vineyard lies at 1250-1800 feet above sea level.

The vineyard is named for a nearby creek which flows year round. The higher (than the Napa Valley floor) elevation and cooler temperatures allow the head trained and spur pruned vines to produce fruit with intensity, structure and longevity. Old vine Petite Sirah and Zinfandel excel on the gravelly loam soils of Spring Mountain.

1997 Ridge York Creek California Zinfandel  15,3% abv

95% Zinfandel, 5% Petite Sirah

1998 Ridge York Creek California Zinfandel   14,9% abv

88% Zinfandel, 12% Petite Sirah

1999 Ridge York Creek California Zinfandel (Late Harvest)   16% abv

98% Zinfandel, 2% Petite Sirah

2000 Ridge York Creek California Zinfandel    15% abv

88% Zinfandel, 9% Alicante Bouschet, 3% Petite Sirah


Many thanks to Matthew for providing these Ridge gems from his cellar, and to Dan for his insight and expertise!

Next: Mumu and Susan on la route du vin to Napa’s Howell Mountain.



This past Monday, I found myself wanting to refresh and energize my soul with a bit of high culture. For me movies, music and museums always seem to do the trick. A great film, soulful music and a well executed art exhibit always seem to give me a little boost,  a pick me up if you will, and a renewed faith in the human spirit. What can I say, surfing the internet and reading the latest celebrity gossip or breaking news can often leave me feeling very similar to after I’ve eaten a bad greasy donut. Why did I eat that? I feel fat and stupid.

How Wine Became Modern: Design + Wine 1976 to Now is an exhibit currently running at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and Monday was my day to check it out!

Per the SFMOMA program guide, the objective of the exhibit was to present.. “An exploration of contemporary wine culture and the role of architecture, design and media have played in its recent evolution-a chance to discover wine as you’ve never seen it before.”

Of course, as I am nose deep in the ‘wine biz’  I was already familiar with many of the concepts and developments presented throughout the exhibit. HOWEVER, I have to say that I was extremely impressed by the works that were presented, as well as how the recent developments (1976 to present) in wine were so artfully conveyed to the viewer.

My first case in point, this re-creation of the famed 1976 “Judgement of Paris” wine tasting, wherein an English wine merchant by the name of Steven Spurrier conducted a blind tasting in Paris with a coterie of (mostly) French and British judges. A selection of french and american chardonnays (10) and cabernet/bordeaux (10)  wines were tasted blind and rated on their intrinsic qualities. After the tastings and critiques were made covered bottles were revealed.

The results sent shockwaves through the world of wine. The #1 wines in each category were not from the hallowed vineyards of Burgundy or Bordeaux, but from the sunny shores of California. 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay had run the gauntlet and beaten the big guns. As a result of this historic tasting, wine from the new world and more specifically California transcended to a whole new level of prestige and acceptance. A new world age in wine had officially begun.

In homage to this historic tasting (only one journalist was present), the design firm of Diller, Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R) created this fictionalized mural depicting what perhaps the Judgement of Paris tasting entailed. From a visual standpoint, the mural was a striking piece and one of the first installations that the viewer enjoyed after reading up on the actual event.

From the Last Supper-esque Judgement of Paris mural, I entered the darkly lit “terroir” room. Here (I believe) 14 wineries from across the globe were showcased in the exhibit.  I’ve zero-ed in on Germany’s ambassador, the venerable J.J. Prum and the “Sundial” or Wehlener Sonnenuhr vineyard. In the circular glass case, crushed shards of mostly blue slate yield some of the most elegant and mineral laden wines of Germany’s Mosel wine region. Vines of 30-44-50+ years of age struggle to find their way through this metamorphic rock, and the results truly express the unique terroir (soil, aspect, climate) of the vineyard.

The concept of terroir really hit home when I rounded the corner and was presented with this stunning specimen of a vine. a cabernet vine: “Vine in two Parts” was comprised of an American 110R rootstock below and a cabernet sauvignon clone 7 vine grafted onto it above. The vine was planted in 1985 and uprooted in 2010. At 8+ feet, one really gets a sense of of how these vines root themselves to and then ultimately transmit the terroir or specific characteristics of their immediate environment.

This video presentation was being projected on the museum floor, thus simulating the viewpoint that one would experience if employing the high tech practices of precision viticulture. Utilizing global positioning systems (GPS), meteorologic stations and digital elevation models (DEM) wineries are able to fine tune their viticultural practices and increase yields, while mitigating environmental risks. This video is a 1 minute, edited version of the original. The music track (Crystal Castles II, Empathy) is my doing as well.

Wine and wine growing isn’t all science to be sure. A beautiful display of blown glass decanters were also showcased directly behind the PV video installation. This stunning “petit coeur” or little heart/aorta from artist Etienne Meneau is a new found object that I am coveting. As you can imagine, the production on this piece is extremely limited.

A third room revealed an impressive gallery of photographs. One instillation, which took up an entire wall, was a profile of approximately 30 wineries around the world exemplifying cutting edge, modern design. In particular, one winery profile that resonated with me is located right in my back yard, at least from a global perspective.

CADE winery is located in Napa Valley’s Howell Mountain district. In addition to it’s beautiful minimalist modern design, CADE is Napa Valley’s first organically farmed and LEED Gold certified winery. There aren’t too many of these wineries around (Stoller Vineyards in the Willamette Valley is another) and I am impressed with their commitment towards building a striking and environmentally sustainable winery.

In 2000, a 6L of 1992 Screaming Eagle sold at auction for the staggering price of $500,000. Such is the fame or infamy of cult wines.

How do these wine ultimately fetch such stratospheric prices and become such objects of desire? Some would quickly point out that critiques from publications like the Wine Advocate (Robert Parker) and The Wine Spectator are considerable factors.

Since its first publication in 1978, Robert Parker and his monthly publication the Wine Advocate has reviewed thousands upon thousands of wines and rated them using a 50-100 point scale. Over the past 30 years he himself has developed a cult-like following, with collectors waiting with bated breath to quickly scoop up wines that Parker anoints with 95-96-97 and once in a great while 100 point ratings.

Juxtapose Parker’s monthly publication (no pics, tons of tiny text) to Kami no Shizuku, the Japanese magna that moves and shakes the wine drinking world of Japan, Asia and beyond. Translated in english to “the drops of God”, this ongoing graphic series follows a young hero by the name of Shizuku Kanzaki as he must uncover the identity of 13 of the greatest wines (12 “apostles + the legendary Kami no Shizuku) as described in his late father’s will.

However time is of the essence, as the young wine neophyte must compete against his half brother, a gifted sommelier no less, in order to succeed and ultimately inherit the wine collection worth ¥20 billion.

To say that Kami no Shizuku influences the Asian wine world is an understatement. It rocks it. Whenever a particular wine is featured in the comic (and they’re not always cult or super pricey wines) sales go through the roof. Apparently, a feature in Kami no Shizuku is as good as a 95 point rating in the WA.

My friend Valerie, who lives in the Rhone Valley and represents the Cave de Rasteau, recently brought me two installments of Kami no Shizuku. The next time I am in France, I will be sure to seek out additional copies. They’re great fun, and for me a really refreshing and inventive way of presenting wine.

Much like this exhibit. I certainly didn’t cover all of the installations at How Wine Became Modern, but hopefully this synposis has peaked your interest. If you are in SF between now and April 17th 2011, I definitely suggest you stop by the SFMOMA for some vinous inspiration and education.

NEXT: A Ridge Retrospective

Here is the latest news flash on my harvest 2010!

look at the gross lees!

When this picture was snapped, my grenache was 6 weeks into malolactic fermentation. As you might recall from an earlier post, I had conducted a paper chromatography test, which indicated that the process was only a little more than half way done.

Well, it’s about time to check again, but before I do, I am going to rack and separate the wine from the gross lees or deposit that has settled at the bottom of the carboy over the last 6 weeks.

my grenache transfusion

As seen above, the process is quite strait forward. Wine from the carboy above is siphoned though a hose to the empty vessel below, with great care taken to stop/pull the hose before any of the lees is transferred to the new vessel.

So what is the purpose of racking? Well, there are two pretty important reasons to rack a wine in progress. The first is stabilization. Leaving the wine too long on the lees can lead to the formation of off flavors, for instance the rotten egg smell that is often an indicator of hydrogen sulfide.

The second reason to rack wine is for clarification. By the time a wine is ready to be bottled, a clear and relatively bright wine is generally desired..i.e.. from an aesthetic viewpoint you don’t want a murky product with particles floating throughout the bottle.

crushed roses..

Once the wine has been racked from the carboy, this is what is left at the bottom. Lots of dead yeast cells as well as grape seeds, pulp, stem fragments and insoluble tartrates that collect and are deposited during the vinification an aging process.

What a brilliant pink-lavender hue! And guess what, the stuff smells like crushed roses with a whiff of cocoa. Casey Hartilp, the grower who supplied me with this Grenache from Eaglepoint Ranch, says that Eaglepoint lees often smells like chocolate covered cherries.

In the next several days I will conduct a second paper chromatography test to determine whether or not the malolactic fermentation is complete. More to come!

En route to the Tablas Creek tasting room

After our tour of the Tablas Creek vineyards and nursery, it was time to taste some wine! Robert led us back to the Tablas Creek tasting room and past this beautiful olivier, lavender and herb garden directly outside the winery entrance. Our tasting would be comprised of a selection of wines, all of which were grown and vinfied here at the domain. If there could be one tag line to describe the winemaking process at Tablas Creek, it would be “minimal intervention“. This term is sometimes used pretty loosely, but here at Tablas Creek it indicates strict adherence the following practices:

Hand harvesting of all organically grown grapes (picking is afterall when the winemaking practice officially begins)

Native yeast fermentations

Separate vinification for each varietal

Use of stainless steel and/or neutral oak barrels


We began the tasting with a selection of white wines from Tablas Creek. First, the 2008 Grenache Blanc, which is 100% estate grown and certified organic.

Most often, the majority of this varietal is used to produce Tablas’ Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc or the Cotes de Tablas. However in exceptional vintages the winery bottles a bit of the wine as a single varietal. With good acidity, medium + bodied and nuances of green apple, and peach, this Grenache is a perfect complement to a wide variety of mediterranean inspired cuisine.


Next, Robert poured a taste of the 2008 Tablas Creek Roussanne.  Like Grenache Blanc, Roussanne is a second white wine varietal that is widely planted throughout the Rhone Valley. However stateside it is perhaps less well known than even Grenache Blanc. While Grenache Blanc often provides in terms of exhuerance, body and juiciness, Roussanne often adopts a more structured and deliberate approach. Medium bodied, and generally displaying a richer mouthfeel than most Grenache Blanc, Roussanne does lend itself to a bit of judicious oak interplay and can age very gracefully too. After several years, those primary fruit notes often give way to nuances of roasted nuts, paraffin and honey.


Tasting through the first two white cuvées was an interesting exercise in terms of isolating and understanding the respective qualities of Grenache Blanc and Roussanne. Now we had the opportunity to taste what I think makes Tablas Creek so special. Their masterful blends! The 2008 Côtes de Tablas Blanc is in fact a blend of 4 different varietals: Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne and Grenache Blanc. Weighing in at 13.5% abv, this Rhone inspired white is incredibly food friendly and so fun to imbibe! For inspiration, Tablas Creek recommends the following possibilities: Mussels Marinière Green salads with avocado and citrus dressing Scallops Ceviche, Light fish (halibut, sole) with tropical salsa.


Next, we attacked the reds. As with the whites, Robert introduced us to and poured samples of the following three single varietal G (Grenache Noir) S (Syrah) and M (Mourvèdre) bottlings from the domain:

The 2007 Grenache Rouge, which represents only the second varietal bottling for the domain. Grenache noir is the most widely planted varietal in the Rhone Valley. From entry level Côtes du Rhône, to legendary Châteauneuf-du-Pape, grenache noir provides much of the body, red fruits and inherent juiciness that differentiate a Rhone red from say, one from Bordeaux or Burgundy.

Now on to what is perhaps my favorite Rhone varietal, Syrah! The 2007 Tablas Creek Syrah displays everything that I appreciate so much in syrah, and I imagine that over the next several years it will continue to impress me. Whereas young Grenache Noir generally displays more red fruit and spice box qualities, syrah, (if grown in not too warm a climate) elicits more dark fruit notes, cracked pepper, sometimes a bit of mineral smoke and savory qualities too. I would really like to revisit this youngster in a few years time to see what interesting nuances develop.

Of the  southern Rhones “Big 3”, Mourvèdre is arguably the least known and understood varietal. Whereas Syrah has proven itself to be an international globetrotter (for example the Rhone, Australia, California, Washington), and young Grenache is so inherently is often so gulpable and  easy to drink (how many young Côtes du Rhônes get emptied all too quickly?), Mourvèdre is a bit of a dark horse.

In its youth, the varietal often displays a bit more musculature and brawn than its two rhone cousins. Black olive, a certain mineral salt, and at times a certain “sauvage” funk that one not so familiar with the varietal might conclude as the onset of a wine spoilage yeast known as brettanomyces. However, with time, I believe that these noble reds find their way and can evolve into some of the most long-lived and stately reds of southern France. Case in point, a 1990 Bandol from Châteaux Pradeaux which I had the opportunity to enjoy several years back.

The 2007 Tablas Creek Mourvèdre is definitely a more elegant rendition of the varietal than some of its vinous cousins in Bandol. Perhaps 100% de-stemming and a light filtration has something to do with this. The advantage to these more modern winemaking practices is a mouvedre that in its youth is refined and approachable, while still displaying the textbook (black plum, leather, moist earth) qualities of Mourvèdre.


Tablas Creeks flagship wine is the Esprit de Beaucastel. Composed of Mourvèdre, Grenache, Syrah and Counoise, this classic Rhone style blend is made in the spirit of Château de Beaucastel’s  Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

In the southern Rhone tradition of blending several (and in the case of Beaucastel 13) different varietals, the Esprit de Beaucastel aims to capture the thumbprint or terroir of Tablas Creek. And like the iconic Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the Esprit de Beaucastel contains a higher percentage of the mighty Mourvèdre than most other traditionally styled Rhone blends.


After our comprehensive tasting of the Tablas Creek current releases, Robert, Nicolas, Emmanuel and myself headed to the cellars to sample several cuvées which were still works in progress. Among them was the 2008 Esprit de Beaucastel, as well as a most special cuvée that is only produced in outstanding vintages..


Tablas Creek’s Panoplie is a Mourvèdre based red that is vinified from carefully selected grapes of outstanding quality. The Panoplie is crafted in the esprit of Château de Beaucastel’s Hommage à Jacques Perrin and sees only a limited production. The 500 cases of the 2007 Panoplie will in most cases find homes in the cellars of wine connoisseurs and collectors for enjoyment 5-15 years down the road.


What a fantastic tour and tasting! As we headed back out into the bright central California sun, Nicolas presented Robert with several parting tokens of appreciation. As I mentioned in a previous post, Nicolas is involved with the Perrin family in a north/south rhone venture known as Maison Nicolas Perrin. This “boutique negociant” specializes in sourcing the very best wines from reputable growers throughout the northern Rhone. The wines are then (in most cases) blended by the Maison Nicolas Perrin and then further aged before being released.

Nicolas provided a brief explanation on each of the four cuvees which included:

2007 Maison Nicolas Perrin St. Joseph

2007 Maison Nicolas Perrin Cote Rotie

2007 Maison Nicolas Perrin Ermitage

2008 Maison Nicolas Perrin Hermitage Blanc

A big Thank You to Robert Haas for spending the afternoon with us on this great tour and tasting of Tablas Creek!




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