Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The 2010 Vintage: from trial to triumph!

The summer and fall 2013 have brought a new harvest and a new wine release from our winery, Rosalynd Winery. Here is our fall 2013 newsletter (please see below), which tells of the trials and triumphs of the 2010 vintage! Please also follow us on @RosalyndWinery and friend us on Facebook (www.facebook.com/rosalyndwinery) to keep up on the latest news from Rosalynd Winery. I will aim to be back reporting on news and information "behind the cellar door" during winter 2014!




Monday, March 25, 2013

And for those of you who are interested in what I've been up to lately, here's our Rosalynd Winery newsletter! I'll be back to blogging soon about the goings-on in Napa Valley behind the cellar door.






Sunday, March 24, 2013

Rosalynd Winery is named "Best Pinot Noir in Napa"!


We're going to take a moment to do some bragging! Rosalynd Winery was just named "Best Pinot Noir, Napa County" in the Bohemian's Best of the North Bay 2013 Readers Poll! Here is the link to the list of winners (please scroll to the bottom of the website page for winery winners). Thank you to everyone who voted for us, and to all of our supporters!

Friday, April 9, 2010

Four Cairn Marks the Way

It might have been inevitable that Chris Hansen would fall in love with winemaking since he’s thinking about it nearly everyday, but not in the way you might expect. Chris sells oak barrels for Seguin Moreau, traveling up and down the west coast from Canada to California talking with winemakers about their wines, their processes and their barrel needs. As Chris describes it, “If you pay attention, it’s like going to enology school every day, learning from some great winemakers and soaking in all that specialized knowledge.”

That knowledge has also been a benefit to me as well. Making pinot noir can be particularly challenging (see my previous blog), and the proper choice of oak barrels can be an especially important tool in that process. Chris had noted over time, one particular type of barrel that had worked extremely well for many pinot noir producers, especially in Oregon – with a semi-tight grain and a longer toasting regime that in some ways was counter-intuitive to my expectations. He had even convinced Seguin Moreau to begin producing this interesting barrel, since it wasn’t in their previous barrel profiles, and suggested that I introduce it into my own program. The barrel has been simply transformative – rounding out the mid-palate, with quicker integration and lovely spicy nuances. It’s these kinds of insights that can take a wine and a winemaker’s understanding to new heights. (If you really need to know what the actual barrel profile is, call me -- I’ll give you Chris’s phone number.)

So it was probably also inevitable for someone who knows so much about barrels and winemaking to begin making wine on his own, and Chris has just done that, his debut vintage, a 2008 Napa Valley Syrah called Four Cairn, made from grapes grown on his partner and father-in-law John Mitchell’s four-acre vineyard in St. Helena.

I know you’ve seen them, neatly arranged piles of rocks set up as markers near hiking trails or placed on prominent hills, or sometimes heaped one on top of another to indicate different blocks in a field or vineyard. “It made sense to us,” Chris explained, “to use this most primitive building form – a cairn – to represent our new wine, since John’s business background is in home construction.” (By the way, a recent job of John’s was a magnificent Tuscan-styled wine country mansion for Joe Montana of San Francisco 49ers fame.)

John and his wife Karen purchased their St. Helena property in the early 1970s, complete with a run down cottage and an old rickety barn that still had the year it was built stenciled inside -- 1914. “They were a bit ahead of the times,” Chris explains, “before all the talk of wine country lifestyles and being foodies was the rage. People thought they were crazy!”

We were standing in the vineyard, getting a close up view of where Four Cairn comes from. The sun had come out this morning, which was a wonderful change of pace, winter being particularly wet and dreary this year. The vineyard was still dormant, stark trunks and canes reaching above the mustard planted as a cover crop between the rows just now beginning to sprout out in glorious yellow. John had joined us and was beaming, “I’m so glad you got to see the vineyard today, and not in the middle of a downpour.” I had to agree, it was beautiful – everything fresh and sparkling in the sunshine, the air crisp with the morning breeze. Over the years John and Karen, who also own the famous Model Bakery in St. Helena, fixed up the property into a picture book, wine country fantasy.


“The vineyard is planted in very porous soil,” John goes on, “actually it was once a dry, gravelly creek-bed. It’s all we can do give the grapes enough water through the growing season.” Chris adds, “Because of this, the grapes ripen sooner than in many vineyards surrounding it, with fantastic concentration.”

The vineyard stretches out in orderly rows on the west side of Highway 29 just behind Dean and Deluca’s. “I remember visiting Napa Valley with my dad who is a wine aficionado,” Chris continues. “If you’d have told me then that someday I’d be making wine from a vineyard block in back of Dean and Deluca’s, I’d have thought you were out of your mind.” That was before Chris met and fell in love with Sarah, John and Karen’s daughter, who grew up on the property. It was Sarah who brought Chris home to St. Helena with her to stay, and got him started in the wine trade. John had always wanted to make wine from his own grapes, but because of the bakery and his construction business, there never was the right time. The time as they say became ripe, when his son-in-law started making wine. It’s turned out to be the perfect partnership.

Later, at the winery, Chris and I taste through his barrels of 2009 Four Cairn Syrah. They share space at the Fontanella Winery in the Mt. Veeder appellation. Chris met Jeff Fontanella in 2005 selling him some barrels and becoming friends. “When we decided to start our label, Jeff Fontanella was kind enough to custom crush for us,” says Chris. The wine is still quite young, and incredibly concentrated, with a noticeable and surprising meaty, almost gamey quality. Chris says smiling, “Winemakers I’ve talked to all told me the same thing about syrah. In the first 6 to 8 months, don’t be overly concerned about its awkward development, or it’ll keep you up at night. The 2008 had the same awkward quality early on, but it eventually comes around beautifully in the end.”

The debut vintage, a stunning 2008, is immense and full-bodied, with deep, dark teeth-staining color. I’m blown away. A fantastic first wine. The wine is juicy, plush, with velvety tannins, supple and softer than what you’ll find in a typical Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Chris beams, “And this is only going to get better with bottle age.” No doubt.

The 2008 Four Cairn Napa Valley Syrah sells for $45 retail, and can be ordered through Four Cairn’s web site or by calling Chris Hansen at 707-927-0769.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Perfect Timing

Whew! Finally… a new blog. Some of you might’ve wondered why you haven’t heard much from me lately. Well, there was no catastrophe. At least, I don’t think it’s catastrophic… There’s a reason, a very good reason. It’s just that I’ve sort of --uh, gotten myself swamped, flooded, snowed under, buried alive -- or putting it more mildly -- tied up, held captive, imprisoned, hanged! In other words…I started a winery.

Which doesn’t mean that I didn’t drag my wife Lois into being tied up, held captive, imprisoned and hanged right along with me. To quote Bugs Bunny, “Ain’t I a stinker. Hee-hee-hee.” I must say, this crazy endeavor would never have happened without her enabling and not insignificant heavy lifting. Our first label and current release is a stunning 2007 Russian River Valley pinot noir called Rosalynd. To many of you familiar with my mystery, “The Good Life, A Chris Garrett Novel” also a 2007 vintage by the way, the name Rosalynd will come as no surprise. She’s that captivating character that Chris Garrett chooses to dally with so amusingly throughout the book, having a great deal of feminine grace and personal beauty, but I’ll get to more about Rosalynd and my pinot in a moment; back to my story.

Starting a winery in 2007 couldn’t have been more perfect timing. The wine business as a whole was experiencing an all time high; more Americans were drinking more wine and buying wine at higher prices than ever before, and as a consequence vendors and vineyard sources, if you could find any, were understandably also jacking up prices to the straining point. Meanwhile custom crush opportunities (that’s the term wineries use when their facility is being used to make other people’s wine), again if you could find any available for dreamers like me wishing to join the wine business, were priced more like voluntary muggings -- the only difference was that the wineries weren’t carrying a gun. There also seemed to be an endless supply of new recruits with the same dizzy dream as me lining up to get mugged. Then as everyone knows we had the Great Recession… but I get to more of that later too.

The idea for starting a winery began in earnest in the mid 1990’s. I was writing movie scripts freelance in Hollywood, fighting the wars so to speak, and bloodying my nose and bruising my forehead trying to break into that very closed and cloistered cottage industry. I diligently pounded away at it though, writing 29 screenplays, all the while trying to cope with deranged producers and duplicitous contacts, and discovered that I was drinking a lot of wine to compensate. Wine I was beginning to realize was a lot like writing, the more I learned about it, the more fascinating it became. I soon was reading everything I could find on the subject, even tracking down rare tomes on the art and craft of winemaking held at the venerable UC Davis wine library (which is a hell of a resource on all things wine related for those who might be interested). I was also discovering that reading and drinking wine was not enough, I was itching to get my hands dirty, and I started whipping up batches of wine at home and volunteering as a “cellar rat” at wineries.

One day, after a particularly sour phone call with a surly movie producer, Lois asked me what I was going to do once all this hard work and persistence paid off and I landed my glorious Hollywood whale -- the million dollar movie deal -- and I said, “Why, I’ll buy a vineyard and make wine!” She then cut to the chase, “Why wait, if that’s what you really want to do?”

It was an epiphany. I had been traveling to Napa Valley regularly in recent years in pursuit of ever more perfect fruit for my own winemaking, and truth be told, soaking in the beautiful scenery and the equally beautiful wines. And I had made some friends along the way. One in particular, a flamboyant raconteur named Dave Harmon, founder of the internet portal Wine.com, who had a vineyard in the Los Carneros region of the valley, had just started a new winery called Carneros della Notte. I had purchased pinot noir grapes from him the last couple years and had helped him bring in the harvest. Maybe Dave had more "cellar rat" chores and could use a hand, for an idea had come to me. Why not put my vocation and avocation together and write a book about wine. Or more precisely, write a mystery about a winemaker that takes place in Napa Valley. It would be the perfect way to learn the ins and outs of the industry and maybe along the way I might figure out how to start my own wine label. So I put the idea before Dave, and since he had recently started a wine distribution business as well, had plenty of work for an eager “cellar rat” to do and put me to work.

A New Winery is Born

Working for Carneros della Notte was a fantastic opportunity, I not only got to see how a small winery gets born and totters up on its feet, but I also got to learn what it takes to make stellar pinot noir. Dave opened up his whole business to me and in doing so opened up the whole Napa Valley. I got to participate in all aspects of the business, from clean up chores to sales trips around the country pouring wine, from wine blending in the cellar and maintaining the vineyard to meeting with the press. I even finished my novel. I had to write most of it from 4AM - 7AM to get it done, because I was so tired at the end of the day from all the physical labor. But the idea for my own wine business had never dimmed. The question was, how to make it happen.

I knew I had gained the knowledge to make great wine and start my own label. I had only one problem as I could see it, how exactly to pull it off. Starting a wine business is more than just an idea. It takes a combination of study, sweat, luck, money, persistence, patience, hard work, more money and a great vineyard source to pull it off. Did I mention how much money is needed? Good God, between the government agencies coming out of the woodwork with new fees or taxes or old fees that were on the books but not collected, or the economic downturn, or that you have to finance three or more vintages before having anything to sell, the wine business can feel like some kind of voracious money pit with teeth. Yeeoww!

And there was still one more thing I needed something I could have used more of in Hollywood -- a friend. James Moss of J. Moss Wines once said to me when I brought up the idea of starting a wine label, “There’s really nothing to it. You just jump.” It’s a leap of faith… I had faith, I just didn’t have a cliff to dive off from. James then said, “Yeah, you do. You can make wine with me.” (That's James Moss in the middle and Chris Bartalotti, another great winemaker friend, on the right, helping me press the 2009 pinot noir.)

Starting a Winery

I now had contacts in the industry. Amazingly I had gotten a foothold in Napa Valley, cabernet sauvignon country, and now had a winery to make wine in (thank you, James) --and it doesn’t hurt having NV (envy) on your wine label. But as much as I liked and could appreciate cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir is the wine that sings to me. And as chance would have it, and as it is with most things in life, chance and a little bit of luck, I found my great vineyard source, but it happened to be in Sonoma County, in the Russian River Valley to be exact. Could I start a wine business with a winery in Napa Valley and source grapes from the highly desirable appellation of the Russian River Valley? Hell yes I could!

Now all I needed was a name for my wine – along with fifty million other things, but who’s counting? I knew I wanted to link the winery up with my book, because a novel is such a novel (ha-ha) way of marketing wine, especially using a mystery novel about a winemaker. Nobody had done that before.

Pinot noir, maybe more than any other wine, conjures up many feminine comparisons, perhaps because it so easily seduces, with finesse and velvety softness. The wine can be plush, floral, full of perfume, and in a word, pretty -- not the most masculine descriptors. If I called the wine Chris Garrett I’d have to go ahead and change my own name -- enough people are confusing the two of us already. In the book, Rosalynd was described as the prettiest woman in the room, and I wanted my wine to stand out as the prettiest pinot noir in any grouping.

I think I have achieved this. From our tasting notes -- “the 2007 Rosalynd Russian River Valley Pinot Noir $38.00 matured in French oak barrels for 18 months, then bottle-aged for an additional 8 months. The color is a brilliant ruby, the bouquet is enticingly floral, the taste is of bright berry fruit with a creamy mouth-feel, the finish is complex with hints of exotic spice.” I’ve gotten a funny response more that once since releasing the 2007, first a stunned look and then a quick incredulous question, “This is your first wine?” I smile and say, “It’s my first commercial release.” Then again, as if they didn’t quite hear me, “This is your first wine?” “Yes,” I say with a chuckle, “but I’ve been practicing for nearly fifteen years.” Practice makes perfect.

Please call us if you’d like to visit Rosalynd Winery – 707/337-3348 – we are at 901B Enterprise Way, Napa, CA 94558. And if you’re in Oakland, our wine is also available in Brian Goehry’s delightful shop Wine on Piedmont. Stop in and see him and grab a bottle or two. Also our wine will soon be in HASR wine shop in Honolulu, Hawaii, where I’ll be doing a tasting and book signing Friday, Jan. 8, 2010. Mahalo.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Problem with Wine Ratings by Guest Blogger Greg Lawson

--A Lawson Rant

Do you drink wine based on its ratings? Do you like wine based on its ratings? Do you buy wine based on its ratings? I firmly believe if you truly love wine, at some point, you have to throw ratings out the door and trust yourself. You need to know what you like, and more importantly, you need to know your own palate.

Being in the wine business both directly and indirectly over the years (all right, my entire life) has taught me many things about wine. One very important thing is: you can never know enough. Wine (I’m talking about the big picture here, not just the stuff in the bottle) has a history and like history it is the most humbling of subjects primarily due to its voluminous character. The difficulty with mastering wine as a subject is like mastering history as a subject; both are living, ever changing organisms that are impossible to fully keep pace with. All one can do is try to understand, learn and embrace what wine and history have to offer and succumb to the simple fact that you are human, you can only comprehend so much. Our wonderful and prophetic wine critics have succumbed… so why not you?

If I told you I had a $15 million winery, wine rating (all in the 90 point area), and limited allotment/production because the grape sources were so rare and demand was so high, would this make you believe that the wine must taste good? What if I told you it tastes good because it’s a $400 bottle and the critics love it? Or would you think the truer test of whether a given wine was great or not would be you, your nose, your mouth, your tongue, and your brain?

We are at a crossroads here in Napa Valley. I believe too many people (corporations included) are making wine for all the wrong reasons. The homogenization of the industry is in front of us and it is very similar to having three Starbucks in every town in the United States, sometimes even across the street from one another. It may be a good product, but it is also sadly the same. Huge companies control larger and larger chunks of the market by buying up wineries and vineyards. They in turn are patronized by large volume wine distribution chains that shun the “small guy” because it’s just too much trouble to deal with so many little brands --it’s easier to sell one wine in every market than to sell many wines in a few markets. I believe these “corporate wines” are just numbing the consumer with sameness. Another problem is the producer making wine not to please the consumer, or to please his or her own palates, but to please the critic in hopes of a great score that will launch the brand successfully. Wines that might have shown some originality if treated differently and respectfully are becoming more and more alike. The true sufferer in all of this is the consumer.

Eleven things the consumer needs to know:

1. There are people out there making wonderful wines (all over the United States) that you may never hear about.
2. A thrill of wine drinking is taking a risk, finding the unknown, and making it your own.
3. Not all winemakers want or seek ratings.
4. Just because some winemakers make very little wine does not mean it is good (or just because it’s popular doesn’t mean it’s good).
5. Just because you never heard about it does not mean you won’t (you might have to look).
6. Cooking for 10 is a lot easier than cooking for 300 (winemaking is much the same).
7. Owning a sports team, a private jet, or a “state of the art facility” (i.e. being famous) does not guarantee great wine.
8. Drink what you like and like what you drink… meaning: looking for only negative characteristics will ruin ANY bottle of wine.
9. Change is a good thing for your palate and your likes/dislikes will change over time… embrace the change.
10. Drinking wine blind in a group of other wines is the truest test for any bottle.
11. Passion can penetrate anything. The love of wine from the vineyard to the bottle has a profound effect.

Greg Lawson is owner and winemaker of Valley Legend, single vineyard cabernet sauvignon wines from Napa Valley.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Hidden Gems

Being a winemaker in Napa Valley certainly has its privileges. By propinquity alone you get to taste some really terrific wines made by friends and colleagues, sometimes before the rest of the world even knows they exist. Yet we’ve all heard a variation on the refrain, ‘Wines like those are often made in such minuscule quantities you need deep pockets or a guy on the inside to get your hands on some!’ I believe this lament is more often about advertising than scarcity. There are many hidden gems made by small producers laboring in the shadows of the palatial wineries dotting Napa Valley, making wines from fantastic vineyards and appellations with voices that just aren’t loud enough to travel very far. So here’s my attempt to turn up the volume, the inside scoop of some wines that recently sent my taste buds soaring.

Ever wonder where the next really great rock star Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon will come from? It wouldn’t hurt a bit to check out these three exceptionally good cab-makers. They’re my picks--and all happen to be single vineyard cabs. So no blending or added varietals, just the grapes from a single source and the barrel choices the winemakers deemed worthy.

VALLEY LEGEND

Greg Lawson owner of Valley Legend is a third generation Napa Valley winemaker. His grandfather was the first, who over forty years ago had vineyards in Yountville and Knights Valley and in 1971 was made the first president of Beringer when the winery was sold to Nestle. Greg’s father followed later in dad’s footsteps (or is it grape-stomps?) making pinot noir wines in the 80’s and 90’s, which no doubt had a great influence on Greg and his brother Rob Lawson as they were growing up. Winemaking was obviously in the family DNA, so they followed suit.

Brother Rob has certainly garnered his fair share of praise recently with wines like Ghost Block landing in the Wine Spectator’s top 100 wines of the year, and it doesn’t hurt to have a mentor of Rob’s talents lending a hand on your maiden voyage. “I tell everyone my wine just got 104 in the Wine Spectator,” Greg jokes, tongue firmly in cheek. The Spectator only scores wines on the 100-point scale, which makes Greg’s quip a really funny comment on many levels. It also tells you where Greg’s ultimate ambitions might actually reside.

“I got into the wine business less for the money and more for the love of wine,” Greg says. “If you want to make wine in Napa Valley you must enjoy writing checks. Lots and lots of checks.”Like the added costs of meticulously hand-sorting the fruit as it comes in from the vineyard – every single berry is closely scrutinized. “Nothing goes into the wine except perfectly ripe fruit. I want everything to be pristine clean all the way through fermentation, barrel aging and finally bottling.” And it really shows. The 2006 Valley Legend, Narsai David Vineyard, Conn Valley $85 is amazingly focused. Upon first sip you can feel the wine go into a whole new gear as the flavors move through the mid-palette and cruise on for a lengthy finish.

Valley Legend, with its map-like label, shows a swoop across the top that mimics the ridge line of Mount St. Helena. “It’s the physical legend of the area –looming on the horizon from anyplace you happen to be in Napa Valley.” Greg then smiles, “And to excite those wine geeks like me out there, I also put Google Earth coordinates on every bottle showing exactly where the grapes came from, down to the very block. Shows how anal I am.”

This is Greg’s first vintage, but he has two more wines still in barrel coming out soon, a 2007 Narsai David, Conn Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and a new one, a 2007 Rock Cairn Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon. Both are 100% Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon. He’s adding a third wine to this line up when the 2008 are ready. If they’re as good as his first effort, and I have no doubt they will be, watch out!

“Only hand touched fruit, pride and passion. Years from now when I’m dead,” Greg says in all earnestness, “someone’ll crack open a bottle--I want it to still tell my story.”

Valley Legend 4239 Maher Street Napa, CA 94558
Email: greg@valleylegend.com
http://www.valleylegend.com

J. MOSS

I’ve written about J. Moss wines before in (Smokin’ Wines), but the work he’s doing in the cellar is so darn good I thought he needed another plug. Case in point--recently I was invited to a book club discussion of my novel The Good Life, which was a really fun evening hanging out and drinking wine with a charming group of book-loving women and talking about my favorite subject, me. I had brought along a bottle of J. Moss as a gift and was reminded of that classic Marx Brothers movie, when Groucho playing a doctor puts a thermometer in Harpo’s mouth, and Harpo promptly chews and swallows it like it was candy. Groucho reacts, “Wow, I never saw someone’s temperature go down so fast.” Well, I never saw a bottle of wine go down so fast as that bottle of J. Moss. Doesn’t that say it all?

James Moss somehow makes it all look easy. But it wasn’t always so. “I could make a movie about what not to do making wine,” James says, a Texas drawl still flavoring his words. James was born and raised in a small community outside Dallas before coming to Napa Valley over fifteen years ago to be in the wine business. When I ask for an example, James tells about the time early on when they forgot to pre soak the barrels before filling them with wine. “We were so happy to have finished pressing and had decided to soak our tired bodies in the hot tub instead of soaking the barrels. It was an oversight. Wine started leaking out, more like pouring out through the staves and you know like in a cartoon, when people are running around in circles in a panic, that’s what we were doing, trying desperately to think what to do! Talk about funny… When finally I just grabbed a barrel and lifted it into an empty bin single-handedly. It wasn’t completely full, thank God, but with the rush of adrenalin, I never stopped to think how heavy that bad boy was gonna be.” Things have come a long way since then.

What I admire most about J. Moss wines is how they always stands up so well in comparison with the best wines Napa Valley has to offer, and more often than not surpasses them. James attributes this to his palette, trained for fifteen years working in wine distribution before starting the winery. “I got to taste a lot of wines, with a lot of different people and got to learn what the public at large really likes.” I ask what that is, and James blurts, “Fruit, baby, fruit!” He has watched blind tastings where price and brand are hidden and invariably people gravitate toward the wines with the most fruit expression. “It all comes down to great fruit from great appellations.”

J. Moss currently offers three wines, the 2005 Spicer Vineyard Stags Leap Cabernet Sauvignon $60, a 2005 Puerta Dorada Vineyard Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon $60, and a 2005 Galleron Vineyard Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon $60. All are 100% cabs, all impeccably made, and for those terroir purists out there, all amazingly different. James’ extensive experience understanding the American palette has helped him make wines that are true crowd pleasers. All are an explosion of fruit, amazingly balanced, with beautiful integration of oak--in a word, yummy.

J.Moss Wines P.O. Box 5783 Napa, CA 94581
TEL: (707) 647-3388
http://www.jmosswines.com

MIDSUMMER CELLARS

Rollie Heitz owner and winemaker of Midsummer Cellars (yes, one of those Heitz, if you happen to recognize the name--the Heitz name being one of the half dozen most famous wine families in the Napa Valley firmament) invited me recently to go on a mushroom hunting expedition. Well, actually it was more of an enjoyable stroll through the woods on a seasonally crisp winter afternoon. Before we set out, Rollie cautioned, “Now I better not find you out here in my secret spots without me. Just remember I have access to firearms –one with a scope.”

Duly warned I follow Rollie into the woods. He tells me that when he was a kid, his dad, Joe Heitz, often before Thanksgiving dinner would get the whole family out to these selective forest gardens and hunt wild mushrooms. “Some years we’d find large baskets full of Boletes,” he says like discovering found money.

The process is a little like Easter egg hunting. Rollie points out what to look for, small moundings on the forest floor, as if gophers are pushing up the leafy matter. He carefully lifts one such mount that I would have missed entirely--some decomposing leaves, and low and behold there are the mushrooms. You’d never know it if you didn’t know where to look. Unfortunately, these are not the kind you want to eat.

Rollie tells me the ironic part of his hobby is that his wife Sally is sadly allergic to mushrooms. Most of them that he finds he ends up giving away to friends. Luckily, he’s expert at what to pick, “There are certain families of mushrooms that are safe to pick. I only pick a few types, you have to be very careful or you can end up with mushrooms that can kill you.” Always good thinking.

We talk on about many different subjects, growing up in Napa Valley as a kid, firing potato cannons with the Mondavi clan, notes on a different time and place. Greg Lawson pointed out to me, that he and Rollie are both Carpy Gang football alumni. Rollie says, “My Pop Warner coach happened to be Walt Raymond” (yes, of Raymond Vineyards, another legendary Napa wine family) and a really nice guy, too.”

Inevitably, as all talk in Napa finally does, the subject turns to wine. After breaking away from the family wine business, Rollie could have chosen something completely different to do with his life, but wine gets in the blood so he decided to start his own label. Taking a cue from his many visits to Sweden (his family summers there every year) with the festivals and traditional dancing around the maypole (midsommarstången), Midsummer Cellars was born (The Smallest Winery in Napa Valley). His first few vintages nearly a decade ago were Zinfandels, but he has settled into making single vineyard cabs and for good reason. He’s a master at it. Give Tasting.com a look. They presented Midsummer Cellars 2006 Tomasson Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, St Helena $48 --95 points! I guess the word is starting to get out there.

Midsummer Cellars has two other single vineyard cabs, a 2006 Cañon Creek Vineyard, Napa Valley $48 which is one of my personal favorites, and a 2006 Fowler Vineyard, Knights Valley $30, which at that price is a heck of a value.

All of Rollie’s wines have one thing in common --they are always elegant. When I drink them, I feel as if I should be wearing a tuxedo. I don’t own a tux, but if I keep drinking Midsummer Cellars wines I better get one.

Midsummer Cellars 771 Sage Canyon Road, St. Helena, CA 94574
TEL: (707) 225-4367
http://www.midsummercellars.com

Friday, March 28, 2008

The Art of Fire

“I tell my doctor, I only drink at work,” Chris Hansen jokes. We’re at the bar in Mustards Grill awaiting a table for lunch – the popular Napa Valley restaurant is, not surprisingly, jammed with people. In front of Chris are three open bottles of red wine, obviously attracting attention. Chris works for Nadalie Cooperage, and the three bottles are barrel samples of cabernet sauvignon brought along for tasting. Working over lunch is not unusual for Chris – and yes, I can hear scoffing, we are working. “My wife calls sometimes asking if I got to go to lunch today,” Chris says innocently, “and I say, ‘yeah, but we only had time for a quick bite – just an hour and a half at Bistro Don Giovanni’.”

I laugh along with Greg Lawson, a winemaker in the valley who’s with us at the bar. Chris grins, “My boss, who is something of a gourmet – we’ll go out to lunch, usually with a couple bottles of wine, when before you realize it,” he glances at his watch like his boss imitatively, “Could it be two-thirty already?”

Not only are we there to taste barrel samples, Greg’s brother Rob Lawson, a stellar winemaker of cult standing at the Napa Wine Company, has a pinot grigio on the menu being offered by the glass, so each of us start off with that. Try to remember we’re working. Greg tells us about it, “My brother made 6000 cases of this, just released it 3 weeks ago.” Chris and I nod, sticking our noses in our glasses. Greg then adds dramatically, “They’re already sold out.” Off our raised brows, he nods. So we taste, and it’s no wonder – the wine is delicious.

Greg has his own label “Valley Legend” a vineyard designated cabernet sauvignon that’s having its debut release in August. And like his brother Rob, Greg is meticulous about his winemaking – not only does he sort each cluster as it is brought in from the vineyard, but also each individual berry (meaning he’s removing individual berries that don’t make the grade) – yeah, fanatical. Greg says that he and his brother tasted through the wines before he came to Mustards and they were both very pleased. I can’t wait to try them myself.

The three Nadalie barrel samples Chris has with him are all of the same cuvee’ of cabernet sauvignon, the only difference being the barrel sources: the first being a barrel called Colbert, a blend of wood from different French oak forests chosen with one thing in common – extra tight grain. Chris explains that this mostly influences the wine’s body and mouth feel. The second sample comes from another French oak barrel called Troncais sourced from a single forest in the Troncais region – also tightly grained for slow extraction, giving the wine a light touch of oak, in a word finesse. The third barrel sample is of American oak, sourced from a forest in Missouri and of the three samples has the biggest, boldest flavors – very showy, but not so different than the French barrels. All three are unique, and each fantastic in its own right, but the exciting part is imagining how they could be used in unison to develop flavors. I’m impressed, like I was earlier in the week, when Chris gave me a tour of Nadalie’s barrel making facility.

The smell of sawdust was in the air. “Growing oak and making barrels is a lot like growing grapes and making wine,” Chris says, rubbing at the oak dust getting into his eyes. “There is a terroir for oak barrels, just like there is for wine.” I nod in agreement. Chris goes on, “Certain forests and certain types of trees, where they are harvested, which way the ground slopes, the elevation, the climate, and finally how the wood is seasoned and coopered, all influence the final quality. A lot of experience is necessary to build quality barrels.”

Located just north of Calistoga, next to Chateau Montelena, Nadalie Cooperage was the first cooperage to start building barrels in the Napa Valley, and is one of several branches of the family run business based in France, with another cooperage in Chile, and satellite offices in South America, Australia, Japan, and even China. The cooperage in Calistoga can build up to 80 barrels a day, which doesn’t sound like much, until you consider that each barrel is made almost entirely by hand. “What’s surprising,” Chris explains, “is that barrel making has remained basically the same for more than 2000 years with only minor changes. Barrels used to be made entirely with hand tools, but now, wood is often split with hydraulic power, and machines are used to plane and groove the pieces, yet the barrels are still fitted together by hand, and toasted and bent using fire.” Sounds positively primitive.

An oak barrel is basically made up of strips or planks of wood called staves – narrow at the ends (the chime) and fatter at the middle (the bilge), so that when bent and bound by hoops of steel, the barrel bulges in the middle in that familiar way. The staves get squeezed together by these hoops so tightly that they won’t leak. The ends of the barrel called heads are also made of staves, squeezed together though not initially bound by steel hoops, but instead held with headless nails called gudgeons. A number of gudgeons are placed between the staves, along with a strip of a grass-like reed, and then squeezed together to form a flat table-like plank. The gudgeons hold the staves tight, but the reeds keep the wine from leaking through staves. The heads are then cut into rounds and tapered at their edges before being set into grooves (called croze) cut into each end of the barrel. Then the hoops of steel are hammered down tightly, holding the heads firmly in place.

I came away from the tour amazed and impressed. Watching the toasting and bending of staves over open fire, the skill needed to feel the heat through the wood with bare hands and to know precisely how long the wood still needed to go. The brute strength needed to hammer down the hoops and muscle barrels to and fro. The hard won knowledge of proper technique. The marriage of innovation and tradition. Essentially, Nadalie builds barrels the same way barrel makers have been making them for thousands of years, but at the same time they are making them better for winemakers than ever before.

(When I told Chris I had forgotten to get a picture of him at the cooperage, he said to do like a friend of his once did, and use a picture of a dog. So, here’s my picture of Chris Hansen.)

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Trahan: Wine Trapeze Artist

“Before this, I was an engineer in the bio-medical industry,” Chuck Custodio says above us, already ten feet off the winery floor. He’s scaling his way up a stack of wine barrels to secure some barrel samples. “I built the high-tech equipment drug manufacturers use to create designer drugs.” On the ground, a small group of patrons (and me of course) watch with trepidation, wondering just where he’s headed. Apparently the barrel he’s after is near the top, plenty precarious without also toting along a fistful of wine glasses and a wine thief. Chuck then quips, “That equipment I handled -- eventually gave rise to the drug Viagra!,” which of course gets a belly laugh.

Moments later, stepping down from the stacks without spilling a drop, Chuck dispenses the samples. A woman in our group takes her glass and asks, “How many bottles of wine can you get out of a barrel?” “Absolutely none,” Chuck quickly retorts. Off her bewildered look, he tells her straight, “Bottles are way too big to fit through such a tiny bung hole.” More laughs all around. Then he answers the question thoroughly and honestly, “Each barrel is slightly different in size, but on average, around twenty-four cases of wine can be bottled from a single barrel. Twelve bottles to a case makes it -- two hundred eighty-eight bottles give or take.”

He holds up his glass. “This Petit Verdot for example, will run a little over two hundred fifty cases--” “Which means you have …” The woman does the math, “ten barrels!” “That’s right,” Chuck nods, flashing a warm smile. The woman grins back thoroughly charmed.

Just what is it about Chuck Custodio -- winemaker, owner and apparently trapeze artist of Trahan Winery? Is it the Versace eyewear? Or maybe the killer long ball he often muscles on the golf links? Or is it the rocking wines he makes? I meet many people in the wine trade, some colorful, many talented, but for some reason Chuck stands out. Maybe it’s the quick wit and easy confidence. The charisma. The charm. Whatever the appeal, there are those few who just seem to put more of an electric charge into the air. His beautiful wife Janna, when asked how she and Chuck first met, will say without hesitation, “At a strip club.” For a second I ask myself, ‘Is that true?’ Janna’s coy grin belies the truth. (She’s actually a surgical nurse.) Then there’s Sadie, Chuck’s German shorthaired pointer and barrel bung fetcher extraordinaire, who can often be seen around the winery greeting guests and cajoling them into throwing her slimy silicone barrel bung she loves to chase.

Maybe it’s that everybody who likes wine has that secret fantasy of dumping their current job and running off to Napa Valley to make wine; it’s just that Chuck Custodio went ahead and did it. “My Dad thought I was cracked,” he remembers. “Throwing away a good paying job, to work for peanuts for four straight years? Commuting four hours a day from San Francisco? He was from the school of hard knocks, conservative, tough -- became a Staff Sergeant in the Army before taking a job as a Santa Clara Firefighter. He retired as Deputy Fire Chief. My mom on the other hand was a creature of the sixties, artistic and liberal to the core. When I told her what I was planning to do, she was so proud of me she cried.”

A young woman, no doubt influenced by the current climate of political antagonism, pipes up incredulously, “If your parents were so different politically, how could they get married in the first place?” It’s the type of candor that can kill a festive mood. Chuck pauses only a second, “Great sex, obviously!” meeting cheek with cheek. Then he throws up his arms with a mad twinkle in his eyes. “I’m proof of that!” Touché.

Besides, I see both of his parents alive in Chuck. In his father, the natural leadership -- currently Chuck is Vice President of the Silverado Trail Winery Association, and often you can find him acting as ringleader behind many golf games with winemakers and others in the trade, or getting a group together for networking over burgers and beers at some club or restaurant. His mother’s artistic side can be seen in his choice of profession. Though Chuck was never one for throwing pots or painting watercolors, making wine is an art and one he’s very good at.

The best part though is watching his easy way with people. Tasting wines with him demystifies the whole experience. A joke here, a practical insight explained over there. I think it’s because Chuck makes you feel like an insider. You’re part of the in-group. You feel hip, just like him. And you get the comfortable feeling there’s no pressure to buy. He’s pouring wines for you because he’s proud of them, for good reason. His wines are all like his personality: big and bold –- there is nothing shy or restrained about them. His Merlot for instance is one of the best I’ve ever tried. Most people who try his Merlot for the first time think it’s one of the best Cabernet Sauvignons they’ve ever had. Then Chuck tells them with a crafty grin that it’s 100 percent Merlot. Mouths drop open. His Petit Verdot is also 100 percent, which is rare. His Petit Verdot can wrestle satisfactorily with your taste buds without any help. His Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are both daring as well. These wines are never muddy, overly extracted or clumsy. They are honest, straightforward wines, nothing manipulated or phony. Chuck’s winemaking philosophy is let the wines be what they are, don’t get in their way (or I might add, don’t hold anything back). When someone in our group jokes, “Just like Viagra, you enjoy bringing pleasure to people.” Chuck says with candor, “Hey, I’m in it strictly for the booze.”

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Pursuit of Fun

Ah, Napa Valley – coconut palms and ocean breezes, grass skirts and tiki torches, nightly luaus of poke and poi, ukulele music and dancing girls – wait, hold it! The Napa Valley? Yes, if you’re hanging around Judd Finkelstein, who with father Art, mother Bunnie, and wife Holly, runs Judd’s Hill winery on the Silverado Trail. That’s precisely what Napa Valley looks like. Paradise.

Judd plays in a ukulele band called The Maikai Gents, and recently I had the pleasure of seeing him and his band mates perform during Halloween at Copia at an event called “The Spooky Lau,” and in another event at the grand opening of a new restaurant in Napa called “The Lobster Shack Luau.” They had costumes that reminded me of the fifties, with Hawaiian pastel shirts and short brim hats, and they sang classic Hawaiian songs like “Tiny Bubbles” and “The Hukilau.” I should also mention that it’s not just The Maikai Gents – it’s The Maikai Gents with The Mysterious Miss Mauna Loa (which I’m pretty sure is really Holly, Judd’s wife, but don’t tell anybody). She can often be seen dancing the hula along side while they play. On the band’s playbill, a Disney animator has created cartoon caricatures of Judd and Holly performing, which are spot on – you’ll immediately recognize them if you happen to visit the winery.

But let’s be honest, when people decide they’re going to start a band, it’s usually to get chicks or to seek fame – and more often than not it’s rap music or punk. To choose the ukulele, well, obviously that has an entirely different aim. It’s the pursuit of pure pleasure, and from the way The Maikai Gents play, with both enthusiasm and skill (and I especially appreciate Judd’s fine singing voice), you too can join in on the fun.

This pursuit of fun can also be seen at Judd’s Hill winery, with their most recent event, The Hanukkah Hootenanny and full latke bar with more Hawaiian music performed by Judd’s band. But just as important for the Finklesteins is family, which you notice right away from the office layout (through the glass windows in the entrance hall are Art’s desk and Bunnie’s, with Judd’s and Holly’s right next to them, everyone working happily along side one other). When Judd’s Hill moved from St. Helena to the property off the Silverado Trail, Art designed the new winery, and on my recent visit, he was outside busy putting on some finishing touches, laying ornamental rock and planting trees.

Art is no stranger to the wine industry. He and Judd’s uncle started Whitehall Lane Winery over thirty years ago, and the business became very successful. Judd remembers growing up in St. Helena, playing in the vineyards or down by the creek, living an idyllic childhood. But not all was fun and games with his uncle always on the road selling wine, and with Art working way too hard to keep the business growing. Neither had the time to make the wine anymore, which was why they had started the winery to begin with – so, in the end they decided to sell. Art started Judd’s Hill on a much smaller scale, where he could make the wines like he had always wanted. He chose to use his son’s name on the new winery label in hopes that someday Judd would join him in the family business. Judd went away to college in the Southwest, yet always returned every harvest to help Art make the wines, and in Southern California he met Holly, eventually getting married before coming back home to Napa Valley – and to the family winery.

Judd’s Hill winery makes only 3000 cases a year, which allows Art’s and Judd’s winemaking to be hands-on in every way. On my recent visit I tasted through their whole lineup of wines with Judd, and one detail jumped out right away no matter what the varietal – all the wines were very fragrant. They all had just terrific noses, which might be on account of their judicious use of new oak. When I pointed this out to Judd, he showed me his profile and quickly quipped, “Well, that’s because terrific noses run in the family.” Then he asked if I had ever tasted their estate Cabernet Sauvignon. I hadn’t, so Judd revealed his secret stash of Estate wines hidden in a large Hawaiian tiki. Perfect.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Reindeer’s Leap

I’ve been spending a lot of time at Chimney Rock Winery lately, partly because I’ve been signing books in their tasting room (and we’ve been selling a lot of books, which is fantastic), but mostly, it’s because the people are so nice, like Tom Trzesniewski (pronounced “tres-new-ski”, with an emphasis on the “tres”). Tom is the retail manager at Chimney Rock. He owned his own business for 11 years, ran businesses for other people, and retired in 2003, so he could do what he loves the most. The other day, Tom gave me, and some friends of mine from Chicago, a vineyard tour of the estate and barrel tasting. We were standing in the vineyard, and Tom was pointing out to us an outcropping of crags on the eastern face of the Vaca Range, called Chimney Rock, which the winery was named after. Tom tells us that a chief of the Wappo tribe that settled the area thousands of years ago had chased a white stag up into the palisades, and to escape, the stag leaped from one palisade to another. Considering the distance between those palisades today, either the chief was an awfully good storyteller, or it wasn’t a stag at all, but a reindeer. But Reindeer’s Leap doesn’t roll off the tongue quite like Stag’s Leap does.

Tom moved on to explain how these palisades on the eastern face of the Vaca Range tend to heat up during the day, causing thermal winds to swirl around the Stag’s Leap district in a unique way. In the summer months, the swirling air keeps the region cooler, lengthening the time the grapes will hang on the vines. This translates into softer tannins in the finished wine, while giving them an enviable ability to age.

Maybe the reason why Tom knows so much is that he’s not just the retail manager, he’s also a wine educator. It’s says so on his business card. Actually, all the wine tasting staff are wine educators, come to think of it, like Mike Morf (with an emphasis on “morf”). He was telling me this story the other day about his late father-in-law, which has nothing to do with wine, but it’s a really funny story. His late father-in-law immigrated to California at the early part of the last century with his identical twin brother, from the north coast of France, which, incidentally, is a region known for pirates. Mike jokes with a twinkle in his eye that the instinct for piracy was probably embedded in their genes. They somehow became owners of a gas station in the early 1940s and quickly made enemies of all their competitors by underpricing their gas and cornering all the retail trade by buying bulk parts and supplies by the box-car load. The funny part comes when the brothers discover that if they buy three box-car loads of parts, or more, they can get them even cheaper. So they hire a guy to go around to their competitors and his job is to bad mouth the brothers, complaining bitterly how they won’t do business with him, and he has all these cheap parts and supplies, and if they buy them from him, they can screw the brothers. No one ever caught on that they were actually buying from them. Classic.

And then there’s Tom Ebert (who needs no emphasis), who I’ve noticed is building his dinner menu while he’s pouring wines for guests. Some of them sound so delicious, when I hear him describe them, my mouth waters -- like his dry shiitake mushroom encrusted halibut. It sounded so good that I went home that night and tried it myself. What you do is you take some dried shiitake mushrooms, and you pulverize them in a food processor with some garlic powder, salt and pepper, and some rice flour to crisp up the coating. You coat your fish with the mixture, and sauté in some butter for 1-1.5 minutes on each side on medium high heat. And what a fantastic fish recipe it turned out to be, and I might add, a perfect pairing with Chimney Rock’s award-winning wines, red or white.

All the people I’ve met at Chimney Rock – Tom, Mike, Tom, Joan, Ashley, Curtis, and Doug Fletcher, the winemaker – have been a delight. Mrs. Wilson seems to agree with me. She is 94 years old, and started Chimney Rock with her husband in the mid 1980s. She lives in the house on the hill above the vineyards, and still comes to the winery to pick up her wine, shake hands, and visit. Who wouldn’t?

Friday, November 2, 2007

How Do They Sell So Much Wine?

Can you take a few more?” Rick Healy sticks his head inside the door, interrupting. We’re in Dennis Zablosky’s office at Frank Family Vineyards (that's Dennis in his office in the photo), where Dennis is giving me, along with David Harmon III, owner of Carneros della Notte, and about ten VIPs a private wine tasting. And with that many clinking wine glasses crowding his desk, the place is wall-to-wall jammed. Dennis sputters, “Absolutely not!” “OK,” Rick quips, “I’ll send them right in.”

Vaudeville. Everybody laughs, of course, why not. They’re having the time of their lives, sipping Frank Family Vineyards’ award-winning Chardonnay, described by Dennis as “liquid crème brulee”. It’s not just the office that’s jammed. It’s the whole tasting room. Dennis, who runs Frank Family Vineyards’ direct sales, has been a larger than life presence in the local wine scene for nearly four decades. Robert Mondavi, the most eminent wine celebrity in the valley, called him “a living legend,” and rightly so. Not many wineries get this kind of foot traffic, day in and day out, with much of it serious wine buyers: CEOs and business tycoons, sports celebrities and movie moguls, film stars and famous authors, well, almost famous – the movers and shakers of the world – who fly on private jets to visit wine country, and to sit down with Dennis. “It’s a day-long party,” Patrick Cline says to me, “from the moment we open until closing time.” I marvel at their stamina. Patrick is one of Dennis’ raconteurs, entertaining and pouring wine along with Rick Healy, and Jeff Senelick, and Jerry Smith, and Tim Murphy – all men, mature and self assured, who create a club-like atmosphere that’s as inviting to women as it is to men. Somehow they manage to juggle a host of new visitors everyday, who arrive by the minute, spreading them out amongst three pouring bars in that old ramshackle building, more like a small-town Mayberry government DMV than a grand wine palace. (Rumor has it a new winetasting room is in the works at Frank Family Vineyards.)

Rick is back moments later with the two new VIPs, a business executive who had visited Dennis on a previous trip, and is back for more star treatment with his gorgeous girlfriend. As Dennis tries to explain once more about the lack of room, he catches sight of her at the door. “Well, hello sweetheart.” To the executive he says, “If I’d known you brought such a beautiful woman with you… Make more room!” He motions at the rest of us to clear some space as more laughter erupts. “What do you do, honey?” “I’m a masseuse,” the girlfriend says carefully, aware that all eyes are watching her. “Oh,” Dennis moans with true feeling, “you can save my life. Come closer honey. Give her room.” He rolls his shoulder painfully. “I have this old rotator cuff injury that stiffens up on me.” Obviously, this is the price of admission. As room is made, the girlfriend happily obliges.

There’s something special about a visit to Frank Family Vineyards. When you’re near the pulse beat of a place, the very heart of what’s happening, where the who’s who gather, you can feel it – that same draw that pulled Marilyn Monroe and joltin’ Joe DiMaggio north from Hollywood years ago when Frank Family Vineyards was called Hans Kornell, and when Marilyn fell in love with pink champagne that later she was rumored to have bathed in, and is still being made in the old Champangnois method by Frank Family Vineyards’ winemaker, Todd Graff.

Many wineries in the valley draw huge crowds, and have great stories to tell, and have fantastic wines, but Frank Family Vineyards not only gets visitors packing bottles out the door, but whole cases. Cases and cases and cases.

I’ve wondered how exactly they do it. Somewhere near 85% of the wine is sold directly at the winery. What makes this wine tasting room so successful? It’s actually quite simple. They make you feel like a star. And being a star means getting star treatment. From the moment you step foot inside, you’re in the spotlight, greeted with a smile at the door, offered a glass of champagne, and asked, “Where are you from?” and “What brought you to wine country?” You’re special. And to prove it, they’re putting on a party, just for you. It doesn’t cost you anything. Just showing up makes you a member of the club. And club members get privileges. Maybe even a private pouring at Dennis’ office. And that special feeling can keep going just by taking some wine home with you when you leave. Cases and cases and cases.