Month: December 2016

Old-fashioned new wine co-op in Napa

http-americanhistory-si_-edu-sites-default-files-welcome-sign_0-jpg
When winemakers used to work together

Today we made our third visit to Holman Cellars, a winery in Napa where some really interesting wines are being made.  What keeps drawing us back is the unique setup at Holman Cellars, where there are multiple winemakers and wine labels working out of the same space, sharing the same crush pad, and learning from each other’s successes (and occasional mistakes).  This may not sound so unusual but today’s Napa Valley is dominated by huge estate vineyards and high-volume wineries producing tens of thousands – or in some instances, hundreds of thousands – of cases annually.  Many wineries are owned or being acquired by international mega-corporations, including some of the most well-known family wineries in the Valley.  Without question, the wine industry has turned into a very competitive business.

It bears remembering, however, that before Napa Valley was one of the worlds’s most respected wine regions, wineries were still struggling to find the right balance of viticulture and enology.  The wineries of mid-20th Century Napa Valley – Mondavi, Beringer, Freemark Abbey, Inglenook – realized that they could not succeed individually, but rather would need to succeed together.  In 1944, seven vintners formed the Napa Valley Vintners, which today boasts over 500 members.  There are many stories of the early “pioneer” winemakers helping each other out with tools or equipment, lessons learned and shared successes.

This “pioneer” spirit is alive and well at Holman Cellars, which is also home to Newberry Wines and Cadle Family Wines.  This afternoon we had the pleasure of being hosted by Brian Newberry, the man behind the Newberry label.

img_2572
Brian Newberry telling us his story

Brian makes wine using the same small crush pad as Jason Holman and Kevin Cadle and they also share barrels and other equipment.

holman
Barrel room tasting spot at Holman Cellars

Compared to many other wineries, their space is small but they have a cozy tasting room as well as a large table for tasting inside the barrel room itself.  We tasted the white wines in the tasting room and moved into the barrel room to taste the reds.

One of the great things about wine tasting at a cooperative location like Holman is that you get to try wines from multiple labels.  Each time we’ve been to Holman, we’ve seen each of the winemakers pour not only their own wines but also the wines from the co-op partners.  This afternoon we had the chance to taste not just Brian’s Newberry label but also a couple of Kevin’s Cadle Family wines as well as a wine from Jason Holman’s Uncharted label.

Our first wine was a 2015 Newberry Chenin Blanc, a real treat for us as there are very few wineries in Napa that still make wine made from this grape variety.

In the 1980’s there were still over 2,000 acres planted to Chenin Blanc, compared to less than 100 acres based on a recent survey.  Vineyard owners have systematically torn out Chenin Blanc and replaced the acreage with vines that make more economic sense:  Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.  Brian Newberry was able to find a unique vineyard in Yolo County, tucked up against the Sacramento River, and works closely with the vineyard owner to grow and deliver the best grapes for his Newberry Chenin Blanc.  We really enjoyed the wine which was crisp, bone-dry (no residual sugar), and aged in a combination of stainless steel and neutral French oak.  In other words, “our type of white wine”:  balanced with strong acidity and minerality but with plenty of fruit flavor on the finish.

Our second white wine was from Kevin’s label – 2015 Cadle Family Gewürztraminer.  Like the Newberry white, the Cadle Gewurtz was crisp and dry but also a nice balance of acidity/minerality and fruit flavor.

Too often, Gewürztraminer can be overly sweet and syrupy, drinking more like a dessert wine than something you want to consume on its own or with appetizers or fish.  Cadle’s version, however, was made the way we enjoy it and could definitely be enjoyed with or without food (we’re imagining a good book and a fire).

After tasting these two whites, we moved to the wooden table inside the barrel room to taste three red wines – one each from the Newberry, Cadle and Holman labels.  Our first red wine was a 2015 Cadle Family Sangiovese, a full-bodied wine with flavors of black fruit, spices and medium tannins on the finish.

Kevin sources the Sangiovese grapes from Knights Valley in Sonoma County, a location that has elevations ranging from 500 to over 1,000 feet.  We have had Sangiovese wine from a few wineries in Napa Valley, one in Oregon, and several in Italy and we would stack the Cadle offering up against any of them.

The second red wine offering was Newberry 2014 Cabernet Franc, a varietal that more often is used for blending with other wines, typically Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot.

Not so many wineries make a single-varietal Cabernet Franc, although several in Napa Valley now do.  The Newberry Cab Franc was simply delicious with a velvety mouthfeel and plenty of acidity and spice to complement the cranberry and cherry flavors.

Brian sources his Cab Franc fruit from Rutherford, one of the best sources in all of Napa Valley for Bordeaux-type varietals.  The vineyards that he pulls his fruit from are at a high elevation, around 600 feet above sea level.  We were intrigued by the color of the Cab Franc – ruby and garnet but much lighter than we often see with wines made exclusively from this varietal.  Brian’s Cab Franc was translucent and could almost have passed for a dark Pinot Noir.  Newberry refuses to add color as other wineries admit to doing.

Our final red wine was a proprietary red blend from Jason Holman’s Uncharted label.

The 2012 Uncharted red blend was also delicious but different from many of the other red blends that we have tasted in Napa Valley.  Jason sources his fruit from Coombsville, a well-known AVA in Napa Valley, but his wine is more complex than many other wineries’ proprietary red blends.  It is typical of Napa red blends to be super high in alcohol and very fruit-forward – a style that we enjoy drinking from high-quality producers, by the way. However, Jason’s Uncharted Proprietor’s Blend balances the flavors of dark fruit with acidity and minerality and strong tannins on the finish.

Having tasted wines from three winemakers in the Holman cooperative, it is clear that a singular approach to making wines binds them together:  buying high-quality fruit and making wines that are clean, crisp and true to the terroir where the grapes were grown.  Another thing that binds these winemakers together is their interest in exploring varietals that are not necessarily “typical” of Northern California wine regions.  Brian, Kevin, and Jason are making a wide range of different wines and willing to source them from different vineyards both in Napa Valley and elsewhere.  As we were leaving the wine tasting today, Brian showed us a barrel that Jason Holman is using to age a wine blend that, if we heard him correctly, holds 43 separate grape varietals!  What emerges from this barrel may be a fantastic and delicious blend … or it may be a horrible disaster.  Either way, the guys are going to enjoy the process of having experimented with something new – the kind of pioneer spirit that marked the early days of Napa Valley and is starting to show itself again in some great micro-wineries across the Valley.

John & Irene Ingersoll

December 30, 2016

Advertisements

Que Sirah Sirah

Most wine regions are known for something specific.  Burgundy is best-known for Chablis (Chardonnay) and Pinot Noir, Bordeaux for Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.  The Rioja wine region in Spain is best-known for Tempranillo.  In Italy’s Tuscany region, Sangiovese is king.  If there is a grape that defines Napa Valley, it would be Cabernet Sauvignon, although wine makers here have planted dozens of varietals.  “Napa Cab” is a real “thing” and at most wineries in the Valley the signature wine is Cabernet Sauvignon.

cabernetsauvignon
Cab is King in Napa Valley

In a Valley with more than 450 wineries, though, there is something for everyone, including quite a few small-production wineries that specialize in varietals other than Cab.  We started this blog because we wanted to share these “hidden gems” with our followers.  This past weekend we visited another gem, one that our friends Inna and Igor have been telling us about since we met them:  Vincent Arroyo Winery located  a bit off the beaten track just north of Calistoga .

Since Inna and Igor have really good taste, we expected the Vincent Arroyo wines to be very good, which they were.  During our visit we realized that we had been missing out on a real cult winery with a strong, loyal following. Unlike many of the Napa Valley trend-followers, Vincent Arroyo is not a “Cab house,” as some of the big Cabernet Sauvignon producers like to call themselves. Instead, Vincent Arroyo is a “Petite Sirah house” – if there is even such a thing!   Petite Sirah is their “signature” wine and Vincent Arroyo produces multiple Petite Sirah wines from different estate vineyards.  We were fortunate to taste three:  the Rattlesnake Acres, made from grapes grown in the vineyards directly in front of the winery building; Greenwood Ranch, another vineyard-designated Petite Sirah from grapes grown behind the winery; and the standard Petite Sirah that is a blend of several estate blocks.  Although there are other wineries in Napa Valley that grow Petite Sirah, there are not many that feature the wine as their signature wine, or that have so many separate offerings to choose from.  We really enjoyed the Petite Sirah and were surprised how different the three were from each other.  There is also a Petite Sirah port that we understand sells out very quickly.

petit-sirah
Yes, please

Because overall production is relatively low (about 8,000 cases annually), demand for Vincent Arroyo’s wines often exceeds supply.  Like other precious commodities, the Vincent Arroyo wines are sold as futures – they can be reserved  by members before they are released or even bottled.  The Vincent Arroyo concept of “membership” is very different from that of almost all other Napa Valley wineries. Typically, membership in a wine club requires a commitment to a specific number of bottles per year and can easily exceed $1,000 annually for the more expensive wines.

At Vincent Arroyo, anyone that has purchased wine is entitled to be a Standing Orders member.  Let’s say we purchased two bottles of Tempranillo and we wanted to make sure that we were able to taste the next year’s vintage (or another varietal).  We would reserve the wine that we wanted (as a “future”), essentially making up our own allocation rather than the winery mandating the “member” allocation.  We do not know any other wineries that operate this way but we love the control that it gives to us as wine buyers.

When we pulled up to the winery the first thing we noticed was the winery building, a structure that resembled a farmhouse.  It was a stormy day in Napa Valley when we visited but this did not daunt us and we made the most of our visit.

img_2461
Vincent Arroyo Tasting Room

Inside, the tasting room had several tables and stations set up for tasting.  Even though the weather was foul, the tasting room was full when we arrived and throughout our visit new tasters continued to stream in until closing time.  At Vincent Arroyo appointments are required but tastings are free for 4 or fewer people.  Yes, we said free.  We are not sure how many other wineries in Napa Valley still offer free tastings, but if we were counting we would only know of one (this one).

Vincent Arroyo grows 9-10 different varietals and makes 15 or 16 different wines from them.

img_2458
Enjoying the wines with our guide

In addition to the Petite Sirah, we also tasted Zinfandel, Merlot and Cabernet.  Typical of the wines that we prefer, all of the Vincent Arroyo wines were nicely balanced and structured – certainly not overly-oaked or manipulated wines.

2012_open_house_1334__medium
Many wines!

We were even more drawn to the Vincent Arroyo story when we heard that Mr. Arroyo, like one of the writers of this blog, is the son of a parent from Spain (in his case his father).  We have been surprised by the number of wineries run by immigrants from Spain as well as the influx of Spanish wineries in Northern California wine country (Marimar in Sonoma, Artesa and Gloria Ferrer in Carneros).  When we heard the rest of his story we were hooked.  Vincent Arroyo was working as a mechanical engineer in the 1970’s when a friend brought to his attention an advertisement for land for sale in Calistoga.  At that time, Napa Valley did not have the phenomenal global presence that it has today.  After driving up from the South Bay to check out the property, Arroyo returned to work, resigned his job, and decided to purchase the 22-acre parcel.  Prune orchards have become vineyards and the rest, as they say, is history.

Since our friends our “members” of Vincent Arroyo, we are hoping that we will be invited to join them soon for another tasting or, even better, a winery party.  We hear that their events are spectacular and frequently have a giant paella as a featured attraction.  We are suckers for paella and great wine!

2012_open_house_1344__large
You had me at paella

John & Irene Ingersoll

December 13, 2016

img_2457
A library of labels
img_2456
Wisdom
2012_open_house_1326__large
Glasses can help you see better

 

 

Our Version of “Game of Thrones” Wine

We read an announcement recently that HBO has partnered with Vintage Wine Estates, a collection of wineries based in Sonoma County, California, to produce several Game of Thrones-themed wines.

viking_blod__56865-1343620754-1280-1280
Maybe it would look like this?

Vintage Wine Estates produces wines from Sonoma and Napa Valleys, two of our favorite wine regions.  But we would have thought HBO would source a GOT-themed wine from a wine region more connected to the filming of the show.  An obvious choice would have been Croatia, where significant episodes and scenes have been filmed over the past seasons.  In fact, Kings Landing, the capital of Westeros, home of the Red Keep and seat of the Iron Throne itself, is filmed using landmarks in Croatia’s southern seaside town of Dubrovnik.  We like to think that a hearty Croatian wine would have been an apt choice for GOT fans and wine lovers alike.

As our regular readers will know, we were in Croatia about a month ago enjoying the many natural wonders of the country as well as their spectacular food and fine wines.  Although we live in California wine country, we are by no means wine snobs and always bring an open mind to other wine regions around the world. We found the Croatian wines to be sophisticated, structure, balanced, aromatic and flavorful, with their best wines the equal of the best wines of  Spain, France and Italy.  Certainly, Croatia has a very long history of growing grapes with a history of wine production going back over 2,500 years.  Today, there are hundreds of wineries in Croatia spread across their two main wine regions, Coastal and Continental; within these two broad regions there are 300 smaller geographically defined sub-regions.  Most of the country’s production is white wine (about 2/3 of the total) with the balance red wine.  Most of the white wine is made in the Continental region while the red wines predominantly come from the Coastal region.

Croatian wine makers produce wine from a host of “international” varietals, including Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.  However, Croatia boasts over a hundred grape varietals that are indigenous to the country including Prosip, Grasevina, Debit, and Malvasia (white grapes) and Plavac Mali, Teran, and Babic.  In our Croatian adventure, we tasted several of the whites, including Posip from Korcula and a number of reds including Plavac Mali from arguably the best location in the country, Dingac, on the Peljesac Peninsula.

We brought several bottles of Croatian wine home with us to America and have shared them with friends who appreciate sophisticated, high-quality wines. Everyone that has tried our Croatian wines has told us how surprised they are by the structure and balance of the wines, especially the Plavac Mali red wines.  In fairness, we should point out that we only purchased and brought back wines with the highest qualification:  Vrhunsko Vino, which means “premium quality wine.”  Immediately after tasting the wines we brought back, our friends have asked “how can we get some of these wines ourselves?”

There are some Croatian wines in the U.S. today, mostly from the larger Croatian producers.  We strongly believe that the “next big thing” in U.S. wine importing will be wines from Croatia and other Balkan countries.  As the Croatian wine industry continues to mature and blend ancient wine-making techniques with new processes and technologies, the wines will only get better.  For those looking to find high-quality Croatian wines from the country’s many wine sub-regions, we have two suggestions.

First, if you are going to be in Croatia, build your trip around visiting some of the country’s most well-known wine regions:  Istria in the northwest, Slavonia and Danube in the east, and Korcula, Hvar and Peljesac in Dalmatia.  If you are going to be in Croatia but do not have the time to visit many wineries, the next best thing is to visit a wine bar that brings hundreds of Croatian wineries to you.  Our favorite wine bar in Croatia is in Zagreb – Wine Bar Basement, which is located just below the Zagreb funicular which runs from Lower Town to Upper Town.

basement-terrace
Wine Bar Basement’s outdoor terrace just below the funicular

Wine Bar Basement is very conveniently located on a pedestrian street in the center of Zagreb and offers more than 120 different Croatian wines, most of which can be ordered by the bottle or by the glass. You can make a reservation here:  Wine Bar Basement – Zagreb if you are planning to be in the area.  If you go, ask for Dario Drmac and tell him that John & Irina sent you; he will take good care of you.  At Basement you can not only taste many different wines but also enjoy many different cheese and meat platters to accompany the wine.

 

Although sorting through 120 separate wines could be intimidating, the Basement wine list is helpfully broken down by red and white wines within each of the country’s major wine regions.  Their list of wines is available online here:  http://basement-bar.net/wine-card/.

This regionally based list makes it more manageable to pick a wine; plus, if you need help Dario or the staff at Basement can give you specific recommendations.  We spent several hours at Basement and got a really comprehensive overview of Croatia’s varietals, wine regions, and wine styles which was very useful for our later trips to wineries in Dalmatia.

If you can’t make it to Zagreb to visit Basement,  you can still benefit from the hard work and expertise that went into curating Basement’s long list of high-quality Croatian wines.  In addition to being a co-owner of Basement, Dario is also the founder of an impressive e-commerce site that promotes and sells Croatian wine called The Wine & More .  You can search for individual Croatian red and white wines or, if you prefer to have some “virtual” help, the site recommends options for case purchase (Istrian White Wine Case, Best Croatian Red Wine Case, Best of Dingac, Selection of Plavac Mali, etc.).  These case recommendations are very useful for those that may not know the individual labels but would like to taste a range of a region or varietal.  There is also an interactive map of Croatia with each of the represented wineries laid out geographically so shoppers can search for wines by region.  There are many family-owned and small-production wineries that Wine & More works with that are too small to have their own distribution and shipping channels.  It would be very difficult for you to find their wines any other way than through the Wine & More site.

For our European friends, we believe The Wine & More is a great option to try Croatian wines.  Shipping is available to at least 26 countries in Europe so availability is almost universal on the continent.  For friends of ours, Dario is offering a promotion code that will allow you to save 10% on your order.  At checkout, simply enter code “WQYXUBR” in the box labeled “promo code” and the discount will be applied at checkout.  Currently, The Wine & More does not ship to the United States.

We are eagerly anticipating our next trip to Croatia;  in the meantime, we will be jealously guarding what remains of the wine we brought home.  Nothing against the Game of Thrones wine (we may even buy some), but for our money the real “Kings Landing” wine flows in Croatia.

John & Irene Ingersoll

December 9, 2016

Links:

Wine Bar Basement:  http://basement-bar.net

Basement wine list:  http://basement-bar.net/wine-card/

Wine & More:  https://www.thewineandmore.com/

Heart is Good for the Wine

img_2496
There is a heart inside the Ehlers logo

Over the past decade or more, numerous reports have suggested that red wine is good for the heart.  At one of our favorite wineries in Napa, the heart has been very good for the wine as well.  As the picture above shows, inside the “E” in the Ehlers logo there is a heart, an homage to the legacy of the founders and the cause that is a big part of the winery’s purpose today.  Many wineries in Napa Valley are owned by large beverage conglomerates or international wine enterprises.  Ehlers Estate is unique in that it is owned by a charitable foundation, the Leducq Foundation, which is dedicated to funding research in cardiovascular and neurovascular disease.  This foundation was formed in 1996 by the founders of Ehlers Estate and today proceeds from tasting fees and wine sales help fund the Leducq Foundation’s activities.  This is one winery where members and visitors can be confident that their money not only delivers high-quality wines but truly has a charitable purpose and impact.

We have been members of Ehlers since just after our move to Napa Valley and we visit as often as we can.  This past weekend, we took relatives visiting from Miami to Ehlers, their first ever visit to a winery.

img_2490
Feeling welcome

There are many things that we like about Ehlers, beyond the direct link between their wine business and their charitable operations.  One of our favorite aspects of Ehlers Estate is its location and story.  Although the Leducq family started producing wine in this century, the property was originally planted with vines and olives in the late 1800’s by Bernard Ehlers.  In 1886 Bernard finished construction of a stone barn on the property, a building that (with a bit of modern renovation) is still standing and serves today as Ehlers’ winery building and tasting room.

ehlers tasting room exterior.jpg
Exterior of the Ehlers tasting room

Original beams of wood and stone walls are still visible from the original construction but the interior has been refreshed with colorful furniture and many paintings hanging on the walls.

ehlers-interior-tasting-room
Interior of Ehlers Estate tasting room

Despite the ravages of  phylloxera, the long period of prohibition and ownership changes along the way, the property Ehlers sits on has been continuously producing wine for over 120 years. While there are no vines remaining from 1886, the original olive groves are still on the estate.

Another thing that we love about Ehlers is their commitment to sustainable farming.  Since 2008, they have been certified organic;  no chemical herbicides, pesticides, or synthetic fertilizers are used in their vineyards.

ehlers-mustard
Vines and mustard

The Ehlers wines – Sauvignon Blanc, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon – are produced in a style that is as much Bordeaux as it is Napa. The wine making team at Ehlers Estate firmly believes in making wines that reflect the unique terroir – the diverse soil types and the microclimate.  An important difference between Ehlers and most other Napa Valley wineries is that they do not employ seasonal vineyard labor or outsource to outside companies for their vineyard management.  They have a full-time team that handles all of the work in the vineyard:  planting, weed and pest control, pruning, canopy management, and harvesting.  Maintaining a full-time staff throughout the year ensures a consistency in the way the grapes are grown.

During our visit this past weekend we enjoyed four different Ehlers wines; as always, we started with the Sauvignon Blanc.

img_2489
Crisp Ehlers Sauvignon Blanc

Like all of the Ehlers wines, the Sauvignon Blanc – the only white wine they produce – is crisp, rich, and bone dry, with zero residual sugar.  There has been no malolactic fermentation and no new oak was used in the aging of the wine.  A perfect wine with food or to sip with friends or alone with a good book.

The remainder of our tasting consisted of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Ehlers’ luscious “1886” Cabernet Sauvignon.

img_2495
Ehlers Estate Merlot
img_2493
Ehlers Estate Cab Franc
img_2492
Ehlers Estate Cabernet Sauvignon “1886”

We enjoyed all three wines and have always been big fans of the Ehlers portfolio of red wines.  Certainly, the most impressive wine is the 1886 Cab, but the Cab Franc is also very structured with strong tannins and spicy aroma and flavor.  This visit, the Merlot really stood out for us and we all ordered an extra pour (or two) of the Merlot as part of our tasting.

So a winery with a great story, a beautiful location, and great wines.  What more could you ask?  How about great events? One of the reasons we have held onto our Ehlers membership while jettisoning most of our others are the fantastic events that occur throughout the year. When we visited this past weekend, there happened to be an open house with great food and an array of local artists and craft sellers in the tasting room.

There was quite a spread which we sampled along with our wine.  Our family from Miami had a great time and we didn’t have the heart to tell them that every tasting doesn’t have such a bountiful spread.  It’ll be difficult to take them to another tasting if there’s not an event going on – they may feel let down.

John & Irene Ingersoll

December 7, 2016