Tag: sangiovese

Old-fashioned new wine co-op in Napa

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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.

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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.

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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

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Grazie, Grassi

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Grassi vineyards in Napa Valley

When people ask us about our move from Los Angeles to Northern California, we often say “the best part of living in Napa is …”  After multiple times starting this same sentence but finishing  with a different “best part,” our friends called us on it and challenged us to name the single best part about living in wine country.  Alas, we cannot, so we have amended our sentence to say “One of the best parts of living in Napa is …

And take it from us, one of the best parts of living in Napa is …having friends that produce wine.  We’re not referring to people who make wine in their garage (although some of those wines are really good).  We are referring to honest-to-goodness wine makers who have dedicated themselves to wine making as a business. One friend in particular are the Grassi family, long-time Napa residents now in their second generation running Grassi Wine company.  Grassi is a true family owned winery in Napa Valley; their founder, Mark Grassi, lives on the vineyard property with his wife Jami as they have for 17 years.  Because Napa is a small town, we tend to bump into people in multiple places. Thankfully, we “bumped into” Jami Grassi in yoga (well, Irene did) and then we had the pleasure of sitting next to Jami for nearly 15 weeks during our class at Napa Valley College, Wines of the World.  After our last class, Jami invited us to come up to their vineyard property to take a look and (we hoped) share some of their wine.

When we arrived at the Grassi estate, we were met by Cassandra, the second-generation of the family to work for Grassi Wine Company.  While Jami was busy taking care of her granddaughter (Cassandra’s adorable 5-month old), Cassandra sat with us and told us a little bit about the history of Grassi Wine Company and their philosophy of growing and making wine:  sustainable farming (with an organic approach to farming on their estate), limited production, and a “restrained” approach in the cellar. Their philosophy is that the wine is mostly made in the vineyard and each vintage should be a reflection of that year’s weather, soil conditions, and overall harvest.  After hearing Cassandra describe their family’s approach to wine, we were excited to taste them as we also favor wines that are less “mass production” and more a reflection of the terroir where the grapes are grown.

Which brings us to the wine.  Finally.  Cassandra was gracious enough to share three of their wines with us – one white and two red.  We did not see the label before she poured the white wine.  Looking at the wine in the glass, our immediate conclusion was that we were going to be tasting a Chardonnay.  And not just a Chardonnay, but a really oaky Chardonnay.  The color was medium gold as you would expect from a “big” Napa Chardonnay aged in 100% new oak.  As soon as we put our noses in the glass, we knew it was not a Chardonnay. As it turns out, we were going to taste at a wine made from a varietal that we tasted in our wine class: the somewhat obscure (at least in the U.S.) ribolla gialla grape.  Wine from this grape is common in the Fruili-Venezia region of Northern Italy, but in the U.S. there are somewhere around 7 producers of this white grape.  How did this relatively obscure grape make it to from Italy to this family wine company in Napa? The Grassi’s close family friend brought some ribolla gialla vines from Northern Italy and planted them in Napa.  That friend made a small production of wine from these plantings until he retired.  Today, the Grassi Wine Company sources grapes from these vines for their white wine.  I should also mention that the Grassis have planted their own ribolla gialla vines on their estate and ultimately will be making their Grassi Ribolla Gialla from estate-grown grapes.

So how did it taste?  In our Wines of the World class, we were required  to provide detailed tasting notes, but we will spare you those (you can look them up online).  What we will say, though, is that the wine was delicious and different from the white wines we are used to drinking:  Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Albarino.  The wine was medium-bodied (okay, we are treading into the area of tasting notes, but we can’t help it) with nice acidity but also plenty of fruit flavor on the finish. White wines are often too simple (read: oaked Chardonnay or overly-sweet Sauvignon Blanc from the U.S.) or complex but highly acidic and overly-tart (apologies to France’s Sauvignon Blanc). Grassi’s Ribolla Gialla was complex but balanced, which we really appreciated.  We were surprised to hear that the wine sells for $34  a bottle, which we consider to be quite a bargain for such a complex yet drinkable offering.

When we finished gushing over the Ribolla, Cassandra poured us a taste of the 2013 Grassi Mezzo Mezzo.  In Italian, “mezzo” means “half”; translated, then, “mezzo mezzo” means “half and half.”  Unlike the stuff you pour into coffee, though, this “half and half” is 50% Sangiovese and 50% Merlot.  Sangiovese is the classic grape of the Tuscany wine region, including the well-known Chianti wines.  Like the Ribolla, the Mezzo Mezzo was balanced; the red blend had plenty of dark fruit flavors but some acidity as well.  Another very drinkable wine at, again, a surprisingly reasonable price – $40 per bottle.

The last wine we tasted was the 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, another winner as far as we were concerned.  Cab has become our “go to” wine since moving to Napa and we have tasted literally dozens of different local Cabs.  We would definitely not describe this as a “typical” Napa Cab; those seeking a massively fruit-forward, high-alcohol wine should look elsewhere.  Consistent with their other wines, Grassi makes a Cab that has a delightful aroma, strong flavor but – again – balanced.  Although Cassandra didn’t say so specifically, we feel as if their wine making style has a decided European approach (with the benefit of the more consistent California weather!).

Although we evaluate a fair amount of wines, we  have not yet devised a 100-point wine rating system; fortunately though, many other people have.  And the most well-known of the 100-point reviewers, including Robert Parker, Antonio Galloni, and Wine Spectator, have rated the recent and older Grassi vintages with scores ranging from 90 to the mid-90’s.  Deservedly so, we believe.  Also, one of Napa’s premier restaurants, the French Laundry, has the Grassi Ribolla Gialla on its menu, more proof of the wine’s quality and sophistication.

If you want to get your hands on some of the great wines at Grassi, follow the link to their website below.  You can also read all of the expert wine reviews on the Grassi website.  Let us know how you like Grassi’s wine when you try some!  Oh, and we should mention, because Grassi does not have a tasting room yet – they are applying for one, stay tuned for details and progress on that – the website is your best option.

John and Irene

Get wine here:  http://grassiwines.com/shop/

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Grassi Cab back label
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Grassi Cabernet Sauvignon
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Pond – Grassi Vineyards
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Trio – Ribolla, Mezzo Mezzo, Cabernet Sauvignon
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Grassi Vineyards
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Mezzo Mezzo back label

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Grassi Mezzo Mezzo

Grassi

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Grassi Ribolla back label
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Grassi Ribolla