We usually don’t think of wine and gravity going together. When I knock over a glass of wine, gravity causes the precious juice to fall to the floor. Or worse yet, when the 2014 Napa earthquake struck, gravity maliciously conspired with shaking of the Earth to cause many bottles of wine to plummet to their sad demise.
Perhaps you can see why we generally think of wine and gravity as mortal enemies. But there is a method – more common in Europe –where gravity plays a key (and useful) role in the winemaking process. In most winery operations grapes and juice are moved around mechanically via conveyors, pumps and other machinery. This movement can change the way in which the juice is extracted, oxidized, tannins are released, etc. In gravity-flow winemaking, after the crush process the wine moves to fermentation, cellar and bottling all via gravity with no pumps or other mechanical assistance.
In 1989, Rick Moshin had a dream to step away from his day job – teaching mathematics at San Jose State University – and run his own winery. He knew that he wanted to make wine using the gravity-flow method and that he would have to find a property that could accommodate that approach. Optimally, gravity-flow operations are found on properties that are sloped. Rick Moshin found the perfect property along Westside Road in Sonoma’s Russian River. He purchased 10 acres and started the arduous process of building out the winery. Gravity-flow winemaking is not for everyone: it can be more time-consuming and expensive to produce wine. But this method is particularly appropriate for the delicate and thin-skinned Pinot Noir grape. Below is Moshin’s diagram of their gravity-flow process (courtesy of their website). Visitors can take a tour with a prior appointment, something we recommend simply because it is so different from tours at other wineries.
We stopped by Moshin Vineyards during a recent 3-day vacation in Sonoma (yes, we live in Napa and “traveled” the 40 miles to the Russian River to overnight for 3 days). We absolutely loved our visit to Moshin; it punched every item on our list: beautiful location, high-quality wines, and fantastic people. The tasting experience was quite enjoyable and, we must add, quite the bargain compared to some of our Napa Valley tastings.
During our tasting we had the opportunity to taste quite a few wines – as usual, more than are typically offered . When the tasting room staff knows you enjoy the wine and are interested in learning more and possibly buying, they will almost always pour more. We tasted several white wines including the Moshin Sauvignon Blanc and two different Russian River Chardonnay offerings, each from a different vineyard location.
As you would expect from a Russian River winery, Moshin produces Pinot Noir, in fact quite a few different versions from multiple locations across Sonoma as well as different vineyards within Russian River. We really enjoyed their Russian River Pinot Noir which we found to be a classic representation of the varietal from that region: full-bodied, earthy, with notes of mushroom and, dare we say, forest floor.
At Moshin, though, the red wines are not just limited to Pinot Noir. We also tasted a Syrah and a Merlot, both of which were special wines. We actually purchased a bottle of Merlot – a wine more often found in Napa Valley. Moshin’s Merlot – produced from grapes grown in Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley – had strong dark fruit aroma and flavor with hints of chocolate.
How do you top off a great wine tasting? If you’re lucky, with a sweet dessert wine. At Moshin we had the treat of experiencing their luscious Moshin Potion, a late harvest blend of Gewürztraminer and Viognier.
We couldn’t resist taking a bottle of this home with us along with the Merlot and several of the Pinot Noir offerings. We’ve added Moshin to our list of Sonoma “must return” wineries and we’ll be back soon.
Westside Road winds and meanders its way through Sonoma County’s wine region, on some stretches moving East-West and along others North-South. In all of its directions and gyrations, Westside Road takes its travelers past some of the best wineries in Sonoma’s impressive wine region. The Westside Wine Trail, as it’s also known, starts in the town of Healdsburg and ends in a forest-like setting near Guerneville. One of our favorite wineries on this route is Porter Creek Vineyards, an easy place to miss if you happen to turn your head at the wrong moment …or blink. Unlike many wineries in the area, Porter Creek does not have a huge tasting room building, visitor center, deli, or cafe. They have a small shack. It is a damn fine shack, we have to say, but still a shack.
The drive from Westside Road to the shack is along an unpaved dirt road. After parking, this is the first thing we saw on our way to the shack.
This is the second thing that we saw.
No big fancy tasting room or winery property. No paved road. Organic farm with free-range chickens. Hopefully you’re starting to get an important point about Porter Creek: they have a strong commitment to sustainable farming. This commitment is not a marketing ploy but rather a long-standing one held by this family-owned winery since it purchased the land in 1977. George Davis, the patriarch of Porter Creek Vineyards, combined his commitment to sustainabilty with a strong desire to remain true to the grape varietals planted in the vineyards. His son Alex Davis, the current winemaker, continues his father’s commitments and in one important area – sustainable certification – is raising the bar even higher. Porter Creek’s Aurora-certified vineyards are being transitioned to Demeter biodynamic certification. For farming and/or sustainability geeks, here’s what that means: Organic vs. Biodynamic
If you don’t care how your wine is made, that’s okay too. We don’t drink Porter Creek – and it’s not on the menu at 3-Michelin star The French Laundry – just because it is organic or biodynamic. Porter Creek makes fantastic wines that happen to be certified organic and, soon, certified biodynamic.
When we finally entered the shack there were only two others tasting wine, a rare treat as we are usually elbow-to-elbow with fellow tasters when we go to Porter Creek. But it was early in the day and during the week so we beat the weekend crowds. Our cousins from Spain joined us for the tasting and we were excited to hear their reactions to our California wines. We were met by Steve who took us through one of the most entertaining and comprehensive tastings we have experienced in a very long time.
Porter Creek has a fantastic selection of both white and red wines, including a splendid Rosè made from Zinfandel grapes. We tasted everything on the tasting menu and another three or four wines thatare not part of a typical tasting; we must have looked interested – or at least thirsty!
All of the Porter Creek wines share a similar approach to winemaking: let the wine reflect the varietal as well as the place and conditions in which the grape was grown. Oak is used to enhance the flavor of the wine but not to manipulate the final product.
Our Spanish cousins were pleasantly surprised by the high quality of the wine as well as the tasting experience. In their home country they tend to drink “local” wines and have never been exposed to Somoma County or Russian River fine wine. The balance, sophistication and refinement of the Porter Creek wines were obvious to them and they were able to overcome their Spanish wine snobbiness. They readily admitted that these wines were on par with the best wines they have tasted.
We have been to Porter Creek before and we will go again, hopefully soon. In the meantime we bought quite a few bottles to replenish our cellar at home, and a few bottles made the long trip back to Madrid with the cousins.
We enjoyed a wine recently at a local Napa Valley tasting room from a producer with which we were previously unfamiliar: Lamborn Family Vineyards. The quality of the wine compelled us to visit the producer’s website and try to set up a tasting appointment. We could not find an option for scheduling a tasting but were not deterred: we visited the site’s “contact us” page and sent a message expressing our enthusiastic wish to visit and taste their wines. Very soon thereafter we received a reply thanking us for our interest but letting us know that the winery was not open to the public.
Although there are over 525 wineries in Napa Valley, many of them – and perhaps even the majority – are not open for business for a variety of reasons. Some wine producers lack the production levels to justify building a winery or tasting room or hiring hospitality staff. Others do not have sufficient acreage to receive approval to operate a winery (generally new applicants for a winery must own at least 10 contiguous acres). Yet another category are those producers and wineries that do meet the minimum property size and have sufficient wine production to fund a tasting room and staff but do not have a permit to accept visitors.
Even though I could not visit Lamborn and taste their wines, I asked their founder, Mike Lamborn, if he would be open to my coming up to meet him and learn more about their wines and the story of their family wine business. Mike graciously agreed and we picked a time for me to come up. A few days later I made the trek from our house in Napa to the Lamborn’s property in Angwin – about thirty miles north. Lamborn Family Vineyards is located in the Howell Mountain region, one of Napa Valley’s highest-elevation grape-growing areas and home to unique microclimates and soil types. We have been to wineries in Howell Mountain before and had a vague sense of how long the trip might take and how complicated the route would be. This vague sense was clarified when Mike Lamborn emailed us an old-school map with written directions and a warning that most navigation systems cannot accurately deliver visitors to the right location.
It turns out that the Lamborn property was at least another 15 to 20 minutes driving time beyond any place we had been in Howell Mountain, but well worth the drive. As I drove down the long driveway past the vineyards I saw a woman tending to some vines next to the road. I would soon learn that this was Mike’s wife Terry and the image of her in the vineyard reinforced a key takeaway from my conversation with the Lamborn’s – they are hands-on farmers.
After driving down the Lamborn’s long driveway and parking the car near the house I could see unobstructed views into the valley below for dozens of miles. It felt as if I was standing at the very top of Napa Valley. Mike came out to greet me and we settled down on their outdoor patio and Mike told me the story of Lamborn Family Vineyards. It all started in 1969 when Mike’s father bought land up in Howell Mountain – first one acre, and then a 20 acre parcel that is now home to Outpost Wines. A couple of years later Mike and Terry purchased their own parcel of Howell Mountain land at one of the highest elevations (2200 feet). Because the land required significant work – clearing, grading, building – they did not plant until 1979; the first Zinfandel grapes were harvested in 1982. Cabernet Sauvignon was planted later with the first harvest in 2003. Annually, Lamborn produces about 1,000 cases of Zinfandel and 550 of Cabernet Sauvignon. In addition, they make about 100 cases of Rosè of Zinfandel.
People that really know Napa Valley wines will tell you that Howell Mountain fruit is not just different, but special. Because of its extreme elevation compared to the Valley floor, Howell Mountain has cooler days but also warmer nights resulting in a long and steady growing season. In addition, the unique soil in Howell Mountain – volcanic ash and red clay – creates the perfect environment for grapes to grow. Vineyards on Howell Mountain sit on ground that is very rocky which provides excellent drainage. However, the soils are nutrient-poor, causing the grape vines to struggle; it is from this struggle that the most intense wine is produced. The Lamborn vineyards sit on Red Aiken Loam atop a water table that is 500 feet below the property.
As I can attest from seeing Terry in the vines as I drove up, the Lamborn’s do their own vineyard management for their ten planted acres. Since the end of 2015, they have been fully organic, a choice they made not for marketing purposes but for reasons much more personal. As Mike Lamborn put it, “We did it for the health of the land and the health of our grandchildren who come here.” Many wineries stick the word “family” in their name but many of them no longer have anyone from the family involved. At Lamborn, in addition to Mike and Terry their sons are both involved in the winery business and there is a fourth generation of Lamborn’s coming of age.
If there were any surprises during my conversation with Mike and Terry it was their perspective on the wine making part of the business. “We’re Farmers,” they said repeatedly, “we don’t get too involved in the making of the wine.” This is a refreshing approach – stick to what you’re good at. Of course, this is easier to do when your winemaker is Heidi Barrett, one of the stars of Napa Valley known for her stint at cult winery Screaming Eagle and as the winemaker for over a dozen wineries in the Valley. As Mike described it, their goal was to make balanced wines that can age, with no particular characteristic standing out above any other. This approach meshes nicely with Heidi’s style which is to make balanced wines that are expressions of where the grapes were grown. If you taste Lamborn wine and say “This is a Howell Mountain wine,” then the Lamborn’s and Heidi would be pleased.
Because Lamborn Family Vineyards does not have a permit to taste wines I did not enjoy either the Zin or the Cab while I was there (although I had several glasses of delicious well water!). When I left, though, Mike and Terry were nice enough to gift me a bottle each of Zin and Cab. They did not provide any instructions as to how long to age the wine or when to consume it, so both wines have been enjoyed with friends already. Both wines had strong dark fruit characteristics balanced by spice notes and strong tannins and finished nice and long. The Zinfandel had strong pepper notes while the Cab had a wonderfully dusty aroma and strong minerality. The 2013 Cab is sold out but the 2014 vintage will be released in November. The 2013 Zin is still available and wonderfully priced at $45 per bottle. Although we have not tasted it yet we just ordered two bottles of the Zinfandel Rosè for a very exciting price of $34 per bottle. The best and easiest place to find Lamborn Family Wines is their website: Buy Lamborn Wines. For those that are in Napa Valley and want to pick up a bottle, Lamborn sells its wine at Maisonry Napa Valley, a wine tasting room in Yountville: Maisonry. Finally, for those that are in Napa Valley Father’s Day weekend, many of the Howell Mountain wineries are participating in a fantastic event, Taste of Howell Mountain: Taste of Howell Mountain.
For every one of our blog posts we have an important introductory step that takes place before we write a single word: brainstorm a headline. For reasons even we do not fully understand, we cannot get started before the headline has been cast in stone. Usually, the headline is a play on words or a pun; for example, when we visited Duckhorn Vineyards last year our headline was “Wine that fits the bill.” Get it? Bill? Ducks have bills. If you want to check out that review, here it is: Wine that fits the bill. Last week we visited one of Duckhorn’s sister wineries and guess what? They made a pun out of their own name in such a way that we simply couldn’t top it: Paraduxx Vineyards. What do you find on every bottle? Two ducks. A pair of ducks. Paraduxx. Get it? For this post, then, we gave up on finding a clever title and decided to just get to the wine.
For those unfamiliar with the Duck family of wineries, the “grandfather” of them all is the previously mentioned Duckhorn Vineyards. Today, there are several different brands under the Duckhorn umbrella, each with a different varietal or geographic focus: Goldeneye – primarily Pinot Noir and Chardonnay sourced from Anderson Valley in Mendocino County; Migration – excellent Pinot Noir offerings from Sonoma’s Russian River region; Decoy – producing Napa and Sonoma wines at prices that are surprisingly affordable ($25 for their 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon); and finally, Canvasback – producing wine from vineyards in Washington state. Each of the brands has some sort of duck reference in the name, although some of them we had to Google to understand (we did not know that Goldeneye and Canvasback are species of ducks).
Okay, enough about ducks. Let’s talk about Paraduxx wines. If Duckhorn is well-known for being a “Merlot house,” Paraduxx is a “blend” house: most of their wines are blends of red varietals. However, the blends were not the typical Bordeaux or Napa blend (Cab + Merlot) but more creative and inventive blends we have not seen in our other winery visits. Many wineries in Napa Valley and Sonoma County have multiple labels and often there is a clear quality distinction between the wines sold under each label. The winery’s main wine is considered the “A” brand and the others are “B,” “C,” etc. It is important to stress that Paraduxx is not a “B” brand to Duckhorn, rather it is a sister winery with a different wine making approach.
When we arrived at the winery they placed a glass of the 2015 Paraduxx Proprietary Napa Valley White. While it is not uncommon in Napa to find a proprietary red wine, proprietary white wines are not something we recall coming across. We were told that the concept of a proprietary white was established in order to create a sense of quality and gravity to the white wine. Often, white wines are the “throwaway” wine in Napa – something to ease visitors into the wine tasting before the serious (meaning: red) wines are poured. We enjoyed the Paraduxx proprietary white which is composed of white varietals with Viognier making up about 2/3 of the blend. Although it was aged in oak it was nicely tart and crisp – the perfect wine for the hot Spring day.
Once we were seated out in the gorgeous Paraduxx back patio, our host Miguel Hurtado came out and gave us a quick overview of the winery and helped us understand the connection with (and differences from) Duckhorn. Despite his youth Miguel turned out to be really knowledgeable about the wines and a fantastic ambassador for the wines and the brand. He was also very generous in offering us tastes of wines that were not part of a regular tasting. After we finished the Proprietary White, Miguel brought out the entire red wine tasting at once, which is the way Paraduxx prefers to introduce its wines to guests. Rather than tasting one wine at a time, four reds are poured simultaneously, allowing tasters to jump back and forth between the wines and make comparisons and also revisit wines after they have had a chance to open up. In addition, each wine is in its own glass, thereby avoiding the inevitable mixing of wines (and aromas and flavors) that occurs when you use a single glass to taste. We prefer this type of tasting and wonder why more wineries do not follow this practice.
From the picture above it may look as if 8 different wines were delivered; please do not get overly excited, these are two sets of the same four wines, one for each of us. Our first Paraduxx red wine was the 2013 Cork Tree Red Wine, a blend of Malbec (43%), Cabernet Sauvignon (38%), and Merlot (19%). The four of us tried the Malbec and I believe we all were expecting the wine to be very spicy and bold, similar to the Malbec wines we have tasted from Argentina. This blend, however, was mellower than South American Malbec, perhaps because of the other varietals in the blend and the 18 months in French oak. We found this wine to be smooth, lightly tannic, silky and soft compared to some of the wines that followed.
Our second red wine was another unique blend – at least unique to us – 50% Cabernet Franc with 47% Zinfandel and 3% Cabernet Sauvignon. Compared to the Cork Tree blend, the 2013 Rector Creek – Block 5 Red wine had stronger aromas and on the palate boasted much higher tannins and more acidity. We all agreed that this wine would pair well with a thick juicy steak.
Our third red blend was the 2013 Paraduxx Atlas Peak Red Wine, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (51%), Zinfandel (31%), and Sangiovese (18%). This was the favorite wine of our grouping, although not everyone picked it as their favorite the first time through the four wines. One of the benefits of having the wines served at the same time and in their own glass is the ability to come back and taste each again.
The final wine in our red blend tasting (but far from the final wine of the afternoon) was the 2014 Paraduxx Pintail Napa Valley Red Wine, a blend of Zinfandel (63%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (37%). The youngest of the four wines, the Pintail blend had bold fruit, strong tannins and a nice long finish. We look forward to trying this wine again when it has aged a bit and see how the flavors progress.
Miguel let us work our way through the four red blends at our own pace and when he saw that most of us had empty glasses he asked if we would like to try any more wines. We enthusiastically accepted and Miguel proceeded to bring out a taste of 2013 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir from their sister winery Goldeneye, followed by a 2010 Paraduxx Rector Creek Red Wine (to compare to the 2013 we had tried during the tasting). We were already familiar with the Goldeneye Pinot Noir, having visited the winery last summer; we enjoyed it as much as we had the previous bottles consumed at home. The 2010 Rector Creek was luscious, smooth, fruity with a nice long and balanced finish.
But wait, there’s more. We asked if there was any Duckhorn Merlot open and, thankfully, Miguel answered in the affirmative. Several of the tasters in our party are big fans of the Duckhorn Merlot, truly one of the best in the country. As we were preparing to go, Miguel twisted our arm and asked if we wanted to try another Duckhorn wine. Because we are pleasers, we said “yes, if you like” and accepted one finally taste: 2013 Duckhorn “The Discussion.” Unusual for Duckhorn, The Discussion is a blend – 64% Cab, 31% Merlot, and small percentages of Cab Franc and Petit Verdot. This was Duckhorn’s version of a Bordeaux blend, a good old-fashioned cuvee. Aged for two years in 60 gallon Chateau-style barrels made of 100% French oak, The Discussion is a complex, sophisticated and elegant wine. Definitely the right wine with which to end our day.
Before leaving the table I looked down and thought “I must document the immensity of today’s efforts by taking a picture of the battlefield.” This is the carnage that we left behind.
We should mention that in addition to the strong wines Paraduxx offers visitors a beautiful and comfortable setting for tastings.
With a summer of family and friends visiting we expect we’ll make it back to Paraduxx (and hopefully Duckhorn as well) soon enough.
We recently visited VGS Chateau Potelle in Napa Valley’s quaint town of Saint Helena and encountered a wine rating scale that we think has some appeal: VGS. Even casual wine buyers are familiar with the more common 100-point wine rating scale that Robert Parker first introduced in the 1980’s in The Wine Advocate. Since Parker introduced this scale, it has been adopted by virtually all wine publications. This rating scale has some appeal, especially in the United States where most schools and universities grade on a scale of 0 to 100. A zero equates to total failure and a 100 suggests perfection.
While we find the 100 point scale to be useful, the “VGS” designation that we learned about at Chateau Potelle is one that we think could have broad appeal to the full gamut of wine consumers – snobs and novices alike. When we sat down last week at VGS Chateau Potelle for our tasting with Shelby, we figured “VGS” stood for the name of a corporate parent or ownership group. In our defense, it was our first visit to the winery and we knew little about them other than we had tasted a luscious bottle of their 1996 Zinfandel at Alice Water’s famous Chez Panisse in Berkeley the week before. “So,” we asked, “who or what is ‘VGS’?” “That stands for ‘very good shit,’ she explained. At first we thought this was a gag but it turns out that the letters do in fact stand for those descriptive words. As the story goes, some visitors to the winery many years ago described the Chateau Potelle wines as “very good shit” to the winemaker, Jean-Noel Fourmeaux. Apparently, he was not offended by this designation and latched onto the letters “VGS.” Over the years, VGS has become a more prominent feature in the winery’s branding to the point where, today, both the tasting room and the bottles are branded “VGS Chateau Potelle.”
Without reservation, we can say that the 1996 Zinfandel that we had at Chez Panisse was VGS. We decided to taste the current Chateau Potelle Vintages to see how they ranked on the scale.
We sat down for a paired tasting – four wines overall with a small bite to complement the wine. We started with the 2014 Chardonnay, which was paired with Vichyssoise with Dungeness crab. We have to say, the bites were delicious, not surprising when we found out that they are provided by one of Napa’s highest-rated restaurants, Michelin-starred La Toque. Given that Chateau Potelle’s winemaker is from France, we were expecting more of a French-style Chardonnay – crisp, bone dry, no oak, and very light in appearance. Instead, the Chardonnay turned out to be very yellow, similar to the Chardonnays made in Napa in the “California style.” However, the flavor was not buttery like a typical California Chard – it was a mix of both styles both in terms of color, aroma and flavor. Overall, a nice wine.
Our second wine was the 2014 Zinfandel – nearly 20 years younger than the wine we enjoyed the previous weekend – paired with bacon rillette. We found the 2014 Zin to be a very nice wine – balanced fruit, spice, smooth tannins and a nice silky texture. It was difficult not to compare it to the 1996, and in that comparison it could not hold up as the older wine had such intriguing texture and flavor.
Our third wine was the 2014 Potelle Two – a quasi-Bordeaux blend; we say “quasi” because in addition to the traditional Bordeaux blend varietals of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, the winemaker has blended Syrah and Zinfandel. This wine was very balanced and drinkable for such a young red wine and paired nicely with a Spanish Idiazabal cheese.
The fourth and final wine was Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa’s Mount Veeder appellation, paired with Niman Ranch beef. With just over 75% of its grapes coming from Cabernet Sauvignon, the wine is labelled a Cab but could easily be considered a proprietary blend as it includes Petit Verdot, Merlot, Cab Franc and Malbec. The wine was very balanced but more powerful than the Potelle Two, with a stronger and longer finish and stronger tannins. Also, there were more layers of flavor in the Cab – something that can be cellared and enjoyed for years to come.
We enjoyed the wines and had the good fortune to be attended by Shelby who not only shared her deep knowledge of the wines with us but also engaged us in a lively conversation about her Armenian family and the current state of U.S. politics. We also enjoyed the tasting room which is cozy and arranged in away that allows groups to enjoy sit-down tastings with a fair amount of privacy and personal attention. There is also a lovely outdoor area that felt very much like a French garden that we would have loved to enjoy had it not been raining for what felt like the 100th consecutive day in 2017. When we get back to Chateau Potelle to try some more VGS, we will choose a sunny day and have our tasting outside.
We’re not sure a new rating scale for wine will catch on, but we would like to propose three levels for wine quality:
“S” – for truly shit wine, the one that you regift as soon as you get it, or use it for cooking. Not even good enough to be a “Tuesday night wine.”
“GS” – for wines that are good shit; not very good, just good. Definitely worthy of Tuesday night but also good enough to take to a restaurant for date night.
“VGS” – for the very good shit wines that you drink for special occasions and hide from friends or family that can’t tell the different between S, GS, or VGS.
What do you think – can this rating scale catch on?
“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet.”
Romeo & Juliet, Act II, Scene 2
What’s the difference between Grgic and Grgich? Looked at one way, there is almost no difference – they are just an “h” apart. Looked at differently, they are about 6,271 miles apart. In the tiny town of Trstenik, Croatia, a literal stone’s throw from the Dalmatian Sea, sits the Grgic Vina winery.
This winery, founded by Miljenko Grgic, a Croatian-born winemaker, can be found on the famous Peljesac Peninsula where the best Plavac Mali grapes are grown. This winery produces both a red wine (Plavac Mali) as well as a white wine (Posip). Both grapes are indigenous to Croatia and have unique, structured aroma and flavor profiles.
Miljenko Grgic moved to the United States decades ago to pursue the American dream. Along the way, “Miljenko” became “Mike” and Grigic gained an “h” to help Americans pronounce it more easily. Today, Grgich Hills Winery in Napa Valley is one of the most respected operations in the world.
In the past month, we had the privilege to visit both Grgic and Grgich, 6,271 miles apart in distance but much closer together in vision, philosophy, style and quality. We were at Grgic Vina in Croatia on Halloween and at Grgich Hills in Napa the Saturday after Thanksgiving. At the Croatian winery, the tasting was two wines; our Napa tasting was a little bit more elaborate and came with a winery tour led by a genuinely nice and knowledgeable guide, Marty.
We have visited Grgich Napa before for tasting but had not taken the tour. We really enjoyed visiting the barrel rooms (always a fun show!) and hearing about the production methods for the white and red wines.
During the tour, one of us fell in love …
Not to be greedy, but wouldn’t a 1,500 gallon container of wine be the best gift? There are lots of giving occasions coming up in December; just saying.
After the tour Marty led us to our table in the wine library where we sat down to a great wine and cheese pairing.
We started with Chardonnay as expected given that Miljenko is widely regarded as the “King of Chardonnay.” This informal title has been bestowed as a result of two major milestones in the history of American wine: Mike making the chardonnay that beat the best makers of French Chardonnay at the Judgement of Paris in 1976; and Mike’s chardonnay beating 221 other wines at an international tasting competition in Chicago in 1980.
We knew we would like the Grgich wines as we have tasted at the winery before and are members of the Wine Club. What we were more interested in was seeing how similar the wine would taste to those that we sampled at Grgic Vina in Croatia. Interestingly, the Zinfandel we tasted was very similar to the Plavac Mali that we had in Croatia. Genetic testing has determined that the Plavac Mali is a relative of Zinfandel and this relationship was clearly evident in both the aroma and flavor of both wines.
We will be back to Grgich Napa soon for some club event or other, no doubt. It is a strong hope, though, that we can get back to Grgic Vina soon as well – perhaps when the new winery building has its grand opening. We also hope that, if we make it, that Miljenko will be able to make it as well.
As we rolled up to our final winery of our Oregon visit, we might be forgiven for expecting to enjoy one more glass of Pinot Noir before returning to California. Certainly, the Willamette Valley, where we spent the beginning of our Oregon wine sojourn, is best known for Pinot Noir: over 70% of vines are planted to Pinot Noir. Our final winery, however, is a trend setter of sorts and is carving out an approach and style all its own. Troon Vineyards is located in the Rogue Valley AVA about a 15 minute drive from the I-5 freeway that connects Canada to Mexico.
When we left the Willamette Valley that same morning, the temperature was in the 60’s and it was raining. By the time we arrived at Troon, the sky was a perfect blue and the dashboard temperature monitor showed an outside temperature approaching 100°. Nestled between the Cascade and Siskiyou mountain ranges, the Rogue Valley benefits from what is referred to as a “rain shadow effect”: the mountains create a barrier against moisture that results in a very dry climate. Situated near Medford and Grant’s Pass, Troon has a climate that more closely resembles California’s Central Valley that it does Willamette Valley or Coastal Oregon.
We arrived at Troon around 1:30 in the afternoon and were met by Craig Camp, one of our virtual friends from Twitter whom we have been following for the past several months. Craig recently moved to Troon from Napa Valley where he was General Manager at Cornerstone Cellars. Our first pour of wine established the uniqueness of the varietals planted at Troon: it was the only Vermentino that we consumed in Oregon. In fact, it was our first Vermentino we have ever consumed anywhere. It turned out to be the perfect companion for walking around the large estate on a scorching day in early Fall. Craig showed us the breadth of the vineyard plantings and the impressive number of varietals currently being farmed – upwards of twenty if we recall correctly. Not a single planted vine was Pinot Noir. Paraphrasing Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz”: “Toto, we are not in Willamette Valley anymore.”
Many of Troon’s vines were planted nearly 45 years ago, qualifying them as true “old growth” vines. The winery’s founder, Dick Troon, has a pioneering spirit and a keen sense of curiosity. He wanted to figure out what would thrive in the hotter southern part of Oregon and experimented with a number of different varietals, Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon among them. In addition, Troon planted Malbec, Tannat, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Tempranillo, Sangiovese, Montepulciano, Syrah, Carignane, Vermentino, Chardonnay, Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc. We may even be forgetting some varietals!
If you read any of Craig Camp’s articles, blog posts or Tweets, you’ll understand the philosophy that he and the entire team at Troon are attempting to fulfill: follow sustainable farming practices, create a healthy environment for the vines to thrive, and do as little as possible to the grapes before they go into the bottle. Consistent with this approach, Troon hand-picks its grapes, rather than harvest them by machine as some other wineries do. More impressively, they crush their grapes the old-fashioned way, by stepping on the grapes and allowing the juice to come out without the aggressive pressure from machine crush. During fermentation, Troon allows the wine to ferment in the grape’s native yeast rather than adding commercial yeasts into the mix; fermentation is done in mostly neutral oak to minimize the addition of aromas and flavors that result from the use of new oak. Craig also mentioned that rather than blend some of their wines (where two different varietals are fermented separately and then blended together), Troon is doing co-fermentation: the grapes are harvested and then fermented together. Blending is the more common technique as grape varietals often require different practices during fermentation, which makes co-fermentation a bit trickier. But co-fermentation also yields a different result than blending, since the individual varietals have been together since before crush. The difference has been described as similar to making a stew: if you cook all of the ingredients together from the beginning, the flavors come together to form something different than if the potatoes and meat were cooked separately and mixed together at the end.
During our visit to Troon, we tasted every single wine currently in release – all of the reds and the whites. We really enjoyed the Vermentino on the white side, as well as the Rosé; of the reds, our favorites were the Zinfandel (both the blue label and the red label) and the Sangiovese. We purchased several bottles and Craig sent us home with some complimentary bottles as well (which we appreciate but have not influenced this review). Living in Napa Valley, we have grudgingly accepted the rising cost of wine in our area. It is not uncommon for Cabernet Sauvignon to exceed $100 or even $150. Chardonnay routinely costs $50-75. Zinfandel and Merlot from Napa and Pinot Noir from Sonoma County regularly cost $60 or more. Thus, when we saw the Troon prices we were very pleasantly surprised: all of the white wines were under $30, with most closer to $20. Their most expensive red wine is $50, but almost all of the rest of the reds are $35 or less. The Troon “red label” Zinfandel, which we think is a very drinkable wine, sells for $20. These price points are extremely competitive and we encourage fans of sustainable, quality wines to give Troon a try.
Living in Napa, literally within walking distance to local wineries, we often get locked in to our hometown wineries. For the past few years, we have been working our way up and down the Napa Valley and mostly ignoring wineries in neighboring Sonoma. This weekend, we decided to break out and get out of town and try something a bit father from home. Not that far from home, mind you – we went about 10 miles away to Gundlach Bundschu Winery in Sonoma. We have found their wines at restaurants over the years and were mostly familiar with their white wines. Also, we have driven by the entrance to the winery every time we drive out of Napa. Today, we decided it was time to pay them a visit.
Rather than just a tasting, we signed up for a tour and tasting because the description of the tour was so intriguing. Beyond the typical walk around the winery and visit to the barrel room, the Gundlach tour involved jumping into a jeep-type vehicle and driving around through the vineyards and, ultimately, having our tasting in the middle of the vines. This seemed too good to pass up.
When we arrived and joined our fellow tour participants, we met our guide. Surprisingly, our tour guide turned out to be Rob Bundschu, 158 years removed from the original Bundschu that started the winery. Appropriately billed as the “Commander of Hospitality,” Rob packed us all into a Pinzgauer 712, an Austrian army vehicle that comfortably seated the 8 of us taking the tour.
As we drove around the vineyard, named Rhinefarm, we got a sense of the history of Gundlach Bundschu. Rob took us through history of the winery, which opened for business in 1858, started by two german immigrants (you guessed it, Gundlach and Bundschu). From their native Germany, they brought cuttings of traditional varietals such as Gewürztraminer. Today, six generations of Bundschu’s later, they are still making a German-style Gewürztraminer but have also added a number of other wines to their repertoire. Among them are such Sonoma standards as Zinfandel, Chardonnay and Pinot, but also some wines not as frequently found in Sonoma: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Tempranillo.
From 1858 to 2016, Gundlach Bundschu has been through a number of ups and downs. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake nearly destroyed the company as its tasting room was located in San Francisco. Not long after the winery recovered from the earthquake and moved its headquarters to Sonoma, an even more devastating challenge came along: Prohibition. From 1920 to 1933, the sale of alcoholic beverages, including wine, was illegal in the United States. During that time, Gundlach Bundschu, along with most other U.S. wineries, closed down – most of them forever. Fortunately, in 1973, 40 years after the end of prohibition, Gundlach Bundschu reopened and began selling wines again. Today, the winery makes and sells about 30,000 cases a year – one-tenth of the volume it made and sold prior to prohibition.
After taking us around most of the 32o acres of Rhinefarm, Rob stopped the Pinzgauer and we got out and sat down for our tasting in a quaint seating area right in the middle of the vineyard.
First, Rob poured the Gewürztraminer, a very balanced white wine with no residual sugar. Unlike others of this varietal, the Gundlach Bundschu Gewürztraminer was balanced, with aromas and flavors of fruit balanced by a nice acidity. Following the white wine we tasted a lovely Pinot Noir, a Zinfandel and then a Cabernet Sauvignon, all paired with a cheese plate. When we finished these wines, Rob put us back on the Pinzgauer and we drove back towards the main winery building. But instead of taking us to the main entrance, Rob took us through the barrel room, which can hold over 2,000 barrels.
Finally, we made our way back to the main part of the winery for our final wine – a Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. We enjoyed this final wine in the quaint tasting room with the rest of our tour group.
Driving by the winery so many times, we could not have imagined how large the Gundlach Bundschu estate is, nor how expansive their visitor area would be. In addition to the tasting room, they have a separate area to buy wines by the glass and a large section of seating. This generation of Bundschu’s has built an impressive marketing and sales team and the winery clearly has developed a reputation as a must-visit location in Sonoma. The parking lot was filled with dozens of cars when we arrived and people were continuing to arrive when we left around 4:30. The winery is not our usual “hidden gem,” as many others have discovered it as well. However, it is a beautiful location, they make great wines, and, unlike other large-scale operations, they are still a family business, even after 158 years. What’s not to love about that?