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I was over on Maui sometime in June to visit with my best friends & their family. In the hotel complex we were staying at, closer to the beach & near the pool is a small, unpretentious “watering hole”/eatery named Castaway Cafe. I have known the owner, Gary Bush, for some years & can readily say he is a true wine fanatic.
Sadly, I had not previously been to his spot in the 20 plus years it has been opened. On this trip, my wife & I finally stopped by there to finally check it out, have a cocktail & enjoy the ocean, its smells & of course the setting sun & its colors.
As expected, I was amazed at the wine list. It wasn’t large but it is well selected & with reasonable prices. Unfortunately, we did not have the time to enjoy one of their bottles, at least on this go around.
Well, last week, we made it a point to get there, looking to enjoy some wine. After much deliberation, we chose the 2004 Whitcraft Pinot Noir “Morning Dew Ranch”, which was only $75 on the list! Chris Whitcraft was a rambunctious, quick witted & wildly colorful character, who for my palate produced some of the finest Pinot Noirs out of California. He worked with some very prestigious vineyards including Hirsch from the true Sonoma Coast (1994 to 2000 vintages), old vine Q & N Blocks from Bien Nacido (both planted in 1973 on their own roots) and Melville, I believe beginning with the 2001. They certainly weren’t for everyone’s palate, but the good ones really rang my bell. His mentor was Burt Williams, the iconic, founding winemaker/owner of Williams & Selyem, when that meant something special. During his tenure there, Burt brought such iconic vineyards such as Rochioli, Allen, Hirsch, Coastlands, Summa to the forefront & therefore truly championed the Russian River & Sonoma Coast appellations, back before it was en vogue. In addition, he started to really get into the Anderson Valley as well. It was therefore no surprise that when he & Ed Selyem sold Williams & Selyem sometime after the 1997 vintage, Burt purchased a spot there to plant his own vineyard, which he named Morning Dew. The core of this vineyard is planted to old DRC, the old Rochioli selection & 2A, each heritage/heirloom Californian vines. It also was NO surprise that Chris Whitcraft was one of the first to get some of this vineyard’s fruit. In this day & age of snazzy, tooty fruity Pinot noses, I adore the muskiness, earthy, forest floor nuances & masculinity of this wine, which is much more pronounced now than when it was released. That pheromone/muskiness core is very reminscent of smells I get from red Burgundy, specifically from more rustic Gevrey Chambertin renditions such as those of Domaine Maume.
I know there are many tasters who will pick this wine apart, pointing out flaws & less than squeaky clean technical skills. That’s okay, cause that means there will be more around for me to buy & drink. Why? Cause I enjoy it, plain & simple. 11 years old, $75….even more so. Thanks Gary!!!!
So, that bottle didn’t last very long! The night was young & the conversation, fun & lively. Ok, let’s order bottle #2. 2005 Whitcraft Pinot Noir “N Block”. This time, I asked the manager if he could stick the bottle in some ice for 7 or 8 minutes, as it was a VERY hot & muggy night. Bien Nacido is a VERY large vineyard located in the Santa Maria Valley, down in the Santa Barbara appellation. This parcel, N Block, was planted in 1973 on its own roots. Chris typically got the Martini selection, & the resulting Pinot was typically the most reticent of his Pinots, requiring considerable coaxing/bottle aging for it to open up. It is the bottling of his which shows the most vinosity, intricacies & character, & this certainly reaffirmed that. Eventhough this wine was 10 years old, it was still a baby, surprisingly closed, deep & well structured. I suggest you don’t open this wine at this time. Be patient. It will be worth the wait, believe me.
That bottle was also emptied far too quickly. Ok, one last bottle. We decided on the 2005 Whitcraft Pinot Noir “Q Block”, also $62.50!!!! Q Block is adjacent to N Block & was also planted in 1973 on its own roots. Whitcraft used to get the Pommard selection & the resulting Pinot was typically more forward, more masculine with rounder, deep flavors & more base note character. As I would suspect & as I find normally the case, this was the favorite of the night for most of the tasters.
I found all 3 Pinots to be so enjoyable & heart warming. Each was like a heart tugging song, sung by a truly soulful singer & in his own way. There was only 1 Chris Whitcraft & this trio clearly reminded me why.
If you are in the Kaanapali area of Maui & looking for some good wine, make sure you visit Castaway Cafe!
The Managing Partner of both DK Steakhouse & Sansei Waikiki, Ivy Nagayama, loves creating interesting & thought provoking wine & food pairings. Her latest craze is with the wines from the Pacific Northwest. On this night, she & Sansei Exec Chef Jason Miyasaki created a menu & pairing for visionary wine mogul, Mark Tarlov of Chapter 24 out of Oregon & a few select local customers.
Intermezzo: Opakapaka Carpaccio—Maui onions, Nalo basil relish, red jalapenos, kalamansi essence
2nd Taste: Red Wine Marinated Grilled Duck Breast—with Nalo Farms mixed greens & roasted fingerling potatoes, Maui onions, hard boiled quail egg, & a pomegranate balsamic vinaigrette (wines: 2012 Chapter 24 Pinot Noir “Flood” & 2012 Chapter 24 Pinot Noir “Fire”)
Entree: Red Wine Vinegar Braised Kurobuta Pork Belly—with Kaneshiro Farm’s bok choy, Hamakua Ali’i mushrooms, roasted peanuts, saffron rice pilaf & star anis jus (wine: 2012 Chapter 24 “Last Chapter”)
As VINO regulars well know, we are HUGE fans of delicious, wonderfully light, food friendly & absolutely gulpable wines. Furthermore, because of our Mediterranean/Italian comfort style of cooking in VINO, we generally look to the Mediterranean basin for inspiration, both in food & in wine.
We are therefore absolutely thrilled that on this night, TWO of our favorite French producers of delicious “country” styled wines will be joining us at VINO– Ghislaine Dupeuble (Domaine Dupeuble) & Cyriaque Rozier (Chateau La Roque/Chateau Fontanes).
Dupeuble hails from Beaujolais where they have been for well over 500 years. Typically, theirs is one of our favorite because of its deliciousness, unpretention & incredible food friendliness. “They tend to their vines without the use of any chemicals or synthetic fertilizers. The grapes are harvested manually and vinified completely without SO2. The wines are not chaptalized, filtered, or degassed and only natural yeasts are used for the fermentation”.
“Cyriaque Rozier is the highly revered winemaker and vineyard manager at Château La Roque in the Pic St-Loup appellation of Languedoc. (He also makes his own wine under the label Château Fontanès). The land is hard as a rock, quite literally, and composed primarily of limestone and clay. To plant a vineyard here is a game of patience and incredibly hard work. Over the last few years, Cyriaque has taken to farming biodynamically, a noble task that forgoes the shortcuts that most vignerons have at their disposal today in favor of producing organic grapes in a rich, healthy soil. Make no mistake, raw terroir and spicy garrigue abound in these wines, with rich, juicy fruit and silky tannins”.
I am sure for them this trip all the way to Hawaii is part of a life long dream. For us, this will also be quite a dream come true, having such authentic, exemplary, artisan, “country” vignerons visiting us at VINO & a night of their delicious, gulpable, food friendly French “country” wines paired with a special menu created by VINO Chef Keith Endo. Here was the menu–
WINE: 2013 Domaine Dupeuble Beaujolais Blanc–Beaujolais Blanc accounts for only about 2% of the appellation’s wine production & is mainly found in the northern & southern parts, where clay (& some limestone) can be found. This soil is very different from the more common granitic soils & results in a surprisingly, mesmerizing minerality & vibrancy in the Chardonnay based white. Dupeuble has but 4 hectares planted, which is why we do not see this wonderfully delicious, uplifting, food friendly, gulpable wine too often here in the Islands.
WINE: 2013 Domaine Dupeuble Beaujolais –I have been a HUGE fan of this estate & its authentic, TRUE Beaujolais for many, many years, not only because of their much more natural approach to grape growing (now biodynamic) & winemaking, but mainly because of how delicious & incredibly food friendly their Beaujolais is, year in & year out. Most people would scratch their heads why we would pair this wine with a hearty, flavorful pork sausage & its fixings, but this wine’s innate fruitiness , stoniness & wonderfully refreshing edge not only counters the dish’s richness, but also absolutely keeps the palate fresh & alive between bites. (reminiscent of how the cranberry sauce works at the Thanksgiving feast). I hope the attendees walked away with a better understanding at how food friendly this wine truly is.
WINE: 2012 Chateau Fontanes Vin de Pays d’Oc (Cabernet Sauvignon)–on this night, I was clearly reminded why my wife Cheryle & I were so taken by this wine on a visit there some years back. It is a wonderful representation of what a really good, delicious, food friendly “country” wine can be. AND, it certainly smells of the earth where it is grown & the shrub, wild herbs & sun baked countryside which surrounds the vineyard. Cyriaque began this family project back in 2003. The soil is reddish with limestone chips scattered throughout. This wine is interestingly 100% Cabernet Sauvignon (40 to 50 year old vines, biodynamically farmed). It, however, is really NOT about the grape variety & therefore does NOT resemble any Cab from California or Bordeaux. In fact, if you think of this wine as a Cabernet, you might be missing out. It really is about a wild countryside & a family & should therefore be served at one’s family dinner table, just as they would do there.
WINE: 2012 Chateau La Roque “Cupa Numismae”–Cyriaque is the winemaker & vineyard manager for this venerable, historic site & estate. It is said the Romans first planted here, which is further supported by an old Roman coin found there. (By the way, it is this coin that is the legacy of Cupa Numismae). This is a remote, rugged terrain with clay-limestone soils & an abundance of wild scrub & wild herbs seemingly growing everywhere surrounding the vineyard itself, which also somehow finds its way into the core of each wine. “Cupa Numismae” is the bottling (of 8), which originally caught our eye. Once, it was Mourvedre dominated. Today, it is roughly 2/3’s Syrah & 1/3 Mourvedre, without compromising its sense of place, integrity & soulful-ness. (I was once VERY leary of the meteoric usage of Syrah booming down in southern France. Because Syrah can be such a dominant grape variety, it can easily mask a wine’s terroir, especially if it is not grown in the right place, by the right people). Having spent some time with Cyriaque, thankfully one gets an immediate feeling/understanding his is a belief of terroir & balance first & foremost. In fact on this night, one of the diners opened a 1997 ballyhoo-ed northern Rhone Syrah to share. Judging from his facial expressions, one could immediately tell this wine was not to his liking. It was not because of the near over ripe fruit, nor the lavish amounts of new oak dominating the wine, but instead, the presence of “green”, unripe tannins protruding. The wine was not balanced & therefore not drinkable/enjoyable. The $150 to $200 a bottle price tag was therefore quite disturbing to him. In the Chateau La Roque “Cupa Numismae” bottling, in comparison, Cyriaque was able to find an intriguing, synergistic coupling of Syrah & Mourvedre with seamless-ness & a fine tuned balance without compromising its strong sense of place, character & mojo. It really is such a pleasure to drink, with or without food. Kudos, my friend!
10 or 11 years ago, Cheryle & I met Dino Coro’ & Isabella Zambon & their two beautiful, young children—Jessica & Filippo, as they dined in our Hiroshi Eurasion Tapas restaurant. Every year, they would come back to vacation on the Big Island of Hawaii & make periodic “shopping” trips to Oahu & dine at night either at VINO or Hiroshi’s. They have become such dear friends over the years & we have watched Jessica & Filippo grow up & blossom. They all really warm my heart.
A few years ago, while on a wine trip in Germany, Cheryle really wanted to go to Venice to see the city, but also to see our friends. We discovered that their Osteria Oliva Nera eaterie is generally regarded as the finest restaurant in Venice & we had 2 great meals there. We were also amazed at how many people from Hawaii have dined there too & every year when the Coro’ family came to Honolulu thereafter, their Hawaii friends would get together with them in VINO on a special night. For 2015, after a hiatus of 3 years, the Coro’ family (Isabella, Jessica & Filippo) came back….& January 8th was that special night.
Rather than asking Isabella to cook, VINO Chef Keith Endo came up with a special menu & we came up with the wine pairings. For all who know the Coro’ family, this was their chance to say hello. For those who do not know them, this was a chance to savor some of Chef Keith’s foods AND meet some very special people, (which may come in handy if they ever were to go to Venice in the near future).
Here was the menu—
Crispy English Pea Tortellini–served with charred Kahuku corn & smoked Big Island pork
UOVA–with sage brown butter sauce
WINE: Hofstatter Pinot Bianco
Crispy Pork Porchetta–stuffed with mushrooms & served with charred Spring vegetables, home-made cavatelli & pork jus
WINE: 2006 Friggiali Brunello di Montalcino
Pear Tart–with caramel sauce
Yes, it was a very special night. Thank you to all who came. Also, many thanks to Isabella, Jessica & Filippo. I know Dino was also there amongst us & I thank you for coming. As I have said many times in the past, I am somehow connected to this family beyond what I can explain. They truly warm my heart.
Syrah is undoubtedly one of the true “noble” grape varieties of the world & has been for a long, long time. Unfortunately, Syrah is not in fashion right now & I am not sure exactly why. I, in fact, wish I had a dollar for every time a wine professional/wine buyer/server has told me in the past 5 years, how Syrah based wines, (especially New World versions) do not sell so well for them. I would be rich!
I am saddened to hear of this plight.
Well grown & crafted Syrah deserves a niche in the wine world. Not only does this grape variety have world class potential, it also can fill the big puka between Pinot Noir & Cabernet Sauvignon in terms of weight, drama & profoundness. The very best can have intricacy, pedigree, UN-heaviness & texture a notch or 2 away from Pinot Noir, with the depth, masculinity & regality a notch or 2 away from Cabernet Sauvignon. Syrah can be an ideal “tweener”.
Here are 3 examples which reminded me of this thought.
The Ogier family had been farming their vineyards & selling off to their grapes for many years (more recently to prominent producers such as Chapoutier & Guigal), until 1987 when they decided to grow & produce their own wine under their own label. At that time, they owned roughly 6 acres in Cote Rotie. Son, Stephane, started working alongside his father in 1998 & took over the domaine in 2000. Where previously, the winemaking was much more traditional with NO stems & NO new oak, Stephane changed his style to 100% Syrah, 80% de-stalked, 3 to 4 week stainless steel fermentation & 18 month barrel aging (30% new). In addition to their Cote Rotie, Ogier also began producing special bottlings–Embruns (2001) from purchased fruit & 50% new barrels; Lancement “Terroir de Blonde” & Belle Helene (a cask selection from their Cote Rozier parcel–30 months in 100% new oak). This is a producer of northern Rhone Valley Syrah well worth checking out. This 2001 Cote Rotie (13 years old), for example, was elegant, classy, refined, masculine, majestic with a surprising velvety texture. It had a gamey, rustic core with garrigue character & a sandalwood edge. I can imagine all kinds of meats & rustic meat preparations which one can have a field day with!
Noel Verset, for me, was one of the iconic stalwarths of the tiny Cornas appellation, who not only helped define an appellation, but shed a very different light on what the Syrah grape variety could be. His vines were old, his highly revered Sabarottes parcel yielded grapes like no other on the hillside & his winemaking was very traditional. I have to say, the resulting wines were truly one of a kind. They had a wild-ness–green & black peppercorns, true andouille sausage, raw meat, lots of red fruit, crushed rocks, garrigue with lots of herbal notes. His was a small winery, perhaps 800 case production in any given year. Rumors started circulating around the 2000 vintage, that he was retiring. (He even mentioned his thoughts on retirement on a visit I made in 1991). Subsequent vintages would pop up every now & then–I saw a smidgeon fo the 2003 & a tiny bit of 2006….& then quiet. It was the end of an era. Yes, there are other Cornas (Thierry Allemand & August Clape) which deftly carry on the appellation on the world class stage, BUT there was only 1 Noel Verset. I was completely enthralled with the 1995. It was quintessential Verset Cornas–wildly rustic, rock, peppercorns, wild herbs, with the rank smells of real French andouille sausage. It really sang out & was a thrill to savor.
For many, the Chave Hermitage is the pinnacle of northern Rhone Syrah. The family has been growing grapes & making wines on Hermitage hill since 1481. The vines today are organically & biodynamically farmed. “Every year, we start from zero in assembling the wine.” The core & backbone comes from the Bessards parcel, their largest parcel, located furthest west. Tasting out of barrel once with Gerard Chave, I found the Bessards to have a smokiness, a strong minerality with a certain elegance, velvety middle & lots of tannins in the finish. His parcels have very old vines. I found Le Meal was also smokey, but had distinct floral (violets, jasmine), ripe, jammy black cherry, green olive, spice & pepper with more of a middle, a riper, higher glycerine mouthfeel. Rocoules was fresher fruit, yet not as showy, with licorice, smoke, cassis, green notes & much more tannic. Peleat–more acid/structure with green olive, smoke & even an apple nuance. Diognieres had ripe cherries, jammy, bordering cassis like qualities with a funky/earthy edge. Baume–licorice, cherry, more austere, structured & refinement. L’Ermite–smokey, earthy, barnyard funk, green peppercrons, jammy–the most outgoing right out of the gates. The Chaves are master blenders, using all of the pieces to create a complete Hermitage–or as I used to say about the old Barolo masters—create an orchestra sound rather than just the horn section. Chave is the best at that! and HAS BEEN SINCE 1481!
The Bien Nacido Vineyard is located midway in the Santa Maria Valley.
“The vineyard traces its roots back to the year 1837 when a Spanish land grant of some two square leagues was made to Tomas Olivera by Juan Bautista Alvarado, then Gobernador of Alta California. This grant covered nearly 9,000 acres ranging upward to the San Rafael Mountains from the Santa Maria Mesa, which bordered the Sisquoc and Cuyama Rivers. The ranch was generously watered by Tepusquet Creek, so called by the Chumash Indians to whom it meant “fishing for trout.” Thomas Olivera sold Rancho Tepusquet in 1855 to his son-in-law Don Juan Pacifico Ontiveros and daughter Martina. Don Juan Pacifico Ontiveros started construction on an adobe in 1857 and moved to the ranch the following year. He and his wife raised horses, cattle, sheep, several grain crops, and grapes for the production of wine“.
The current owners, Miller family, purchased this tract in 1969 & soon thereafter renamed the vineyard “Bien Nacido”.
Today, Bien Nacido covers roughly 800 acres of vines & is still quite breathtaking in scope. There is a myriad of designated blocks & soils, each “farmed to order” to the leaser. A good portion is sandy loam with tiny bits of seashells & sees morning fog & is cooled by afternoon sea breezes.
What is most tantalizing to winemakers is that several of the blocks still have the vines, which were planted in 1973 AND on their own roots. Of course, there is a pecking order to who gets what grapes. First in line for the prime parcels, includes those who worked with the grapes since nearly the beginning such as Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat, Adam Tolmach of Ojai & Bob Lindquist of Qupe. We are also seeing a transition, as some of the Old Guard who helped bring this vineyard to the forefront, such as Chris Whitcraft & Bryan Babcock, no longer work with the fruit. In their place, we today see a whole slew of young bucks such as Justin Willett of Tyler & Gavin Chanin of Chanin wines just to name 2.
Just the other night, two of our really good wine friends, Gail & Vern Isono, put together a BYOB tasting themed “Bien Nacido Vineyard wines” at our VINO restaurant. It really turned out to be a VERY memorable tasting, to say the least, as the participants brought an interesting selection of true standouts from this iconic vineyard to share with the gang.
There is no doubt that Jim Clendenen has over the years crafted some of the most compelling Bien Nacido Vineyard wines. I also would say, he was one of the biggest believers/advocates who helped bring the Santa Barbara appellation onto the world stage of quality wines. This specific bottling, which was previous named simply “Bien nacido Vineyard” was his signature wine. The grapes came from “K” Block (Chardonnay planted in 1973 on its own roots in sandy loam soils). I have always been amazed at how Au Bon Climat’s Bien Nacido” Chardonnay always showcased real physiological ripeness, innate compelxities & class with remarkably lightness, 13 plus alcohol, well integrated oak (despite being barrel fermented & with roughly 75% to 100% new oak) AND ageworthiness. Here is the living proof!!!!!!! The wine was all about mineral out of the gates…high toned, highly refined with fresh peach skin & layers of marzipan, which acvhnged to more of a creamsicle note with more air. This 1995 was so pure, seamless & complete with fabulous texture & balance (2 of Clendenen’s signature winemaking traits) with a long, citrusy finish. AND, it was so surprisingly youthful still! Crazy good!
1998 Au Bon Climat Chardonnay “Nuits-Blanches–Why Not“
Though Au Bon Climat’s more ethereal, highly refined, higher acid, lower alcohol Chardonnays had quite a following with the wine professionals, the wines were only lukewarmly received by the major media. BIG, oaky, lavish Chardonnays were in style & the emerging new age of wine drinkers readily jumped on the band wagon. Where there was once a waiting list of customers, times were changing. With the 1997 vintage, Clendenen decided to add another Chardonnay to his portfolio, one which tasters later would playfully say was more of a homage to the newer, IN style of wine. The “White Knight” was also produced from Bien Nacido’s “K” Block, but was picked a week or 2 later AND aged in a considerable amount of new oak. The bottle was more fancy & heavy in weight with a newly designed “look”, with the designation “Nuits-Blanches”…& his statement–“Why?”…front & center. This wine, of course, was ABC’s highest scoring wine in quite some time. Depressing????? Maybe for an artist, but Clendenen followed that wave of success in 1998 with his third “Nuits-Blanches”, this time with his simple statement–“Why Not“. Even though this Chardonnay comes from the same “K” Block, the resulting wine is so VERY different! The wine is more stony than minerally, with marzipan, orange blossom, fennel, creamsicle, apricot pit nuances. Dry, still quite oaky up front & quite youthful & resoundingly structured in its core with a long, grandiose finish. (FYI–starting with the 2000 vintage, Clendenen again adjusted this bottling by blending in some earlier harvest K Block & later some Chardonnay from his own Le Bon Climat vineyard across the river….& renamed this wine Nuits Blanches au Bouge).
2006 Foxen Pinot Noir “Block 8-Bien Nacido Vineyard”
2006 Whitcraft Pinot Noir “this is the “n” my only friend the “n””
The Foxen gang are really good people who helped bring Santa Barbara along wine wise. Bill Wathen studied under the legendary Pinot maestro, Dick Graff, at Chalone & along with his partner Dick Dore founded Foxen in the 1980’s. Their wine, unfortunately, did not show so well on this night. We’re not sure if it was shipping, storage or what. The 2006 Whitcraft was also in a dumb stage….but showed MUCH better than the Foxen & was so much more vinous, balanced & complete. As the night wore on, one could readily tell this wine has the stuffing & all the right fixings….just needs time. Chris Whitcraft, for me, was one of the “larger than life”, REAL characters of the wine industry. His wines were like him, in that one never knew what to expect, not only with each vintage, but when opening any of his wines at any given time. In short, they were all idiosyncractic & I have found over the years, either people really liked them or they really hated them. Chris was a protege/friend to the iconic Burt Williams, the namesake, founding winemaker of the old Williams & Selyem. He defined his winemaking as artisan & done without electricity. From early on, his 3 prized parcels were “Q” & “N” Blocks from the Bien Nacido Vineyard….as well as the Hirsch Vineyard of the true Sonoma Coast. When he hit it, he hit a home run. In 2006, Chris produced a terrific “N” Block Pinot Noir. He felt, however, after tasting through the barrels with Burt, there was one barrel, which had to be singled out & bottled on its own. This is that wine!!! ONE barrel. Sadly, either the 2006 or perhaps 2007 vintage , Whitcraft decided to say aloha to Bien Nacido. It really was the end of an era. On this night, the wine had a surinam cherry kind of pungency, with much earth, spice–rustic, totaly vinous, great core, mineral, showy….much more showy than his normal “N” Block bottlings (Martini selection–planted in 1973 & own rooted). I remembered how proud Chris was of this wine, when I first tasted it with him. I too agreed this was one of his finest, which is saying alot, considering all of the giants he made during his career. I was sad to hear of Chris’ passing earlier this year. He & his wines were like no other. Aloha, my friend. RIP.
Adam Tolmach is another one of Santa Barbara’s (if not all of California) REAL superstar winemakers! His wines are THAT GOOD! He was once co-founding winemaker at Au Bon Climat, but eventually packed up his bags to found his own winery, which he named Ojai. His wines thankfully also have Old World sensibility. Where his Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs, & especially his Syrahs used to get HUGE scores from the major publications, especially Robert Parker, one could see over the years his decision to trim the oak usage appealed to the scorers less. How crazy is that? For me these same wines are better than ever. In fact, let me just say, when touring Californian wine country, our last visit is typically Ojai. It really is hard to follow his wines with any others. His top Bien Nacido Pinot parcel is “N” Block (planted in 1973, on its own roots). Unfortunately, on this night, the 2001’s nose was completely & utterly shutdown….despite us trying to agressively decant it back & forth for 25 minutes. On the palate, the wine, however, showed hard mineral, immense structure, HUGE vinosity, intensity with great texture & flow…..just so damned tight. I think this will be quite a wine, though, once it comes out of hibernation.
IN REPLY (from Fabien Castel of Ojai Vineyard)–“Incidentally I read the note about your recent tasting of the 2001 Pinot Noir Bien Nacido.The wine does need a lot more time and I can give some background as to why it tasted the way it did. It was my first year working with Adam. The 2001-2002 vintages ended being the densest and most angular for Pinot Noir. Part was extraction levels (punch downs), inclusion of a new cooper, occasional saignee and other finer details in the cellar. Ultimately it prompted Adam to rethink the way he was dealing with those wines and not repeat that level of texture that was drawing praises but not satisfying his sense of what the varietal had to offer. The wines had been softer in prior years (1996 to 2000) and would return to gentler textures in 2005, 2006. By 2007 Bien Nacido was less extracted with grapes picked earlier, now showing on an ideal course, 7 years later. Today he is adding again some extraction since he moved in a different realm of physiological maturation of the grapes. He has found delicacy and is ready to reintroduce power“.
1993 Whitcraft Pinot Noir “Bien Nacido Vineyard”
Chris Whitcraft excelled at producing real provocative, HUGELY vinous, masculine, savory, rustic Pinot Noir from both the “Q” & “N” blocks of the Bien Nacido Vineyard. He was lucky to be there in the early days & was therefore able to garner getting the Old Vine fruit from each, which came from the vines planted in 1973 on its own roots. Sometime in the 90’s, since the rows between the vines were so wide, they went through & planted another row in between (referred to as interplantings). In the case of “Q” Block, I believe it was clone 667. & for “N” Block I believe they planted clone 115. So, every now & then, when Chris felt some of the juice did not reflect a “Q” or “N” Block designation, he would produce a “Bien Nacido Vineyard” designated bottling. AND, in some of the cases, he would also add some interplanting grapes in as well, just to add dimension. In any case, the Bien Nacido designated wines were VERY different from either Q or N Block & spoke of the vineyard rather than either parcel. On this night, the 1991 showed more of that pungent, rustic surinam cherry fruit, a peach tang in the middle with sandalwood, sap, funk/shoe polish/leather. It definitely had more vinosity than the 1993 poured along side. The 1993, on the other hand, seemed much more Californian. It was lighter in color, much more perfumed–light funk, peach/apricot middle, roasted coffee grinds, a more ethereal middle with a more fruity finish. We were all so surprised how youthful these 2 wines were.
What an intriguing contrast to the any of the other wines, that’s for sure! Much more elegant, feminine, refined….so seamless, impeccably balanced & so wonderfully textured. The fruit is sweet, ripe & surprisingly forward, but I believe that is part of the intention of this bottling. I also loved the vinosity & surprising vigor of this 19 year old wine!!!
1997 Whitcraft Pinot Noir “N Block”
I have been an avid fan of Chris Whitcraft’s Pinot Noirs for many years. I would be hard pressed to think of too many Pinots in the 90’s which had as much character & vinosity (old vine-ness) than his Q & N Block bottlings. ( Certainly nothing tooty fruity there!) Where his Hirsch single vineyard designated Pinots (1994 being the first) were much more masculine, sultry, darker, intriguing & harder edged, his Q & N were so much more vinous, rounder & more open. Chris worked with a Pommard selection in Q Block (planted in 1973 & own rooted). The resulting wine was typically the most open upon release. His N Block was Martini selection & was typically more earthy, reticent & shy upon release. The 1996 had a strong roasted coffee grinds/cocoa quality, with a very earthy tone. It was totally vinous on the palate, seamless, complete & long. The 1997, on the other hand, had a stemmy, spiced edge with a more ethereal middle & a long finish. It was much more refined & elegant than the 1996. Interestingly, I found this to be opposite when they were released. Both are still surprisingly youthful.
In 2000, my best friend, Nunzio Alioto, & I bought some Q Block grapes at a charity auction. ( He & I in those days typically bought small amounts of grapes from some storybook vineyards like Pisoni, Savoy, Mt Carmel & Eaglepoint Ranch & asked some friends to make it for us.) So, for the 2000, we asked Chris Whitcraft to make this wine. I believe it was 1 barrel’s worth. On this night, this seemed to be grandest of the night! Or, maybe because it was biggest, a beast with lots of hutzpah, chocolate, coffee & oak nuances. It also had, by far, the most vigor in the core. I found it way more interesting than a 2000 Whitcraft Q Block & a 2000 Hirsch I recently had tasted. Sorry, my last bottle. Thank you Chris!!!!!
The winery is state of the art & I would say….truly a dream come true for most winemakers. These vessels can be programmed to do pump overs by themselves & as many times & when you want. No more late nights?
We then head back east across the Valley & up. This is the Maya parcel of Dalle Valle (left), another one of Andy’s projects. Directly above & what used to be Showket has recently been purchased by Peter Michael. We continued upwards as we head for Oakville Ranch, & specifically the Summit Block (right picture), which is located roughly 1000 feet in elevation. The soils is comprised of Aken soils, which in this case are rich in iron-clay & decomposing volcanic rock.
On our next visit (as there just was not enough time on this trip), I hope to visit Andy’s latest project–Mayacamas–a, iconic, historic vineyard & place, where Andy Erickson & his wife/viticulturist Annie Favia now oversee. I know it seems like Andy has lots of projects, but in comparison to the other top echelon, he really doesn’t have that many. But the ones he does have are truly special.
In the afternoon, we decided to stop by & see Neyers Vineyards located on Sage Canyon Road. Because things were so hectic, as the looming harvest meant cleaning all of the equipment, bottling wine to make room for the new harvest & visiting vineyards, we did not ask to see any vineyards with winemaker Tadeo on this visit. Just, way too much going on & we were appreciative for any time he & they could spend with us.
We were graciously received by Barbara Neyers & her team. She is an incredible person with a BIG heart & old soul. There is very few people around like her, believe me! She worked at Chez Panisse for 20+ years, along side Chef/owner Alice Waters. She & Bruce’s strongly believe in comprehensive sustainability. to the point I never have to ask.
We were then thankful to taste through a formidable line up of Neyers’ upcoming releases. We walked away as impressed as ever. As I have stated frequently in the past months, winemaker Tadeo Borchardt is totally in the groove & crafting a bevy of sensational wines…..which display character & interesting-ness….AND are seamless, well textured & wonderfully balanced. One should try the Neyers Syrah “Old Lakeville Road”, for example, just to see what we mean.
The vineyard on the left is “Black Chicken”. Interestingly, Black Chicken is a single vineyard….AND is also a proprietary name for one of their Zinfandels…(whose core is the Black Chicken vineyard). The vineyard on the right is Aldo, which was planted in 1937.
The grapes, in each case were close to ripening. They also had lots of character…& were not just tooty fruity like some of the other grapes we tasted in Paso Robles & other parcels of Napa Valley.
Robert Biale has a true passion for Zinfandel & their wines clearly show that. FYI–they now use Burgundian barrels to age the Zins & handle the grapes more gently. We were really impressed with what we saw & tasted.
The Napa Valley was truly bustling with energy as people scurried about to get ready for the looming harvests. AND, winemakers were making their rounds to check out their grape sources. Kenefick Ranch
We recently had an opportunity to visit and spend two days in the Napa Valley of California. We were fortunate that this year the harvest look to start early because of some severe heat spikes which happened in May & June. As is normally the case whenever we go to a winegrowing region we endeavor to walk vineyards with some of our favorite winemakers. In this case because of the early harvest, were also able to taste nearly ripe grapes as well.
Our first day we met with Napa Valley winemaking phenom Thomas Brown. Thomas, although very busy, was kind enough to meet us at my best friends’ family ranch just above St. Helena.. Even though I had been going to and staying at this ranch for 30+ years up until this visit I really had no idea of the true quality of the grapes grown on this 6 1/2 acre ranch. I was certainly in for an eye-opening discovery walking the vineyard with Thomas Brown.
The small dirt road lane has 4 vineyards (Schoenstein, Tournahu, Shibumi Knoll & Panek) on one side and one larger vineyard (Aida) on the opposite side. Schoenstein at one time was farmed by viticultural superstar David Abreu. Thomas Brown is a consulting winemaker for Shibumi Knoll & and I believe he also works with Panek. Aida vineyard was made famous by Turley Wine Cellars. Needless to say I was absolutely blown away by the reputation of all of these vineyards. To think for 30 years I had no idea.
We then went down the road a short while to visit Larkmead Estate, which is an iconic vineyard heralded back in 1961 by Napa Valley winemaking legend Andre Tchelistcheff, as being one of the four top vineyard sites in all of Napa Valley at that time.
We then did a walk through Michael Chiarello’s vineyard, which Thomas also consults for. Some of the Petite Sirah vines are over 100 years old. The nearly ripe fruit oozed vinosity & lots of character, eventhough the vines looked exhausted. This is really a vineyard which needs tender loving care.
Another vineyard & winery Thomas Brown consults for is Jones Family. The 10 acre estate vineyard is located on between St Helena & Calistoga between 600 & 900 feet & is farmed by superstar vineyard-ist David Abreu. This vineyard was originally planted by the Araujo’s who sold it off in 1992 when they purchased the Eislese vineyard.
We also learned that Thomas Brown is currently building 2 new wineries–one for Pinot Noir (located on a corner off of the Silverado Trail) & part of a custom crush facility near Calistoga, where he will make some of his Cabernets. This winemaking phenom certainly has alot going on, besides the high profile projects he consults for such as Schrader, Outpost, Maybach, Casa Piena (Carmen Policy’s winery) & GTS (the project of Hall of Fame baseball pitcher Tom Seaver)……AND his own label, Rivers Marie.
As I have noted many times before, especially recently after a tasting with Bruce Neyers, he is truly one of the most brilliant “wine minds” I have run across in my years of doing wine. He is able to combine theory with practicality. Furthermore, because of his dual “hats” of acting as the National Sales Manager for Kermit Lynch Wine merchants in addition to having his own Napa Valley winery, the insight he speaks about is very comprehensive & worldly. It is for these kinds of reasons, I truly relish my conversations with him over the years.
I include his latest blurb below so you can get an idea of what I mean.
“My first trip to France for Kermit Lynch was in January 1993. Accompanied by my long time colleague Ehren Jordan, I spent two weeks traveling from Paris to Marseilles — visiting producers, tasting wine, and learning about a side of France that was both new and fascinating to me.
Having begun Neyers Vineyards just the year before, I was sensitive to winemaking information that could be helpful to us. Ehren was living and working in Cornas at the time, so we scheduled a full day of visits with Kermit’s two producers there, Noel Verset and Auguste Clape. The Verset visit was wonderful; it remains one of the highlights of my career to have spent so much time with that colorful and storied vigneron. The meeting with Auguste Clape and his son, Pierre Marie, turned out to be the most informative – and most applicable — of the trip. We mainly discussed Syrah vines, since it was immediately clear to both Ehren and me that this was the topic the Clape family had on their minds.
As it turned out, they had been persuaded 15 years or so earlier to forego their traditional ‘Selection Massale’ process of developing replacement vineyards from existing vine stock. They had planted instead heat-treated, clonal selections of Syrah that were available from a nurseryman who had obtained them from the viticulture program at the University of Montpellier. The heat treatment system of vine propagation was developed in the United States in the early fifties to eliminate leaf-roll virus from grapevines sold by nurseries, and had been very successful. Leaf roll virus was now held in check.
Impressed by the scientific evidence, the father-son team at Clape removed almost two hectares of old vines infected with leaf-roll virus in their Reynard vineyard and, in 1975, replanted with a clone. (As part of the heat treatment program, vines were cloned – developed, that is, from a single parent rather than a vast field of different, biologically diverse plants. These ‘Clones’ – genetically identical plants –were what nurseries sold.)
When I visited Comas 15 years after Clape father and son had a taken this step, they had a chance to show us the other side of this presumably rosy picture. The wine they produced from the cloned vines was vastly inferior to that which they had produced for years from the same parcel planted to ‘Selection Massale’ vines. Neighbors who had removed old vines and re-planted with the ‘botanically superior’ clones had a similarly disappointing experience. The wine that Clape produced from the cloned vines was simpler, not as complex, not as flavorful or rich. In some instances, it was missing entirely some of the characteristics many had grown to recognize and appreciate in Clape Cornas. Moreover, the new vines had lost some of their natural defenses, and showed a susceptibility to common vineyard afflictions that had not been a concern for several years. As the Clape family saw it, complexity, natural protection, and much of the type and range of flavor had been bred out of the vine by the cloning process.
The difference was so profound that they had decided to bottle the Cornas produced from the cloned vines separately, and label it as a simple Côtes du Rhône. The selling price would be a fraction of what their top Cornas would fetch on the market. In an area already known for low yields from expensive real estate, this was going to be a financial disaster. There was much for them to grumble about when we began to taste the separate cuvées of the 1990, 1991 and 1992 vintages. I asked them what they planned to call this new wine. They looked at one another, looked back at me, and with a wry grin, Pierre-Marie said, “The Mistake”.
At Neyers Vineyards, we no longer work with any vines that are or have been developed from clones. Keep this in mind when you serve or sell a bottle of Neyers Carneros Chardonnay, or our Neyers Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon“.