Stags’ Leap Winery: Sometimes Big is Beautiful

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1stags-leap2editIf you’re a regular reader of this blog you know I’m most interested in small wineries making unique, distinctive wines. I also indulge in some criticism of large industrial wineries and their tendency to make homogeneous wines that taste alike. But when “big wine” does something right they ought to be praised for it.

Treasury Wine Estates is by any measure a large company. According to Wine Business Monthly, in 2016, Treasury’s U.S. sales of 15,000,000 cases put them in 6th place in the domestic market. Yet, Treasury in recent years has put a lot of emphasis on their luxury brands, one of which I had the opportunity to visit recently, and I was pleasantly surprised, not only with the overall quality of their wine, but with their distinctive approach which sets them apart from what might be called a “typical” Napa flavor profile. (More on that profile in a moment)

Thanks to the 2017 Wine Blogger’s Conference, we were able to visit the Stags’ Leap Winery Estate, one of Napa’s iconic brands with a storied history. To avoid potential confusion, note the placement of the apostrophe in the name. This is not Stag’s Leap Cellars (singular possessive) founded by Warren Winiarski in 1970 whose Cabernet beat out several 1st Growth Bordeaux at the 1976 Judgment of Paris. This is the other Stags’ Leap (plural possessive), a 240-acre estate founded in 1893 by Horace and Minnie Chase. It later became one of Napa’s most important resorts, hosting some legendary bacchanals in the early 20th Century, until falling into disrepair. (During Prohibition, it featured a speakeasy, hiding below a trap door in the floor, and included the local Sheriff among their guests to ensure they were unmolested by police raids.)

stagsleap editRevitalized as a winery in 1970, it was later purchased by Beringer which was in turn purchased by Treasury in 2011.  The original buildings are still intact and maintain a semblance of rustic charm beneath the polished refinement of an estate once visited by the monied elite of San Francisco; the grounds and tasting room are lovely.

Stags’ Leap, at one time, made a lot of wine, over 100,000 cases in 2013, although Treasury’s recent focus on the luxury segment of the market may have dialed that back a bit. (I don’t have current overall production figures).  But the key to quality at Stags’ Leap is the uniqueness of their estate vineyards as well as the deft hand of winemaker Christophe Paubert. The vineyard enjoys cool breezes from the southern end of the valley but is nestled against the craggy peaks of the Vaca foothills that radiate heat. Thus, the vineyard itself has several microclimates that give the winemaker many options when deciding on the final blend.

Winemaker Christophe Paubert grew up in the wine industry in Bordeaux and brings that restrained, old-world sensibility to winemaking in the new world. His wines do not taste of the overly-concentrated, hulking opulence we’ve come to expect from Napa Cabernet. He of course endorses the reigning ideology that quality is found in the vineyard, and the winemaking should not cover up the expressiveness of the grapes. But there is an elegance to these wines that shows a remarkable understanding of the inflection points where continued maceration will make the wines feel too heavy. Despite aromatic intensity and a juicy introduction, each wine has a weightless, almost ethereal mouthfeel, and a languorous evolution and finish that will seduce you for an entire evening. The estate cuvee yields about 7000 cases annually and it is clearly a labor of love. Christophe says he checks in on each barrel every day.

The take away point is that high production wineries can produce distinctive wines if they have distinctive vineyards and choose to invest their resources into maintaining that distinction. Most don’t because it is not economical and the corporate demand for efficiency encourages cutting corners. Treasury Estates is to be commended for letting Stags’ Leap be Stags’ Leap.

Here is a brief rundown of the wines I tasted:

2016 Chardonnay Napa Valley

The only wine not made of estate grapes, this is a distinctive Chardonnay in that it undergoes no malolactic fermentation. It is fresh and lively with crisp fruit and scintillating acidity.

2014 Bock 20 Merlot Stags Leap District Estate Grown

Simply beautiful. Really one of the best Napa Valley Merlots I’ve tasted. Aromatically complex with earth, minerality and fruit sharing the stage, the layered textures and sultry finish are unforgettable.

2014 Twelve Falls Red Wine, Stags Leap District, Estate Grown

A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah, and a little Merlot, this wine was lush and juicy with distinct Petite Sirah, berry character showing through. Surprisingly soft on the finish given the blend of grapes.

2014 The Leap Cabernet Sauvignon, Stags Leap District, Estate Grown

A complex nose with generous earth notes supplementing the dark cherry and cassis, this is medium bodied and slightly austere on the palate. Very well-integrated and balanced, with, once again, a characteristically elegant finish.

2014 Ne Cede Mais Petite Sirah, Stags Leap District Estate Grown

These grapes are from a fascinating vineyard block. Classic head-trained, California Sprawl, the vines were planted in 1929 and are mostly Petite Sirah with 15 other varietals, including some white-skinned grapes, mixed in. So this is a field blend. It is unusual to find Petite Sirah that is so soft on the finish, a testament to the magic of old vines.  Very spicy and floral with prominent blueberry.

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Wine Review: Van Till Family Farm Winery Norton Reserve Missouri 2013

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van tillNorton is Missouri’s official grape and, for a grape many wine lovers have never heard of, it has a long, storied history. In the 19th Century, this native of North America went toe-to-toe in competition with many great European wines and often did well. Prohibition ended Norton’s assault on the wine establishment, and today it is grown primarily in Missouri, Arkansas, and Virginia, all humid climates where Norton’s disease resistance makes it attractive.

Norton grapes make a very distinctive wine; there is nothing else quite like it. If you love wine and haven’t tried it, you probably should just because it’s a singular experience.

Always wild and and muscular, Norton is as subtle as a frat-boy come-on. Yet, Van Till’s version has some elegance as well. Intense, massive, musky blackberry on the nose mingle with espresso and new leather highlights, cosseted in sweet oak, not too toasty, very expressive aromatics.

In the mouth, upfront, it’s full bodied, smooth and refined although quite dense, but then a clenched fist of acidity strikes midway and relentlessly pummels the palate. The firm weave of hi-toned acidity and incisive tannins make a very peppery finish, tart with a hint of cider adding complexity. Splendid fruit power and an underlying softness balances that acidity but vinifera fans are to be forgiven if they can’t quite find the center of gravity. The fruit, acidity and tannins feel integrated but sort of like a barrage of well-tuned, power chords from 20 Marshall stacks would sound integrated.

As you can gather this is a very vibrant wine. It sees nine months of Missouri oak, giving the wine just enough warmth to be charming while all Hell breaks loose.

A perfect representation of the grape, it’s not tamed, its wild originality is preserved, yet one craves another glass.

Score: 92 when judged in its comparison class, other Nortons.

Price: $40

Alc: 12%

Pair with Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit for that power chord integration.

What’s the Matter with Writing about Good Wine?

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cheap wineBlake Gray wrote a post about a month ago that still has me scratching my head. The post begins by praising the Washington Post’s Dave McIntyre for an article entitled “29 of America’s Favorite Cheap Wines, Ranked,”  calling it “ outstanding service journalism for readers of a newspaper.”

All well and good. Some readers of the Washington Post might be interested in knowing what a wine expert says about their favorite brands. But then the lamentation begins:

Yet to most Americans, that is what “wine” means. “Wine” doesn’t mean a bottle made from grapes grown on calcareous soil with native yeast fermentation in concrete tanks. “Wine” means a widely available product they can pick up at the grocery store with a predictable flavor. Most people don’t want to hear about vintage variation. They want a shelf stable fruity beverage of about 13.5% alcohol that they can quaff without thinking about it.

This is quite true but I’m not quite sure why it matters. And by the end of the article he’s in full regalia, punch-a-wine-snob mode:

In an era where we’re all electronically in touch all the time, communication has in some ways become more difficult than ever. We’re all in silos now, mostly politically, but I believe that enophiles live in our own unfortunately small wine silo.

“A small wine silo?” Really? This is what I don’t get. Why are wine lovers and wine writers remiss if we don’t pay much attention to Apothic Red or Yellowtail? Quite honestly there is very little to say about most inexpensive supermarket wines. Some of them are fine for a weeknight dinner but they aren’t interesting or compelling. I used to review a budget wine every Friday until I got so bored I began to dread Thursday evenings spent trying to find something interesting to say about something not very interesting. It has nothing to do with being in a silo; it’s about needing interesting subject matter in order to write. If all someone wants is a “shelf-stable, fruity beverage” why on earth would they care what wine writers say. Are there people who make a living reviewing orange juice?

There are people who write about cheap wine and do it well; I have all respect in the world for them. I don’t see why people who prefer to write about better wines are worthy of criticism.

The fact of the matter is that there are just under 9000 wineries in the U.S. Yet the 8 largest companies sell 60% of the wine sold in the U.S. The top 30 accounted for 74% of wine sales in 2016. These mega-companies spend millions each year on marketing and PR. They don’t need us writing about them. Their customers will buy their wine regardless of what we write.

It’s the other 8000+ wineries, most of whom will never see their wines on a supermarket shelf, that need our attention. We don’t live in a silo. We exist in different industries only one of which needs a platoon of scribes to sing their praises.

Lovely Unloveliness

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aged winesAndrew Jeffords comments, “The greatest wines often have a lovely unloveliness at their heart”.

Some old friends and I chewed over (the verb is accurate) my last and much-travelled bottle of Baumard’s Clos du Papillon Savennières 2002 recently. It was reticent; it, too, had a sort of lovely unloveliness: that scent of dry straw, dry flowers and a sharp, almost rancid buttery quality, then sour green plums in the mouth, stony austerity and a little oxidative bite. We liked it all the more for the fact that it wasn’t trying to be liked.

I couldn’t agree more. There are lots of really good wines that have bright, pure fruit, great intensity and complexity, and velvet textures. Great wines, by contrast,  are deviant, they don’t conform, they have an otherworldly quality, depraved but interesting, like that guy you decided not to marry. Rancid buttery quality indeed.

Resonance: A Measure of Wine Quality

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pollackI’ve been thinking a lot about Martin Seel’s concept of resonance as one of the keys to wine quality.

Think of the rustling of leaves, the shimmer of light on water, or the background hum of the city. What is common about these phenomena is that they cannot be perceptually traced back to a source.  We know the hum of  city is caused by engines, voices, all sorts of devices that make noise but those individual sound sources cannot be picked out. In resonance, events shine, vanish, and reappear without order or form.

Think also of the inchoate, half-formed shapes in the background of abstract art (such as the Pollack painting above) or the sounds that are not quite melodies or harmonies that provide interest and complexity in a piece of music.

The use of tonal effects operating in the background of contemporary rock music provides a sense of movement independently of the melody or rhythm. The precise character of a band’s sound can’t be fully analyzed into component parts, especially if it’s new and different. The sound depends in a general way on which instruments are used, their tone quality and the way the various tone qualities interact but these components cannot be picked out and given a precise specification.

This lack of perceptible form is the key characteristic of resonance. It’s experienced as a kind of attractive chaos, a loosening of expectations and assumptions, drawing us in to the painting or piece of music by creating a sense of mystery about it.

Although Seel doesn’t mention it, wine too has resonance, flavors and aromas that give only hints and nuance as the flavors and textures insinuate and lapse remaining just below the threshold of full discernment. Quality wines often have a clarity and focus to them. But great wines provide a different kind of experience, provoking a feeling of something just beyond the horizon that cannot quite be identified. They present barely discernable aromas that don’t fit our standard categories, that violate expectations and seem starkly original but resist attempts to explain or describe precisely what we’re tasting.

Seel thinks of resonance as a borderline aesthetic phenomenon, present only occasionally in works of art although striking when experienced. In wine, by contrast, resonance is the main characteristic of superior quality. Only the best wines combine clarity with these inchoate nuances that indicate great complexity but resist a full analysis into component parts.What is a borderline phenomenon in the visual and musical arts is central to wine appreciation.

Wine Review: Amigoni Urban Winery Cabernet Franc Missouri 2014

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amigoniMissouri has a long history of winemaking dating back to the 19th Century. In fact, before prohibition Missouri was the second largest wine producing state in the U.S. Missouri’s post-prohibition wine revival was slow to get off the ground but the first modern wineries opened in the mid 1960’s and today they have over 1700 acres under vine. But throughout that history, the grapes grown in Missouri were native American or hybrid varietals. The conventional wisdom was that you can’t grow v. vinifera (the species of grape that makes familiar wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay) in Missouri. It’s too cold in the winter and too humid during the growing season.

That is until Michael Amigoni of Amigoni Urban Winery decided to challenge conventional wisdom. He planted several vinifera varieties in 1997; today he makes about 4000 cases of very fine wine from 100% vinifera grapes sold out of his urban winery in downtown Kansas City. Growing vinifera in Missouri is of course a challenge and he has to purchase some fruit from the West Coast to keep up with demand. But depending on the vintage, 50%-80% of his grapes are Missouri grown. I tasted several of his wines at a recent visit to the winery and this one stood out, in part because it is 100% Missouri grown. It’s also really good!

Enticing, bright red plum is woven with crushed gravel and tobacco leaf aromas with slight hints of cedar. The palate is spare and elegant, with a gentle opening, followed by incisive midpalate acidity revealing a graphite seam that gains increasing prominence, launching a tart, peppery finish with dried cherry notes. Medium body, medium length with fine-grained yet assertive tannins, this wine is taut, under control, yet quite polished and vibrant.

The mood is cool, polished chrome, a refined, stylish austerity. It takes me back to 80’s techno clubs and Sweet Dreams by Eurythmics

Score: 90

Alc: 13.1%

Price: $28

Hanni vs. Goode on Sweet Wine Preferences

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jam jarThe wine world hasn’t had a good dust up in awhile. Perhaps this debate between Tim Hanni (MW) and Jamie Goode will get the intellectual juices flowing.

Hanni argues that there is a significant portion of the public who are genetically programmed to prefer sweet wines, and this segment is not being served by wine experts who control the aesthetic discourse about wine and generally prefer dry wines. Here is a recent interview and there is much more information at his website.

Jamie Goode, wine writer and science journalist, thinks Hanni does not take into consideration how malleable and adaptable our tastes are and doubts that our preferences are being determined by wine experts:

The fact that most wines are dry, more-or-less, is because this is what the market wants. The market for mid-price to expensive wines with significant residual sugar is precisely zero. People who pay a bit more for wine want their wines dry. The market for fully sweet wines is also tiny: this is why Sauternes is having such a hard time and so many producers are struggling, while the market for high-end dry Bordeaux wines is surging.

No doubt sales of sweeter wines at the lower end of the market have been surging in recent years as evidenced by the success of Moscato and sweet red blends such as Apothic. But the larger question is why those of us concerned about wine as an aesthetic object should care about the preferences of casual wine drinkers who buy commodity wines.

I haven’t had time to look deeply at Hanni’s work and part of his thesis depends on the difficult question of innate preferences on which the science is not yet settled. But I’m not at all persuaded that adding sugar to most wines will improve their aesthetic qualities, although many of the high-acid non-vinifera wines need sugar to bring them into balance.  Perhaps I’ll have more to say about this when I’ve had a chance to soak in the literature a bit more.

Update On Napa/Sonoma After the Fires

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napa sonomaBob Hunnicutt, a Sonoma resident in the wine trade there, has two recent posts (here and here) about the post-fire situation. Here are a few key points he makes:

— Most of the grapes had been harvested before the fires hit and only a small percentage of wineries and vineyards were directly affected by the fires.

— No one yet knows if grapes in the fermentation process were damaged by smoke or through neglect while people were unable to tend to them.

–With the exception of people who lost loved ones, homes and businesses, life is slowly returning to normal.

–Many tourists have canceled their plans to visit and there is concern that tourism will take a permanent hit.

The bottom line—if you plan to visit the Napa/Sonoma area there is no reason to forgo your plans, especially as the recovery picks up speed. If you don’t have plans to visit, maybe you should put it on your itinerary since tasting rooms are likely to be less crowded over the next few months.