Category Archives: California

Making Sweet Music in the (To Kalon) Vineyard

Geneviève Janssens

Wine Director for Robert Mondavi Winery and Chairman of the 2017 Cincinnati International Wine Festival

Top photo L-R: Robert Mondavi (C. Mondavi and Sons/Charles Krug), Charles Forni (Napa Cooperative Vineyard), Madame Fernande de Latour (Beaulieu Vineyard), John Daniel, Jr. (Inglenook), and Al Huntsinger (Vin-Mont/Napa Cooperative Winery). Source: “Bottled Poetry: Napa Winemaking from Prohibition to the Modern Era,” courtesy of the Napa Valley Wine Library Association/St. Helena Public Library. Bottom photo credit: palatepress.com

Top photo L-R: Robert Mondavi (C. Mondavi and Sons/Charles Krug), Charles Forni (Napa Cooperative Vineyard), Madame Fernande de Latour (Beaulieu Vineyard), John Daniel, Jr. (Inglenook), and Al Huntsinger (Vin-Mont/Napa Cooperative Winery). Source: “Bottled Poetry: Napa Winemaking from Prohibition to the Modern Era,” courtesy of the Napa Valley Wine Library Association/St. Helena Public Library.
Bottom photo credit: palatepress.com

Doesn’t every story about the heart-stopping beauty and allure of Napa Valley need to start with a picture of this sign? It announces, with pleasure, “you’ve arrived”! The original sign was installed on June 30, 1950, to welcome visitors to the Valley.

The top photo includes a young Robert Mondavi (far left, age 37), fifteen years before he was faced with what was surely among his most significant life inflection points.

In 1965, a seismic shift in the family’s CK Mondavi and Charles Krug business relationships propelled Robert Mondavi to search for a new future. In his 1998 autobiography Harvests of Joy, Mondavi says “…at the age of 52, I was at a decisive crossroads and I knew it.” Three years earlier, on the first of many trips to Europe, Robert Mondavi had been smitten by the differences in quality between European and American wines and winemaking practices – things like distinct methods and styles for each grape variety, treating wine as “high art” instead of a bulk beverage business, the joys of savoring a beautiful glass of wine with a wonderful meal. Mondavi wrote that he told his (then) wife Marge “I want to create (w)ines that have grace and style, harmony and balance.” And so he did. Robert Mondavi Winery (RMW) was born in 1966.

Robert Mondavi, Pacesetter and Maestro

The man who many called “Mr. Mondavi,” and who some call the industry superlative “Maestro,” became a legend in his own time long before his passing in 2008 at age 94. He carved a path of innovation for American wines that catapulted Napa Valley onto the world stage (notwithstanding the prescient message on the 1950 Napa Valley sign!). Mondavi’s vision, passion, persistent efforts, and strong leadership are an indelible part of brand Napa Valley.

Robert Mondavi – happy in the vineyard (1966), and on top of his game (1990), for over four decades when most people would have retired or considered an encore career! The Winery’s 50th anniversary logo (2016)

Robert Mondavi – happy in the vineyard (1966), and on top of his game (1990), for over four decades when most people would have retired or considered an encore career!
The Winery’s 50th anniversary logo (2016)

“When creating Maestro (wine) for our 50th anniversary, we were inspired by memories of Robert Mondavi. To celebrate the 2000 opening of our To Kalon Cellar, Robert Mondavi commissioned a special piece of music. At the gala, when the orchestra began to play, he took the baton and began conducting. We realized that Robert Mondavi was the maestro of our lives. His vision and passion guides us. He will always be the maestro of this winery, and our inspiration.” (Source: Robert Mondavi Winery website)

The 50th anniversary Maestro wine, released in 2016, is vintage 2013, which was the year of Robert Mondavi’s 100th birthday. Winemaker’s notes: “Merlot leads the orchestra of aromas, flavors, and textures in this Bordeaux blend. Easy to enjoy, Maestro is smooth and rich with black fruit and mocha aromas and fresh, mouthfilling cherry flavors.

You can hear the commissioned piece playing softly in the background as wine director Geneviève Janssens talks about the 50th anniversary and Maestro release.

Photo Credits: Decanter Magazine, RMW website

Photo Credits: Decanter Magazine, RMW website

Geneviève Janssens: RMW Concertmaster

Every maestro needs a strong, talented concertmaster in the “first chair” as the next most important person in an orchestra. Like a concertmaster, RMW’s wine director Geneviève Janssens executes on the maestro’s vision and passion with charm, finesse, and quiet humility. She leads a hand-picked team of winemakers to continue a tradition of winemaking and mentorship in the style that Mr. Mondavi defined for his new winery in 1966. She is an active member of the vineyard management team, helping to keep the RMW “orchestra” in tune and in time to the rhythms of the winery and the vineyard.

Geneviève’s journey to this important leadership position is a fascinating story, one that she considers to be gender-neutral. Recognizing that the statistics on women winemakers show that fewer than 10% of those posts are held by women, Geneviève rarely stops to consider her prominence in this rarified – if gradually changing – air.

Geneviève was in some ways destined to work in the wine industry. Her ancestors were part of a group of French nationalists who migrated in the 1870s to the French protectorate of Morocco in Algeria. While many family members were surgeons, jewelers, and other professions, the part of the family hailing from Burgundy grew grapes for bulk sale to wine merchants (nègociants). Geneviève’s father was a fourth generation winegrape farmer who in 1955 experienced personally the beginnings of the French/Algerian decolonization war. He wisely foresaw the end of French rule and resulting independence of Muslim Algeria (1962). Rather than wait to be expelled, her father moved the family to Nice and developed a new winegrowing business on the French island of Corsica when Geneviève was quite young.

With that move also came the family’s shift to winegrowers, making wine in bottles rather than in bulk, and her father’s encouragement to attend the University of Bordeaux where Geneviève earned a National Diploma of Enology in 1974. She returned home to work in the family vineyards, but with entrepreneurial ambition, she also launched an enology lab in Provence and worked as a consulting enologist at various French Chateaux.

Her father’s mentorship continued when he urged Geneviève to tour the United States, specifically Napa Valley, where he had visited Robert Mondavi Winery “because everybody knew who he was, even in the 1970s. My dad visited RMW with a group of winemakers, and ironically Margrit Bievers was the wine educator. (After that trip) he went on and on about Margrit because she was so fantastic.”

Geneviève headed off to Napa Valley in 1977, securing a meeting with Zelma Long, who was at that time RMW’s enologist. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, so Geneviève pitched her interest in working at RMW if ever there was an opening. Two months later, Zelma offered her a position in the enology lab.

During the two years that Geneviève worked in the lab at RMW (1978-79), she met and married Luc Janssens, then a university professor. She left RMW to spend time with her husband and their two children, Gabrielle and Georges, working part-time as a wine consultant in California.

But she was destined to rejoin the Mondavi enterprises.

Tim Mondavi, who had taken on the mantle of winemaker in 1974 from brother Michael, was executing his father’s vision of a French/American joint venture with Baron Phillippe de Rothschild. We know that venture today as Opus One. Geneviève remembers fondly that moment in 1989 when Tim asked her to become director of operations at Opus One so that he and Mouton Rothschild winemaker Patrick Leon could focus on integrating the styles of two wineries. It was time to get back in the game, and the position was perfect for a person with her sensibilities for both French and American cultures!

During the nearly ten years that Geneviève kept the trains running on time at Opus One, Robert Mondavi Winery experienced a number of changes, including a public offering of the company in 1993. In Harvests of Joy, Robert Mondavi called it “the gamble. We didn’t see it coming.” Between an outbreak of phylloxera, the heavy cost of acquisitions, and the growing intensity of competition from premium wines, “we weighed all the issues—and the risks—and decided (to) give it a go.”

As the structure and scale of the company continued to evolve, Tim asked Geneviève in 1998 to join RMW as wine director. During her long career in that capacity, Geneviève has been named the Croix de Chevaliere dans l’Ordre National du Merite Agricole (2009) and Winemaker of the Year (2010) by Wine Enthusiast Magazine.

Is To Kalon Vineyard a “fountain of youth”?

Is To Kalon Vineyard a “fountain of youth”?

Always the multi-tasker, Geneviève insists that wine is her passion, her job, and her only hobby. When their children were headed off to university, she and Luc started a boutique winery called The Portfolio, making one wine that is 80% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Cabernet Franc. Production is purposely small enough at 200 cases that the couple can do everything themselves, and by hand – no pumps, only gravity, for example. Their wines are available only through a direct mailing list, a few retailers in California, and in Tokyo from a young woman who only imports Portfolio wines!

As she approaches her 20th anniversary in that role, with characteristic humility, Geneviève says “life is good, the future is brilliant.”

A Walk Down Memory Lane: RMW Winemakers and Mentors Through the Years (1966-2016)

The list of winemakers who have shaped Robert Mondovi Winery is an illustrious slice of “who’s who” in Napa Valley, starting in 1966 with Warren Winiarski. He joined Robert’s son Michael Mondavi in the inaugural winemaking positions. Winiarski is perhaps better known as the founder of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, winner of the red wine (Bordeaux-style) competition in the 1976 Judgment of Paris. Like Mondavi, Winiarski had fallen in love with wine in Europe and caught the bug to make it. He spent two years as a winemaker at Souverain Winery before signing on to help Robert Mondavi jumpstart RMW.

When Winiarski moved on in 1968 to start an entrepreneurial venture making wine in Denver using California grapes, RMW engaged Mike Grgich as chief enologist. Grgich had also spent time working at Souverain Winery, plus several years at Beaulieu Vineyard under the tutelage of another “Maestro,” winemaker André Tchelistcheff. In 1972, Grgich left RMW to join Chateau Montalena, also later distinguished in the Judgment of Paris by winning the white wine (Chardonnay) competition. His eponymous winery, Grgich Hills Estate, was launched in 1977.

At a time when there were many fewer women in leading industry roles than even today, Zelma Long started breaking that glass ceiling when she was tapped in 1972 to succeed Mike Grgich as chief enologist. In 1979, Long moved to SIMI as winemaker, and in 1989 was named CEO, the first woman in Napa Valley to hold a senior management role. Long worked with Geneviève Janssens for two years while Geneviève absorbed the mindset and style of RMW and Mr. Mondavi himself.

By 1974, son Tim Mondavi was ready to step into the winemaker and director of winemaking roles. RMW interests were beginning to expand to international and other pursuits, so Michael’s role shifted initially to sales and marketing, and later to winery executive. Along with his brother Michael, who managed sales and marketing, Tim weathered the financial crisis in 1993 that resulted in a public offering of the company and ultimately led to the 2004 sale of RMW to Constellation Brands. Today Tim Mondavi runs Continuum Winery (with sister Marcia) which is perched high atop Pritchard Hill.

“Who I am is mainly my father, but now Mr. Mondavi and Tim. I was lucky to have Tim as a mentor. Mr. Mondavi always asked ‘and what is next.’ The present was finished; he always wanted to see the future. Mr. Mondavi was so demanding, he always wanted the best, so Tim worked very hard to push himself and his employees to excellence.”

Top photo L-R: Genevieve Janssens (1997-present), Mike Grgich (1968-72), Warren Winiarski (1966-67), Zelma Long (enologist 1970-79); Tim Mondavi (1974-2004); Margrit Bievers Mondavi, and Peter Mondavi. (Source: Pinterest 100th birthday celebration lunch, 2013) Bottom photo L-R: Megan Schofield, Geneviève Janssens, Joe Harden

Top photo L-R: Genevieve Janssens (1997-present), Mike Grgich (1968-72), Warren Winiarski (1966-67), Zelma Long (enologist 1970-79); Tim Mondavi (1974-2004); Margrit Bievers Mondavi, and Peter Mondavi. (Source: Pinterest 100th birthday celebration lunch, 2013)
Bottom photo L-R: Megan Schofield, Geneviève Janssens, Joe Harden

One of the concertmaster’s most important tasks is to hire talent. The current winemaking team is led by Megan Schofield and Joe Hardin.

Megan graduated (with honors) in the first enology and viticulture degree program offered by Brock University in Ontario. Before joining RMW in 2015, Megan gained nearly 15 years of experience at Beringer, Buena Vista and SIMI wineries. Megan is the winemaker for RMW’s Fumé Blanc and cool-climate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir programs.

Joe is a viticulture and oenology graduate of UC Davis. Equally passionate about sports, the 6’7” adventurer tried his hand at professional basketball in California and Australia before turning his attention back to wine. He became winemaker for the red wine program at RMW in 2014 after two years of learning the ropes there as an intern and enologist.

Postscript: Farewell to Margrit Bievers Mondavi

In a recent interview, conducted the year Robert Mondavi would have celebrated his 100th birthday, Mr. Mondavi’s widow Margrit described herself as the “keeper of the flame” of his passion for wine, food, and art. She passed away at age 91 on September 2, 2016. Enjoy a tribute to Mrs. Mondavi, and to their loving relationship, here.

Robert & Margrit

Fond Remembrance of Margrit Mondavi

From top, clockwise: To Kalon Vineyard @ Robert Mondavi Winery; tasting; homage to Mr. Mondavi; Margrit Mondavi

From top, clockwise: To Kalon Vineyard @ Robert Mondavi Winery; tasting; homage to Mr. Mondavi; Margrit Mondavi

It was a gray, chilly February morning in Napa Valley, too dank even for the season’s hearty bright-yellow mustard crop to light up rows of vineyards. Two dozen aspiring and accomplished wine writers braved the drizzly day for a tour of Robert Mondavi Winery (RMW) with Director of Winemaking Geneviève Janssens, and for the opportunity to interview Margrit Mondavi. Even if she hadn’t been wearing blue-sequined Ugg knock-off boots, she absolutely lit up the room (and the day) with love stories of “Mr. Mondavi” — I swear, she really said that.

If he had still been alive in 2013, Robert Mondavi would have been 100 years old about four months after our visit. Margrit Mondavi brought him to life for us, regaling us with stories about their life together over a 28-year marriage. She had us at “I married the boss!”

As her story begins, Margrit was in charge of PR, making $2 an hour after working at RMW for about a decade, and had recently introduced the innovation of a tasting room to showcase the wines, food, and art. “At 5:30, we (the staff) pulled the chain across the driveway and drank the dregs of the day’s wine. One day, when Mr. Mondavi came out to discuss money and how we could improve things, he said ‘Why don’t you come out to dinner with me? I have a couple of questions.’  We went to Chez Panisse — there were others we knew who asked us to sit with them — but from then on we looked just at each other.” (We will never know if there is a he said/she said version of this story.)

The room gave up a collective sweet sigh as Margrit shared small glimpses of the couple’s long romance. Her advice? “Well, you have to be lucky, go to great places, and cultivate and talk about the relationship.” According to Margrit, Mr. Mondavi always sent flowers with a note: “For my wife, who I love more than the day I married her.” Their daily ritual during dinner prep, the most natural part of their day when not traveling, was to build a fire, cook together, and sip on a bottle of RMW from the cellar. Mr. Mondavi apparently loved pastina in brodo (chicken soup!!) as well as classic homemade pasta smothered in fresh parmigiano reggiano cheese. Oh, and around the edges she “schlepped him to museums” to make sure that her love of art was fully integrated into his intense focus on wine. Listen up folks! This might be a good recipe.

As our interview drew to a close, Margrit Mondavi looked wistfully out toward the dormant winter To Kalon vineyard, and softly pronounced it to be exactly as it had been for 50 years. Almost as if speaking to herself, Margrit shared a favorite Robert Mondavi quote, “moderation with glorious exceptions.” Shifting quickly out of her reverie, back to the person who asserts that every day should be full of passion and creativity, looking forward, Margrit reminded us that there are “more old winemakers than old doctors.”

When asked to speculate on what the future holds, she twinkled with energy worthy of those sequined boots and said “I have a secret”! She might be taking that little secret with her. We never learned what exactly it might be.

So just a guess: 2016 is the 50th anniversary of Robert Mondavi Winery, the first post-prohibition winery to be built (in 1966) in Napa Valley. Margrit was the self-described keeper of Mr. Mondavi’s passion and story. She would be duty bound to honor his many innovations, pushing the industry to grow, excel, and achieve high levels of worldwide brand recognition for American wines.

I have no doubt she put all the finishing touches on her vision of a fitting celebration. Rest in love and peace, Mrs. Mondavi.

One of Margrit Mondavi's books, a celebration of wine, art and food.

One of Margrit Mondavi’s books, a celebration of wine, art and food.

Kathy Merchant photo credits from an old iPhone!

Rodney Strong Winemaker Rick Sayre: Lucky, But Deserving

 

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Rick Sayre, Chairman of the 2016 Cincinnati International Wine Festival

On a warm, sunny Sonoma day in January, Rick Sayre generously spent four hours touring, tasting and telling the story of his journey at Rodney Strong Vineyards. Toward the end of our interview, Rick confessed that he would have preferred to be fishing for steelhead trout during this relatively quiet vineyard winter season. Fortunately for me, the rivers were too muddy for fishing from so much (welcome) rain in previous weeks! Also fortunate for me was that Rick agreed to a personal and in-depth interview even though he has a well-documented pet peeve about wine writers who seem to forget that wine is above all an experience to be enjoyed. Thank you, Rick, for your warmth and trust that this interview would go in a different direction…lucky for me, and I hope deserving.

Rick Sayre is proud of how Rodney Strong Vineyards has evolved during his 36-year tenure. Yet he is so humble about his role in the winery’s growth in size, sustainability, sophisticated use of eco-friendly technology, and the quality of the wine.

I would add patience, focus and adaptive skills to a long list of personal attributes. Born in Michigan, his parents left the family farm and moved to Southern California. As a young SoCal teenager living near Huntington Beach, Rick learned how to surf. When he was a sophomore in high school, his father moved the family to Northern California and farmed prunes – then the major Sonoma crop.

Entering the wine industry at age 19 was a happy accident, followed by more strokes of good fortune that have made for a rich career. Lucky, but deserving.

As a young husband and soon-to-be parent, Rick took a path away from college science and forestry, which he loved, and took a seasonal forestry job. He was after a job at a lumber mill north of Healdsburg, but as luck would have it, Rick happened to see a job posting for a position at Simi Winery. He took a leap of faith, filled out the application, and got the job! His new boss saw in Rick a person who would work hard even if he didn’t yet know anything about managing vineyards or making wine. In less than a month his title was Cellarmaster  and Assistant Winemaker to Robert Stemmler.

In early 1973, things took a very interesting turn. A change in winemakers had Rick reporting to legendary (then recently retired) Beaulieu Vineyards winemaker André Tchelitscheff who worked as a consultant with Rick for seven years. Rick’s in-depth tutelage in growing grapes, making wine, and the foundation of his respect for place began there. Rick was André’s “first wine kid” post-BV. He was one of many aspiring winemakers that André mentored as protégés. Today, Rick carries that legacy forward and is equally committed to mentoring young winemakers. His philosophy of winemaking stems from André’s influence and this period of his life: “Get out in the vineyards, get out in the market, visit consumers, experiment and taste wines often.”

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But this isn’t just Rick’s story. There are other key people, the most colorful of whom was Rodney Strong himself. Rick left Simi in 1979, compelled by these words from Rod: “I’ve got 1,200 acres of the best vineyards in Sonoma and they are yours to command. They’re yours and the bank’s!”

Rodney Strong, the Entertainer and Entrepreneur

In a tribute published after his death in 2006, Strong was described as “Debonair dancer. Witty man of the world. Small town boy. Cosmopolitan charmer. Fly fisherman. Mastiff breeder.” Others call him a visionary, and he was certainly a pioneer.

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Rod Strong grew up in Washington State loving both outdoor and competitive sports. During high school, he worked multiple part-time jobs, began studying dance, and performed in USO shows during the waning days of World War II. After a short college stint where he studied dance more formally, Strong decided to move to New York City where he was accepted into Balanchine’s American School of Ballet and later studied with Martha Graham. At the young age of 23, he took a successful show to Paris and reveled in the life of wine and food across Europe. Married in 1948 to a fellow dancer he had met in Miami, Rod and his wife, Dale, performed together in Europe for four years, returning to the U.S. in 1952.

There Strong met and married his new dance partner, Charlotte Winson, his wife until her death in 2003. They both retired from dance in 1959 and made a bold move to California, fortuitously just as the wine industry was just starting to take off. Their first winery, Tiburon Vintners, operated by purchasing bulk wines and bottling them on a smaller scale. In 1966, the Strongs founded a second business, Windsor Vineyards, and successfully pioneered “mail order” wine sales. During the next few years, they began to amass nearly 5,000 acres of vineyard properties in the Healdsburg area.

By 1970, Rod was ready to build a new wine production facility, becoming the 13th bonded winery in Sonoma County. The grand building was designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright. (As Rick and I said practically in unison, “that means the roof leaks”!) Drawing on his knowledge and experience in Europe, Rod applied a keen sense of terroir to choosing each vineyard purchase. The most special of these vineyards was Sonoma’s Chalk Hill, then and now a perfect location for Chardonnay.

Life Lessons in Winery Economics 1967-89

As early as 1967, Rod Strong needed to enlist capital from private investors to finance the development of his burgeoning wine business. Initially offering relatively small private placements, he took Windsor Vineyards public to build the new winery, later naming it Sonoma Vineyards. That worked for a few years until there was a major market slump in 1973-74. The following year, a national beverage marketing company helped the winery weather the down market in a venture capital deal. With an infusion of business acumen and capital, and with Rod still working as a vice president, the company recovered nicely.

In a bold step, Sonoma Vineyards entered into a joint venture with Piper Heidsieck in 1980 to build a sparkling wine production facility. Rick Sayre had just joined the company and speaks with both awe and humility about that experience as a new employee who not only had to figure out corporate ROI, but also had to fast-track knowledge of how to make good sparkling wine. (The wildly ambitious sparkling venture didn’t last long…Piper Heidsieck bought Sonoma Vineyards’ 50% share in 1987.)

An early-eighties cycle of growth and innovation lasted about three years. With capital from profits flowing again, in 1980-81 Sonoma Vineyards had acquired several wine-related companies in New York, Arizona and California. In 1982, the premium line of Sonoma Vineyards wine was rebranded Rodney Strong Vineyards.

But the growth spurt came to a grinding halt once again in 1983. The venture capital company bought back outstanding shares, took the company private, and in 1984 offered both the winery and vineyards for sale. Land holdings were reduced from 5,000 to 1,200 acres, mostly by shedding marginal properties. Bankruptcy was a real possibility. Rod Strong was moved back into action as the head of winery operations. Then a corporate roller coaster ride really got activated. The company was bought and sold three times in three years, finally coming to rest in 1988-89 in the hands of Klein Foods, a fourth-generation California farming family.

Terroir + Technology = Timely: 1989-present

Having paid a handsome sum for both Rodney Strong Vineyards and the mail order company Windsor Vinyards, the Kleins raised working capital by selling half of the remaining acreage. In 1991, Tom Klein became president of Klein Family Vintners, the parent company, and proceeded to invest heavily in winemaking innovation and production growth for the next decade. At that point, Rodney Strong Vineyards was producing about 350,000 cases per year. Today production is at nearly a million cases per year.

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With an eye toward increasing efficiency while boosting quality, Sayre oversaw the installation of new equipment such as whole cluster presses, rotary fermenters and automatic barrel processing lines. Facilities were built and outfitted for on-premise barrel and case storage. The Hospitality Center (tasting room and more) was renovated. Windsor Vineyards and other related companies were sold. Vineyard purchases restored nearly 500 acres to company holdings. Leading the way toward sustainable winery practices, Rodney Strong Vineyards installed what is – or at least was at that time – the largest winery-based solar energy system. In recognition of this effort, the property received a “Green Power Leadership Award” in 2004 from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Energy, and the Center for Resource Solutions. Five years later, Rodney Strong became the first carbon neutral winery in Sonoma County.

Starting with a 2001 sweepstakes win for the 1997 vintage Symmetry Alexander Valley at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair, Rodney Strong Vineyards has amassed a stunning number of medals and awards, literally hundreds. Perhaps a pinnacle among these many awards was being named 2013 American Winery of the Year by Wine Enthusiast. With appreciation for the accolade, Tom Klein said “We are and have been family-owned for 25 years. This pride of ownership gives me the ability to farm the best vineyards and tools to make the best wines possible.”image

Rodney Strong Wines: “You Can’t Go Wrong with Rodney Strong!”

Today the company owns 1,500 acres comprised of 14 estate vineyards in premium locations across Sonoma County AVAs. This continues the tradition set by Rod Strong, who was the first to make a single-vineyard Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and the first to produce a Chalk Hill Chardonnay. Tom Klein and Rick Sayre are in complete alignment about the importance of place, of terroir. (It’s probably also important to note that they are further in alignment about their love of fishing – a seeming requisite carried forward from Rod Strong!) Farmer-turned-vintner Klein sums it up like this: “Place is not everything. But place is the most important thing. When you discover a passion for something, whether it’s golf or jazz, politics or poetry, you want to live it and breathe it.”

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Rick Sayre believes firmly that consistency is the key to quality wine. He describes his own style as a winemaker like this: “I was called Super Cellarmaster in my early days and it speaks to the style of wines I like to make, ‘Strong’.”

Many consumers think they know the Rodney Strong Vineyards (RSV) brand well – with good reason! It’s a go-to wine for many people. In the Midwest, we see the brand for sale at a reasonable price (<$20) at Kroger’s and other grocery stores. But that’s not the whole story. Sonoma County is only one of RSV’s wine ranges. In addition, RSV offers:

  • estate collection wines from all 14 vineyards, generally selling for $25-35;
  • reserve “artisanal” wines made from specially selected grapes from small blocks of estate vineyards (including Symmetry, a $55 blend of all five Bordeaux varieties) which sell for $40-45; and
  • three single-vineyard Cabernets at $75 a bottle (Brothers, Rockaway and Alexander Crown).

Guests attending the Cincinnati International Wine Festival Grand Tastings, scheduled for March 4 & 5, 2016, will be able to taste wines from all four ranges of Rodney Strong Vineyards. Tickets are available here.

Fishing is not the only tradition carried forward by Rick Sayre. As Head Winemaker, he is mentoring winemakers Justin Seidenfeld and Greg Morthole who joined RSV in 2010 to craft small production artisanal estate wines. And Rick is no doubt imparting the same wisdom he received as a young winemaker: keep an open mind, and be present in your place.

L-R Greg Morthole, Rick Sayre, Tom Klein, Justin Seidenfeld

L-R Greg Morthole, Rick Sayre, Tom Klein, Justin Seidenfeld

Resources: “Rodney D. Strong: A Tribute to a Sonoma County Wine Pioneer” (undated, preface by the former veteran New York Times wine columnist Frank Prial); www.rodneystrong.com; interview with Rick Sayre

Photo credits: unless otherwise noted, all photos provided by Rodney Strong Vineyards and Cincinnati International Wine Festival. Rodney Strong tasting room: winecountry.com; map of Sonoma AVAs: quentinsadler.wordpress.com.

Taste of Premiere Napa Valley

Map of Napa Valley courtesy of jacksonvillewineguide.com

Map of Napa Valley courtesy of jacksonvillewineguide.com

Fair warning to readers: this is a long piece including lists/descriptions of 36 wines.

There are a bewildering number of wineries to choose from in Napa Valley. They fit neatly together like a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle, aligned in tightly woven vineyard ribbons lacing Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail, along the eastern slopes of the Mayacamas Mountains. It’s no small wonder that it takes work – joyful as it may be! – to understand the scope of this complex and diverse American Viticultural Area (AVA or appellation) covering less ground than 1/8 of Bordeaux.

Betting on the notion that a better-educated wine trade would help consumers sort through Napa’s prolific bounty, Napa Valley Vintners Association (NVV) created Premiere Napa Valley nearly two decades ago. As the Premiere event got legs, NVV added events for wine educators and sommeliers. Each year, the wine trade descends upon Napa Valley in droves during the third week in February to revel in all that is glorious about Napa Valley.

Whether you love sun-kissed “big fruit” or more restrained old-world styles of wine, enjoy this delicious sip of Napa Valley taken February 20-22, 2014!

The Symposium for Professional Wine Writers was founded a decade ago by some of the country’s leading food and wine writers in partnership with NVV, The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone and the Meadowood resort. Each year, generous Napa Valley vintners sponsor fellowships for 12-15 writers chosen by an independent panel of judges. The warm companionship between winemaking and wine writing is celebrated during a special dinner at Meadowood on the eve of Premiere weekend.

Symposium for Professional Wine Writers Fellows Dinner at Meadowood

Symposium for Professional Wine Writers Fellows Dinner at Meadowood

2004 vintage wines shared by sponsoring wineries at the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers

2004 vintage wines shared by sponsoring wineries at the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers

Because this was the Symposium’s 10th anniversary, each sponsoring winemaker provided a 2004 library wine. One can only hope that some of these 15 wines are waiting patiently in your cellar! But don’t despair – the fellowship sponsors are among Napa Valley’s finest winemakers, so enjoy their more recent vintages available in the market. [alpha winery listing, AVA, grape]

1. BOND “Vecina,” Oakville, Cabernet Sauvignon
2. Chimney Rock Winery “Elevage,” Stags Leap District, Red Blend
3. Far Niente, Oakville, Cabernet Sauvignon
4. The Hess Collection Winery, Mt. Veeder, Cabernet Sauvignon
5. Hourglass, St. Helena, Cabernet Sauvignon (2010)
6. Mount Veeder Winery Reserve, Napa Valley, Red Blend
7. PEJU Reserve, Rutherford, Cabernet Franc
8. Plumpjack Winery Estate, Oakville, Cabernet Sauvignon
9. Raymond Vineyards “Generations,” Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon
10. Robert Mondavi Winery, Oakville, Cabernet Sauvignon
11. Saintsbury, Los Carneros, Chardonnay
12. Shafer Vineyards “Hillside Select,” Stags Leap District, Cabernet Sauvignon
13. Silverado Vineyards “SOLO,” Stags Leap District, Cabernet Sauvignon
14. Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars “CASK 23,” Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon
15. Tres Sabores, Rutherford, Zinfandel

So is it hardship duty for the trade to taste wine at 9:00 am? Perhaps. I read more than one Tweet and Facebook post pondering the state of our collective health. “Sip, swish and spit” skills are mandatory.

The Premiere weekend launched into high gear on Friday morning with a very special tasting opportunity. A multi-vintage perspective included young wines from 2009, 2010 and 2011. A retrospective tasting of library wines from 1984, 1994 and 2004 offered the rare opportunity to experience vintages chosen for decennial rhythm rather than ratings. Most of the library wines were Cabernet Sauvignon (or Cab-predominant blends). Looking back, the top professional raters gave the 1984 vintage a 92-94 score (with differing views on whether this vintage is likely past its peak, so give it a try); 95-97 for the 1994 vintage (definitely drink now); and 91-95 for 2004 (drink now or hold).

It was impossible to do justice to all 39 young and library wines in the allotted two hours, so of the 26 library wines I tasted, these were my top five:

1984 Sterling Vineyards Reserve Merlot was quite washed out in color, but the fresh aroma was medium+ with plenty of fruit; soft tannins, medium+ body and intensity; a balanced wine. Hurry up!

1994 Beaulieu Vineyards Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon was fresh and clean; nice complexity of vibrant black fruit, violets and brown baking spices from oak influence; soft tannins, long finish. Drink now.

1994 Caymus Vineyards Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon presented a soft copper tinge in the glass, but despite a slight overtone of alcohol on the nose, on the palate the wine was soft and complex with notes of cedar along with dark fruits. Drink now.

2004 ERBA Merlot was characterized by a very long finish, a pleasant quaffable wine with velvety tannins and medium+ intensity of aromas and flavors. Drink now.

2004 Corison Winery Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon was clearly young and fresh compared to the older library wines, but definitely a balanced wine with well-integrated tannins; complex red and black fruits, medium+ intensity. Drink now or hold.

Tim Mondavi, Continuum winery, and Kathy Merchant at the Pritchard Hill Premiere Preview Party

Tim Mondavi, Continuum winery, and Kathy Merchant at the Pritchard Hill Premiere Preview Party

Premiere Preview Parties moved into high gear at about noon and carried on into early evening with sneak peeks of the 2012 vintage wines that would be auctioned the following day. (Please stay tuned for an in-depth look at wines from four of Napa Valley’s 16 AVAs tasted during preview parties: Oak Knoll, Pritchard Hill, Spring Mountain and Stags Leap.)

On Saturday morning, the Premiere Napa Valley Barrel Tasting and Auction event machinery worked smoothly to transport hundreds of people from remote parking to The Culinary Institute at Greystone and get them checked in for the barrel tasting and auction. On the second floor, 225 stations were ready to roll for the brisk three-hour marathon tasting of 2012 barrel samples, already being touted as “very good to excellent” vintage overall. Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines!

Premiere Napa Valley 2012 barrel tasting at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone

Premiere Napa Valley 2012 barrel tasting at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone

First, a bonus note about my permanent “best of show.” Keever Vineyards, owned since 2003 by Bill and Olga Keever and their children Jason and Ashley, has been a favorite wine of mine for many years. Their winemaker Celia Welch is a rock star in Napa Valley. Often impatient for that “drink now” moment to arrive, I have managed to preserve a Keever library of wines from 2006-2009. Growing in popularity, their 2010 vintage sold out in three months, but it is possible to taste the 2011 vintage at the winery in advance of release and get on the list for annual wine allocations. http://www.keevervineyards.com

Wine writers who attended the Symposium were asked by NVV to taste 14 randomly selected wines, choose a favorite, and write a note about the wine and/or winemaker. These notes will be compiled and published soon in the St. Helena Star.

In the meantime, here are my notes on the top five 2012 barrel samples from Lots 113-126, along with a list of the other wines, all in order of personal preference:

1. Robert Keenan Winery (Spring Mountain) took a unique twist for Premiere Napa Valley with a mouth-watering “A Nod to History” Zinfandel blended with Merlot and Cabernet Franc (10% each) as well as whiffs of Carignane and Alicante. Aged primarily in neutral oak, this special heritage blend offered bright cherry and raspberry notes. Nils Venge, consulting winemaker. [Lot 120]

2. Harbison Estate Wines (Oakville) “The Trail” Cabernet Sauvignon. Owned by Joe and Pat Harbison, the new winery produced its first vintage in 2008. Already receiving top scores from Wine Advocate – 96 points for the 2011 and a tentative score of 100 points for the 2012 – Harbison wines look to be on the way to cult status, but still under $200. Even in its youth, the barrel sample was refined and elegant with an even finish across the palate. He said: “anybody can make a big ass wine.” She said: “it takes finesse to go with food.” Russell Bevan, winemaker. [Lot 121]

Joe and Pat Harbison of Harbison Wine Estate

Joe and Pat Harbison of Harbison Wine Estate

3. Paradigm Winery (Oakville) Cabernet Sauvignon is small-production (5,000 cases). One third of the property’s 55 acres of grapes are used to make Paradigm wine, and the rest of the fruit is sold to Nickle and Nickle. With delicate floral and herbal aromas yielding to rich fruit and earthy flavors, this wine strikes a balance between feminine and masculine styles; long aging potential. Heidi Peterson Barrett, winemaker. [Lot 119]

4. Ehlers Estate (St. Helena) “Block 4” Cabernet Sauvignon is a spicy wine with beautiful, soft tannins. Ehlers Estate wines are generally 75% new French oak, though winemaker Kevin Morrisey may shift some of the juice to neutral barrels to avoid excessive oak influence. [Lot 115]

5. Barbour Wines (St. Helena) “Man Cave Blend” Cabernet Sauvignon. A perfect specimen of “medium plus” intensity wine in every regard – color, aroma, body and aging potential. Owner Jim Barber says his wine style is “whatever Celia says” about the fruit each year. Celia Welch, winemaker. [Lot 122]

6. Frias Family Vineyard (St. Helena) Cabernet Sauvignon. Todd Heth, winemaker. [Lot 113]

7. Erba Mountainside Vineyards (Napa Valley) Cabernet Sauvignon. Luc Morlet, winemaker. [Lot 118]

8. Cakebread Cellars (Napa Valley) “Suscol Springs and Arroyo Creek Vineyards” Cabernet Sauvignon. Julianne Laks, winemaker. [Lot 124]

9. Neal Family Vineyards (Rutherford) Chardonnay. Gove Celio, director of winemaking. [Lot 114]

10. Aloft Wine (Howell Mountain) Cabernet Sauvignon. Angelina Mondavi and Thomas Brown, winemakers. [Lot 117]

11. Rocca Family Vineyards (Yountville) “Row 57 Old Vines” Cabernet Sauvignon. Paul Colantuoni, winemaker. [Lot 116]

12. Purlieu Wines (St. Helena) “Cachere Cabernet Sauvignon. Julien Fayard, winemaker. [Lot 123]

13. Hewitt Vineyard & Provenance Vineyards (Rutherford) “Cab Meets Cab Franc” Red Wine. Chris Cooney and Tom Rinaldi, winemakers. [Lot 125]

14. Vineyard 29 (St. Helena) “St. Helena Special” Cabernet Sauvignon. Philippe Melka, winemaker. [Lot 126]

Paso Robles Possibilities

View of Paso Robles looking toward the Pacific Ocean at San Luis Obispo winefolly.com

View of Paso Robles looking toward the Pacific Ocean at San Luis Obispo
winefolly.com

With 30 years of robust history most often credited to entrepreneur Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon, Rhone Rangers are firmly fixed on the California wine landscape. Since 1983, the winemakers of Paso Robles and York Mountain AVAs have played a significant role in shaping the future of Rhone varieties in the US.

It’s a familiar story. Franciscan monks shaped the contours of California wines more than 200 years ago. They moved apace from south to north planting vineyards along the way to support sacramental missionary rituals. It basically took the gold rush of 1849 to unleash secular commercial winemaking over the next few decades. One such pioneer was Andrew York, a Hoosier who seized the opportunity to leave farming behind to establish a Wild West ranch. He was wise to plant vines, as well as raise cattle, on what is now the York Mountain AVA. He called his winery Ascension, for the monks.

Today the original York property encompasses two estate vineyards called Paterewski and Catapult. Sold in 2004, then purchased (in foreclosure) in 2010 by Bill and Liz Armstrong, the winery now known as Epoch is being lovingly restored and reactivated.

Lesa Johnson at Epoch Winery, York Mountain AVA

Lesa Johnson at Epoch Winery, York Mountain AVA

Epoch’s red wines are unfiltered and weigh in at a hefty sun-kissed 15.7-16.2% abv. Our tasting included five wines: a deliciously complex 2012 white Rhone blend of Grenache Blanc, Viognier and Roussanne easily earning 92 points from Wine Advocate; 2012 Grenache-predominant rose the color of summer in Provence; one of Wine Spectator’s top-25 global picks for 2013, a 2010 Syrah blend that includes 7% Tempranillo; a 2010 GSM blend called “Ingenuity” that will make wine-with-chocolate lovers very happy; and a muscular 100% Syrah from Block B (2010) that for years to come will be sure to please lucky buyers of this small production wine aged 22 months in new French oak.

It was probably inevitable that the Rhone Ranger movement would attract French investors to Paso Robles. The geological and climatic conditions were near-perfect to plant and nurture the 40 different Rhone and Languedoc varieties, both white and red, grown and preserved by Tablas Creek Winery.

Tablas Creek Vineyards, Paso Robles (winery website)

Tablas Creek Vineyards, Paso Robles (winery website)

In 1989, when there were only 17 wineries in Paso Robles, the Perrin family of Chateau de Beaucastel in Chateauneuf-du-Pape launched an American venture with their US importer, Robert Haas. Tablas Creek is an important commercial nursery as well as wine producer, ensuring that somewhat obscure legacy varieties such as Tennat and Counoise survive and thrive on American rootstock in a “library” of healthy vines.

Now one of about 230 Paso Robles wineries, Tablas Creek enjoys preeminent pioneer status producing 20,000 cases of wine a year from 110 acres of active vineyard estate property. Our tasting included six wines: Cotes de Tablas Blanc 2012, a fresh and lively blend of Viognier, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne and Roussanne; flagship Roussanne-predominant Esprit de Tablas Blanc (2011) which also includes Picpoul Blanc; a 100% Mourvedre, which is surprisingly the winery’s most widely planted variety; and three 2011 GSM wines that also blend in the spicy Counoise grape to varying degrees — a rustic Patelin de Tablas (“country neighborhood”), the elegant Esprit de Tablas and the well balanced Cotes de Tablas.

Russell P. From's "inner geek" (winery website)

Russell P. From’s “inner geek” (winery website)

Moving from historic and refined to fresh, new, wild and wooly we experienced the Herman Story Winery. And it is an experience! This geeky high school photo, soon to be a bottle label, says it all.

Tucked away in an innocuous commercial area just off Highway 101, Herman Story is magic once you step inside the doors. Although the tasting room is closed on Wednesdays, thanks to a personal introduction from Casa Dumetz’s Sonja Magdevski, we were welcomed with open arms by tasting room manager Chris. As we headed to the tasting room through the main area of the production and aging room, in a small but serviceable kitchen a big guy was mixing up a bowl of meatloaf and rocking to blaring music. To be honest, it didn’t register that this was Russell P. From (RPF for short), Herman Story’s winemaker! After light coaxing to shift the music to Meatloaf, we earned an invitation to (help prepare) and stay for lunch with the staff.

Clockwise L-R Grandpa Herman Story, RFP and Lesa Johnson cooking lunch, Chris starting the wine tasting, 2011 "Casual Encounters" GSM, Desparada 2012 "Visitor" Chardonnay & 2011 "The Purist" Cab

Clockwise L-R
Grandpa Herman Story, RFP and Lesa Johnson cooking lunch, Chris starting the wine tasting, 2011 “Casual Encounters” GSM, Desparada 2012 “Visitor” Chardonnay & 2011 “The Purist” Cab

RPF has been making wine in Paso Robles for quite some time. Herman Story winery, named for RPF’s grandfather, is about 3 years old. A photo of grandpa hangs at the end of the tasting bar so that he can join in the fun every day.

In a unique move, all of Russell’s red wines are the same price ($48 in the next release). There is a wine club, but don’t get excited. There’s a waiting list to get regular shipments of Herman Story’s relatively small production of 4,500 cases per year. Russell also provides the production facilities for his girlfriend, Vailia Esh, who produces Chardonnay and Cabernet as Desparada wines.

Our tasting of six wines included these two Desparada and four from Herman Story. A 2011 called “The Newsman” on RPF’s previous label was a flavorful Rhone blend of Marsanne with 25% Roussanne and Viognier. Next was Desparado Chardonnay, initially served too cold, but in being able to sip it occasionally over a period of two plus hours, the beautiful pure fruit essence of a lightly oaked Chardonnay was revealed.

Heading into the tasting of reds, let me say this only once: Russell From is a big guy, and he loves big wines.

The fruit for Herman Story’s “Casual Encounters” GSM comes from 12 vineyards. The grapes are a co-fermented, so the blend is decided first. The recipe is consistently 50% Syrah, 30% Grenache and 20% Mourvedre. Rated 92 by Wine Spectator, this wine is dark and savory, lots of extraction, but surprisingly subtle for 15.2% abv.

My personal favorite was the 2011 “Nuts & Bolts” 100% Syrah sourced from 7 vineyards. It is a complex wine, big fruit on the nose with savory herb and bacon notes on the palate and a very long finish. Might I add that it was excellent with meatloaf?! This wine was rated 93 by Wine Advocate. Our final red from Herman Story was “The Signmaker” 2010, 70% Cabernet from Paso and 30% Syrah from Santa Ynez. After an extra year of bottle age prior to release, the smooth wine was opaque, nearly black, offering perfumed notes of dark black fruit, chocolate, cassis and oak spices. The finish was endless.

We closed the tasting with Desparada’s “The Purist,” a 100% Cab sourced from two vineyards in Santa Ynez Valley. Only 50 cases were made! The 2011 is tight, still needs time for tannins to relax and integrate, but interesting flavors of smoke, licorice and eucalyptus will no doubt yield to a deep fruit palate.

Casa Dumetz Wines. Lean and Lively. Emilio and Sonja.

Emilio & Sonja with wines
This is a great story. It would make a fabulous movie. Talented actor, director and writer meets beautiful woman working part-time in a florist shop while finishing a masters’ thesis in journalism. She: in love with the idea of wine and helping to revive fallow vineyards in her family’s native Macedonia. He: exhausted, needing help pronto to plant some 800 vines in (of all unlikely places) Malibu! She’s in. 48 hours. He falls in love. Cut to ocean sunset and the magic elixir of a glass of Pinot Noir. Ahhhhh….

This is no movie. It’s the back story of Casa Dumetz, the labor of love of Emilio Estevez and Sonja Magdevski. He still acts, directs and writes. She still writes, a combination of feature articles and blogs. They connect in the vineyard.

Thanks to the Greater Cincinnati & Northern Kentucky Film Commission, I had the pleasure of meeting Emilio and Sonja at a Sunday evening tasting of Casa Dumetz wines hosted by Commission director Kristen Erwin and her husband Mike Schlotman. Emilio will be returning to the Cincinnati area next spring to film a movie. Will Sonja bring us more Casa Dumetz wines? Combining loves, personal and professional, seems like a grand idea. Game on, Cincinnati!!

Our comprehensive tasting was ordered in a unique way. Initially skeptical about why we would taste red, then white, then red, then white, and finally bubbly — well, there’s a method to the madness. Let me walk you through the line-up of the 2012 vintage.

A pair of Grenache wines provide a perfect lesson in terroir. Two vineyards in Santa Ynez Valley, Tierra Alta and Larner, are the sources of Sonja’s grapes, cultivated and picked in consultation with the grower. These wines demonstrate just how varied the wines of one grape can be from places situated so close together. Because I haven’t visited the vineyards (yet), all I can tell you is that the Larner vineyard is a cooler microclimate with sandier soil than Tierra Alta.

We started with Tierra Alta Grenache. I had a singular profound reaction: this wine tasted like Christmas, all red fruit and cinnamon spices! Glints of light and pronounced aromas literally bounced from the glass of deceptively light-colored wine. At 14.8% abv, this wine could have overwhelmed the palate with wafts of alcohol. But I couldn’t wait to have another sip.

In contrast, the Larner Grenache was all savory herbs with delicate floral notes. Medium color and body, the aroma notes of red and black fruit gave way to flavors of eucalyptus and forest floor. Slightly lower in alcohol (14%), this wine matched my palate preference.

The Casa Dumetz Viognier was so delicately perfumed that even my friend Lesa Johnson — who generally can’t stand perfume and flower notes in her wine — would swoon for this. (She will get the opportunity in February when we tour the stretch of wine country between Santa Barbara and Paso Robles.) I’m pretty sure that Kristen and Mike’s guests were feeling happy about this offering of aromatic Viognier.

The moment I was waiting for: the Syrah. It was worth the wait! I am hereby declaring this my favorite of the Casa Dumetz range. It was silky and elegant, tannins in check even at this young age, owing mostly to the fact that Sonja relies on neutral barrels for aging. The wine was at once deeply savory and perfumed, mushrooms and violets. I’m pretty sure that I consumed more than my share of this wine…

I found myself feeling a bit confused about the Gewurtztraminer. It was clearly a shift away from the strength of the Rhone varietals. Perhaps it was just an interesting winemaker’s experiment, but I thought it fell short on flavor and complexity compared to the other wines. It was only lightly spicy on the nose and palate, with a medium-short finish. I love Gewurtztraminer, but this was a shade too delicate to my taste.

Closing with a traditional method bubbly made from Syrah grapes, capped like a bottle of coca-cola (no cork and cage), was quite an interesting close to the tasting. A note on each bottle declares that inedible “magic fermentation beads” created the fizz. Although vinified dry, the bubbly offered a hint of sweetness that might actually make this wine a good match for dessert. I am an obstinant anti-chocolate-with-wine person, but I might find forgiveness in Sonja’s Suds.
Casa Dumetz
Until Cincinnati arranges to offer Sonja’s wines locally, you can buy Casa Dumetz wines online at www.casadumetzwines.com. All wines are $30-35 plus shipping. Or visit the tasting room at 388 Bell St., Los Alamos CA.

photo credits: werd.com; casadumetzwines.com; Kathy Merchant