Category Archives: Napa Valley

Napa Saved by the Vines

I was in Italy on October 8 when news of rampant fires in the wine country hit international media. Friends and family texted alerts and updates to make sure I knew “real time” what was going on. But ”real time” quickly became very confusing as the multiple fires, and stories about the fires across social and mainstream digital media, raged faster than the fires themselves.

I arrived in Napa yesterday (November 6) to interview Darioush Khaledi, who is chairing the 2018 Cincinnati International Wine Festival. I frankly braced myself for the worst, with pictures of the fires and resulting damage fresh in my mind. One of the early “real time” reports, cascaded throughout multiple media outlets, was that Darioush had burned to the ground. (Spoiler alert: it did not.) That incorrect news was swept up in early reports — sadly correct — that the Signorello property was lost. Darioush is right next door.

Exactly one month later, it’s a different story. If I hadn’t known about the fires — well, I might not have observed much difference. Driving to the property on Napa’s Silverado Trail from SFO was just like every other fall visit to the Bay Area. The skies were crisp blue, puffy white clouds announcing a future rain with striated wisps of gray, and there was plenty of traffic. Just like always. Until I got to the old dairy business on Highway 121, just west of Domaine Carneros. It was gone, multiple buildings melted into the ground, trees and underbrush turned to ash from tinder. I held my breath as I rounded the curves toward Domaine Carneros, letting it out only when I found the winery to be untouched.

Then all returned to normal. Until I turned into the driveway of Darioush.  The charred hillside where Signorello’s winery once stood made it all quite real. I am only including this one photo. I am not a professional photographer, and I couldn’t bring myself to go in search of further tragedy. So just this one:

Entrance to Darioush and the site of Signorello (to the left) lost in the Napa fires

To the many stories that have already been written about the fires and the aftermath, I would like to add perspective from my interview with Darioush Khaledi and winery president Daniel DePolo. According to Dan, “the fire was a humanitarian and housing disaster. Only six wineries were lost or seriously damaged. But 3,000 homes were damaged and people have no place to live. The vineyards served as a firebreak. Vines don’t burn.”

Indeed, the vineyards in Napa look just like any other fall harvest cycle with the leaves turning brown to prepare for winter. At Darioush, only the olive trees and landscaping was burned. “The fire skipped around randomly” as evidenced by the total loss of nearby neighbor Signorello. In Napa, the sturdy oaks and general lack of ground cover protected the Valley to the east of the pine-covered Mayacama Range. “We are all beyond grateful,” according to Darioush Khaledi, who with his wife Shaphar lives at the winery in the manner of French chateaux.

More good news: 80-90 % of harvest was complete for most vineyards. The plan at Darioush? Test the remainder of the crop, and if the grapes are tainted, they will be discarded. Dan DePolo believes this will be the Napa standard so that consumers can be confident in future purchases of the 2017 vintage.

Wineries may not have been physically touched, but business is down 50% during what would ordinarily be Napa’s peak season for tourism. That said, the Darioush tasting room was busy, the streets are bustling, and both wineries and restaurants are welcoming customers with open arms. The mood of the community is upbeat, full of well deserved pride for the communal response to a crisis (including firefighting crew from near and far). “Things are not back to normal yet. We lost a month of business. But you can’t really tell just by driving around.”

Kashy Khaledi, who is Darioush’s son, celebrated the grand opening of new new winery called Ashes and Diamonds just two days ago. In a perhaps prescient act, the new winery’s website includes a poem written by 19th century Polish poet Cyprian Norwid that scrolls across the bottom in stanzas on each page:

“So often are you as a blazing torch with flames of burning rags falling about you flaming, you know not if flames bring freedom or death. Consuming all that you must cherish if ashes only will be left, and want Chaos and tempest. Or will the ashes hold the glory of a star-like diamond, the Morning Star of everlasting triumph.”

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!

A Spectacular Chaine Holiday

Chaine logo

The Hilton Netherland’s Hall of Mirrors adds sparkle and festive vibes to any event. Monday’s holiday dinner for more than 100 members and guests of the Cincinnati chapter of Chaîne des Rôtisseurs was no exception. Greeted by glittering glasses of Roederer Estate Brut NV (Anderson Valley sparkling), canapes passed deftly by a charming staff among hugs and holiday greetings, we were eagerly ushered into the Hall where chef Todd Kelly’s extraordinary meal awaited our undivided attention.

Though the experience of quality fine dining is central to being part of the Chaîne, wine pairing plays an equal measure. This holiday dinner was “100/100” as one member described it in a Facebook post. I’m sure you will agree!

Chaine 1st course

First course: Seriously, I could have declared victory for the evening with an utterly perfect pairing of foie gras with Sauternes. Cleverly presented on a savory, peppery shortbread, the disk of silky goodness accompanied by classic pistachio accents and a cooling dab of Muscadine gel, was frankly inhaled by everyone at the table. Always a good match with salty undertones, the unctuous honeyed sweetness of the Sauternes lingered on the palate, lifting the punch of the pepper into a long spicy finish. Château Roûmieu-Lacoste Sauternes 2013.

Chaine 2nd course

Second course: Cleverly presented as a carrot-billed duck, our second course featured a Maitake mushroom strudel topped with whipped red wine, and plated with shaved truffles and root vegetables. What better to go with this earthy dish than Burgundy? The whipped wine dissipated into a lovely sauce for the savory strudel. While truffles can at times overwhelm a dish, this was a light touch preparation. The root vegetables were pickled, striking fear in the hearts of wine lovers who know what vinegar can do to red wine — but the acidity in the Pinot Noir made it work! Maison Roche de Bellene Gevrey-Chambertin 2011.

Chaine 3rd course

Third course:  Grilled swordfish medallions were accented by aged Wattle Ham and clams, plated on smoked butter and celery, and accompanied by red and white miniature potatoes. The wine selection for this dish was an oaked California Chardonnay, again causing some trepidation for the oenophiles. Named for roasted hazelnuts, our wine selection is considered the winery’s most “appellation-expressive” Chardonnay. Oak influences were modest (30% new French barrels) and the roasted/citrusy flavor profile was more like northern Burgundy than northern California. Kistler “les Noisetiers” Sonoma Coast 2013.

Chaine 4th course

Fourth course: It took some effort among several diners to collect a photo of this bacon-wrapped filet. Not because it wasn’t terrific, mind you; rather because the wine was so amazing! This very rich beef course was presented with smoked chicken hearts, pomegranate ragout, swiss chard, and a Champagne/tarragon sabayon. Most of us simplified the experience to its essence, focusing on the filet and the wine, a smooth “drink now” Cabernet Sauvignon with a unique and vibrant aroma of milk chocolate and licorice. Odette Estate Cabernet, Stags Leap District 2012.

 Chaine 5th course

Dessert course: It was a happy moment when the Sauternes made its way back into the final course anchored by a disk of fromage blanc custard. Geometrically pleasing to the eye, the top bar was caramelized white chocolate; the “balance beam” was a hazelnut praline; and a swoosh of cranberry gelee accented small marinated fruits. The Sauternes paired beautifully with each element of the dish.

Photos courtesy of Mary Horn, Jt Mayer, Michael Lancor

Wine “Rock Stars” Headline International Wine Festival

Gina Gallo and Jean-Charles Boisset, courtesy of the Napa Valley Register

Gina Gallo and Jean-Charles Boisset, courtesy of the Napa Valley Register

Gina Gallo and Jean-Charles Boisset are inarguably the best known wine couple in the world. Their stories, separately and together, are inspiring and magical. As a very private couple who are parents of young twin daughters, they rarely appear together at public events. So it is truly special that they agreed to serve as co-chairs of this year’s 25th anniversary Cincinnati International Wine Festival.
imageThe Festival’s story is very compelling, enough to ignite Gallo’s and Boisset’s interest in leading the event March 4-7. Twenty-five years ago, Festival founder Russ Wiles decided it was time for Cincinnati to “kick it up a notch” on exposure to fine wines, and to do something good for the community at the same time. Thus was born a tradition of doing good while doing well, which has become one of the Midwest’s largest annual wine events. Over the past 24 years, the Festival has donated over $4.2 million to more than 30 local charities through a combination of the March Festival events and the Russ Wiles Memorial Golf Tournament held annually in June.

Tradition is something that Gina Gallo’s family knows quite well. In Europe it is not unusual for a sixth or seventh generation family member to take over the family enterprise as winemaker. In the U.S., where according to Time Magazine the wine industry only began to “explode” in the early 1970s, it is unusual to have even a second generation take over winery operations, never mind a third. And though the majority of winery inheritors are male, it is increasingly common for daughters and granddaughters to take the helm. In the forward to Women of the Vine written in 2007 by Deborah Brenner, Gallo posits that “(t)he world of wine is neither a man’s world nor a woman’s…as we enter a true Golden Age for wines, women are increasingly visible as leaders in every aspect of winegrowing and winemaking.”

Gina is a granddaughter of the late Julio Gallo, and great-niece of Ernest Gallo, brothers who started E. & J. Gallo wines in 1933. After first studying viticulture and enology at University of California (Davis), Gina became winemaker in 1991 for the Signature Series at what is today called the Gallo Family Vineyards. Her brother Matt has grown the winery’s grapes during that same period. With more than 70 brands from nine countries, Gallo is the world’s largest family owned winery, the largest exporter of California wine, and the largest winery in the United States. From Brenner’s interview with Gina Gallo: “I create wine, I absolutely love it, but the thing I love best is that at the end of the day you put that bottle on the table with family and friends.”

Current Generation Gallo Family (photo courtesy of gallo.com)

Current Generation Gallo Family (photo courtesy of gallo.com)

Creating an unusual story in tradition-steeped France, Jean-Charles Boisset is a second-generation winemaker, equally enterprising with global reach. His parents, Jean-Claude and Claudine, founded Boisett Family Estates in 1961 in the prestifious Gevrey-Chambertin commune of Burgundy.  Today, Jean-Charles is the president of the Boisset Collection which, in addition to the original Jean-Claude Boisset label, includes nine California properties such as Sonoma’s Buena Vista Winery and Napa’s Raymond Vineyards, ten French still wine brands, and four French sparkling (cremant) brands. All of the family’s estate properties in Burgundy and California are farmed using organic and Biodynamic practices. “The Boisset Collection unites the old and the new worlds of wine with its Franco-American spirit and wineries on two continents.” (www.boissetcollection.com/about/history)

Jean-Charles Boisset (photo courtesy of newslookup.com)

Jean-Charles Boisset (photo courtesy of newslookup.com)

The power couple, who met in 2006 and married in 2009, are clearly masters of their universes on two continents. When in France, they live in the famous village of Vougeot where Jean-Charles grew up, and in California, home is the sprawling property in Yountville with a lofty view of the Napa Valley built for wine pioneer Robert Mondavi.

(photo credit Sonoma Magazine)

(photo credit Sonoma Magazine)

I can’t wait to meet Gallo and Boisset in person! If you share my enthusiasm, please join me at the Cincinnati International Wine Festival where more than 600 wines from over 100 countries will be featured. Gold, silver and bronze medal winners from a juried tasting will be presented at the Grand Tastings on Friday and Saturday March 6 & 7. Advance tickets are on sale online until March 1 for the co-chairs dinner, winery dinners around town at 10 fantastic restaurants, grand tastings and Saturday morning’s charity auction (which includes a luncheon).

It’s for a great cause, and you’ll have a blast!

Cincinnati International Wine Festival

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]