Tag Archives: Cincinnati International Wine Festival

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

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.

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