Vinoptima: Too Much of a Good Thing

There's no doubt that wine is romantic, and that this romance inspires and motivates consumers and producers alike, especially in the new world, where wine as a profession and wine as a beverage are adopted, rather than hereditary. The popular discourse of wine remains so littered with near-mythical stories of people following their passions to create great wines and great wineries, that we all too easily forget that basic principles of economics always apply. No amount of passion can compensate for wine that consumers just don't want to buy, or that a winery owner can't figure out how to sell (as they are different but often related problems).

All of that, by way of introduction to a winery named Vinoptima, in the out-of-the-way wine growing region of Gisborne, on New Zealand's North Island. Started by wine industry veteran Nick Nobilo in 2000, Vinoptima may be one of the world's most unique wineries, given its dedication to a single grape variety. Now, there are wineries around the world who make only Cabernet. Some who make only Riesling. But as far as I know, Vinoptima is the only winery dedicated solely to Gewürztraminer.

Vinoptima: Too Much of a Good Thing

Nobilo, you see, has something of an obsession with the grape, which began as far back as 1972, when he planted the very first vines of the variety in New Zealand. After working with it for three decades (and falling deeper in love with it in every passing vintage) Nobilo established Vinoptima in 2000 with the planting of a block of Gewürtztraminer in Gisborne, which he harvested in 2003 for the winery's first vintage.

Gewürtztraminer is a grape made famous in the Alsace region in France, which has somewhere around one third of the roughly 20,000 acres that are planted around the world. The grape is of ancient origin, and is actually one of three primary variants of Savagnin, which is a genetic parent to many, many modern grape varieties, not least of which are Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc (and therefore Cabernet Sauvignon), Trousseau, Grüner Veltliner and Verdelho, among others.

Vinoptima: Too Much of a Good Thing

The other main regions producing Gewürtztraminer (also known in places as Tramin, Traminer, or Savagnin Rose) include the United States, Italy, Germany, Australia, and Hungary. It is one of the most distinctively aromatic grape varieties on the planet, with an unmistakable, often heady perfume of lychees, rose petals, and orange blossom water. The grape also has a natural bitterness, and is therefore often made with a bit of residual sugar to offset this bite. Made well, which in my book usually involves maintaining the often elusive acidity it may possess, Gewürtztraminer can be mind-bendingly aromatic and incredibly complex. The best dessert-style wines made with the grape (n.b. Domaine Weinbach in Alsace) are ambrosia-like and otherworldly.

At Vinoptima, Nobilo farms about 20 acres of the grape in the township of Ormond just north of Gisborne, and produces several styles of Gewürtztraminer, from off-dry to a deeply sweet botrytized version, in his immaculate winery that he says is "custom designed from scratch to be run by just two men." His modest goal? "To make the world's best Gewürztraminer."

Vinoptima: Too Much of a Good Thing

I'm not sure he would ever be able to reach the heights to which the grape has been elevated in Alsace over the centuries, but the wines have consistently won awards and received scores in the 90-point range from critics (my own tasting notes on a number of vintages follow below.)

But there's just one problem.

Vinoptima: Too Much of a Good Thing

"No one wants to buy Gewürztraminer," said Nobilo, when I visited him in 2017. "Not even the people who used to drink it all the time," he continued.

When I met with him, the congenial, ruddy-cheeked and white-haired Nobilo struck me as a man who had done reasonably well for himself after five decades in the wine industry. I privately speculated that his was a passion project that could potentially weather the lack of demand for some time.

Vinoptima: Too Much of a Good Thing

But one unavoidable truth of the wine industry is that unsold wine gradually becomes a serious problem. And so it seems to have become for Vinoptima. I read with some sadness this week that with 100,000 liters of unsold wines in vats (roughly two vintages worth), Vinoptima has gone into receivership, which is what passes for bankruptcy in New Zealand.

It's a sad ending for a project begun and maintained with such singular passion, and a cautionary tale for those who believe that merely making excellent wine is the key to success in the wine industry.

Vinoptima: Too Much of a Good Thing

Here are my notes on several of Nobilo's vintages.

2004 Vinoptima Gewürtztraminer, Gisborne, New Zealand
Light yellow gold in color, this wine smells of orange blossom and lychee and honey. In the mouth, lightly sweet flavors of orange peel, lychee, and honey have a slightly spicy aspect, coating the palate and lingering with butterscotch notes in the finish. Has 20 grams per liter of residual sugar but finishes fairly dry. Moderate acidity. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. click to buy.

2006 Vinoptima Gewürtztraminer, Gisborne, New Zealand
Medium gold in the glass, this wine smells of orange peel and rose petals. In the mouth, weighty, silky flavors of orange peel and rose petals and honey with hints of lychee and a touch of lemongrass lingering in the finish. Despite moderate sweetness up front, the sugar doesn't linger on the palate. 13.5% alcohol. 18 grams per liter residual sugar. Score: between 8.5 and 9. click to buy.

2008 Vinoptima Gewürtztraminer, Gisborne, New Zealand
Medium gold in color, this wine smells of orange blossom water and lychee. In the mouth, strong lychee fruit mixes with orange peel and pomelo pith, lingering slightly bitter on the palate, along with a striking wet chalkboard kind of minerality. The wine starts off sweet, but doesn't coat the palate. 14% alcohol. 15 grams per liter of residual sugar. Score: around 9. click to buy.

2010 Vinoptima Gewürtztraminer, Gisborne, New Zealand
Light yellow gold in color, this wine smells of exotic flowers like tuberose and orange blossom. In the mouth, lithe flavors of pomelo and mandarine orange mix with lychee and very pretty minerality. Only faintly sweet, the wine has a wonderful wet chalkboard finish scented with lychee. 13.5% 13 grams per liter of residual sugar. Score: between 9 and 9.5. click to buy.

2007 Vinoptima "Noble" Gewürtztraminer, Gisborne, New Zealand
Light to medium amber in color, this wine smells of a touch of chamomile flower, candied orange peels, honey, and dried apricots. In the mouth, silky, thick, very sweet flavors of apricot and butterscotch and tinned peaches still have a slight grip on the palate and a remarkable wet chalkboard character that emerges on the finish that leaves the mouth feeling rather cool and refreshed, instead of coated with sugar. Quite pretty. Not picked until the middle of June, when the select rows of grapes are fully botrytized with noble rot. 110 grams per liter of residual sugar, 11% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. click to buy.




The Secret Grapes of the Willamette Valley

An ironic dichotomy characterizes many young wine regions around the world. Lacking the hundreds or even thousands of years worth of cultural precedent that established and then sanctioned certain grape varieties to be grown in specific places, many newer regions seek to identify their defining grape variety. The lessons of recent history make the power of such a strategy quite evident. Chile had its Carmenere. Argentina its Malbec. Marlborough its Sauvignon Blanc.

But the more successful a young region is in establishing a dominant and popular grape variety, the more it tends to plant of that variety, and the less interest (or economic value) there seems to be in trying other grape varieties. Despite clear logic that might suggest it ridiculous to have settled on the ideal grape variety for a given region or country in a mere 20, 30 or even 40 years, the economic pressure and self-reinforcing social dynamics of a rapidly evolving winegrowing community often result in something of a premature zealotry that restricts the kind of experimentation and variety that might benefit any wine region with less than 100 years under its belt.

Oregon's Willamette Valley represents a perfect case in point. Less than 60 years have elapsed since pioneer David Lett planted Pinot Noir and other cool climate grape varieties in the valley. Few wineries have seen even a single generational handover in that time period, and nearly 75% of the valley's vines have been planted in the last 25 years.

Of the more than 21,000 acres of vineyards in the Willamette Valley, nearly 93% has been planted to just three grapes: Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Chardonnay, with Pinot Noir accounting for a full 72% of the grape acreage.

This, my friends, is something of a minor crime. It's hard to say this, loving the region's Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays as much as I do, and readily acknowledging the extremely high quality of both that the region is clearly so well suited to producing.

But really. The Willamette Valley is just a baby. Sure, it makes amazing Pinot, but what else could it do if we just took the time to explore a little?

Thankfully, some people have been doing just that, and slowly but surely a few grapes are on their way to becoming the best kept secrets of the Willamette Valley.

I've written before about Oregon Riesling, which is beginning to get quite good, and has become the valley's 4th most planted grape variety (with a mere 513 acres under vine). But the notes from my recent tastings below focus primarily on Pinot Blanc and Gamay, both of which seem to have real promise, the latter already reaching some truly impressive heights of quality, as you'll see from my tasting notes below.

Interestingly, the valley's first winery, and the one responsible for introducing Pinot Noir to the region has also been one of the most adventurous in exploring other grape varieties. In addition to planting Pinot Noir in 1965, David Lett also planted Pinot Meunier and somewhat more remarkably, the first Pinot Gris to be established anywhere outside of Europe. In the 1980s, the winery also planted a small parcel of Gamay, but, unhappy with the particular clone they used and the resulting wines, the winery pulled them out. In 2012, Lett's son Jason planted the first vines of Trousseau in the Willamette Valley.

"Pinot Noir and Chardonnay have already established their reputation as wines of place," says Lett. "We have a harder case to prove with Gamay, Pinot Gris, or Trousseau - those wines have no equivalent to a Corton Charlemagne or a La Tâche, because even in their homes they have yet to be taken as seriously as they should. But I firmly believe that, if Oregon growers take these varieties seriously as we have Pinot noir and Chardonnay, we can be recognized as the world pinnacle for their expression."

In case the notes below don't fully express my enthusiasm, constrained as they are by their form, suffice it to say that there's all sorts of goodness to be had, and so much more potential suggested by these wines. The vintners of the Willamette Valley should continue to try out new grape varieties (Lugana, anyone? How about Chenin?) even as Pinot and Chardonnay ascend to new heights. It would be a shame to simply assume that these two were all that the gorgeous landscape was capable of perfecting.

Every young wine region needs more secret grapes.

2015 Domaine Trouvere "Indigine" Pinot Gris, Dundee Hills, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of apple and citrus zest. In the mouth, citrus and pear flavors have a mouthwatering, racy edge to them and a nice grapefruit pith backdrop. Produced from a mutation the winery found in its Pinot Gris grapes and subsequently propagated on its own. 13.4% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $28. click to buy.

2015 Yamhill Valley Vineyards Pinot Blanc, McMinnville, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Palest gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon and lime pith with a hint of white flowers. In the mouth, a light spritz on the palate carries along flavors of apples and pears and a light citrus zest. Excellent acidity. 13.3% alcohol. Score: around 8.5 . Cost: $22. click to buy.

2016 Lange Estate Winery "Reserve" Pinot Gris, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Pale gold in color, this wine smells of pears and white flowers. In the mouth, pears, pear skin, and white flower notes have a wonderful zingy brightness thanks to excellent acidity. Notes of citrus linger in the finish. Barrel fermented in neutral French oak. 13.4% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $19. click to buy.

2016 Winter's Hill "Reserve" Pinot Blanc, Dundee Hills, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Palest gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon zest, struck match, and vanilla. In the mouth, flavors of vanilla and lemon and unripe apples have a The Secret Grapes of the Willamette Valleyzippy mouthwatering aspect thanks to excellent acidity. There's a touch of wood here, but it is restrained. 13.7% alcohol. 149 cases produced. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $29. click to buy.

2016 The Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Blanc, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of apple and pear and a touch of white flowers. In the mouth, juicy flavors of apple, unripe pear and a hint of sarsaparilla make for a complex and delicious mouthful. Excellent acidity is welded to wet chalkboard minerality that lingers for a long while in the finish. 13% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $24. click to buy.

2017 Brooks Vineyards Pinot Blanc, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Palest gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon pith and white flowers. In the mouth, gorgeously mineral flavors of lemon pith, grapefruit pith and a touch of white flowers are backed by wet chalkboard notes and a chalky texture that lingers through a long finish. Zippy, with fantastic acidity. 12.5% alcohol. 850 cases produced. Score: around 9. Cost: $18. click to buy.

2016 Chehalem "Stoller Vineyards" Pinot Blanc, Dundee Hills, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Palest gold in the glass, this wine smells of wet chalkboard and citrus pith and a touch of honey. In the mouth, gorgeous and bright flavors of apple, lemon zest, and a touch of vanilla have a wonderful zip to them thanks to excellent acidity. Lemony flavors linger for a long time in the finish. 13.2% alcohol. 295 cases produced. Score: around 9. Cost: $25. click to buy.

2016 Torii Mor Pinot Blanc, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Palest greenish gold in color, this wine smells of apples and lime zest. In the mouth, extremely racy lime and grapefruit flavors mix with a touch of green apple for a deliciously zippy experience with bass notes of wet chalkboard. 13.3% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $20. click to buy.

2015 Left Coast Cellars "Left Bank" Pinot Blanc, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Palest blonde in color, this wine smells of citrus pith and Asian pears. In the mouth, flavors of pastry cream and apples and lemon pith have a silky texture with acidity that sneaks up on you instead of hitting you over the head. Very pretty lemon and apple notes with a backdrop of wet pavement. Fermented and aged on the lees in stainless steel. 13.5% alcohol. 450 cases produced. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $16. click to buy.

2015 Anne Amie Vineyards "Twelve Oaks Estate" Gamay Noir, Chehalem Mountains, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of forest floor, mushrooms and black raspberries. In the mouth, mulberry and raspberry flavors have a wonderful earthy undertone even as excellent acidity keeps the fruit bright and fresh. There's a touch of tannin, powdery and subtle that lingers through the finish with notes of cedar. Aged for 10 months in French oak, of which about 58% were new and one year old barrels. 13.6% alcohol. 240 cases produced. Score: around 9. Cost: $21. click to buy.

2015 Brick House "Due East" Gamay Noir, Ribbon Ridge, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Light garnet in color, this wine smells of crushed herbs, roses and exotic wood oils. In the mouth, fantastically bright flavors of bitter orange, raspberry, mulberry and dried flowers are swirling and technicolor in their shifting, shimmering melange, nudged at times by tannins flexing their muscles at the edge of the mouth. Phenomenal fresh herbs and floral notes linger in the finish with a citrus kick. This wine, frankly, blew my mind. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $??

2017 Patton Valley Vineyard "PTG" Red Blend, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Pale ruby in color, easily passing for a rosé, this wine smells of freshly plucked strawberries and raspberries. In the mouth, fantastic acidity zings while a faint petillance prickles the front of the tongue, and silky textured flavors of strawberry and raspberry course across the palate. Unusual and quite tasty, begging to be served ice cold on a hot summer's day. A 100% whole cluster fermented field blend of 50% Gamay Noir, 44% Pinot Noir, 5% Chardonnay, and 1% Pinot Gris. Aged for 3 months in neutral oak. 12.7% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $25. click to buy.

2016 Brick House Gamay Noir, Ribbon Ridge, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Light to medium garnet in color, this wine has a slightly shy nose of sour cherry and mulberry aromas. In the mouth, juicy sour cherry and raspberry flavors zip across the palate thanks to fantastic acidity. Faint dried herbal notes linger in the background, as do faint, powdery tannins. A citrus note lingers in the finish with a touch of earth. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $30 click to buy.

2016 Omero Cellars "Parental Advisory Explicit Content - Minimus" Red Blend, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of cherry and plum and a touch of sweaty saddle. In the mouth, lightly tacky tannins grip the tongue and the edges of the mouth as flavors of sour cherry, cedar and mulberries linger through a moderate finish. Excellent acidity and a nice underlying wet pavement minerality. An odd, but distinctive, blend of 40% Cabernet Franc, 40% Mondeuse and 20% Gamay Noir. 12.7% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $??

2015 Chehalem "Ridgecrest Vineyards" Gamay Noir, Ribbon Ridge, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of mulberries, cherries, and a hint of cedar. In the mouth, gorgeously bright mulberry, blueberry and black raspberry flavors have a fantastic zing to them thanks to excellent acidity. A hint of cedar lingers with dried herbs and bright fruit in the finish. Positively gulpable. Aged in neutral oak. 14.1% alcohol. 195 cases made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $23. click to buy.

2016 Omero Cellars Gamay Noir, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of stewed cherries and wet felt. In the mouth, bright boysenberry and mulberry flavors are held in a taut, muscular fist of tannins. Excellent acidity keeps the fruit fresh and bright, with just the tiniest hint of funk adding some complexity. 13% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $25. click to buy.

2016 The Eyrie Vineyards Trousseau, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of struck match, sour cherries, and raspberries. In the mouth, beautifully aromatic flavors of strawberry and raspberry are nestled in a fleecy blanket of tannins and crackling wet pavement minerality. Very young, this wine needs some air at the start, but then opens up into an expressive earthy berry mix that is surprisingly broad shouldered. This wine comes from the first planting of Trousseau in Oregon, in 2012. 11.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $32. click to buy.


Let me pause here a moment before offering two final tasting notes that I would like to use to underscore my point. The wines above are all current releases, and represent relatively new work by Willamette Vintners. But the two wines that follow show that early explorations had already proven fruitful. These two library examples from The Eyrie Vineyards demonstrate with little doubt that there is more to the Willamette Valley than Pinot Noir, even as much as they do the depth of David Lett's skill and vision.


1988 Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Gris, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Medium yellow gold in the glass, this wine smells of beeswax, bee pollen, and yellow flowers. In the mouth brilliant mineral, bee pollen, wet stones, and savory dried honey and chamomile flavors linger for a long time in the finish. Alsace eat your heart out. This wine is incredible. Supple, gorgeous, and deeply resonant. Alcohol unknown. Score: between 9 and 9.5.

1985 Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Meunier, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Pale brick red in the glass, this wine smells of brown sugar, red apple skin, and cedar mulling spices. In the mouth, cloves, cinnamon, red apple skin, dried orange peel and mixed potpourri flavors have a nice tangy and spicy sourness to them along with a juiciness from still vibrant acidity. Nice longish finish. Alcohol unknown. Score: around 9.



The Rockstar Vintage: Tasting 2016 Cabernet at Premiere Napa Valley

Some people run a marathon once each year. That's not my speed. Instead, I knuckle down and taste 200 Cabernets for breakfast on one particular Saturday morning.

Each year, the Napa Valley Vintners Association pulls out all the stops to host its annual fundraising event known as Premiere Napa Valley. Not to be confused with its star-studded charity auction in the spring (known as Auction Napa Valley), Premiere Napa Valley is a more focused event. It is a barrel tasting and auction, in which the wines on offer are all unique creations made specifically and only for this event, offering purchasers the opportunity to own an incredibly rare wine that often represents the very pinnacle of the winemaker's efforts in that vintage. All the invited bidders are ostensibly in the wine trade (retailers, distributors, etc.), while other attendees include the media and winery staff. The proceeds from the auction of more than 200 unique lots of wine go to help fund the Vintners Association itself.

The auction action at Premiere always serves as something of a barometer for California wine, measuring both the strength of the Napa brand in the marketplace, as well as the interest in the upper echelon of fine California wine (many auction lots sell for well over $2000 per bottle).

This afternoon, the Vintners raised more than $4.1 million dollars at the auction, which was a hair less than the $4.2 million earned last year, a bit less than the $5 million raised in 2015, and $6 million earned in 2014 and 2015. I continue to be surprised at the downward trajectory of earnings at this event. If I were a betting man, given the strength of the economy, and the quality of this vintage, I would have expected this year's take to be an uptick again. I'm somewhat stumped as to the reason for the continued decline in revenues. It does seem to me that there are fewer of the real superstar wineries (extremely allocated, hard to get labels like Scarecrow, Futo, Dalla Valle, etc.) consistently offering auction lots, and these are the ones that push bids into the six figure range. While the Alpha Omega, Rombauer and Vine Hill Ranch lots hit $75,000 apiece (VHR was just 5 cases, making for a bottle price of $1250) and Staglin clocked in at $65k, only Silver Oak's lot made it to six figures at $110k, and most of the other bids fell below $50k. I haven't done the analysis, but it may also be that wineries are offering smaller lots, which are in turn resulting in smaller bids.

In any case, the economics of this event interest me much less than the wines on offer. Each of the auction lots at Premiere usually represents something approximating the best possible wine that a given winery can make in the vintage. Consequently, the wines offer a unique window into the pinnacle of quality for that particular vintage. Every year, I attend Premiere with the goal of tasting as many of these wines as I can, in an effort to get a bead on the vintage as a whole in Napa.

The Rockstar Vintage: Tasting 2016 Cabernet at Premiere Napa Valley

In the case of today's event, the vintage under review was the 2016 vintage, which as vintages go, was about as close to perfect as you get. Especially after a (finally) wet winter that, if it didn't end it completely, certainly provided much needed relief to the multi-year drought in California. The most remarkable thing about the 2016 growing season was perhaps the fact that it was unmarked by any extreme weather events. The spring was relatively normal, the summer mild, and things heated up a little towards the end of the summer leading to a steady harvest into October, and plenty of warning for the first rainfall of the season, letting almost everyone get harvest in without a hitch.

The resulting wines are really very, very good. I'd describe them as generous, but beautifully balanced. Acidity was excellent (though one never knows how much of that is nature contributed versus winemaker contributed in general) and tannins are mostly supple, fine grained, and well proportioned. Those who chose to harvest on the earlier side got mouthwatering cherry fruit flavors, and those who waited for more maturity got powerful black cherry and cassis qualities.

Not since the 2013 vintage have I been so excited about the quality of these wines, and, truth be told, I believe 2016 will exceed 2013 in quality if only because it seems almost impossible not to have made excellent wine in 2016. I think it was a very forgiving vintage, allowing those with less skill to make good wines, and those with true talent to make exceptional wines.

The Rockstar Vintage: Tasting 2016 Cabernet at Premiere Napa Valley

There were many standouts among the wines today, many from unsurprising sources, as well as a few from producers I'm not used to seeing at the top of my lists. Continuum, Corison, Ovid, and Staglin are often among my favorites. Inglenook offered a really gorgeous, racy wine this year, as did O'Shaughnessy, whose red blend of Malbec, St. Macaire, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and other "lesser" Bordeaux varieties was as delicious as it was interesting. Not surprisingly, Schramsberg's late disgorged sparkling wine showed exceptionally well and made for a delicious palate cleanser amongst the big reds.

As perhaps a more quantitative evaluation of the vintage, it's worth noting that this year, compared to my notes for the last 10 years of attending this event, contains the single largest number of wines scored at or above 9 on my scale. Let me be blunt: 2016 is a rockstar vintage for Napa. Mark my words.

I continue to watch the evolution of oak usage in these wines with both amusement and fascination. This year's sampling yielded an interesting inversion of sorts. A number of producers known for their judicious or even rare use of new oak told me specifically that the wine they had produced for this event used more new oak than normal, and deliberately so in the hopes of being more attractive to buyers. On the other hand, I continue to be appreciative of what seems to be a general and gradual moderation in the use of newer oak by many producers, at least for these particular auction wines (no assumptions should be made that this approach will carry over into these producers' mainstream releases). I continue to be impressed that number of producers are deliberately selecting used or neutral barrels for these wines, which result in wonderfully fresh and pure expressions of fruit that I find much superior to their oak inflected (or overwhelmed) counterparts.

Here are my scores for everything I tasted. The notes in italics after each wine are my brief thoughts made on the spot while tasting. I managed to get through most of, but not all, the 219 wines on offer. Note that anyone interested in getting ahold of the wines below can discover their availability through Premiere Napa Wines, a web site designed to connect successful bidders with consumers who may want to purchase the wines.

The mainstream releases of the 2016 vintages from these wineries (i.e. the ones that will cost you much less than $800 per bottle) will likely be mostly in the autumn of 2018 or in the months following the spring of 2019.


WINES WITH A SCORE BETWEEN 9.5 AND 10
2016 Continuum Estate Red Wine, Napa Valley. A stunner of a wine. Seamless and polished.
2016 Corison Winery "Premiere Reserve" Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena. Lithe, gorgeous
2016 Inglenook "Cask Block" Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford. Stony, gorgeous, lean and mouthwatering.
2016 Ovid Napa Valley "MMXVI" Red Wine, Napa Valley. Gorgeous, supple, fantastic fruit with almost no trace of oak influence.
2016 Staglin Family Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. Phenomenally juicy, silky, delicious.
2016 O'Shaughnessy Estate Winery "Best of the Bordeaux Blenders" Red Wine, Howell Mountain. Lovely, expressive, wonderful acids, and a refreshingly unique blend of "lesser" grapes.

WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 9.5
2016 Arietta "First Franc" Cabernet Franc, Napa Valley. Juicy, bright, herbal.
2016 Arrow & Branch "Beckstoffer Dr. Crane Vineyard" Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena. Wonderful earthiness matched with ripe fruit
2016 Cliff Lede Vineyards "Diamond Fire" Cabernet Sauvignon, Stags Leap District. Rich, powerful.
2016 Davies Vineyards "McEachran/Aguirre" Cabernet Sauvignon, Diamond Mountain District. Juicy fruit, bright
2016 Davis Estates "The Final Phase" Red Wine, Napa Valley. Bright, delicious.
2016 Dyer Vineyard, Meteor Vineyard "The Wolf Origin" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. Very pretty, lush, but with an acidic edge that is very nice.
2016 Flora Springs Winery & Vineyards "Tres Appellations" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. Rich, ripe fruit, juicy, with some restraint.
2016 Galerie Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. Really pretty, great acidity and balance.
2015 Heritance Vintners "Beckstoffer Georges III" Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford. Juicy, delicious, with just the right amount of herbal leanness.
2016 Hourglass "Eye of The Beholder" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. Bright, juicy, cherry cola
2016 Matthiasson "Dead Fred Vineyard" Cabernet Sauvignon, Coombsville. Dunno who Fred was, but he's got some kick. Great acidity and restraint.
2015 Notre Vin "In Memoriam" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. Gorgeous, sour cherry, mouthwatering.
1997 Schramsberg Vineyards "Schramsberg Reserve Late Disgorged" Sparkling Wine, Napa Valley. Always fantastic. Yeasty, salty, brioche yumminess.
2016 Stony Hill Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain District. Juicy, mouthwatering, ripe for this producer.
2016 The Debate Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. Juicy, with great balance. Rich, but not over the top.
2016 Turnbull Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville. Bright, juicy, lovely.
2016 Viader Vineyards & Winery "Homenaje" Red Wine, Napa Valley. Very pretty blueish and red fruits. The Malbec shows in this wine.
2016 Volker Eisele Family Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Chiles Valley District. Gorgeous, supple, cherry cola.

WINES WITH A SCORE BETWEEN 9 AND 9.5
2016 Accendo Cellars "Mountain & Bench" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley.
2016 Alpha Omega "Dr. To Kalon" Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville. Rich, ripe, but not over the top.
2016 Antica Napa Valley - Antinori Family Wine Estate "C.S. & F. Ltd" Cabernet Sauvignon, Atlas Peak. Young. Needs time, but nice balance.
2016 Beaulieu Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford.
2016 Beringer Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. Bright, juicy, delicious.
2016 Blackbird Vineyards "Premiere Napa Valley Cuvee" Cabernet Franc, Napa Valley. Muscular tannins.
2016 Clos Pegase "Les Minéraux" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley.
2016 Coho "SoNa" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. Pretty, with nice acidity.
2016 Dakota Shy "Next Chapter" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley.
2016 Darioush Red Wine, Napa Valley. Rich and ripe but with great acidity.
2008 Domaine Chandon Brut Sparkling Wine, Yountville. Deliciously saline and bright.
2016 Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot, Napa Valley. Plummy and bright but a lot of oak showing.
2016 Ehlers Estate "Block 4" Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena.
2016 Far Niente Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville.
2016 Farella Vineyard "Terrace Reserve" Cabernet Sauvignon, Coombsville. Bright, with more oak than normal, but not overdone. Still, would have preferred less wood.
2016 Favia "The Summit" Cabernet Franc, Napa Valley. Oak signature but lovely
2016 Freedom Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. Quite pretty.
2016 Gemstone Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Yountville. Mocha surprise.
2016 HALL "Sacrashe" Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford. Velvety.
2016 Hewitt Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford.
2016 Jamieson Ranch Vineyards "Redemption" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. Quite nice.
2016 JCB by Jean-Charles Boisset "Decadence" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. Rich.
2016 Joseph Phelps Vineyards "Backus Vineyard" Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville. Rich and ripe.
2017 Kale Wines "Heritage McGah Vineyard" Red Wine, Rutherford. A really nice blend of 85% Grenache and 15% Mourvedre.
2016 Keenan Winery "Tribute ll" Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain District. Bright and juicy.
2016 Kuleto Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley.
2016 Lail Vineyards "Henry VIII" Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley. Juicy, bright, intense, floral
2016 Lang & Reed Wine Company "XX" Cabernet Franc, Napa Valley. Gorgeous.
2016 Larkmead Vineyards "The Lark Ascending" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. Great acidity, very pretty fruit.
2015 LATERAL Cabernet Franc, Napa Valley. Juicy.
2016 Lewis Cellars "Premiere" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. Juicy.
2016 Luna Vineyards "Riserva" Sangiovese, Napa Valley.
2016 Merus Cabernet Sauvignon, Coombsville. Pretty.
2016 Mi Sueño Winery "Herrera Selección" Cabernet Sauvignon, Coombsville. Pretty.
2016 Mt. Brave Red Wine, Mount Veeder. Silky, lovely.
2016 Nickel & Nickel Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville. Fruity, muscular tannins. Lots of wood.
2016 NINE SUNS Grenache, Napa Valley. Juicy, lovely
2016 PlumpJack Winery "East Meets West" Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville. Pretty.
2016 Pott Wine "Being and Time" Red Wine, Mount Veeder. Heidegger would be proud, but that's just an interpretation.
2016 Pride Mountain Vineyards "Summit Select" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley.
2016 Raymond Vineyards "Masquerade" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley.
2017 Saintsbury Pinot Noir, Los Carneros. Quite pretty.
2016 Seavey Vineyard "Franco-Swiss Terrace Reserve" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. Fantastic; fine, grained tannins.
2016 Shafer Vineyards "Sunspot Vineyard" Cabernet Sauvignon, Stags Leap District. Very rich.
2016 SODHANI Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena.
2016 Spottswoode Estate Vineyard & Winery "Spring Creek Vineyard" Petite Sirah, St. Helena. Restrained and deep, with well managed tannins.
2016 Spring Mountain Vineyard "Fog Line" Red Wine, Spring Mountain District. Really nice acidity and cool fruits.
2016 Stone The Crows Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. Rich and ripe, but delicious.
2016 Switchback Ridge "Anniversary Blend" Red Wine, Calistoga. Juicy, delicious.
2016 Terra Valentine "Earth, Sea and Sky" Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain District. Tasty.
2016 TEXTBOOK "Paris Accord Fake Wine" Red Wine, Oakville. Lovely restrained, juicy
2016 The Hess Collection Winery "Ridge 4" Cabernet Sauvignon, Mount Veeder. Juicy with lots of blue fruits.
2016 Tierra Roja Vineyards "Ames Straight" Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville. Perfumed.
2016 Trefethen Family Vineyards "Celebrating 50 Years" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. Balanced bright
2016 Vine Cliff Winery "Memories" Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville. Very pretty.
2016 Vineyard 29 "The St. Helena Special" Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena.
2016 William Hill Estate Winery "The Notch" Red Wine, Napa Valley.

WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 9
2016 Anderson's Conn Valley Vineyards "JYGNTOR" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley.
2016 Artesa Vineyards & Winery Red Wine, Napa Valley.
2016 AXR Winery "Sleeping Pritchard" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley.
2016 Barlow Vineyards "Vineyard 4415" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley.
2016 Boeschen Vineyards "Gullwing Amalgam" Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena.
2016 Boich Family Cellar "Proprietor's Barrel" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley.
2016 Bougetz Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain District.
2016 Buehler Vineyards "Kindly Well" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley.
2016 Buena Vista Winery "The First" Cabernet Sauvignon, Diamond Mountain District.
2016 Cakebread Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley.
2016 CAMi Vineyards "THS" Red Wine, Calistoga.
2016 Chappellet Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley.
2016 Chimney Rock Winery "North to South" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley.
2016 Clos Du Val "Full Circle" Cabernet Sauvignon, Stags Leap District. Fairly ripe and missing the leanness we're used to from Clos du Val.
2016 Correlation Wine Company Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. Rich
NV Courtesan "Veronica" Red Wine, Napa Valley.
2016 Emerson Brown Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville.
2016 Etude Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley.
2016 Foley Johnson Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford.
2016 Freemark Abbey "VanZ Vineyard" Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena.
2016 Ghost Block & Markham Vineyards Red Wine, Napa Valley.
2016 Girard Winery Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. Oaky
2016 Groth Vineyards & Winery "Sweet Spot" Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville.
2016 Hertelendy Vineyards "L'Éternité" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley.
2016 Ideology Cellars "Cento" Cabernet Sauvignon, Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley.
2016 Jean Edwards Cellars "Trois II" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley.
2016 Kelly Fleming Wines Cabernet Sauvignon, Calistoga.
2016 Kenefick Ranch Winery Cabernet Sauvignon, Calistoga.
2016 La Jota Vineyard Co. Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain. Heavily oaked, but great fruit.
2017 Leaf And Vine "Unicorn Tears" Chardonnay, Oakville.
2016 Long Meadow Ranch Winery "Bear Canyon Vineyard" Cabernet Franc, Napa Valley.
2016 Louis M. Martini Winery "254 Blend" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley.
2016 Materra, Cunat Family Vineyards Merlot, Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley.
2016 Miner Family Winery "Three's Company" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley.
2016 Nemerever Vineyards "Hillside" Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville.
2016 Newton Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley.
2016 Oakville East Exposure "Harter Hill" Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville.
2016 Paradigm Winery Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville.
2016 Paraduxx Red Wine, Napa Valley.
2016 PEJU "60/40 Heart & Soul" Red Wine, Napa Valley.
2016 Pine Ridge Vineyards "5x5" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley.
2016 Progeny Winery Cabernet Sauvignon, Mount Veeder.
2016 Provenance Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford.
2016 Round Pond Estate "SVS Gravel Series" Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford.
2015 Schweiger Vineyards "Mr. Hyde's Blend" Red Wine, Spring Mountain District.
2016 Sciandri Family Vineyards "I Am Delicious" Cabernet Sauvignon, Coombsville.
2016 Silverado Vineyards "Limited" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley.
2016 St. Supéry Estate Vineyards & Winery "Louis XIV" Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford.
2016 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars "S.L.V. First Growth Cabernet Franc" Cabernet Franc, Stags Leap District.
2016 Stags' Leap Winery Cabernet Sauvignon, Stags Leap District.
2016 Sterling Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley.
2016 Stewart Cellars "NOMAD Heritage Blend" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley.
2016 Titus Vineyards "Ehlers Lane Hillside Block" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley.
2016 Truchard Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Los Carneros. Earthy and restrained.
2016 Twomey Cellars Red Wine, Napa Valley. Oaky.
2016 VHR, Vine Hill Ranch "Assessment" Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville.
2016 Vineyard 7&8 "Homestead" Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain District. Super rich
2016 von Strasser & Lava Vine Winery "So Sori" Cabernet Sauvignon, Diamond Mountain District.
2016 Whitehall Lane Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley.
2016 Y. Rousseau Wines "Les Deux Montagnes" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley.
2015 Yao Family Wines Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford.

WINES WITH A SCORE BETWEEN 8.5 AND 9
2016 Amici Cellars "Missouri Hopper" Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville. Very ripe
2016 Axios Napa Valley "Tridelphia" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley.
2016 Barnett Vineyards "Mountain Meets Valley" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. Ripe.
2016 Bell Wine Cellars, Hoopes Vineyard, Mira Winery Cabernet Sauvignon, Yountville.
2016 Bella Union Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley.
2016 Buoncristiani Family Winery "A Tale of Two Mountains" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley.
2016 Burgess Cellars "Brush Breaker" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. Heavily oaked.
2016 Ca' Momi Pinot Noir, Los Carneros.
2016 Cain Vineyard & Winery "François' Pick" Petit Verdot, Spring Mountain District.
2016 Calla Lily Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley.
2016 Faust "The Pact Barrel Selection" Cabernet Sauvignon, Coombsville.
2016 Frank Family Vineyards "Winston Hill" Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford.
2016 Grgich Hills Estate "Paradise Block Old Vine Cabernet" Cabernet Sauvignon, Yountville. Struck match smokiness with a bit of funk.
2017 Hestan Vineyards "Estate" Grenache, Napa Valley.
2016 Honig Vineyard & Winery "Campbell Hillside Cabernet" Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford.
2016 Jarvis "Frankly Franc" Cabernet Franc, Napa Valley.
2016 Krupp Brothers "The Brothers' Choice" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley.
2016 Mario Bazán Cellars "Mario Bazán Premiere Reserve" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley.
2016 Monticello Vineyards "Block 2" Cabernet Sauvignon, Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley. Ripe
2016 Mount Veeder Winery Red Wine, Mount Veeder. Tannic.
2016 Nellcôte "Tumbling Dice" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley.
2016 Palazzo Wine "Midnight Angel" Cabernet Franc, Los Carneros.
2016 Paul Hobbs Winery "Nathan Coombs Estate" Cabernet Sauvignon, Coombsville.
2017 Pellet Estate "The 'A.K.'" Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena.
2016 Porter Family Vineyards "Lion's Lair" Cabernet Sauvignon, Coombsville.
2016 Quixote Winery Petite Sirah, Stags Leap District.
2016 Reynolds Family Winery "CFMR16" Red Wine, Napa Valley.
2016 Robert Craig Winery Red Wine, Howell Mountain.
2016 Rutherford Hill Winery "Rutherford Dust" Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford.
2016 S. R. Tonella Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford.
2016 Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley.
2016 Swanson Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley.
2016 Tamber Bey Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville.
2016 Terlato Vineyards "EPISODE" Red Wine, Napa Valley.
NV ZD Wines "Petit Abacus" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley.

WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 8.5
2016 Anthem Winery And Vineyards, Llc Cabernet Sauvignon, Mount Veeder. Too ripe
2017 Bouchaine Vineyards "Best Barrel" Pinot Noir, Los Carneros.
2016 Hesperian Wines Cabernet Sauvignon, Atlas Peak.
2016 J. Moss Winery Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley.
2016 Quilt Wines Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. Ripe. Too much so.
2016 Red Mare Wines Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley.
2016 Rocca Family Vineyards "Grigsby Vineyard Old Vines Winemaker's Barrel" Cabernet Sauvignon, Yountville. Too ripe for me.
2016 Rubissow "Hawkwind" Cabernet Sauvignon, Mount Veeder.
2017 Schermeister Cellars "Oak Before Smoke" Chardonnay, Atlas Peak.
2016 Starmont Winery & Vineyards "Stanly Ranch Estate" Pinot Noir, Los Carneros.
2016 Taplin Cellars "Ethel Lewelling Taplin" Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena.
2016 Tate Wines Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley.

WINES WITH A SCORE BETWEEN 8 AND 8.5
2015 Casa Nuestra Cabernet Franc, Napa Valley. Too grapey.
2016 JAX Vineyards "Block 3" Cabernet Sauvignon, Calistoga. Too ripe.
2016 Metaphora Wines Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. Raisined
2016 Palmaz Vineyards "T-Block" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. Too raisined for my tastes.
2016 Rombauer Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Atlas Peak. Too ripe, too sweet




New Zealand’s Heart of Limestone: The Wines of Bell Hill

While I have found a great deal of truth in the saying that "wine only grows in beautiful places" not every bit of wine country is created equal. If you're lucky enough to spend some of your time traveling through the world's wine regions, some places seem to almost vibrate with their potential to produce phenomenal wine. This can be true on the grand scale, as those lucky enough to have their breath taken away by the Douro River valley in Portugal or the Franschhoek Valley in South Africa might easily attest. But this feeling manifests most profoundly for me at the level of the individual site, and most often when standing in a vineyard established by vision and determination in the most unlikely of places.

"We signed for this property on February 14th, 1997, and then got married the day after," says Sherwyn Veldhuizen. "That amounted to two life sentences in 24 hours. We're not sure how to get off this ride," she continues, with a laugh that makes it clear she would rather be doing nothing else.

New Zealand's Heart of Limestone: The Wines of Bell Hill

Veldhuizen and her husband Marcel Giesen met in the early 90s while she was a harvest intern at his family's eponymous winery near Christchurch, New Zealand. Though she had gone to school initially for Business Management, Veldhuizen discovered wine early in her university days, and decided to angle for a career in the wine business, which meant attending New Zealand's Lincoln University for a postgrad degree in viticulture and winemaking, and the heading off to work harvest at various wineries around the world. She and Giesen conspired to work a harvest together in Burgundy, and says they came away from the experience permanently convinced of their mutual desire to work with Pinot Noir planted on limestone.

While no definitive scientific studies exist proving that Pinot Noir and Chardonnay require limestone soils to reach their utmost potential, the anecdotal evidence has been piling up for centuries that these grapes can make incredibly special wines when planted on limestone. The histories of Burgundy and Champagne offer unassailable case studies on the epitome of both Pinot and Chardonnay.

New Zealand's Heart of Limestone: The Wines of Bell Hill

The purchase of a small Burgundian domaine wasn't an option for the new couple, so they returned to their home country and began the search for a bit of limestone that they might call their own. The search took less time than they might have imagined, thanks in part to the coincidence of where Giesen's family business was located at the time -- a wine region known as North Canterbury -- the most limestone influenced terroir in New Zealand.

A set of small hills crown the northern part of the Waipara Valley, bisected by State Highway 7, which follows the winding path of the Waipara River through the gorge it cut through some of the southern hemisphere's purest limestone. Known as the Weka Pass, this seam of ancient marine sediments was thrust up from the valley floor by the system of faults that make this region so earthquake prone - much to the recent regret of local residents. If North Canterbury represents New Zealand's body of limestone terroir, then the Weka Pass is its beating heart.

New Zealand's Heart of Limestone: The Wines of Bell Hill

As Veldhuizen and Giesen explored the area, they came across a farm with the remains of an old quarry on the property, marked on old maps as Bell Hill, so named thanks to its gently curving shape. Pay a visit to Bell Hill and it's not hard to imagine the couple's reaction at finding the site, which mirrored the astonishment of most visitors who round the edge of the hill and see a scant six inches of topsoil laid upon a thick base of pure limestone so white, it becomes blinding in the right light conditions.

New Zealand's Heart of Limestone: The Wines of Bell Hill

If you're looking for limestone, Bell Hill can't be described as anything other than a jackpot. And if you're attuned to the kinds of places that wine loves to grow, this land all but screams greatness.

"Everything is pure lime," says Veldhuizen. "This is the one region in the area where the soils have no windblown loess in them. Instead, all the soil, all the clays at the bottom of the hills -- everything -- is eroded lime."

The couple convinced the farmer who owned the place to part with it, and after only a brief detour to say their vows, they got to work creating their vision for a small estate in the model of a tiny Burgundian domaine.

New Zealand's Heart of Limestone: The Wines of Bell Hill

The estate's roughly 5 acres of vineyard are planted at a density rarely seen outside of Burgundy, with an average of 4600 vines per acre, made up of the most diverse set of clones available at the time. The estate has been farmed organically since 2005, and using many biodynamic principles and preparations since 2008, due in large part to the influence of their friends and neighbors at Pyramid Valley Vineyard.

"We always knew we wanted to be organic," explains Veldhuizen, "but when we first started here in 1997 it was high risk. We didn't know if it would work, and we definitely couldn't afford to buy the specialized machinery required."

New Zealand's Heart of Limestone: The Wines of Bell Hill

Grapes are hand harvested in stages, block-by-block as the different areas of the hill ripen at different speeds. The Chardonnay pressed (sometimes as whole cluster) to old oak barrels to ferment spontaneously, while the Pinot Noir (with usually some percentage of whole cluster) is given a cold maceration for a week before starting the fermentation using a technique known as a pied de cuve. This involves letting a small portion (often just a bucketful) of grapes ferment spontaneously and then once the yeast has become prolific, dumping this into the main fermenter. This has the effect of more easily jump-starting the fermentation in the larger vessel, while ensuring that the fermentation is based primarily on the yeasts that came into the winery on the skins of the grapes.

With the exception of some sulfur and occasionally a little tartaric acid for pH stabilization during fermentation, nothing else is added to the meager 1000 cases of wine the estate produces each year. This production is spread across their Bell Hill Pinot Noir, a not-quite-second-label-but-definitely-less-expensive bottling they call the Old Weka Pass Pinot Noir, and their Chardonnay.

New Zealand's Heart of Limestone: The Wines of Bell Hill

At the moment, the couple is focused on getting some of their newest plantings ready to bear fruit in the hopes of increasing their volume of grapes.

"In 2015 we had hailstorm in November, which was devastating," says Veldhuizen. "We lost 60% or more of our crop. In this little corner of the world we generally have cold temperatures during springtime, even outside of frost, which we protect for. It can be bitterly cold during flowering."

She ticks years off on her fingers. "2005, 2007, 2010, 2012 -- were all low yielding years. Not quite one out of two with very poor fruit sets. One out of three seems to be the norm. We're hoping that in two years the additional plantings will take us out of our low volume years where we're weather affected."

New Zealand's Heart of Limestone: The Wines of Bell Hill

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Veldhuizen and Giesen pursue a lean, tension-filled style of wine reminiscent of their favorite Burgundies. While in the earliest years they were content to let the grapes ripen significantly (mostly to see if they actually could), once satisfied that sugar levels were not going to be a barrier, they settled down to pick early, preserving freshness and a transparency to the wonderfully stony character of their site.

"Our ideal of the wine that we thought should come from here, when we started, we wanted to see minerality and acid backbone," says Veldhuizen. "That's what we were looking for. We didn't want plump fruity Pinots. It's a part of you, what you're looking for in a wine. In some ways you're looking for yourself in a wine. I want these wines to age, and to have the structure to allow them to do that. Above all, we're looking for balance."

New Zealand's Heart of Limestone: The Wines of Bell Hill

And how do they do that?

"We always think about our winemaking and wine growing," says Veldhuizen. "It's important to retain humility and always be questioning how you're doing and why you're doing things. We're aware of that at the moment. We're certainly very aware of the work, the amount work we have to do and how we can get into processing mode rather than thinking about what we're doing or wanting to experiment more. We're conscious of that at the moment. We want to make the time to plan for experimentation. We know what works but we want to push the boundaries a bit, refine things."

I can remember my first taste of the Bell Hill wines a little more than four years ago. I was spending time in the North Canterbury area of the Wellington Pinot Noir conference, moving from table to table as I explored a region of the country I knew very little about. My first taste of a Bell Hill wine brought me up short, even before I put it in my mouth. Pale colored and silky in the glass, these wines looked different from everything else I had tasted in New Zealand. And then when I put them in my mouth, I found myself enthralled by the crystalline, floral intensity of the wines.

New Zealand's Heart of Limestone: The Wines of Bell Hill

Simply put, their Pinot Noir is among the very best made in New Zealand, and, dare I say it, the entirety of the Southern Hemisphere. The wines are hard to come by, owing to their small production levels, and correspondingly high prices (especially when the costs of transport are taken into account). But if you're willing to accept the consequences of supply and demand in pursuit of great terroir expression, you simply cannot pass up these wines. As an expression of the place they come from, they are delightful. As an indication of the potential for New Zealand Pinot Noir as a genre, they are revelatory.

New Zealand's Heart of Limestone: The Wines of Bell Hill

TASTING NOTES:

2013 Bell Hill Chardonnay, Weka Pass, North Canterbury, New Zealand
Light greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon curd with a hint of pineapple on top. In the mouth, lovely lemon curd and lemon juice flavors mix with citrus pith and wet stones and a hint of yellow herbs. Fantastic acidity and precision. Closed with screwcap. 13% alcohol. 1429 bottles produced. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $100. click to buy.


2010 Bell Hill Chardonnay, Weka Pass, North Canterbury, New Zealand
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon curd, a hint of melted butter and, a touch of tropical fruits. In the mouth, notes of lemon, pineapple, a hint of dried mango, and deep pink grapefruit juice are zippy with acidity. Gorgeous silky texture and length. Lovely minerality underneath it all, prickling the front of the tongue with acidity. Closed with screwcap. 13% alcohol. 457 bottles produced. Score: around 9. Cost: $100. click to buy.

2013 Bell Hill Pinot Noir, Weka Pass, North Canterbury, New Zealand
Light to medium garnet in color, this wine smells of lavender, wet earth, and redcurrant. In the mouth, beautifully dynamic flavors of redcurrant, fresh herbs and a touch of wet earth mix in a vibrant dazzle of acidity. Gorgeously savory, with the fruit welded to this herbal earthy core of the wine, with high notes of sourish redcurrant lingering in the finish. The tannins are quite fine and stony in quality, lingering along with the wet chalkboard, slightly saline quality in the finish. Closed with screwcap. 13% alcohol. 4458 bottles produced. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $115. click to buy.

2013 Bell Hill "Old Weka Pass Road" Pinot Noir, Weka Pass, North Canterbury, New Zealand
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of wet stone and forest berries. In the mouth, wonderfully savory notes of herbs mix with the red raspberry and other forest berry flavors that are buzzing with excellent acidity. Notes of herbs and dried flowers linger in the finish with a hint of aromatic cedar and citrus peel. Very faint, nearly imperceptible tannins hang on the edges of the mouth. Closed with screwcap. 13% alcohol. 1056 bottles produced. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $65. click to buy.

2012 Bell Hill Pinot Noir, Weka Pass, North Canterbury, New Zealand
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of forest floor and raspberry and raspberry leaf. In the mouth, the wine is exceedingly silky, with mouthwatering flavors of raspberry and redcurrant mixing with dried herbs and a hint of dried citrus peel. Slightly saline notes mix with the barest touch of nutmeg spice as the wine lingers long in the finish with extremely fine grained tannins and a wet chalkboard note. Closed with screwcap. 13% alcohol. 1788 bottles produced. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $115. click to buy.

2002 Bell Hill "Old Weka Pass Road" Pinot Noir, Weka Pass, North Canterbury, New Zealand
A slightly cloudy medium ruby in the glass, this wine smells of wet leaves, dried red apple skin, carob and vegetable ash. In the mouth the wine's fruit has faded to a hint of redcurrant and dried raspberry, with herbs both fresh and dried, as well as a touch of wet leaves and forest floor. The wine has a gorgeous soaring finish in which the fruit emerges along with dried leaves. There's still that faint sense of minerality that marks these wines, but softer. Faint, putty-like tannins. Still good acidity. A fun look at the history of this plot of land. Closed with screwcap. 12.5% alcohol. 900 bottles produced. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $ n/a

New Zealand's Heart of Limestone: The Wines of Bell Hill



Pinot and Syrah With a View: Some Current Releases from Peay Vineyards

As a wine reviewer who gets paid next to nothing for his work, I have the luxury of only reviewing wines that I think are worth writing about. I've got no deadlines, no quotas to fill, and no obligation to anyone. All of which means that it's always a great pleasure to say nice things about a wine or wines that I enjoy.

But this is perhaps the most pleasurable kind of review I write. The review of a winery whose wines I can safely say are all spectacularly good -- so good that I will simply buy any wine they make, no questions asked. I'm on very few winery mailing lists, but this is one of them.

In many ways Peay Vineyards represents the quintessential family-run, boutique California winery. Run by brothers Nick and Andy Peay and their winemaker Vanessa Wong (who happens to be Nick's wife) they perfectly embody the care, attention to detail, and vision that marks all the best small wineries in the world.

Coming upon the 100-year-old house perched high on a ridge above Sea Ranch in the far north of Sonoma County, with its vines cascading down the hillside towards the ocean four miles away, you might imagine that the two thirty-somethings sitting on the porch were the latest in a long line of farmers who had worked this land. But before Nick and Andy bought the 80-acre property in 1996, it merely bore the faint traces of a few fruit trees and sheep that once roamed its chilly pastures.

Pinot and Syrah With a View: Some Current Releases from Peay Vineyards

Nick Peay got the wine and food bug early, and after college he headed straight into a career in the wine industry, working first for Schramsberg and then La Jota, before heading for U.C. Davis where he got a degree in Enology and Viticulture. After graduating he moved on to work for Newton and Storrs, and began plotting to convince his brother Andy to help him start a winery one day.

Apparently all it took was a really nice bottle of Chateauneuf-du-Pape and a rack of lamb at the right moment, just as Andy Peay was rethinking his likely future as a Wall Street analyst. After taking a year off to travel, Andy dove into the wine and hospitality world, working a harvest at Cain Vineyards and Winery, spending some time working at the Jug Shop in San Francisco, and all the while getting his MBA from Berkeley.

On the weekends, the brothers would hop into a truck and cruise the back roads of California wine regions looking for the perfect piece of land. Their criteria: an extreme, cool-climate vineyard site where they could push the limits of winegrowing and winemaking, utilizing Nick's knowledge of viticulture, and his wife Vanessa's skill at making wines from cool climate fruit.

Vanessa Wong is also U.C. Davis trained and before joining her husband for the first harvest in 2001 she spent several years working as a winemaker around the world for labels that include Château Lafite-Rothschild in Bordeaux, Domaine Jean Gros Burgundy, and Peter Michael Winery in Sonoma.

The family planted 48 acres of vines on their property in 1998: 35 acres of Pinot Noir, 8 acres of Syrah, 6 acres of Chardonnay, 1.8 acres of Viognier, and two little postage stamp size plots of Roussanne and Marsanne. The vineyards are managed directly by Nick and a full-time crew of 8 vineyard workers, and are farmed organically (though they are not certified). Because of the remoteness of the vineyard, the winery was built in Cloverdale, about an hour away.

Pinot and Syrah With a View: Some Current Releases from Peay Vineyards

One of the most remarkable aspects of Peay Vineyards for me has always been how they seem to have gotten everything right. I'm sure there were missteps along the way, but the fact that they were able to strike out into the middle of nowhere, into a climate that many thought unfit to grow wine grapes, and not only manage to make wine, but to make wine of such distinct character and quality is a testament to the talents of everyone involved. It's not an accident that theirs is one of the coolest Syrah vineyards in the United States.

Vanessa crafts their wines with a delicate touch. The wines are almost always fermented with native yeasts and are carefully managed through the winemaking process according to the needs of each variety. The oak program involves a minimum of new wood allowing the fruit to shine, and the wines are almost always bottled unfined and unfiltered.

I've been following the Peay wines closely for more than 10 years -- which is to say, I've tasted pretty much every wine they make, each year for the past 9 or 10 vintages, and so I'm quite confident in saying that the wines are better than they've ever been. This is not to say they've made big changes. Much to the contrary, the wines have followed a very smooth trajectory that represents adherence to a clear vision for how to express their unique site. Rather, lots of little details have been adjusted over time, even as the vines themselves have matured. I find the wines, though always fresh and bright, to have just a little more snap to them, an even more finely honed edge of acidity, and an increasingly sumptuous texture that distinguishes some of the finest Pinot Noirs.

The 2013 and 2014 vintages of these wines, in particular, have been fantastic, as the notes below demonstrate. It is also worth noting that the prices of these wines have stayed remarkably low compared to some of their brethren in the industry. Pinot Noirs of this quality are being sold by other brands for $75 to $90 per bottle. If these wines are your style, I can't recommend them highly enough. And if we're talking about value, the winery's second label, Cep Vineyards, wins a lot of awards in that department. Made from both estate and purchased fruit, these are some of the highest quality wines under $30 in California.

TASTING NOTES:

2014 Peay Vineyards Viognier, Sonoma Coast, California
Palest gold in the glass, this wine smells of white peaches and lemon curd. In the mouth gorgeous white peach and lemon curd flavors have an explosive acidity and brightness. Lovely salinity and length with wisps of white flowers on the finish. If there is a better rendition of this grape variety in California, I don't know of it. Fantastic. 13.4% alcohol. 190 cases. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $45 click to buy.

2014 Cep Vineyards Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, California
Pale greenish gold in color, this wine smells of white flowers and lemon oil with a hint of melted butter. In the mouth, silky bright lemon curd and wet stones have an excellent juicy snap to them, with a hint of richness. 13.8% alcohol. 500 cases produced. Is this the best $25 Chardonnay in California? Quite likely. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $25 click to buy.

2014 Peay Vineyards Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, California
Light greenish cloudy gold in the glass, this wine smells of white flowers and lemon curd with a hint of piney sappiness that makes the mouth water. In the mouth, lemon curd, asian pear, white flowers, and pink grapefruit flavors have a zingy snap thanks to excellent acidity. Gorgeous silky texture and great length. Killer stuff. 13% alcohol. 550 cases made. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $52 click to buy.

2014 Cep Vineyards Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Light garnet in the glass, this wine smells of raspberry and cranberry fruit. In the mouth, juicy cranberry and raspberry fruit has a wonderfully sweet pastille quality, and gorgeously bright acidity with the faintest of tannins. This is without a doubt the best $25 Pinot Noir in California. 13.5% alcohol. 800 cases made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $25 click to buy.

2014 Peay Vineyards "Scallop Shelf" Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Light garnet in color, this wine smells of raspberry, redcurrant, dried flowers and tomato leaf. In the mouth stunning raspberry and crystalline wet stone flavors have incredible depth and penetration with faint tannins and gorgeous length. Pure, vibrating forest berry electricity in the glass. Killer. 13.6% alcohol. 650 cases made. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $58 click to buy.

2014 Peay Vineyards "Ama" Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cranberry and raspberry fruit. In the mouth, gorgeously bright raspberry and cherry fruit has an incredible elegance and purity, as if it has been filtered through quartz. Gorgeous floral overtones and faint herbal notes along with light tannic grip in the finish. Stunning. 13.5% alcohol. 550 cases. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $56 click to buy.

2013 Peay Vineyards "Les Titans" Syrah, Sonoma Coast, California
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cassis, incense, cedar and a hint of white pepper. In the mouth, cassis and black cherry fruit mix with white pepper and herbs with a gorgeous stony underbelly touched by a hint of smoke. 13.2% alcohol. 275 cases made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $50 click to buy.

2014 Peay Vineyards "La Bruma" Syrah, Sonoma Coast, California
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of lavender and dried flowers floating over cassis. In the mouth gorgeously bright and juicy floral and cassis flavors have a wonderful stony base to them with a long herbal and floral finish that sails on for a long time. Fantastic. 13% alcohol. 300 cases made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $50 click to buy.



15 Years of Argentina’s Finest Malbec

There was a time early in my wine drinking life that I did not care for Argentine Malbec. I frankly didn't understand the fuss. I had bought several from my local gourmet grocery store over the years, and one or two from proper wine stores (never paying more than $15 or so). This sense, however, like so many early impressions of wine, was shattered one day by a single bottle of wine, from a producer of which I had never heard, and whose name I could not readily pronounce.

My first taste of Achaval Ferrer's Finca Altamira showed me the true possibilities that existed for Malbec in Argentina, and introduced me to what would end up being my favorite producer in the region. No matter how many Malbecs I drink, I keep coming back to Achaval Ferrer every time.

I believe that first bottle I tried was the 2002 vintage, merely the third vintage from the brand new winery's recently acquired vineyard. This spring, the company celebrated its 15th harvest from one of Argentina's most distinctive plots of land. A vineyard that its founder Santiago Achaval once called a complete "piece of trash."

In 1998 Santiago Achaval, Manuel Ferrer, Diego Rosso, Marcelo Victoria, and the Italian superstar winemaker Roberto Cipresso came to Mendoza to start a new wine project. As Achaval tells it, their plans centered on establishing the most high tech vineyards in the Southern Hemisphere, believing that precision control over every variable of production would be the key to realizing their vision of world class wine.

After securing a lease on two acres of vineyard to simply get their feet wet in the area, Achaval and Cipresso spent their days driving around the dirt roads south of Mendoza looking for vineyards to buy. After a particularly fruitless day of searching, the two found themselves driving next to the Tunuyán river in the department of La Consulta in the Uco Valley.

"Robert was driving," says Achaval, "And so I was looking out the window and saw that we were driving by an old vineyard. The vineyard was full of weeds, the headposts were broken, and in some places the weeds were higher than the vines themselves."

What was once the home on the property was caving in, slouching off its foundation. Tired and dusty, Achaval sighed and flippantly remarked, "look at that piece of trash."

Cipresso looked over, and said nothing.

"I should have realized," laughs Achaval, "with Italians, if they're not saying anything, that's when you need to pay attention."

Achaval flew out of town the next day, only to get a call later that evening from Cipresso who, after a few pleasantries, had only one question for Achaval.

"He asked me 'do you trust me,' and I said yes," recalls Achaval. 'Then he asked me again, 'Do you really trust me' and I saw big dollar signs flashing in front of my eyes.'

Cipresso proceeded to tell Achaval that he had found the most amazing grapes he had ever tasted from Argentina, and if they wanted the vineyard, they had to buy it right then and there, as there was another buyer waiting to swoop in. Achaval took a deep breath and said yes.

He flew back to Mendoza a few days later to see his new crown jewel, only to be led back down the same dusty road to the piece of trash from days earlier.

That vineyard, studded with gnarled old chestnut trees beside the dusty riverbed, would be named Finca Altamira, and would quickly change many people's opinions about what Argentine Malbec could do.

15 Years of Argentina's Finest Malbec

Situated at 3444 feet above sea level in the broad Uco valley under the looming shadows of the snow-capped Andes mountains, Finca Altamira has 15 inches of volcanic ash and limestone layered over deep alluvial beds of volcanic sediment washed into the valley by the river. The scraggly old vines, ungrafted with some approaching a century in age, yield minuscule amounts of fruit. Even lavished with care after the property was purchased, these vines often give only one pound of fruit per vine, meaning several vines are required to make a single bottle of wine.

The revelation embodied in this vineyard completely transformed Achaval and Cipresso, and their entire vision for the winery. Their high-tech vision dissipated faster than the dust settling on that fateful dead-end road, and instead they embarked on a journey to find the old vines of Mendoza and do as little as possible to them so they might speak more clearly in the bottle. They sought out ungrafted, ancient vines, and made wines with as little intervention as possible, eschewing temperature controls on fermentation, acid additions, fining, filtration, and more.

As a producer, Achaval Ferrer has now achieved more accolades than just about any other Argentine producer, and no vineyard in the country has been praised as much as Achaval's piece of trash. The estate now farms 330 acres of vineyards in Mendoza, producing a significant amount of entry level wine, as well as continuing to produce very small quantities of its precious single-vineyard Malbecs.

In many ways, the journey of Achaval Ferrer has been the journey of Argentine Malbec, from lesser known grape to global superstar. A lot has changed, and yet nothing has. Those dusty old vines still sit under their chestnut trees as the river flows by, doing what they have been doing for nearly a century. We're just lucky someone decided to stop and taste them.

2013 Achaval Ferrer "Finca Altamira" Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of cassis and blueberry. In the mouth, blueberry, cassis, mocha, and new oak flavors have a wonderful silky texture and a bright juiciness thanks to very good acidity. Mocha and nutmeg linger in the finish with a light sweetness and a touch of earth. Tasty. 14.5% alcohol. 841 cases made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $140 click to buy.

2013 Achaval Ferrer "Finca Mirador" Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry and blueberries. In the mouth, black cherry and blueberry flavors have a juicy bright zing thanks to excellent acidity. Faint tannins stretch taut around the mouth as the fruit sings through a long finish. Delicious. 14.5% alcohol. 818 cases made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $140 click to buy.

Images courtesy of Achaval Ferrer



The Evolution of Furmint: Tasting with Zoltan Demeter

I returned to Hungary this past Spring, and on my brief visit to the Tokaj region, I didn't miss the opportunity to stop in and visit with the guy I consider to be perhaps the single best winemaker in the country. When I last spent the afternoon with Zoltan Demeter, he was showing off his newest pride and joy, a renovated tasting room, while humbly offering his latest vintage to taste, the third since he stopped all other activities to focus only on his own wines. It was a vintage that he saw as an important step in his journey of understanding.

"I'm studying. Collecting experience. I'm studying winemaking, and my terroir. I'm getting to experience each vintage, to see what I'm going to change for the next one. I'm studying myself, and teaching myself, but the wine is teaching me. That is the main target to catch the right position in the center of terroir. I really believe that a winemaker has only two decisions to make. One is when they are going to cut the branch -- to know when to cut , you have to know what ripeness means in a certain terroir -- and with this cut you decide everything. There is another small decision, which is when to bottle. Everything else is a gift. We have to listen to how the wine is born, and make sure it doesn't go in the wrong direction."

I was quite excited to see how his understanding was progressing as I stepped through the gate into his sanctuary of a garden this past April.

The Evolution of Furmint: Tasting with Zoltan Demeter

When the wall came down, Zoltan Demeter was a Hungarian student, dreaming of a future as a winemaker. Before 1989, that future in Hungary would have involved working for one of the huge state-run winemaking companies whose primary mission was supplying the Soviet Union with wine, and lots of it. But after 1989? Well, that was anyone's guess. So Demeter, like so many others of his generation, designed his own future on the blank slate of a new nation.

Demeter completed his college studies in Budapest and then decided he needed an international education in winemaking, something that had been inconceivable just a few years before. He traveled first to Virginia, where he says most of his time was spent learning English, and preparing for a six month stint at Stag's Leap Wine Cellars in Napa. From there, with rapidly improving English, and an ever deepening understanding of wine, Demeter got serious and went to Beaune to studied Viticulture and Enology, and then went on to Brighton in the U.K. where he studied wine marketing.

The Evolution of Furmint: Tasting with Zoltan Demeter

When he returned to Hungary in 1993, he was 27 years old, and with all the fire you'd expect in the belly of a young man at the time, he set about helping to remake an industry that for all intents and purposes had been completely destroyed by fifty years of Communist rule.

"We had to figure out the direction of the wine, and what quality was moving forward. It was a beginning for our region. Even though we have 500 years of history, we had to renew it and re-discover the wine, the vine, and the quality" says Demeter.

Demeter worked first for a French company, and then for Grof Degenfeld, an aristocratic German-Hungarian family who, like everyone else, lost their family's holdings in the Tokaj region after the second World War when the Communists took over. The Degenfelds were keen to return to the Tokaj region and reclaim their winemaking legacy, and they hired the young Demeter to help them do everything from buy buildings to farm the vineyards. From Degenfeld, Demeter moved to a new winery project called Kiralyudvar, where under the direction of manager Istvan Szepsy and owner Anthony Hwang he helped establish what has become one of Hungary's most famous and pioneering wineries of the modern era.

The Evolution of Furmint: Tasting with Zoltan Demeter

At Kiralyudvar Demeter and Szepsy (who must get equal credit) first began making dry white wines from the traditional grapes used to make the world-famous Tokaj sweet wines, a move that pointed towards a future for Hungarian wine that is still evolving, but has proved quite fruitful.

Demeter began making wine under his own name in 1998, but it was not until 2008 that he decided he was ready to focus on his own wines on a full time basis.

Known to his friends as "Zoli," Demeter has the practiced ease of someone who is very comfortable in his own skin. His receding brown hairline is a bit more gray than last time I saw him, but he still has the same mischievous crinkle to his eyes and his hands and boots still show the wear that comes from spending a lot of time in the vineyards.

The Evolution of Furmint: Tasting with Zoltan Demeter

When I visited last, Demeter was still literally doing almost everything himself at the winery. Now, as he walks me around his newly renovated winery floor, complete with mood lighting and couch, I see several employees at work labeling wines. Demeter's success has allowed him to add some help behind the scenes, but other than that, not much has changed about his operations. He still farms 7 hectares (17 acres)across 9 different areas and five different villages because "That's how much I can control." These vineyards have the oldest possible vine stock with an average age of 40 years or more, with all replanting done from a massage selection of cuttings from his best vineyards. He doesn't use pesticides or fertilizers, plows his vineyards by horse, and applies sulfur by hand, and continues to eschew any particular label such as biodynamic or organic.

The Evolution of Furmint: Tasting with Zoltan Demeter

Demeter's winemaking regimen has not remained completely static since last we met. He still harvests carefully in multiple passes, but has been experimenting with how his wine ferments and ages.

"There is a line of evolution for my dry wines," he says. "I feel that I started to move the direction of the German style. A fresh feeling to the wines using inox [steel tanks], and more of a a reductive way, but not forgetting Tokaj dry wine in a barrel. So I am not accepting just using barrels 100%. I have arrived at a situation where I am using a good mix of inox and wood. I still experiment with the right barrel size and barrel type, and how many parts of the wine go to inox."

"Also important," he says, "I have decided that Tokaj dry wine is better with slight residual sugar." He now leaves something close to 4 grams of residual sugar in most of his dry wines, a practice which has become more common since my last visit to the region, and which I believe has resulted in generally better wines across the board.

Not content to merely fine tune his production, Demeter has also been doing some more radical experiments, including the creation of a sparkling Furmint using the classic methods champenoise fermentation on the lees in bottle. To be expected from a guy who takes his work seriously, this has entailed several visits to Champagne, and at least one visit from Ruinart chef de cave Frédéric Panaïotis to Demeter's cellars in Tokaj. "It is important to ask good questions,' says Demeter. "If you are going to go deeper and deeper into a subject you get more detailed questions."

The Evolution of Furmint: Tasting with Zoltan Demeter

At our last meeting, Demeter spoke like a man on a mission to catch up to a past that he felt was lost behind the iron curtain. "There is no time for us to waste. We cannot make mistakes," he said. "We have to get rid of the last 60 years and we have little time to advance and catch up. It was too much time, and we broke the chain between grandfather and father -- we can't catch each other's hand. We have to do something quickly, something that surprises people, and we have to live through quality. There is no place for mistakes because we have only one time per year where we can ask questions and collect answers. I have only 20 or 25 harvests where I can collect these answers."

Now with four more years under his belt, Demeter continues to be thoughtful about his work.

"My dream is very clear," he says with a smile. "I am finding more and more the direction and the job for each individual vineyard. I'm pretty sure you have to dream the wine first. I have to know what I would like, and I get closer to understanding my terroir every year. That is not so fancy, but it is what I see in myself. It is very nice to reach this kind of place, and to progress towards my dream of what this region can be. If someone can't reach their dream, they lose all their life. Life goes fast. This year I will be 50 years old, and I can say calmly that I am at the place where I am born and where I came back to. I am in the good place and I can find meaning of the life here through the region. This is very important. If it does not exist like that you can't calmly do creative work, you can't create anything."

The Evolution of Furmint: Tasting with Zoltan Demeter

Tasting through Demeter's 2015 vintage, a vintage that he says allowed him to "do everything I wanted" I am struck, as I was on my first visit, with the poise and precision of his wines. They have the effortlessness that many of the world's great wines bring to their expression. When I try to explain this to Demeter, he shrugs and says, "I think we really can make intelligent wine from Furmint. What will happen with this intelligent Furmint? There will be a dimension of deepness. You know it is an intelligent wine when you close your eyes and you are happy that you are living."

By that measure, Demeter's wines are surely genius.

The Evolution of Furmint: Tasting with Zoltan Demeter

TASTING NOTES:
Sadly, only a few of Demeter's wines make it into the US and they tend to be snapped up pretty quickly, resulting in very little availability, especially of current vintages online. If you see these wines, buy them.

2015 Demeter Zoltan "Estate" Furmint, Tokaj, Hungary
Light greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of green apple and white flowers. In the mouth, bright apple and pear flavors mix with wet stones and a little faint sweetness. Good acidity and balance. Contains 5 g/l residual sugar. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $28.

2015 Demeter Zoltan "Veres" Furmint, Tokaj, Hungary
Pale greenish gold in color, this wine smells of wet chalkboard, white flowers, and green apples. In the mouth, super juicy green apple, white flowers, and wet stones are delivered on satin bedsheets, with a hint of lime in the finish. Fabulous acidity and balance. This is the best located vineyard for dry Furmint according to Demeter, with a predominance of white rhyolite tuff and 30-year-old vines. 13% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5.

2015 Demeter Zoltan "Hold-Volgy" Furmint, Tokaj, Hungary
Palest greenish gold in color, this wine smells of greengage plum, star fruit, and white flowers. In the mouth, juicy star fruit and white flowers have a filigreed acidity, and beautiful silky texture. Deeply stony in quality with a deep rainwater flavor that is very compelling. Comes from south-facing 40-year old vines in Ratka village. The vines have very small branches and what Demeter describes as a "special clone" of Furmint, making this the place where he sources all his cuttings for replanting. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5.

2015 Demeter Zoltan "Szerelmi" Harslevelu, Tokaj, Hungary
Palest greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of melon and white flowers. In the mouth smooth and silky melon and apple flavors mix with wet stone and white flowers. Long finish and great acid balance. Aged partly in barrel and partly in steel. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.

The Evolution of Furmint: Tasting with Zoltan Demeter

2015 Demeter Zoltan "Boda" Furmint, Tokaj, Hungary
Palest gold, nearly colorless in the glass, this wine smells of wet stones and asian pear and white flowers. In the mouth gorgeous minerality makes stony asian pear flavors seem to be delivered through a wash of rainwater scented with white flowers. Tiny notes of pear skin and herbs linger on the finish. Fermented and aged in oak. Made from 100 year old vines grown on hard, stony soil on an east-facing slope. Stunning. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5.

2015 Demeter Zoltan "Ozy-Hegy" Sarga Muskotaly, Tokaj, Hungary
Near colorless in the glass, this wine smells of melon and orange peel and white flowers. In the mouth, lightly sweet flavors of orange blossom water are gorgeous and bright with fantastic acidity and deep mineral depth. Phenomenally floral and long. I'm not a huge muscat fan but I'd drink this wine all day long. Quite possibly the best yellow muscat I have ever had. Fermented in tank. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5.

The Evolution of Furmint: Tasting with Zoltan Demeter

2011 Demeter Zoltan "Eszter - Tokaji Cuvee" White Blend, Tokaj, Hungary
Light to medium amber gold in the glass, this wine smells of apricots and honey and candied lemon rind. In the mouth, stunning honey and apricot and peach flavors have a wonderful crystalline quality and a deep stony acidity behind them that leave a clean wet stone flavor in the finish scented with honeyed apricots and white flowers. The flavors soar for minutes Incredible. Moderately sweet. A blend of Furmint, Harslevelu, and Sarga Muskotaly. Selected for about 60% botrytized fruit. Destemmed, crushed and then left overnight before starting fermentation. 10.5% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10.

2008 Demeter Zoltan "Tokaji Aszu - 6 Puttonyos" White Blend, Tokaj, Hungary
Medium gold in color, this wine smells of candied apricots and honey. In the mouth, honey and apricots have a bright juicy quality, with a silky texture and fantastic clean ambrosia character. The acidity is somewhat softer than I would like, but nonetheless, a minerality manages to shine through the liquid sunshine. Very sweet. A blend of Furmint and Harslevelu from all of Demeter's vineyard sites. 305g/l residual sugar. 7.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5.

The Evolution of Furmint: Tasting with Zoltan Demeter



Tokaji Barta: The Old King in a New House

Few traditional wine regions in the world can avoid something of a sneer when contemplating those with new money and no history who set up shop and begin to make wine.

Few things are more desperately difficult than avoiding local scorn when moving into a traditional wine region with new money and no history. The wine world is littered with vanity projects buried under a pile of derision mixed with a healthy dose of failed hubris.

For every half dozen examples of such projects, there is one that quickly distinguishes itself as more than just the passing fancy of someone with more money than they know what to do with.

When the Barta family moved into the town of Mád and purchased a steep overgrown hillside just outside of town, eyebrows were no doubt raised in speculation about what this wealthy industrial family with no history in viticulture was up to.

Five years later, by the time the family had meticulously cleared the land, rebuilt centuries-old stone terraces, and replanted one of the most storied vineyards in the history of Tokaj, not to mention beautifully remodeling an old cellar they purchased in town, Barta Pince was not just a fixture of Mád, they were one of the most interesting and ambitious new producers to arise in Tokaj in recent memory.

You see, the Barta family didn't just buy any vineyard they bought the King's vineyard.

Tokaji Barta: The Old King in a New House

First mentioned by name in 1285, the Király-hegy (King hill), a large domelike hill to the east of Mád was capped by both the royal forest and on its lower slopes, plantings of grapes. By 1664, the first surviving reference to the specific vineyard itself, the steepest slopes of the hill had been terraced and planted, and were being farmed by the Rákóczi family, rulers of what was then known as Transylvania.

Tokaji Barta: The Old King in a New House

Cut back into the forest at the crest of an old volcano, the vineyard that has been known as Öreg Király (Old King) was worked pretty much continuously until the communists decided in 1960 that the clay under the hill was more valuable and easier to extract than the sunny blend of Furmint and Harslevelu that flavors this corner of the wine world. This despite the fact that Öreg Király had been declared one of the top vineyard sites in Hungary as far back as the region's 1737 classification, making it (as are many of Tokaj's top vineyards) one of the world's oldest grand crus.

Tokaji Barta: The Old King in a New House

Luckily, local authorities situated the Mád kaolin mine on the west side of the Király hill, leaving the terraces and old vines of Öreg Király to be overtaken by the spreading black locust trees and bramble, a royal treasure waiting for someone ambitious enough to reclaim it.

Standing at the top of Öreg Király with the world spread out below glinting with the emerald of spring feels pretty regal, I have to admit. Looming high above some of Tokaj's most well known vineyards, I can't decide which is more impressive, the view, or what it must take to farm these steep terraced hillsides of brown, orange, and white stone.

Tokaji Barta: The Old King in a New House

Károly Barta stands with me at the apex of his family's 20 acres of vineyards and doesn't need to marshall many facts to convince me that this is the highest elevation, steepest hillside planted in Tokaj, nor does he need to do more than hand me a baseball sized nodule of rhyolite known locally as a "monkey brain" to convince me how close to the primary rock these organically farmed vines really are.

Tokaji Barta: The Old King in a New House

After the difficulties posed by the slope, the biggest problem the family has in the vineyard, says Barta, are the wild boars. "They harvested three hectares for us last year," says Barta with a somewhat wry grin as he pours me a glass of Öreg Király Furmint. This doesn't come as a big surprise to me having just tramped through the forest that surrounds the top of the vineyard on three sides.

While that may be bad news, Barta says "the same forest hosts raptors that protect us against the starlings, which can also be a major problem."

Tokaji Barta: The Old King in a New House

After the herculean task of rehabilitating the old vineyard, dealing with the local wildlife probably seems like small potatoes to a guy who seems to relish doing things the hard way. Case in point? "I hope that one day we'll even be able to age our wines in oak from this hill," he says, patting a knotty trunk next to where we stand.

As with all press visits, this one has been engineered to impress, but it didn't require much effort. Just managing to drive up to the base of the vineyard left me awestruck, as Barta managed to maneuver around washed out sections of road that threatened to eat his dusty sedan whole.

Tokaji Barta: The Old King in a New House

Later that day, as we speak about the particulars of the estate's several wines, Barta sums up the family's point of view on their new wine efforts quite succinctly. "We want to do something different," he says. "What is the point of being another Szepsy or something like that," he asks, referring to the region's most famous small family estate.

It's hard to imagine anyone objecting to somehow being the equivalent of the guy who almost singlehandedly put Hungary back on the world's wine radar, but still I understand where Barta is coming from. The choices Barta and his family have made from day one have been geared at both quality and distinctiveness. Among their better decisions, in my opinion, was the hiring of Attila Homonna, a young winemaker who was just beginning his own small wine project, but had trained with one of the best consultants in the region.

"We were looking for a winemaker with a unique style," says Barta. "We wanted quality first, but then we wanted a unique style, someone who could do lower alcohol, higher acidity wines with great fruit, and good aging potential."

Tokaji Barta: The Old King in a New House

I tasted Homonna's first vintage of dry Furmint several years back at Austria's Vie Vinum event and was hugely impressed, and didn't realize he was the winemaker for Barta until shortly before my arrival in Tokaj. It was with high hopes, then, that I tasted the Barta wines, and I didn't come away disappointed.

The winemaking regimen under Homonna is fairly straightforward and about as non-interventionalist as you get in Tokaj for their small production of around 20,000 bottles. The grapes are farmed strictly without herbicides, pesticides, or chemical fertilizers, and like all grapes in the region, receive no irrigation. They are hand picked in several passes over several weeks, beginning with the clean grapes that will make the crisp, pear-inflected dry Furmint wines, followed by the golden berries that will make the sweeter late harvest wines, and finally the shriveled berries infected with botrytis, or noble rot, that will become the prized Aszu sweet wine that has made Tokaj world famous for centuries.

The grapes are gently pressed and matured in 500 liter oak casks in the subterranean, 16th century cellar dug out of the rock beneath the winery's charmingly wild garden, its presence only hinted at by the small headstone-like protrusions of air vents every once in a while.

Tokaji Barta: The Old King in a New House

From their choice of vineyards, to their choice of winemaker, the Barta family seems to be doing everything right, and investing for the long haul. They even quickly became part of the Mád Circle, a group of 14 winemakers who desire to hold themselves to even stricter quality standards than the government requires. Barta himself now holds the role of Vice President of the organization. This is an estate to watch closely, as I believe they are headed for great things.

Tokaji Barta: The Old King in a New House

As we walk through the cellar and then back out again to where the stainless steel tanks sit, Barta asks me if I'm interested in a treat. I learned long ago the only answer to such questions is a quick "yes." A small silver tank about five times the size of a large fire extinguisher is opened up to reveal the tiny quantity last vintage's Eszencia, the precious ambrosia squeezed from 100% botrytized berries that will take sometimes up to 8 years to finish fermenting to mere single-digit alcohol levels.

A spoonful is all I needed to feel like a king.

Tokaji Barta: The Old King in a New House

TASTING NOTES:
Unfortunately, only the basic dry Furmint (and a tiny bit of the moderately sweet Szamorodoni - made from mostly botryitized bunches) is regularly available in the United States, but in particular if you find the 2013 vintage, snap it up. It's great stuff.

2012 Barta Öreg Király Furmint, Tokaj, Hungary
Palest blonde in the glass, this wine smells of white flowers and pear and pear skin with a hint of wood. In the mouth, bright apple, pear, and lemon juice have a nice freshness in the mouth. Juicy fruit and nice acidity with a bit of creaminess pervade the wine. There's a faint tannin that lingers chalkily in the finish. 13.38% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $38. click to buy.

2013 Barta Öreg Király Furmint, Tokaj, Hungary
Palest blonde in the glass, this wine smells of wet chalkboard, white flowers, and Asian pear. In the mouth gorgeously bright Asian pear, white flowers and citrus pith flavors have a super juicy aspect to them. There's a faint sweetness to the wine (8 g/l) but the acidity level makes the wine taste nearly dry. Fantastic bright stony acidity makes for a long finish. 13.4% alcohol. Score: around 9.

2013 Barta Öreg Király "Selection" Furmint, Tokaj, Hungary
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of wet chalkboard and pear skin. In the mouth the wine has a wonderful deep minerality with lemon and grapefruit pith floating over rainwater and a hint of Asian pear. Super juicy and delicious. Made from a selection of grapes from the upper eastern part of the hill, where it is very steep and terraced surrounded by the forest on three sides. 13.12% alcohol. 200 bottles made Score: around 9.

2011 Barta Öreg Király Furmint, Tokaj, Hungary
Light blonde in the color, this wine smells of struck flint and Asian pear. In the mouth, Asian pear flavors are bright and juicy with lemonade and grapefruit pith layered over wet stone minerality that is quite delicious. Fantastic acid balance and now a hint of saline on the finish that begs for another sip. 13.78% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5.

Tokaji Barta: The Old King in a New House

2010 Barta Öreg Király - Late Harvest Furmint, Tokaj, Hungary
Light gold in color, this wine smells of honey and white flowers. In the mouth, gorgeous apricot and peach flavors mix with a wonderful mineral backbone driven by fantastic acidity, which makes the wine taste only slightly sweet despite its heft 109 grams of residual sugar. This vintage was very rainy and therefore this wine contains a higher percentage of noble rot than would ordinarily be the case for a late harvest wine. 10% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5.

2010 Barta Öreg Király - Sweet Szamorodoni Furmint, Tokaj, Hungary
Light gold in color, this wine smells of peach pie and candied apricots. In the mouth, bright peach and apricot flavors have a nice floral overtone and are backed by bright acidity. Wonderful clover honey flavors linger in the long finish. Moderately sweet 10.45% alcohol. Score: around 9.

2013 Barta Öreg Király - Sweet Szamorodoni Furmint, Tokaj, Hungary
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of green apple, honey and white flowers. In the mouth, the wine is bright and stony with fantastic white flowers, clover honey, and apple crispness that makes it wonderfully lightweight in the mouth and effortless to drink. Moderately sweet. 11% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $85.

2010 Barta Öreg Király - 6 Puttonyos Tokaji Aszu Furmint, Tokaj, Hungary
Medium gold in the glass, this wine smells of candied apricots, pineapple, honey, and butterscotch. In the mouth, phenomenal acidity makes flavors of apricots, peaches, and honey into fireworks on the palate. One sip and saliva glands go into overdrive as very sweet liquid sunshine pours across the palate. Dare you not to swallow. Fantastic, cloud-like silky texture and weight, with minutes long finish. 8.49% alcohol. 829 bottles made. Score: around 9.5.

2008 Barta Öreg Király - "Mobius" Furmint, Tokaj, Hungary
Medium gold in color, this wine smells of juniper and nut skin and the kind of tang you expect from sherry. In the mouth, lightly to moderately sweet flavors of apple skin, nuts, and gin linger through a vinery long finish. Exotic and category defying, this wine is too sweet to be a dry szamorodoni and not sweet enough to be a sweet szamorodoni. This wine fermented from 2008 until 2013, and no sulfites have been added. 15.71% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9.

2010 Barta Öreg Király Sparkling Furmint, Tokaj, Hungary
Pale gold in the glass with medium bubbles, this traditional method sparkling wine smells of apples and pears. In the mouth, sour apple and pear flavors are delivered on a coarse mousse. Aged for 3 years on the lees before disgorgement. 12 g/l dosage. Score: around 8.

Tokaji Barta: The Old King in a New House

Image of vineyard map © copyright and courtesy of Barta Pince



Jamie Kutch and the Refinement of California Pinot Noir

"I was always a hobby person as a kid, but I I would push them beyond where anyone would normally go," chuckles winemaker Jamie Kutch. The last real hobby I had was DJing. We're not just talking about playing music, we're talking turntables, mixing, blending, scratching and shredding. This was an era when I was going to college in the Bronx, smoking a little pot and watching my roommate play with his turntables. He had been DJing for six or seven years at that point. I decided it was something I wanted to do, and within six months I was better than him. I spent literally hundreds of hours with my gear. It wasn't great for my education, but that's who I am. It's where I come from. My dad is workhorse. I remember growing up, he would spend eight or ten hours a day fixing boats, and then come home and spend two hours cutting a full acre of grass with a push mower because riding mowers didn't do a good enough job. The garden was perfect. He washed the car every weekend without fail. We had a boat for a little while. It was meticulous. That's just how I was raised."

If obsession mixed with passion, and then seasoned with a good dose of the fastidious is the recipe for good winemaking, we theoretically could have seen someone like Jamie Kutch coming. But such traits can just as easily be applied to other arenas of life with very different results.

"I sat behind a desk and did corporate jobs and worked in the bureaucracy for twelve years. If someone had come to me before then and said, here's $500,000 go be a winemaker, I would have been a complete failure. I couldn't have done this when I was young," says Kutch.

Kutch was born in New York, and had what by his account was a "fairly normal, boring" childhood in Northport, Long Island, before heading off to Fordham University in the Bronx, getting a job in finance, and moving to Manhattan for his 12-year stint in the corporate life.

During his extended flirtation with the rat race, Kutch got into wine. Pinot Noir in particular. He quickly became a regular fixture on the then-popular wine bulletin board attached to Robert Parker's web site, engaging fellow wine lovers and winemakers in conversations about everything vinous.

Jamie Kutch and the Refinement of California Pinot Noir

And then came the fateful taste of a Kosta Browne Pinot Noir that knocked his socks off, and his life-changing post to Parker's bulletin board that led to an invitation to come out to California and make Pinot Noir along with the guys at Kosta Browne.

I've written about that chapter of Kutch's story as a winemaker already. It is a rags to whatever-passes-for-riches-when-you're-a-winemaker story worth telling. But that, in many ways, is ancient history for Jamie Kutch. He's not writing next chapter of that story, he's busy writing a sequel, and it is the story of unlocking the secrets required to make some of California's most compelling Pinot Noir.

Kutch the winemaker, and Kutch the wines bear essentially no resemblance to the starry-eyed 32-year-old so proud of his jammy, 16+% alcohol Pinot Noir made in the blueprint of Kosta Browne.

These days, Kutch is one of a new breed of winemakers that are pushing the envelope for California Pinot Noir. It is the speed of his transformation from aspirant to adept that makes his story so remarkable.

A year or two after making his first vintage, Kutch began traveling to Burgundy.

"I basically started getting access to what I think are some of the best wines on the planet," says Kutch, "and I started to ask a ton of questions. One of the most valuable lessons I learned was from meeting [Domaine de la Romanée-Conti co-Director] Aubert de Villaine, and talking with him about stem inclusion. In 2007 they had practically no stem inclusion, because it was a weaker vintage, without nearly as much sunshine as usual. But in 2005 and 2009 which were warmer years, they amped up the whole cluster fermentation. That was one light bulb that went off for me. In Burgundy they struggle with getting the fruit ripe. In California we struggle with not getting the fruit overripe. What they lack, we have an oversupply of. They utilize sugar, we counterbalance with acidity [additions]. So this lightbulb was starting to wonder very hard about what this stem thing was all about."

Jamie Kutch and the Refinement of California Pinot Noir

Hirsch Vineyard, Sonoma Coast

Kutch got his teeth into this idea of the relationship between stems and the complexity of Burgundy and worried at it like a pit-bull. And like just about everything in the world of wine, he pulled at one thread and found it tied to another. If you want to use stems in your winemaking, you need to make sure that they're ripe. Getting your stems ripe depends on how you farm, and in particular how you use water in your vineyard. Trying to do all that while shooting for wines that top out in the low 13% alcohol range adds yet another layer of complexity to the equation, and starts making you look closely at where you farm in addition to how you farm.

"My second year [2006], I still didn't know much about the choices that need to be made during picking, and when the fruit came in I tried to be gentle with it, thinking that if I was gentle with it I'd get more complexity. It was 15.3% alcohol and had no intensity," remembers Kutch. "So I decided that the next year I was going to pick really early, and went out and picked my grapes thirty days before anyone else. It was very light in body, and I remember thinking, I have no glycerin, no weight or intensity. I watched the people who picked thirty days after me, and I tasted their wines and they had intense fruit, and they had the glycerin."

But the wines made by others were also too heavy and too high in alcohol for Kutch's taste. Winemakers have one chance per year to get things right, and Kutch wasted no time trying to figure out how the million-and-one variables come together to produce a wine that matches the vision of its maker.

Armed with his advice from Aubert de Villaine, and everything else he was able to soak up from every Pinot winemaker he had ever met, Kutch struck out for new vineyards and new ways of doing everything.

Kutch sought out cooler, higher-altitude sites in the Sonoma Coast and Anderson Valley with rockier, shallower soils. Convinced that dry-farming was one key to making the kinds of wines he wanted to make, he began working with growers to avoid putting water on his vines.

Jamie Kutch and the Refinement of California Pinot Noir

McDougall Vineyard, Sonoma Coast

"There are all these 'rules' out there, not really rules, per se, but, you know, the things that everyone says you need to do to make wine the normal way," explains Kutch. "When a farmer sees in the forecast that there's a heat spike coming in the late summer, he is quick to turn the water on before the heat comes. He sees his grapes are at 20 brix and knows that the fruit is going to go to 21 or 22 brix with that heat, but with crazy amounts of acidity. That's close to where some people could think about picking, but most winemakers would taste those grapes and say, 'whoa, that's way too acidic, I need more hangtime.' But there is actually fruit flavor under that acidity. I know because I picked way too early in 2007. I can now taste all the fruit underneath that acid and know it is not going to be a tart green bomb."

In addition to water, Kutch has gotten what passes for religion when it comes to managing yields in the vineyard.

"This other thing that everyone does that they think is the 'right' way to go is dropping fruit," says Kutch. "They usually wait until about 80% of veraison is complete, and find all the clusters that haven't fully turned color, and drop them to the ground, thinking they have 'balanced' the vine to the point that it is capable of ripening what is left. But from my perspective that is all wrong. When I look at that vine I think to myself, I don't have much longer before I pick that vine and it has already wasted all that energy on the fruit that is laying on the ground. I learned by drinking Burgundies with Raj [sommelier Rajat Parr, of the Michael Mina Group] about years like 1971, which produced such intense wines after hail reduced the yields to practically nothing. The hail in Burgundy comes early in the season, just as the bunches are starting to close. And this is exactly the time you need to go through and drop fruit. At this point the vine has shown you how much fruit it is going to make, but hasn't worked to get it ripe yet. When you go through at that point, the vine doesn't know if it's a human or hail, but it is left with a small amount of fruit that ripens earlier, with higher acidity and great intensity."

Convincing his farmers to buck the conventional wisdom hasn't been easy. "Even when you're buying all your grapes by the acre [instead of by the ton] and you have good communication with the farmers and workers, you're still at the mercy of when they can get things done," sighs Kutch. "You can say 'No Water! No Water!' but if they disagree they just go ahead and put water on if they want to. Usually they know more than me so I don't argue, but it makes it hard to push the envelope."

Still, Kutch is finding some growers amenable to his approach. "It's taken a couple of years, and number of big arguments," laughs Kutch. In 2012, he finally convinced grower David Hirsch to let him try farming this way. "I did it only in one block," says Kutch, "but that is the greatest wine I've ever made."

Jamie Kutch and the Refinement of California Pinot Noir

Savoy Vineyard, Anderson Valley

Kutch readily admits that what has become his holy grail isn't some big secret. "I can't say I'm doing anything miraculous. A lot of other people share these ideas," says Kutch. "I'm just one guy trying to put all the pieces together." He gives great credit to growers Rich Savoy and David Hirsch, as well as vineyard manager Ulysses Valdez, all of whom he considers mentors.

There are, indeed, a number of winemakers who seem to be successfully farming for and then producing the exceptionally bright, dynamic wines that are changing the definition of what is possible in California Pinot Noir. But most of them have been making wine for at least a decade longer than Jamie Kutch.

Kutch vibrates with energy -- the kind of raw, almost childlike enthusiasm that you expect from a cheerleader at halftime -- except that Kutch's intensity doesn't seem to flag at any point. This has clearly driven both his boundless quest to learn as much as he can about growing and making Pinot Noir, as well as the energy required to do it all himself.

Until 2013, Kutch literally did everything but pull every grape cluster off the vines himself. Now he has a single helper during harvest, but that's only four hands to help manage fruit from five vineyards that goes into almost 2500 cases of wine.

"I wake up and think wine. I go to bed and think wine," says Kutch.

As harvest approaches, Kutch can spend six or eight hours driving between his vineyard sites many days in a row until he settles on the day to pick his grapes. "The pick is crucial," he says, "It's so important to nail that."

Jamie Kutch and the Refinement of California Pinot Noir

Once the grapes are in the winery, Kutch's winemaking resembles what many crusty old Burgundian winemakers would dismiss as "just the way it's done." Whole clusters of meticulously sorted grapes go into open-top fermenters where they begin to ferment with ambient yeasts. Kutch practices punchdowns the old-fashioned way, with his feet. As the wines ferment to dryness, they are pressed off to old French oak barrels where they go through secondary fermentation and a racking before slumbering away until bottling, without fining or filtration.

Kutch's personal triumph has been tuning the delicately balanced web of technique in the vineyard and the winery to the point that he can make his wines with 100% whole cluster fermentation.

"I wanted to do whole cluster in 2008, but I was too scared of the smoke taint because of all the fires that I destemmed everything," says Kutch. "But I started with extensive trials of whole cluster in 2009. I watched the intensity and complexity of my wines tick upwards to the point that it was staggering. Very quickly I didn't enjoy drinking the wines that had no stems in them at all. 50% was the target at first, but over time, I loved the wines that had 100%. But I wasn't sure consumers would like them. So I started in 2010 with 50% whole cluster and just saw what the reaction was. The wines were good. I pushed 2011 to about 75%, and in 2012 I had the greatest fruit I've ever seen, so I finally did everything 100% whole cluster. I have to say, I'm thrilled with the results." In recent vintages, Kutch has begun to sort out which vineyards he prefers to ferment 100% on their stems, and which require a portion of destemming.

In eight short years, Kutch has firmly established Kutch Wines as one of the state's top makers of Pinot Noir, if only measured by the scores doled out by notoriously tough critic Alan Meadows of Burghound.

Despite his somewhat meteoric rise to prominence, Kutch's tiny 2500 case production hasn't translated into a tidal wave of fortune. He has no problem selling out his wines within ten days of their release, of course. But he does have a hard time putting the money in his retirement account.

"I gave up a rich bank account for a rich lifestyle," quips Kutch. "I came out to California with 100k in the bank -- the whole of my net worth. That's not much money when it comes to starting a winery. Last year I bought thirty tanks. I bought a basket press the year before. This year I bought a new toy -- the same wooden tanks that Romanée-Conti uses. They don't have an importer. That was fun."

"I'm not struggling now. The pennies that I can save, I'm saving to at some point have my own vineyard. And after that, my own winery facility. For now I'm just buying equipment."

Jamie Kutch and the Refinement of California Pinot Noir

Kutch is on the long-term hunt for a vineyard that he can buy and control completely. "I have my hopes and desires on pieces of land to buy or lease, but the parcels are so big, and so expensive. The perfect property would be five to eight acres that I could buy or lease for twenty five years. I've been dropping business cards in people's mailboxes when I see interesting plots. I've sent out 250 letters to people, and tell people I'd pay them a referral fee if they find me the right piece of land."

Until he finds the patch of land that will become his first estate bottling, Kutch feels like he has gotten to where he wanted to go with his wines. And it's hard to argue when you pour some in the glass and experience the layers of aromas and flavors he manages to coax out of berries that most winemakers in the state would consider dangerously, even disgustingly unripe.

Over the past couple of years, I've had the opportunity to spend time with Jamie and his wife Kristen, and I have come to consider them friends. This is important to mention in the context of such a praiseworthy article, but doesn't affect in the slightest the admiration I have for Kutch and the path he has managed to forge for himself in wine. The more I get to know the guy, the more I want a prescription for whatever he runs on 20 hours a day.

And the more I taste his wines, the more I begin to wonder how it is that more producers of Pinot Noir in California aren't figuring out how to grow wines like these. They are now among my very favorite California wines, and simply required drinking for anyone who wants to see where Pinot Noir is headed in America.

The real question is whether we'll be saying the same thing about Chardonnay in a few years. Kutch made his first Chardonnay this year, along with a rosé.

Full disclosure: most of the wines reviewed below were provided to me as press samples.

Jamie Kutch and the Refinement of California Pinot Noir

TASTING NOTES FOR MOST RECENT RELEASES:

2014 Kutch Chardonnay, Santa Cruz Mountains, California
Palest greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of piney citrus peel and white flowers. In the mouth, smoky flavors of lemon peel, lemon juice and a touch of butterscotch have a silky smoothness. I had expected brighter acidity than the delicate, filigreed acidity this wine brings to the table, but that doesn't keep it from being excellent, and easily mistaken for White Burgundy in profile. 12.75% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $48.

2015 Kutch Rosé of Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Palest baby pink in color, this wine smells of wet chalkboard, watermelon rind, and rosehips. In the mouth, juicy rosehip, hibiscus, and tangy exotic citrus flavors blossom on the palate and vibrate with electric acidity. A tiny hint of salinity emerges on the finish along with a burst of citrus oils and zest that pushes salivary glands into overdrive. This is one stellar bottle of pink that should be consumed in ice cold multiples. Yowza! One of the best California rosés I've had in some time. 12.3% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $??

2014 Kutch Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Light garnet in color, this wine smells of candied raspberries. In the mouth, bright raspberry and cherry flavors have a snappy zip thanks to excellent acidity. Cedar and mixed dried herbs make for an aromatic finish with just the faintest whisper of tannins. Juicy and delicious. 12.9% alcohol. Score: around 9 . Cost: $45. click to buy.

2014 Kutch "Falstaff Vineyard" Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Light to medium garnet in color this wine smells of freshly turned wet earth, a bit of pine duff, and dried flowers. In the mouth, incredibly silky flavors of wet earth, dried herbs, raspberries and redcurrants are dusted with faint powdery tannins. Fantastically aromatic and distinctive, this wine leaves notes of dried flowers and raspberry pastilles vying for attention along with the deep humous in the finish. Fantastic. 12.9% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $65. click to buy.

2014 Kutch "Bohan Vineyard" Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Light to medium garnet in color, this wine smells of wet earth, dried flowers, and cherry fruit. In the mouth, supple, suede-like tannins coat the mouth while flavors of cranberry and cherry mix with green herbs and a deep crushed stone minerality. Forest floor lingers in the finish. I'd lay this bottle down for a couple of years for sure. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $45. click to buy.

2014 Kutch "McDougall Ranch" Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of dried flowers, raspberries, and wet stones. In the mouth, gorgeous, supple tannins wrap around a core of raspberry and redcurrant flavors tinged with forest floor and a bit of wet chalkboard. Gorgeous balance and poise, with fantastic acidity and length. Killer stuff. 12.4% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $65. click to buy.

2013 Kutch Wines Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Light garnet in the glass, this wine smells of raspberry and raspberry leaf with a hint of blueberry. In the mouth beautifully floral flavors of raspberry, raspberry leaf, and crushed green herbs nestle into a bed of powdery tannins. Excellent acidity and length. Very pretty, and quite savory in the finish, despite the bright fruit of its beginning. 12.3% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $45. click to buy.

2013 Kutch Wines "Falstaff" Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Pale garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dried flowers, green herbs, wild raspberries and wet stones. In the mouth the wine has a floral delicacy that is profound. Incredibly filigreed and complex, with deep wet stone character and aromatic wafts of berries, flowers, and forest floor drifting across the palate this wine is a shimmering gem of flavors. Barely perceptible tannins creep into the back of the mouth through the long finish. Stunning flavor at an astonishing 12.1% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $55. click to buy.

2013 Kutch Wines "McDougall Ranch" Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of raspberries, wet stone, and forest floor. In the mouth, gorgeously bright flavors of raspberry and forest floor take on a floral high note even as they rumble earthily through the finish. Fantastic zingy acidity and wonderfully supple, powdery tannins round out the absolutely poised and perfectly balanced picture of this wine. Utterly delicious and compelling. 12.3% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $59. click to buy.

2013 Kutch Wines "Bohan Vineyard" Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Light garnet in the glass, this wine smells of wet stones, raspberry, and cherries. In the mouth muscular, fine grained tannins wrap around a core of raspberry and cherry fruit tinged with green herbs. A salty juicy note lingers in the finish. Nice balance and texture. 12.3% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $46.

I also pulled a couple of older wines from my cellar to see how they were faring with some age, and they are doing beautifully:

2009 Kutch Wines "Savoy Vineyard" Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley, Mendocino, California
Light garnet in color, this wine smells of cranberry, cherry and forest floor. In the mouth, earthy forest floor and bright cherry flavors have a delicious bright sappiness thanks to excellent, even mouthwatering acidity. The tannins are so fine as to be nearly creamy, and linger nicely with dried herbs and a citrus zing in the finish. Fabulous. 13.8% alcohol. Score: around 9.5.

2009 Kutch Wines "Falstaff" Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Light garnet in the glass, this wine smells of raspberry and raspberry leaf. In the mouth, gorgeously bright flavors of raspberries, redcurrants, and freshly crushed green herbs have a snap and a sizzle thanks to phenomenal acidity, even as darker, earthier notes offer a bass counterpoint to the citrusy high notes of berry fruit. Very fine grained tannins are barely perceptible until a while into the very long finish. 13.1% alcohol Score: around 9.5. Cost: $65. click to buy.

2009 Kutch Wines Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley, Mendocino, California
Light garnet in the glass, this wine smells of raspberry, cherry, and a hint of blueberry. In the mouth, exceedingly silky flavors of raspberry and black raspberry mix with a forest floor and crushed stone earthiness that is quite compelling. Excellent acidity and length, with fine tannins. 13.8% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5.

Jamie Kutch and the Refinement of California Pinot Noir



The Lodi Zinfandel Revolution Continues

The Lodi Zinfandel Revolution Continues

Let me begin with total honesty. I fell out of love with Zinfandel. When I first got into wine, I loved the carefree jubilation that spilled out of every bottle of Zinfandel I opened. Zinfandel is a wine that makes no apologies for its exuberant fruit. Like a gay man flying his queer flag in full flaming glory, if it does nothing else, Zinfandel gives good fruit.

As authentic as this personality can be, Zinfandel all too easily strays into the realm of caricature. If its boisterous blackberry, black pepper, and blueberry essence is good, surely a bit more of that is even better, right?

Wrong. As much criticism as California Cabernet receives for a shift towards bigger, better, richer, and riper in the last 20 years, in some ways Zinfandel's shift has been even more egregious.

Zinfandel probably started off riper than Cabernet to begin with, as it easily strays into the high 14% and low 15% range while continuing to develop those rich flavors that so many seek from the grape. But in addition to being left longer and longer on the vine beginning in the late 1990s, winemakers in California began to apply increasingly higher levels of new oak to the wines, resulting in bigger, richer, jammier, and sweeter versions of the grape.

After a while I just got tired of it. Apparently I do have a threshold for fruit overload, especially when that fruit is offered almost in singularity, with few other dimensions of interest. And this is precisely what became of California Zinfandel until recently. Many, many of these wines left behind nuance for power of fruit, and as a result, became less interesting to me.

I stopped being as excited to go to the annual ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates and Producers) tasting in San Francisco (though I continued to attend and find wines I enjoyed). Perhaps more tellingly, I stopped buying Zinfandel to drink at home.

But then recently...

"I met my old lover on the street last night
She seemed so glad to see me, I just smiled
And we talked about some old times and we drank ourselves some beer
Still crazy after all these years"

Two years ago I happened to have a bottle of Turley's 2011 Judge Bell Vineyard Zinfandel and had my mind blown by the shift that wine represented (at least to my sensibility) in their approach to the grape.

And around the same time I also received in the mail a box of six Zinfandels from Lodi, California, all bearing the same label, but from different producers.

My first taste of the wines from the Lodi Native Project were equally transformative, not only for my vision of what California Zinfandel had become, but also for my opinion of what Lodi was all about.

I was back in bed with Zinfandel. I wasn't quite sure how I ended up there, but I realized I was very happy about it.

But wait. There's more.

The Lodi Native project not only significantly redeemed my dissatisfaction with Lodi Zinfandel, it also inspired my faith in the future of California wine.

By way of illustration, here's a joke I made up:

Q: How many wine critics does it take to convince a winemaker's to change the way they make wine?

A: Insert irrational number here.

The modern literature of wine (i.e. all the stuff we read in the news, magazines, blogs, etc.) is peppered only occasionally by stories of winemakers who have completely transformed the way they approach wine, such as making the transition from making big industrial wines to small artisan operations. These stories are noted and notable if only because they represent very uncommon occurrences.

In my experience most winemakers learn how to make wine and settle into the way they think it should be made, and stick with that approach. Sure they experiment a little each year in an attempt to improve their rendition of a particular vintage, vineyard, or blend--reducing maceration time here, changing the barrel regime there--but rarely do they fundamentally change their approach to making wine.

This is especially true of two of the most important decisions in winemaking: the pick date and the yeasts used in fermentation. In other words, the philosophy of what ripeness is, and how much control the winemaker wants over the transformation of fruit to wine. Most winemakers in the world are very self-assured about both. They know what ripeness means to them, and they stick to it; and they are either comfortable with and desirous of what ambient yeasts do to their wines, or they believe firmly in the qualities of inoculated yeast fermentations.

Enter the Lodi Native project, an experiment dreamed up by fellow wine writer and Lodi Wine ambassador Randy Caparoso along with several Lodi winemakers. In the course of seeking some way to express and promote the remarkably old Zinfandel vineyards of the region.

The Lodi Zinfandel Revolution Continues

Here's what they came up with:

Six wineries would make a Zinfandel from an historic vineyard exceeding 50 years of age. The wines would be picked on the early side, avoiding desiccated fruit, and fermented with native yeasts, and then see no wood other than neutral oak barrels, if any. No other common inputs to the winemaking would be allowed -- no acid additions, no "watering back," no fining, no filtration, etc.

To say that this represented a departure from how Lodi Zinfandel is usually made is something of an understatement. Not that Lodi Zinfandel represents some egregious example of manipulation, but few winemakers ever make Lodi Zinfandel without a bit of acid and commercial yeast at a minimum.

This was an experiment, however, and so six winemakers dove in, some with a great deal of trepidation, and made the first vintage of the Lodi Native wines in 2012.

The results were nothing short of remarkable, both for the wines and the winemakers. At least one winemaker who described himself as completely entrenched in the use of commercial yeast and acid additions was wholly converted to the use of natural yeasts. Another who would never have believed that he could get ripe fruit flavors by picking before the grapes tasted jammy has begun picking earlier and earlier each year with amazement at the results.

And the wines? They show two things brilliantly:

1. What Lodi Zinfandel actually tastes like (something that has been somewhat obscured by winemaking for decades)

2. The incredible diversity and complexity that different old-vine sites can lend to Zinfandel.

In short, the wines are a revelation. Are they the best Zinfandels made in California? Not by a long shot. But that's not the point. Instead they may well be the among the most honest Zinfandels made in California.

Sure, there are other wine producers out there that have been making elegant, native fermented Zinfandels with little oak influence for years, but they are isolated producers. Drinking their wines in isolation provides great pleasure, but not a lot of perspective on either their regions or the Zinfandel grape, if only because none of their neighbors are making wine in the same way.

The Lodi Native project on the other hand provides a unique and crystal-clear window into the synergy of a place and a grape that is captured in the notion we call terroir.

Along the way, this experiment is changing the hearts and minds of winemakers, as well as wine writers like myself. I'm ready to start buying Zinfandel again, especially if it tastes like this.

Here are my notes on the most recent vintage of Lodi Native to be released (the 2013s) as well as new notes (I re-tasted these wines recently) on the 2012 vintage as it continues to develop in the bottle; as well as thoughts on a couple of barrel samples of the 2014 vintage, which had yet to be bottled at the time I tasted them.

Note that these wines are available in very minute quantities at the moment, and only as six-packs (one of each wine) from the Lodi Winegrape Commission. They can, however, be purchased online at the project's web site.

THE LATEST VINTAGE

2013 Fields Family Wines "Lodi Native - Stampede Vineyard" Zinfandel, Mokolumne River, Lodi, California
Medium to dark purple in color, this wine smells of boysenberry and blackberry and blueberry with a hint of cocoa powder and nutmeg. In the mouth, juicy and bright raspberry and boysenberry flavors mix with dried blueberries and a hint of cedar. Great acidity and a very light aspect with a long aromatic finish. 13.9% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9.

2013 Maley Brothers "Lodi Native - Wegat Vineyard" Zinfandel, Mokolumne River, Lodi, California
Dark purple in the glass, this wine smells of blackberry and blueberry with a hint of black pepper. In the mouth, plush blackberry and black cherry fruit flavors mix with a hint of leather and green herbs. 14.9% alcohol. Score: around 8.5.

2013 McCay Cellars "Lodi Native - Trulux Vineyard" Zinfandel, Mokolumne River, Lodi, California
Medium to dark purple in the glass, this wine smells of dried flowers and crushed herbs with dark boysenberry fruit underneath. In the mouth, the wine continues with its extremely aromatic qualities, as lifted flavors of black raspberry, boysenberry, and crushed green herbs soar across the palate. Great acidity keeps the wine bright and the barest hint of tannins caress the back of the mouth. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.

2013 St. Amant "Lodi Native - Marian's Vineyard" Zinfandel, Mokolumne River, Lodi, California
Dark purple in the glass, this wine smells of blackberry bramble, and dried flowers. In the mouth, lilacs, a hint of minerality, and blackberry bramble flavors mix with a wonderful capsaicin spiciness that adds to the racy quality of this wine. Excellent acidity and very faint tannins round out a deliciously bright and juicy rendition of the grape. Very pretty. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.

2013 Macchia "Lodi Native - Schmiedt Ranch" Zinfandel, Mokolumne River, Lodi, California
Very dark, opaque purple in the glass, this wine smells of rich and sweet blackberry and blueberry jam. In the mouth, rich blackberry and blueberry fruit has a lush, silky presence on the palate with perhaps slightly less acidity than I would like, but it's hard to argue with the richness of fruit. There's a touch of heat on the finish. 15.9% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9.

2013 M2 Wines "Lodi Native - Soucie Vineyard" Zinfandel, Mokolumne River, Lodi, California
Very dark garnet in color, this wine smells of crushed green herbs and boysenberries. In the mouth, notes of caramel and toasted vanilla would make me swear that this wine had new oak on it, but this smoky espresso and vanilla quality is merely the product of yeast and grapes. Very good acidity still despite the ripe boysenberry fruit.15% alcohol. Score: around 8.5.


REVISITING THE 2012 VINTAGE

2012 Maley Brothers "Lodi Native - Wegat Vineyard" Zinfandel, Mokolumne River, Lodi, California
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of nutty boysenberry and dried herbs. In the mouth, juicy boysenberry and green herbs mix with a nicely savory earthiness and woody notes that linger in the long finish. Excellent. Score: around 9.

2012 M2 Wines "Lodi Native - Soucie Vineyard" Zinfandel, Mokolumne River, Lodi, California
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dried flowers, lavender and very beautiful candied grape and sweet blueberry notes. In the mouth wonderfully silky flavors of blueberry and black cherry have a gorgeous savory nutmeg and carob quality that emerges in the long finish. Excellent acidity. Score: around 9.

2012 McCay Cellars "Lodi Native - Trulux Vineyard" Zinfandel, Mokolumne River, Lodi, California
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of wet wood, dried flowers and blackberry bramble. In the mouth gorgeously savory cinnamon and spice flavors are layered over blackberry and black cherry flavors that have a fantastic saline quality that lingers for a long time in the finish. Quite tasty. Score: between 9 and 9.5.

2012 St. Amant "Lodi Native - Marian's Vineyard" Zinfandel, Mokolumne River, Lodi, California
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of cocoa powder and black cherry. In the mouth, silky, ripe flavors of blackberry and licorice have slightly less acidity than I would like. A very plush wine that would be more impressive with more brightness and lift. Score: between 8.5 and 9.

2012 Fields Family Wines "Lodi Native - Century Block" Zinfandel, Mokolumne River, Lodi, California
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and boysenberry aromas that have a nice herbal snap. In the mouth, the wine has a silky texture that delivers gorgeous cherry and boysenberry flavors tinged with tobacco leaf to electrify the taste buds. Excellent acidity and length. Score: around 9.

2012 Macchia "Lodi Native - Noma Ranch" Zinfandel, Mokolumne River, Lodi, California
Very dark garnet in color, this wine smells of sweet and jammy raisins and burnt brown sugar. In the mouth, blackberries and raisins mix with cocoa powder and licorice notes linger for a long finish. Toasty burnt brown sugar notes linger through the finish. A bit too ripe, and showing it as the wine ages. Score: between 8 and 8.5.

BARREL SAMPLES

2014 Maley Brothers "Lodi Native - Wegat Vineyard - Barrel Sample" Zinfandel, Mokolumne River, Lodi, California
Dark purple in color, this barrel sample smells of black tea and cola and blackberry. In the mouth, juicy bright blackberry fruit mixes with wonderful green herb flavors. The faintest of tannins linger in the mouth with a hint of beer, of all things. It will be very interesting to see what this wine ends up like once it is bottled. Score: between 8.5 and 9.

2014 Fields Family Wines "Lodi Native - Stampede Vineyard - Barrel Sample" Zinfandel, Mokolumne River, Lodi, California
Light to medium purple in the glass, this barrel sample smells of cedar and bright violets and blackberry. In the mouth, thicker tannins wrap around a core of blackberry, crushed herbs, and licorice mixed with a touch of earth. Great acidity and length. Score: around 9.

2014 St. Amant "Lodi Native - Marian's Vineyard - Barrel Sample" Zinfandel, Mokolumne River, Lodi, California
Medium to dark purple in the glass, this barrel sample smells of flowers, blueberries and blackberries. In the mouth, gorgeously bright blackberry and blueberry fruit are bright with juicy acidity that makes the fruit mouthwatering. Great balance and poise. Extremely encouraging. Score: between 9 and 9.5.

The Lodi Zinfandel Revolution Continues

Images by Randy Caparoso, courtesy of Randy, the Lodi Native project, and the Lodi Wine Commission.