Category Archives: Producers

Ridge Montebello

Montebello is perched in the Santa Cruz Mountains overlooking Silicon Valley.  Many of the world’s most esteemed commentators and winemakers are of the opinion that this vineyard produces America’s greatest wine.  Its reputation has grown steadily for fifty years under the stewardship of Ridge and its remarkable staff.

MontebelloMontebello’s story began thirty million years ago when the magma that resulted from the collision of the North American plate and the Pacific plate pushed a mound of marine sediment half a mile into the air.  It is still rises a bit every year.  These are limestone soils, which are very rare in California and highly prized for water retention and the calcium content that imparts flavor.

The high elevation combined with the proximity to the ocean results in a higher rainfall than any other growing region in the state.  Montebello is one of California’s few vineyards that is effectively able to be dry farmed.  Some irrigation is used to help young vines establish themselves.  Rainfall totals often range between 70 and 100 inches per year, which is three to four times as much rain as the Napa Valley.

The mountain was first developed in 1886 by an Italian family from San Francisco.  Prohibition destroyed the market for the wine and it was barely maintained; effectively abandoned by the 1940s.  The vineyard is still smaller than it was in 1920.

Four scientists from nearby Stanford purchased the property and founded Ridge in 1959.  Paul Draper, who is the chief winemaker and the face of the organization, joined the company in 1969.  The original winery was rehabbed and the first estate Montebello was the 1971 vintage, a highly prized wine because it competed in the famous 1976 Judgement of Paris Tasting.

Old Vine RidgeThe vineyard is planted in three tiers ranging from 1300 to 2660 feet in elevation.  Inversion pushes warm air from the valley to the top of the mountain; in March this aids budbreak, when the vine wakes from winter dormancy.  The hill is planted with Cabernet, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.  Chardonnay is present as well.  Chaparral bushes growing on the mountain add a black tea flavor to the wines.

The winemaking team strives to intervene as little as possible in the conversion from grape to wine.  The grapes are removed from their stems, then native, ambient yeasts convert sugar into alcohol.  The vineyard dictates the alcohol content, which is always less than fourteen percent and well below average for California.  The grapes hang on the vine into October, so they have plenty of time to take in nutrients and develop complexity.  Napa Valley producers have extended their harvest dates to October as well, but the warmer climate results in overripe fruit and higher alcohol levels.

Much of the fermentation occurs in a large tank and as the process finishes the wine is moved into oak barrels.  While the alcoholic fermentation winds down, the malolactic fermentation, which softens the acidity and adds richness, is getting under way.  They have found that the residue  from this second fermentation tempers the influence of the oak barrels, all of which are new.

Ridge BarrelsRidge only uses American oak.  The forests and coopers are mainly in Missouri and Kentucky.  American oak has a terrible reputation, and rightly so.  It typically imparts a dill pickle and sawdust taste on the wine.  None of these flavors are found in Montebello.  The difference is in the cooperage. After a tree is cut down, the planks must be seasoned for two years before they can be made into barrels.  California coopers typically have the oak shipped from the Midwest to be dried in California.  Ridge asserts that the correct climate for seasoning is in the forest where the tree was grown.  The barrels are made locally and shipped complete, instead of being assembled in California.  This increases cost, but the difference in quality speaks for itself.

The commitment to quality American oak combined with the site’s elevation, rainfall and soil solidifies Montebello’s place as the great American wine.  It is the only top tier wine from a site that does not require irrigation and is completely a product of our country.

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Gypsy Canyon Angelica

While researching Santa Barbara I came across a very small winery that only produces three hundred and fifty cases per year called Gypsy Canyon.  The draw was one of the two wines made here – a dessert wine called Angelica.

 

I’ll begin with some geography.  Two mountain ranges form the north and south borders of the Santa Ynez Valley.  They funnel the cool ocean air and fog into the region.  The cooler, western portion of the valley has been granted its own region called Santa Rita Hills.  Canyons run between those mountains and are generally a bit warmer, especially as one moves away from the coast.  Gypsy Canyon is on the northern side of the valley and is closer to the ocean than most, but the morning fogs do not always make their way up the canyon to the vineyard.  

 

Gypsy CanyonDeborah Hall originally intended to plant a few acres of Pinot Noir to sell the local winemakers, but while the vines were being planted, some nearby brush was cleared to reveal an old vineyard of scraggly vines.  They were identified as a grape called Mission, which was originally brought to California by Spanish missionaries.  After researching the history of her property, she concluded that the vines were probably planted in 1887; that makes it the oldest vineyard in Santa Barbara County.

 

In the modern wine making era Mission has fallen out of favor because the table wine it produces has little character.  Deborah thought it a crime to let these old vines go unused, so she looked to the history of the missionaries for inspiration.  The mission in Santa Barbara has collected the annals from all the missions in California.  There she read correspondence among missionaries about the various wines they produced.  

 

Mission is a red-skinned grape, so it can be used to produce red and white wine.  For sacramental purposes, a table wine was produced.  The missionaries also made a wine for themselves and their guests called Angelica.  Deborah decided to make her own wines and resurrect this long lost style.  She follows the historic model as closely as she can.

 

The grapes for Angelica were left to hang on the vine as long as nature would allow, making them as ripe and as sweet as possible.  For Deborah, the Mission is harvested in the middle of December.  Both red and white versions of Angelica were made, but the white was more highly prized.  For the white, the grapes were pressed and the skins were quickly removed.  Halfway through the fermentation the wine was fortified with grape spirit, which raised the alcohol content, killed the yeast and protected the wine from oxygen.  This left some degree of sweetness in the partially-fermented wine.  

 

After fortification, it was transferred into barrels.  Typically a wine barrel is filled to the top to prevent oxygen from getting to the wine, but the Angelica barrels were only half-full.  This allowed oxygen to turn the wine an amber color and change the fruit characteristics.  When they were ready for a new batch of bottles, they blended wines from a few years to increase the complexity in what was akin to a solera system in Spain.

 

Deborah’s homage is an amber color with ruby highlights.  It tastes like butterscotch, toffee, sour cherries and orange-flavored liqueur.  In keeping with the historic theme, she sought out a glassmaker to individually craft each bottle.  The labels are handmade and the neck is dipped in beeswax.  She also signs every bottle.  

 

Her Pinot Noir is in similar packaging.  It was a very elegant style, perhaps the lightest I have had on the journey.  I would have never guessed that she had been working with wine, let alone a grape as difficult as Pinot Noir, for less than ten years.

 

Too few wines in California are able to claim a sense of the state’s viticultural history, and even less live up to the quality of the reputation.  Deborah’s Angelica succeeds on both fronts.

 

 

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Georis and Madeleine

I am in Sand City, just to the north of Monterey, sitting in a combination café, bar and restaurant called the Ol’ Factory.  Great name!  There is a very comfortable feel to the joint and I can see myself spending my upcoming days here.  It was recommended to me by Joni Barna and Damien Georis, who I met at the Pisoni cookout.  Damien makes the wines for Georis Winery in the Carmel Valley and has his own label called Madeleine, which he dedicated to the woman who introduced him to wine. 

 

Monterey Fisherman's WharfI visited him last Thursday after a visit to the Monterey Fisherman’s Wharf – clam chowder central.  I would guess that there are twenty restaurants on the wharf.  All claim to have the best clam chowder and all provide samples to prove it.  It’s all you can eat!  Some were better than others, but all had really fresh clams. 

 

The Carmel Valley runs northwest to southeast and is populated by high hills that greatly restrict the marine influence on the vines.  They also restrict travelers from moving to quickly through the valley with steep slopes and hairpin turns; though not far from town as the crow flies, the winery is isolated.

 

GeorisWalter Georis, a restauranteur from Carmel, purchased the ranch and planted Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon in the early 1980s. The primary plot is a steep, dusty hillside that experiences warm days and cold nights.   The other plot is called Clos des Moutons, or hill of the sheep, which is a former pasture.  It is planted with cuttings from Petrus, one of the great domaines in Bordeaux.  Yields are tremendously low on these vines and they produce four barrels of a tremendously intense, rich red from Merlot and Cabernet Franc.  I tasted the 2006 out of barrel and was very impressed.  It is selling for $85 per bottle, which is more than I would pay for most any wine.  In order for a bottle to be worth that much, it must offer the ability to age, high complexity and a balanced palate.  The Clos des Moutons has all three, with the added incentive of rarity.  Only 145 cases of this tremendous wine are produced.

 

The Damien Georis is the winemaker and he shares Walter’s last name, but they are not related (in any immediate way).  He was working in Bordeaux when Walter was searching for a new winemaker and found him via the internet.  Since he was working with the same grapes grown in the Carmel Valley, it seemed like a natural fit.  

 

We tasted the current release of the Madeleine, which is a blend of Cabernet and Syrah from 2006.  It is an intense, inky wine that shows particularly well after decanting loads of dark berry fruits.  I don’t know how he can sell this for $18 per bottle.  It is an even better value than Andrew Murray’s “Tous les Jours”.  

 

After the tasting we met with Joni at a local tapas restaurant called Mundaka, which provided filling small plates at a small price with a value driven wine list.  I haven’t been to any other restaurant in Carmel, but it’s hard to imagine getting more for your money.  And for all you cured meat lovers, they have Iberico!

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Angelica!

I solved it!  The back seat of my car is huge and I slept like a rock.  I awoke early Wednesday morning and took a tour of Solvang, which is about five miles east of Buellton.  It is the most tourist driven town that I have visited in the county, but it seems to have missed the boat when it comes to the wine crowd.  Lots of quaint inns and faux-medieval architecture, but only one wine bar and few tasting rooms.

My first winery of the day was Buttonwood, a producer who focuses on grapes from Bordeaux.  This is an oddity in the Santa Ynez Valley, but they are in a warm, well-elevated pocket.  Their flagship wine is a tasty Sauvignon Blanc.  They also offer a wine called Sibling Revelry, which is the best wine I’ve ever had under $5 per bottle. They only sell it by the case.

For me, the best wines are those that communicate the climate and the history of the vines’ surroundings.  My next stop provided a taste of the very early days of California wine.

Old Mission VinesGrapes are not native to California, but they have been grown here since the Spanish ruled.  One grape variety, called Mission, produced the wines used by missionaries in their church services.  Most of it was simple red wine, but the missionaries made a small amount of Angelica for themselves.  It was fortified and exposed to oxygen; similar to the sherries made in Jerez.  One very small producer, Deborah Hall of Gypsy Canyon, is making a modern homage to this lost classic.  She undertook the project when she discovered a Mission vineyard on her property that was planted in the 1880s and had been forgotten since Prohibition began.  Prickly ShoesWe took a tour of the vines to the chagrin of my shoes.  A more complete description of the wine and its production is coming tomorrow.

The next day I met with Peter Cargasacchi, who farms two of the best vineyards in the county.  The more winemakers I meet and the more wines I taste, the more I learn how direct the effect of the vineyard is on the finished wine.  The planting, pruning and trellising decisions do not simply produce good or bad grapes.  They determine if the wine will be fruit forward or earthy; full-bodied or light.

Shale HillsPeter began our visit on a mountain road, where we pulled over to see a side of the hill that had been cut away when the road was built.  Here we saw layer upon layer of marine sediment that had turned into shale over millions of years.  It was thrust out of the ocean when the Pacific plate collided with the North America plate.  This is the primary soil type in the Santa Ynez Valley.  It is very crumbly and has a high calcium content, which lowers the perceived acid level in the finished wine.

Bottling LineI was due back in Paso Robles that evening so I could get an early start on the bottling line at Dubost.  They do not have the equipment at the winery so they hire a mobile unit in a trailer. I was chosen to feed the foiling machine and to serve as quality control after the wine was corked.  If the fill level was too low or a cork was missing, I pulled it off the line and sent it back to the beginning.  The foil machine is an ingenious invention that pulls the foil from its stack and places it on top of the bottle for another machine to twist it down.  It worked really well – for the first three hours.  Then it didn’t.  My cushy quality control gig devolved into an I Love Lucy episode on the assembly line.

Wildfire HillsOn Saturday I returned to Los Angeles to relax, which sounds weird.  On the way I drove through the hills where the Santa Barbara fires had burned days earlier.

In the days since, I have been focusing on getting A Really Goode Job.  Murphey-Goode is a winery in Sonoma that is going to hire someone to live on their property for six months, tour Sonoma wineries and picnic sites, and make a wine to commemorate the harvest.  The Wine Country Lifestyle Correspondent will be charged with blogging about the experience.  They are paying $10,000 per month!  The selection process has three stages.  The first involves submitting a resume and a sixty-second video showing your production prowess (or lack thereof) and personality.  It is progressing well and I will certainly have a good piece in time for the June 5th deadline.

To view more photos from this week, click here.

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Pinch Me

Santa YnezCould things get any better?

For the first time this week I was awake before Doug and Pam.  No, I haven’t been burning the candle at both ends; I’ve simply grown to appreciate the comfort of a good mattress.  Today was my first foray into Santa Barbara wine country.  I had an appointment with Andrew Murray of Andrew Murray Vineyards at 10 o’clock so I had to get moving early.

Escaping LA was uneventful (thanks in no small part to the GPS that Doug and Pam let me borrow); though I’m sure that the poor souls sitting in traffic going the opposite direction would hate to hear me say that.  After I hit the 101, which follows the coast before running for the hills, one scene after another left me shaking my head with an ear-to-ear smile.  Mountains falling into the ocean followed by high-county lakes and hills draped in vineyards.

Which One Will It Be?Andrew was the first person to reply to my requests for a visit and he was also the most empathetic, having gone through periods of wanderlust himself.  The typical winery appointment consists of a tour of the winemaking facilities and a tasting of the produce.  To make the experience more unique, Andrew took me on a tour of the eastern end of the Santa Ynez Valley, where grapes native to the Rhone Valley thrive.   We visited two vineyards, Thompson and Watch Hill, to inspect the early season development of the vines.  Keep an eye out for an upcoming post that will chronicle the tour.

Andrew Murray has a tasting room in the small town of Los Olivos.  After my time with him I went into town to taste his wines and mingle with the tourist set.  In 1998, his tasting room was the third to open in the small town.  After Sideways put the spotlight on the Santa Barbara scene, the number of tasting rooms grew to fourteen.  Now a town with one stop sign is the favorite imbibery of LA’s weekend warriors.  I heard horror stories – people were dumping the spit buckets on their heads on a regular basis.  No lie!

At three o’clock I traveled the short distance to Buellton, another Sideways setting.  Just off the highway is a new multi-million dollar venture for boutique wine production called Terravant.  Ken Brown is an eponymous husband-and-wife operation that uses the facilities for wine-making and storage; their offices are on the property as well.  Ken is one of Santa Barbara’s wine pioneers.  He worked at Zaca Mesa from 1977 until 1984 when he founded the Byron Winery.  He sold Byron to Mondavi in 1990 and stayed on to manage the wines through 2004.  We had an enlightening two-hour conversation and tasting in his office.  We talked about the growing conditions in Santa Barbara, the history of California wine and the advancements that have been made in the vineyards over the course of his career.

Hitching PostAs I left Ken Brown in the late afternoon, I came across the Hitching Post restaurant of Sideways fame.  They make their own wines and serve them by the glass.  I had the 2006 St. Rita’s Earth with grilled quail and mashed Wild Turkey sweet potatoes.  The dish was an excellent pair with the Pinot, but it worked even better with the 1985 Chateau Palmer.  How did I end up with Palmer?  I sat at the bar next to an off-duty waitress whose customer had brought it the night before along with a 1978 Leoville-Las Cases.  They didn’t finish the bottles, so I had the leftovers.  Not much of the 78, but at least I got a taste.  Over half the bottle of Palmer remained and I shared it with another wine tourist sitting on the other side of me.  The staff didn’t care for the wine, saying it was too heavy for their tastes.  More for me!

Now I’m off to complete the day with a viewing of Wolverine before finding a rest area to try out my latest theory on comfortable car sleep.  We’ll see what this passenger seat is capable of!

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Kief-Joshua Vineyards

homelogoOn my jaunt through the Sonoita AVA in southern Arizona, I came across a budding young winery that shows potential.  I would not normally make that assertion without tasting the produce of the vineyards, but in the case of Kief-Joshua, that is not possible.

Kief Manning planted his first vines on “winery row” in 2005.  It takes three years for the vine to produce a commercial crop, thus the 2008 harvest, which will be released this fall, was the first on the estate.  To sustain themselves on the path toward 100% estate production, the winery purchases grapes and juice from California and Arizona.  They currently feature Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and a blend of Nebbiolo, Sangiovese and Tempranillo.  New plantings are progressing at an acre per year and the vineyard is expected to fully supply the winery’s grapes within a decade.  He has planted an eclcectic range of ten varieties: Tempranillo, Mourvedre, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Chenin Blanc, Syrah, Zinfandel, Reisling, Semillion and Viognier.

Kief has created a sustainable model for his vineyards – foregWinery KJoing the use of pesticides and herbicides.  He was trained in biodynamic viticulture in Australia, and he has adopted many of its principles.  He said he will never be able to put the term “biodynamic” on his labels because his estate cannot produce enough fertilizer for its needs.  Everything on an official biodynamic estate must come from the property.

I have been attracted to the idea of biodynamics because it emphasizes symbiotic relationships as a substitute for chemicals.  In the case of Kief-Joshua, they promote the presence of praying mantis, owls and hawks to control pests.  My favorite animal that they employ are the Baby Doll Sheep.  Full grown these mini-munchers stand two feet tall, too short to reach the grapes, but the perfect height to feed on weeds and grass.

Mini MuncherThe combination of thoughtful viticulture and well made wines (albeit from other sources) promises a bright future for Kief-Joshua.  I will be checking back in with them regularly.

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Sonoita AVA

Sonoita VineyardsWhen I left St. Louis I was intent on tearing my way across the country to hit the classic growing regions north of Los Angeles within five days of my departure.  Thankfully I realized on the road that this is a rare oppotunity to visit the regions that aren’t found on the shelves in Missouri.  Sonoita is near the Mexican border in Arizona, a little less than an hour southeast of Tucson.  For me it was another of the many names I’ve had to memorize over the years without thinking that I may go there one day and enjoy the wines.  There are at least eight producers in the area, but many are not open for tours and tastings during the weekdays.  If you find yourself on the way to Sonoita, I suggest making it a weekend trip.

Arizona seemed to be a curious place to grow grapes, particularly in the southern part of the state (there are some producers in the northern mountains near Sedona, but I did not get the chance to check them out) and as I drove through the sparse Tucson landscape I envisioned extreme viticulture akin to the conditions on Mt. Etna in Sicily.  As the interstate gave way to the two-lane highway, the road began to climb and I was back in mountain scenery as beautiful as I had experienced in New Mexico.  The elevation is responsible for cooler temperatures – mainly 80 degree days in the summer – and sufficient rainfall – an average of 29 inches per year.  Kief Manning of Kief-Joshua Vineyards named frost and hail as the most prominent threats to viticulture and Fran Lightly of Sonoita Vineyards mentioned significant damage to their Cabernet vines by deer feeding on the budding plant in spring.  The deer have good taste.  Sonoita Vineyards now has a seven-foot-tall fence lining their property.

In my research of the area I looked up Tucson on Wikipedia and found that they have a monsoon season from July until late August and often September.  I have read that southeast Asia would be a wonderful place to grow grapes if it were not for the excessive rain during the harvest.  Rain in the latter part of the growing season often leads to fungal diseases and diluted grape juice.  I was curious if this domestic monsoon had a negative effect on Sonoita.  Kief explained that the rains often provided a respite from late summer heat and that the humidity was a non-issue.  “The humidity levels often drop from 90% to less than 10% in a matter of minutes.”  I’ll be profiling Kief-Joshua in my next post.

Sonoita Vineyards is the oldest commercial winery in the area.  It is a lovely property with over 40 acres planted.  I tasted seven wines – four dry and three sweet.  The two dry whites were a Colombard and a Sauvignon Blanc.  Both showed true varietal character, particularly the Sauvignon.  For the reds I enjoyed the proprietary blend called MeCaSa – Merlot, Cabernet and Syrah.  It had a very complex nose and was a bit lighter bodied than I would normally expect from this blend, which is not something I’m prone to complain about.  The sweet wines were classic examples of the American style, though one did have a heavy dose of sulphur.  A Cabernet Sauvignon is available, but is not opened for the tastings.  They offer back vintages of the Cab to the 1980’s as well.  Fran has had the 1984 at the last two staff Christmas parties and has been impressed both times.  The current release is $40 and the 1984 is $100.  The lineup proved to me that Sonoita is capable of producing varietally correct wines that would fit right in with other examples from California.

My time in the region was brief, but I came away with a newfound respect for the produce of America’s lesser known wine sources.

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