Monday, March 28, 2011

Don't Let It Go To Your Head

In 2000 I was invited to a program called Oregon Pinot Camp. The experience changed my perception of Pinot Noir forever. After spending four days in Willamette Valley attending seminars, conducting barrel tastings and visiting with winemakers, my love affair with Pinot Noir was ignited. From there, my palate expanded to Burgundies and a slippery slope of deliciousness spiraled out of control. Then “Sideways” happened. The Pinot Noir market grew faster than a dot-com in ’98. Most domestic Pinot Noir producers couldn’t keep up with demand so their wines were cut with Syrah, Grenache and just about anything else producers and brand makers could get their hands on. If your bottle was labeled “Pinot Noir”, was under $20, and tasted even the slightest bit like Pinot (or big opulent Syrah) you had a chance at making a fortune. I stopped drinking most domestic Pinot, finding it fake and manufactured. The love affair was over.  

On Wednesday, March 23rd, I lunched at the The Boat House in Westport, CT with a group of local wine geeks. Truth be told, the talent level at this table of eight was staggering. We were eager to taste the 2009 lineup of wines from Arterberry Maresh, including two Chardonnays that have never before been released outside of Oregon. After the first course and tasting the Arterberry Maresh “Dundee Hills” Chardonnay and the Arterberry Maresh “Maresh Vineyard” Chardonnay, a lively discussion ensued as to whether these were the best Chardonnays produced in the United States. The table came to an agreement that while there might be a few Chardonnays (and I stress “a few”) from California that can top these wines, there is no one in Oregon making better Chardonnay.

Then came the Pinot Noirs, which were even better. Winemaker Jim Maresh produced three Pinot Noirs from the 2009 harvest: Dundee Hills, Juliard Vineyard and Maresh Vineyard. All the wines were produced using estate grown fruit, most of which was planted in the ‘70s. Oregon Pinot Noir fanatics recognize David Lett as the pioneer of the Oregon wine industry, planting the first vineyards in 1965. Jim Maresh’s grandfather planted the 5th vineyard in 1970 on a 45 acre plot that would come to be recognized as one of the “choice” spots in Oregon’s most famous AVA, the Red Hills of Dundee. Until the 2005 vintage, all of the fruit grown by the Maresh family was sold to various top Oregon winemakers. But after apprenticeships with Penner Ash, Cameron and St. Innocent, Jim realized the potential his family vineyards held and began producing wine under the Arterberry Maresh label. The inaugural 2005 vintage won instant praise from wine critics and geeks alike. That success continued with the 2006, 2007 and 2008 vintages. I finally got my crack at the wines last year with the ’08 Pinot Noirs.

Jim’s restraint in winemaking is, perhaps, as valuable as the land he pulls his grapes from.  Giving a young winemaker gorgeous fruit from incredibly small plots in Oregon is like throwing the keys to a ‘61 Ferrari 250 GT California to an 18 year old. The potential for disaster is enormous. “Watch me drive this thing like no one before”. But Jim produces wine like Phil Hill drove, with precision and skill and always crediting the machine (fruit in this case). Young winemakers often fall into the trap of making “statement” wines. Jim’s wines are just the opposite. They are not flashy. They are not pretentious. They are true expressions of the site from which they were farmed and are incredibly sensual. None of the wines are fined or filtered and they spend 14 months in barrel. Most of the barrels are twice filled.  This “hands off” approach has produced wines of superior purity and cleanliness while allowing the wines to be packed with flavor and texture. After tasting through the entire lineup, one thing was clear: the wines from Arterberry Maresh are the best wines being produced in Oregon, period. Just in case I’m not making myself clear:

The Arterberry Maresh wines are the best wines being produced in Oregon.

So my love affair with domestic Pinot Noirs has been rekindled. At least the spark is back. But I won’t profess my undying love for domestic Pinot Noir until I stop seeing these mass marketed, formula wines that captured the palates of the American consumer faster than Kool-Aid. Pinot Noir, at least to the purist, is about grace, elegance and expression of land on which it was farmed. Jim Maresh, the 27 year old phenom winemaker for Arterberry Maresh, has brought a purist approach to Oregon wines. Let’s just hope his head doesn’t get bigger than his vineyards. Otherwise, that ’61 Ferrari 250 GT California will get kicked off its jack and head through a glass wall into the woods below.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Other White Wine

It’s called “RBF” or “Riesling Bottle Fear”. It’s a condition in wine drinkers that triggers an immediate “God No! I don’t drink sweet wines” when presented a bottle that is tall and skinny with funny names like Steinsetz and Weixelbaum. Misguided as that may be, Austrian (and some German) producers have developed a cure to this immediate perverse reaction. They are now sneaking their wines into the hands of consumers using  Bordeaux bottles. Some are packaging their wines in Burgundy bottles and for the more basic wines, the trend has moved to liter bottles with a pop cap. These changes have broken down a tremendous barrier that had once stifled the Gruner Veltliner category in the United States and kept Pinot Grigio on top. For the retailer, it is now much easier to suggest a Gruner Veltliner to a Santa Margherita drinker. Thank God!

The movement in Connecticut should really be credited to Eric Litchfield. Eric is the foremost expert on German and Austrian wines in CT. You can find a wealth of information on German and Austrian wines on his website, Eric has been blazing a German and Austrian wine trail in CT for more than 20 years as a representative for Slocum & Sons. He is now the director of their German and Austrian wine portfolio. Recent entries into the CT market including Michael Skurnik Wines have helped develop the diversity of Gruner Veltliners offered in the market place from the simple HM Berger in the liter bottle to the simply stunning Felsner Gruner Veltliner Alte Reben. Gruner Veltliners can be light and airy with slight notes of pepper and spice or they can be downright Burgundian with apple and pear notes and rife with texture. The best can spend some time in the bottle and be just as complex as Grand Cru Puligny (my mind secretly typed Corton but let’s not get carried away). It’s this diversity that will eventually be the proverbial nail in the coffin for Pinot Grigio.

My reaction to a supplier pulling a Pinot Grigio out of their bag is about the same as a vodka coming out of the bag. New brands are being contrived (words chosen carefully) every week, each promising huge profits and elated customers, each falling on their face with little to offer but flashy packaging and price point. There are exceptions to the rule. Elena Walch and Alois Lageder continue to produce Pinot Grigios that are stylistic and offer more than just water and lemon. But, pull a new Gruner out of the bag and you’re likely to get a meeting in the office with two glasses and a long conversation about where the wine is from, who’s the winemaker and what’s the story. I might even buy some.

Last year’s favorite came from Oregon (of all places) and was produced by Pam Walden of Daedalus Cellars. In fact, rumors of CA winemaker/innovators planting Gruner Veltliner are swelling. It looks as though the west coast cats want to break into the category. Only time will tell if it can be done. It’s pretty tough to copy generations of know how. In the meantime, Gruner Veltliner from Austria continues to flow. Wine stores staffed with wine geeks are reducing their facings of Pinot Grigio and increasing their Gruner Veltliner selection. Why?
  • Because Gruner Veltliner is "The Other White Wine"
  • Because it's so darn versatile
  • Because of the many different styles
  • Because of the price/quality ratio
  • Because all the cool kids are doing it

I've never been one to lump myself in with the cool kids, but I've got a lot of Gruner on my palate these days and loving it. We're turning the corner to spring and I can turn the corner to lighter styles of Gruner Veltliner (and Rosey of course) refreshing my palate. I'll still savor the fatter styles with meals like fresh caught sea bass on the grill, but a nice zippy Gruner Veltliner with fresh sugar snap pea and cucumber salad sounds like a slice of heaven right about now. Here are some of my favorite Gruner Veltliners of all styles:
  •  Schloss Gobelsburg Steinsetz  Kamptal Reserve
  • Gustav Wachau
  • Nigl Alte Reben
  • Felsner
  • Felsner Alte Reben
  • Weixelbaum Staphanus

Thursday, March 10, 2011


In 1980, Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild officially announced a joint venture to create an ultra premium wine from Napa Valley. One year later, a single case of the joint venture wine sold for $24,000 at the first ever Napa Valley Wine Auction. It was the highest price ever paid for a California wine. In 1984, the ‘79 and ‘80 vintages of Opus One were unveiled as the first ever and released to the market. Five years later, Opus One exported a share of its ’85 vintage to Europe and became the first ever ultra premium California wine to do so. In 1995, Opus One reached its capacity at 25,000 nine liter cases and had solidified itself as one of the greatest wines coming from California. The winemaking team of Patrick Leon and Tim Mondavi had created a magical wine that customers could easily recognize and established as the pinnacle of California wine. Robert Mondavi had created a legacy. Perhaps we might even consider “Opus One” as the original California Cult Cabernet. It was difficult to get and if you found some, you bought it. The Mondavi family’s name became synonymous with excellence.

But the globalization of the company proved to be too much to handle as just a family business (lesson learned). Robert publicly criticized his sons, Michael and Tim for their leadership of the company, citing a concentration on the inexpensive lines of Mondavi, Coastal and Woodbridge.  He had stated “We've got to get our image back, and that's going to take time" His eldest son Michael was eventually ousted from the company and Robert sold his company to Constellation Brands in 2004. Now, not a single member of the Mondavi family is involved in any capacity at Opus One, the once proud Mondavi family operation. For many of us in the industry, Opus One is now nothing but a nuisance that very few (and misguided) regard as the benchmark ultra premium wine in California.

True to its stubborn Italian roots (I’m Italian, I can say it), the Mondavi family is a resilient one. In 2005, after the sale to Constellation Brands, Robert founded Continuum with his wife Margrit, younger son Tim and daughter Marcia to produce a single estate wine. The family chose Pritchard Hill, on the eastern side of Napa Valley as its new site for its westward facing slopes and red, rocky, volcanic and loam soils. The inaugural vintage for Continuum was 2005 in which the family produced just 1,500 cases with Tim in the winemaking lead. It sold out almost immediately upon release. It received high accolades from both The Wine Spectator (93 Points) and Roberts Parker (95 points) and prompted Robert Parker to write “Tim Mondavi’s new project continues to display exceptional promise. Kudos to Tim Mondavi for continuing the legacy of his family.”
Those of us in the industry took sharp notice of the new production wondering if the Mondavi legacy had returned to Napa Valley. Could Tim put his family back on top?

My first experience with the Mondavi family’s new venture was with the 2006 vintage. I remember being taken aback by the rich and opulent wine that was clearly new world in style but spoke volumes of the talent behind it. It showed incredible purity and grace. I figured the wine should receive high accolades. It did, garnering 96 points from Robert Parker and 95 points from The Wine Spectator. With a miniscule 1,500 case production, the wine sold out very quickly and customers immediately asked about 2007. The 2007 vintage came in and went out very quietly with 98 points from Parker and 97 points from The Wine Spectator. Whatever came in the door went out so quickly I never got a chance to say “no” to anyone. I never got my hands on a bottle for myself.

So what will 2008 bring?  Marcia Mondavi was in the store recently and we discussed the 2008 vintage at great length as we tasted the wine. My tasting notes are below. In a nutshell, it is clear that in just 4 vintages, Robert Mondavi’s children have restored the Mondavi image and put the family back at the pinnacle of California wine. Somewhere upstairs Tim’s father is smiling proudly and saying “Ecco!”

2008 Continuum
Perhaps the change that had the biggest effect on the 
Continuum was the addition of 5% Merlot. Tim does not like to use Merlot unless its quality is ultra high. He believes the fruit he purchased for the 2008 vintage was exceptional and adds a rounded, oily texture to the wine. I tend to agree. 70% of the fruit came from Pritchard Hill with an average vine age of 15 years. The 2008 is supple and round with incredibly soft texture that is both slippery and weighty. Accents of coffee, tobacco, plum and black currant are complexed by just a small amount of graphite and mineral. A big finish that is polished by supple tannins and dusted with just a touch of oak. The 2008 Continuum should have a staying power of about 10 years. Look for it to peak between 2018-2019.