Terroir – Rhoda Stewart's Journal on Wine

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Union Des Grands Crus de Bordeaux – a tasting event – 2017

Palace Hotel - Les Grands Crus de Blordeaux Tasting eventUnion Des Grands Crus de Bordeaux – January 2017 – (with a couple of small digressions) ©2017 Rhoda Stewart

“These are classic wines, lean, structured, balanced, moderate alcohol [13 – 14%), balanced oak (mostly if not all French, from Centre de France.” (Bernard Portet, January 2011, founding winemaker for Clos du Val—est. 1972, Napa Valley, CA)

Held in the ballroom or in a spacious conference room in one of San Francisco’s grand hotels, where stunning chandeliers hang from the vaulted ceilings with their frosted glass skylights, the Grands Crus de Bordeaux tasting event is a wondrous affair.

Elegant even in daylight, the ambience is further enhanced with an enormous bouquet of dazzling red roses at the entrance.

Bouquet of Red Roses - Palace Hotel

Inside the room are tables covered with crisp white cloths for each of the presenting chateaux, and across the front is a table holding rows of gleaming wine glasses. Situated strategically throughout are enticing stands of cheeses, fruits, and thinly sliced baguettes, all adorned with more flower arrangements.

 All done to heighten anticipation for the main event: the wines themselves, and the particular appellation each represents.

The 2011 event was my first experience with the wines of Bordeaux.

Frankly, I was quite overwhelmed. Apart from the Sauternes, which are all sweet white wines, Bordeaux AOCs are predominately red wine appellations.  So many wines (upwards to 200); so many soil types (a dozen or more appellations):  how to distinguish! So I was delighted to have encountered Monsieur Portet; his words gave me a direction, and some sense of what to expect, and what not to expect. Certainly not the big, luscious, fruity wines of the annual California Zinfandel (ZAP) tasting, which represents most of California’s prime Zinfandel regions.  Most of these wines have forward fruit of red or black berries, ripe currants, and other luscious fruits, and carry alcohol levels of 15% or higher; some reek of oak.  Rather, expect a less fruity, less luscious wine, leaner, with perhaps more spiciness and earthy fruit tones, and with alcohol levels of from 12.5% to 14%.  And definitely NOT smothered in oak!

The primary appellations of Bordeaux are commonly referred to as “Left” and “Right” bank, which refers to the two rivers, the Garonne and Dordogne, running north-east through the Bordeaux peninsula. Left Bank are vineyards to the west of the rivers; Right Bank are vineyards to the east of these rivers.  There is also AOC Entre duex Mers, which occupies the land between the rivers.

The Right Bank appellations consist of the AOCs Pomerol, Saint-Emilion, and The Côtes, together making up the region surrounding Libourne, the principal city of the right bank.  The wines of the Right Bank AOCs are Merlot-based, and are enhanced and balanced out with varying percentages of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. The most prestigious are the heady wines of Pomerol and Saint-Emilion.  Pomerol, the tiniest Right Bank appellation, is distinguished by its iron-rich clay soil. The Merlot-based wines from this appellation are blended with small percentages of Cabernet Franc, and are renowned for their silky tannins and soft elegance.  It is not uncommon that they have some of the Zinfandel fruitiness, notable for flavors of prunes that are typical of Zinfandels made from super-ripe grapes.

There is no classification system for Pomerol. The most prestigious wines of this appellation are Petrus and Le Pin.

The soil of the adjacent and much larger Right Rank appellation of Saint-Emilion is mostly limestone-based, which produces more structured Merlot-based wines that are usually blended with varying percentages of Cabernet Sauvignon, and in some instances, also with a bit of Cab Franc. The limestone-based soil also yields wines of higher acids and robust yet elegant tannins.  These wines, while showing less of the fruitiness and more structure than the Pomerols, are nonetheless softer wines than are usually found in Left Bank Bordeaux wines.

Marie Pourguet – Chateau Grand Pontet – St. Emilion Grand Cru Classe

St. Emilion-Chateau Grand Pontet 2010

Chateau Grand Pontet – St. Emilion – 2009 – Grand Cru Classe

St. Emilion has a classification system; the highest accorded is Premiere Grand Cru Classé A. Château Cheval Blanc is the most consistent recipient this classification

For those of you whose perceptions of Merlot wines were soured by the raging invective against Merlots leveled by the character Miles in the 2004 Hollywood film Sideways, I recommend a second look, both at the wines and at the film.   For while Miles shrieks at his lecherous pal, Jack, as they approach their first bar to mark the beginning of Jack’s week-long pre-wedding sexual debauchery, “I am not drinking Merlot,” yet the prized bottle that he has been hoarding for his 10th wedding anniversary celebration is a bottle of the much-coveted 1961 Château Cheval Blanc, ironically, a Merlot-based wine. The variety (Merlot) is not the problem, as Miles unwittingly reveals in a conversation with his friend Maya a few scenes further on.  The problem he has, or thinks he has, with Merlot, is, of course, with himself!

Sadly, there is no mention in that scene, or anywhere else in the film, that Miles realizes that his Premiere Grand Cru Classé A Cheval Blanc is Merlot-based, which acknowledgement might have spared California’s Merlot growers some of the financial losses that Miles’ ignorant tirade against this variety cost them—not to mention greatly enhancing the screenplay!  The scene between Maya and Miles at Stephanie’s house (while Stephanie and Jack have retreated to her bedroom) could have been the perfect place for this revelation.  When Miles tells Maya that he has this 1961 Cheval Blanc in his tiny “gathering” of wines, I could envision Maya casually remarking how wonderful and long-ageing a Merlot can be under the right circumstances and in the hands of a knowledgeable winemaker.

It is tantalizing to contemplate what Miles’ response to such a comment from Maya might have been. Of course, such an addition to that scene would necessarily change the film into something quite different—and probably much better.  As Pulitzer Prize winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda once wrote in a magnificent little essay called “The Word”: An idea goes through a complete change because one word shifted its place, or because another settled down like a spoiled little thing inside a phrase that was not expecting her but obeys her.  (Pablo Neruda: Memoirs, New York:  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974, 53.)

So, too, can a single line in a screenplay transform a film.

A further irony occurs at the end of the film when Miles, depressed with the realization that his ex-wife is never coming back and that there will be no10th anniversary celebration with his Cheval Blanc, he finally and surreptitiously drinks this prized wine out of a plastic cup while dining alone on a hamburger in a fast-food roadside restaurant.  And, the film suggests, does so with great enjoyment.  So a great Merlot can be enjoyed just about anywhere and with any food.  So much for Miles’ misplaced outrage, actually one among many, indicating perhaps that the film itself should have been “misplaced” into some obscure corner before it ever made it to the theaters.

But I digress . . . now back to the wonderful world of Grands Crus de Bordeaux!

The Medoc is the largest appellation in the Left Bank. It covers most of the peninsula between the Gironde (the estuary of the Garonne River) and the Atlantic Ocean.  It is broken into several sub-appellations whose distinctions are subtle, at least to me, and took me some time to perceive.

In contrast to Right Bank wines, wines of the Medoc are primarily Cabernet Sauvignon-based, and are tempered with the additions of varying percentages of Cab Franc and Merlot as well as with such lesser varieties as Petit Verdot and Malbec. And while you could find a few blends from the Left Bank AOC’s dominated by Merlot, with Cabernet Sauvignon and others among the lesser percentages, the effect overall are nonetheless consistently leaner and more restrained wines than from the Right Bank, with a more distinguished tannin backbone, and with a lingering earthy, spicy component that is instantly recognizable in most Bordeaux reds.  These wines usually benefit from a few additional years’ of bottle-ageing in a cool, dark cellar—or a similar environment.

January 2017 Grand Crus de Bordeaux event was my third, and during this event, I felt that I was at last beginning to make some headway. I was detecting distinctions; and I was discovering some favorites among the appellations and within the appellations.

The first such distinctions that I noticed were the spicy, earthy, cocoa-like tannins and flavors in the wines from the warmer gravel-and-clay-based soils found in the AOCs of St. Estèphe and Pauillac, the two northern-most appellations. St. Estèphe is situated on a gravel-based soil next to the Gironde estuary and closest to the Atlantic.  Pauillac borders St. Estèphe along the estuary just to the south. These are widely described as powerful reds with a strong Cabernet Sauvignon backbone (upwards to 60%), softened and mellowed with varying percentages of both Merlot and Cabernet Franc.

Chateau Malescot St. Exupery - 2008 Margaux

Chateau Malescot – St. Exupery 2008 – Margaux Grand Cru Classe

These two appellations are the ones I now search out.  Not that they are better wines than wines from other of the Bordeaux appellations; rather, it’s just a matter of taste. I am finding the earthy, spicy component that the gravel-and-clay-based fruit imparts to these wines irresistible.

Note:  the higher the percentages of Merlot and Cabernet Franc in Left Bank wines, the earlier the wines become approachable; the higher the percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon, the longer the bottle-ageing needed.

Although not immediately on my mind when I approached my first “Grands Crus de Bordeaux” tasting, some few years earlier, in summer of 2001, I made a 3-day sojourn to the Medoc while staying with friends in Saintes, a couple of hours’ drive north of Bordeaux. I had taken the tiny ferry from Royan, across the mouth of the Gironde Estuary, to debark on the very tippy-tip of the Medoc. From there, I followed a “D” level road through the flat terrains of the Medoc and past several of the famous Premier Growth chateaux to the village of Margaux, where I had booked a room in a Relais du Silence.  I arrived in time for dinner, and after, I went for an enchanting stroll through the famed vineyards of First Growth Chateau Margaux under a full moon. A memorable evening!

The next morning, my hotel concierge secured an invitation for me to join a small tour group at Chateau Margaux, just a couple hundred meters’ stroll from my hotel along a lane through vineyards. There, a charming professional tour hostess took us through the cellar, including the breathtakingly beautiful white colonnaded chai (the barrel room), and later poured me a full glass of the current release, which, I believe, was the1997.  Although it was still well before noon, I savored that wine to the last drop as the hostess and I chatted about wines of the region and also about my book on Zinfandel, which was due for publication by years’ end.

I did not, however, purchase a bottle of the Chateau Margaux, which would have cost me more than my few days’ stay at my small hotel. Instead, I later visited a couple of non-classified chateaux, and upon my return to the village, found a wine store where I purchased a two bottles of Cru Bourgeois recommended by the store sommelier as typical expressions of the Medoc, for about $30 each.

The visit left a vivid impression on me, but not quite what I expected. While the First Growth chateaux are grand establishments with impressive grounds, gardens, and landscaping, and, generally speaking, require appointments made months ahead of one’s visit, their wines are not the only great wines of the region.

Grand Cru wines, wines from grand vineyards, are as capable of producing superb wines as are the great vineyards, those recognized by the five classification “growths” established in mid-18th century. All that differentiates the Grands Crus from the Premiers Crus, actually, is the prestige associated with Premier Cru classifications—and the pricing.  The Grands Crus do not, however, lack the quality . . .and price never has been a score.

Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, all lovely wines, all structured, balanced, and with long ageing potential (even the Merlot-based!), are available at prices that will leave you with a budget to shop for a dinner menu to accompany. And I still buy Cru Bourgeois whenever presented with the opportunity. And, yes, I do still think about that bewitching glass of 1997 Chateau Margaux, especially when I approach the Grand Cru Classé tables pouring AOC Margaux.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Harvesting Zinfandel: Ode to the Pickers by Rhoda Stewart

“[C] had written to her friend Valentine. ‘Come, they’ll be harvesting the grapes.’ ” . . . . “‘Harvesting the grapes?’ [Valentine] asked, astonished. ‘Really? Despite the war?’ ” . . . . “‘Despite the war, Valentine,’ [C] confessed. ‘What can you do? They haven’t found a way of gathering the grapes without harvesting them’” (Colette, “Grape Harvest,” circa 1916. The Collected Stories of Colette edited and with an introduction by Robert Phelps, New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, Inc., 1983, p. 64)

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Two Zinfandel Clusters – Moore Vineyard

Zinfandel vineyards are the oldest premium wine producing vineyards in California (and probably in the nation) because they were recognized in the 1800s for their winemaking potential by some of the earliest wine growers in the State, many of whom hailed from the best wine regions of Italy and Eastern Europe, and who were looking for something better than the ubiquitous Mission vines. Instinctively recognizing that most of the regions where Mission grew were also well suited to Zinfandel, they grafted their cuttings onto a native rootstock known as St. George, also well suited to Zinfandel. Watered only from the rains that fell during the winter rainy season, the vines were forced to send their roots deep into their piece of earth, which resulted in small crops of intensely colored and flavored grapes. The vines flourished over the decades under such vineyard management, and because the native St. George rootstock was phylloxera-resistant, they survived the epidemic that destroyed much of California’s imported vitis vinifera winegrape vineyards in the late 19th century.

Today, in the early 21st century, Zinfandel vines planted well over 120 years ago are therefore still flourishing. However, the harvesting of these old head-trained vines, whose fruit hangs hidden under the leaves and often low to the ground requires skilled pickers to gather in the grapes at optimum ripeness. When I first stepped into the Bill Moore Zinfandel vineyard that late September morning, I didn’t immediately see the picking crew, who were almost lost among the sprawling vines. When I did catch up to them, I was momentarily mesmerized by what I saw.

Their hands seemed to see by touching, so familiar were they with the structure of these old head-trained low-to the-ground vines. Swiftly and with precision their fingers sought out the plump, blue-purple clusters and severed them from their anchors.

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Zinfandel Picker focussed on harvesting the clusters- Moore vineyard

Even their feet played a part as they deftly moved their tubs onto the next vine, playing them at times as if they were a soccer ball. I had trouble keeping up, so quickly did they clean a vine. It seemed no sooner had I gotten my lens focused on one of the workers, zooming in on his hands, than the hands disappeared and I had to move along with them and try again. It took no more than 5 seconds for a picker to clean a grape-laden, close-to-the ground old vine. I had to be fast, even with an auto-focus lens. The challenge became interesting and exciting.

Zinfandel Picker approaching gondola with tub of grapes - Moore Vineyard

Zinfandel Picker approaching gondola with tub of grapes – Moore Vineyard

It had been a startling revolution to me, when I got into my research on Napa Valley Zinfandel in the late 1990s for my book, A Zinfandel Odyssey*, to discover just how many historic Zinfandel vineyards were (and still are) in Napa Valley (Napa Valley, after all, being famous for its Cabs and Chardonnays). One of the most historic and wonderful was the head-trained Bill Moore vineyard on the eastern benchland of the Napa River, just above downtown Napa. The vineyard consists of 10.6 acres of vines, 95% of which are Zinfandel, with the oldest being planted in 1905 (which inspired one customer to nickname it “Earthquake Vineyard”). I had visited the vineyard a few times in the late 1990s for Old Vine photos, one of which graces the introductory pages of my book.

So it was momentous that I encountered Bill Moore purely by chance in late September, a few days before the 2016 harvest of his vineyard was to begin.  After a half-hour chat of “catching up,” he invited me to come by for the early morning harvest, which was to take place over the next two days. I was delighted to accept his invitation, since, for various reasons, the Moore Vineyard harvest had been on my mind. I felt I had been given me a second opportunity to get the story of this amazing Zinfandel vineyard.

Although I was not early enough the first day for harvest photos, I did manage some stunning images of the clusters at peak ripeness.

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Old Vine Zinfandel, with clusters at peak ripeness – Moore Vineyard

I actually had gotten into vineyard photography and wine writing when I first arrived in Napa Valley because of the beauty of the old head-trained Zinfandel vines and their clusters of luscious grapes.

The second day of picking, I arrived before the sun had cleared the eastern mountains and hot air balloons were floating high over the valley floor. The dozen or so pickers, too, were already hard at work gathering in the crop. After a few minutes of scanning the vineyard to see where they were,  I was soon in full pursuit, catching up to the gondolas creeping along the rows as they were being filled from tubs dumped into them, one after another.

Zinfandel pickers emptying tubs of grapes into gondola - Hot Air Balloon in distance -  Moore Vineyard

Zinfandel pickers emptying tubs of grapes into gondola – Hot Air Balloon in distance – Moore Vineyard

I was amazed by how quickly the tubs of grapes were coming in.

Two women, their heads hooded, their faces partly covered against the dust, stood on the sides of the gondola as “minders,” conducting a field sorting of clusters and debris. When they saw me, their uncovered their faces and gave me a big smile and a wave. They looked happy. It was a beautiful piece of earth to call your place of work!

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Gondola “minders” – Moore Vineyard

But what struck me most profoundly was the concentration of the pickers as they went about their work. So singularly focused were the men on their vines that, in the words of Colette (“Grape Harvest”), my “entry into the vineyard caused no commotion.” The men hardly noticed me edging in with my camera in hand, seeking an iconic image or two of the grape harvest. When their tubs became full, they hoisted their purple treasures on their heads and moved quickly to the gondola, where they pitched their burden onto the rising mass of grapes. It was all done in one swift movement, then quickly back to the next laden vine in the row.

Gondola and pickers, Moore Vineyard

Gondola and pickers, Moore Vineyard

I pursued them tenaciously, and from time to time was rewarded for my efforts by a gloved hand holding a cluster of grapes, the other holding the shears, suddenly coming into focus; a quick snap of the shutter, and the image was made.

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Grape picker severing a cluster from the vine – Moore Vineyard

This went on for about two hours; then suddenly it was over. The vines were bare of their fruit; the gondolas brim-full, and the pickers were going back to their cars and trucks parked in the lane that led to the residential buildings. I followed them, and watched as they paused for a drink and a snack, and then they were gone. The grapes were on their way to the winery, and I was left to peruse my images in hopes that at least a few represented something approximating what I was seeking.

And also to ponder a moment on how differently my day with the pickers had ended compared to how the day had ended for the two friends in “Grape Harvest.” In that intriguing story, the pickers take a few moments after their sumptuous lunch to cavort joyously with the visiting friends’ pretty maids, who had just arrived at the vineyard. Seeming to understand that the harvest is a happy time even during the war, the two maids arrived dressed in festive clothes that had been beautifully remade out of those their ladies had discarded, giving the elderly and silently grieving men a validation for their toilsome work in the hot vineyard: “The aged giant, suddenly animated, sat one of the maids down on an empty tub, and hoisted the whole thing on his shoulders . . . . The heavy air seemed light to them, now that two women’s laughter, affected, deliberately long, had set it in motion . . . .” (68)

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Zinfandel picker with his tubfull of grapes – Moore Vineyard

When I looked again through my images a few hours later, I saw gleams of that same joy of the harvest on the faces of my pickers, a joy that brings these pickers back to the vineyards vintage after vintage, to gather the grapes at their peak ripeness. Yet how unlikely it is that people who drink the wine think even once about these dedicated men and women who arrive before dawn to pick the grapes, nor how important, even revered and celebrated, this stage is, in the grape’s journey from the vine to the bottle.

For myself, I thought of the steep, rocky hillsides of the Priorat DOQ in Spain, where I had visited in April. From time to time, my guide pointed out to me the workers toiling among the tiny Garnacha vines high above us. Yet when he and I shared a bottle of Priorat over dinner that evening, I was not thinking of the workers we had seen, but rather, how wonderful was the wine we were drinking. Only later did I stop to consider what it must be like to harvest those vines come fall, to gather in the Garnacha grapes that made the wondrous wine I had just enjoyed.

Now, when I read a back label that tells me how the wine in my bottle was made from grapes harvested from old head-trained vines, often grown on steep, rocky hillsides, I stop for a moment to acknowledge those crews of pickers who dragged their tubs over the difficult terrain, where no machine has ever served, in order to bring in the grapes. Carefully nurtured over the spring and summer months to reach perfect ripeness, the grapes must now be carefully gathered by the skilled pickers. Without them, the vintage  comes to naught.  With them, the grapes’ journey towards becoming a bottle of wine that may help someone, somewhere, to make the end of the day just little bit better than it began is officially underway.

The pickers’ work is finished. The celebration begins.  Salud to the pickers, to all!

“I could give up a lot of things today,” said Ray Coursen, Elyse Wine Cellars, “before I could give up my glass of red wine with my dinner.” (A Zinfandel Odyssey, 377)

*(San Rafael, CA; PWV, Inc., 2002),

El Dorado County: an historic region for wine tasting

On a gorgeous first day of spring 2014, I drove with a friend up to El Dorado County, California, for a visit to Boeger Winery, situated on a ridge rising above the historic village of Placerville.

Boeger Winery /Vineyard with Historic sheds

Boeger Winery /Vineyard with Historic sheds

Boeger Winery is a special and historic place to begin your wine tasting visit to El Dorado County. Established by Greg and Susan Boeger in 1972 with four acres of Zinfandel planted on phylloxera-resistant St. George rootstock, it is the oldest winery in the County. Greg and Susan (together with Lloyd Walker: Zinfandel planted in 1968), are also credited with re-establishing winegrape-growing in El Dorado County—some forty years after the 1933 repeal of Prohibition. Their wine offerings today are impressive, featuring in addition to a consistently wonderful Estate Zinfandel from his 1972 plantings a benchmark Barbera and, most recently, a stunning Burgundian style Pinot Noir.

It took many years for Greg and Susan to achieve such quality and consistency—twenty years, Greg would say, to the early 1990s for his winemaking and viticulture practices to evolve into the style and quality he knew was possible on that land, especially as concerning Zinfandel. While Amador County was making a big splash with its Sutter Home “Deaver Vineyard” 1968 Zinfandel, the luscious high alcohol and intensely flavored, almost overripe, style of that blockbuster wine was not the style that El Dorado County could produce. In this higher elevation (2100+ feet), cooler region with its thinner, rockier soil, Greg had no modern regional precedents to draw inspiration from.

Furthermore, Greg was also interested in discovering what other premium varieties might do well in his vineyards besides Zinfandel, and so his Zins were mostly left to their own resources. After all, his property had remnants of old Zinfandel vines dating to the mid-1800s; Zinfandel had obviously survived, even thrived, in the region for 100 years. But the results of such laissez faire practices showed in many of the early vintages: they could be a bit weak, said Greg, with a lighter, more fruity character.

By 1990, with interest in the production of premium quality red Zinfandel increasing throughout the North Coast and Sierra Foothills, Greg found himself at a crossroads with his Zinfandel: should he pull out his 1972 UC Davis clone vines; or revisit his viticulture practices. Greg opted for the latter choice, specifically, leaf-pulling, to allow for more sun exposure on the clusters; and crop thinning, to develop more intensely flavored grapes, both somewhat new practices in California viticulture. These two practices brought about the dramatic improvements in his Zinfandel that he was seeking. “We were getting more intensity, more pepper, an inkier, thicker wine,” Greg said, that came with a luscious ripe plums character, and an enviable balance of acids and sugar associated with high elevation vineyards. (A Zinfandel Odyssey 94)
These wines became something of a benchmark for El Dorado County Zinfandel.

Boeger Winery had also found white varieties such as Chardonnay suited to the region and the soils, Barbera and, most recently, Pinot Noir.

Chardonay Vineyard, Boeger Winery

Chardonay Vineyard, Boeger Winery

The Pinot Noir is after the fashion of some of Burgundy’s more elegant and delicate PNs. A bewitching wine, it’s nothing like the PN’s you will find coming out of such low-elevation American Viticulture Areas (AVA) as the Carneros of Napa County, or Mendocino County’s Alexander Valley. I found Greg’s 2011 to be an elegant wine with delicate raspberry notes balanced with some understated spices and a long finish, a wine that should do well in a cool dark cellar for a couple or three more years. It’s a wine, however, that should you today put it before guests who appreciate European style wines, I recommend you have a backup bottle or two on hand!

What is even better, perhaps, about a visit to Boeger Winery (and all El Dorado County wineries) than tasting the exquisite wines is their prices. Although the quality can equal or surpass the quality of such wines from the more famous regions of Napa and Sonoma Counties, the prices are usually a point or two below the prices of the wines of these renowned wine regions. (Remember: Price is not a score!)

I didn’t get beyond Boeger Winery on this visit to El Dorado County, since my friend and I were also taking in Daffodil Hill, a few miles to the south, in Amador County, that morning.

Daffodil Hill, Amador County, near Volcano

Daffodil Hill, Amador County, near Volcano

So my favorites at the end of the day were Greg’s 2012 Zinfandel Estate (the fruit from the 1972 vines supplemented since the mid-1990s by fruit from his Old Vine cuttings grafted onto French Columbard rootstock), the 2009 Barbera Vineyard Select, and the 2011 Pinot Grand Reserve.

Boeger Wines

Boeger Wines

I made my first visit to Boeger Winery in 1996, when I was launching my investigation of the Sierra Foothill Zinfandels for my book, A Zinfandel Odyssey (2002), just in time to taste the impressive results of Greg’s new viticulture practices. With its unbroken 40-year history of family ownership, Boeger Winery provides its visitors a taste of history, a taste of the evolution of a tradition, in every sip of wine. Greg and Susan’s son, Justin, now the winemaker, ensures that the family tradition continues.

Established by Greg and Susan when they were just a couple of kids with a passion for their venture, Boeger Winery is a nice place to begin your exploration of the wines of the high Sierra Foothills, and to be reminded that there still are regions in California where family-owned “estate” wineries are the rule, a way of life, and not the exception.

Today, Boeger Winery is just one of a growing collection of family-owned estate wineries in El Dorado County dedicated to making hand-crafted wines that express the piece of ground the vines grown in. A visit to any of these estates will be memorable not only for the lovely wines at affordable prices but also for the rustic charm, warm hospitality, and spectacular views from many of the ridge top locations.

El Dorado County, View of Sierra

El Dorado County, View of Sierra

A Walk through the Vineyards with Camillo Magoni, Baja California, Mexico

Farm Artifacts - Vinos L.A. Cetto Winery

Farm Artifacts – Vinos L.A. Cetto Winery


A couple of wine writers from Europe have suggested that because of his achievements in transforming Valle de Guadalupe, Baja California, Mexico, into the world class wine grape valley that it is today, and in winning international acclaim for Vinos L.A. Cetto wines from these vineyards in the last decade and a half, Camillo Magoni should be recognized globally as perhaps the most significant winemaker living today.

I could not demur.

It was June 1996 when I found myself in Cucamonga Valley, which lies about 60 miles east of Los Angeles, as part of my search for historic Zinfandel vines. I thought I was about as far afield as I could get from the more famous North Coast Zinfandel regions of Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino counties, and the Sierra foothills. Then I met Don Galleano (story to come), owner of the historic Galleano Winery, Mira Loma (now listed on the California and National Register of Historic Places). Galleano recommended that since I was this far south, I should cross the border into Baja, since he knew of a big planting of old Zin vines hidden away in a little valley somewhere between Tecate and Tijuana, owned by the Cetto family in Valle de Guadalupe.

I did just that.

With the help of a guide from Vinos L.A. Cetto, I found the lovely old Zinfandel vineyard, and so much more: I found Camillo Magoni, winemaker since 1965 for the Cetto family. From my first and subsequent meetings with Magoni that summer of 1996, he impressed me both as a winemaker and a person. It was, however, during my return visits to Valle de Guadalupe in spring and summer of 2011 that I experienced first-hand the full range of Magoni’s accomplishments—unparalleled at least in my experience.

Camillo Magoni showing Zinfandel clusters, Rancho Escondido July 2011

Camillo Magoni showing Zinfandel clusters, Rancho Escondido July 2011

I had gone down in early April at Magoni’s invitation to see what they “had been up to” since my last visit about 10 years earlier. It was a beautiful day, with the sun breaking through some early morning fog that had drifted into the Valle overnight from Ensenada. The vines were just leafing out. After meeting Camillo at the winery for a vertical tasting of six vintages of Zinfandel, it was time for lunch with Mr. Cetto and his guests (of which I was privileged to be one).
Vinos L.A. Cetto Zinfandel, 6-vintage vertical tasting - April 2011

Vinos L.A. Cetto Zinfandel, 6-vintage vertical tasting – April 2011


Following lunch, it was on to a tour with Mr. Cetto of the upper end of Valle de Guadalupe, near the headwaters of the River Guadalupe. The late afternoon light coming through the misty hills was so beautiful that I suggested to Camillo that we walk back to the winery. I wanted to try for some photos. So we exited the vehicle, and in the exquisite quiet of that secluded little vine-filled valley, we walked, I made photos, and Camillo talked—about the vines, the valley, and his philosophy of winemaking. The region enjoys a Mediterranean climate of sunny days cooled by breezes flowing inland from the nearby Pacific Ocean, fog-shrouded nights, and mineral-rich soils of varying compositions—all the components necessary for producing superb wines year after year.
Cetto Vineyards, Valle de Guadalupe, April 2011

Cetto Vineyards, Valle de Guadalupe, April 2011


In such an environment, Magoni’s philosophy of winemaking comes down to one phrase: understanding grapes.
“To make wine from the region, you have to understand the composition of the grape for each variety: the sugar, acid, and flavors. You have to understand how the composition of the grape changes with each vintage, how the vintage changes the composition in each lot of the same variety. Only then can you consider process of winemaking—the technology.”

When Magoni arrived in Valle de Guadalupe in the mid-1960s, the roads into the Valle were dirt, and only three varieties of grapes were planted, he said. Today, there is a paved motorway (Hwy 3) leading up from Ensenada, and the Cetto vineyards consist of 30 varieties of top European varieties covering over 1,200 hectares.

Among the most prestigious for Vinos L.A. Cetto are Zinfandel, Sangiovese, and Nebbiolo (Cetto Vineyards boasts the largest planting of Nebbiolo—134 hectares–outside the Barolo region of Italy). Each of these varieties presents special challenges and requires particular understanding in order to produce the world class wines deserving of the Vinos L.A. Cetto label.

The great charm and appeal of Zinfandel, said Camillo, is its fruit, and so he vinifies Zinfandel with just neutral casks, for the micro-oxygenation. “For me, because of its intense flavors and fruity character, Zinfandel is a unique variety. If you add wood character, you lose some of the fruit character. And if you lose the fruit character of Zinfandel,” he once famously said, “it is like a man without a last name.”

Zinfandel, Rancho Escondido - July 2011

Zinfandel, Rancho Escondido – July 2011

Nebbiolo (known in Italy as “Barolo) is one of the great wines in the world, believes Magoni, but “it’s late maturing in the bottle, so we have to leave the money for 5 years, occasionally longer. For this reason and because as a grower you have to understand its composition, Nebbiolo is not known world-wide like Cabernet or Pinot Noir or Syrah. Even though it makes, I think, one of the greatest wines in the world, not too many producers like to wait 5 years for the money.”

Nebbiolo vine dating to 1946 - Valle de Guadalupe - July 2011

Nebbiolo vine dating to 1946 – Valle de Guadalupe – July 2011


For Camillo Magoni and Vinos L.A. Cetto, it’s well worth the wait.
Nebbiolo, 15 vintage vertical tasting, Vinos L.A. Cetto - July 2011

Nebbiolo, 15 vintage vertical tasting, Vinos L.A. Cetto – July 2011


Sangiovese was the most difficult grape for Magoni to get a handle on.
“It takes several years to understand,” he said. “It’s a variety very easy to over crop and is difficult to regulate. Unless irrigation is strictly controlled, it is a variety that tends to make a big bunch with big berries so we have to control that. It’s taken us 10 years to understand it.”
Sangiovese clusters, Valle de Guadalupe - July 2011

Sangiovese clusters, Valle de Guadalupe – July 2011


For Camillo, there is no other way.

“It’s easy to make good wine—if you understand your grapes,” he says time and again. “That’s the key. You need to know the grapes, the varieties, like you know a person. It is imperative to know each one to assure the best quality wine as possible—and also knowing what kind of wine you want to make.”

When I asked him if he were saying that he knew the composition of all 30 varieties of grapes in Cetto’s vineyards, he replied with a little laugh that was in no way self-deprecating, “I’m saying that. It is imperative to know each one to assure the best quality wine as possible.” And if he makes a mistake in his understanding of a variety or a vintage? “Well, we just don’t bottle it,” he replied.

Price is not a Score

Nebbiolo clusters Valle de Guadalupe, Baja, CA, Mexico

Nebbiolo clusters Valle de Guadalupe, Baja, CA, Mexico

Zinfandel Clusters, Bedrock Vineyard, Sonoma Valley, California

Zinfandel Clusters, Bedrock Vineyard, Sonoma Valley, California

One thing to always remember when buying wines: Price is NOT a score! The price of a bottle of wine is never a reflection of the quality of wine inside that bottle.

Three basic factors go into the price of a bottle of wine no matter what the wine is or where it is produced. You have the cost of the grapes, the cost of equipment and labor necessary for their harvest and processing, and the cost of the bottle the wine is put into when it is finished.

These costs can vary greatly, depending on several additional factors:

• country of origin
• region where the grapes were grown (Bordeaux, Tuscany, Rioja, SW Australia, Sonoma Valley, the Okanagan Valley, etc.)
• the vintage (that is, the year)
• the varietal (CS, PN, ZIN, Nero d’Avalo, Malbec, SB, Chard, PG, etc.)
• winemaking practices, especially the barrel ageing protocol
• quantity of wine produced
• the reputation of the producer
• marketing and distribution of the finished wine (includes bottle selection and label)

The following five red wines are all from vineyards considered best suited to the variety, and all have been made in accordance with the best winemaking practices for their regions and varieties. The price per bottle, on average, varies from almost $100 US to under $10 US.

• 2009 Las Rocas Garnacha (Spain), sourced from 80-year-old vines from the DO of Calatayud, average price about $15 US,
• Ravenswood’s 2009 Bedrock Zinfandel (US), sourced from Sonoma Valley vines about the same age (80 years), priced at $35 US,
• Vinos L.A. Cetto’s 2006 Nebbiolo (Baja CA, Mexico), sourced from 60-year-old vines in Valle de Guadalupe, priced about $20 US,
• Donnafugata 2007 “Mille e una Notte” Nero d’Avalo (Sicilia), sourced from Sicily’s indigenous Nero d’Avalo grapes, recommended retail price $90 US.
• Viu Manent 2011 Gran Reserva Malbec (Chile), sourced from established vines averaging 15 years in Valle de Colchagua, priced at $8.

If you consider that each of these wines is priced exactly right in accordance with the criteria provided above, and that the prices do not reflect quality, then how would you go about making the best choice among them for your dining occasion?

Well, that’s where the fun begins: you have to taste them! If upon tasting these wines you decide that the Donnafugata “Mille e una Notte” Nero d’Avalo from Sicily is the one you like the best (it is a gorgeous wine; I’ve tasted it, and met the winemaker), then do you like it enough to pay between 3 and 11 times more than for the other selections, which are also lovely wines, understanding that probably at least $30 of that $90 bottle price of the Donnafugata goes towards winery aesthetics and marketing?

As Kermit Lynch, owner of Kermit Lynch Wine Merchants, Berkeley, CA, said to me a few years ago:

“ ‘I think a lot of people, not in France, not in Italy, but in California and maybe the rest of the U.S., think that price is a score; that a $300 bottle of wine is better than a $100 a bottle . . . .That’s completely false. Price is no reflection of quality. You can get such good wines for cheap.’” (Rhoda Stewart, “Affordable French Wines,” Napa Valley Register: 19 September 2009)

Because price is not a score! Not that scores, for that matter, are of much use, either.

Wines That Stop Conversation – I

El Dorado Vineyard

El Dorado County Vineyard

I’ve been thinking about this for some time now, because it’s always so dramatic when it happens: you pour a glass of wine for your friends and suddenly all conversation stops. The sheer beauty and deliciousness of the stuff in their glasses has bewitched your friends’ senses. Time stands still while everyone savors the fragrant aromas wafting from the glass and the incredible sensations in the mouth . . .an experience heady and rare.
I have three distinct memories of such wines. Each is from a region best suited to the variety, and displays the central characteristics of the variety produced from vines grown in that particular piece of ground.
My first such experience happened in January 2006; the wine was a Latcham Winery (El Dorado) 2003 Special Reserve Amador County Barbera ($25). Amador County is well-known as an ideal region for Barbera as well as for its historically famous Zinfandels.
I had discovered this lovely Barbera a year earlier, when on a guided tasting tour of El Dorado County wines with Les Russell, founder of Granite Springs Winery. As partial as I am to the El Dorado Zinfandels, it was Latcham’s Amador County Barbera that stole the show for me that day. With a deep garnet purple color, bewitching aromas of black currants, black berries, plums, and rich spices, together with the big bold, succulent flavors of ripe warm blackberries and dense ripe plums typical of Amador County, yet with soft tannins and a velvety texture unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, it was a wine to set you dreaming.
So I bought a half-case, and in January 2006, took a bottle with me to Victoria, Canada, to celebrate the New Year with a couple of my favorite cousins up there.
A few days after arriving, my Victoria cousins and I drove up island to Qualicum Beach for a visit with another West Coast cousin. Lunch was almost ready when we arrived. While we were standing about in the kitchen that quiet afternoon along the Strait of Georgia, catching up on family and other news, I opened the Barbera, poured it out, and handed it around.
Although it greatly impressed me in the tasting room, I hadn’t tried it since. But before I had a chance to ask “how is it?” conversation had stopped. There was no need to ask how it was. The looks of bliss on my companions’ faces told the story! The wine was gorgeous. It was a wine to savor in silence. And a wine I still dream of.
Because wines that can stop conversation are so rare, when it happens, it reminds one of just how mysterious, almost magical, is the process of turning grapes into wine. So many factors figure in: viticulture practices, crop yield, harvest date, winemaking practices. While these factors through human intervention can be nearly replicated year after year, the effect of weather over the course of the year on the vintage produced from a particular piece of the earth is in Mother Nature’s hands alone.
These mysterious, indefinable, and unpredictable components of each vintage are Mother Nature’s gifts to the magic of wine, and help to explain why each vintage from a great piece of earth will always differ, if only slightly, from every other vintage, and why those conversation-stopping beauties that occasional materialize from great pieces of earth are as elusive and mysterious as the will o’ the wisp . . .to be enjoyed in silence, and replicated only in one’s memory.

Next posting will present conversation-stopping wines II (Madrian) and III (Zinfandel).

Zinfandels from ZAP 2013

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAKONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA Zinfandel from the higher elevation American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), notably the Sierra Foothills (above 2,000 feet) and Mendocino Ridge (the unconnected vineyards on the coastal ridges in the southwest corner of Mendocino County at elevations above 1200 feet), are among my favorites. Both regions get plentiful warm sunny days and cooler nights (known as “diurnal temperature shift”), which means more even ripening in this traditionally uneven ripening variety, and higher acids to balance the sugar content in the fully ripened fruit.
When visiting the 2013 ZAP event in SF this past February 02, I searched out Zins from these two Zinfandel regions. In the El Dorado County region of the Sierra Foothills AVA, Lava Cap has become one of my favorites. It produces two outstanding Zinfandels: The Reserve Estate and the Rocky Draw.
The soil in these vineyards, which sit at about 2800 feet, is a cobbly, reddish gravelly loam of volcanic origins (hence the winery’s name Lava Cap). The wines that come from them are beautifully balanced full bodied, full flavored specimens, luscious in the mouth, and with layers of blackberry, some hints of earthy herbs, a dusting of spices, and a layer of dark caramel swirling throughout. The Rocky Draw also has distinguishing notes of dark chocolate. Never over-oaked, both wines have been aged in 1/3 new French oak barrels for about 14 months, and come in just under 15% alcohol.
These wines are a pleasure to drink at release (2 – 3 years after vintage date); they also will benefit from a few additional years in your cellar. And because they are from the Sierra Foothills, they are a price point or two below comparable value from such prestigious north coast regions as Napa and Sonoma Valleys.
My other mountain vineyard favorite (and also that of my companion at the ZAP 2013 event–not that we tasted everything) was Edmeades Perli Zinfandel, from the Mendocino Ridge AVA. Perli Vineyards are grown in lily-pad like plantings high up on Fish Rock Road. The micro-climate of Mendocino Ridge AVA vineyards is remarkable in that the vineyards are above the fog line, and so benefit from the diurnal temperature shift from day to night. The days are warmer and the nights cooler than in Anderson Valley. There’s also something special about the light!
“The distinguishing component of the grapes from these vineyards is their high malic acid content,” said Van Williamson, winemaker from 1994 to 2011 for Edmeades. “It takes several months for these wines to complete malolactic fermentation, which leads to wines with a higher perceived acid content. This balances out the higher alcohol content that comes from full ripeness of the grapes and the accompanying luscious, big fruit component of these seductive monsters, and produces wines with long ageing potential.”

While these were my favorites among the Zinfandels tasted at this event, they are not my only Zinfandel favorites. More on some of my other favorite Zins in future posts.