Monthly Archives: March 2018

Plumpjack and Terroir


I have wanted to visit Plumpjack Winery in Oakville for some time, interested in tasting their estate syrah whose past two vintages appeared on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 List.  Spending a few hours with winemaker Aaron Miller, I learned that Plumpjack is a lean and mean operation that focuses on doing the very best with what the land gives them.

A 1992 partnership between Gavin Newsom and Gordon Getty established Plumpjack Wine and Spirits, which stills thrives at different locations in San Francisco.  From that, Plumpjack Winery began in the Napa Valley, offering a menu of nearly twenty wines.  After joining the team, President John Conover persuaded the staff to limit production and concentrate on what the local terroir supports:  cabernet sauvignon and syrah. They have achieved this while expanding a family of wines that highlight different micro-climates throughout the Napa Valley

The 2015 Plumpjack Syrah ($60) was everything I thought it would be and comes with an interesting story.  It is sourced from two distinctive vineyards, the Stagecoach that sits above the Napa Valley floor and the Hudson in the cooler Carneros region.  The higher

Plumpjack Syrah Napa Valley

elevation adds intensity of fruit and cooler climates help retain the varietal character.  Balanced and powerful, the smokey, spice flavors nicely overlaid those of baked fruit for a rich mouthfeel

The 2015 Syrah is 30% pressed whole cluster and, according to Aaron is often done barefoot, “I Love Lucy”-style.  Sounding natural and authentic, he described it as exhausting, while creating small, painful acidic scratches on the feet and ankles.  I urged him to work through the pain and continue what he is doing.

The Plumpjack family now includes two other nearby wineries that exhibit distinct terroir and persona.  The Cade Winery, located on Howell Mountain to the North, experiences warm days and cool, windy nights while Odette, in the historic Stag’s Leap District is naturally cooler, known for combinations of clay, loam and volcanic soils.  We compared the characteristics of current cabernet sauvignon releases from each winery, all with recent reviews in the mid-nineties.

Plumpjack winemaker Aaron Miller

With minimal pruning to the vines,  Miller lets the fruit do the talking with his Oakville 2015 Plumpjack Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($130), adding touches of petit verdot and malbec. Expressive, fruity aromas extend into jammy berry and cherry flavors with herbal notes, silky tannins and spice on the finish.

The soils up on Howell Mountain consist of more rock and less clay. In both aromas and

Plumpjack Cabernet Sauvignon

flavors, winemaker Danielle Cyrot’s 2015 Cade Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($110), with small amounts of petit verdot and merlot added, has an earthy quality with hints of tobacco, coffee and cassis.  Muscular tannins are softened by a very rich mouthfeel.

Jeff Owens is a veteran winemaker who began with Plumpjack, became an assistant winemaker at Cade, before being named as head winemaker at Odette.  His 2015 Odette Cabernet Sauvignon Stag’s Leap District ($140) epitomizes the balance of power and elegance. Rich, concentrated dark fruit and spice on the nose and palate are nicely restrained throughout a lengthy finish.

Selecting one of these wines over another is like picking a favorite child.  In the end, they’re all great.  It isn’t a competition, but a rare opportunity to discover, first hand, the nuances of distinctive terroir that exist in a region simply known as the Napa Valley.

Among the reds, we managed to taste the 2016 Plumpjack Reserve Chardonnay Napa Valley ($50) that, again, is sourced from two unique appellations:  cool Carneros and warm St. Helena.  Aged in stainless steel (65%) and French oak (35%) with no malolactic fermentation, it has a crisp acidity with citrus, tropical and stone fruit flavors and a pleasant, creamy vanilla on the finish.

Plumpjack tasting room

Various tastings range from $50-$80 per person, but are not for everyone. Nonetheless, those with serious palates and an interest in education of the local terroir will be amply rewarded.

Plumpjack is in a good place.  They are happy with their growers and the estate vineyards are performing well. The plan is to continue with the current format, respect the land, treat each vintage as its own and strive to make extraordinary wines.



Riding The Flying Red Horse


The word got around the neighborhood quickly.  Balloons and banners were going up at the new local service station and, in 1955, that was all the advertising needed.  The Grand Opening was Saturday and everyone who was anyone would show up.  Copious amounts of food, drinks, rides and other free stuff would be at hand.  The fathers, wearing wingtips and work boots, would mingle with the new manager, eating hot dogs and listening to his subtle pitch of reliable service and proximity.  In those days, no one wanted to travel too far from home.

The mothers, dressed in petal-pushers and scarves to protect their hair from the wind, would talk among themselves. The adults would have their discussions and make decisions, but, for us kids, it was a young baby-boomers dream, fun in the sun on a Saturday afternoon at another gas station opening in post-WWII Santa Clara Valley.

This new station was a Mobilgas, so the flying red horse  ride would be there.  The deep red-winged stallion in full motion mimicked the large neon ones that hung above each station.  Today, it was a perfect fit for both my frame and imagination.

What is the attraction to a seven-year-old boy of sitting on some tiny molded horse that moved two inches forward, then backward to simulate galloping?  It certainly wasn’t my first rodeo but the red flying horse was different, an upgrade from the scratched up old mechanical mare outside of the grocery store.  This was a flying red horse, permanently posed, head down, wings spread as if in flight. It would be totally cool to ride a real red flying horse, although I would have to replace my cuffed blue jeans and homemade shirt with a super hero costume.  For now, I’ll use my mind’s eye and settle for riding this one, which comes with a free photo.

In addition to the rides and hot dogs, there was cotton candy and stacks of wooden crates holding glass Coca-Cola bottles.  This opening even had a guest appearance from local country radio disc jockey, Cottonseed Clark, a who broadcast a few hours of his radio program from the event. Another souvenir photo, autographed.  Mobilgas was pulling out all the stops for this one.  In the 1950s, these events were common because gas and service stations played an integral role in our daily lives.

Filling the car up with gas was only one reason for our weekly trek at the service station.  It began when we drove over the black hose that made a chime sound to alert the mechanic.  In 1955, there were enough cars to keep each station busy, but the pace was such that the operator could perform maintenance  work and still handle the pump demand.  The fact that our parents were having children in record numbers would change that dynamic and contribute to the slow death of the full-service experience.

“Hi George,” my dad said, “fill it up with Ethel.”

Before he said a word, George Osaka would open the hood, then walk to the rear of the car and insert the gas hose. Because he had to hold the hose the entire time, he had a few moments for friendly conversation before he completed his checklist.

George said, “How’s she running?”

“So far, so good,” said my dad, “that whine is gone since you replaced the belt.”

“Guess that was it.”

George would always acknowledge me in the backseat.

“You staying busy, Butch?”


My father thought that we could afford premium Ethel gas even though, at twenty-three cents per gallon, it was two cents higher than regular.  I would always roll down my back seat window during this process to experience the sweet smell of gasoline.  There are many people in today’s world that are addicted to intoxicative inhalants and, there but for fortune go I.  I loved the smell of fresh gasoline, possibly associating it with freedom.  I dreamt of driving my own car one day and, if I could ever save fifteen hundred dollars, buy that new Ford convertible shown on the local car commercial and take it on a long road trip.  There was not a faint glimpse of a thought that, years later, I would find the odor of gas toxic and obnoxious, connecting it to congestion and dirty air.  In the 1950s, cars and gasoline were the wave of the future, just listen to Walt Disney talk of his Autopia.

Tank full, George would focus his attention under the hood, checking the oil and radiator water levels then shaking the hoses to assure none were loose.  After checking the tire pressure, he would spray and clean all the car windows to complete the service, all for the price of the gas that, somehow flowed plentifully from a magical underground  reservoir.

“Everything looks good. That will be four fourteen,” said George.

My dad handed him a five dollar bill and he returned with the change, green stamps and wishes for everyone to have a good week.  Mr. Osaka was our go-to service station guy because my dad thought he was a good and trustworthy mechanic and had this belief that the Japanese were honest business people. I found this somewhat conflicting because he was slightly more than a decade removed from a foxhole in Tawara, but I witnessed him, on numerous occasions, do and say things that expressed his respect for the local Japanese community.  He would say that government leaders, not people, start wars.

After the car was serviced and when there wasn’t a station opening that I could persuade my parents to go to, our Saturday morning routine took us to the local donut shop for a late breakfast of donuts, coffee and chocolate milk, which set us back another dollar fifty, including tip. Then, on some days, it was off to the local car wash.

My father normally washed our car himself, but once a month we went to the new modern carwash because they vacuumed the interior and cleaned the cigarette smoke residue that would form inside of the windshield.  Carwashes represented new, state-of-the-art technology and it seemed like magic as I peered through soap-film-stained windows to watch our car go through.   Occasionally, in lieu of a gas station opening, we would go to Bounceland USA so I could jump on the trampoline.  For this enterprise, someone leased a vacant lot, dug twelve pits, covered the top with springs and rubber straps and charged fifty cents for kids to jump up and down for twenty minutes.  Life in those days would allow such a venture.  No liability waivers, no spotters, people did things at their own risk.  These, and similar endeavors, would soon fall prey to the mating calls of lawyers in love.

I stayed on the lookout for new Mobilgas stations during the next few months, but the arrival of a new Hopalong Cassidy bike, named after the television serial cowboy, and a pogo stick vastly escalated my mobility and I moved on from the flying red horse.

In my mind, that old icon has become a metaphor for innocent, simpler times when we had one phone, attached to the wall, one small television displaying three channels in a large ugly cabinet, one car and one bathroom. I am also reminded that, in 1955, I had seven normal years left before it all fell apart. As my family crashed and burned, there were times when I wished I had a red flying horse to take me away from it all.

Pairing Imagery


Life is good. On a Tuesday evening, I explored the emerging Dogpath neighborhood in San Francisco, was introduced to young entrepreneurs and enjoyed a sublime dinner at Studio Table hosted by Jamie Benziger to introduce her new tier of Imagery wines.

After discovering that we were neighbors in Santa Rosa, Jamie, 29,  and I discussed her new endeavor.  She was passionate and articulate in describing  her wines and their target markets. Yes, she is the daughter of Joe Benziger who started the Benziger winery thirty-five years ago.  The children, however, don’t get special treatment and are expected to earn any role that they play in the business

New Tier of Imagery wines

Jamie’s story is one of a young woman who grew up in the wine industry, went off to study at Loyola Marymount University before transferring to Sonoma State to study wine marketing.  She has paid her dues inside and outside the family business, including a stint in New Zealand, and is now partnering with her dad to create tasteful, affordable, food-friendly wines intent on broadening the palates of the next generation or anyone seeking a good value enhancement to their next dinner party table.

By all accounts, she has succeeded. From my perspective, the pivotal needs of her market have been addressed:  artistic labels,(c’mon,

how many of us have purchased wine solely for the label art?), screw caps that fit the modern lifestyle better than corks, affordability

Jamie Benziger

($16.99 per bottle) and complex wines that leave you with that “big bang for my buck” feeling.  Let’s speak to the wine in the context of the food pairing with comments by me and Chef Ben Roche.


First Course

Wine: 2016 Imagery Sauvignon Blanc

Winter Nicoise — “a hearty salad of frisee, scallops, and potato cream to complement the minerality and citrusy acidity of the Sauvignon Blanc.”

The sauvignon blanc blends 20% muscat from Lake County.  In the New Zealand-style, I found floral notes on the nose and  balanced, fruit-forward flavors with hints of grapefruit and a soft mouthfeel.  I enjoyed it solo as an introductory wine and with the scallops in potato cream.

Second Course

Wine: 2016 Imagery Chardonnay

Butter-poached vegetables, buttermilk and Buddha’s Hand  — “a buttery-but light dish with a floral touch bring out the mineral-forward quality of this unusual Chardonnay.”

The blended chenin blanc adds to the crispness and citrus elements of this wine that paired well with the vegetables.

Third Course

Wine:  2016 Imagery Pinot Noir

Pancetta & Leek Quiche with cabbage and caviar — “rich, caramelized pancetta and eggs from the land and the sea make this Pinot Noir sing.”

The addition of 20% petit verdot to pinot noir is unusual, but here it adds structure and body while softening the tannins for an accessible wine.  A terrific value.

Pancetta ans Leek Quiche was cabbage and caviar

Fourth Course

Wine: 2016 Imagery Cabernet Sauvignon

Duck Breast with cherry, mushroom, spinach — “earthy, savory flavors, bright cherry puree and robust duck come together for this big Cabernet.”

The enhanced spice element from the blended 15% petit sirah is evident throughout and there are soft “code blue” and cherry notes on the palate.  It would be difficult to find a better cab under $20.

Fifth Course

Wine: Port

Hazelnut Brownie with goat cheese and raisins — “a rich and savory dessert, finished with olive oil and a sprinkle of flakey sea salt, help the chocolate and dried fruit notes of this delightful port shine”.

This is a Sonoma County non-vintage blend of zinfandel, petite sirah and touriga nacional that is shipped direct to consumer.  The high 18% alcohol level was balanced and paired well with both the sweet and savory aspect of the dessert.

Studio Table is located in the loft and working studio of artist Heather Day. She has partnered with Michelle Wei and Chef Ben Roche in creating a unique, artistic fine dining concept with stated goals “to challenge expectations and create conversations.”  Jamie’s wines, with the design representation of a drop of paint running

Imagery wines at Studio Table

down the label, matched the elegance of the table with Heather’s hand-painted menus.

These are the finest $16.99 food-friendly wines that I have tasted in a long while.  The new tier of Imagery releases will help to grow interest in wine through good taste, quality and value.  I recommend that you try them.