Monthly Archives: June 2018

Wines From “The Grade”

 

In his 1883 memoir, “The Silverado Squatters,” Robert Louis Stevenson describes traveling through north Napa Valley. Commenting on Mount Saint Helena, he said,”it looks down on much green, intricate country.  It feeds in the spring-time many splashing brooks.  Its naked peak sits four thousand five hundred feet above the sea; its sides are fringed with forest; and the soil, where it is bare, glows warm with cinnabar.”

In those days, traveling to desirable Lake County resorts required passage over the mountain via Calistoga and the Old Toll Road operated by businessman John Lawley. Arriving by coach, Stevenson wrote, “we entered the toll road, or to be more local, entered on “the grade”…”

The Silverado Squatters 

Tom Thornton

Stevenson’s book served as the inspiration and motivation for Tom Thornton and Brenda Mixson to purchase, in 1997, an old vineyard along “the grade” and re-plant it with fine cabernet sauvignon stock.

Wine is a second career for both Tom and Brenda, who actually met on a blind date.  Moving past their expertise in architecture and commercial real estate, they re-located from the East Coast to pursue a passion for cabernet sauvignon.

As newcomers to this prestigious area, Tom and Brenda have managed to attach themselves to a known star. After a time at Turley

Thomas Rivers Brown

Cellars, Thomas Rivers Brown worked for Shraeder Cellars where he developed a reputation for crafting fine cabernet sauvignon. Of note, his initial 2012 vintages of The Grade “Kingly Project” and “Winfield Estate” cabs received 99-pt and 97-pt ratings from Robert
Parker

The 12-acre Winfield Vineyard, using Tom’s middle name and part of a 32-acre ranch site, sits on a shelf above the old toll road

Winfield Vineyard

leading into Calistoga.  It is said to be at the confluence of the volcanic mountain soils and the alluvial valley floor. It is here that the team has created three distinct cabernets and a complex sauvignon blanc, all named from chapters of the “Silverado Squatters” memoir.

The tasting room sits among many other businesses on Lincoln Ave. in downtown Calistoga.  While located in a quaint old, well-appointed California cottage, it’s easy to walk by their stylish sign that blends in with many others.  However, there is a unique story here at The Grade Cellars and, for those seeking fine small-production cabernet sauvignon from an authentic boutique producer, a reservation to taste their current releases is recommended. The tasting fee is $35 which includes a cheese pairing;  everything is served in “The Library,”  a private space with comfortable chairs.

The Grade Cellars produces about 900 cases per vintage including 215 cases of The Grade 2016 “Sea Fog” Sauvignon Blanc ($28), the only white varietal. From volcanic soils, the “Sea Fog” is barrel-fermented in all neutral oak to produce melon, white peach flavors, balanced acidity and a mineral elements through the finish. Give the wine a few minutes in the glass to open up.

The Grade Winfield Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon

The biggest yield at 530 cases is The Grade 2015 “Winfield Estate” Cabernet Sauvignon ($100), aged for 20 months. Perfumed aromas of licorice and baked fruit precede full-bodied, rich and integrated flavors of red fruit, berries and cassis. Again, I found a nice minerality throughout.  The 2014 vintage of this wine was named by California Wine and Wineries among the “top five exceptional wines of 2017.” 

With floral and chocolate aromas, The Grade 2014 “Kingly Project” Cabernet Sauvignon ($150) would make a nice Valentine’s Day gift for that special wine connoisseur. I found earthy, slate elements on the nose and palate with red stone fruit flavors, demonstrative and balanced.  Additional time in the bottle will soften the tannins and allow these complex flavors to integrate. 

The exceptional releases are at a price point that’s not for everyone. However, if you are serious about cabernet sauvignon, you owe it to yourselves to try The Grade wines on your next visit to Calistoga. For the enhanced experience, read “Silverado Squatters” and stop by the Winfield Vineyard along the old toll road before you taste.

   

  

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Purple Heart Wines

 

 

Memorial Day is when we honor and remember veterans, especially those who have given the ultimate sacrifice for their country.  To honor and support veterans and to pay homage to patriarch Peter Mondavi, Sr., a WWII veteran, the Mondavi Family has challenged winemaker John Moynier to create a wine that salutes the Purple Heart medal, a high symbol of unselfishness among our military

Winemaker John Moynier

men and women.

We had the pleasure, years ago, of meeting Peter Mondavi Sr.,at his winery. I could sense Napa Valley history just by being in the same room with him.

The wine is the Purple Heart Red Wine Sonoma County 2015 ($19.99), a Left Bank-style Bordeaux blend with 19% California zinfandel added.  The production and availability of Purple Heart wines is the result of a collaboration between the Mondavi Family and the Purple Heart Foundation whose mission includes support, outreach and advocacy for combat wounded veterans and their families. Much of the focus of the Foundation’s work centers on employment for people with disabilities, homelessness and women veteran’s issues.

The Purple Heart wines, along with other efforts, will hopefully increase awareness and funding needed to continue and expand services. A noble cause, but let’s talk about the wine.

Purple Heart is not head winemaker John Moynier’s first rodeo, he has made wine for the Mondavi family nearly 33 years.  It’s the only place he has worked since earning a degree in Fermentation Science from UC Davis.

It is hard to imagine telling my parents in the late 1960s that I was majoring in fermentation science.  They would have seen it as a metaphor for everything but studying.  Things have changed.  Today, it is an honorable profession that balances brains with brawn. 

Moynier, a US Air Force veteran, was inspired enough by the project to return from his retirement.  He felt up to the challenge to create a wine worthy of the cause it would support.

The 2015 Purple Heart Wine is a merlot dominant blend that includes zinfandel, petit verdot and cabernet franc.  There is a reason merlot is the third most planted grape globally.  Early to ripen, it is intended to be a good blender and flourishes with the support of the other Bordeaux grapes.  

If zinfandel was grown in Bordeaux, it would be a good addition as long as its bold flavors were held in check. Here, the 19% zinfandel adds, for the most part, to the flavor profile, not a high alcohol level (14.2%) or an imbalanced pH. 

In contrast to the merlot, petit verdot is late-ripening and, although it can add dynamics to the wine, it definitely influenced the deep color here. The cabernet franc is evident in the spice hints.

I tasted the 2015 Purple Heart three times, once after twenty minutes in the glass, hours later and, finally, the next day when the flavors were fully integrated.  Each time, after much swirling, it expressed nice texture with balanced, accessible flavors. If your budget is under twenty dollars per bottle and you enjoy red wine, I recommend this one without hesitation.

2015 Purple Heart Wine

Dark and opaque in the glass, the medium-bodied release offered dark plum and a hint of licorice on the nose, a rich mouthfeel with more red fruit flavors and some spice on the finish. The added zinfandel grape was clear, but did not dominate. With healthy balanced tannins, Purple Heart will cellar well, but is very drinkable now.

The task of creating a complex red blend, using Sonoma County fruit, for under twenty dollars cannot be a simple one. Kudos to John Moynier for an effort to be proud of.

It would be appropriate and symbolic for those enjoying wine with friends on Memorial Day, or at any time, to include a bottle of Purple Heart wine to toast and remember our heroes.  I knew and know a few who would appreciate it.  

Purple Heart wines are available in some outlets and, with a little research, can be easily located throughout the Bay Area.


Changes At The Hop

 

Though not included in any dictionary at the time, the word “hop”, during the late 1950s, was a term used by young people to describe a place to gather and begin the pre sexual revolution, innocent pubescent introduction to intimate contact called dancing.

Danny and the Juniors

 

At this stage, you are immediately cast into another teeny-bopper comparison.  Even while on the floor, I would question my

dance skills.  Was I good or just average?  I looked around and surmised that I didn’t have the graceful swagger of Stephen, but was better than the kid with flaying arms who missed every other beat. I had just enough confidence to ask someone to dance, knowing I could never be as bad as that guy.

Danny and the Juniors with their one and only hit, “At The Hop,” helped cement the term into our middle school vocabularies with their somewhat racy lyrics:

 

“Well, you can swing it you can groove it

You can really start to move it at the hop

Where the jockey is the smoothest

And the music is the coolest at the hop

All the cats and chicks can get their kicks at the hop

Let’s go!”

I was more than ready to go. When I would hear my parents complain that they couldn’t understand the words to our modern music, I thought that was the plan.

By high school in 1962, “the hop” began to lose its luster.  It didn’t sound like this new decade.  Unable to settle on a name, our weekly summer dance night in the high school multi-purpose room became the What’s It club.

By twelfth grade, I was still small.  Six foot would come two years later, after a fairly rapid growth spurt. My legs were so skinny that after sitting in a hot bath with my new jeans on, they still didn’t fit tight. My hair had turned from straight to wavy to coarse and curly in a span of three years, leaving me with fewer options than I preferred.

In the end, I could handle my myself socially.  I was less shy about interacting with girls than many of my friends.  Something about not being seen as serious gives you limited access and I had all the dancing I could handle.  To use a baseball metaphor for intimate progression, I was a prime candidate to slide safely into second base.

She said, “Hey, Lyle, you wanna dance? 

Yes, at times they came to me.  Whether on the dance floor or in a phone booth, a girl making the first move was usually better than my plan, no move at all.   

The What’s It was mostly about hanging out and dancing to records, but twice a month we had a live band that immediately turned the atmosphere from teen club to nightclub. 

By 1962, Elvis Presley had already made twelve films and his days of producing good rock ’n roll were behind him.  The music of many of the black musicians who inspired Elvis surfaced and, thanks in some part to Barry Gordy’s Motown Records in Detroit,

James Brown

became mainstream.  One of those performers who appealed to young people was James Brown, the King of Soul. His sparkling costumes, wavy processed hair and rapid footwork in his dance moves appealed to crowds from the Apollo Theater in Harlem to the Hollywood Bowl.  The  rhythms were relentless and the lyrics insignificant, all that was needed was an intermittent, “I feel good,” followed in the next riff by, “I knew that I would.” 

Brown’s music inspired local bands to cover his style and they were presented throughout the summer at  What’s It. The Jaguars with Richie Jackson performed twice, adding a small brass section for the danceable beginning numbers before introducing Jackson, who entertained with his voice and his soft feet. Another soul band, The Young Starlighters with Mitch and Cherie, delivered much of the same with harmonized vocals and some knock-off James Brown choreography. 

On records-only nights, we danced to Brown, Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, and later to the Supremes and Smokey Robinson.  These were innocent, soulful times that we thought would last forever.

In 1964, the Beatles, a new group from Liverpool, England began to dominate AM radio airplay with the juvenile phase of their music.  For many of us, their songs were short and silly, nothing that signaled legendary. However, the album, “Rubber Soul,” released in December 1965, began their ascent into creative brilliance that has not been matched since.

By the end of 1964, the California-sound of the Beach Boys, could no longer compete with the Beatles invasion in the annual Battle of the Bands call-in survey sponsored by KLIV-1590 AM Radio in San Jose.

We were raised on the music of Little Richard, James Brown, Marvin Gaye and Motown, but now listening to bands called The Rolling Stones and the Kinks. 

The British had taken our black music, respectfully filtered it through their culture and voice, and fed it back to us. To say that we

The Chocolate Watchband

hailed it as groundbreaking is an understatement. How many potentially great live Beatles albums were ruined by the screamers? 

   The Jaguars and the Young Starlighters were gone from Thursday nights at the What’s It, replaced by bands like The Chocolate Watchband, mostly covered Rolling Stones tunes. Another band, Stained Glass, whose recording of the Beatle’s “If I Needed Someone” was number one on the 1965 Buffalo, New York top hit list, were always idiosyncratic and our high school classmate Dennis was the drummer. Then there was the Gollywogs who, a few years later, changed the band’s name to Credence Clearwater Revival and went global.   

For a time, I missed Little Richie Jackson and hoped he would catch on with a new band, even if it meant performing on Friday nights in the lounge of a local bowling alley. 

We danced nostalgically to Johnny B.  Goode by Chuck Berry or Marvin Gayes’s “I Be Doggone,” but most of the new stuff was British.  In 1965, “(I Can’t Get No)Satisfaction” became number one as we stepped our way to commencement.  Soon, we were off to college and what happened over the next five years will be discussed by historians and sociologists for centuries.

Stained Glass

As I look back, the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, early beginnings of the women’s movement, the protests, the whole damn cultural revolution, happened in the face of the previous generation who had saved and protected our way of life.

I wish I could re-do some of those tense conversations and get my point across in a more sensitive way.  I regret that courtesy and understanding were, at times, overshadowed by the cause, or what was perceived as such. 

Songwriter Jackson Browne in a musical analogy, wrote, “Make room for my 45s along beside your 78s, nothing survives but the way we live our lives.” 

We stopped dancing and started listening.  The role of dance as an introduction to intimate contact became obsolete. With the dawn of birth control and a new open-mindedness, such encounters resulted from nothing more than a simple twist of fate. 

American black music inspired the first British invasion which, in turn, inspired a new generation of British and American bands like Cream, Jefferson Airplane and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, as well as singer songwriters like Fred Neil, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan.

In 1969, using a firmly planted, powerful position in student politics, the Black Student Union at my university secured comedian/activist Dick Gregory as a Scholar-in-Residence and brought in a series of jazz artists like Charles Lloyd, The Cannonball Adderley Quintet and Bobby Hutcherson to celebrate the black experience.

My musical horizons exploded.  I once heard Reverend Jesse Jackson introduce the Cannonball Adderley Quintet at an Operation Breadbasket event in Chicago, referring to the role of music in the black movement.  

He said, “The musician often tries to capture the new thing that gives us melody and rhythm as we do our thing.”

The Cannonball Adderley Quintet at Operation Breadbasket

I became a sponge for the rhythms and the messages of the time. As Jackson urged those in the audience to stand up straight, the Quintet launched into their new inspiring anthem, “Walk Tall.”

There it was, the identical rhythms of James Brown, The Jaguars with Richie Jackson, and The Young Starlighters, disguised in a new package with a new meaning.  As it all evolved musically and spiritually, I have never forgotten, not for one minute that, for me, it all started at the hop.