Monochrome Wines puts color and creativity into unique white blends

 

Experimentation is a distinctive characteristic of wine makers who began, as hobbyists, making wine in their garages.  They embrace trial and error out of necessity and, as a result, learn to think out of the box. Such is true with Dave McGee, founder of Monochrome Wines, the only Paso Robles winery that focuses exclusively on white varietals and unorthodox blends.

Aside from a few fine white Rhone blends, the Paso Robles region is known for world-class red Rhone blends and zinfandel which begs the question, “Why the focus on whites here?”

Half joking, Dave explained that it gets very hot during Paso’s summer season and he and his wife prefer to drink cooler white wines.  They are also weary of the myth that white wines are simplistic, lacking in-depth and beneath most serious wine drinkers.

Dave McGee, founder and co-winemaker at Monochrome

To prove his point, Dave decided to take his focus on avant-garde white blends and plant it in the middle of red wine country. I wonder if the property values have begun to fall?

McGee is a transplant from the Bay Area and after three degrees from Stanford and a long career, he fled the rat race for the green hills of Paso Robles wine country.  When asked if wine was his second career, he said, “Actually, it’s my fifth or sixth.” 

After years of planning, tracking California weather patterns and comparing them to the noted European regions, the McGees founded Monochrome Wines in 2016, intent on changing faulty perceptions of white wines.

From the first taste, the 2017 Monochrome “Barrel Distortion” ($35), a 100% albarino sourced from the Plum Orchard Vineyard in the nearby Templeton Gap AVA, challenged my perceptions and became a new paradigm.

The albarino grape is typically aged in stainless steel to highlight its crispness and vibrancy.  The “Barrel Distortion” is aged in stainless steel and on the lees in neutral French oak, giving it a unique soft and rich mouthfeel without sacrificing the flavors and aromatics. 

McGee understands that the creation of captivating wines begins with the best fruit.  To that end, he has secured grapes from known sources in the central coast and north Santa Barbara County including the Zaca Mesa Vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley and the nearby Happy Canyon Vineyard, a long-time producer of quality sauvignon blanc. 

Having spent much of this decade avoiding red meat and eating more seafood and vegetables, I enjoy complex white wines that pair well with food such as the 2017 Monochrome “Neither Here Nor There” ($38), a distinct blend of sauvignon blanc and chenin blanc, both with origins from different parts of France’s Loire Valley. 

Sancerre and the nearby Poiully Fume’ region produce extraordinary sauvignon blanc that is, by nature, very dry.  Chenin blanc is produced to the south and is more versatile in its flavor and texture profile with different regions like Vouvray or Anjou. 

Origins aside, “Neither Here Nor There” claims its identity from California terroir and is barrel, not stainless steel aged, hence the name.

The individual varietals in Monochrome wines are fermented separately, then carefully blended later under the close scrutiny of Dave and consulting winemaker, Riley Hubbard, resulting in inventive wines like the 2017 Monochrome “Altered Images” ($40), a blend of chardonnay and chenin blanc and the 2016 Monochrome “Analogue in a Digital Age” ($38), a blend of marsanne (81%) and chardonnay (19%) that is aged separately in earthenware amphoras, used 8,000 years ago and oak barrels, in use for only 2,000 years, to achieve a contemporary result.

Monochrome currently produces about 500 cases per vintage but looks to expand to 2,000 cases and has many new releases on the horizon.

A growing trend among smaller production wineries, the easiest way to access Monochrome wines, aside from a few local restaurants, is by direct to consumer shipments through their growing two-tiered membership program that guarantees seasonal releases. 

Monochrome also has a small tasting room south of the town of Paso Robles where Dave McGee personally pours current vintages and provides insights into his passion of create complex, memorable white wines. 

Whether a connoisseur or someone who simply enjoys white wines, Monochrome’s mission to explore their intricacies is something not to be overlooked. They have certainly made me a believer.

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Clos du Val Winery continues to make history

 

It is the perfect scenario for a Hollywood movie. A dream come true for a man who settled in the Napa Valley to produce world-class cabernet sauvignon and watched his first vintage become a part of history, the kind of history that changes things forever.

Clos du Val began in 1972 when John and Henrietta Goelet, after years of searching, purchased a parcel in the what is today the Stag’s

Clos du Val Winery in Napa Valley’s Stag’s Leap District

Leap District and set about making great cabernet sauvignon.  Working with French trained winemaker Bernard Portet, the inaugural release, the 1972 Clos Du Val Cabernet Sauvignon, was a part of the California contingency of wines that outscored the French wines in the venerable 1976 Judgement of Paris blind tasting.  In fact, the same vintage was the overall winner in a 1986 rematch.

If your first vintage helps to change the wine world and catapult California to the forefront, what’s next.  Well, Bernard Portet stayed at Clos Du Val for other 40 years, continued to produce top Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon and both became icons in the industry.  

Still owned by the Goelet family who reside on the East Coast, Clos du Val has, for over 45 years, succeeded through high-end consistency, stability among their staff and a focus on relationships, both with the customer and the surrounding community. They are also not willing to sit on their laurels.

In 2014, with new winemaker Ted Henry at the helm, Clos Du Val made the decision to dramatically reduce production, from 90,000 to 35,000 cases annually, and focus solely on making wines from their estate vineyards in the Stag’s Leap District, Yountville and the Carneros.

The 126-acre Hirondelle Vineyard, that surrounds their Stag’s Leap property, is the main source for cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, petite verdot and malbec, all native to the Bordeaux region. The State Lane and Riverbend Vineyards add more fine cabernet sauvignon clones, cabernet franc with sauvignon blanc and viognier.

Under Henry’s tenure, Clos Du Val is returning to where they started, to the principles on which they were founded. He realizes that they can’t be everything to everyone and that the experience starts with people first, then the wine.

With the change in focus came the construction of a spacious, retro-modern tasting facility with indoor and outdoor spaces overlooking the Hirondelle Vineyard, furnishing comfortable enhancements to the experience.  Designer Erin Martin used the outside of old barrel staves as paneling and the inside of the staves for the ceiling to create history in the architecture.  Glass walls open to the West and bring in the outdoors with elegant patio furniture and water features. To the East, there is another glass door that opens to the barrel room and production facility.

We sat in a cozy nook with Ted Henry and members of the staff to taste some current releases that began with classic aromas of spice and red fruit in the 2016 Estate Pinot Noir, Gran Val Vineyard, Carneros, Napa Valley ($65).  Aged in 100% new French and Hungarian oak, the cherry and red fruit flavors were concentrated and lingering.

The next three wines were all sourced from the estate Hirondelle Vineyard beginning with the lush 2015 Estate Merlot, Hirondelle Vineyard, Stag’s Leap District ($65).  There were complex, earthy aromas of baked fruit and spice with integrated berry and fruit flavors and hints of espresso on the finish.

Cabernet franc, with tremendous heritage, is one of the most overlooked reds varietals in California.  The mineral and menthol hints on the nose of the 2015 Estate Cabernet Franc, Hirondelle Vineyard, Stag’s Leap District ($100) foreshadowed the full-bodied herbal

Clos du Val tasting room

flavors and elegant velvet finish.

The 2015 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Hirondelle Vineyard ($120) with merlot and cabernet franc added and the 2014 Three Graces Cabernet Sauvignon ($175), named for a sculpture that modeled the label design, were both exceptional wines that exemplify the grandeur and history of the Napa Valley.

As a special treat, we opened a 1996 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from the library and found it to be surprisingly pristine and fruit-forward, an acknowledgement of how well Clos du Val wines age.

The rich legend of the 1972 vintage will be preserved in perpetuity as the contemporary Clos Du Val winery continues to create great wines, ambiance and memories for a new generation. 


Winemakers adjust to the impacts of climate change

 

With everything that surrounds the mystique of wine, it is, essentially, an agricultural commodity, produced by farmers.  Like all farmers, wine grape growers are and must continue to adapt to the challenges of climate change.

The French word, “Terroir,” is used to describe wine grapes matched with the perfect soil type, rainfall, temperatures, sun and wind exposure, elevation, etc.  Scientific data has shown that the terroir is changing.

Winegrowers deal with the ever-changing climate conditions for each vintage where seasonal variations of yield can exceed thirty

Hillside vineyard above the Mosel River

percent.  However, climate change may demand thinking beyond the grapes that have flourished in their regions for decades and even centuries.

As a co-author of a study in Nature on the impacts of climate change, assistant professor of organismic and evolutionary biology Elizabeth Wolkovich suggests that diversity is the answer for wine growers who should be exploring lesser known varietals.  She explains that while the old regions of Europe grow over one thousand different grapes, there are only twelve varietals that comprise over eighty percent of the market in New World countries

The Europeans, for the most part, produce blends that are not dependent upon a single varietal, whereas, in the United States, we have become fixated on single varietals like cabernet sauvignon, syrah or sauvignon blanc. 

Change in most parts of Europe will be difficult because of strict ordinances that carefully regulate what can and can’t be planted.  In California, we are regulated only by the strong influences of terroir and comfort.  Who can imagine the Napa Valley weaning itself from cabernet sauvignon and selling the vines to growers in a warmer Russian River Valley?

Don’t look for that change soon. The 2017 California harvest of cabernet sauvignon, the world’s most planted grape, was up six percent from 2016 at nearly 600,000 tons.  In contrast, most other varietals were down including popular chardonnay which dropped nine percent, the result of abnormal heat spikes.

California now grows sixty different wine grape varietals and Washington State has long had success with diverse plantings.  In contrast, Oregon is mostly pinot noir and may not be well-positioned to adapt to climate change. 

Although it may be short-lived, there is one country that is reaping the rewards of climate change. Over the past three decades, while

spatburgunder grapes (pinot noir)in Germany

Germany’s agricultural and tourist industries have been negatively affected by steadily rising temperatures, Germany’s wine industry,  at least for the time being, is benefitting from the spikes in heat, primarily because their prized riesling grapes are fully ripening.

A northern European country that has long been associated with beer, Germany has historically created fine riesling and gewürztraminer in the southerly Mosel region along the French (Alsace) and Luxembourg borders. Summer temperatures in Mosel had been fairly cool, averaging 64 degrees which, at times, did not allow the grapes to fully ripen, ultimately holding back the full expression of fruit and roundness to the wine.

Today, viticulture in Germany is less about finding ways to allow the grapes to fully mature and more about the fear of over-ripening. With increased temperatures, the riesling grapes are consistently ripening earlier increasing the yield and the quality of the wines, culminating with the 2018 vintage, that many say will be the best in a lifetime.  While acknowledging the harmful impacts of climate change to our planet, German winemakers admit that today, it is a boom for their product.

Conducive terroir for wine grapes has expanded to the North and opportunities to plant red varietals are growing.  There are reports of cabernet sauvignon, syrah and pinot noir plantings, previously unknown to Germany’s wine history, that are producing high-end results in the bottle.

Thirty years ago, all red grapes represented only ten percent of German vineyards, half that of riesling. Since then, higher average temperatures and a new approach to making red wines has catapulted them into the fore front.  Winemakers have focused on lower yields, malolactic fermentation to reduce acidity and oak aging to achieve their success.

Increased plantings of pinot noir, called spätburgunder, embody the growth of new German red wines that can be found online or in fine wine outlets throughout the Bay Area.

Meanwhile, we should all take advantage of extraordinary German kabinett (austere), spatlese (late-harvest) or auslese (dessert) style riesling wines, warmed by the new heat, and abundantly available at higher, but still reasonable prices.  


The storied history and elegant wines of Larkmead

 

All wineries have a story, but few match that of Larkmead, located five miles south of Calistoga on an estate that lies between Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail. Their story unfolds as an integral and colorful part of the history and evolution of wine in the Napa Valley.

Over a glass of their 2015 Solari, a current release from a nearby cabernet sauvignon block, I listened intently while current

proprietor’s, Cam and Kate Baker wove tales of Larkmead that spanned my lifetime. 

An Italian immigrant, Kate’s father, Larry Solari, held executive positions with the Wine Growers Guild and United Vintners as well as

Tasting center at Larkmead

Sales Manager for Italian Swiss Colony before and after he and his wife and Napa native, Polly purchased the 110 acre Larkmead Estate in 1948. As a Napa Valley icon, Solari was once described by Robert Mondavi as a mentor.

The Solari’s, aware of Larkmead’s storied past when they purchased it, sought to sustain its rich tradition by sourcing grapes to other local producers, then reviving the Larkmead label.  

Before the Solari family, the land began producing wine after it was leased, then acquired in 1895 by the Salmina family who migrated from Switzerland.

For years, Lillie Coit, the namesake of Coit Tower, lived at the estate which she named Larkmead for the abundant meadowlarks that resided in the surrounding trees. While still producing wine, she had a salon on the property and enjoyed entertaining her friends, including Robert Louis Stevenson who had close ties with the North Valley.

Kate Baker has spent her entire childhood at the Larkmead estate. She and husband Cam were very close to her parents and, while around the wine business for years, never planned to operate it, a commitment they made in 2006, in part, to honor the Solari legacy.

Cam, a graduate of Stanford University and UC Berkeley Law School had a distinguished law career interspersed with extensive community service and a stint in local politics. Kate is highly regarded as an artist and many of her works are displayed through the new

Proprietor’s Cam and Kate Baker

modern hospitality lounge, named The Lark.

Since committing to Larkmead, the Baker’s have overseen the complete replanting of the vineyards, the construction of a state-of-the art production facility and later, the new barrel room and lounge.

The Napa River, that dissects the property, along with elevation drops have resulted in the deposit of a unique diversity of clay, gravelly and sandy soils that are matched with a variety of clones and rootstock of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot, malbec, sauvignon blanc and an acre of left over tocai friulano.

Dan Petroski became the Larkmead Winemaker in 2012, working his way up from Cellar Master and Assistant Winemaker, beginning in 2006.  To achieve his desire for a savory lushness in his wines, Petroski is known for picking his grapes earlier, sometimes three to four weeks before anyone else.  

Today, Larkmead produces only 7,500 cases annually.

Veteran consulting winemaker, Scott McLeod filled in for Petroski and led us through a tasting of current Larkmead releases beginning

The Wines of Larkmead

with a limited sauvignon blanc, a crisp wine, aged in oak foudres from Sancerre.

Larkmead’s wines are defined as a Vineyard Series that showcases the estate varietals and the Larkmead Series that includes three different block-specific cabernet sauvignon releases, each from a different soil type.

The 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon is Larkmead’s most popular and highly produced wine at 2,000 cases.  Young by their standards, it was nicely balanced, fruit forward and soft on the palate.  Other wines in from the Vineyard Series include the 2015 LMV Salon, that features cabernet franc and the merlot-based 2015 Firebelle, both named after Lillie Coit.

The Larkmead Series are all among the best of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon.  The elegant 2015 Lark, the 2015 Dr. Olmo, named for known plant breeder and the

Sauvignon blanc vines at Larkmead

aforementioned 2015 Solari all originate from land described as one of the ten best vineyard sites in the Napa Valley.

Whether it is savoring the history surrounding the estate, relishing in Cam and Kate’s commitment to the future or simply enjoying elegant wines, Larkmead is a special experience that’s worth a day trip.


Her River Runs Through Me

 

“Part of you, flows out of me

in these lines from time to time”

    Joni Mitchell

  Metaphorically, a river is often used to represent movement, connection or coming home, like “ a river to a sea.”  In 1971, singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell wrote the song “River,” describing it, from the perspective of her upbringing in Saskatchewan, Canada, as a pathway to escape her problems and a longing for something more.  It simply began:  “It’s coming on Christmas, they’re cutting down trees, putting up reindeer, singing songs of joy and peace.  Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on.”

The complete song was self-revealing in a way that was unprecedented, especially for a woman dealing with the societal ceiling of the times.  Although we have never met, I would, over the next forty years, develop an intimate relationship with Joni Mitchell through her words and her music. They became an ongoing inspiration to my soul as it revealed itself.  I often found solace in her words that helped me to think and write poetically.  Without trying, she often reminded me that I could be a better, more enlightened person.  She was my muse.

A few days after my twenty-third birthday, I returned to my apartment to find a thin, wrapped twelve-inch square package lying across the threshold of my doorstep with a note from my brother-in-law attached that read, “Happy Birthday, there’s great music in the world that isn’t jazz.”  

Kerry had recently returned from combat in the Vietnam War and was living the hippie life in the hills of Los Gatos.  Unable to expand my psychedelic horizons, he became determined to broaden me musically beyond my limiting obsession with jazz artists like Miles Davis, John Coltrane and pianist Herbie Hancock.

He had some success with my college graduation gift of the album, “On the Threshold of a Dream,” that turned me on to the innovative music of the Moody Blues and thought that Joni Michell’s latest 1972 release, “For The Roses,” would be the next logical step in his plan to open me up.  Those instincts were auspicious  and, at that time, he may have known more about my inner self than I did.

Unfortunately, Kerry fell into life-long drug addiction, the cumulative effects of which led to his death, at age sixty-five, from a heart attack.  As a few people gathered at his gravesite, I delivered some brief remarks and credited his birthday gift of “For The Roses” as life changing for me.

It is one thing to write from the heart and another to write unafraid, willing to reveal and expose your vulnerabilities. For me, Joni Mitchell did that better than anyone. 

The album, “For The Roses” included a few catchy songs like, “You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio” and “Barangrill,” that used wit and alliteration to tell  young love stories.  Pulling me deeper into her expressive self, another piece, “Lesson In Survival” was a different type of love song that spoke of the complexities of relationships, isolation and the fear of incompatibility. 

She wrote: “Maybe it’s paranoia, maybe it’s sensitivity.  Your friends protect you, scrutinize me and I get so damn timid, not at all the spirit that’s inside of me.  I can’t seem to make it with you socially, there’s this reef around me.”

The song, “Lesson In Survival” set-up one of her most poignant pieces, “Woman of Heart And Mind.”  The song opens with:  “I am a women of heart and mind, with time on my hands, no child to raise.  You come to me like a little boy and I give you my scorn and my praise.”

In the early seventies, the roles of men and women were more defined, like the walls of a cage.  Joni’s words made me question why I couldn’t be a little boy and lean on my young wife sometimes.  Current norms only placed importance on me being a rock for her to lean on, something that seemed counterintuitive to what makes a lasting relationship. 

Women had already figured this out, judging by the new movement for equality that they were creating.  I understood the concept, but Joni’s lyrics became the voice in my head that rose up from time to time when I needed to be reminded that I could think and do better.

The song’s assault on the perceived “Mad Men” roles of men and women that existed forty-five years ago continued with lyrics from the modern female perspective.  Strumming with guitar in hand, she sang:   “After the rush when you come back down, you’re always disappointed, nothing seems to keep you high. Drive your bargains, push your papers, win your medals, fuck your strangers, don’t it leave you on the empty side?”

In the 1990s, my two young boys would giggle when they heard that verse of “Women Of Heart And Mind” playing on my home or car stereo.  Today,  I consider both of them to be open and sensitive men.  Thanks, in part, to musical pioneers like Joni Mitchell, they grew up in a society where the archaic roles of men and women were more blurred and less defined. 

The song, “Woman Of Heart And Mind” concludes not like an arrow, but a dagger to the heart of early 1970s norms as Joni became introspective and personal.  She wrote/sang to someone:  “You criticize and you flatter, you imitate the best and the rest you memorize.  You know, the times you impress me the most are the times when you don’t try, when you don’t even try.”

I refused to look in a mirror for days while my young mind digested those words.

The lessons of “Woman Of Heart And Mind” were reinforced later, in 1977, when, in the song “Jericho,” Joni wrote/sang:  “I’ll try to keep myself open up to you and approve your self-expression.  I need that too.  I need your confidence and the gift of your extra time, in return I’ll give you mine.  Sweet darling, it’s a rich exchange it seems to me.  It’s a warm arrangement.”

These words continually emerge as a voice in my head, usually when I am not living up to the message.

A few weeks after receiving it, I shared my excitement about “For The Roses” to a visiting friend who was familiar with Joni’s music.  When I returned from work the next day, he gifted me her three earlier albums.  I became full-on Joni Mitchell and couldn’t get enough of her music or her poetic messages.  Even though she stopped writing and recording music in 2007, her lyrics have their own drawer in the Dewey-decimal system of my mind, easily retrievable.

In her album, “Blue,” recorded one year before “For The Roses” in 1971, Joni’s lyrics were slightly less refined, but revealing of her emerging themes. In the song, “All I Want,” she wrote/sang:  “All I really want our love to do is to bring out the best in me and in you.  I wanna talk to you, I want to shampoo you, I want to renew you, again and again.”

While Joni was, most likely, referring to a personal relationship, my take-a-way was that more than being present, I needed to consciously be there, again and again.  As the superficial pressures of becoming a sensitive, white male were mounting, Joni offered a cautionary reminder:  “When you dig down deep, you lose good sleep and it makes you heavy company.”

My wife Karen shared a passion for Joni’s words that would evolve, over time, into an artistic threesome.  As we all grew and changed, her lyrics became less of a guide for our relationship and more of an appreciation of expression. 

Although passion was still present, our desire to bathe and shampoo together gave way to “I just want to soak in the tub and relax for a while.”  As a young relationship is often driven by passion, one that is maturing acknowledges growth as people, allowing more space for independent thought as well as a relaxing bath.  After all, it was Joni who reminded us of the need to approve each other’s self-expression.  

Joni’s declaration:  “…you want stimulation, nothing more, that’s what I think” became, at times, mutually acceptable.  Our deep love was engrained and with the fear of incompatibility diminishing, an appreciation for individual expression and a desire for exploration of mind and body burst forth.

  Joni was also evolving. In addition to exposing vulnerabilities, her words began to express a deep sense of independence and wanderlust that, admittedly, resulted in both peace of mind and regret.  Years earlier, in “River,” she blamed herself as she wrote/sang:  “I’m so hard to handle, I’m selfish and I’m sad.  Now I’ve gone and lost the best baby that I ever had.  I wish I had a river I could skate away on.”

Her epic 1976 release, “Hejira,” revealed a more determined independent spirit as she wrote/sang:  “In our possessive coupling, so much could not be expressed.  So now I’m returning to myself, these things that you and I suppressed. We’re only particles of change I know, orbiting around the sun.  But how can I have that point of view, when I’m always bound and tied to someone.”

Ironically, shortly after hearing those words for the first time, Karen and I, after being together for eight years, decided to make a baby.  

No worries, Joni, we would always be there for you and approve your self-expression.  We needed you, too, now that our lives were about to change forever.

To be continued.


Tasting Fine Napa Valley Merlot

 

At a recent “Masters of Merlot” event at the COPIA Center in Napa, winemaker Chris Carpenter, referenced the film, “Sideways,” when he said, “Miles had a problem with his ex-wife, not Merlot.” Just as sales of men’s undershirts sharply declined when Clark Gable appeared bare-chested in the film, “It Happened One Night,” Miles Raymond’s declaration of “not drinking any @&%#ing merlot”

Moderator Anthony Giglio, Chris Carpenter/LaJota, Cleo Pahlmeyer/Pahlmeyer, PJ Alviso/Duckhorn, Ted Edwards/Freemark Abbey

created a setback to one of the most esteemed grape varieties in the world.  Estimates place peak California merlot plantings at 60,000 acres and, after some recovery, it seems to have stabilized at 44,000 acres.

Ironically, “60 Minutes correspondent Morley Safer’s 1991 segment, “The French Paradox” highlighted the health benefits of red wine and created a boom for all red varietals, including merlot.  

Carpenter also added that while “Sideways” turned the Carneros to pinot noir, what survived were the sweet spots for merlot in the Napa Valley.

It makes sense that the Napa Valley, birthplace of California’s Bordeaux-style blends, would produce the finest Merlot releases. While cabernet sauvignon is still dominant, pioneer Napa Valley wine makers like Dan Duckhorn fell in love right-bank Bordeaux wines where merlot is king.

Duckhorn Vineyards has been the source of fine merlot wines for over forty years.  Vice President of Winegrowing P.J. Alviso recalled several stories, including the acquisition of the legendary Three Palms Vineyard, on the Silverado Trail, south of Calistoga, which produced the 2014 Duckhorn Vineyards Three Palms Vineyards Merlot Napa Valley ($98), Wine Spectator magazine’s 2017 Wine of the Year.

Alviso characterized the Three Palms Vineyard as an amazingly self-regulating site that includes fifty acres of low-yield merlot vines. 

2015 Duckhorn Three Palms Vineyard Merlot

The current 2015 Three Palms Merlot ($98) release had slate and berry aromas with complex flavors balanced with earthy elements on the finish.  Duckhorn also produces a Napa Valley Merlot ($60) sourced from over fifty growing lots from numerous vintners.

Freemark Abbey is storied in California wine history because its vintage 1969 Cabernet Sauvignon and 1973 Chardonnay were both included in the 1976 Paris Tasting.  Winemaker Ted Edwards shared that their first merlot release was the result of an abundant 1985 harvest.  Plans to sell off the excess changed after sampling the quality and they have released merlot as a single varietal wine since.

Freemark Abbey produces a Napa Valley Merlot ($30),aged sixteen months in French oak, with 11% added between cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot, malbec and cabernet franc. However, the 2015 Freemark Abbey Merlot Bosche’ Vineyard ($60), with 99% merlot from the Rutherford district, expresses exceptional depth of flavor and aroma. It’s rich, concentrated flavors of black cherry combine with nuanced spice elements.

Known primarily for their Pahlmeyer Proprietary Red, President Cleo Pahlmeyer talked of her father Jayson’s switch from law to winemaking in pursuit of creating a “California Mouton,” referring to an iconic Bordeaux wine from Chateau Rothschild. She introduced the estate grown 2015 Pahlmeyer Merlot, Napa Valley ($85), sourced from vineyards at 2,000 feet elevation on Atlas Peak, describing it as drinking like a cabernet sauvignon. 

In this impressive release, the aromas were timidly wild, structure was excellent and there was a slight perfume element to the flavors of black cherry and vanilla.  As is often the case, the rich mouthfeel is credited to a late rain that reduced net yield by thirty percent.

Mt. Brave and LaJota Vineyard Co. winemaker Chris Carpenter described the challenges of mountain vineyards in dealing with rocky

La Jota Vineyard Co. WS Keyes Vineyard Merlot Howell Mountain

soils, angles to the sun and tree lines.  He produced  250-300 cases of the 100% 2015 Mt. Brave Merlot, Mt. Veeder ($80) that had all the elements of an extraordinary wine with dark fruit and espresso flavors that lingered.

For LaJota, Carpenter delivers two fine merlot release from estate Howell Mountain vineyards in the town of Anqwin including the 2015 La Jota Vineyard Co. W.S. Keyes Merlot Howell Mountain ($150), awarded 96-points by Robert Parker, Jr.  Sourced from old gnarly vines in what was described as the “most highly prized merlot vineyard in the country,” the Keyes Vineyard release was one of the finest and most complex merlots that I have tasted from the color, bold flavors and mineral elements through the long finish.

The wine community has declared that merlot is back!  Those of us who were fortunate to taste new releases from these five top Napa Valley wineries realize that it never left.  I suggest that we selfishly make amends by drinking more merlot.


The Road to Conceito’s Wines

 

For many, the thrill of the wine experience is the search, finding that great value or rare hidden gem that you read about somewhere.  During a recent visit to Portugal’s Douro Valley, I pursued such an opportunity and survived to tell my story.

For centuries, Portugal has been known for producing the finest port in the world, using native grapes like touriga nacional, touriga francesa and tinto roriz, called tempranillo in neighboring Spain and other countries. In recent years, they have used the same varietals to produce acclaimed red wines.  

In 2014, three Douro Valley red wines, the Dow Vintage Port 2011(#1), Prats & Symington Douro Chryseia 2011(#3) and Quinta do Vale Meao Douro 2011(#4), dominated Wine Spectator magazine’s annual top wines list.

Most recently, critics have made note that quality white wines have emerged from the Douro.  One such release, the Conceito Douro

Hillside vineyards in the Douro Valley

Branca 2016 (white blend) and its story intrigued me and, although they were in the midst of the harvest, I reached out to winemaker Rita Marques Ferreira to arrange a visit.  

As with most wineries, Conceito’s small three person staff were in the throes of harvest, something that is time-consuming and must be undertaken within a precise window to maximize potential for greatness. 

Before leaving the hotel, I asked Lisa, the concierge for directions to the village of Villa Nova de Foz Coa-Cedovim.  She said that it was a beautiful ninety minute drive from our hotel in Peso da Régua.  An hour and a half to travel 43 miles should have been a clue.

What followed was a scenic, but harrowing drive up and over a mountain pass, via a long and winding road without many barriers.  At one point, we were behind a small truck carrying freshly harvested grapes.  For once, I didn’t mind the slow-moving truck.  It gave us some reprieve from being the only snail on the road.

Our GPS did a yeoman’s job of getting us to Cedovim. From there we were on our own, left to find Conceito with no commercial signage. We turned to the right and began to improvise.

In a few miles, we passed a small white building where a woman was observing a man on a fork lift dumping a tub of grapes through a de-stemmer. From her photos, I thought I recognized Rita, so we stopped and approached her.

Carla Costa Ferreira takes me on a tour

“We are very busy today, so you will meet with my mother, Carla,” she said.  “Besides, she speaks better English for you.”  I am always impressed how multi-lingual most Europeans are.

Unecessarily apologizing for the mess and her broken English, Carla Costa Ferreira, Conceito’s owner, gave us a tour of their small facility including the crush pad, large stainless steel fermentation tanks and the barrel rooms.

Afterwards, she led us to a small table with several bottles of their current releases to taste. I noticed a bottle of 2017 Conceito Douro Branca and inquired about the vintage 2016.  She left and soon returned, smiling.  “We have very little left, but I found a bottle,” she said.

The 2016 Douro Branca is a field blend of esgana cao, folgosado and verdelho, all native white varietals in the Douro. This wine was not a “fruit bomb”, dominated by one overpowering varietal, but a perfectly balanced blend with a subtle minerality and lush mouthfeel that lingered throughout a seemingly everlasting finish.  A truly pleasurable experience. Although it is priced at 20 euros in

Tasting the 2016 Conceito Douro white blend

Portugal, consumers in the states must pay $45 a bottle for the experience.

I asked Carla if she was aware that Wine Spectator had given the wine a 92-point rating in their national magazine.

“Yes, I am aware,” she said, “but I think they taste wines too early.  This wine will continue to improve for the next five to ten years.”

I believe her, but this wine was tasting very fine today.  Carla poured their top red blend, the 2015 Conceito Douro Tinta, another superbly balanced blend as well as their “Contrast” label red and white, designed as everyday wines at a lower price.  She said that the Contrast red was actually her favorite wine.

Conceito wines are authentic, created by a small team in a remote mountain village that does not seek notoriety of any kind.  Somehow, it still managed to find them.