Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Stolpman Vineyards & Ballard Canyon

Stolpman Vineyards is attorney Thomas Stolpman's thirty year project in the Ballard Canyon AVA (American Viticultural Area) which lies entirely within the larger Santa Ynez Valley AVA which, in turn, lies entirely within the Central Coast AVA.  Stolpman purchased his vineyard land in 1990, planted in '92 and hit his stride in the early 2000's with the addition of two key colleagues, wine maker Sashi Moorman and vineyard manager Ruben Solarzano.

Stolpman Vineyards is a two hundred twenty acre tract with one hundred fifty three of them in sustainably farmed vines.  Ninety three acres are in Syrah with the rest primarily in Sangiovese, Roussanne, Grenache and Marsanne.  Stolpman wines are 90% estate-sourced.

The Ballard Canyon lies to the east of the Santa Rita Hills (AVA) which serve as a buffer to blunt the stronger Pacific winds.  To the east lies the considerably warmer Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara AVA and just to the north lies the Los Olivos District AVA.  Ballard Canyon is a long and narrow, north-south expanse that many recognize as the best AVA in Santa Ynez Valley.

Ballard Canyon prides itself as the only "Syrah-focused" wine appellation in the country with half of all five hundred sixty-one vineyard acres in the canyon planted in that one grape.  Stolpman chose his property for the limestone soils and the drainage they provide and the cool climate featuring the diurnal temperature shifts that are conducive to making rich wines with balanced sugars and acids.

At this writing we plan to taste the Stolpman La Cuadrilla red blend at this week's Thursday tasting.  Cuadrilla means "people of the block" and refers to the talents of those select vineyard workers who have applied their talents all year long in that vineyard.  Those workers earn an end-of-year bonus based on the sales of the wine.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Dave Phinney & Agustin Huneeus

There are some really smart people in the wine business.  Dave Phinney created The Prisoner field-blended red wine in 1998 just before high end red blends became the rage.  Shortly thereafter he created his line of Orin Swift wines which grew in sales to the point where in 2010 he could sell it and pocket a handsome profit which he subsequently reinvested in new wine projects.

Agustin Huneeus is now comfortably retired after one of the greatest of twentieth century wine careers.  Concha y Toro, Seagrams, Franciscan, Veramonte, and  Quintessa are just a few of the Huneeus touchstones over the past sixty years and all turned golden from his touch.  King Midas in the flesh, you might say!

Phinney is currently marketing his Locations wines which are sourced from Argentina, Italy, Spain, California, Oregon, and Washington.  He also owns a couple hundred acres in vineyards in southern France from which he makes his D66 Grenache-based red wine.  He also owns five hundred acres in Napa and Alexander Valley and still being a young man, Phinney is reportedly immersed in grand planning for future wine projects.

Recently a representative from the Huneeus organization stopped by the store to offer tastes of some of the current wines they're offering including Flowers Vineyards Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and Benton-Lane Willamette Valley Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris.  The Oregon wines were good at the twenty dollar suggested retail range and the Flowers were exceptional, especially the Chardonnay, but prohibitive around here at $50+.  Agustin Jr. is now running the day to day operations with guidance from the esteemed old man.

There are now about fifteen wines in distribution here in the Atlanta market that Dave Phinney had a hand in creating.  When he sold Orin Swift in 2010 there were five labels in the deal.  Now at the Orin Swift website sixteen wines are being marketed by Constellation, the current owner.  The Prisoner Wine Company is now owned by Gallo and ten labels are marketed on line.  In the Atlanta marketplace, perhaps ten labels from the two companies are in distribution in total along with the Locations and D66.

So here's the reason for the post: When Dave Phinney sold the Prisoner line in 2010, he sold it neither to Gallo nor Constellation.  He sold it to Augustin Huneeus who paid a whopping forty million dollars for the five labels in the line as it existed at that time.  Phinney was a contractor who owned neither vineyards nor wineries.  The forty million dollars was for just five wine labels!  Phinney had built his sales of The Prisoner and the rest of the Orin Swift line up to 85,000 cases in ten years' time.  Huneeus doubled those sales by 2016 and then sold it to Constellation for 285 million dollars.

The Huneeus representative related this narrative to me.  Now tell me these guys aren't smart! 

Tuesday, May 29, 2018


If you've been following this blog for any length of time you know how I feel about consolidation in the wine business.  Actually if you just read the last paragraph of the last post where I lamented about everyone in Napa making the same "international style" of Cabernet Sauvignon, you know where I'm going with this.  How can you enjoy tasting wines when they all taste the same?

On top of that, the fact that the small estate wineries continually get locked out of distribution because of the monopolization of those channels by the factory farms, well, it just compounds the unfairness of it all for consumers who appreciate the art of distinctive wine making.

One of the favorite movie scenes in our kid-infested household was the "let the boys play the game" scene from Remember The Titans.  The implication there was that there was officially-sanctioned wrongdoing on the field.  Of course it's not the same situation here in the wine industry and I'm not asking for an official to intervene.  I just want the scales adjusted and balanced a bit and perhaps a voice be given to the farmers.  Dream on, I guess.

Anyway, here's what I've learned recently about consolidation.  The difference between some of the mega-players in the game has to do with whether they are privately held or corporately owned.  So Gallo and other extra-large family-owned wine companies have actually owned and farmed vineyards over generations while in contrast, Constellation and other even-more-removed-from-the-farm corporations are in the business purely for return on investment.

According to one local industry professional, passion in wine production is innate and the investors in Napa Cabernet who are not natives to Napa viticulture and wine making simply don't have it.

In concrete terms (and this is a generalization) family-owned mega-wine companies that purchase small wineries include the assets (vineyards, winery, etc.) in the transaction and intend to utilize them going forward.  The large corporate entities with an investment in the wine industry just buy the brand name and fill the bottles with what they deem to be appropriate.  Either way the mass marketers play it safe and don't take chances with wine styles that may not appeal to everyone.  And that bothers me.

This Thursday evening between 5 and 7pm, we will be tasting prominent Napa Cabernets here at the store.  Our examples that evening will include both estate bottlings and contract productions.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Rutherford Bench

We're about to bring in a couple cases of esteemed Napa Cabernet Sauvignon from the Rutherford Bench region of the best AVA (American Viticultural Area) in the country.  The bench is the six mile long region to the left of Route 29 as you head north, beginning about three miles north of Oakville and bounded by the Mayacamas mountain range to the left.  The region constitutes 2,500 acres of eastern facing sloped wine country with alluvial soils of gravel, sand, silt, and clay.  Among the historic wineries that call the bench home are Beaulieu, Niebaum-Coppola, Inglenook, Grgich Hills, Vichon, Opus I, Far Niente, and Heitz Cellars' Martha's Vineyard and Freemark Abbey's Bosche Vineyard.

As I researched the subject one of the first things I learned was that, geologically speaking, there is no Rutherford Bench.  A bench is a terraced soil formation that at one time was a bank of a long gone river or stream.  The professionals in the field have determined that the soils that exist in the area in question are not a bench strictly speaking but share much of the makeup of bench soils.

Napa soils show both marine and volcanic influences dating back 150 million years meaning at one time the region was under ocean water before being pushed up by plate techtonics.  In the previous post we discussed how erosion from mountains deposit stony soils in the flatlands below.  Such soils then provide ideal drainage for plants like grapevines that require a deep taproot for good fruit.  In the case of what is called the Rutherford bench, those soils instead result from an alluvial fan.

Like a bench, a fan displays sedimentary soil carried downstream by river current and deposited at the base of a mountain except in this case the gradient of the slope will force a river or stream to change directions.  What makes the geological fan is the stream continues to separate over millenia creating concentric streams leaving sedimentary evidence in the shape of a Japanese folding hand fan.

Now aren't you glad you hung around long enough to learn that!  And by the way, Oakville has its own fan also!  Screaming Eagle, Harlan, Dalla Valle, Rubican, Quintessa, Kathryn Hall, and Mondavi's To Kalon Vineyard take advantage of that one!

There are now sixteen AVAs within the larger Napa Valley AVA, each in theory, capable of producing wine different from its neighbors.  Unfortunately those terroirs replete with benches and fans and other singularities are largely irrelevant because with few exceptions, winemakers are all aiming for the ubiquitous international style of Cabernet Sauvignon.  Since most of Napa Valley is now owned by investors from somewhere else the profit motive trumps natural distinction.

Please join us this Thursday the 24th of May at 5pm when Quinton Lucia of WX Brands presents the wines of Jamieson Ranch of Napa Valley.  Quinton represents Jamieson Ranch in a number of states on the east coast so this tasting should be an informative event.

Then on Saturday afternoon of this holiday weekend we will open a great Napa Cabernet Sauvignon here at the store.  Please join us. 


Tuesday, May 15, 2018


Altocedro (old cedars) is a wonderful Argentine property located in La Consulta in the Uco Valley in southern Mendoza.  We're writing about it here because we happen to have a stack of three of their fine reds in the store right now (hint, hint).  This boutique winery uses hand harvested, terroir-driven, sustainably farmed fruit in an ultra-modern gravity flow facility that then turns to concrete fermentation tanks before oak aging.  Classy.

At 33 degrees latitude La Consulta is the wine growing district where Altocedro is located.  The Uco Valley begins about an hour's drive south of the city of Mendoza and extends for about forty-five miles southward.  It is about fifteen miles wide.  What sets La Consulta apart from the larger valley and the even larger Mendoza appellation is its altitude of 3,772 feet above sea level.  At that elevation the air and water are pristine and the long growing season there offers fully two hundred fifty days of sunshine.  The climate is hot and dry and the wines are all organic by default since at that elevation there are no pests!

The Tunuyan River is the essential element that makes this region a destination for wine industry professionals and connoisseurs alike.  Mendoza, for all practical purposes, is a desert with a stony, sandy surface over alluvial soils of clay and rock.  Drainage is optimal in such soils that are obviously the result of erosion from the Andes.  Similarly the river is melt from the mountains.

Wine making here began as early as the 1500s when Spanish settlers brought vine cuttings from Chile.  Three hundred years later Malbec and other vinifera vines were brought from France. Then in the 1980's Nicholas Catena from that great wine making family furthered the science by blending wines from plantings at different altitudes (to 5,000 ft!) to delineate the existing microclimates.

Now here are today's vocabulary words: diurnal effect or thermal amplitude, which mean pretty much the same thing as far as I can tell.  Both terms refer to the desired dramatic temperature swing from afternoon highs to pre-dawn lows that wine makers love. Why is that so important?  Because in order for grapes to achieve the desired balance of high sugars and acids (phenolic ripeness) a pronounced swing is necessary.  For Mendocino grapes that means deep color, intense floral aromas, and rich flavors.

And that's why the great reds of Altocedro should be your next purchase!

Please join us in a tasting of Altocedro reds and others this Thursday the 17th starting at 5pm.  The following Thursday, by the way, features Quinton Lucia of WX Brands with a presentation of the wines of Jamieson Ranch of Napa Valley.                         

Tuesday, May 8, 2018


One of my favorite wine experiences is that of getting whacked by the acidic punch of a light dry white wine and if that experience happens on a hot summer afternoon, well, all the better!  You know what I'm talking about.  You've bitten into a lemon, lime or grapefruit and have felt your face recoil in that delectable horror of losing, at the very least, your composure and at the most, what you know to be your self hood!  Suddenly you are no longer the actor on the stage but rather the one being acted upon...by a piece of fruit yet!

While the wines I'm talking about could be from the interior of any wine producing continent, if you really want to get whacked, go to the coasts where wines tend to whack seafood quite well.  "Green, crisp, lively, tangy, and clean" are all the right adjectives for the experience we're talking about here.  Sometimes, I swear, you can even taste the salinity in the air in the wines of those places.  Heck, go to Italy where the whole country is coastline and they're always coming up with new (to us) old wine grapes like Pecarino.  Go to the French Mediterranean and have a glass of Picpoul.  Or to South Africa for some Steen.

Or you could go to Rias Baixas, Spain for Albarino like we did here last week with our tour guide, Brian Espanol.  That excursion went quite well, especially after a stop at the cheese table for some Idiazabol and Manchego!  Aye Charamba!

Join us here this Thursday after 5 as David Rimmer takes us to the coast of Brittany for a taste of Muscadet which punches as well as any of them.  Not Muscadine or Muscatel or Muscato despite the name similarities, this one is a lean, mean punching machine!  Wanna go a round or two?  Be here Thursday between 5 and 7pm.  And bring your boxing gloves!

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Wine Preservers

Last week we got in an order of Vacuvin pumps and stoppers and Private Preserve gas, wine preservation tools which will probably end up just being used here by yours truly.  The Vacuvins will trickle out over time but just about the entire case of gas will remain on the shelf here where I will use it to preserve the many bottles we open for tastings.

So why don't such things sell better?  The most common response to my sales pitch for them is that the customer doesn't need such a tool, as in, "There's never any wine left in the bottle at the end of the evening."  Can't argue with that.  You don't need it then.  I bet though, that on occasion everyone could at least save some for the next day.

"Vacuvin" is the most common tool for preserving wine.  It is the small, usually white, plastic vacuum pump that sucks air out of a partially filled bottle using the Vacuvin proprietary rubber stopper.  That stopper has an escape slit on top where the air exits leaving a vacuum in the bottle above the wine surface thereby preventing oxidation.  This is the tool I have used for most of my time in the wine business.

About ten years ago I became sold on "Private Preserve" which is a spray can blend of nitrogen, argon, and carbon dioxide.  Their propaganda asserts that Vacuvin only removes 75% of the air in a bottle and the heavier-than-air Private Preserve, when sprayed into a partial bottle, completely covers the existing wine surface.

"Coravin" is the most recent addition to wine preservation and it is remarkable indeed.  It is most applicable for tasting expensive bottles over time and not losing anything to the atmosphere.  Rather than try to describe the apparatus here, stop in and we'll demonstrate it for you.  If you have three hundred dollars burning a hole in your pocket we'll even get you one!

So air is the enemy of wine in an opened bottle.  If you choose not to use one of the options above, your wine may be fine the next day.  While wine starts to deteriorate as soon as you open the bottle, some go down faster than others.  Usually by the third day, the quality is pretty much gone.  Refrigeration helps to preserve wine although in some PC circles that is just plain unacceptable.

So what do I do?  I gas 'em and refrigerate them overnight before bringing them out the next morning to warm up.  Works for me!

Please join us here at the store this Thursday the 3rd of May at 5pm when Brian Espanol joins us for a tasting from his fine wine portfolio.