The California Appellation Designation: The Future of Boutique Winery Success?

The California appellation designation on a bottle of wine has long carried a negative connotation. Wine can be sourced and blended from anywhere in California, usually from the cheapest regions of the state and then packaged in a box or large format bottle.

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Enter Dave Phinney.

Dave Phinney, creator of The Prisoner and Orin Swift offers a guiding light to reinterpret and reposition the California designation. We can debate the Phinney wine making style; not the sales results. Phinney sourced The Prisoner (now owned by Constellation) like many winemakers have for years, from all over California. Constellation has announced that The Prisoner Wine Company will have its own tasting room replacing Franciscan Estate in the heart of Napa Valley.

Orin Swift, now owned by Gallo, forever changed the landscape with California appellation wine designations garnering a premium price with the likes of Trigger Finger, Abstract, and Machete. Brilliant! Judging by commercial success alone, the Orin Swift and Prisoner wine business models are successful.

The new California wine model is focused more on the word California than whether you are a new or old style of winemaker, or whether or not you use a specific varietal or vineyard or what appellation the grapes are from.

Can I borrow $8000 for a ton of Cabernet?

Using the California labeling designation to its fullest extent, as Phinney has done, is one option for the boutique winemaker’s to grow and flourish. How much $5000/ton Pinot from Russian River can a micro winemaker buy each year? Or $8000/ton Cabernet from Napa? How long can a small winery float that money before they have to have positive cash flow? One season? Two?

By using the broad California appellation designation, a wine maker can use grapes from any part of the state. Early ripening, colorful, fruity and less expensive ($650/ton) Petite Sirah from District 13 (Fresno/Madera) combined with slightly more expensive ($1200/ton) Tempranillo in the Foothills (Amador/El Dorado) and finished off with some average priced Cabernet Sauvignon ($3200/ton) from the North Coast Appellation (Lake/Mendocino/Sonoma) and voilà, California Red Wine is made.

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The micro winemaker would then make wines from each individual vineyard, say a vineyard designate Cabernet from Alexander Valley and sum of each appellation, a Sonoma County Cabernet or a foothills Tempranillo. A vineyard designate Cabernet from Alexander Valley and a Red Blend from California can both be made at the same time in the same location. Your harvest may start earlier and end later than most regionally specific wineries like Napa or Sonoma only, but your average costs will be lower.

The successful new California winemaker is the same as the successful old California winemaker, source quality fruit at the best prices from throughout the state and make a great wine that people will buy. Perhaps, easier said than done, but Phinney gave us all a model for success.

Dirty Jobs, Wine Making and Sausage

I talk about the dirty job of making wine every season. Other than people in the wine industry, no one else sees all the stuff that gets cleaned every day with brushes, pressure washers, hot water, acidic and caustic liquids. All the public sees is a bottle with a cork in it and a really good looking winemaker (like me) pouring it.

Good looking winemaker...David Scheidt

Good looking winemaker...David Scheidt

Behind the scenes of the dirty job of wine making 2017.

After 5 tons of grapes are destemmed, this is what the machine looks like

After 5 tons of grapes are destemmed, this is what the machine looks like

The shaker table is a tool for sorting grapes. Look at all the debris around the table.

The shaker table is a tool for sorting grapes. Look at all the debris around the table.

Every nook and cranny must be cleaned after grapes are processed

Every nook and cranny must be cleaned after grapes are processed

More debris and MOG, Material Other than Grapes

More debris and MOG, Material Other than Grapes

These jeans will never be blue again.

These jeans will never be blue again.

Compost and more compost of stems and bad berries

Compost and more compost of stems and bad berries

Green grape leaves are unwanted and are picked out in the vineyard and the crush pad

Green grape leaves are unwanted and are picked out in the vineyard and the crush pad

Someone has to get in these tanks to shovel out all the must for press loads

Someone has to get in these tanks to shovel out all the must for press loads

Sluggish fermentation? No problems. Adding some still active lees will help finish things off

Sluggish fermentation? No problems. Adding some still active lees will help finish things off

The natural wine of Lencioni Vineyard in Healdsburg

Lencioni Vineyard: Ever since my first vintage in 2007, I have used minimally farmed Lencioni Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon in Dry Creek Valley. I’m going to use the term minimalist or natural to describe what Lencioni Vineyard is and it's typical of small farms in Sonoma County.

From a distance, Lencioni Vineyard looks like any other vineyard in Sonoma County. Rolling hillside. Beautiful view. The vineyard is laid out in clean rows, the Cabernet has a wire set up, the Zinfandel is head trained and there are remnants of the old drip irrigation system in place from 35 years ago. No water has flowed through those drip lines in 27 years.

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Minimalist, Feral, Natural or Wild?

It’s the up-close and personal view, walking each row, inspecting each vine that changes your perspective from bucolic vineyard to individually wild vines.

Lencioni vineyard is ‘feral’ for lack of a better term, or perhaps ‘natural’ since that seems to be a term being used more widely in the wine business these days. The rows are difficult to walk, as thorny blackberry bushes are everywhere. Some vines are long gone, dead, forgotten. The occasional poison oak plant shows up from time to time, right next to a grape vine. The vineyard is in some places terraced and undulating and rarely ever flat due to the once, sometimes twice a year tractor work.

Two things happen in the vineyard each year, the rows get disced and the vine gets pruned. That’s it. Nothing else. No sulfur has been applied on these vines in over 10 years. No soil amendments, no cover crop (unless you count blackberry bushes) and most of all, no human applied water. Only Mother Nature provides water.

With this minimalist approach, in 10 years I’ve never seen mildew or rot. The birds don’t eat the grapes. I don’t see bugs or pests. No deer or wild pigs. And without a single drop of pesticide, fungicide or foliar spray, the vineyard survives.

The Wabi - Sabi of the Vineyard

I recently highlighted the struggles micro winemakers, like me, have with small farms, irregularity in harvests being one of them. In 2011, a wet and tempermental year in Dry Creek Valley, I had zero crop from Lencioni. In 2012, regarded as a great, near perfect vintage, I received over 6 tons of fruit from the Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard, the most I’ve ever received. Since the banner year crop of 2012, I’ve seen decreasing yields each year. In 2017 I’ll have harvested less than 1 ton of fruit from the Cabernet vineyard.

Working with the minimalist Lencioni Vineyard is indicative of what micro winemakers, like me, experience; high quality, pure expression of fruit with an unreliable yield and fickle vineyard management, near textbook example of the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi. It's strange to hear the words unreliable and fickle in the wine business; we're conditioned to hear perfect and dependable. Working with small farms is anything but perfect, but in that imperfection is beauty, the beauty of the fruit in the final wine.

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What's Love Got to Do with It?

It took one full week of labor to pick 2 tons of fruit, Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon in 2017.  We started picking September 1 for Zinfandel and September 5 for Cabernet. The vineyards are spread over 4.5 acres. It’s a pain to pick. It’s pure labor. Love has nothing to do with it. Paid crews don’t want to work it. The fruit is scarce, so hourly labor, not by-the-ton, is how crews got paid in the past. This year, I paid myself to pick it. Let’s hope that I can persuade someone to disc the vineyard a couple times in 2018 and get someone, other than my family, to pick Lencioni Cabernet and Zinfandel in 2018. Picking isn't easy, but like an old climbing buddy told me, "picking was easier than climbing the Eiger:" True.

The upside, after all this labor to pick such a vineyard? The fruit is delicious. The wine I make from Lencioni is intense, beautiful, colorful and full of character. I don’t need to do much of anything to it, as heartiness in the vineyard translates into heartiness on the crushpad and full-flavored wine in the bottle. The 2014 Signature is currently released and is 100% Lencioni Vineyard. The wine was completely on used barrels in 2015 and 2016 and will likely be released under my Signature label sometime in late 2018 and 2019 respectively. 

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Micro Winemakers Under Threat

Jon Bonne’s book The New California Wine gave voice to many winemakers. He wrote more recently in PunchDrink, questioning what the future looks like for winemakers such as me.

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You can’t make a living on 500 cases.

Winemakers who are adaptable, not doctrinaire have the greatest chance for success. The trouble is, if your hit eclectic varietal is limited in acreage or is planted in a distant part of the state, how does a New Californian style winemaker follow up their big local winemaking hit if their resources are limited to 2 tons or roughly 100 cases? Or even 500 cases? You can’t make a living on 500 cases.

The next generation of start-up winemakers will have to have a portfolio of adaptable skills, both boutique and industrial. Winemakers have to be well versed in wine style, interventionist and non-interventionist, what sells to distributors, direct to bottle shops, sommelier driven restaurants and in the tasting room. The approach is practical, not dogmatic and not out of step with some of the winemakers in New California. Defining the terms natural and industrial seems to be the hottest topic in wine making these days, when only 5 years ago wine making was all about balance, as in pursuit of. How will natural be re-defined in 5 more years? How will the broad California appellation evolve?

Cabernet in Sonoma Vs. Barbera in Mendo

We as winemakers have to be both aggressive and flexible in simply finding fruit. I can find Cabernet in Sonoma County pretty easily if I can afford it. But I can’t find Sangiovese and Barbera, at least not at the price I’d like. I could go to the Foothills, but good luck if they deliver in 2 ton lots to Cloverdale. I could go to Lake or Mendocino County for a couple tons, but I’ll have to pick it up and prices aren’t $500/ton any more for small lots. Try closer to $1500/ton and many growers won’t sell 2 tons lots.

A wine sold at $25/bottle full retail is not a sustainable model for a stand-alone winery if the fruit alone sells for $2500/ton, not including crush fees. $2500 per ton and higher is not uncommon for many varietals in Sonoma County, my backyard. Winemaking can work as a side-hobby, but not as a self-sustaining business with a 500 case production, so don’t quit your day job.

Sure, there are pockets of small vineyards in Dry Creek and Alexander Valley looking to sell to “home winemakers”, but fruit quality and consistency can be painfully erratic. I know; I purchase from small farms every season. As winemaker, I have to be part time vineyard manager and viticulturist.

Mechanization

Lodi is already dealing with lower yields on old-vine Zinfandel and increases in labor and facility costs. Much of that planted acreage will sell to the highest bidder or simply be torn out and replaced with younger, more vigorous varietals and planted for mechanized harvesting. Recent articles show the increasing economic concerns of growers dealing with decreasing yields and increasing labor or skills costs. Mechanization is here and is growing.

There was (past tense) a wave of New Californian winemaker using forgotten varietals at cheap prices. Now, everyone is using them (again). Unfortunately, those varietals are more expensive as demand has increased, or simply, those vines have been ripped out in favor of more vigorous and popular varietals that demand higher prices.

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Small vineyards with eclectic varietals lack scale. Custom crush fees have increased from the time The New California Wine book was written. Today, with more elaborate “cooperative” spaces that require higher fees for smaller lots and minimum sizes of 10 or 20 tons crushed, not a grand total of 5 tons for a micro winery. Increases in varietal price and crush fees have squeezed margins on the entire boutique winemaking industry. Prices for Cabernet and Sangiovese are going up, not down, in premium wine growing regions.

As a winemaker, I make natural wine from a less popular varietal, Sangiovese. I also make a full-flavored Cabernet Sauvignon with plenty of new oak. I exist in four worlds, the natural and the industrial, the non-interventionist and interventionist. I even have a winemaking manifesto ascribing to a particular belief, Make Great Wine from Great Grapes! I’m a winemaker, playing the hand dealt to me by each season’s harvest and always thinking about the future.

I AM the New California winemaker and proud of it.

Foot of the Bed Cellars Collaboration

I am incredibly excited about a recent collaboration with Foot of the Bed Cellars in San Francisco founded by Luc Bergevin and Martin Sheehan-Stross; for their 13th release, they selected me as winemaker for one of my favorite varietals to make, Sangiovese. 

From Martin Sheehan-Stross, who is currently the Lead Sommelier at Michael Mina in San Francisco, made the following comments regarding the wine I crafted:

"Although 100% Sangiovese, this wine is neither thin nor tart like the Chianti's of fifty years ago. Grown in sunny Sonoma, this wine offers pure, juicy red fruit tones as well as notes of clove and leather." Find more of Martin on Instagram @sheehanstross. Thanks again to Luc and Martin, honored to work with you! 

Fires in Wine Country

Last week has been devastating for many in Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. The fires are ongoing and are in various stages of containment. This is a fluid situation and work is being done around the clock by brave fire crews and first responders to control the fires. This was a picture of the Pocket Fire with air support dropping fire retardant, taken October 12, not far from Mastro Scheidt Family Cellars crushpad location just north of Geyserville, in Alexander Valley.

Photo courtesy of local resident and friend, Jessica Brazil.

Photo courtesy of local resident and friend, Jessica Brazil.

Here's a link for daily updates on the wine country fires 

A growing number of friends and colleagues have had their property destroyed by fire. I mourn their loss. Many of you have asked how you can help victims of the fire. Please support your charity of choice. There will be many months of rebuilding and your support is critical to those efforts today.

Mastro Scheidt Family Cellars has been extremely lucky in that the winery facility located just north of Geyserville and to the west, is undamaged and currently out of danger. No vineyards that I purchase from have been affected by fire. Our cased goods facility located near the Santa Rosa Airport, is currently unaffected. Additionally, the entirety of the 2017 harvest was either in barrel or in tank as the fires started. There is no risk of “smoke taint” from Mastro Scheidt wines from the 2017 harvest. I am thankful for each and every one of you who have emailed, texted, called, and messaged me personally to ask about my safety.

The wine country is a strong community and will be rebuilt. #sonomacountystrong

David Scheidt | Owner and Winemaker

New Vintage, New Closure

Like many wine makers and wine drinkers, the belief that “cork is best” for all wines is a conceit. As I’ve grown in both experience and case production over the last ten years, natural cork is not the only wine closure in the marketplace.

I made the jump to screw caps several years ago upon the introduction of my Jug program. No one seemed to mind that I used a screw cap for a growler of wine. In fact, the screw cap fit the image of the wine and the growler package.

The next use of screw caps were for more traditionally bottled wines, the classic Bordeaux styled 750ml bottle that has had wide success in restaurants, delis, and grocery stores. The wines are typically served by-the-glass and easy to open and close in restaurant settings or purchased for nightly home consumption with a wide array of foods. I’ve increased production in the screw cap category, so I don’t see that screw caps have been perceived negatively by consumers.

Natural cork and the Diam technical cork

Natural cork and the Diam technical cork

The most recent evolution in packaging is the technical cork. Nearly 100% natural cork, the closure is guaranteed to be free of “cork taint”; whereas traditional cork cannot make the same claim. Secondly, technical corks have been engineered to allow oxygen through the closure over time, similar to traditional cork, which allows for micro-oxidation of the wine, a beneficial characteristic for age worthy wines like Cabernet Sauvignon. Thirdly, you pull the technical cork with the same traditional corkscrew; no special equipment needed.

What crystalized my decision to move to technical corks was an experience I had with a restaurant customer of mine.  I was pouring a flight of wines for spring and summer at a restaurant in Fresno. When the owner and I got to the second wine, we both knew instantly the wine was corked. Not good. I’m embarrassed and the wine, even if he wanted to pour it in the restaurant, couldn’t be evaluated properly and therefore wasn’t chosen as a finalist.

As I’m looking to innovate where I can, I made a partial transition to technical corks with some of my 2015 wines. The main reason for me transitioning to technical corks was zero cork taint. Imagine buying one of my wines for $50 only to open the bottle and find the smell of wet cardboard. Disappointing. With technical cork, having a wine damaged by cork taint is not a possibility. With my 2016 vintage, I should be 100% screw cap and technical taint free cork.

It was a big decision to move away from traditional cork. I like the history, tradition and nostalgia of traditional cork. But from a customer viewpoint, the remote possibility of having a flawed bottle of wine because of cork taint in the 21st century isn’t nostalgic, it’s unacceptable.

Look for the new corks in my 2015 RWSC label, Superstrada 2015, and Cabernet Franc 2015.

Harvest 2017, Mid Season Report

Every indication, leading up to harvest in 2017, showed a gradual ripening schedule, perhaps 7-10 days behind 2016. Fruit quality looked good, with some vineyard concerns of powdery mildew. Canopy growth was vigorous, fruit set was good. Yields in some vineyards were lower than expected, but healthy vines from all the rainfall.

Personally, I’m happy to have high quality, low yield, if there has to be some trade-off.

Lencioni Vineyard Dry Farmed Cabernet Sauvignon

Lencioni Vineyard Dry Farmed Cabernet Sauvignon

The gradual and stable weather gave way to hot temperatures beginning the end of August and came in a couple waves. 100+degrees in Healdsburg on 8/26, 27, 28 with an overnight low on the 28th at 56 (which helps); as Dry Creek Valley behaves differently than Alexander Valley, the fog lingered a little longer in Dry Creek Valley.

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Then the real heat came and the morning fog disappeared.

August 31 through September 2 saw 110 degree temps in Dry Creek Valley with the crushpad up in Alexander Valley at 119. Overnight lows were in the high 60's. We “cooled” down  to 104 on Sept 3 and 90 degrees on Sept 4 with a bit of humidity and a thick haze throughout Alexander and Dry Creek Valley.

So what did all this wild weather mean to Mastro Scheidt Cellars?

All hands on deck at Mastro Scheidt...it was 110 degrees that day

All hands on deck at Mastro Scheidt...it was 110 degrees that day

It meant all hands on deck to pull my dry farmed feral Lencioni vineyard grapes off as soon as possible! 100% hand picked and sorted means you don’t take raisins. Hand-picked also means you start early and finish early because it’s hot, real hot and you don’t want the fruit fermenting in the vineyard if you can help it. 

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And then, strangely enough, on 9/7 there was precipitation early morning and up through 11am. Not a light rain, but real rain. On 9/13 the rain came again and dumped pretty good in the morning and the sun never came out, maybe a high of 70 at the crushpad.

Cabernet and TL can handle the rain. They're both tough

Cabernet and TL can handle the rain. They're both tough

There are still a few things to bring in before the season is complete and the steady weather pattern is back in effect. But who knows, the sooner I'm off the vine the better.

The Hunter, 2016 White Wine

Mastro Scheidt releases The Hunter, 2016 White Wine

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While technically not a drought year, 2016 offered abundant sunshine and warmth through the growing season. Yields were up over 2015 and about on par with 2014. Setting pick dates, we saw no complications. Several vineyards were used in the creation of this wine throughoutSonoma County.

The 2016 Hunter is a classic Bordeaux inspired white blend. The backbone is all Sauvignon Blanc adding acidity and notes of lemon cream and melon to the blend, without any unripe flavors. I'm personally not a fan of grassy Sav Blanc. The addition of Semillon and barrel fermentation in neutral French oak adds complexity and roundness to the finished wine.

I hope you enjoy this wine all Summer long. I will.

For those that want the technical specs, find them HERE.

Rose of Sangiovese 2016

Rose of Sangiovese 2016 aka The First Rose I've Ever Made!

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Rosé of Sangiovese is a wine I’ve always wanted to create, as I’ve produced various Sangiovese red wines over the last several years. The wine was created using the saignée method, a technique whereby I drain off juice from the main body of the Sangiovese crop, which has had skin contact for a 24 hour period. The resulting juice for this Rose is light pink in color.

The juice was placed in last year’s Sangiovese barrels for primary fermentation for 14 days and stirred twice on the gross lees. The wine was then racked off the gross lees and returned to barrel, where it was stirred again twice, or bâtonnage, adding texture to the wine. The wine was not allowed to go through secondary fermentation.

The result is pale pink in color, with a bit more depth on the palate. The wine was fermented dry, without residual sugar.

For those that want all the technical specs you can find it HERE.