Tasting the Top 100 Wines

I've been to a lot of wine tastings over the years but none have compared to tasting the Top 100 wines of 2017, as rated by Wine Spectator. It's true, all 100 wines were available to taste over a 4 hour period. Special thanks to my friend (since grammar school!) Joe and his friend Janet for asking me to join them.

The end of the Wine Spectator Top 100 Tasting

The end of the Wine Spectator Top 100 Tasting

Where does one start?

Our host, Brander Winery, starts guests off with opening the white wine section first, then, an hour later, opens up the red wine area. Many of the participants tasted in numerical order, from highest to lowest rated whites (without regard to varietal) then immediately moving to the highest to lowest rated red wines, again, without regard to varietal.

I took a different approach, sampling the wines by varietal, lightest to heaviest, regardless of score, starting with lighter bodied white wine, such as Albarino and finishing with heavier, oak-laden, malolactic Chardonnay. Same process for the reds, starting with Pinot and graduating to things like Tannat near the end of the journey. 

It's tougher with reds on a progression from light to heavy bodied structures. Fully developed Zinfandel with a solid punch of oak can be a palate wrecker just as easily as Touriga Nacional late in the game.

For many, simply tasting the Top 10 wines was the most important duty. I tried the Number 1 wine, Duckhorn Merlot. It's $50 retail per bottle. There was another merlot in the group from Oberon in the Top 100. Between the two, I favored the Oberon, ranked 77 with a retail price of $23. These lists really come down to a matter of taste.

It's also not a good idea to drink French Bordeaux side-by-side with California Cabernet. Sure, Bordeaux/Napa wines are based on Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc or Merlot but they are vastly different in terms of style and construction. Take for instance the #7 wine, Château Canon-La Gaffelière St.-Emilion which is Merlot dominant at 55% versus the #8 wine, Meyer Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley which is generally Cabernet Sauvignon dominant. Both the Château Canon-La Gaffelière and the Meyer rated 95 points, so there is no loser.

I loved the Château Canon-La Gaffelière and tasted it twice, both early and late in the tasting to check on my palate fatigue. It was one of my favorite wines of the day. It's classic, layered, elegant and young for a wine. The Meyer was a rich, opulent Napa style from the warmer climate (same warm climate my grapes come from) It's easy to reconcile, sweet fruit tastes good young, and Meyer delivers. 

While sharing common varietals, Bordeaux and Napa Cab/Merlot based wines are grown on different continents. They might as well grow on different planets. One should enjoy each of these regional wines, but not compare them. Too often, toe-to-toe comparisons happen with ratings. I purposely picked two Bordeaux varietal wines at similar price points and exactly the same rating to make the point. You can like them both equally for very different reasons.

There are notes on several of my favorite wines from the tasting in the gallery of pictures. Incredibly educational, it was a privilege to participate in the event.

The Shameless Winemaker

Winemakers the world over can write manifestos and mission statements until their heads explode, but in the words of Mike Tyson, "everyone comes into the ring with a plan, until they get hit."

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So imagine getting hit with requests from consumers to add lemon lime soda to your wines? Sound crazy? It's not. In fact, it happens to me at nearly every large event.

How about a wine glass filled full of ice for a $50 Cabernet? It's happened. Not everyone lives in a cool climate. Take my hometown, Fresno, California. It gets hot, real hot, in summertime, 110 degrees hot and it 'cools' down at night to 92 degrees around 11pm. Who wants to drink Cabernet for dinner? Virtually no one.

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People pay good money for my wines at tailgates, festivals, events and parties throughout the year. As much as I like my wines without residual sugar or sweetness, not everyone does. What's the easiest way to add sugar to a finished wine? Add your favorite lemon lime soda. What's the easiest way to cool down some wine? Add ice.

I now come equipped with both Lemon Lime soda and a couple bags of ice to almost every event I participate in and I'm making more people happy.

Listen up winemakers, we all have a plan, until we get hit.

New Releases and Sold Out Wines

A few updates after a busy fourth quarter:

Sold OUT
2015 Sangiovese, Sonoma County
2015 Sangiovese Vecchio
2015 Cabernet Sauvignon DCV

Allocated (Contact me Directly)
2014 Signature, Cabernet Sauvignon, Dry Creek Valley
2014 1TL, Cabernet Sauvignon, Mill Creek Road

New Release
2014 Cabernet Franc, Sonoma County
2016 Sangiovese, Sonoma County
2016 Cabernet Sauvignon DCV
2016 Zinfandel, Sonoma County
2015 Pinot Noir, Sonoma County

Expected Release
2017 Rose of Sangiovese, February 14, 2018
2017 The Hunter, White Wine, February 14, 2018
2016 Sangiovese Vecchio, June 2018

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Happy New Year! Here's to a great 2018!

The Road to Expensive Non-Vintage Red Wine: Thanks Penfolds!

I’d like to take this opportunity on behalf of all winemakers to thank Penfolds for making a non-vintage red wine and charging $3000 a bottle for it.

Winemakers around the world have been greatly anticipating charging $3000 a bottle for non-vintage red wine.

An American example of non-vintage wine, the Mastro Scheidt Jug! It only costs $39 and it's nearly 1.89L. You should buy some.

An American example of non-vintage wine, the Mastro Scheidt Jug! It only costs $39 and it's nearly 1.89L. You should buy some.

$39 or $3000?

Oh wait…I have been doing it for years. It's called The Jug (yep, that's the label above. It's good wine. Really good). I've been combining vintages to make a consistent blend for over 5 years now, but not charging $3000 for the bottle. Stupid me. I charge $39.

When winemakers combine vintages like they have at Penfolds, it becomes a non-vintage wine, generally regarded as inferior by critics for still red wines. Unlike port and champagne, which are regularly blended across multiple vintages and considered a mark of quality, blending red wines across vintages has long been considered the practice of corporate wineries using 1 gallon and up packaging.

Super Blend or Just Red Wine?

Penfolds of Australia produces the world famous Grange by blending Shiraz (Syrah) with some Cabernet Sauvignon (in most years). A long heralded wine and deservingly so. With the G3, they’ve taken a long held philosophy of Aristotle, that the “sum is greater than the parts”, combining three vintages of Grange together in a single bottling, or as Penfolds called it, “a super-blend” and thus, charging more than any single bottling would cost.

From my own experience blending wines from multiple vintages, the “super-blend” of wines can be beneficial in a few ways. First, a young wine lacking depth and structure is given a boost from a wine that is older, as the older wine has had time to mature. Secondly, the older wine is ‘refreshed’ by the younger wine with more vibrant fruit and freshness. Thirdly, if the wines have been on new oak, the interactions between the wine, oak and time, depending upon the oak origin, can have a whole combination of various results on the finished wine that add a layer of complexity not otherwise derived from the wine itself.

A true test of greatness would be to try each individual vintage of Grange that comprise the G3 super-blend; 2008, 2012 and 2014 side-by-side with the G3. That tasting would cost just under $6000, if you can get your allocation of G3. I’d love to taste it.

I raise my glass to Penfolds and offer a toast to them for getting $3000 a bottle for a non-vintage Shiraz. May we all be so lucky.

Now go buy my Jug for $39!!!

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!