Foot of the Bed Cellars in the Cave with Dave!

I tasted through nearly all my barreled wines with Martin and Luc from Foot of the Bed Cellars in San Francisco. Tasting with different palates and different backgrounds can be much more enriching of an experience than doing all the work in solitude.

 Photo courtesy of founders Luc and Martin, Foot of the Bed Cellars

Photo courtesy of founders Luc and Martin, Foot of the Bed Cellars

Don’t get me wrong, I like solitude, the opportunity to block out everything and focus on the task; I always have. However, the inputs from others in a controlled setting are enlightening and the nuances others pick up can be more attuned than my own senses.

 Photo taken by Luc of Foot of the Bed Cellars

Photo taken by Luc of Foot of the Bed Cellars

Take for instance my Merlot from 2017. Merlot happens to be one of Martin’s favorite varietals (I found out that morning). I didn’t really have a planned experiment in mind when we starting tasting the four barrels of 17 Merlot, but it soon became one of our longest discussions of the tasting. I barreled the merlot down to three new oak barrels, Gamba, Kelvin and Nadale and one neutral. The merlot came from Galloway Vineyards in Dry Creek Valley, harvested and fermented exactly the same, so the only variation is barrel time.

Many in the wine business use the term ‘American oak’ generically and homogenously, which does the American cooper a disservice. American oak is unique, as is French or Hungarian; as are American cooperages and the craftsmen that work the cooperage. In this micro tasting of Merlot, Kelvin cooperage in Kentucky is an American cooperage using American oak exclusively. Gamba is an Italian cooperage using French oak and Nadalie is a French cooperage operating in the United States using American oak. Quite the combination of styles and raw product, but that’s what can help finish a wine, just as one would use mesquite wood to finish a steak instead of cherry or apple wood.

Martin really focused on the Kelvin 36 month medium long Hydra barrel. Kelvin uses a steaming processes during barrel toasting that is incorporated to lengthen the open fire toasting process, thus penetrating deeper into the oak and mellowing harsher oak tannins such as vanillin or the aromatic coconut picked up in many American oak barrels, in the process, greater complexity is achieved for the American oak. I’ve been using Kelvin since 2010 on many a Bordeaux varietal and have been very happy with the results. There are greater baking spice notes, wisps of mocha, and not nearly as much sweet vanilla as you’d get from 24 month Kentucky or Virginia oak.

 Photo taken by Luc of Foot of the Bed Cellars

Photo taken by Luc of Foot of the Bed Cellars

While Martin was pondering Kelvin, I was obsessing over the Gamba oak barrel. I initially put the new Gamba Allier forest oak on my 2017 Lencioni Vineyard dry-farmed Cabernet Sauvignon for about 6 months, I racked it off and took the Gamba and put it on my Merlot to finish. The Gamba is opulent and silky with both the Cabernet and the Merlot. Gamba does pack a punch though, and doing some research on Italian cellar technique, brought me to the idea of using the new oak twice in a single vintage, gradually moving from the strongest varietal, Cabernet, to something with less tannin, Merlot. I’ve even considered using this same Gamba barrel a third time in the vintage and aging some Barbera on it for a few months.

The Nadalie barrel was from their proprietary Symphony American oak line. A combination of various American oak forests, the oak is aged in a Pennsylvania yard 36 months minimum, which is the minimum aging that I use for American oak in my program and then final cooperage and toasting is completed in Napa. The barrel is toasted in a long and slow process, just as Kelvin, but without any steam applications. The results on the Merlot show more subtlety of oak on the fruit of the three cooperages, not overpowering the Merlot, but rounding out every edge. It’s likely that the Merlot on Nadalie Symphony is bound for blending and complimenting anything it’s blended with, especially Cabernet or Barbera.

Tasting with different people at various times during the wine aging process gives me a gift of insight I might not otherwise have, noticing nuance. Perhaps tasting with others who appreciate wine as I do also forces me to look at my own barrel program with a more critical perspective, verbalizing the decisions I’ve made and compelling me to make objective judgements about my own winemaking. Wine making is a lifelong learning process of both objective and subjective measures, the clichéd art and science of wine that many aspire to comprehend.

Back in the Game, the Restaurant Game

Part 2 of Who Wants to Try a $500 Wine?

20 minutes after I got through with Shackelford, I attended a private tasting at long-time friend John Marihart’s house. Back in the restaurant game, John was on hiatus from the restaurant business to start a family and a successful second career in the technology business before returning to the food and beverage business to open a prime steakhouse. John has goals; big goals, because just like in Road House, John will get enough sleep when he’s dead.

The double blind tasting was conducted by Sommelier Vincent Cho.  I was certainly ‘warmed up’ from tasting with Shackelford.

The highlight of the tasting, was the flight of Cabernet. My Jedi senses were strong late in the day, as I yakked poetically about Chateau Montelena in Napa, the stylistic nuances it has along with the historic Paris tasting, fresh with the memory of the more modern Schrader/Scarecrow/Hourglass in my brain. Knowing there was at least one French Bordeaux in my flight, I didn’t guess Lynch Bages, but was very happy to be moving back and forth, pondering between the Montelena and the Lynch Bages. The third wine in the flight, a ‘new American’ Matthiasson Cabernet was more about contrast in the flight, as the wine was very lean and acid driven. In the perfect world and combining both the Shackelford and Marihart/Cho tastings, going from a Matthiasson to Forman to Lynch Bages to Montelena to Schrader would be an incredible example of Cabernet in a range of styles and the history of California winemaking.

As a Cabernet winemaker, I want luxury in my young Cabernet, not lean fruit and mouthfuls of acid. If I’m pulling a cork on a $60 Cabernet I want it to drink luscious, not lean. I want decadent, not demure. Dark black brooding fruits, not red cheery cherry fruit. If I wanted lean and full of bright red fruit, we had one in our blind flight, the Jolie Laide Gamay Noir from El Dorado County. Lean and mean, it was all bright red acidic fruit and perfect to drink early with cheese and country pate’, not a steak.

Other standout wines included a Krug Grande Cuvee 163rd edition,  a flight of Chardonnay, 1st Cru Meursault from 09 and 16 and the Rajat Parr project Sandhi Mt. Carmel SRH. A great comparison of wines from both old and new world, yet strikingly similar in style, but that seemed to be the point. Another Somm project, Gramercy Cellars 2014 Lagniappe Syrah from Washington was dense and rich and opened up nicely, I went back to it with some of the smoked tenderloin that was offered for dinner. The final two wines of the tasting were a Brunello and a Rioja, textbook style Brunello that was my first real drink with dinner (meaning, I was done spitting) and a Rioja that was built for the American or export palate, showing the presence of the American oak in the front and mid palate.

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Not every wine is a great wine in these tasting formats. From the Marihart/Cho tasting, I’m still not a big fan of whole cluster fermentations. The green character they exude when whole cluster is being done for the sake of being called whole cluster is no different than putting 100% new oak on Cab because it checks some box, it is lazy wine making for the sake of being cool. When whole cluster ferments taste like yalanchi filled with green peppers dipped in a wheatgrass sauce, it didn’t work out the way you planned and don’t excuse it for terroir, it’s not terroir, it's sloppy and a poor experiment.

I'm looking forward to my next double blind tasting experience with Marihart Inc....carrying on 35 years of tasting everything from Keystone Light to Grand Cru Bordeaux.

Who wants to try a $500 wine?

Who wants to try a $500 wine? Or perhaps a $30 wine that tastes like pickle juice?

Part 1

I love being involved in wine tastings. Triple threat Chef/Somm/Proprietor Chris Shackelford has been holding open tastings for as long as I remember.  Usually about 30 or so wines from around the world are poured, with a mix of anything from a $20mid-week sipper, natural wines, right on through a $500 cult Cab from Napa; basically something for everyone and every budget. Knowing how to taste at Shack’s event is key, everyone bum-rushes the most expensive Pinot first, so avoid that station. Rather, enjoy a glass of Riesling or Sparkling wine to start, as there should be enough Pinot to try in about 20 minutes.

Highlights from Shack’s tasting for me included the Hourglass HG III Red Blend 2016 out of Napa, a Merlot heavy wine and rather enjoyable this early for $55, it’s warm-weather, modern, with some oak, but it totally works. The Schrader RBS To-Kalon Beckstoffer 2015 is pure clone 337 Cabernet on a specific French oak for 20 months, which allows me to see what a very pure expression of Cabernet tastes like in the modern style.  I work with clone 337 in Dry Creek, so it’s helpful to see where other winemakers take the fruit. For something with some bottle age and grace, a 1985 Forman Cabernet, Napa Valley was a dramatic contrast to the Hourglass or Schrader. The 85 Forman came in at 12.8% alcohol and drinking as you would expect a wine of pedigree from that era, wonderfully. Looping back to Pinot, the 2015 Trombetta Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast was my favorite in the line-up. Oh, there was a Scarecrow in there too, yawn…(that’s because I didn’t get any).

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From the Shackelford tasting there were a few wines of the 'natural' category (not pictured). Pickle juice and brett showed up in back-to-back wines where flaws become flavors to some. It’s tough for me and other winemakers to be blatantly honest about many of these wines, as some of the winemakers are our peers and friends. Some of the stuff is just plain horrible and it gets an audience, simply because it’s different, not good. In fact, Sonic Burger just announced a Pickle Juice Slushie just in time for summer. Combine that with kombucha sales and maybe there’s a trend for vinegar based beverages. I’m just tasting volatile acidity (VA) and poorly made wines from producers who know better.

Perhaps among ancient Rome’s peasants, having a wine that tasted like pickle juice and had 10% alcohol in it was better than dysentery or cholera, but we live in modern times and I don’t want wine that tastes like pickle juice. Let’s face it, you messed up your ferment and you have to sell it, I get it, bulk it out next time and call it a day. 

I'll post Part 2 of my all-day tasting with a post entitled Back in the Game and a double blind tasting.

New York, New York Steak

I just ate 10 steaks in one hour!

Recently, I was asked to evaluate 10 different cuts of steak from two different beef suppliers for an upcoming restaurant opening. All of the beef was Certified Angus or Prime and all the steaks were prepared the same way (salt and pepper over a flame grill) by chef Tommy Chavez. I paired each steak with three of my wines, 2014 Cab Franc, 2014 Superstrada (Sangiovese/Cab Sav) and 2015 RWSC (Bordeaux Blend).

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What did I learn?

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First, that I consumed about 3 pounds of beef! More importantly, not all steaks are created equally and no two steaks paired equally well with the same wine. All the steaks were delicious, as it’s difficult to go wrong with prime steaks expertly cooked, but there were differences in texture, density, ‘meaty’ flavor, chew, tenderness, and fat content.

The most dramatic difference in flavor, texture and wine pairing was a prime bone-in New York strip (Club steak) versus the prime boneless NY strip.

My 2014 Cabernet Franc and 2014 Superstrada paired nicely with the boneless NY strip. Complimentary flavors, the steak was lean and well textured, my wines integrated well with this classic restaurant cut.

Change gears to a longer cooked bone-in NY strip a.k.a. Club steak and suddenly the integration of the wine with the steak changed. The bone itself was flat and nearly 2 inches wide and covered the length of the strip, which effected cooking time. Whatever the bone and cooking time did to change the flavor profile of the steak was dramatic enough to favor a more tannic and heavy-weight wine. The Cab Franc didn’t have enough heft or tannin to hold up to the Club steak. Superstrada was good, but showed better with other steaks.

Enter the 2015 RWSC.

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The 2015 RWSC is my 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot and 25% Cabernet Franc from Dry Creek and Alexander Valley, with a 50% new Minnesota 36 month medium toast water bent oak and 50% neutral oak profile. Yes, I’m being very specific about my oak. Simply calling it “American oak” is an inadequate generalization.

While the 15 RWSC paired well with nearly every steak in the line-up (except perhaps the filet mignon where the wine overwhelmed the lean cut), it shined with the Club steak. This is where some combination of alchemy, meat sweats, and badly needing a plate of fries might be affecting my palate, but it was an enlightening moment in the tasting. How could one wine and one steak pair so well together? Why is this pairing so outstanding? This isn’t just me bragging about my wine. I’m sure other wines would have paired wonderfully, but in that moment, with those selections, the RWSC shined bright.

Next time I’m asked to evaluate steaks, I’m bringing more wine.

Maestro Meme Monday

Alliteration and Memes are fun to use, so the Maestro Meme Monday was born.

You may have noticed some self-depricating humor recently on the Mastro Scheidt Instagram account, depicting me and my father in some photos over the last few seasons. What often makes a meme funny is that the meme is true. I can tell you for certain, the phrases and expressions in these memes are true and have been thought about or said aloud.

We hope you enjoy them throughout 2018, every Monday, for Maestro Meme Monday.

Where can I make natural wine?

You want to make a natural wine? Good. But where are you allowed to make it?

I make a few natural/low/no intervention wines each season. One of my more popular wines is Sangiovese. It will typically (because nothing is typical in a native ferment) start native fermentation within 24 hours of being destemmed. After fermentation and press out, the wine is placed in clean (steam cleaned), neutral oak for a period of between 9-20 months, where it will be racked once, regularly topped and minimally sulfured during that time. That’s it.

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Sangiovese was the first native fermentation I ever allowed to complete. I was scared to have a native fermentation go poorly or just plain bad. As a boutique winery under 2000 cases, I can ill-afford mistakes for such a substantial part of my winemaking program. Throwing away 5 tons of fruit is simply not an option for me.

Are you new around here?

Suppose you’re a new winemaker in Sonoma County who would like to make a natural rose’, white and red wine. You have your vision and your manifesto for making a great natural wine. You want to use ancient fermenting vessels like amphora, egg shaped fermenters, and 500 liter wood barrels. You want spontaneous native fermentations and in-barrel malolactic fermentations.

The boutique winemaker has three choices:

1.       Make wine at your own facility (lucky you that you have all the equipment)

2.       Make wine at a custom crush facility (Alternating Proprietor Type 2)

3.       Make wine on the side at the winery you probably work for (You probably have a nice employer)

 A brief break during Harvest 2017 of dry-farmed Cabernet Sauvignon in Dry Creek Valley

A brief break during Harvest 2017 of dry-farmed Cabernet Sauvignon in Dry Creek Valley

Everyone has access to a concrete egg fermenter, right?

The debate about natural wine often misses the point of what’s practical in making, storing and maintaining the actual wine in a modern custom crush facility, (aka a facility you don’t own and make wine with as many as 40 other winemakers). As a winemaker with a Type 2 license I am an alternating proprietor at the custom crush facility and abide by the rules of the host facilities wine making protocols or suffer the consequences. For instance, I can't operate the forklift or bring in barrels that have tested for brettanomyces.

Here’s a quick list of 5 things you might want to know about custom crush facilities before you embark on your natural wine journey:

1.       Regularly testing of oak barrels for brettanomyces and volatile acidity by the cellar master. The Cellar Master may remove barrels with unacceptable levels or not allow used barrels you’ve purchased into the cellar. Consolidating your natural wines into a single facility for bottling and efficiency may be stopped at the door after laboratory testing because your existing bulk inventory may have unacceptable levels of VA or brett detected and are rejected by the cellar master. Unacceptable levels may be determined by the custom crush facility, not you. Remember, there may be other winemakers in the custom crush that don’t want any hint of brett in their wines.

2.       Does the cellar master use a combination steam/ozone/SO2 to clean their barrels and yours before filling them?  Standard protocols in many custom crush facilities require monthly monitoring of free sulfur levels in finished wines and regular sulfur (SO2) additions to finished wines in barrel. Topping schedules are completed monthly.

3.       Access to amphoras, concrete cone fermenters, large format exotic wooden casks or other non-standard fermenters. The facility may not have use or budget for less common fermentation vessels.  As the start-up winemaker, you may not have the budget to buy your own less common fermentation vessel, therefore, you will use standard plastic macro bins for small lots. If you buy your own fermentation vessel and use it at a custom crush facility, who holds liability for the proper care, use and potential damage to a concrete egg or clay amphora?

4.      Extended macerations on white wines take up tank space, add time and labor costs to production

5.       Gravity feeding wines without the use of a pumps takes more time, which means more labor and not all facilities are built for “100% gravity fed” wines.

Just some food for thought for those considering the natural wine route.

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.

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.