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.


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.


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.

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.


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.


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. 


Harvest Weekend with the Family

"Each man delights in the work that suits him best"

Homer, The Odyssey

The 2016 Harvest marks the first time the entire family came out to pick some grapes and see the process, from start to finish. Three generations of family were on site to see what the harvest is all about.

Lamb, potatoes, green beans, Zinfandel

My friends and I have been sous vide crazy this summer. We've even tried to sous vide an artichoke (not that I'd recommend it).

I didn't do much cooking for this dinner, I have childhood friend John to thank for the sous vide lamb. Lamb leg was the next logical candidate for the sous vide machine. Leg of lamb generally has a long, slow cooking time anyway, so it makes sense to use a little science and cooking together. There is no real recipe for sous vide leg of lamb, other than cooking time, which was 9 hours. We finished it on a charcoal fire for some color and additional flavor.

Sous vide lamb leg with roasted peppers

Sous vide lamb leg with roasted peppers

For me, what made the entire meal pop were the green beans. Chinese influenced green beans were the contrast to all the richness in the meal. The salty umami heat in the sauce made me want to have another bite of lamb and another sip of Zinfandel. It was a virtuous circle of eating.

I can't take credit for the green beans, John's wife Falina prepared the dish, in addition to the roasted potatoes, one style with feta the other with proscuitto.

Pan fried green beans with slivered almonds and chili sauce

1 package Fresh green beans (you know, the ones that come in the bag, cleaned)
1 tablespoon Fresh chopped garlic
1/4 cup Shaved almonds
3 tablespoons Soy sauce
1 tablespoon Chili paste
3 tablespoons Canola or Peanut Oil

Blanche your green beans in boiling, salted water for about 30 seconds.

Have a large, hot saute pan ready to combine all the ingredients above for a quick, high heat saute (unless you're lucky enough to have a commercial wok in your house). The saute pan should NOT be overloaded with green beans. It's better for this dish to split the green beans in two or three batches, so that the pan stays screaming hot and the cooking process stays hot, this is wok-style cooking in a non-commercial home kitchen.


New Release Focus - 2014 Zinfandel

I've been hinting at this project for a while. 100% Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel from the 2014 vintage.

Before I was a Cabernet drinker, I was a Zinfandel zealot. I couldn't get enough of the stuff. Verticals of Zin took up my cellar. But around 1995, things began to change. I was buying less and less Zin, sometimes no Zin at all. Zinfandel was morphing into an alcoholic fruit bomb of a wine. Riper and riper with each passing year to the point I couldn't drink the stuff anymore. 

So, I took matters into my own hands and made Zinfandel in 2014. 

I decided on first pass French and American oak for the Zin; a difference from what many do in Sonoma County, favoring more neutral Hungarian and American oak. Hungarian oak is known for spice characteristics. Likewise, Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel has pronounced spice as a matter of terroir. I saw no reason to double up on the spice character of my first release of Zinfandel. 

Secondly, I extended the Zinfandel aging process from a more typical 9-12 month program in oak to just over 12 months. That additional time in oak smooths out the corners, rounds the edges, and builds complexity.  

I'm craving elegance in my Zinfandel. A Zinfandel that shows power, but not alcohol; rich fruit but not cooked fruit, spice but not heat. 

I want to drink Zinfandel Zinfandel!