On the Trail

California Clarity – Part II

David Driscoll
Pinot Noir vineyards in Sonoma County

Pinot Noir vineyards in Sonoma County

Part two of my California story begins in Sonoma, rather than the Santa Lucia Highlands. To be honest, it actually begins in Medellín, Colombia where winemaker Bibiana González Rave was born and raised before moving to France in search of her wine education. When I say she "moved to France," I mean she packed up a bag, took a flight to Paris, caught a train to Cognac, and sat in the office of the Angoulême School of Viticulture and Enology until the dean agreed to accept her as a student. She had no appointment, no contacts in France, no real grasp of the language, and no previous experience working with wine at that point. She did, however, have a passion, intensity, and tenacity for proclaiming her intentions, a combination of traits I recognized in her immediately as the head of admissions at Angoulême likely did when he was first confronted with her determination. He had no choice but to let her in at that point because she wasn't going to take no for an answer. After finishing her initial technician diploma, Bibiana followed that up with a degree in Oenology from the University of Bordeaux, working harvests at Château Haut-Brion and other top estates in the area. After picking up additional experience in both Burgundy and the Northern Rhône, alongside a stint in South Africa, she made her way out to California and worked her way up into a head winemaking position at Lynmar Winery in the Russian River region. It was in Sonoma that she finally found her heart's terroir and the ability to make wines that truly expressed her soul's intentions. So she decided to put down roots. 

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"When I think of Sonoma, I think of farming and how that lifestyle connects the community," Bibiana said to me when I asked why the region spoke to her. While all of Northern California's major wine-growing regions originally began as farming communities, Sonoma has pushed back against some of the moneyed-interests one finds today in Healdsburg, along with the changes those investments have had on both the flavor profiles and price points of Napa's top wines. There's still a desire to make food-friendly, balanced, and climate-driven wines among Sonoma's best winemakers, which brings me back to Bibiana. Not only does she want to to make expressive wines from Sonoma County, she wants to make them accessible. Hence, her newly-established label Alma de Cattleya, a project focused on sub-$30 options that exhibit the crisp, cool climate character of Sonoma County fruit with a message geared toward consumption rather than collecting. Virtuoso performances from the world's best vineyards still dominate much of today's terroir-driven fascination in aficionado circles. More and more drinkers are being taught that absolute purity goes hand in hand with quality. Yet, as ambitious producers scramble to collect parcels from the most coveted vineyard zip codes, Bibiana's Alma wines are focused on value and quality as a general expression of Sonoma, rather than capturing the embodiment of site-specific fruit. That's not to say she's not interested in the individuality of California's top vineyards. Her incredible single vineyard wines (made in incredibly small quantities) are part of her higher-end Cattleya label, but what's driving her passion with the Alma portfolio is very similar the story I wrote about yesterday concerning Jeff Pisoni's Luli label: she wants to make wines that speak to the soul of the region as a whole, and that people actually living in Sonoma can afford and enjoy regularly with friends and family.

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There's another fact about Bibiana that I need to mention at this point: she's married to Jeff Pisoni, son of Lucia maverick Gary Pisoni and winemaker for all Pisoni-related projects. Together they make a collaborative label called Shared Notes, but the Cattleya project is her baby (along with the two young children she and Jeff share). Through her relationship with Jeff, along with her own professional contacts throughout Sonoma, Bibiana has forged friendships with growers all across Sonoma and its from those small farmers that she sourced much of the fruit for the Alma de Cattleya wines: a delightful rosé of Pinot Noir, a textural Sauvignon Blanc, an impeccable Chardonnay, and a blistering Pinot Noir. Sourcing affordable, high quality fruit in California today is no easy task, especially with the single vineyard craze at an all-time high. For example, if Bibiana buys fruit from a lesser-known site and the wine she makes from that vineyard gets a great review, it might motivate the grower to raise his price the next time around. It turns out that big scores and glowing critical reviews can lead to higher-priced grapes as well as bottles. "There's a tendency for some growers to think the fruit is all that matters," she explained; "As if the quality of the wine is guaranteed before the wine is even made and the winemaker has no role in that expression." For that reason, long-standing friendships play a big factor in the small Sonoma growing community. In Bibiana's case, it helps that she's well-connected and well-liked. But it's also her capability and potential to make something truly wonderful with their fruit that has growers excited about working with Bibiana these days. 

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And here's the other issue: Bibiana's wines are indeed getting big scores and glowing reviews, so keeping her new under-the-radar label a secret for K&L customers won't be easy for long. Her outstanding 2016 Alma de Cattleya Sonoma County Pinot Noir notched a sold 90 point score from the recent issue of the Wine Spectator (and a 91 from the Enthusiast), while her lone Santa Lucia Highland expression—the 2014 Cattleya Wines "Soberanes Vineyard" Syrah—grabbed an incredible 97 point score from Jeb Dunnuck who wrote: "I suspect it's the greatest wine made to date from this site." I tasted both with Bibiana yesterday at her winery office and was completely won over by both their freshness and their quality for the price. Her value-oriented wines were indeed superb values and her entire range of top-shelf wines tasted both expensive and meticulously cared for. I'm hoping to put aside a large chunk of the 2016 Alma de Cattleya Chardonnay for our wine club members in the near future as I thought it was downright brilliant, rich and surprisingly weighty for for something that fresh. I'm not only excited to bring her wines to K&L, I'm excited to drink them at home with my wife and family members. Of course, that was Bibiana's intent behind the Alma project in the first place, to get us all fired up about sharing these wines with our loved ones, rather than burying them in our cellars in anticipation of the perfect moment. It's another very Sonoma-esque aspect of her vision: quality without pretense or pageantry. That's exactly what I'm after these days.

-David Driscoll

 

California Clarity – Part I

David Driscoll
Pinot noir grapes growing at Pisoni Vineyard

Pinot noir grapes growing at Pisoni Vineyard

I set numerous career goals for myself at the start of January as I was determined to make 2018 a breakthrough year for my rather stagnant evolution. I've been passionate about wine appreciation since around 2007, but over the last few years I've spent more time fussing over sales numbers and invoices than broadening my horizons and refueling my reserves. That needed to change, I decided; especially if I hoped to remain an enthusiastic ambassador for my customers. My first hope was to completely revamp the K&L wine club and start using the monthly newsletter as a way to educate both customers and myself about some of the industry’s best under-the-radar producers. As a former teacher, I can tell you that one of the best ways to learn more about any subject is educating others about the same information. My second ambition was to focus our marketing narrative away from the informationally-obsessed, statistical appreciation of wine and towards the actual drinking of it. I wanted to work closely with producers who talked more about why they enjoyed making wine and less about which iconic vineyard they sourced their fruit from. The third and perhaps more pressing objective I had in mind this year was to learn more about California wine as a whole. After more than ten years in this business the irony is not lost on me that I’m a veteran of the wine trade, working and living near California wine country, yet with a giant, meteor-sized hole in my awareness of the local market. I wasn’t going to buy a book about Golden State winemaking, however. Nor was I planning to spend my mornings pouring through trade magazines or amateur blogs. If I was going to do this right, my knowledge would have to come from first hand experience. Face to face contact, like we used to do before the iPhone was invented. Thus, it was time to hit the road.

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If you're wondering just how broad and unshaped my understanding of California was, I'll tell you something embarrassing that I just discovered yesterday: for the last decade I've thought the Santa Lucia Highlands region was just north of Santa Barbara, well south of San Luis Obispo along the Central Coast. It wasn't until I sat down with winemaker Jeff Pisoni yesterday that I realized the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA starts just south of Salinas and extends along the Sierra de Salinas mountains for about fifteen miles into Steinbeck country. Whoops. Jeff is the son of legendary California winemaking pioneer Gary Pisoni, the man who introduced low yields and meticulous vineyard management to the Santa Lucia Highlands back in 1982. While Jeff’s father and brother Mark live near Gonzales and continue to care for Garys' Vineyard and Pisoni Vineyard, Jeff is the family winemaker and has the fruit transported north to Sonoma where the Pisoni winery is now located. Here I was thinking Jeff had to truck all that Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from the southern half of the state, when it’s really just an hour south of San Jose. I met Jeff at his Rohnert Park facility yesterday to taste through his entire portfolio and begin the process of correcting my many misconceptions.

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As Jeff was pouring the Pinot, I had him take me through Santa Lucia Highlands 101, which coincidentally starts by heading south on 101 towards Monterey. If you’ve ever driven to the Central Coast from the Bay Area, the first thing you notice about the area around Salinas is the abundance of lettuce along the freeway. The Salinas Valley is known as “the Salad Bowl” by those who work in agriculture because of its unique climate during the growing season. “There are more sub-70 degree days there during summer than in any other part of the country,” Jeff told me as he unfolded a map of the state on the table. You need consistently cool and dry weather to grow lettuce properly, and while the Salinas Valley gets plenty of fog, what it doesn’t get is much rain. “It’s like a cold desert,” Jeff added. These same cool conditions extend into the hills of the Santa Lucia Highlands, a string of vineyard sites located beyond the produce fields to the west of 101, resulting in wines with plenty of aromatics and acidity. Because it never gets too hot, the wines never get too ripe. Tasting through both the Luli and Lucia portfolios with Jeff, there was one underlying consistency through all of the wines: vibrancy.

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In order to understand what makes the Pisoni wines so special, you have to understand a bit more about Jeff’s father Gary. Jeff brought out a scrap book his dad made him as a gift one year, showcasing the family legacy through various photos and wine labels. It was one of the most tender and revealing family documents I’ve ever had the pleasure of looking through, and it did exactly what Jeff had intended: it gave me a better insight into who his father was. The first part of the Pisoni story does not actually begin with Gary, but rather his parents Jane and Eddie who came to the region in 1952. Gary grew up working the land with his father, learning its intricate ecosystems, and developing a love for his family's many acres. After catching the wine bug and developing an obsession with Burgundy, he convinced his parents that they should invest in planting Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vineyards up in the nearby mountains. Everyone thought he was crazy, as is usually the case in these stories. Gary has been described as crazy more than once, however. When you read an article about his winemaking, it generally includes a number of synonyms describing his commitment to quality in the vineyard. While other farmers were growing crops in for maximum volume, Gary was pioneering an entirely new way of thinking as it pertained to California’s wine potential. Over thirty years later, his vineyards have become some of the most renowned sites for Pinot Noir in the entire state and today that passion for farming and winemaking extends to both of his sons, Mark and Jeff. 

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After learning exactly how Gary Pisoni developed these varied pieces of land and what made each spot unique, I was very excited to taste through the Lucia wines with Jeff, the Pisoni family label that features numerous single vineyard expressions from the best SLH (that's short for Santa Lucia Highlands) sites. The intensity of both the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from these individual locations is truly something that anyone interested in California's unique terroir-driven wines should experience. However, returning back to goals one and two, I was here as the K&L wine club director to learn more about Jeff's Luli project with sommelier Sara Floyd, a label meant to showcase the brilliance of the SLH appellation as a whole, rather than simply highlight its best plots. None of the fruit used in Jeff's Luli wines is sourced from any of the Pisoni family vineyards, which of course begs the question: then from where did he get it? As Jeff answered that question, I began to fall more and more in love with the wines and the philosophy behind their intent. Because Jeff's family has been farming in the region for over sixty-five years at this point, you can imagine they know a number of other growers nearby. Jeff's brother Mark alone spends hours each day walking through the various vineyards of the Santa Lucia Highlands, so you can also imagine he has a pretty solid insight as to where one might find some pretty good fruit. Thus, the Luli wines are made from the fruits (pun intended) of the Pisoni family's networking labor. Together they reached out to their community and purchased additional grapes from local growers they've known for years, if not decades. The overarching goal with the Lull expressions was to make a more affordable line-up of SLH wines without sacrificing quality, integrity, or any of the regional characteristics one should expect to find in any higher-end cuvée. Tasting them side by side with the Lucia wines, I can safely say that goal has been accomplished.  

If you're curious as to what constitutes a classic Santa Lucia Highlands profile, I'd highly recommend grabbing a bottle of the 2015 Luli Pinot Noir, because for $19.99 I'm not sure there's a better California value on the shelf. It's absolutely loaded with red fruits and spice, but it's never overtly sweet or jammy in any way, shape, or form. There's a liveliness to the aromas and the flavors leap across the palate with vivacity; that's what I consider textbook SLH Pinot Noir when successfully realized (I do know what the wines should taste like, even if I've been long confused about where they actually come from!). I ended up polishing off a bottle of the 2015 Luli Chardonnay last night with my wife for Valentine's Day, savoring the supple fruit and flowery flavors, bolstered by a crisp finish. If you're a K&L wine club member, I'd expect to find a bottle of Luli Syrah in the pool of membership options later this summer. At this point, I'm completely enamored with Jeff's wines, his family's history in California, and the value proposition he's committed to while producing top notch stuff.

Now I just need to find another few hours to tell you about his wife, Bibiana. There's a part two to this charming Pisoni story.

-David Driscoll

Into the English Countryside

David Driscoll
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In the Spring of 2016, I headed west one morning from London's Paddington Station, taking the train to Taunton in Somerset near Devon where my colleague Ryan Woodhouse is from. Through a few different word-of-mouth references (Ryan’s family included) we had heard rumors of an English apple brandy distillery that had stocks as old as twenty years and Calvados-like spirits of serious repute. Ryan and I had even spent an afternoon perusing their website from the Redwood City office we share, wondering what the products tasted like. We didn’t waste much time pondering, however. Within a day, Ryan had phoned his dad who was keen on taking a drive to check the place out. By the end of the week we had made an appointment to visit the farm of the Somerset Cider Brandy Company with plans for Mr. Woodhouse to pick us up from the station. Due to a bad leg, however, Mr. Woodhouse was unfortunately ordered to maintain strict bed rest, so distillery owner Julian Temperley himself was there to pick us up from the train station in his 70s-era Bentley on our arrival. With a farm consisting of over 180 acres of apple orchards, Julian has been distilling brandy and making cider since 1989 when he was granted the UK's first ever cider-distilling license. We introduced ourselves, shook hands, and hit the road in style. I could tell from the get-go this guy was a character as he whisked us around hedgerows and through windy country roads, devil may care for the speed limits. 

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Back at the Temperley home we met with Julian's wife Matilda and were treated to a fascinating lecture on the history of Somerset cider and the importance of its economic role over many centuries. Their country house is one of the most wonderfully-eclectic and artistically-kooky places I have ever been, something out of a late-sixties era Pink Floyd photoshoot (I would later learn that their daughter is world famous fashion designer Alice Temperley, so everything started to make sense). I could have spent days there, reading books, talking about music, looking at art, and hanging out with Matilda, but we were there to discuss business. Cider production in the UK dates back to the Romans, but the West of England in particular has a number PGIs—protected geographical origins—where the orchards are treated like Burgundian vineyards, each with its own particular terroir. Cider and the taxation of it was once quite a political issue (and still is today depending on who you ask). Julian told us of an old 18th century grandfather clock he owns that has an inscription reading: “No excise on cyder.” To say that folks in West England take the production of cider seriously is an understatement. If you’ve ever talked to an Iowan about corn you’ll understand exactly what I mean. Apples are a way of life.

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The stills were steaming at full speed when we entered the distillery itself, where my colleague Jeff Jones and I began our tasting. Two wood-fired pots burning away just like I’d seen in Normandy so many times before. The property is delightful; a rustic ranch with hundreds of acres of orchards behind it, each inter-spliced with numerous varietals of apple. We went in the house for a cup of tea first and a chance to sample a few selections while getting a better understanding for the operation. Julian produced a few glasses along with two bottles of pommeau—one labeled Kingston Black Apple Liqueur and the other called Somerset Pomona. “The Kingston Black is the aperitif,” he told us, filling our glass with the chilled liquid. I raised it to my nose and took a whiff. All I could think of in that moment were my friends the Camut brothers who make the best apple spirits I’ve ever tasted. The aromas were just pure and enticing on the nose. “The Pomona is the digestif,” he added. “You can pair this with a cheese plate a the end of a meal like you would a port. It’s been barrel-aged.” 

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After our introductory course over tea, Julian took us down into the cellar to look at the barrel room. Much like a single malt distillery, Somerset is using hogsheads, sherry butts, and port pipes to age its brandies. The core range includes three, five, ten, fifteen, and twenty year expressions, each with its own unique character. The three year is juicy and bursting with energy. The five year is more subdued and mellow. The ten year is refined and elegant, The fifteen is hauntingly beautiful. The twenty year is rich and robust with notes of sherry intermingling lightly on the finish. The line-up as a whole is a giant slam dunk. The prices are more than reasonable. I was ready to cut Julian a check right then and there. “How is no one selling this in the U.S.?’ I whispered to Jeff.

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We've since rectified that issue. The five and ten year old brandies have just hit the K&L shelves, after two years of paperwork and licensing, and both are simply outstanding in flavor and value-to-quality. Most importantly, they don't taste like Calvados or American Applejack, but rather have their own unique character. The term "cider brandy" most certainly applies here as both have warm, spice-driven flavors of pure apple cider in their foundation, bolstered by delicate accents of vanilla from the oak maturation. The five year is simultaneously bursting with apples, while maintaining a mellow and almost creamy finish. The ten year has even more oak, but in addition more of a brown apple note that never comes across overly fruity or sweet. They're both dry and robust, but maintain an incredible elegance from front to back with a slight chewiness from the sherry and port maturation. Considering their price points, I'm already wondering if I bought nearly enough!

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Matilda was kind enough to prepare lunch for us, so we sat at the wooden table in the windowed-terrace looking out over the orchards, feasting on fresh bread and local cheddar, while getting to know one another. I did the cheese pairing with the Somerset pommeau that Julian recommended, thinking: “I could really get used to this.” I was also satisfied in hearing Julian’s philosophy on cider and brandy is much like a winemaker's—he strongly believes in blending for balance of acidity and flavor. “Single varietal ciders are an abomination!” he said at one point with a laugh. All in all we spent about four hours with the Temperleys, drinking various apple spirits, eating delicious food, listening to their incredible stories, and enjoying the bucolic splendor of Western England. We didn't stop with just the brandies, either. The Temperleys also make incredible liqueurs using the apple eau-de-vie as a base macerated with local fruit. The cherry and black current expressions were part of our recent shipment and already have the K&L sales staff going ballistic. 

It's taken us two years to get the wonderful products of the Somerset Cider Brandy Company to our stores, but it was worth every bit of the effort put in. I've already reached out the Matilda about getting a second shipment ready as I think these are going to blow out of here once the word gets out. These are true farm to table spirits that live up to every bit of the hype. 

-David Driscoll

Exploring Together

Heather Vander Wall
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You’ve all heard recently about the exciting things happening with our wine clubs, with David getting involved, but you may not know that we also are offering a “Personal Sommelier” service. Basically, this is an opportunity to connect with one of our staff members and explore wine (or spirits, or beer!) together. I’m pretty excited about what we’ve got going here. You’ve seen our adventures around the world as you’ve followed us On the Trail, and you know how our endless love for the grape and the grain is constantly bringing us in contact with new and exciting regions, bottling, and producers. Well, here’s a chance to taste along with us.

What we’re doing with this service, is connecting you with your own K&L “Somm”, who works with you on a monthly basis to find wines, beer, or spirits for you. For us, it’s what we love. When we discover something we’re over the moon about, we want to share that with you. But let’s be clear: this is all on your own terms. Maybe you want a full case of cellarable wines once a month, or maybe you just want a best new find under $15. That’s what this program is all about—sharing our favorites with you in a personal way, based on your own interests. Also, we love a good challenge—say you’re a Pinot lover, and you want to explore other varietals that have some of that character. Well, we love it. We’ll scour our inventory for something fun and interesting that you might not have run across before. Take a quick look at our “Sommelier” page. This might be something you’d like to try!

On the blog you’re getting a snapshot of great producers, wines, or experiences, but it’s really only a small piece of our day-to-day. There are so many more varietals, wineries and regions that we’re exploring here at K&L, and we’d love to share that with you, personally. Pick out your own “Somm” from our K&L staff, and start the tasting adventure with us!

-Heather Gowen

Emerging Edna Valley

David Driscoll
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Just south of San Luis Obispo, along California's Central Coast, sits one of the state's most charming and humble wine-growing AVAs: the Edna Valley, home to dozens of small producers that make wonderful wines among the rolling hills of the region. Free from much of the pretense and pageantry that often exists in some of California's more profitable winemaking locales, there's a lot to love about the fresh and affordably-priced expressions coming out of Edna right now, which is exactly why we've forged direct relationships with some of SLO's best family-run estates and begun a partnership program of co-sponsored cuvées. For the third year in a row, we've worked out another K&L edition of Edna Valley Chardonnay with Talley Vineyards, a producer renowned for its Burgundian mindset of terroir-focused winemaking from each of its six different vineyard sites. Originally founded as a family farm in 1948, Talley has been making wine since 1986 when Don and Rosemary Talley offically established the winery. Today, with its facility at the foot of the Rincon Vineyard, Talley is one of the most exciting producers of Chardonnay in the state, making clean and vibrant expressions from holdings all along the coastline. 

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Talley's commitment to "Burgundian winemaking" stems not only from admiration for the Côte d'Or, but also a shared similarity of climate. The cool and slightly foggy conditions of Edna valley, with the chill of the ocean breeze coming through the hills, creates the perfect setting for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. They make wines with acidity and drive, reaching maximum ripeness while maintaining a zippy and refreshing crispness from front to back. At the same time, however, there's a richness and sense of weight from just the right amount of oak maturation, not unlike a fine Chassagne-Montrachet. Our latest collaboration with Talley, the 2016 K&L Edna Valley Chardonnay, displays that Burgundian character beautifully, weaving lemon zest and apple notes between toastier elements and the richness that they impart. Put together for us by Brian Talley, the wine is indicative of everything we love right now about the wines from Edna Valley and the Central Coast: quality, value, volume, and drinkability. At $22 a bottle, the wine delivers supreme complexity for the money, but it doesn't skimp on charm either. In tasting the wine again this morning, I'm imagining everything I love about the San Luis Obispo area with each sip: the setting, the relaxed environment, the down-to-earth mentality, and the commitment to enjoying life's simple pleasures.

With prices for some of our favorite Napa, Somona, and Santa Cruz Mountain Chardonnays now hovering between $35 to $50 a bottle, expect to see more from Edna Valley at K&L in 2018. And find a weekend to get down there yourself! You'll undoubtedly come back with a complete understanding for our current admiration. 

-David Driscoll

Italian Exploration

Jeff Garneau
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There is great joy in exploring the famous wines of Italy – noble Nebbiolo, superlative Sangiovese. But there is greater joy still in taking the road less traveled, discovering Piedirosso from Campania, Pelaverga from Piedmont, or Schiava from Alto Adige. Wine is produced throughout Italy, in every region, and there are more indigenous grape varieties there than in any other country on earth. I have been drinking Italian wine for more than three decades, and I frequently encounter wines I am entirely unfamiliar with, made from grapes I have never heard of before.

The latest is Timorasso, an ancient and rare grape native to the Tortona Hills of southeastern Piedmont, near the border with Lombardy. The vine is vigorous but shy-bearing, producing grapes high in both sugar and acidity. The wine is pale gold in color. It has a notable honeyed character and a pleasing nuttiness. Fruit tends toward either stone fruits or citrus. Riesling-like petrol notes are occasionally apparent. The wines are surprisingly rich in texture yet retain a very pure minerality. They can be drunk young or cellared for a decade or more.

It’s possible that no one would be enjoying Timorasso today if it were not for the particular efforts of one man, Walter Massa. Winemaker. Iconoclast. Visionary. He makes his home and his wine in the little hill town of Monleale. Since the late 1980’s he has championed the local Timorasso grape. At first his was a lonely vigil, but over time he has inspired other producers to join him and the few hectares he saved from oblivion have grown to over sixty today. Walter himself farms 22 hectares in eight distinct vineyard areas. Total production at Massa is about 13,000 cases, of which 5,000 is Timorasso. He makes two estate wines, one from younger vines, that are a great introduction to the varietal. But it is his three single vineyard “crus” that really shine, breathtaking examples of what can be achieved with this grape.

2016 Vigneti Massa "Terra Petit Derthona" Timorasso Colli Tortonesi $19.99

2015 Vigneti Massa "Derthona" Timorasso $24.99

2015 Vigneti Massa "Sterpi" Timorasso Cru $59.99

Sterpi is local Piemontese dialect for the Italian sterpaglie, “scrubland”. Of the three, Sterpi exhibits the most obvious minerality, leaner in style and less opulent.

2013 Vigneti Massa "Montecitorio" Timorasso Cru $59.99

Palazzo Montecitorio is the palace in Rome where the Italian Chamber of Deputies meets. An eldercontadino in Monleale used to say with a mock-prideful air when he was going to work the vineyard that he was “going to Montecitorio”. Montecitorio is the “Goldilocks” of the three wines, precisely splitting the difference in style between the Sterpi and the Costa del Vento while combining elements of both.

2015 Vigneti Massa "Costa del Vento" Timorasso $59.99

Costa del Vento means “the Side with the Wind”. Costa del Vento is the oldest and most famous of Massa’s three Timorasso crus. It is the richest in style, big and lush, layered and complex.

-Jeff Garneau

Revisiting Our Best Yarra Value

David Driscoll
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I was chatting with a customer in the store yesterday about Pinot Noir from California and Burgundy, with a bit of talk about New Zealand as well. When the topic turned to value, however, as in the best bang for your buck options, I asked him: "What do you know about the Yarra Valley in Australia?" It's a big country down there and, believe it or not, the whole of it isn't planted solely to scorched Shiraz. There's actually a very famous cool climate spot called the Yarra, making what are to me some of the most finessed and well-priced Chardonnay and Pinot Noir expressions on the planet. The problem for us American enthusiasts is that often the best of them don't leave the region and there aren't exactly hoards of importers taking the fifteen hour flight to Melbourne to solve that little issue. We're mostly stuck with some of the larger production wines that don't necessarily charm the palate the way some of the smaller grower/producer wines are able to. About a year ago, I spent a day in the Yarra Valley with Alan Nalder, the proprietor of a small estate called Helen's Hill. I was on trip to Australia on behalf of K&L, looking for small producers we might be able to feature as part of our direct import program. We hit it off immediately and by the end of 2017 we had his incredible sub-$20 "Ingram Road" Pinot Noir moving out of K&L by the case, faster than we could refill the floor stacks.

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I pulled up to find Allan and his team pressing Pinot Noir for a batch of sparkling wines, tasting the unfermented juice out of the underlying tank and extending a glass in my direction. Alan and I have a lot in common in terms of the way we talk about drinking; he was instantly outgoing, passionate, and straightforward about his wine making and his intentions in the vineyard. "We specialize in single vineyard Pinot Noir," he told me right off the bat. "All of our wines are made with our own estate fruit and I know every row of vines like the back of my hand." Many winemakers in the Yarra purchase Pinot Noir from a number of different growers around the region, but Allan is very particular about his produce. He wants complete control over the process from beginning to end so that he can ensure the purest possible expression of fruit. "I'm not saying I don't trust anyone," he added before we walked into the barrel room; "It's just that I don't trust anyone."  Then he smirked and gave me a wink. "Come on, let's hop in the gator. I'll show you what I mean," he added. 

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My friend Jen was with me, so I let her ride shotgun while I squatted on the back of the flatbed and snapped photos, listening to Alan talk about viticulture. Like any good Burgundian vigneron, Allan believes in an intimate relationship between the land and the people who look after it. There are a number of different soil types and microclimates (or terroirs) across the property, so the Pinot clones vary between Pommard and MV6—the latter of which was grafted from cuttings originally taken from Clos Vougeot, one of the most famous grand cru vineyard sites in all of Burgundy. We spent a good half hour touring the various locales and examining the unique conditions of each. I was utterly invigorated by Allan's passion for farming, but I was even more impressed by the way those flavors came through in his wines. The fruit at Helen's Hill is meticulously cared for and you can taste that care for a ridiculous $14.99 with the Ingram Road expression, a wine that's not only full of pure Pinot flavor, but also fresh and lively on the palate. 

Before we pulled back into the winery, I spotted a couple of kangaroos sitting between a row of vines in the Old Block site. "Do they add anything to the flavor of the wines?" I asked jokingly, hopping off the flat bed to snap a quick photo. 

"That's marketing," he laughed, "Put that up on your blog and tell 'em it's roo terroir!"

Were it not for the kangaroos, I might have forgotten where I was. Helen's Hill is as close as I've come to Burgundy outside of France, but in many ways Allan has improved upon the old world style. The wines are pure, yet unrestrained. They're fleshy, yet elegant. They're charming, yet simultaneously rustic. Alan is one of the most exciting producers we've discovered at K&L since I've worked here and the wines are further proof that the Yarra Valley is making wines of serious distinction and quality at prices that are simply unbeatable. 

-David Driscoll

Menetou-Salon to Sancerre

David Driscoll
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As we continued to move east through the Loire Valley, we left the village of Quincy and made our way to Menetou-Salon, an AOC appellation that like Sancerre focuses primarily on Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, both in the rouge and rosé form. There are records as far back as 1063 that show evidence of vineyards being prevalent in the region, and while the wines often don't have the same celebrity status as the aforementioned Sancerre, they're often every bit as delicious. 

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Our first stop was at Domaine Jean Teiller, today run by Patricia Teiller and her husband Olivier Lunel. With vineyards planted to stony, mineral-rich soils, they're working with 11 hectares of Sauvignon Blanc and another 7 hectares of Pinot Noir, although as Patricia pointed out the latter isn't planted to silex like the former. Limestone and silex help to promote acidity in the grapes, which is great for making a crisp and snappy Sauvignon Blanc, but can be a bit much for Pinot Noir, especially when bringing the reds to full ripeness is already a challenge as is. Her 2017 whites were fantastic, full of stone fruit, salinity, and a fresh crispness. 

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Patricia brought out some of the rocks from her Sauvignon Blanc vineyards, covered with the fossils of sea creatures that existed back when the entire region was covered by ocean water. It's the compacted shells of the coquillage that make up the unique terroir of the Menetou-Salon soil. 

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As the sun began to set, we continued northwest towards the most famous Loire Valley appellation of them all: Sancerre. The region's Sauvignon Blanc wines have been having their moment in the sun over the past decade, with the name Sancerre practically becoming synonymous with the varietal, reminiscent of what Champagne is to sparkling wine. There isn't a serious wine list anywhere at this point that doesn't offer at least one Sancerre by the glass, which is good news for the appellation's winemakers. I'm completely on board with the renaissance myself. If I had to pick one wine to drink for there rest of my life, it would probably be Sancerre. 

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We pulled into Domaine Daulny just in time to catch Etienne Daulny filling up a few glasses from the recent 2017 vintage tanks. The wine was simply outstanding, fleshy and brimming with round fruit flavors, but absolutely zesty and zingy on the palate. Etienne didn't have the same problems with frost that other Loire Valley producers during the vintage. He lost maybe 10% to the cold, but overall he considers the harvest a complete success. I couldn't help but concur. 

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Things started to get a bit nuts when Etienne's daughter Céline started bringing out plates of local Chavignol goat cheese to pair with the wine, perhaps my favorite cheese that exists with its mild, slightly herbaceous flavor and thick, creamy center. With the wine it was an absolute dream. If there's anything that should be on every wine drinker's bucket list, it's to drink a cold glass of Sancerre blanc in the region with a bite of fresh Chavignol. I'm hardly a nerd when it comes to wine pairings, but in this case I can vouch for the experience: absolutely worth the hype.

-David Driscoll

Into the Loire Valley

David Driscoll
A wind machine and heater stationed in a Touraine vineyard to fight against the ever-threatening Loire Valley frost.

A wind machine and heater stationed in a Touraine vineyard to fight against the ever-threatening Loire Valley frost.

My unintended wine career began around 2006 with a bottle of Loire Valley white wine from an appellation called Touraine, a crisp and clean Sauvignon Blanc that I bought from my future colleague Keelyn at the old K&L San Francisco store on 4th Street. Most of the white wines I had consumed up until my mid-twenties were either sweet, oaky, or both. I'd definitely spent a summer or two by the pool in Modesto drinking Yellowtail Chardonnay and thinking that was pretty sophisticated, moving on from twelve packs of Miller High Life and Rolling Rock. In between teaching elementary school in Chinatown and getting my master's degree from SF State in the evenings, I had been hanging out at a little wine shop near my apartment, killing time while waiting for my then-girlfriend (now wife) to get home. The guy who ran the place gave me a book about wine to read, so I started doing some simple research on the Muni M train as I rode between both ends of the city. The section about the Loire Valley stood out to me because 1) the wines were inexpensive and I wasn't necessarily raking in the cash at that time; 2) French wines had always been a complete mystery to me, so it was exciting to learn something about them; and 3) the book kept using the word "minerality" to describe the flavors, a term that seemed completely unlike the creamy, buttery, round-fruited characteristics I was acquainted with. So after work one day, I headed down to K&L, bought a ten dollar bottle of Touraine blanc, and had my first epiphany. Over a decade later, I was headed to Touraine for the first time .

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I could probably write a book at this point about the misconceptions that wine-drinking Americans have about French culture, but for the sake of brevity I'll just focus on one for the moment. In the United States, we like to see classical French wine labels on our bottles, old script with traditional-looking sketches of historical châteaux that give the impression of a conventionally cultural product. They make us feel like we're being authentically French. The irony of that gratification, however, is that many of the French producers I've visited with in my career couldn't be less interested in that type of outdated marketing and in no way adhere to that more rigid stereotype at home. They make those labels for their American exports because they know it helps to sell wine, but for their own domestic bottles they use kooky artwork with color, vibrance, and modern fonts. With the exception of Japan, there is no other country in the world I have come across that cares more about injecting verve and zeal into the aesthetics of everyday life. Sure, everyone in Paris wears black from head to toe, but it's always accented by carefully selected pieces of bright color that pop against that muted backdrop. Every single producer I visited in the Loire Valley this week had the exact same aesthetic working inside their winery, which were generally very traditional houses or buildings made from stone with clean white walls that acted like canvases for splashes of color and charisma. That quintessentially-French passion for lively art and joie de vivre is one of my favorite aspects of the culture, which is why I bristle internally when I hear folks describe French wine as stuffy or stale. That summation couldn't be less accurate when describing the wines of the Loire Valley.

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Our first stop was at Domaine Ricard where we met up with Vincent Ricard, the winemaker and proprietor whose colorfully-decorated reception room was pictured in the previous photo. We went into the winery to taste some of the almost-ready 2017s that were still finishing up in giant stainless steel tanks. I read a lot about frost in the Loire Valley in 2017, how large sections of vineyards had been wiped out in places like Chinon, Anjou, and Savennières. Luckily, Vincent told us, Domaine Ricard lost only about 20% of its crop in Touraine and while the yield is much less than in 2016, the wines are very good. Sauvignon Blanc is the key white varietal in Touraine and Vincent makes four different expressions of it, one from younger vines, another from a parcel of older vines, and others that see a bit of barrel aging. They were all fresh on the palate, showcasing textbook Loire Valley acidity along with a vivacious zest that matched the colorful labels he had printed out to show us. While many casual drinkers generally flock to Loire Valley whites from Touraine, the appellation makes a number of red wines from Cabernet Sauvignon, Gamay, Pinot Noir, and a local variety called Côt, which is really just Malbec. The reds all had fleshy, concentrated fruit, matched by racy acidity and a crunchy cranberry tartness that was balanced by plenty of ripeness. All of Vincent's wines are absolute bargains when looking at the prices, but that's generally the case for Touraine (as I mentioned earlier). You can have a look at our current inventory as evidence to that with the equally delicious bargains from Les Roches and Idiart. 

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After touring through Touraine, we continued east toward the village of Quincy (pronounced more like can-see), another Loire Valley appellation known for its clean and fresh-tasting Sauvignon Blancs. It was there that we met up with Adèle Rouzé, the young winemaker who continued in her father's footsteps and makes some pretty outstanding stuff. Quincy was also threatened by frost in 2017, but with the help of space heaters and wind machines Adèle was able to fight off most of the cold spell. Domaine Rouzé lost very little fruit and the harvest went just as planned, resulting in energetic wines with plenty of fruit and lots of energetic drive. 

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The wine that really blew me away was Adèle's simple 2017 Quincy, probably the best wine I had from anywhere on the entire trip through France (including restaurant stops). We popped a bottle in her kitchen that she paired with a plate of warm galettes de pomme de terre, buttery puff pastries made with potatoes and a mild cheese. I'm definitely working on this for a future K&L wine club selection as I think the wine has the potential to transform palates and lives, much like what happened to me back in 2006. It's pure elegance in a bottle from front to back. I couldn't stop thinking about it for the rest of the day. 

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I already knew what some of you were thinking about that last photo, which is why I'm fully prepared with this next one. David, that looks pretty traditional to me. A classic white label, classy script, and a plate of French pastries? That doesn't seem all that kooky or colorful! That's why I had to show you Adèle's new marketing for both her domaine and the appellation as whole. It's a graphic novel that tells the story of how the Quincy appellation came to be and introduces the most important winemakers in the region at the end. I can't think of anything less rigid and more modern/artsy than educating consumers with comic books! 

-David Driscoll

Dinner in Grande Champagne

David Driscoll
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One of the most common questions I get asked about Cognac is why the labels often say "Grande Champagne" under the name of the producer. This brandy doesn't have bubbles in it, right? What the term "Champagne" refers to with Cognac is no different than the meaning behind the name of the famed wine-producing region itself: it's a classification derived from the amount of chalk in the vineyard soils. It’s believed that some of the world’s longest-lived wines draw their preservative powers from the terrain—that limestone, clay, or other specific soils help to preserve acidity and promote more concentrated flavors within the grape. In Champagne, most of the best vineyards are planted into chalk, marl, and limestone, the remnants of shelled sea creatures from an ancient ocean that once swept over what is now France. That very special soil produces wines with incredible acidity and minerality; it's the reason Champagne is Champagne and everything else is just sparkling wine. Cognac is broken down into a number of different grape-growing regions, the most prestigious of which is Grande Champagne—a section of the Charentes that by no coincidence has the chalkiest soil content. When white wine grapes grow in limestone-rich soils the berries maintain their acidity, which ultimately creates a finer distillate and a more delicately-flavored Cognac. I stopped in this week to visit our friends Claudine, Gerald, and Pierre at Dudognon, one of our favorite Grande Champagne producers.

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Located in the town of Lignieres-Sonneville, Dudognon—in my humble opinion—makes some of the best brandies in the entire world, which taste even more impressive when you learn they’re 100% natural with no caramel coloring and no artificial sweeteners. Boisé, as the sugary substance is referred to colloquially, is an agent used to round out any of the potential harshness of a Cognac before bottling. It also helps to maintain consistency of color and allows the liquid to appear older in the bottle. It’s not necessarily a bad thing—most rums follow the same practice—but, like plastic surgery, no one wants to admit they’ve had work done. The thing that grabs you instantly upon the first sip is the freshness of the spirit. There’s a fresh, clean, and piercingly crystalline flavor to the Dudognon Cognacs which is even bolder and more intense in the younger brandies. Finding Cognac without additives is not easy, so when you taste something as pure as Dudognon it can catch even experienced brandy sophisticates off guard. 

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The last time that I visited Dudognon in December of 2015, Pierre and I made a blend for K&L using two brandies that we married together, one distilled from ugni blanc and the other from a rarely-seen grape called montils. We brought it in the following year and by the end of that holiday season it was sold out. Since then, however, the remainder of that blend has been sitting in a cask, marrying slowly and gaining complexity from the additional oak maturation. We tasted it against the original blend (they still had a bottle on hand) and there was no question: it had evolved into something very special, so I told him to bottle it up and ship it over as soon as possible. 

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Where as most VS level Cognacs clock in between two to three years of age (again, the dark color is often due to the caramel rather than the maturity), I don’t think you can even approach most of the Dudognon brandies until seven to ten years after they’ve been in cask. It seems crazy to say, but you can almost taste the minerality in the young Cognacs, almost like the stoniness of a Sancerre or the chalkiness of a top level Champagne. To use yet another wine analogy, it’s a lot easier to make something taste soft and smooth than it is to express the finesse of terroir. Sugar and oak can mask a lot of impurities, but they can’t manufacture complexity. It’s innate. Give the incredibly concentrated Cognacs of Dudognon fifty years and they’ll blossom into something absolutely unworldly—like the finest vintages of Haut-Brion or Domaine de la Romanée-Contí. We finished the evening with a 20+ year old Vieille Réserve expression that paired quite wonderfully with dessert, even without the extra sugar.

-David Driscoll