On the Trail

Old Vine Zin with Real Old Vine Character

David Driscoll
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"Old vine" is one of those terms you see on wine bottles that I'm not sure everyone understands, but nevertheless is used as a marketing tool by wineries to tout the quality of their hooch. It's kind of like "small batch" for Bourbon in that it implies something special or unique, but there's no real regulation regarding either term; it's really up to the integrity of the producer when it comes to the usage. What's so special about old vines then? It depends on which winemaker you talk to (as it can be a controversial subject), but old vines often give more concentrated fruit and a better sense of place when it comes to terroir, as the root networks extend deep into the soil, criss-crossing like veins through the heart of their terrain. Some winemakers say that old vines have a better ability to cope with diverse weather conditions because of their life experience—they have wisdom, so to speak. With every vintage, they gain a better understanding of their environment; plus, there's a reason they're still around after decades and decades, right? Someone must think they're pretty special to have left them in place for so long, while other vineyards get ripped up, replaced, and replanted. Nevertheless some winemakers will shrug off their importance, while others like South African superstar Eben Sadie swear by their quality and flavor. I tend to follow Eben's mindset because not only are his wines some of the best I've ever tasted in my ten year career, there's something special when you taste real old vine character.

Here in California, some of the oldest plantings we have are Zinfandel vineyards, as the varietal has been the bread and butter of winemakers and farmers for over a century. If you're interested in tasting an affordable option that showcases that heritage, check out the 2014 Valravn Old Vine Zinfandel: a wine that impressed the hell out of me earlier this week. It's made by the same team behind the Banshee project, focusing on 50 to 105 year old bush-pruned vines in Sonoma County that are all hand-harvested to preserve the varietal's full glory. What you get is concentrated red berry flavors, rich and juicy on the palate, but accented with savory spices, brush, and licorice-like peppery notes. The only thing that impressed me more than the 2014 was the sample bottle I opened of the 2015 vintage earlier today (I placed my order immediately). I could have finished half that bottle had I not restrained myself. It's a lot of old vine experience for your twenty bucks. 

-David Driscoll

On the Trail with Bill Foley

David Driscoll
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As a new home owner in Las Vegas and bi-monthly resident in the desert city, I felt it was important to start off on the right foot and get to know some of the members of the local community. While I've so far met my fair share of bartenders, sommeliers, restaurant owners, and retailers, there was one man in particular I wanted to sit down with, mainly because he's in a similar situation to myself (although I'm short a few billion dollars). American businessman Bill Foley is the principal owner of the new Las Vegas Golden Knights NHL franchise, but he's also the owner of the Foley Family Wines portfolio, an incredible consortium of properties that includes Chalk Hill, Chalone, Lincourt, Roth, and Sebastiani, to name a few. Therefore, he's a man constantly on the move between the heart of California wine country and the bright lights of Sin City (something I'm hoping to do on a more regular basis) managing some of the state's most important wineries, while dealing with the daily requirements of a pro hockey team. Not only did I want to pick Bill's brain about his path to success and for advice on Las Vegas, I wanted our customers to get to know him as well. His accomplishments, even without all the financial success, are staggering both in their scope and their diversity. He's truly a fascinating character and someone who is passionate about wine, community, and adventure. I had quite an enjoyable visit with him. Our recent conversation is below:

David: I think you’ve got to be in the running for the world’s most interesting man. Dos Equis made a big mistake when they hired their new guy. Your biography is unbelievably intimidating. I think it’s the most incredible I’ve ever seen, no joke. Can you talk a little bit about how you got to this point in your life and the road you took to get here?

Bill: I went to West Point as an undergraduate, but I transferred to the Air Force because I wanted to fly jets. However, my eyesight had deteriorated during my last year at West Point, so I ended up being stationed at the Boeing Company in Seattle in what they call the Air Force Plant Representative Office. I started off as an industrial engineer—I had a really good engineering background—and eventually I became a development engineer, so I was working on all these terrific Boeing programs like the short range attack missile, which was the precursor to the cruise missile, Minuteman III, and Burner II—a second stage spy satellite booster rocket. Eventually I became a contracting officer because I helped save the government a lot of money. By the time I left as a captain after four years, I had personal authority to sign a contract up to a billion dollars. I was about twenty five years old at the time.

David: You see what I mean? This is crazy talk!

Bill: So I then went to law school at University of Washington. I had an uncle who was a lawyer and I had admired his career, plus I wanted to learn a different way of thinking. I was an engineer as a undergrad and I got a masters in business at night while I was in the service, but I wanted that different thought process that you get from being a lawyer, using the Socratic method when you go to class. I practiced law for a while, but I had always wanted to be in business. I moved away from law when I did a leveraged buyout of a small title insurance firm back in 1984 and that was the basis of our public companies today. I think we paid twenty-one million—we borrowed seventeen million and we put down about four million. I owned about 51%; I begged and borrowed all the money to make the investment. I got it from my family, we put a mortgage on our house, whatever we could do to raise money, we did it. That group of businesses today now has a market value of about sixty-two billion. 

David: Now when does wine start to enter the picture? Did you get into wine as an investment opportunity, or was it originally a hobby that turned into a business?

Bill: Originally it was a hobby. I got into Pinot Noir and Chardonnay back in the mid-eighties. Once I start getting interested in something I tend to go all in. I went to Burgundy several times, visiting every domaine I could. I went all over Northern California as well, but I was interested in those two varietals in particular. Then in the late nineties after we moved to Santa Barbara from Newport Beach, I saw the opportunity to do something I had been interested in for some time, so I got into the wine business in a small way. We bought the Curtis Winery from the Firestone family and renamed it Lincourt, then I created Foley Estates out in the Santa Rita Hills. We bought a horse farm, planted it with vineyards, then built a production facility. That’s really where it started. Then in 2008 and ’09, I decided to start investing in wineries and vineyards and that’s when I really got serious about it. We got pretty embedded up here in Northern California, buying Chalk Hill and Sebastiani. We created the Roth brands and Lancaster. When I think about it, I’ve never done anything that ended up being small. I always keep building and growing it. 

David: I think it’s simply natural for any company to grow when it creates a product of quality like your wineries do. Chalk Hill is one of my favorite California Chardonnays. That’s a great property with a perfect location. If you’re able to give a place like that the right kind of love, then success is destined to follow, don’t you think?

Bill: That’s a good example of a distressed property and a distress sale. We bought it during the summer of 2010 and I’m only now finished investing in the property. We went in and ripped out a bunch of distressed vines, replanted them, rebuilt the winery and the production facility, rebuilt the tasting room, re-did the pavilion, and then we built the Roth facility across the street, which was originally an old fermentation building. We created a winery inside of that. Now we have two wineries across the street from each other and Lancaster just down the street. So we’ve cornered Chalk Hill Road a bit in terms of winemaking. It’s a great location. Chalk Hill Chardonnay is my favorite, too. If I’m drinking Chardonnay, then I’m drinking Chalk Hill Estate Chardonnay—period. 

David: What do you think brought that wine to the level it is today, besides your investment?

Bill: When I got here, the wine had gotten away from its roots. They had been filtering and fining. When I took control of the winemaking back in 2012, I said: we’re going back to the original model. It’s going to be unfiltered and unfined, we’re going to touch this wine as infrequently as possible, and we’re going to go back to the style that Ramey helped to create in the mid-nineties. I believe we’ve done it. If anything, the vineyards are in far better shape now than when I bought the property. We replanted what was the Founder’s Block parcel, which used the clone developed at UC Davis back when phylloxera was going crazy through Chalk Hill. We are the only location that has this Founder’s Block clone and we’ve just replanted it with resistant root stock and grafted on the clone. It’s going to be beautiful. We started this program about four and a half years ago and we’re just now getting production. I’m telling you: the wine is unbelievable. 

David: So you’re finally getting production on this incredible new project and all of a sudden a series of wildfires threatens to burn it all to the ground. How close were your properties to the recent events?

Bill: We might have some smoke taint on some of the red fruit, but in terms of damage we didn’t have any. The Tubbs fire got to within about a mile of Chalk Hill, but then the firefighters came in and we didn’t have any problem. We were very lucky. Because we wanted to help those who were affected, we contributed $250,000 to the Napa and Sonoma relief fund, but this all came right on the heels of the massacre down in Las Vegas, which we have been involved with raising funds as well.

David: I have a bunch of questions to ask you about Las Vegas seeing that you’re now the owner of the city’s NHL franchise—the Golden Knights—but since we’re moving in that direction now, what was it like there on opening night? I watched that game live on TV with my wife as we’re big fans now that we’re locals. We were pretty choked up. What you guys did having the players walk out for their introductions with the first responders was incredible. 

Bill: Boy, I’ll tell you, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. I thought it was a good idea to make our players available and they wanted to help. They went to fire stations, police stations, hospitals, the convention center where people were looking for their loved ones; it was pretty tough. These guys went through that whole process. We obviously had a completely different event planned for opening night, but we just reverted to this idea of honoring the first responders and having them escorted by each player to the center of the ice. I thought it was very moving. Deryk Engelland, who we drafted in the expansion draft, made an incredible speech. He’s lived in Las Vegas for the last eight or nine years, his kids were all born there, and he talked about being from Las Vegas and how affected he was. Apparently he was awake all night because he was so nervous about making the speech, but it was fantastic. Every game we now honor a different first responder as a prequel to the National Anthem. 

David: You guys did a big thing this past Friday as well, right? With one of the police chiefs?

Bill: Yes, on Nevada Day we honored the captain who runs the Clark County Sheriff’s Department on the Strip. He was in charge of the response team that went to the concert when the firing started. We gave him a check for a million dollars that our foundation raised. I’m very proud of what we’ve been able to do to help. But then the wildfires started! Can you imagine?

David: I felt bad because I originally made the request for this interview with your assistant right after the home opener when I was in Vegas at the time. But then the fires started and I knew between the shooting and the potential threat to your wineries, you must have been a nervous wreck. 

Bill: It was crazy. We were planning to go to Vegas that Monday after the violence, but I had called down and talked to a few people and every one was under such distress, so we decided to stay in Northern California until that Friday. Then the fires started that Sunday while we were gone. 

David: Were you drinking your own wine during the first game to help get through all the stress?

Bill: We have a suite at center ice where I sit in the first row with the GM George McPhee and the assistant GM Kelly McCrimmon. The people who are in the suite think I’m rather anti-social (laughs) because I’m down there watching the game instead of talking to them. But it’s so intense!

David: Well, you’re not really there to schmooze and booze, right? This is your baby! Your very own team going out there each night.

Bill: Exactly, and then we got off to that great start, so I’ve been really wrapped up in it. 

David: Explain to me how this all came about, will you? Owning a hockey team in Las Vegas…

Bill: I got directed to the idea of hockey in Vegas by the Malouf family. We went through the process of meeting with the league and they told me I needed to put down a fifty million dollar non-refundable deposit and assure them the arena would be ready on time. I told them: “I can’t put down a fifty million dollar non-refundable deposit!” So I called Commissioner Gary Bettman and he told me the league would allow us to have a season ticket drive, to demonstrate the viability of the market. We did that and within thirty days we had taken deposits on over ten thousand season tickets. Eventually we got to 13,500 deposits. The league saw that and allowed us to make our preparations. So far everything has worked out, other than the fact that all of our goalies are getting hurt.

David: Right! First Marc-Andre Fleury gets the concussion, then Subban gets hurt. Now Oskar Dansk is out after the Islanders game! Whose going in for the next game?

Bill: Our goalie’s name is Maxime Lagace. He’s from Quebec. We brought him in originally for a game after Fleury got hurt, but then we picked up Subban off waivers. So we sent him down to our AHL affiliate. We then brought up Dansk to be Subban’s back-up. Fluery and Subban should be back shortly. A concussion’s hard to figure out through. He wants to get back and play. He’s so bummed. Subban might be back first, however. We think we’ll get one of the two back shortly, but probably not on this road trip. We’ve got ten days of desperation ahead of us.

David: Despite all this, you’re at the top of the ESPN NHL power rankings! I always check it to see if they’re going to finally give you the respect you deserve.

Bill: They won’t give us any credit! Isn’t it ridiculous? You listen to the commentators and they say things like: “Well, they haven’t really played anybody yet.” We beat the Blackhawks, the Blues, Dallas, and the Avalanche. We’re beating established teams. These are not pushovers. 

David: It seems like the response in Vegas has been incredible. I see Golden Knights gear all over Summerlin when I go home.

Bill: It’s been incredible. It’s like the team is feeding off of Las Vegas and Las Vegas is feeding off this team. It’s become a symbiotic relationship. The town knows that we’re Vegas born and that we’re the first professional sports team to play here. Every night has been a complete sell out. 

David: So are you having a glass of wine to celebrate all this as you watch each game?

Bill: In the suite, it’s just water. Just water during the game. But immediately after the game it’s Chalk Hill Chardonnay or Lancaster Cab if I want a red. Those are my two go-tos. 

-David Driscoll

The Heart of St. Estèphe Value

David Driscoll
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My favorite Bordeaux writer Steven Brooks recently named Calon Ségur as one of the ten most improved châteaux in Bordeaux after finally transitioning out from under the Capbern-Gasqueton ownership. He notes that much of that progress can be attributed to a man named Dr. Vincent Millet, who came over from Château Margaux as technical director of the property and did a complete investigation into the vineyards on site, retooling the layout of the varietals, eventually resulting in a prettier, more finessed grand vin. Not having an extensive tasting history of Calon Ségur under my belt, I have to take Steven's word for it, but I've tasted every vintage since 2009 and I have indeed noticed that 14/15/16 are remarkable wines in how approachable they are in their youth. Normally you get power and structure in a St. Estèphe claret, but the Calon Ségur expressions have been much more feminine over the years (2015 in particular). 

Where I have really noticed the improvement, however, is with the property's second and third wines, especially after retasting the 2014 Saint-Estèphe de Calon Ségur again yesterday. At a quarter of the price of the 2014 grand vin, the wine is simply breathtaking in its approachability already. In general, 2014 is a classic vintage. The wines have ample fruit, but ample structure simultaneously. Yet, somehow the tannins seem to melt away in this wine, allowing the gorgeous flavors of cherry and blackberry to take center stage. It's exactly what Brooks describes in his summary of Calon Ségur's improvements: "seamless fruit and a light touch in terms of extraction, although it’s far from a light wine." He's talking about the $100 version of Calon Ségur, however. What I'm telling you is that you can enjoy the fruits of the château's advancements for $25, as well. The Saint-Estèphe de Calon Ségur is the best second or third wine value I've yet tasted in 2014 in terms of a wow-factor and a level of complexity. 

It appears the improvements at Calon Ségur are far reaching.

-David Driscoll


The Second Best Wine in the World

David Driscoll
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In 2016, the Wine Spectator bestowed its number two "Wine of the Year" selection onto Oregon's Domaine Serene for the incredible 2014 "Evenstad Reserve" Dundee Hills Chardonnay. Seeing that the top wine of 2016 was the 2013 Lewis Napa Cabernet, the Domaine Serene Chardonnay was in essence the top white wine in the world according to the Wine Spectator—no small feat, right? The wine was indeed magical. I had it at a special dinner event earlier this Spring and found myself wondering exactly when our neighbors to the north had stolen the domestic Chardonnay crown. Earlier today I tasted through the newest releases with Matt Viotto, the national sales director of the domaine, and was completely caught off guard once again by the majesty of the new 2015 vintage. The wine, while riper than the 2014 from an elongated growing season, was divine. It straddled the line between tropical and cool climate with incredible balance, showcasing creamy textures that were bolstered in places by acidity and drive. What is Domaine Serene doing to make such a great bottle of Chardonnay, one that currently holds the WS mantle for the world's best? I found out more during our meeting. 

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Domaine Serene tracks hundreds of different micro-vineyards, or crus like we know from Burgundy, throughout the winemaking process and have spent years getting to understand the unique qualities of each one. Each of these sites is given its own temperature management, yeast management and fruit handling. After harvest, the Chardonnay grapes go immediately into a press specifically designed for top quality white wines and Champagne production. After pressing, the wine is transferred to closed-top tanks, where it is allowed to settle for a short time before being moved into French oak barrels for fermentation. Multiple yeast strains, chosen specifically for Chardonnay, add nuances of flavor that combine with soil-driven characteristics to provide diversity and complexity for the blending process. The Evensted Estate sits in Oregon's Dundee Hills between 500 - 800 feet of elevation with seven different vineyard sites, each with its own exposure. Originally planted in 1993, the site today has been in the hands of Domaine Serene for over two decades now, and in all that time they've become masters of that terroir. The proof is in the 2015 edition of the Evenstad Chardonnay. 

It remains to be seen if they can pull off the same feat two years running, but there's no doubt that the wine has world class legitimacy. 

-David Driscoll

Bordeaux 2014 Continues to Bring the Goods

David Driscoll
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If we were to feature a Napa red blend with twin 94 point reviews from Antonio Galloni and James Suckling at $29.99, we'd be up to our eyeballs in web orders and we'd likely blow through huge floor stacks of bottles in hours. That's partially because Napa Cabernet isn't known for its great values. I scrolled through Robert Parker's latest Napa report this morning before work and found it difficult to locate wines under $75 among the top candidates. That being said, finding wines with the holy trinity of prestige, press, and price in Bordeaux from 2014 has been relatively easy. Why? Because the entire industry is focused on the subsequent 2015 and 2016 harvests with their bigger fruit flavors, higher scores, and even higher price tags. In the shadow of two gargantuan older brothers, 2014 has completely fallen off the spectrum for most American collectors and that's led to a market with plenty of great options. That's, of course, when we like to strike; especially when we can make a deal with a property and a producer we happen to love. Enter the 2014 Barde Haut, perhaps the best value yet from a vintage that keeps on giving. 

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Barde Haut is usually one of my top five value picks in any vintage, but in 2014 where pretty much the entire harvest itself is a value compared to the higher-priced 15/16 duo, Barde Haut stands out as a supreme deal: a "MUST BUY," if you ask me. I won't bore you with additional tasting notes about how delicious the wine tastes, rather I'll get straight to the bullet points: 1) You can drink this tonight, or a decade from now, or anytime in between. The suppleness of the fruit is enticing right now, but the wine has both the acidity and the tannic structure for long-term maturation and evolution. Few wines in this price point and with this pedigree offer that type of versatility. 2) The scores here don't lie, and there are few 94 pointers in the sub-$30 category. The Barde Haut is true-to-form St. Emilion with chalky, mineral typicity underneath all that fruit, for a slam dunk price. 3) This is the ultimate Bordeaux gateway bottle for California drinkers who want to expand their horizons. You get ample fruit from the Merlot, but it's very much a classic Bordeaux claret in style. If you're intrigued by Bordeaux and want to venture into its waters without emptying your wallet, the 2014 Barde Haut is a great place to start. I bought a case when it landed, and now that I've emptied that case I'm going back in for more.

-David Driscoll

Exploring the Santa Cruz Mountains

David Driscoll
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Living on the San Francisco Peninsula, I find that many of my neighbors overlook the fact that world-class wines are being made just a few miles south of our homes, along the steep hills that begin to form near San Jose. When it comes to Pinot Noir, the Sonoma Coast and Anderson Valley come to the forefront of any California conversation, followed by the Santa Ynez Valley and Central Coast. But to overlook the Santa Cruz Mountains is to completely underestimate one of California's great wine-making regions, one steeped in history as well as perfect Pinot Noir conditions. The steep terrain, high elevation, proximity to the ocean, and maritime fog create the perfect combination for developing balanced wines with ample fruit, bright acidity, and complexity of flavor. While Mount Eden quickly comes to mind as one of the region's top Pinot Noir producers, we recently found ourselves looking at a newer project spearheaded by Adam Comartin, the former winemaker at Testarossa. His 2014 "R-Bar-R Ranch" expression had both myself and my co-worker Ryan Woodhouse standing at full attention. 

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The R-Bar-R vineyard is perched at 1,100ft at the southern tip of the range near Mount Madonna, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The extreme location produces a vibrant style of Pinot Noir with beautiful berry and earth flavors, kept in balance by the cool breeze that flows in from the sea in the evening. A Pinot Noir and Grenache enthusiast, Adam seeks out unique vineyard sites like R-Bar-R and makes tiny batches of wine in a small urban winery in located nearby in San Carlos. He did whole-berry fermentation for the 2014, which added in a bright, lively fruit element that explodes on your tongue with the first sip. I'm glad there's a nice score 95 point score from the Wine Enthusiast to grab everyone's attention, but the truth is we would have featured this wine either way. It's a sensational Pinot Noir from a local site that will definitely have customers coming back for seconds. For about thirty bucks, it's a more affordable gateway bottle into Santa Cruz's all too secretive seduction.

-David Driscoll

An Intimate Evening with Magdelaine

Jeff Garneau
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Last night we held a wake of sorts to celebrate the passing of one of the great estates of Saint-Émilion: Premier Grand Cru Classé Château Magdelaine. A tradition of fine winemaking dating back to the early 19th century ended with the 2011 vintage when the current owners, Ets. JP Mouiex, elected to consolidate the vineyards with its neighbor Chateau Bélair (rechristened Bélair-Monange by the Mouiex family after its acquisition in 2008). We sat down to an extraordinary dinner prepared by chef John Bentley of the eponymously named restaurant in Redwood City. Led by K&L owner Clyde Beffa and senior Bordeaux specialist Ralph Sands we shared our memories, swapping stories about the Château and vintages past. And we drank. How we drank! (for a look at what we have left in stock after all that gluttony, click here).

We revisited some of the greatest vintages of the past half century, ones in which Château Magdelaine particularly shone. Purchased directly from Ets. JP Mouiex, the bottles were in supremely good condition, and aside from one corked bottle of the 1970, showed magnificently.

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One of the surprises of the night was the 1972: a cool, wet year producing mostly thin, vegetal wines that is usually dismissed out of hand as one of the worst vintages of the decade. There was no sense of herbaceousness about the wine, but a lively acidity and – wonder of wonders – a modest ripeness that was absolutely charming. Nothing earth shattering perhaps but so unexpected as to elicit a smile, like a nursery school production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

The 1981, too, was a delightful surprise. Redolent with cinnamon spice and truffle notes. Lovely weight here and not lacking in ripeness if a bit short on the finish. A seesaw vintage of mixed conditions that nevertheless produced some solidly good wines. Alas, one that will live forever in the shadow of its much more famous younger sibling, the ’82 vintage. We were privileged to taste two of the greatest vintages of the 1970’s, the glorious ’70, still utterly charming after nearly five decades, and the indefatigable ’75, ramrod straight with a firm spine of tannin even now.

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Of all the Premier Grand Cru Classé estates, Chateau Magdelaine has always had the highest proportion of Merlot in the blend. How exciting then to be able to taste two vintages famous for the quality of the Merlot! I confess to being completely enthralled by the ’85. Still very youthful with loads of bright, sweet fruit. Lushly textured with great concentration and intensity. The ’98 was a Right Bank vintage if ever there was one. A bit more muscular with darker fruit, still showing admirable ripeness and fine tannins.

We enjoyed more recent outstanding vintages like the formidable 2000. The famous millennial vintage was ripe and full-bodied with substantial black cherry fruit and fine tannins. The 2001 was close behind with more notable acidity and perhaps a bit less weight but plenty of sweet, ripe fruit. The 2009, a vintage in which some Right Bank producers pushed the boundaries of ripeness, was a model of restraint. Lively acidity, very bright and fresh, yet possessed of remarkable ripeness and weight. Rich, lush, with ultrafine tannins, the ’09 Magdelaine can hold its own with some of the best wines of the vintage.

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We closed out the night with two venerable vintages. First was the somewhat controversial ’66, a vintage praised by Clive Coates as “classic”, elegant and charming, and panned by Robert Parker as “austere, unyielding and tannic.” The vintage is often cited as the best of the decade after the celebrated ’61, but our staff too, was split on this one with some rejoicing in the wine’s longevity and others complaining of too firm tannins and meager fruit. There was, finally, complete consensus on the majestic ’59, heralded at the time of its release as the “vintage of the century”. As the wine was poured, the room fell silent, in admiration and awe of a wine – and of an estate – that has spanned decades.

RIP Château Magdelaine.

Santé Château Bélair-Monange.

-Jeff Garneau

A Brief History of Chateau Lanessan

David Driscoll
 The estate as shown in Cocks & Feret - The Wines of Bordeaux 15th Edition

The estate as shown in Cocks & Feret - The Wines of Bordeaux 15th Edition

There are many useful facts available to the Bordeaux enthusiast, armed with the grandest of all Bordeaux tomes – Cocks & Feret's legendary Bordeaux and its WinesIn the case of Chateau Lanessan, we learn that its a 240 hectare estate of Garonne gravel with plantings of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1% Cabernet Franc, 20% Merlot, and 4% Petit Verdot. The visiting hours are displayed, along with the telephone contact numbers and address for the chateau. The profile for Lanessan in David Peppercorn's book, Bordeauxis a bit less data-oriented and offers some subjectivity,

This must surely be one of the best growths in the Médoc not to be classified in 1855. And the strange thing is that its excellence is no recent feature. Nineteenth-century editions of Cocks & Feret sing its praises and speak of its wines as above their class, and the old vintages of Lanessan that I have drunk have all been superb.

Chateau Lanessan is located just outside the commune of St. Julien, nearby the property of famed second-growth Gruaud Larose. Their wine is old-school in style, delicious, and harbors a reputation for being very long-lived. Peppercorn wrote back in the late 1980's:

Some of the old vintages of Lanessan are remarkable. This is a wine...of strong individuality, having a very marked bouquet, great fruit and richness in some years, a tendency to firmness at first, with rich finesse and breed. When these are allied to considerable consistency, it is easy to see that Lanessan deserves its reputation in Bordeaux and ought, indeed, to be even better known.

That's high praise coming from one of the world's Masters of Wine who specializes in Bordeaux. We're in complete agreement here at K&L, which is why we've just purchased a huge shipment of Lanessan back vintages, all at fantastic price points for you Bordeaux enthusiasts.  However, some of you might be wondering: if the wines of Lanessan are so good, then why are they so inexpensive? Why is K&L able to secure back vintages with ease? Why isn't Robert Parker rating them with any regularity? Why aren't they selling out in seconds?  These are all good questions. The short answer is: there's a lot of Bordeaux wine out there. Not every one of them can demand the world's attention. We prefer it that way, actually, because it allows us to use our expertise to find great deals for our customers. Nevertheless, a bit of history helps to explain how a storied producer in the region has continued to go unnoticed amidst the continuing hype surrounding Bordeaux.

The documented history of Lanessan dates back to 1310 when records show that Dame Paironne la Montagne, the widow of Henry de Lanessan, sold the estate to Sieur de Blaignan. In 1793 it was purchased by Jean Delbos, a Bordeaux négociant, and it has remained in the family ever since. In 1855, Louis Delbos, who was the manager at the time, refused to submit samples for consideration in what is now the most famous classification in wine history – the decree from Emperor Napoleon himself that ranked the great wines of Bordeaux's Médoc into the five-tier growth system we still recognize today. While Delbos then regarded the procedure as "bureaucratic nonsense," Peppercorn calls his disinterest "a piece of high-handedness that has cost Lanessan dearly." The 1855 Classification remains in place today. It has never been updated, despite a failed attempt to do so in 1960. Personal rankings from established Bordeaux critics are published from time to time, but they don't carry the weight of the original. Therefore, whenever enthusiasts peruse the one official ranking of top Bordeaux estates, Lanessan's name is nowhere to be found.

In 1907, one of the Delbos daughters married Etienne Bouteiller, the grandfather of today's owners Hubert and Bertrand Bouteiller. The names of both families still adorn each label on all but the most recent labels. Bertrand (who was busy running Chateau Palmer) had turned over responsibility to Hubert in 1972. Hubert retired in 2009 and handed the reigns to newcomer Paz Espejo who now makes the wine. While Espejo's winemaking techniques have moved Lanessan's flavor profile a bit closer to the new world, the wines have always carried a reputation for rusticity – a trait celebrated by old-school Bordeaux fans, but one not destined for big scores or inclusivity. With rusticity, however, comes durability. As Peppercorn stated before, the older vintages of Lanessan continue to hold up beautifully and all of us at K&L can attest to that. The powerful tannic structure and earthy flavors that dominate the wines in their youth begin to give way over time, integrating slowly and softening the palate much like the flavors of a stew simmering for hours on end.

Our Bordeaux buyer and one of our owners, Clyde Beffa, has had a soft spot for the Lanessan wines over the last fifteen years.  Since 1996, he's forged a relationship with the underrated chateau and that friendship has blossomed over time.  Because of his support and enthusiasm for the wine, Lanessan has agreed to sell us back vintages directly, without distribution fees driving up the price.  When we can buy wines directly from the chateau, not only can we keep the cost down, but we can also guarantee that they've been cellared in optimal conditions. Seeing that we just got another shipment of the 1999 vintage into stock (one of the most successful wines in the history of the company), it seemed like a good time to revisit the history and make sure our customers were aware of the property (watch for a smattering of the 2007 vintage soon as well).

All in all, Lanessan is an old world Bordeaux producer that, due to a "high-handed" career decision, was kept out of the most important wine classification in history.  A chateau that has always held true to its terroir-driven roots and made wine the old-fashioned way, regardless of who was handing out big points and fancy awards. K&L owner Clyde told me recently:

Just think how much the owner’s refusal to submit samples in 1855 has cost the property over 150 plus years.  It would have been rated at least a fourth growth - so many St Julien wines are rated 2nd growths. You figure the price would be double at least what it has been over the years.

Instead of fourth-growth status, however, Lanessan continues to fly under-the-radar, alluding the attention of most Bordeaux aficionados. While it's fun to go trophy-hunting among the top-rated, classified growths, we love telling our customers what we're excited about drinking after work.  I've given it to a number of high profile clients over the years who have gone mad for the 1999 vintage in particular, from rockers The Dandy Warhols in Portland, to Dr. Bill Lumsden—the master distiller for Ardbeg in Scotland. They all ask me the same thing: how can you get something this good and this old for this price? The answer lies in the above history lesson.

-David Driscoll

Ridge's Continued Dominance

David Driscoll
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The first major winery I ever visited in the state of California was Ridge. Driving up with my parents to the top of Monte Bello Road in Cupertino, it was the first time I had ever used my industry credentials to do a private tasting with a winemaker and I left that day in utter awe. I'd only been working at K&L for about a month and at that point in time most of my experience with Zinfandel came from the four dollar bottles I'd been purchasing at Trader Joe's. The wines I tasted that day were not only a gigantic step up from what I thought I knew about Zinfandel, they were varied, complex, dynamic, and sourced from different sites all over the state. They had impeccable packaging, each label adorned with the name of the vineyard of origin: Geyerville, East Bench, Pagani Ranch, and Lytton Springs. I remember that day well because of how formative it was in my evolution as a wine drinker. What's funny, however, is that upon tasting the new 2015 vintage of those same wines last week I felt a similar level of excitement. Even after ten years in the business and hundreds of bottles of Zinfandel, the Ridge wines still get me pumped up.

Looking at the reviews and scores thus far for the 2015's, it's clear that the Lytton Springs is the one expression bound for serious glory, but that's not surprising; it's always been the Zinfandel to give to people who say they don't like Zinfandel. It's one of the most elegant, poised, and serious red blends made in the entire state and the 2015 takes that complex and layered formula to an entirely new level. It's also quite a historic spot, dating back to 1972 when the winery made its first expression from vines planted at the turn of the century on the eastern half of the vineyard. Both the eastern and western portions of the vineyard were purchased in the early 1990s, and today the vineyard is home to 100-plus-year-old Zinfandel vines interplanted with Petite Sirah, Carignane, a small amount of Mataro (Mourvèdre), and Grenache. More like a Bordeaux blend than a classic Zin, the addition of 16% Petite Syrah in the 2015 edition adds serious grit and structure, but it's brilliantly done and bolsters the richness of the fruit beautifully. When you start to think about what goes into crafting a great wine, not just the quality of the fruit or the location of the vineyard, but also the blending of different varietals to make something greater than the sum of its parts, the Lytton Springs is high on my list of iconic blends. As you decant it, you'll notice more and more complexity as the air unlocks all that intrigue: berries, spice, brush, earth, excitement! It's incredible. 

While the 2015 Lytton Springs is more a more structured and nuanced wine, the Pagani Ranch is the real crowd pleaser. It's so soft and loaded with sweet cassis fruit right off the bat with hints of violet on the finish and a texture that's like velvet on the tongue. Like Lytton Springs, Pagani is one of very few vineyards comprising primarily 100-year-old vines, which produce concentrated and richly-textured wines. I'm far from what you'd consider a big, rich California wine lover, but as a professional I like anything that's well made. I really enjoyed this wine, from its immediate charm and juicy character to its plush mouthfeel and seductive sweetness. There's a reason Ridge is one of the most iconic California winemakers in the business and it's wines like this that help to cement that reputation. They're Zinfandel specialists, making what are in my opinion the best expressions of the varietal in California. 

-David Driscoll

A K&L Exclusive from a Historic Vineyard

David Driscoll

Along California's Central Coast, midway up the Santa Maria Valley, sits one of the state's most historic vineyards: Bien Nacido. Known as a cool climate site due to the fog that rolls in off the coast, cooling down the grapes and helping them to retain their acidity, the vineyard is a natural fit for delicate Burgundian varietals like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. White wines from Bien Nacido tend to be crisp and fresh, unlike those from warmer parts of California that can be ripe and creamy. Red wines from Bien Nacido have vibrancy and tangy fruit, unlike soft and supple reds from Napa or the Central Valley. With a slower ripening time, the grapes have time to develop concentration and complexity rather than simply sweetness from the sugar. It's the perfect habitat for a winemaker looking to replicate the wines of Burgundy, those coveted Chardonnay and Pinot Noir expressions that showcase not only delicacy, but the individual conditions in which the grapes were grown. It's here that winemaker Jim Clendenen, a man who called his first winery Au Bon Climat as an homage to Burgundy, made us a new batch of Pinot Noir. 

Jim Clendenen, the man behind Au Bon Climat winery in California's Santa Barbara region since 1982, is internationally known for his critically-acclaimed Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. Sourcing fruit from several of the most highly regarded vineyards in the Central Coast, we asked Jim a few years ago if he'd be willing to make us a private label single site wine from the legendary Bien Nacido Vineyard in Santa Maria Valley, He willingly agreed and we're now on the third and final vintage of the K&L/Au Bon Climat partnership. The 800 acre site can trace its roots back to 1837 and Jim has been working with the 250 acres of Bien Nacido dedicated to Pinot Noir for decades. Our 2016 K&L edition exemplifies both delicate fruit and tangy acidity, fleshed out by accents of violets and spice. It's our most Burgundian ABC edition yet, true to Jim's original vision. Fans of both domestic and French Pinot Noir will want to take note of this once again limited single vineyard edition.

Au Bon Climat has always been one of my favorite California wineries, so I was excited when we started working on our own private label expressions. While I've enjoyed the previous two Pinot Noirs we bottled under the K&L label, the 2016 edition of the single vineyard "Bien Nacido" is by far the best of the bunch. We just need to give it 20 -30 minutes in the decanter before trying. I can tell you from two empty bottles of experience that the difference a bit of air makes with this wine is night and day. After twenty minutes or so, you get everything you expect from a Burgundian-inspired Pinot Noir: crunchy red fruits, raspberry and hints of earth with lots of spice. I could easily be fooled into thinking this was a bottle of Bourgogne Rouge if poured blind. The best part is that previous editions of this wine sold for $25 - $30, but this time around you're getting the single vineyard edition for the same price as the standard release. How can you pass that up?

-David Driscoll