On the Trail

Trust Her Palate: Thursday Tasting in Hollywood with Garber & Co.

domestic, hollywoodKate Soto

“We find off-beat wineries, and we fight the fight for these small producers.”

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Sandy Garber leads with her gut. She trusts her palate. And she wants you to, too.

For over thirty years, Sandy has been a renegade spirit in the wine world. She was one of California’s first female somms--and one of the first pregnant ones, no less (in customized server’s tux and all). Way back then, her son’s palate started its training in utero, and he’s now her partner in crime at Garber & Co, an independent distributor/importer/winemaker team that brings delicious, off-the-beaten-path wines from around the world to California.

They’ve built their portfolio based on her mantra of trusting your palate: she doesn’t care whether her wines have scored big points with the critics or whether she represents the most well-known brands. She finds wines and winemakers that she loves, and she brings them to the California market. Some of the wineries only make a few hundred cases per year. Some of them practice organic or biodynamic farming or low-intervention winemaking. Some of them are growing grapes in Uruguay or Armenia. But she believes in each and every one of them, and you can trust that they’ll be delicious. “We find off-beat wineries, and we fight the fight for these small producers,” she says.

I’ve been intrigued by Sandy Garber for some time. I tend to like her wines very much. But I am also fascinated by the journey she’s been on, especially as a woman, and especially as someone who’s seen the change in the wine culture of this city over several decades. After leading tours at the Robert Mondavi winery and then road tripping through Europe’s wineries, she landed a somm gig at the Beverly Wilshire in the eighties. “It was a long time ago, and shortly after I was hired I was pregnant with Jeremy,” she told me. “There weren’t any women doing it, and there weren’t many restaurants who even had a somm.”

When she started out in LA, California cuisine was burgeoning, and there was a lot of excitement around food and wine. Over time, she saw that early energy shift toward a thirst for expensive Napa Cabs and away from cutting-edge wines. “I worked for Chalone for 15 years, and it was focused on exciting, terroir-based wines at that time. But, when I left, everyone was so driven by the wine press. And to me it doesn’t really make sense. Why trust Parker when you can just trust yourself?”

In her estimation, it’s only in the last five years that there’s been a noticeable, significant sea change. ”There are a lot of young wine buyers now who are super excited to learn about off-the-grid wines. There’s so much enthusiasm from young people, probably because food culture has exploded in L.A. It’s exciting to watch.” Her business has changed as well. The addition of her son, Jeremy, has brought his enthusiasm and perspective into the mix. “He finds a lot of the producers and brings a young energy. Instead of being static, we’re expanding.” She sites cru Muscadets and a Gris de Toul as examples of wines that would have been non-starters ten years ago. “It’s what keeps our industry exciting rather than have the same portfolio year in and year out. We try not to have stuff from regions that are overfished. And there’s a real hunger for it.”

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Garber and her husband also make their own wine from sourced grapes in Paso Robles under the the Topanga Vineyards label. They started with Syrah, Grenache, and Cabernet, then added the Jackhammer.label, geared toward affordable, solid Pinot, Chardonnay, and rosé. You can now find these in a can, making them easy for camping or the Hollywood Bowl, while still maintaining their integrity as seriously drinkable wines.

With the help of a “grape whisperer,” she and her husband farm their own 50 vines of Syrah on her property in Topanga, as well. Syrah, she says, is kind of her spirit grape. It’s the wine she’s always wanted to make. “It has a lot of different faces, it can do a lot of different things. I love the peppery, spicy quality from well-made Syrah. I love the softer tannins and its richness.”

Tomorrow (Thursday, May 24th 5:30 to 7 PM $5) in Hollywood, we’ve invited these good folks to pour us some of their California favorites (with a soupçon of French rosé). They’re all perfect for your Memorial Day barbeque, whether you’re grilling up veggie burgers or T-bones. But don’t take my word for it. Come out and taste for yourself--then trust your palate!

Here's the lineup:

2014 Topanga "Chroma" Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon $19.99
2016 Obsidian Ridge "Obsidian Ridge Vineyard" Red Hills Lake County Cabernet Sauvignon $26.99
2017 Dragonette Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara Rosé $21.99
2017 J. Mourat "Collection" Val de Loire Rosé $12.99
2017 Preston "Estate" Dry Creek Valley Sauvignon Blanc $19.99

- Kate Soto

Pilgrimage to Bierzo

Joe Manekin
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While Spain boasts some undeniably great, historic bodegas producing wine of the highest quality - and at the other side of the spectrum also has a number of large scale projects churning out huge amounts of bulk wine to sell off across the Pyrenees or to bottle as private labels for supermarkets, the future for many aspiring winemakers and relatively newer wineries lies in the country's diversity of grape varieties and terroirs. There is a whole lot that has been discovered and has come to light in the past twenty years - emerging D.O.’s, nearly extinct, heirloom grape varieties, and seas of beautiful, postcard perfect vines studded with the occasional bucolic and bustling, centuries old village.

Let's take a look at Bierzo. Here is a D.O. that has been in existence for nearly 30 years, but only recently is re-emerging as a place to rival some of the country's more exalted D.O.'s for truly original $15-$40 bottles, as well as vin de garde and even 100 pointers with pricing well into the hundreds of dollars. There's also cheap and cheerful, industrially made wine as well, of course. We will focus on truly original and $15-40, but first, an orientation might be helpful.

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Bierzo is a D.O. region where most of the vines are located west of the small city of Ponferrada and extend to the Villafranca del Bierzo area. Most of the vineyards belong to the province of Leon. While we are on the outer reaches of the region of Castilla y Leon, in terms of the scenery - an abundance of streams, rivers, steep slopes dotted with a combination of Mediterranean and more continental climate trees and foliage, we are no longer in Spain's central meseta, perhaps a bit closer in appearance and culture to Galicia. The Leonese dialect spoken here is also, like Gallego, more similar to Portuguese than Spanish. Locals like their chorizo especially smokey, and the bresaola-like cecina, or dry cured beef, is another smokey special.

Two wineries have arguably shaped and influenced Bierzo, as well as our perception of Bierzo, more than any others: Descendientes de José Palacios and Raul Perez. Raul's influence spreads far beyond Bierzo, as his work in Galician D.O.'s, his early consulting in the Gredos region west of Madrid, even his collaboration with like-minded winemakers from Argentina to South Africa, have added so much to the world of wine. Descendientes was started by Ricardo Perez, whose uncle Alvaro Palacios assisted with the project in its early days, and as a strong wine personality in his own right, is up there with Raul Perez in terms of influence in the Spanish wine landscape over the past two decades.

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Corullon is the village where Ricardo's own vineyards are located, as well as where the sleek, recently finished winery stands, all the way at the top of the mountain. Bierzo happens to be an area featuring the largest concentration of very old vines, most of them Mencia, in the world. It is a grape that is somewhat moderate to low in acidity, but produces elegant wines, with tannins that aren't as strong as those of Tempranillo, and flavors that perhaps are a bit more peppery and floral, particularly so when grown at higher elevations in slate soils. That said, much of the D.O.'s vineyard land is not planted on slate, but rich, red clay soils, occasionally containing quartz. As I mentioned earlier, this is a region where Mediterranean and continental climates collide, with a bit of an Atlantic influence as well; vine stress due to drought is not an issue here thanks to plentiful rains. Reflecting this climactic crossroads, depending on orientation and location in Ricardo's vineyards, you are as likely to see Chestnut trees and wild mint as you are rosemary, thyme, and lavender.  

We (me and Andy Booth from the Spanish Table) tasted barrel samples of 2017's, a vintage which experienced the same frost issues in late April that Ribera del Duero suffered. Across the board, the wines were very good, beginning with the entry level Petalos (20% Corullon plots supplemented with purchased fruit from around Villafranca), stepping up to the more seriously structured Corullon (the 2000 vintage, their second year, was generously given to us to enjoy that night for dinner - thanks, Ricardo!) and then getting into the single vineyards. Las Lamas, which features more clay based soils, is typically richer, rounder and plumper. Another single vineyard, Moncerbal was not made in 2017, I forget if it was due to frost or hail damage. While the Faraon (a 100 point alum) was of course impressive, with its blue and purple fruits, violet notes and firm structure, it was the Val de Foz which was the most delicious right now - incredibly floral and surprisingly refined even at this early stage. Unfortunately for us, this is a wine made exclusively for Quim Vila of the Barcelona based Vila Viniteca. None for us! (though you may be able to find a bottle at their store).

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I was told by at least a few people that my appointment with Raul Perez may or may not materialize. He is a busy guy, always on the move, and from what I hear, not one to be hampered by schedules or appointments. That said I did have a late afternoon appointment with him, that we changed into an early evening one since he was busy working in the vineyards all day. Finding Raul is certainly not impossible, but a bit tricky, starting with the village you must head towards (Valtuille de Abajo, which belongs to Leon, not Valtuille de Arriba, which belongs to Ponferrada!) They are literally across the highway from each other, separated by less than a kilometer. I tried, and failed, with GPS, so I asked a couple of friendly locals where the bodega was located, caught Raul shortly after he arrived to the winery, and jumped right in to a whirlwind series of barrel tastings, probably the most eclectic and free wheeling session of barrel tasting that I can recently recall. There was the Godello Raul bought as an experiment ("too fruity, not the house style"), various Mencia based blends (Raul blends in other varieties that are often interplanted in the vineyards), Italian Pinot Noir clones that are harvested at 11.5%, fermented and then chaptalized up to 12.5%, Moscatel harvested in December of 2011 which has been ageing in the same barrel, not topped off, ever since. We went back and forth between two barrel rooms, one of them only partially roofed, where there were a number of foudres, all old barrels, a recently delivered piece of equipment which apparently caught Raul by surprise ("I'm not sure what this is doing here"). Lots of experiments that will never see the light of day - at least in commercial terms - but that nonetheless represent learning opportunities for Raul. While Raul's wines are never plentiful, we do try to carry what we can when they are available. These are wines that are always full of personality, that make you think, and now wines that for me will have an entirely new context thanks to Raul's legendary generosity with his time. If I worked a 12 hour day and then was asked if I could conduct a personal tasting of Spanish wines, I don't think I would be up for it. Pues, gracias Raul!

- Joe Manekin

Next up: Mas Bierzo over at Akilia and yet another Perez (Gregory Perez) at Mengoba.

On the Trail of Good Stories

Kate Soto

You may have noticed that I’ve been blogging here on On the Trail for a few weeks, but I wanted to formally introduce myself: My name is Kate, I’ve been working behind the scenes as an editor for K&L for three years, and am thrilled to be in this new role as your roving reporter. I’m based in LA, so my posts will probably reflect what’s happening on the SoCal end of things, but I’ll try my best to give you insight into what’s up in the wine world and across the greater company. And a great company it is: one that I’ve found to go deep into classic categories like Bordeaux and Champagne, with room on its shelves for the up-and-coming or experimental, like natural wines, dry Furmint, or, say, wines from the Republic of Georgia. And there are some seriously knowledgeable, passionate people on this team that I’m thrilled to be working alongside. So, I’ll try to distill all of that into blog-length bites for you.

I came to wine from a different career entirely--I studied writing and literature, worked in publishing, then managed the University of Chicago’s Creative Writing program. I became obsessed with the subject of wine in 2012, when a friend convinced me to quit my job and help her open up a boutique wine shop in northern Chicago. Since then I’ve worked in wine retail, marketing, and journalism, soaking up this subject as much as I can. Since I came to wine later in my career, I feel like there’s always more to learn--and that’s the beauty of it for me. I’m an avid reader, and I hope to feature some book reviews on the blog, as well. (Currently in rotation are I Taste Red: The Science of Tasting Wine by Jaime Goode and Thirsty Dragon by Suzanne Mustacich.) During the last few years, I’ve also thrown a few kids into the mix--my husband and I have a 4- and 1-year old at home (maybe not relevant to my wine background, except that they drive me to drink!).

I like to consider myself an enthusiast more than an expert, so that’s the perspective I bring to this blog: one of digging into topics that pique my curiosity, singing the praises of wines that get my wheels turning, championing passionate producers, and overall enjoying the ride. I love meeting winemakers. I love the stories behind the vines. I love how a glass of wine can connect you to a person, a time, a plot of land. And it tastes good to boot.

Please feel free to drop me a line: katesoto@klwines.com
Happy trails,
Kate

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Challenging the Crown in RDD

Joe Manekin

In Ribera del Duero, the original first growth - in fact the original first growth of Spain - is Vega Sicilia. My visit to Vega Sicilia did not pan out this time, which is a shame as I would have loved to check back in at this historic property. I did however make a point of visiting two wineries who each in their own way are challenging vega Sicilia's long standing primacy in the area.

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If Vega Sicilia resembles Latour in its power, structure, and longevity, then Dominio de Pingus is Le Pin or Petrus, an analogy that to me makes perfect sense given Danish owner Peter Sisseck's winemaking start on the right bank. In fact, he not so long ago began making wine there again in St. Emilion. What's more, the Pingus pricing certainly resembles a top-notch Pomerol as the first wine these days goes for close to four figures and is easily more than 2x that of Vega Sicilia. To be fair, the Flor de Pingus represents a taste of the house style for a lot less at $80 per bottle. Without re-telling the entire story, basically, Peter Sisseck came to Spain to manage his uncle's Hacienda Monasterio estate, then went on to found Pingus with the idea of challenging the world's best wines. He somehow managed to sneak a bottle of the '95 Pingus to Parker during the 1996 Bordeaux en primeur campaign and the rest is history, highly pointed "one of the best young reds I've ever tasted" history. Oh, and the first shipment of this coveted, pointy elixir did not make the journey overseas, sinking somewhere around the Azures.

If that sounds a bit snarky, it is because I am skeptical of nearly four figure wines, of an overabundance of un-challenged received wisdom, of wine critic group thinking and of deftly marketed wines. I went to Pingus because I wanted to be proven wrong.

Wrong, right, or in between, I was there to learn, and thanks to team member Yulia Zhdanova, I discovered a lot about what makes this such a unique project. In two words, it is details and observations. Observations such as Peter's first noting the high-quality old vine material in the La Horra district of Burgos, just several kilometers east of Roa. Details such as hiring two different biodynamic consultants ("one for tinctures and one for extractions"), each working independently, and then evaluating their data and input with regard to soil types, and recommending treatments, then acting on that information.

Pingus consists of five Taransaud foudres worth of wine, the second label Flor de Pingus is 16 small stainless steel tanks, and then both of these are barrel aged in primarily Taransaud T5 barrels. In earlier times, the new oak was predominant and these days they are moving away from new barrels. Psi is the newest cuvee, a blend of fruit purchased from growers that Peter and his vineyard director, Pablo Rubio, thinks are growing good fruit, cultivating the land organically. Barrel samples of all three in two vintages, the solid, fairly productive 2016 and the frost shortened (shortened in terms of production volume and vegetative cycle) 2017. Psi was about the fruit, Flor de Pingus was richer and oakier, and Pingus was significantly less marked by oak, more structured. While the Dominio de Pingus' scarcity and price does not make it a wine for the rest of us, we do receive an annual allocation of the Flor, and will continue to track the development of Psi as it truly is an interesting project, noteworthy for its motivation of preserving old heirloom Tempranillo clones, by offering growers better than market pricing for well farmed fruit.

Dominio del Aguila is the region's newest critical darling, and if the recent rave Parker reviews are any indication, now is the time to begin buying and cellaring these wines, because they are by design another smaller scaled project without too much wine available, though man, are these wines good.  When Jorge Monzon, from the Burgos village of La Aguilera, first met his wife and partner Isabel Rodero, he apparently showed her his family's treasured old vineyards after knowing her for just one week. He told Isabel not to worry about there ever being another girl competing for his attention, that the only competition she would ever have would be from the vines.

Monzon grew up with vines and wine in Ribera del Duero, then went off to Bordeaux to formally study. He was unhappy there and asked to transfer to Beaune, where he excelled and earned a coveted stage at DRC (likely one of the toughest internships to land in the world of winemaking). He then returned to Ribera del Duero to oversea the winemaking at Arzuaga, a winery located adjacent to Vega Sicilia, where Monzon also worked for a while on their highly secretive, 10 years long (and ongoing) experiment producing a top quality white wine from the region. Jorge married Isabel, an architect by training, and I can't help but think that the attention to detail in this personal project is at the highest level. So that is the origin story.

 

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Unfortunately we did not have time to see vineyards together, which is probably just as well as it would have been depressing due to the frost damage this year, the second consecutive year of it, which can not only be devastating for production volume and sales, but can even seriously injure or kill a vine if the damage is extensive. Isabel and I spent our time barrel tasting and chatting, discussing the various vineyard sites and their influence on the wine's flavor. Barrels are from various Burgundy cooperages and are trending towards formats larger than 228 liters and away from new oak. Tasting these wines out of barrel was enlightening, not simply because they tasted really good (which they did!) but because they were hard to place. The chalky minerality and tannins, as well as the darker tinto fino RDD fruit was there, but there was also a life, a brightness and intensity that to me reflects the earlier picking of great, relatively cooler vineyard sites, as well as the addition of white grapes and traditional red varieties not commonly used in the region. It's a bit lazy and overly simplified to make comparisons, but I think that if Vega Sicilia is Latour and Pingus is Le Pin or Petrus, maybe Dominio del Aguila is Georges Roumier, or Domaine Fourrier. While there is not yet a long track record here to make such a bold comparison to some of Burgundy's best, there is someone with the deep-seated knowledge of family vineyards as well as the pedigreed Burgundy training, to quickly bring Dominio del Aguila to such a high level. That said, last time I checked, Roumier does not make a clarete rose from a mixture of red and white grapes, or stunningly good albillo that perhaps resembles Corton Charlemagne. That you can only find in the small 16th century underground cellar of Dominio del Aguila.

Jorge joined us at the end of our visit, slightly dejected from his observations of frost damage in the vineyards. After a brief chat and a small glass of Picaro, their entry level red wine which, like all their reds also contains some white Albillo grapes as well as other varieties not common in the area these days, such as Bobal, we began to talk about travel, about our kids and I think Jorge was starting to feel just a bit better. He joked that he wore his best looking sweater today to look handsome for his wife. We ended the visit taking this selfie.

- Joe Manekin

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Champagne's Crazy Uncle

champagneKate Soto

Last week’s Champagne tasting in Hollywood was smack full of delicious wines, but two bottles in particular got my wine-geek wheels turning--because they were good, but also because they were downright interesting: NV Maxime Toubart “Pur Meunier” and NV Trudon “Monochrome,” both single-varietal Pinot Meunier bottlings. In fact, I realized I’d never given the grape much thought. It’s been a supporting player to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the Champagne triad for centuries (Jancis Robinson notes that it was first mentioned in 1690), but it’s quite rare to see it as a single-varietal Champagne. And two in one tasting? Well, it was enough to get me intrigued. Are we in the midst of a Pinot Meunier revolution? Or was our lineup a fluke?

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The Meunier Institut of the Marne Valley would certainly say it’s the former. Founded in 2015 by Eric Taillet of Eric Taillet Champagne, this collective of nine member wineries is all about the Meunier (even distancing themselves from the Pinot in the moniker), advocating for it to get the respect they say it deserves--in blends but also as a stand-alone wine. And, increasingly, it is. It’s been championed for a long time by the likes of Krug, who uses a large percentage in its tête de cuvée bottlings. But, according to wine writer Peter Liem, the last decade has seen a surge in Pinot Meunier pride, with more and more winemakers claiming it on their labels and making single-varietal wines. Among the grape’s supporters are Champagne Heucq Père et Fils, Egly-Ouriet, Jérôme Prévost, and Bérêche & Fils.

Accounting for more than a third of the plantings in Champagne (slightly more than Chardonnay), it’s been relied upon to add a youthful fruitiness to blends, as well as body and richness. A mutation of Pinot Noir, Meunier carries its own distinctive flavors and properties--fruity notes can range from red raspberries to blueberries, baked apples, or citrus, often alongside a smoky, earthy rusticity and high acidity. Jason Lett of Eyrie Vineyards has called it the crazy uncle of the Pinot family--he says it’s the grape that tells the off-color jokes to the kids at Thanksgiving. There’s a touch of a wild streak to it, which makes it pair up beautifully with mushrooms.

  Pinot Noir on the left and Pinot Meunier on the right. Meunier's clusters are a bit more oblong than Pinot Noir's and its leaves are more indented; Pinot Noir is known for triangular bunches and round leaves.

Pinot Noir on the left and Pinot Meunier on the right. Meunier's clusters are a bit more oblong than Pinot Noir's and its leaves are more indented; Pinot Noir is known for triangular bunches and round leaves.

But it has also built a reputation as something of a workhorse, as it is a much more dependable ripener than its Noir counterpart--it buds later and ripens earlier, so it is less prone to winter frosts and coulure. For this reason, it thrives in the cold Marne Valley, which also has a deeper layer of clay above its chalk bedrock, and this suits Meunier just fine.

There’s no doubt that this grape can make delicious, even distinctive wines. But can the wines age? That’s the question at the heart of the matter. Krug’s Brut Grande Cuvée definitely can, and Meunier makes up the majority of this wine each year. As for for other bottlings, signs point to yes, but the best way to be sure is taste, taste, taste. Nice work if you can find it. Might I suggest you start with these?

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Maxime Toubart “Pur Meunier” Brut Champagne $39.99
From the village of Le Breuil, with all vines facing south toward the Surmerlin River, which flows into the Marne. It’s a toasty golden color in the glass with notes of currant scone and rosemary biscuits on the nose. It’s broad and sumptuous on the palate. Not quiet or linear, this is a wine that likes to tell ambling stories. And they might be off-color.

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Trudon “Monochrome” Brut Champagne $39.99
From a grower-producer in Festigny, farther south in the Marne Valley. Trudon truly respects this varietal, calling it the king grape of the house. It spends three years on its lees. It’s expressive with a sunny, bright disposition, showing ripe red berry fruit and lively acidity.

 

NB: Meunier has a life of its own outside the confines of Champagne where perhaps only the enlightened few appreciate it. It can be found growing in England, Loire Valley, Germany, Sonoma, Oregon, Canada, Australia, and South Africa--it’s all over the map, climate-wise! It also moonlights as a still red, notably in Germany where it goes by Schwarzriesling, but also in the U.S. Teutonic in the Willamette Valley makes one from Borgo Pass Vineyard ($26.99). The winery notes: “The 2016 vintage is lively and bright with lots of berry fruit on the nose. It's a great sipping wine and can be paired nicely with chicken, turkey and salmon." Poe’s 2016 Meunier from “Van der Kamp Vineyard” lies at 1400 feet at the top of Sonoma Mountain ($34.99). Notes from the winery: “We find our red Pinot Meunier to be very floral with aromas of white and black peppercorn. On the palate, there is bright red fruit and loads of savory characteristics reminiscent of my favorite rustic, earthy Burgundies, with forest floor and mushroom components. The wine greatly benefits from air, and always tastes best after a few days of being open.”

 

Kate Soto

Frost/Burgos

Joe Manekin

"En Burgos hay dos estaciones, la estacion de trenes e invierno"

This Spanish joke is a play on words - estación means both station and season - and it is a reference to the occasionally frosty, blunt character of people from the city of Burgos. Given the cold of the winter and heat of the summer, I can’t say I can blame them. And for those whose livelihoods are earned cultivating vineyards and producing wines, I certainly can understand. Ribera del Duero is frost country, and a few nights of below freezing weather after bud break can have disastrous effects. Such was the case in 2017, a year of terrible late April frosts throughout much of Europe. And for some in Ribera del Duero, it appears as though a few consecutive freezing nights this past weekend have done some damage.

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Upon arriving to Lambuena early evening on Sunday, I noticed that even with a light vest over my t-shirt, it was cold. Winemaker and owner of Lambuena (whose wines we import) Pedro Cabestrero´s father was pointing out his now dead tomato plants --an authentically Castillian welcome yet certainly not a good early sign for vintage 2018. Turns out that there was indeed some frost damage, but nothing approaching the disaster of 2017, when Lambuena´s production was a mere 70% of the usual amount.

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Pedro, export director Noé "Talento" Pérez and I hopped into the sturdy Audi wagon to see some of the 70 hectares belonging to Lambuena. They are as large as a single 10 he plot, but as small as a 1/4 he. This degree of parcelization, small plots of 1/2 a hectare or smaller, is quite typical in the village of Roa as well as many others within the Burgos portion of Ribera del Duero, a contrast to the larger, flatter tracts of lands more common in the Valladolid area, perhaps the most famous of which lie on the so called "Golden Mile" where Vega Sicilia, Arzuaga, Finca Villacreces and others own vineyard land. Lambuena´s vineyards are predominantly on slopes, with varying exposures and soil types - an ideal education in the variety of dirt you see here: Beige, calcareous clay, more maroon, heavier clay, some containing lots of large stones and a bit of quartz, even at least one parcel that is on pure sand. There are pines, local oak trees called Encinas, and walnut trees. Not surprisingly, the oldest vines and best sites go towards Reserva and Gran Reserva wines, though the crianza vineyards, many of which are in an old, privileged zone known as "Cara Quintana" (because if faces the village of Quintanilla de Onésimo) are typically fully mature and impressive in their own right.

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Lambuena´s new facility is simple, straightforward and functional, same as the winemaking. Grapes come in, are de-stemmed and crushed, racked into stainless steel tanks where they are fermented and undergo malolactic fermentation, then are racked again to barrels. Amongst the 500 or so barrels (four year barrel rotation), there is a surprising variety of coopers, including a few Spanish ones I was seeing for the first time. Tasting from barrel, I was impressed by the purity of fruit and lightly floral notes juxtaposed with those chalky tannins for which RDD is known. Bright, but mineral and forceful as well, the product of intense sun, cold nights, and highly calcareous soil. And a sturdy grape in the local tinto fino clone of Tempranillo. Unlike in Rioja where Tempranillo is typically blended with other grapes, here the Tempranillo more often than not stands on its own.

We have plenty of Lambuena to look forward to, arriving soon!

Another Ribera del Duero post is coming your way shortly. Signing off for now from El Bierzo, as I´m about to meet a Spanish winemaking legend!

- Joe Manekin

The Understated Elegance of Dominus Estate

James Bradshaw

As you approach Dominus Estate, westward off Highway 29, and then north on Madison Street, you will witness an unusual phenomena. It’s as if, for a brief moment, the winery isn’t there at all. What you see, rather, is what appears to be the shadow of a cloud slowly making its way along the base of the Mayacamas Range. It is not until you make your final turn onto Napa Nook Road, with the winery now directly ahead, that its distinctly modernist frame comes into focus. This illusion is not the result of happenstance, but like so much at Dominus Estate, is the product of thoughtful planning. Designed by the Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, the winery at Dominus Estate is, quite simply, an architectural masterpiece. Its brilliance arises not only from its striking design, inventive use of materials, and masterful blending of form and function, but also, (and perhaps most importantly) the manner in which it closely adheres to the philosophical approach of winemaker Christian Moueix.

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The Napanook Vineyard was first planted under vine in 1836, by the city of Yountville founder, George Yount. Over the subsequent years, ownership passed from one family to another, until, when, in 1982, owners Robin Lail and Marcia Smith joined into a partnership with the Bordeaux scion, Christian Moueix. Moueix, with his experience at Château Pétrus in Pomerol, brought a distinctly French sensibility to this new project. From the outset, he wanted the wine of Dominus Estate to offer a true sense of place. In short, he wanted to bring the unique terroir of Napa Valley to the forefront that was its due. Just one short year after embarking on this new partnership, the inaugural 1983 vintage was produced. After a string of highly successful vintages and countless accolades, Moueix took full ownership of the winery in 1995. Despite his long tenure in the winemaking making business, Christian maintains a youthful ebullience and a spark of curiosity that breeds constant innovation. It as precisely these characteristics that informed his decisions when working with the team of Herzog and de Meuron in the construction of the winery (previously the wines were made at Rombauer’s facility not far from Napanook Vineyard).

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Moueix once noted: “A wine is only as good as the grapes from which it is produced.” This primacy of the vineyard informs all the decisions great and small at Dominus Estate. First among them, is the decision to dry farm. In an effort to coax the most from his fruit, Moueix places his vines under hydric stress, forcing them to access water not from the convenient drip of an irrigation hose, but rather from the water table deep below the vineyard. This, coupled with Hopper Creek which winds its way through the estate, provides the vines in Napanook with just enough moisture in which to thrive. In addition to dry farming, Moueix employs a host of sustainable practices, which not only reduces the environmental impact of the vineyard, but also greatly improves the overall quality of the grapes. Erosion control, the re-introduction of local flora and fauna, natural methods of pest control, and cover crops are just a few of the many techniques employed. It goes without saying that none of this is the easy way of doing things, but after thirty-four vintages of Dominus, it is a time-tested and proven recipe for success.

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All of this brings us back to the winery itself. Given the primacy of the vineyard, Moueix wanted a structure that would seamlessly integrate with the surrounding landscape. With its Mies Van der Rohe-esque lines and sharp angles, the building proposed by Herzog and de Meuron seemed an unlikely candidate to achieve this goal. However, it is precisely its understated design that allows the winery to effortlessly dissolve into its surroundings. Gabions, or small cages, filled with Basalt rocks from nearby American Canyon, form the exterior cladding of the building. These gabions serve the dual function of tying the structure together with the rock-laden soils of the valley and as an ideal insulator from the heat and cold. Temperatures in the valley reached the low 80s during our visit, but one would never guess based on the cool interior of the winery, which was a breezy 20 degrees cooler. We were astounded to learn this was achieved without the use of any temperature-control units. Much like the wines of Dominus Estate, the winery reflects how a gentle touch and a respect for the land can result in an understated elegance.

During our visit, we were invited to taste the 2015 vintage of Napanook and Dominus. The wines were in a word: ethereal. Perfectly composed with excellent richness and texture, we all agreed that they were among the best we’ve had from this singular estate. The 2015 Napanook while still very youthful was supple, inviting with layers of black fruit, mocha, Asian spice, and mint. While the 2015 Dominus, for its part, was massively structured, but remarkably open-knit and dynamic. Its dusty tannins hit at the end suggesting a very long and fruitful life ahead. While not as monolithic as the 2012 or 2013 vintage, it is still a very rewarding wine and one the deftly shows the undeniable prowess of the winemaking at Dominus Estate.  

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While we learned a tremendous amount on our visit to Dominus, perhaps the biggest takeaway was Moueix’s unwavering commitment to drawing the best out of this iconic estate. Change is always afoot at Dominus with each successive vintage conveying this thrilling dynamism. The wines from Dominus are among the most remarkable produced anywhere in the world and it was an honor to see first hand the meticulous and thoughtful manner in which they are crafted.

-James Bradshaw

Spain 2018

Joe Manekin

Charles de Gaulle is famously quoted:  “How can you govern a country that has 246 varieties of cheese?”

My version, adapted for Spain, might read: “How can you govern a country that has at 246 varieties of cheese, does not eat dinner until 10pm and sleeps on average an hour less than every other country in the EU?”

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Luckily, I am no leader of nations, but rather  an enthusiastic traveler, eater and drinker, and the Spanish wine buyer at K&L, a solid seven hours of sleep be damned. A day and a half ago I landed in Madrid and have already enjoyed a steady diet of morcilla, morunes, croquetas, even a Sunday lechazo (a wood burning oven roasted suckling lamb – the local specialty of Ribera del Duero wine country). That said, it was the delicious omakase at Miyama Castellana, paired with a tasty Jura white and bookended by Fino sherry and Hakushu 18 year old single malt  (an incredibly generous comp courtesy of their maitre d’) that officially kicked things off on my first day here. Welcome to Madrid!

Let’s return to de Gaulle and the idea of protected regions of origin. France of course boasts many AOC’s, over 300 I believe. Spain, despite covering a similar land mass and having an even wider spread plantation of vines, has far less than one-third the amount of DO’s. That said, one of them, Rioja, controls roughly 40% of all Spanish wine sales—this is a figure that more or less jibes with our Spanish wine sales at K&L. Now, I love Rioja, and will be spending two days there later in the week. But if I were to be self critical, then I would say that we can and should do a better job of encouraging people to try a wider variety of wines in Spain. While there are not 300 D.O.’s, there are at least that many varieties of grapes, and plenty to explore. It is with that in mind that I will be focusing on two D.O.’s this trip, two places in the Castillian heartland which arguably have some of the most exciting terroir in all Spain: Ribera del Duero and Bierzo. It is a big country with a lot of ground to cover, so I am about to get to it, beginning just outside the village of Roa, in the province of Burgos, the heart of Ribera del Duero wine country.

Next up: a visit with our good friend Noe Perez and Pedro Cabestrero at Lambuena.

- Joe Manekin

Zigzagging through Napa: A Tour of the Top Estates

James Bradshaw

This past week, our Key Account and Marketing teams were led by K&L co-owner, Trey Beffa, on a two-day, zigzagging tour of Napa Valley. At breakneck speed, we zoomed from Yountville to Calistoga and all points in between, visiting ten of the most prestigious estates in the valley. This distinguished group consisted of: Dominus, Kapcsandy, Bond, Larkmead, Dunn, Colgin, Opus One, Diamond Creek, Eisele Vineyard, and, the new up-and-comer, MacDonald. As one might expect, the wines were transcendent, exemplifying why Napa continues to be one of the most celebrated wine-producing regions in the world. While it would be impossible to paint this diverse group with a single brush, there are many striking parallels, all of which are born of these wineries’ singular commitment to crafting wines of unrivaled quality. In speaking with the people behind the wines, it became abundantly clear that they see themselves, above all else, as stewards of the land -- a sentiment echoed in the Native American proverb: “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.” This focus on forward thinking and inherent value of place is integral to the creation of great wine, and it was thrilling to see these estates so wholeheartedly embrace this philosophy.

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Starting in the 1990s and continuing to this day, Napa Valley has undergone a radical transformation from a sleepy farming community to an international hub for wine tourism. For evidence of this, one need look no further than the $165-million Four Season resort slated to open in Calistoga in early 2019. While this infusion of interest (and capital) has done much to propel Napa Valley onto the world stage, its success has not come without its detractors. A vocal contingent of critics have argued that because of this boom, the wines out of Napa have become hyper-commercialized and, as a result, are increasingly being built in a homogenized style that’s woefully uninspired. While there’s no refuting that such a trend does exist, it is hardly universal. In fact, based on what we experienced at the wineries we visited, this characterization couldn’t be further from the mark. What we found were terroir-driven wines that consistently push the envelope; raising the standard for all of Napa Valley in the process. Another point of contention is price. There are no two ways about it, the cost for Napa Valley’s most coveted bottlings have climbed into the stratosphere with some commanding prices that put them on par with Bordeaux’s First Growths. When the price of a wine climbs above $200, it necessarily begs the question: Is it worth it? Of course, the answer to this ultimately depends on one’s budget. However, it is important to note that when you take into consideration such factors as market demand, scarcity, the cost of real estate, and the countless steps taken to ensure the highest quality, these prices don’t seem outlandish in the least. These issues of commercialization and price were very much a topic of discussion throughout our visit. Upon tasting the wines and hearing the stories from the winemakers, it was evident to us all the wines were not mere commodities, but carefully crafted works of art.

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One recurring theme on our tour was the unassailable uniqueness of Napa Valley. From top to toe, the valley spans only thirty miles and is a mere five miles across at its widest point. Despite this relatively small footprint, the multitude of individual micro-climates is staggering. This, coupled with the myriad of soil types and variations in slope and aspect, gives winemakers a broad palette with which to work. We learned through our visits that exploring this natural diversity is a core mission for these wineries. Over the course of this week, we will be taking a closer look at the estates we visited, focusing on their their overall vision and the wines they craft.

- James Bradshaw

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Wine on a Tilt: Noah Dorrance of Reeve Wines

Kate Soto

California is no longer new on the vinous map but it’s still the sort of place that people stake their dreams on. That California dream is alive and well with husband-and-wife team Noah and Kelly Dorrance, founders of Reeve Wines. The Dorrances are the kind of star gazers that California wine was built on--Midwesterners who followed their passion for the grape to the west coast and then built their own little world on it. They have a quote from Mark Twain, also from Missouri, that they’ve adopted as their own: “America is built on a tilt and everything loose slides to California.”

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In 2009, Noah sat in a San Francisco bar with friends and launched what would become Banshee Wines, a success story if there ever was one, borrowing money from family and friends to produce eight barrels of Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. From there they created a well-loved brand known for food-friendly, ethereal Pinot that doesn’t cost a fortune. Reeve is the outcropping of this, a Noah and Kelly collaboration named after their son (with a logo on each bottle bearing their daughter’s name, too). They have brought such talent on board as Ross Cobb (Cobb Wines, Williams Selyem, Hirsch, Flowers) and Katy Wilson (LaRue, Joseph Phelps, Craggy Range, Flowers), and have kept their focus tight: a few wines from a few cool-climate sites done right.

We tasted two of their new releases from Mendocino recently--their 2017 rosé and their 2016 Anderson Valley Pinot--and they proved this approach is paying off. They are expressive, pretty wines that show how well Pinot does in California’s coolest pockets, where the fruit can ripen but still develop acidity and intricacy. The 2017 rosé is biodynamic Pinot Noir from Vecino Vineyard in Potter Valley. About a third of the Pinot comes from a Champagne clone known as Roederer 32, and, according to Noah, this clone produces “high-acid, bright, floral wines. Perfect for Blanc de Noir and rosé, as is turns out.” It’s a pale pink in the glass with bright fruit on the nose--strawberries and watermelon play against a hint of orange blossoms. They treat their rosé will all the seriousness in the winemaking as they do with their $100 single-vineyard Pinots. Says Noah: “We want it to be joyous, refreshing, and pleasantly mouthwatering, BUT we also want it to be a wine of real integrity. With its newfound popularity, there's a lot of crappy rosé flooding the market. We're trying to do something of worthy of our high standards.”

Their 2016 Pinot comes from two vineyard sites in the "Deep-End" of Anderson valley where it is coolest. “The wines from there,” according to Noah, “seem to have both verve and depth with the added kicker of not necessarily having extra weight. For me that is the holy grail of Pinot Noir. It’s not easy to find regions that can do that well.” The wine is elegant, a bit restrained on first sniff but growing more expressive with air. Notes of cranberries, cherries, and violets are buoyed by a supple texture and a firm finish, a great yin-yang that makes it both seductive and serious. It would be delicious with a grilled pork chop.

It always interests me how people get to where they’ve gotten, especially with wine. Unless you’re born into it, it’s generally not a linear path, like, say, medicine, where you show an early aptitude in biology and take the right courses and work hard and become a doctor. Wine takes a certain personality, someone with a penchant for passion (maybe obsession?) and enough faith/fearlessness to veer off the obvious path and follow it. I asked Noah how he got here and when, along the way, he decided to make a career of it. “I remember the day in 1994 (18 years old),” he said, “when I was driving down the road in Springfield, Missouri, and I thought to myself, ‘I'm going to get really into wine.’ I pulled over at a Barnes and Noble and bought Wine for Dummies. I think I was hooked from that moment, probably because I thought it was a very suave thing to know about. Obviously there a lot of other twists and turns to the story to get us to present day, but that's where it started. Here are the Cliff Notes: Wine for Dummies → Worked at Cherry Street Wine Cellar → Worked at Boone Distributing → Brown Derby → Paris → Job at Crushpad → Founded Banshee Wines → Started Reeve in 2015.”

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I also asked him about juggling family with a family business. This is a question that I think gets asked of women, but not often men. And with a wife equally involved in the operation and young kids, it’s a big part of his experience: “I'd be lying if I said it wasn't harder in so many ways. There's lots of time away during harvest and sales trips. And we're in the hospitality business as well so we spend a lot of time with guests on property. However, I also think that the wine business, at least how I view it, is rooted in family. There's a cyclical, generational, long-term thinking that comes with planting vineyards and making age-worthy wines. You can't help but think of passing these things along to family because they are long-term projects. With Reeve we are definitely trying to build something that our kids can be involved with if they choose.”

It’s an approach that I think bodes well for the future of wine in this state. The allure of the California dream may have gotten them here, but they’re building something--and what better foundation is there in life than big dreams?

Find Reeve Wines at K&L.

 

- Kate Soto