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Written by Nikitas Magel   

Oakville East (Photo Credit: Avis Mandel Pictures)

Founding Owner of Napa's Oakville East Promotes a New Sub-Appellation
— An Interview with Proprietor Elliot Stern —

The American consumer is one who heavily identifies with brands.  And while super-premium wine is an agricultural product whose quality is heavily predicated on the geographical origin of its grapes, branding is nevertheless front and center in the sales strategies of most produced in this country.  Yet where does the concept of terroir, or place, fit into this?  Very often, producers make this secondary to the marketing of their brands.  The founder of one recent venture in California, however, has taken the step not only of articulating the identity inherent in the eastern hillside of Napa Valley's Oakville — essentially sub-appellating it — but, perhaps more significantly, choosing to use its micro-terroir as the very inspiration for a brand name.  I spoke with Elliot Stern about what led to the inception of his Cabernet co-op, Oakville East, and what choices went into the production of its first wine, Exposure.

Oakville East is the culmination of a group of prominent hillside growers, facilitated by the talents of winemaker Sara Gott and biodynamic guidance of Philippe Armenier, and collectively galvanized by the leadership of Elliot himself.  It's a bold enterprise fueled by the belief that there's a story locked deep within the bright orange rocks of Oakville's craggy hillside that bears telling.  But it's not an easy one to relay.  It's rather sinuous and elusive, and has demanded the care, attention, and focus of this dedicated band of visionaries to articulate its details in a way that only wine can achieve.  But patience, resolve, and flexibility have all begun to pay off as Oakville East is now in its third released vintage (as of mid 2009) of Exposure, a Bordeaux blend of primarily Cabernet Sauvignon.  With plans in the works for an second wine (Core Stone) that will showcase what's been called some of the world's finest Cabernet Franc, Stern's venture is showing promise as one of Napa Valley's first brands to assert and clearly market its micro-terroir.

Bud Break of an Idea

NM:  Oakville East is not your typical wine venture; it has a very uncommon business model.  Tell me about that.

ES:  Oakville East basically started because one of my neighbors asked me to plant my access road, between his house and the other neighbor's house who lived below me.  Seven years later, we had this nice fruit, in addition to another vineyard he already had that was sixteen years old.  Then in 2003, the people who had been buying our fruit told us they couldn't afford it anymore because they hadn't sold their 1998 or 2000 vintages.  So we took all of our fruit, crushed it ourselves, made garage wine, and thought it was really good!  Then I figured it made more sense, being in eastern Oakville, to get my neighbors together and start a project to make wine — real wine that isn't garage-style.  Everybody agreed.  So, in 2004, there were three families and four vineyards.  I called Sara Gott, the day she left Quintessa [Vineyards] and asked her, "Sara, you want to make a wine from Magic Mountain?"  And she said, "I'm in!"  So, there we had our winemaker along with some grapes, and then had to go through the whole process of figuring out a name, design, and all the other logistics.  We put together about 450 cases of wine using five tons from Oakville East and five tons from a vineyard on the west side [of the same hill] near Far Niente — 2004 was not 100% east hillside fruit.

Red Rocks (Photo Credit: Avis Mandel Pictures)In 2005, we had another family join us, the Saunders, with one ton of their fruit from vines that were about eighteen years old at the time (the oldest vines on the hillside), and their fruit had been used in Dalla Valle's Maya in the past, so it was a really good fruit source.  In fact, [International Wine Cellar founder Stephen] Tanzer said that the Cabernet Franc from that vineyard is the second best in the world; it's pretty spectacular.  Then in '06, we got three tons from that vineyard; in '07, we got five tons.  Then in '08, we got twelve tons from it, plus, for the first time, fruit from the Buselli's Vineyard.  So, now, that's five families and six vineyards.  After the 2008 harvest, I hired Philippe Armenier — the biodynamic guru who took [Joseph] Phelps, Peter Michael, and Grgich [Hills] all to organic and biodynamic farming — to do the same for all six of our vineyards.  All told, we're on a four year program to have almost 40 tons of fruit biodynamically farmed from just the eastern hill of Oakville.

NM:  So, this started more or less incidentally.  You found yourself, a grower, with fruit that your original customer wineries could no longer buy.

ES:  The plan actually started when Dalla Valle pulled out of Wilson Daniels, where I was the head of Sales and Marketing at the time.  And I thought, "Well, I could do that project: I have access to some of the same fruit, live on the same hill.  I'll just create a project and move it to Wilson Daniels to replace the Oakville project that they lost."  Soon after, I left Wilson Daniels without ever having followed through on the thought.  That is, until my friend David Finney (from the Prisoner) told me in 2003 that he couldn't use my fruit anymore.  It's interesting: Cakebread's Three Sisters used to be from three vineyards in Oakville; two of those three are in the Oakville East project now.  Some of the fruit that used to go into the Dalla Valle Maya is now in the project, too.  So, the fruit sources were well-established long before Oakville East came along, and all we did was to begin some strict vineyard management and changes in the water regime, and then to start going biodynamic.  We have an overall vineyard manager that walks all six vineyards every Saturday morning who will then tell each vineyard's manager, whom we individually employ, how to work through all the projects for his own vineyard.

Differentiation of an Appellation

NM:  Every vineyard in the Oakville East project is located in the Oakville appellation, with specifically an eastern exposure.  Beyond that, what other characeristics do the vineyards have in common?

ES:  The vineyards in Oakville have two differentiators.  One is the sun: the east side of Oakville gets a lot more sun than the west side, strictly because as the sun moves southerly (as we get closer to harvest), it gets blocked by the Mayacamas [Mountain range] earlier on the west side of the valley than it does on the east side.  The other major difference is the east side of Oakville is a collapsed Vaca mountain, and the basalt rock that got exposed to the elements turns to iron oxide when rainwater hits it, and as it became chipped off through the centuries, became our soil.  As a result, we get less than two tons per acre [of fruit] without doing anything to the vines, because there is no soil here.  I have a little over an acre on my home vineyard, and have never gotten more than a ton [from it].  So, we get a difference in sun exposure, and then even though our vineyards are on the east side, they all face west — there are eastern hillside Oakville vineyards that face away from the sun.  So you get a difference in tannin structure, depending on both the vineyard's side of the hill (east or west) and its exposure to the sun.

To answer your question, the grapes we're getting with our six vineyards ripen, and are therefore harvested, earlier than the west side.  The tannins — not just in the wines of Oakville East, but historically with Rudd, Screaming Eagle, Dalla Valle, Phelps Bacchus [also sourced from vineyards on the eastside of Oakville] — have a very feminine structure, very soft and elegant.  And what I think is so dynamic about this side of the valley is that when get a soft and elegant tannin structure, along with a very judicious use of new wood, you taste the awkwardness of fruit when the wine is young.  Which is totally different from a lot of Cabernet-based wines where the structure is so up-front in your mouth that it takes years [in bottle] before you really taste the fruit.  So when something is weird in a young, eastside Cabernet, it's usually because the fruit is going through stages [of evolution] and because the tannin structure, although definite, is soft enough for that young fruit to really come through.  I think these wines are actually easier to drink when they're young.  But they'll still mature for as long as any other.

Elliot Stern (Photo Credit: Avis Mandel Pictures)NM:  It sounds like you've taken a sub-appellation of Napa, and brought it to market in a way that elucidates a style of Cabernet different than we're used to seeing from the rest of this valley.  It's not common for a super-premium Napa Cabernet to manifest a style that's soft and pretty like the Oakville East Exposure.

ES:  I wish I could take credit for that, but I would say that the place is the dominant feature.  There are places in the wine world that are special.  The eastern side of Oakville is blessed with soil that makes the plants work hard, with just enough rainfall, and with the sun exposure we have here all the time, so that it creates one of those special wines.  At the Taste of Oakville, if you taste Screaming Eagle, Rudd, Oakville Ranch, Showket, and Oakville East, we all have an element of finesse in common.  How long the wines have been in barrel, how long in bottle, when you harvest, how you're irrigating — even with all the things that create differences in taste, these wines still have something very much in common.  What I like to say is that if you look at the top ten to fifteen most expensive Cabernets in Napa Valley, five of them are within a driver and a wedge of our vineyards.  And there's a reason for that: it goes back to the story of where you are; it goes back to place.  What I tried to do with Oakville East is to have the consumer understand that there's a difference in Oakville between east and west.  I couldn't use the word 'terroir,' because nobody knows what it means.  But if you look at the label, you see the orange soil, the see the word "Exposure," you see the sun moving across the horizon — I tried to make it really simple and say that this is one of those special little spots that produces great grapes.

NM:  What you're doing, then, is taking the concept of terroir and placing a magnifying glass against it, with the lens being that of this very specific sub-appellation within Napa.  By virtue of the fact that you're taking that concept and asserting it in a marketing context, using the specific location as the name of your wine, would you agree that you're a 'terroirist,' a true terroir champion?

NM: It sounds, then, that with this vineyard, you guys are still in the discovery and exploration phase. How are you with that uncertainty, juxtaposed against the fact that this is a commercially viable wine?

"If you really think about it, I basically sub-appellated Oakville, between east and west."

ES:  In my capacity in running sales and marketing companies in the wine business, I've been fortunate enough to stand in the vineyards of Lafaive, Zind Humbrecht, and Romanée-Conti.  And I have seen the evolution of biodynamic vineyards.  So, I absolutely believe in the place and in making sure that the place produces what it should produce — not just to grow grapes, but to make those grapes be part of their place.  And that's what biodynamic farming is all about: making the soil healthier, so the plants are healthier, and the vines go further into the ground and manifest the place [in which they're planted].  If you really think about it, I basically sub-appellated Oakville, between east and west.  As producers in the Oakville appellation, we all love each other, we all get along, we all go to the [district] meetings, we all drink each other's wines, we all make great wines — but [between east and west] we have different styles.  I would say that the masculine features in tannin structure are much more prevalent on the west side than on the east.  I'm not doing anything differently than the Masters of Wine did when they tasted all the Oakville wines, and said "Everything west and middle tastes this way; everything east tastes that way."  I was just trying to find a name that didn't come out sounding really stupid!  And Oakville East was an easy way to say, "Here we are."  I couldn't use my family name because I didn't think Stern would sound good on a bottle; it's a little too harsh.  I looked at some other names, too.  I looked at "Boomer" because part of our soil is called boomer soil, but that was taken.  I looked at "Big Red Rocks," but somebody's already using "Red Rocks."  When you come up with a defining feature of this part of Oakville, the soil is orange but it's basically just a rubble field with huge rocks.  And that's really what defines this part: there's really no soil because it takes forever for the rocks to decompose enough to leave any.

NM:  So, in a sense, you've answered my prior question: you really are a terroir-champion, because you're taking the notion of terroir to an even finer degree than we're used to seeing here Stateside, and you're doing it not just in the making, but in the marketing of that wine.  You're delivering to the consumer an awareness of this very specific micro-appellation without hiding it behind some proprietary name — you've named the wine after the place!  And that's unusual in the American wine market.  That aside, how else do you feel this venture stands out?

OE Cabernet (Photo Credit: Avis Mandel Pictures)ES:  The way the Oakville East project has evolved, it has grown substantially, but it can't get over a maximum (someday) of 2,400 cases.  Whereas a lot of people who have wineries in Oakville make an Oakville wine plus a Napa wine — there are a lot of people who buy grapes.  I basically have the only co-op in the Napa Valley, in that my growers and myself are all bonded together.  Not only do I buy all the fruit, but hopefully someday, if we ever make a profit, there will be an opportunity for the growers to share in the profitability.  And that's why we've grown from 5 tons to 30 tons in only five vintages.  I'll say that by adding all that tonnage, I now have access to the oldest combined vineyard in all of east Oakville: our youngest vines are eleven years old and the oldest are twenty-two.  When you start putting that together, there's nobody else up here who has 30 tons of an average of seventeen year old fruit.

Showcasing the Varietals

NM:  And how does all this translate into the bottle?

ES:  Two things.  One, we'll continue to make Cabernet and that will end up, probably after '09, somewhere around 18% Cabernet Franc, 5% Petit Verdot, plus a little bit of Merlot that I'm going to get this year for the first time from my friend Cal Showket, who's also on the mountain.  And then, also for the first time, I'll have enough of the old vine Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot to do an Haut-Brion type of blend; something with a 65/35% blend, with maybe a little bit of Merlot.  But the Cabernet Franc here, all by itself, is as dense and wonderful as the Cabernet Sauvignon — it's a pretty awesome glass of wine!  So, who knows?  Someday, if we actually have too much and the blends don't work, we'll probably make 100 cases of the Cabernet Franc.  But right now, our plan is to make two wines going forward (after the '08 vintage).  The second wine is called Core Stone, which tells the same story as Exposure but focuses on the actual rocks, the 'core stone' of the Vaca mountain.

NM:  How will this second wine, Core Stone, be different from the first, Exposure, in terms of the location of its vineyards and its placement in the wine market?

ES:  It's hard to answer that because I've only made it twice now.  I made nineteen cases, of which ten went to Premier Napa in 2008.  I've been using Premier Napa as my vehicle to test this [new] wine.  The varietals, more and more, will be the Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, which are actually the oldest vines on the hillside — they'll be over twenty years old when we first bring that product to market.  It will be positioned as probably the highest end of Napa Cabernet pricing, as a limited release piece of art, so I would expect it would be somewhere around $200 a bottle.  With it, I think we're going to get some of the truest expression of Cabernets Franc and Sauvignon and Petit Verdot that you can get in the Napa Valley.  There are very few places in the valley that grow outstanding Cabernet Franc.  Arguably, one of America's 'first growths' was always Dalla Valle Maya, from which we'll be different, but still with some of the same grape sources — it'll all be eastern hillside with no other Napa grapes in it.  There'll be a bit of a difference in taste, but basically it stays true to what Oakville East is, with all eastern hillside fruit.

NM:  Going through this whole process, how much of the decision-making has been centered around the varietals themselves versus the overall terroir of the eastern hillside?

ES:  The easiest answer to that is Sara Gott.  Because when Sara was at [Joseph] Phelps, she was very much a part of the original Bacchus production from their fruit source on the hillside.  So she already knew what the fruit on the hill was capable of.  That's why, when I asked her if she would take on this project, it took her only 30 seconds to say "Yes!"  As for the varietal mix, we knew we had Cabernet [Sauvignon] and then I planted a little bit of Cabernet Franc.  But I had no idea that in 2005 I would get almost twenty tons of old vine Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet [Sauvignon].  So, that gave us the opportunity to solidify our blend to where we really like it and can do it every year exactly the same way.  And then have the extra fruit to be able to play a bit with what we think will be one of the stellar wines in the valley, which will be the Core Stone once it's brought to the marketplace.  But that'll be very rare; we won't make much — probably a couple of barrels to start with and if it really grows we'll maybe do a couple of hundred cases someday.  But no more than that, because we wouldn't want to take too fruit away from our main product, which is the Cabernet [Sauvignon].

Flowering (Photo Credit: Avis Mandel Pictures)The interesting thing about the Saunders fruit, the [old vine] fruit on top of the hill, is that until I started buying more and more of it and equalizing the pricing, he got more money for his Petit Verdot than his Cabernet Franc, and more money for his Cabernet Franc than his Cabernet [Sauvignon].  That's how good that fruit source is.  So what I did was move everybody to the same price as the Petit Verdot.  And the object of all of this was to let everybody make more money on their farming and be the owner of a project where, instead of just selling our fruit to other people and being at their whim, everybody [here] has a say in what we do and how we do it.  I manage it, but twice a year we all sit down, taste wine, and talk about farming.

Dynamics and Biodynamics

NM:  Speaking of farming, tell me a bit more about the choices there.  You mentioned that you've been instrumental in taking all the growers in a biodynamic direction.  What's gone into that decision, and how has it affected the expression of the wine's terroir?

ES:  Well, I'm not sure after less than one year that we've seen much of a change yet — except in attitude.  One of my growers for many years used Round Up on weeds.  This year, he used none of it and all of the sprays are organic.  All of the things we'll do for the foreseeable future will be organic and biodyamic in nature; that's what it's all about.  And it's all really to get the soil to where it can grab its own nitrogen.  Now, one thing we can't do, because of the rocks, is to plow — even with a horse, we could not do that.  So, we've had to be ingenious with some of the things we've been doing, like getting a roto-tiller.  And because our ground gets so hard from the sun baking it, when it does start to rain, it will run into this place where we've been able to put in these troughs, and then the water will sink down from there.  But the real key, on this side of the hill, is that there's water pooled underneath the rocks as deep as you can go.  So, the longer we work in biodynamic farming, the further down our rootstocks will go to where they'll actually be able to access more water, which will make the plant much healthier.  And from that, we'll also get better fruit.

"The longer we work in biodynamic farming, the further down our rootstocks will go to where they'll actually be able to access more water, which will make the plant much healthier."

Here's a funny story.  During our [growers] meeting in December, Philippe Armenier was talking about biodynamic farming.  For people who haven't seen it in action, it can elicit a reaction like, "How could you believe that?"  We got to the point where Philippe had me get the bag of manure compound that had just arrived, and then pass it around.  Well, it sort of smells!… but, okay.  So, it gets to Mrs. Buselli — who's from Italy and owns the vineyard next to mine — and she opens up the plastic bag, smells the manure-based compound, and goes, "This smells just like my childhood in Italy!"  And that just broke the ice!  The more we all talked about Biodynamic farming, the more we all realized that there is absolutely no downside but there's a huge upside.  Because there's nothing you do in biodynamic farming that can hurt anything.  Whether you believe it helps or not, that's up to you.  I believe it does because not only have I seen the great vineyards of the world practicing it, but last year I saw the difference with my own eyes in Martinborough [New Zealand].  They had two test rows that were being farmed with Round Up and all the other chemicals as a way to compare the effects to the rest of their vineyard that was biodynamically farmed.  I stood right between the two areas of vines, which still had the fruit hanging on them — one that was biodynamically farmed and other that wasn't, a meter and a half apart.  In the inorganic area, the only thing you could see growing between the vine rows were weeds.  One step to the right, in the biodynamic area, all you had between the rows were flowers and clovers.  And so I was sold!  That crystallized fifteen years of learning into action.  I came back [to the U.S.] and then had to convince the five other growers to do it.  But now we're all doing it.

Waltzing with the Winemaker

NM:  Having convinced them to adopt very different practices than they were used to, it sounds like you have a fairly close relationship with the other growers.  How about with your winemaker?  Tell me a little about Sara Gott and how the two of you have worked together.

OE Cabernet (Photo Credit: Avis Mandel Pictures)ES:  Sara spent ten years as the head winemaker at [Joseph] Phelps, and two years at Quintessa.  Then she had three kids and left the winemaking business [for a bit].  Now she's making wine again: in addition to Oakville East, she makes Blackbird, Cliff Family Vineyards, and her own family wine, Joel Gott.  She has this great pedigree and she's really fun.  My favorite story about Sara was when I called her, very concerned, during the October after we'd bottled in June for the 2005 vintage.  I said, "Sara, the wine has no taste and no smell!"  And she replied, "Elliot, the only thing dumber than that wine is you."  {laughter}  I laughed so hard!  I mean, Sara's like all of five feet tall and weighs about 90… I don't know what she weighs, but she's tiny!  I laughed so hard, and then said, "Okay, I get it; just wait."  But let me tell you: that wine went from the dumbest I'd ever encountered to earning 95 points in the Enthusiast last month.  It just kept evolving!  But, boy, for the first six months of that wine, [in an effort to get it to open up], I would pour it into a magnum decanter and just shake it!  {laughter}  I would rhumba with that sucker, it was that stubborn!

But, yeah, the working relationship with Sara is great.  She's fun to be around, she makes great wine, and she keeps me involved when she wants me to be.  Though I think I'm atypical in my involvement [as a proprietor] because Sara makes all the choices, every call is hers — the barrels, the grapes, time of harvest, everything.  She does all the blending; I don't get involved with the blending — why would I interfere with a virtuoso?  She's one of the best.  You can't quantify her excellence and limit what she can do to make it good.  We have six different vineyards and harvest probably eleven or twelve times — not many people do that, they'll go wipe out a vineyard and be done with it — so on the cost side, I've virtually said, "Sara, you do what it takes to make great wine."  She has to force me to taste her wines every year, just so I can see the progress and see what's going on.  The only thing I really do is smell the wine sometimes before she actually puts into bottle, because I have a very low tolerance for brettanomyces and other flaws.  In that case, it's nice to have another nose involved.  But as far as the final blendings, and choosing which grapes go into our wine and which get sold off in bulk, that's all her call.

NM:  And how has Sara been about your choice to go in a biodynamic direction?  Is it something that she'd already had some experience in, or has this been also been a learning experience for her?

ES:  On the fruit side, I think a lot of it is that we're all gaining knowledge together — we still have another three years to see the full results.  The truism in biodynamics is that you see the differences each year, but it's in the third year when the fruit really changes and in the fourth when the vines really change; it takes that long.  On the winemaking side, a lot of the things that you do in biodynamics — when you rack the wine and do other things based on moon phases and pressure changes — Sara had already been doing.

Laborious Lessons

"The truism in biodynamics is that you see the differences each year, but it's in the third year when the fruit really changes and in the fourth when the vines really change; it takes that long."

NM:  What have been the challenges, from start to finish, to making wine from the vineyards of Oakville East that you feel are unique?

ES:  The first one would be that it's a lot different working with people by simply buying their fruit, versus asking them to be part of your project where we don't really mean anything because the grapes are the stars.  Another one has been convincing people to change their farming philosophies — that's been very interesting and rewarding.  But I think label design and naming is the most difficult thing you ever do; I found it extremely frustrating and difficult.  Luckily, I already knew a lot about compliance and TTB stuff, so I could get through that part pretty easily.  But then: finished goods.  First of all, I had to learn the whole costing model.  I'd always sold things when they were in the case and taped shut, so they already had a price.  But learning what it costs for labels, corks, capsules, bottles, bottling lines, and a custom crush facility — all of that was a great learning experience.

Also, I realized that in trying to make a world-class Cabernet, you're basically going to have three years worth of sunk costs before you sell a single bottle.  And then you still have no guarantee you're even going to sell that bottle.  Being a real sales and marketing guy, my answer to your question would very quickly be that one of the biggest challenges has been trying to establish a new high-end brand.  Even though I've priced it at $100 a bottle, [this venture] is costly.  But I like to say that for my hillside, I'm a low cost provider.  And people usually laugh at that but then they get it once they take into account the soil, the sun exposure, the great winemaker, and everything else.  [In this same area] you've got Screaming Eagle at $700 a bottle, Rudd, and Bacchus, the most expensive wine that Phelps makes.  So, $100 might sound expensive for the area, but it's really not.

"One of the things I learned is that you can sell all your wine but it takes about ten years to establish an actual brand in the market."

Then going to market was interesting.  One of the things I learned is that you can sell all your wine but it takes about ten years to establish an actual brand in the market.  A textbook truism is that you're not really a brand until you're accepted by the consumer.  In the case of wine, I think that takes almost ten years.  Now I'm into my third release, so I'm fighting the same thing that a brand new winery does: "I've got this bottle of wine; will you please try my wine?"  Just yesterday, I was at the Taste of Oakville — it's surprising how many people go to a tasting like that and taste only the wines that they've heard of, instead of trying everybody's wines so they have a benchmark!  The new age consumers have access to an unbelievable amount of wine information, but how many of them make a point to try wines where there's only 500 cases made?  Especially in today's environment, if they're going to spend $100, it's usually on something they've heard of.  Sure, there's still a few out there who say, "I've read about you" or "I've heard about you" — but basically it takes ten years to get established and I'm just beginning that phase.  But I am loving it; I mean, it's really fun!  And I do have an advantage because I know everybody — I've been doing this for almost 40 years!  I've been calling on people for a long time!  So that helps.  But it doesn't guarantee anything; you've still got to make good wine and keep fighting every day to hopefully get somebody to say, "Gee, this is really good stuff!"

Valuation through Validation

NM:  How would you sum up into words what you're trying to do with Oakville East?

ES:  We're just trying to make the greatest expression of wine we can make from this place.  That's really what it's all about.  And I think that if you talk to the makers of great wines in any place in the world, the ones that are really trying to be true to whom they are, they'd all say the same thing.  The only differentiation we have is our place.  I mean, we have three vineyards right next to each other and we harvest all three of them in different ways and at different times — because of the variation in the steepness, the sun exposure, the rocks underneath — it's just amazing.  With this little project, we harvest twelve times, it's nuts!  Which means we have twelve separate batches sitting around in different states of fermentation; it becomes expensive.  But that's the really the best way to express the nature of the fruit.

To learn more about their story and taste the fruits of their labor, visit Oakville East online.
To learn more about the talent behind the photography of the Oakville East bottles and vineyards, visit Avis Mandel Pictures online.  v