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interviews of winemakers & winery proprietors

a sip of seneca


Keeping a Finger on the Pulse of the Finger Lakes
— A Visit to Wineries along the Seneca Lake Wine Trail —

A lot can happen in five and half years. And that goes even for wine, medical an industry much of whose progress hinges on the oscillation of the seasons and whose development is slow and steady. It was the winter of 2008 when I last wrote about the Finger Lakes region, patient and my sense is that the winemaking there has definitely evolved. Much of what I’d learned about the area at the time came from my interview with New York wine publicist, find Melissa Dobson. Both exciting and enlightening, our conversation painted a picture of a region long involved in the production of wine from indigenous grapes, but which only recently has garnered attention for its work with European varieties. More relevantly, the interview planted a seed of curiosity that inspired me to take advantage of a recent trip there to visit some local wineries.

the grace of a swan

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Napa Producer Gracefully Weathers the Changing Tides of Merlot's Market Popularity
— An Interview with the Winemaker of Swanson Vineyards

From its vantage point at the very center of the Napa Valley, Swanson Vineyards has laid witness to considerable change in the region's wine industry over the last two and a half decades of its own quality-driven wine production.  Having first established its reputation during the heydey of California Merlot, a grape variety that has long since fallen out of favor, the brand has recently experienced some challenges in maintaining its market viability on the shifting landscape of New World wines.  Now in its sixth year with long-time Napa veteran Chris Phelps at the helm of its cellar operations, the winery is looking to revitalize consumer awareness of a wine portfolio he has since imbued with greater balance and flair.  I spent an afternoon with the winemaker, dividing our time between the buzz of his rustic operation in Oakville and the repose of an upscale restaurant in Yountville.  He spoke candidly of how the last twenty-five years have seen considerable evolution in his own winemaking, significant changes to the business in Napa, and ultimately, unwavering grace in how the Swanson wine brand has handled the pendulum swing of Merlot's popularity in the marketplace.

bjørn and bred

Bjornstad Cellars

Sonoma Viticulturist Strikes Out on Own with Vineyard-Designated Burgundian Varietals
— An Interview with the Owner/Winemaker of Bjornstad Cellars

Greg Bjornstad wasn't raised to be a wine lover.  Yet judging from his early internship with a prestigious First Growth producer, eventual colloboration with several renowned Napa and Sonoma trailblazers, and current devotion to exploring and manifesting the utmost potential of the Burgundian grape varieties, one would think he'd been born among vines.  Indeed, the learning curve of his career has been steep, one reason of which was his direct involvement in the construction of vineyards that eventually contributed to Sonoma Coast's increasing significance as a wine producing area.  And yet, in spite of his illustrious career track, which includes work at Joseph Phelps, Flowers, and Peter Michael, I'd known next to nothing of Bjornstad when I first sampled his wines at a small, private tasting event at the facility where he makes them.  Hailing from some of Sonoma Coast's most esteemed vineyards, these wines immediately struck me with their mesmerizing grace and seductive allure.  It was at that point when I'd resolved to meet with the winemaker, only to learn that his winemaking talent is but a recent vector on a long trajectory of viticultural work.  As I sat down with Greg in the spartan confines above the main cellar of Vinify Wine Services in Santa Rosa, we talked of vineyards, varietals, and vintages, all while reflecting on the development of both his career and the recent releases of Bjornstad Cellars.

taking pride

Pride Mountain Vineyards

Mountaintop Winery Takes Pride in its Command of Elevated Site Diversity
— An Interview with the Lead Winemaker of Pride Mountain Vineyards

One striking fact with which visitors to Pride Mountain Vineyards are immediately met is that the 235-acre estate actually straddles the line between the two otherwise distinct appellations of Napa and Sonoma.  But while having grapevines and production facilities located on either side of that border might present a logistical challenge or two, its position at the very top of Spring Mountain allows the winery to very clearly assert its identity by virtue of its unwavering focus on elevated terroir.  The advantage of raising vines at that altitude, coupled with the inherent diversity of soil, aspect, and microclimate, empowers the winemaking team at Pride to craft wines with an alluring combination of character, richness, and longevity that few other producers can accomplish with estate vineyards.  Along with its premium Merlot that first garnered media attention and established its name, Pride has since developed and distinguished its portfolio in further dedication to expressing a true sense of place.  I met and spoke with Pride's lead winemaker, Sally Johnson, to get more of the story behind this producer's handcrafted wines of intensity and nuance.

mountain majesty

Spring Mountain Vineyard

Napa Winery Elaborates Two Styles of Cabernet from its Steep Hillside Vineyards
— An Interview with the Talent Behind Spring Mountain Vineyard

Grace and Complexity.  Power and Intensity.  These are the discrete expressions of Cabernet Sauvignon that we tend to associate respectively with the Old and New World.  Yet one Napa Valley winery, in tapping the fullest potential of its mountainside grapevines, seems to have succeeded in articulating both.  In doing so, Spring Mountain Vineyard, located on the eastern slope of the elevation bearing its name, has managed to carve a distinct niche for itself among the region's numerous other quality-driven producers.  Having been struck by the craftsmanship of its recent vintages, I resolved to peel back the label of this premium brand in an effort to get to the root of its winegrowing strategy.  And so, in the context of a visit to the charmingly bucolic estate high above the town of St. Helena, I met with winemaker Jac Cole, vineyard manager Ron Rosenbrand, and publicist Valli Ferrell, who collectively showcased all that lends panache to the wines of Spring Mountain Vineyard.

peak performer

Atlas Peak

Napa Trailblazer Continues to Reshape New Identity with Mountain Cabernets
— An Interview with the Winemaker of Atlas Peak Winery

Throughout the 1990s, Atlas Peak Winery built and enjoyed renown in the marketplace for the Sangiovese varietal wine it produced from the elevation after which it was named.  But with the new Millennium came broad changes to Napa's wine industry, not the least of which was an upsurge in the production of super-premium Cabernet Sauvignon.  This, combined with the vision of new ownership that recognized the producer's untapped potential, led to the reevaluation and overhaul of its entire marketing thrust in an effort to shift the focus and increase the quality of its production.  Nearly seven years since Atlas Peak's rebirth as a brand has seen the crafting of a portfolio featuring Cabernet grown in each of Napa Valley's elevated sub-appellations: Howell Mountain, Mount Veeder, Spring Mountain, and of course, Atlas Peak itself.  After having sampled his wines at the California Cabernet Society annual tasting event, I met with winemaker Darren Procsal, along with PR Director Tony Lombardi, to learn more of the winery's new mission "to create wines that showcase their lofty origins."

an uncommon consultant

An Uncommon Consultant

Former Châteauneuf-du-Pape Producer Explains the Efficacy of Biodynamic Viticulture
— An Interview with Wine Consultant Philippe Armenier

Biodynamic viticulture was something with which I'd been vaguely familiar when I first learned about the work of wine consultant Philippe Armenier.  It was during an interview I conducted some time ago with one of his clients that I began to suspect that this once-obscure approach to winegrowing was becoming increasingly practiced among premium producers.  In fact, in turns out that Armenier has provided Biodynamic services to quite a long list of prestigious clients that includes Joseph Phelps, Grgich Hills, Opus One, Peter Michael, and Cain, among a few dozen other reputable wine brands up and down the west coast of the United States.  And yet, it's all a far cry from where the former winemaker originally hails from the south of France, where he used to make wine under his own label — that is, until he sold the property, moved to California, and devoted his time entirely to consulting on Biodynamic farming.  Since then, the expatriate's success in earning a long list of devotees has been remarkable, given that the mainstream often considers the practice to be a rather unorthodox tangent of agriculture.  Skeptics notwithstanding, it appears that evidence is growing considerably in support of its efficacy, some of which I, myself, witnessed while Armenier took me on a tour to some of his clients' vineyards in the Napa Valley.  It was there among the vines that I learned the capabilities of this rather unconventional strategy in the quest to make better wines.

budbreak of a brand

Budbreak of a Brand

Budding Wine Brand Articulates Burgundian Varietals in the Russian River Valley
— An Interview with the Winemaker of Benovia Winery

The business of wine production is frought with considerable challenges.  Beyond these, launching a premium brand is a monumental undertaking requiring a tremendous amount of resources, talent, experience, planning, and above all, a clear vision for how that brand will position itself among the seemingly countless others vying for consumer attention these days.  Benovia Winery is one newcomer that seems to have all those qualities in spades.  Although a great number of other producers in Sonoma County also provide handcrafted wines made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, this particular winery, located in the heart of the Russian River Valley, does so with the intention of showcasing the notably different styles that these varietals can manifest.  Curious to learn more, I met and spoke with Benovia's winemaker Mike Sullivan and, in doing so, discovered the unique advantages the new brand is enjoying at the outset of its journey into quality-driven wine production.

the kenefick effect

Kenefick Ranch

Former Neurosurgeon Cultivates Prized Vineyard Land in Calistoga
— An Interview with Tom Kenefick of Napa's Kenefick Ranch

When Tom Kenefick first got into the business of raising vines over three decades ago, he had no idea he would eventually be growing grapes for some of Napa Valley's finest wine brands.  In fact, tending vineyard land had only been a weekend endeavor for many years, which he balanced with a full time schedule as a practicing neurosurgeon for the University of California, San Francisco.  Yet in spite of the demands that medicine made on him, he managed to focus his free time on the cultivation of not only the grapevines themselves but also of his growing curiosity in the complexities of the industry, by taking night classes in viticulture and enology.  In 2000, his knowledge and enthusiasm had gained enough momentum for him to quit his surgical practice and delve entirely into the venture he'd grown to love so much.  By that point, Kenefick Ranch had secured a reputation for producing some of Napa's highest quality Bordeaux varieties, with a list of client wineries that includes Robert Mondavi, Rosenblum, Plumpjack, and Joseph Phelps.  Two years later, Kenefick ventured for the first time into the world of winemaking itself, launching his eponymous label and hinting at a professional turning point for the grower.  It was some time after meeting him at the annual California Cabernet Society tasting event in San Francisco that I joined Tom Kenefick at his ranch house in Calistoga to talk about his longtime experience as a grower and more recent foray into wine production.

words with winemakers

Wine Barrels in a Napa Valley Winery

Perspectives on the Wine Industry & Reflections on Winemaking
— An Interview with Five Northern California Winemakers

Any enthusiast will agree that wine has the potential to inspire our minds, fulfill our hearts, and arouse our souls like few other things in life do.  But in experiencing the magic of wine at its best, it's not very often that we stop to think about the very people whose talent and skill are essential in making it all happen.  Curious to learn firsthand about the personal impressions and professional experiences of these craftsmen, outside the context of any single wine brand, I gathered together a group of five winemakers, all of whom have made wine over the last ten years in Napa and Sonoma counties for boutique and medium-sized wineries and/or their own private labels.  On an unusually cool summer afternoon in the Stag's Leap District of Napa, I engaged them in an animated conversation touching on various themes: attitudes on the wine industry at large, both in California and worldwide; observations about wine consumers and trends in the marketplace; positions on evolving wine styles and practices in production; and finally, reflections on the lessons they've learned in the process of raising vines and crafting wines.  Whether in expressing the satisfaction they've enjoyed in this unique vocation or in describing some of the challenges inherent in it, their candor, insight, and occasional irreverence made for a discussion that was engaging, enlightening, and altogether entertaining.

chalking it up

Chalk Hill Winery

Sonoma Winery Perpetuates Its Style Amidst Geographical Diversity
— An Interview with the Winemaker of Chalk Hill Estate

Very few premium wineries in Northern California can boast of vineyards that lie on a single estate of nearly 1,400 contiguous acres.  Even fewer enjoy the advantage to their wine production afforded by an expansive landholding that features widely diverse vineyard soils and sharply varying topography.  Chalk Hill Estate, however, proudly claims both.  Situated within a small appellation bearing the same name, on the eastern end of Sonoma County, it also benefits from climatic patterns unique to its locale.  As if these practical attributes in themselves weren't enough, the estate readily reveals to visitors a natural charm with undulating green hillsides, tranquil lakes, and meandering streams, along with the aesthetic allure of architecture that gracefully blends into the scenery.  Following a comprehensive tour of this broad and bucolic landscape, I spoke with Jordan Fiorentini about the significance of Chalk Hill's features to its vineyard management and winemaking.

seven, eight, vine

Vineyard 7 & 8 (Photo Credit: Curt Fischer)

Newly Launched Wine Brand Showcases Vineyards on Napa's Spring Mountain
— An Interview with the General Manager and Winemaker of Vineyard 7 & 8

Vineyard 7 & 8 is a Napa Valley winery with a mission as straightforward as its name: to produce wines of exquisite quality that accurately reflect the small vineyards from which they hail at the top of Spring Mountain.  But the simplicity ends there.  For as any quality-driven producer knows, turning a vision into reality is only the beginning.  More important is doing so in a way that balances technique and creativity with a sense of respect for the natural tendencies and rhythms of nature, ultimately allowing the vines to speak for themselves.  As I learned during my lengthy conversation with general manager Wesley Steffens and his French-born winemaker Luc Morlet, the team at Vineyard 7 & 8 manages to strike that balance quite gracefully in the production of their fine wines.

elevating elegance

Robert Craig Winery

Napa Winery Carves a Niche in Showcasing Cabernets from Elevated Vineyards
— An Interview with the Proprietor & Winemaker of Robert Craig Winery

Expression.  Location.  Distinction.  These, we might argue, are the core elements of a finely made wine — one that conveys a message from a particular place with a unique identity.  With its wide variation of climate, soil, and topography, the north coast of California affords vintners a nearly limitless collection of stories to tell in the making of their wines.  One producer in the Napa Valley has taken to doing so from a rather lofty vantage… quite literally.  Robert Craig Winery focuses on crafting Cabernet Sauvignon from small vineyards located on three of the mountains that define the region's perimeter.  With rigorous vineyard management and meticulous winemaking, this producer has managed to highlight the singularity of its featured appellations with stellar wines made from fruit raised on Howell Mountain, Mount Veeder, and Spring Mountain.  On a mission to get to the bottom of this top-performer's story, I sat down with the proprietor himself, Robert Craig, and his winemaker Stephen Tebb, in the bright and airy tasting salon of his recently built winery, with a view of the valley below.

merrymaking with merryvale

Merryvale Vineyards

Longtime Napa Winery Continues to Make Quality Accessible
— An Interview with the Senior Winemaker of Merryvale Vineyards

A visit to the grounds of Merryvale Vineyards reveals everything we've come to expect of a Napa Valley winery: graceful design, serene landscaping, warm hospitality, and, of course, quality-driven wines.  On scratching the surface, though, we discover something that doesn't seem quite as common anymore among producers here: a commitment to making wines of high caliber that are accessible to more consumers in the marketplace.  With its entry-level Starmont line, it seems that Merryvale has struck a fine balance by offering wines made from top vineyard sources, all at a higher availability and lower price point than we might expect for their quality.  In addition, through its smaller-production and more premium lines that showcase the best of its own estate vineyards, Merryvale provides elevated options for more discriminating palates.  To learn more about its marketing strategy and winemaking philosophy, I met with the winery's Communications Director, Chris O'Gorman, and its Senior Winemaker, Sean Foster, in the dramatic ambiance of its historical Cask Room.

a diamond is forever

Diamond Creek Vineyards

Legacy of California Icon Continues to Champion Terroir in Napa Valley 
— An Interview with the Heirs of Diamond Creek Vineyards

In the epic tale behind California's wine industry, Diamond Creek Vineyards is a legend in itself.  Yet little did its founder, the late Al Brounstein, know at the time he bought his land in 1968 that he would later be making lasting history with the methods he chose to craft his quality driven Cabernet Sauvignon.  With a combination of keen instinct, enterprising creativity, and fearless determination, this entrepreneur not only invested in an area previously unknown for grapegrowing in the Napa Valley, but cultivated it with vine cuttings from the finest Bordeaux châteaux.  Designating separate bottlings of his wine according to the three distinct soil types he later discovered in the process of developing his vineyards, Brounstein was among the first in the United States to take the French concept of terroir, or the influence of place on a wine's character, and quite literally plant it here in California.  Unabashed, unorthodox, and uncompromising, this man was one of a handful of pioneers to have set Napa on a course that has since shaped its identity as a world-class winegrowing region, ultimately influencing the production of fine wines in other regions of the country.  Curious to learn first hand about the inception, development, and present state of this legendary producer, I spoke with the current proprietor of Diamond Creek Vineyards, widow Boots Brounstein and her son Philip Ross.

vertical vineyard

Hidden Ridge Vineyard

Winegrower Pushes Limits on Mayacamas Mountains to Accomplish Viticultural Feat
— An Interview with the Owners and Winemaker of Hidden Ridge Vineyard

With vine rows reaching gradiant slopes as steep as 55%, health Hidden Ridge Vineyard is, help without a doubt, an anomaly among grapegrowing properties in the United States.  The creative scheme and audacious endeavor of owners Lynn Hofacket and Casidy Ward, it also boasts some of the densest planting of grapevines found on any hillside site.  In pushing the envelope of agricultural development, the couple have gloriously succeeded in creating not only a visual spectacle but, more importantly, a superb source of mountain grown Cabernet Sauvignon whose production into quality-driven wine is overseen by their consulting winemaker, Marco DiGiulio.  I met with the three of them for a private tour of this stunning vineyard located on a ridge at the Napa/Sonoma border, and just as the dense morning fog began to lift, I was afforded the full impact of this viticultural feat, with breathtaking vistas as a backdrop.

soil of serpentine

Blue Rock Vineyard

Winery Entrepreneur Restores Site History, Seeks to Elevate Alexander Valley
— An Interview with the Proprietor of Blue Rock Vineyard

The surface of Alexander Valley's utmost potential as a wine region has barely been scratched.  At least that's the belief of a small cadre of local producers dedicated to crafting premium Bordeaux varietal wines — of whom one is particularly adamant in his determination to help realize that promise.  Kenneth Kahn, proprietor of Blue Rock Vineyard, while doing his own part to prove what this Sonoma appellation is truly capable of, is hoping that the efforts of its quality-driven producers will help to bring a new level of recognition to this region.  With a respectful nod to the mid-priced wines that first earned the area media attention, Kahn nevertheless remains committed and driven to pushing the limit of its possibilities in an effort to demonstrate that Alexander Valley is capable of accomplishing so much more.  I sat down with this bold entrepreneur to learn more about his vision for this wine region and how his brand Blue Rock fits into it.

keen on keenan


Winemaking Owner Furthers Legacy on Napa's Spring Mountain
— An Interview with Michael Keenan of Robert Keenan Winery

It was by virtue of his hillside Napa Merlot that Robert Keenan planted his eponymous winery squarely on the world's wine map twenty years ago. Since then, a new generation of ownership under his son has resulted in significant changes in vineyard practices, varietal choices, and overall business philosophy that have propelled the producer well into the modern era of premium winemaking.  Although bolstering its reputation in recent years through the crafting of fine wines from Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc, Keenan Winery continues to produce Merlot of superb quality, threatening to help bring the varietal back into vogue following its recent fall from market popularity.  I spoke with proprietor Michael Keenan on the evolution of his winery's production, the virtues of raising vines on Spring Mountain, and the lessons learned from the daunting task of furthering his father's legacy.

super in sonoma


Enterprising Winemaker Aims to Better Sonoma's Reputation for Cabernet
— An Interview with the Winemaker of Super Sonoman

Many in Sonoma County would take issue with being told that their winemaking region suffers from what might be called a bit of a varietal void.  But arguably, much of its reputation has been built on the quality-driven production of Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Syrah.  Can the same thing be said of Cabernet Sauvignon?   With a negative answer to that question, at least one local producer has gone out on a limb to assert not only that the Bordeaux varietal can, in fact, become a major player in Sonoma, but that there is one particular geographical feature that would be instrumental in making it so: the micro vineyards on the slopes of the Mayacamas Mountains overlooking the Russian River Valley.  Super Sonoman, the relatively recent venture of Chris Taddei and his wife Dana, involves the making of wine from those ridge-top vineyards.  As a brand, it serves as a testament to their firm belief that Sonoma's potential for producing lush, elegant, and ageworthy Cabernet Sauvignon has gone largely untapped and is capable of surpassing the best on which neighboring Napa has established its own reputation.  Curious, I set out to learn more about Super Sonoman and what its winemaker hopes to achieve with its implicit message.

vested interest

Salvestrin Winery

Winemaking Viticulturist of Napa's Salvestrin Touts St. Helena's Benefits
— An Interview with Winemaker Rich Salvestrin —

The face of the Napa Valley has changed dramatically over the last generation.  During that time, scores of new wineries have been established and the resulting growth in commerce and tourism has been staggering.  But in the midst of all this bustle and boom, there persists a number of small, family owned and operated vineyards whose history stretches long before Napa earned a starring role on the world stage of wine.  Salvestrin Winery is one such property, having been in the same family for nearly 80 years.  After having tasted its current releases at the 2008 St. Helena Press Tasting event, I made a mental note to learn more about this regional stalwart.  Months later, true to my intention, I sat down with owner, vineyard manager, and winemaker Rich Salvestrin, and listened first hand to him share his experiences at the helm of this seasoned vessel navigating its way through a sea of change.

eastern exposure

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.

roc solid

rocky soil

A Dream Solidifies into the Wine Caves of VinRoc, atop Napa's Atlas Peak

Between the rocky soil of its hillside vineyard and the granite encountered during the excavation of its wine cave, VinRoc has had a solid theme of rock running through its story.  I had initially met its proprietors, Kiky and Michael Parmenter, during the annual Family Winemakers tasting event, whereupon I sampled wines from their small but super-premium portfolio.  Months later, I sat down with Michael to learn more about  the handcrafting of VinRoc's robust and elegant Cabernet Sauvignon as well as the building of its rather unique wine facility.  What I gathered turned out to be an inspiring story about the seemingly effortless evolution of a mountaintop brand and its ambitious drive towards quality.

the magic of montemaggiore


An Interview with the Winemaker of Dry Creek Valley's Montemaggiore

Biodynamics.  Based in a holistic and largely spiritual world view, it seeks to balance the interrelationship of land with the plants and animals thriving on it as a tightly integrated and self-nourishing system.  While a great deal of biodynamic principles remain unexplained and in many cases even questionable, increasingly more grape growers in the wine industry are embracing its practices.  They do so in an effort to bring better balance not only to their vineyards but also to the wines ultimately made from them.  One such producer is Montemaggiore, located on a hill overlooking Sonoma's Dry Creek Valley.  I initially met its winemaker, Lise Ciolino, at the 2009 Rhone Rangers Grand Tasting event whereupon I was struck with her candor and enthusiasm in discussing the close relationship between her land and her wines.  It was only upon sitting down with her later, while taking in the stunning vistas of the estate she shares with her husband Vince, that I learned of the unexpected route that led her to winemaking.

vine-staker to winemaker

La Honda Tasting Room

Private Estate Vineyard Builder Creates Unique Winery Business Model
An Interview with the CEO of Post & Trellis Vineyards & Winemaker of La Honda Winery

A quasi-urban wasteland of industrial warehouses and technology business parks, Redwood City is, without a doubt, among the unlikeliest of locations for a producer of premium California wines.  But it was in this very setting that I found myself during a recent visit to La Honda Winery, one of the increasingly numerous of its kind and part of the "urban winery" movement.  Curiously, upon closer examination, I found some very significant differences separating this from other wine production facilities located amidst the metropolitan sprawl: a surprisingly inviting aesthetic reminiscent of more visitor-oriented wine regions and a compellingly unique business model based in barter with growers who are also clients.  I sat down with CEO and winemaker Ken Wornick in the tasting room of his charmingly appointed winery to taste some of La Honda's recent San Francisco Chronicle award-winning wines, and to learn more about his singular approach to grape growing and wine production under the Santa Cruz Mountains appellation.

from coterie to cuvée

Coterie's Barrels

An Interview of Coterie Cellars, an Urban Winery

There was a time when the term "urban winery" would have been considered an oxymoron.  But for wine producers who source their fruit from growers, the lack of attachment to any particular vineyard allows for a great degree of choice regarding winery location.  An increasing number of them are opting to set up shop in areas that may be a distance from the nearest grapevines, but which are conveniently located, both for themselves as well as potential customers living in more urban areas.  One such winery is Coterie Cellars, a newly established micro-production facility located amidst the quasi-urban sprawl of San Jose.  Though I'd briefly met the proprietors, Kyle and Shala Loudon, during the 2008 Pinot Days tasting event in San Francisco, I followed up with the domestic garagistes more recently during a visit to their rather compact winery, where I learned more about the evolution of their urban endeavor.

grapes & gastronomy

Grapes & Gastronomy

Chef Becomes Entrepreneur to Bring Compound Butters into the Mainstream
— An Interview with the David Stemmle, CEO of Headstart Gourmet

When we think of food and wine together, it often involves pairing the two.  We might have an aromatic white to go with our papaya salad, a hearty red to drink with that filet mignon, or a dry rosé to enjoy with an antipasto plate.  But what about integrating wine into food?  That's a bit of a different story and one that far fewer people think about, much less actually practice.  That is, of course, unless they happen to have a good amount of comfort with the culinary arts — much like Chef David Stemmle.  At the heart of his company, Headstart Gourmet, is a line of quality, handcrafted compound butters that contain a substantial amount of reduced wine.  The effect of using wine as an ingredient in this way is to give the foods to which it's added an intensity and concentration of flavor.  Coupled with the richness inherent of the butter itself, his product is nothing shy of sensational.  Not long after I first met Chef Stemmle at the Annual Fancy Food Show in San Francisco, he spoke to me from his home in North Carolina, sharing not only the story of how he came to create his compound butters but also his culinary perspective on the wine's versatility in the preparation of fine food.

a garden in geyserville


Boutique Producer Gives Voice to the Rustic Elegance of Alexander Valley
An Interview with the Proprietor Winemakers of Garden Creek Vineyards

When we think of a garden, we're likely to imagine a small plot of land that's meticulously tended to and lovingly cared for — a testament, really, to the connection between person and plant.  Albeit on a slightly larger scale, it's with similar attention to detail and devotion to  nurturing that Karin and Justin Miller look after their own garden: the vineyards of Alexander Valley's Garden Creek Ranch and Winery.  I'd first met Justin at Sonoma County's Best of the Boutiques wine tasting event, where I was immediately struck with a palpable sense of his passion for the land and dedication to articulating its message through the handcrafting of superpremium wines with spellbinding depth and seductive complexity.  Some time thereafter, I sat down with the couple over lunch in the comfortable and candelit interior of their ranch house to talk about their vines and wines, and in doing so, discovered a singularity in their approach not only to winemaking but to living life as a whole.

duke & duchess of dutcher

Dutcher Crossing Wines

An Interview with the Proprietor and Winemaker of Dutcher Crossing Winery

"When you step foot on it, you know you are home."  With these simple words Debra Mathy, proprietor of Sonoma's Dutcher Crossing Winery, describes not only the experience she seeks for visitors to her Dry Creek Valley estate but also the very essence of her role in the wine industry: warmth and hospitality.  Together with her talented and accomplished consulting winemaker, Kerry Damskey, Mathy aims to provide in a comfortable and inviting ambiance a truly unique and handcrafted taste of the region's fruit.  I sat down with the two to discuss the vision and mission of her recently purchased winery, the focus and direction of his winemaking style, and their collective commitment to expressing the local terroir.

the glow of rubissow

Rubissow Vineyard

A New Generation Shines the Light of a Modern Era on its Napa Brand
— An In-Depth Interview with the Hearts & Minds of Rubissow Wines

Steeped in tradition, yet focused on the future. Reverent of the land, yet driven to pushing its potential. Seasoned in experience, yet vibrant with ardor and enthusiasm. Such is the balance struck at the house of Rubissow, the Napa Valley family estate winery that runs on the disciplined vineyard management, erudite winemaking, and savvy sales & marketing of the brother and sister team of Peter and Ariel Rubissow with their partner-in-vine, Timothy Milos. Having remained corporate-free and family-run a full generation after its establishment during the Napa renaissance of the '60s, Rubissow Wines is easily considered a relic among super-premium wine estates. In the interest of peering into the heart of this rare gem, I sat down with the Rubissows and their winemaker in the bright and naturally lit space of the property's charming, contemporary, and ecological guest-house. What I found was a trio of individuals each of whom resonates with one another as they contribute uniquely and collectively to the success of all that is Rubissow Wines.

the creek boutique

Rolling Vineyards in Sonoma

Sonoma Winery Delivers Quality with Value
— An Interview with the Proprietors of Charles Creek Vineyard

I'm normally very cautious about making sweeping generalizations when it comes to wine.  As an artisan-driven product with a dizzying array of styles, production techniques, regions of origin, distribution channels, and variations stemming from climate and soil, wine is entirely too complex to sum up with a single turn of phrase or flourish of hand.  But when it comes to the wines of Northern California, namely from the likes of Napa and Sonoma, there's one generalization that I have no hesitation with asserting: they are expensive.  That is, of course, if you're looking for wines of quality.  Granted, it might be stating the obvious that a price tag must be high for something well made.  But if we take a good look at the continuum of wines produced in this region, many will agree that below $30 per bottle retail, their quality sharply plummets into a category overwhelmingly dominated by the uninspired and insipid.  Much of it frankly verges on plonk.  There are, however, a few regional producers who manage to make wines of exceptional value in the $20 to $25 range, one of which is Sonoma's Charles Creek Vineyard.  In an effort to learn the story behind the portfolio of wines I admire so much for its remarkable quality in the context of great value, I spoke with the winery's proprietors, Bill and Gerry Brinton, over a casual lunch on Sonoma's main square.

rhythm in blue

Rhythm in Blue

Napa Wine Brand is Music to the Ears
— An Interview with the Winemaker of R&B Cellars

Just as with their passion for music — referenced in the artwork of the vibrant blue labels on their wine bottles — love of wine comes across lyrically and resonantly in person with Kevin and Barbara Brown, the husband and wife team behind R&B Cellars. Sitting down with the couple in the living room of their spacious and charming Victorian house in San Francisco's bucolic suburb of Alameda, I spoke with them about R&B's portfolio of wines, their respective styles, and their relative position among California wines. I took keen interest in having Kevin share not only his winemaking experience, but also, given his prior background in wines sales, his perspective on the market as a whole and what he felt were the best approaches for the consumer to make the most out of an oftentimes confusing wine-buying experience.

seeing green

Seeing Green

Dry Creek Valley Winery Spearheads Enviable "Green Initiative"
— Spotlight on Michel-Schlumberger Winery

"They're over there in those condos," he said with a proud, boyish smile as he pointed to some stacks of small, shallow wooden boxes a short distance away. Jay Kell, the manager of wine education and guest services at Sonoma's Michel-Schlumberger Wine Estate was referring to the fairly sizable colony of bees that the winery maintains on the property. I had just arrived with my partner whom I had insisted join me on this visit, given his background in horticulture and keen interest in sustainability. Our purpose here was to embark on what the winery markets as its Green Tour, a privately escorted excursion of the vineyards, provided as way to increase customer awareness of its dedication to a myriad of biodynamic practices. One of those is the nurturing of bees, done in an effort to facilitate the pollination of other plant life supportive to the vines themselves. I soon learned that this overall philosophy, so deeply respectful of nature and its inherent ecological balance, permeates just about everything done at Michel-Schlumberger — not only in the production of the fine wines for which it's known, but also in its dedication to give back to the environment from which came the very grapes to make them.

once in a blue moon

Spotlight on Blue Moon Wines


Once in a blue moon.  That's about how frequently we find deep-value driven wines in the marketplace that are actually worth more than the bottles in which the come.  At the $7 or $8 per bottle price point, it's frankly next to impossible to get anything decent, especially among California wines.  In fact, I generally recommend against spending anything below $10; my belief is that it's better to spend a couple of extra dollars in order to really get your money's worth.  But there are exceptions.  One of these is Blue Moon Wines, a California producer with New York Italian roots that produces a few lines of value-driven wines, which can be found in some west coast markets for about $7 retail.  I met with the company's president, Anthony Scotto III, to talk about his mission for providing budget-conscious customers with solid California wines as well as his views on the value market as a whole.
hillside hideaway

Hillside Hideaway

Boutique Wine Brand Delivers Charm & Appeal from its Nook on Spring Mountain
— Spotlight on Guilliams Vineyards

Shawn Guilliams is the exactly the type of woman any urban-dwelling 30-something would want to have as a 'cool aunt' — whether because she can easily kick back with you like a buddy, yet on occasion offer pearls of mature sagacity that come from her experience as a mother; or because she can spend the better part of her time tucked away in the secluded recesses of her hillside hideaway overlooking the Napa valley, yet enthusiastically break out of its provinciality to pop into the city bustle when the situation calls for it; or still because she's completely devoid of the pomp and pretense that seem to run rampant among many of the valley's other wine industry notables. Regardless of the reason, she is without doubt an effervescent and engaging personality who makes up half of the team that is Guilliams Vineyards. Her husband, John — a talented renaissance man with a penchant for designing and building his own homes — sustainably farms their 7 acre vineyard along the steep slopes of their hillside property on Napa's Spring Mountain, a district with an elevation of 2,000 ft.  It was here that I spent an afternoon with my partner Bill, sitting down to lunch with Shawn, to learn about what life is like for a micro-producer of premium Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.




wine in the news

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