Last year I was invited to a wine pairing dinner at Avra Estiatorio in Beverly Hills featuring the wines of Domaine Carneros. Joining us for dinner was no other than winemaker, Zak Miller. I have only ever tried the widely distributed opening pricepoint sparkling from Domaine Carneros, so I jumped at the chance to taste other selections from their portfolio.
Zak has been at Domaine Carneros for 11 years. Fun fact: His wife is also a winemaker and they met in college while both studying forestry. What are the odds of that?!? Before landing in Carneros, Zak made wine in both Chile and New Zealand to hone his craft.
How do I know Zak is a good fit for Domaine Carneros? Well, at dinner Zak proclaimed “bubbles go with everything except toothpaste and coffee”. That, my friends, is a good fit.
Domaine Carneros was founded in 1987 by the prestigious family behind Champagne Taittinger. Their founding winemaker Eileen Crane created a classic California expression of the Taittinger style that they describe as “noble French heritage with pure Carnero's verve”. Domaine Carneros is a “grower-producer” or what we’d call Récoltant-Manipulant (RM) in Champagne. This means that the wine is made from a grower who produces wine made from their own estate grapes.
At Domaine Carneros, all wines are from the Carneros AVA with 95% classified as estate fruit. But there is a movement towards all estate fruit starting this year, 2020. Their estate vineyards total 400 acres across six sites. In fact, only the wines in distribution use bought fruit and that is because they’re fulfilling on long-term contracts.
With a Champagne house as your parent, does Domaine Carneros have to follow the direction of said parent? Nope, Taittinger gives no influence on winemaking to Domaine Carneros. They can do as they please. With that said, let’s taste!
100% estate-grown Chardonnay. This is the “tête de cuvee”, their finest sparkling wine, and is frequently named “America’s best sparkling”. 3000 cases made a year. I get beautiful leesy notes and grilled pineapple 4sho on the nose and palate, as outlined in their tasting notes below.
Winery Notes: Lovely notes of white flowers, Meyer lemon, poached pear, and a hint of grilled pineapple. The palate opens up to honeysuckle and crème brûlée. The full mouth feel leads to a very round and long finish.
51% Chardonnay, 47% Pinot Noir, and 2% Pinot Gris
Creamy and less leesy than the La Rêve. Smooth and very easy to drink.
Winery Notes: This very focused and elegant wine displays lovely notes of key lime, honeycomb, and lemon curd. This round wine displays a palate with hints of lime blossom, baked pear, and lemon meringue, resulting in a creamy texture and a long finish.
100% Pinot Noir
Raspberry and cherry notes. Duh. Plus, what Zak called “Carneros baking spice”.
Winery Notes: Packs a full range of red and darker berry flavors. Beginning with the nose, one encounters bright raspberry and cooked cherry notes along with hints of sassafras and freshly turned earth. 10 months of barrel age lends a sweetness that balances the supple tannin. Of particular note is the juicy and sweet-fruited entry upon the palate, backed up by delicate spice notes that lead to a lengthy, warming finish. The hallmark of Domaine Carneros Pinot Noir is the texture, and this wine delivers with a supple and silky mouth-feel.
59% Pinot Noir and 41% Chardonnay
Beautiful rosé notes of rose petal, peach, and strawberry. Quite a nice for it being non-vintage (NV). And for the nerds, 9.5g/L of residual sugar, so a true Brut.
Winery Notes: This wine’s aroma, delivered on a delicate mousse, hints at raspberry, apricot, and rose petal. The palate displays peach, raspberry jam, tangerine, and orange for a soft, delicate mouthfeel and a smooth long finish.
This was a lovely rosé color, but the bottle went quick!
Bibiana González Rave and husband Jeff Pisoni are the embodiment of keeping it all in the family. Jeff is a 4th generation farmer in the Salinas Valley. His family grew vegetables, but it was his father Gary, who first planted grapevines in 1982. Gary planted 5 acres that he hand-irrigated. Literally. He drove water up the mountain in his truck for the vines. Jeff now tends to vines in both the Santa Lucia Highlands and Monterey.
Bibiana grew up in Medellin, Columbia and at 14 decided she wanted to make wine. She lived six years in France (Bordeaux and Burgundy) where she worked her first harvests and earned a degree in Enology from the University of Bordeaux. She considers herself a French-trained winemaker with more of a vineyard focus. Jeff handles all of the estate fruit and Bibiana buys all the sourced fruit. All in the family. They have two children, ages two and four and between the two of them, they manage/oversee six different labels/brands.
République hosted us at a press luncheon in March where we tried wines from each of their brands. Below is a brief descriptor of each brand, including my standout wine.
Why am I sharing this story and this family with you? Because I believe there is a level of integrity and authenticity that comes from wine crafted by a family. Crafted by real people with real skin in the game. Bibiana and Jeff have a portfolio of California wines that you should feel good about purchasing. You are supporting a real family, real people, and real dreams.
Started in 2011, Cattleya Wines are terroir-driven, small production wines. Cattleya is a type of orchid, the native flower of Columbia, found in the rainforest.
I find this wine super-duper pleasing. Very primary plus creamy malo notes and an elegant minerality. Ripe, juicy, and yummy.
Alma means soul in Spanish. These wines are produced from Napa and Sonoma Vineyards and represent the purity of each varietal from their specific appellation areas. Wine Enthusiast calls Alma de Cattleya Wines “a great taste of the freshness of Sonoma without the sticker shock”.
A Sauvignon Blanc that is the perfect balance of CA style and NZ style. I get everything from citrus fruit to tropical fruit plus some grassy/green notes. This wine is made from Mostly Russian River fruit. 1000 case total production.
This is the collaboration between Bibiana and Jeff. In their 6th vintage, these wines are inspired by the traditional Sauvignon Blanc wines from France.
A blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon inspired by Bordeaux. Whole cluster fruit and a wine made in a reductive style showcasing both rocks (minerality) and fruit. Served in magnum. This wine is unfined and unfiltered.
Was first planted by Gary Pisoni (Jeff’s dad) in 1982. Pisoni Vineyards consist of small vineyard blocks at 1300 ft altitude with wines made by Jeff. Pisoni makes only one Chardonnay and one Pinot Noir every year.
Really polished. Not much else to say except that this is a stellar wine.
A collection of wines from the three vineyards farmed by the Pisoni family. These are limited production wines that afford the Pisoni family complete control of the farming and winemaking process, ensuring consistently superior quality.
Fruit from the Soberanes, Gary's, and Pisoni Vineyards. This wine is barrel aged and was the creamiest Chardonnay of the bunch, but in a GOOD way.
The charismatic younger sister of Lucia Wines. A limited production rosé produced annually with $1/bottle donated to breast cancer research.
100% estate fruit. A stellar rosé.
And I'd be remiss if I did not mention Margarita's baguette and Normandy butter that was served to us at République. Normandy butter is most certainly liquid gold. The best butter I have ever tasted.
In 1968, Titus Vineyards was born with the purchase of their property. They have farmed this land continually since 1969, which gives them 50 years in Napa Valley. Today, Titus Vineyards remains family-owned. The property consists of a 50-acre vineyard, winery, and tasting room at the base of Howell Mountain in the St. Helena AVA, near Calistoga. I had the pleasure of lunching with Eric Titus who shared with us their current releases as well as some treats from their library.
In the vineyard, they prefer a “light touch”, including no mechanization. Stephen Cruzan has been their winemaker since 2015, which is the year their onsite winery was completed. Before that, Philip, Eric’s brother, headed up winemaking at a custom crush facility. Philip now makes wine at Chappellet, but he is still involved with Titus. They built the winery to be able to be more nimble, reactive, and agile and so that they could make decisions with more flexibility. They are now holding at 14,000-15,000 cases annually.
I asked the question: what is next for Titus? What do the next 50 years bring? Eric’s response is that they always like to keep their options open. This could mean the next generation of the Titus family taking over. Or perhaps, maybe there is a sale in their future? Only time will tell.
Andronicus is Eric and Philip’s ode to the blend. This wine is predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon (66%) with some Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot. A classic Bordeaux blend. A generous red that is both hyper balanced and precise with a combination of red and black fruit, spicebox, vanilla, and smoke.
A youthful purple color. A balanced wine with well-integrated tannins. I want this wine on a Friday night: in front of the fire, cozying on the couch with my husband, my dog, and a cushy blanket.
An unabashed Zin, not afraid of its raisin quality. Juicy red fruit plus prunes on the nose.
A beautiful, ethereal wine. Underbrush and graphite on the nose. Licorice on the back palate.
Small production with only 1,000 cases. A splash of Viognier softens this wine and helps knit the fruit together. A totally different perspective on Sauvignon Blanc. The acidity and greenness are in check. In fact, this wine is all tangerine, all the time.
Red, black, and blue fruit on both the nose and the palate. A bit of heat on the nose. Good tannic structure plus licorice/anise on the back palate.
Chocolate and cocoa on the nose. Even more of a tannic structure than the ‘06.
This wine screams that it wants a pork tenderloin to go with it! The predominant fruit here is blueberries. A basket of tiny, ripe blueberries.
A deep purple core with a watery rim. SO much fruit still here for being a 10-year-old wine.
A blend of Malbec, Petit Sirah, Petit Verdot, and Zinfandel. A big ‘ol wine with lots ‘o tannins. This is the biggest and juiciest of the bunch. According to Eric, this wine is about hedonism.
Imagine a career where you have about 30 chances to prove yourself. Each year you get to make one decision and that decision stays with you your entire life. This is the life of a winemaker, according to Ana Diogo-Draper of Artesa Vineyards & Winery. Every year she works hard to craft a wine she is proud of. As she says: You’ve got 30 chances to make it right. And once that wine is in bottle it starts all over again. At the end of her career, she will have about 30 vintages of wine that have her touch on it.
I recently attended a press luncheon featuring the wines of Artesa Vineyards & Winery. We were lucky enough to meet winemaker, Ana Diogo-Draper, who tasted us through a flight of Artesa wines. THIS is one of the perks of working in the wine business. I have virtually unlimited access to great wines and get to meet the people who are very close to the wines. The stories behind the bottle never cease to amaze me. There is so much life in a bottle of wine, and I love to share this with all of you. I firmly believe that understanding the backstory of a bottle (the vineyards, the region, the grapes, the winemakers, etc) will help you to better enjoy your wine. It’s a beautiful thing!
From the Artesa website:
In the 1980s, the historic Spanish winemaking family Codorníu Raventós began to acquire and develop vineyard land in the Carneros region of Napa Valley. Opened in 1991 as Codorníu Napa, a sparkling wine house, the winery ultimately transitioned to producing still wines as successive vintages revealed the quality and potential of the family’s vineyard holdings. The winery was renamed Artesa – Catalan for “handcrafted” – in 1997, and has since become a leading producer of artisan wines from the varietals for which Carneros and Napa Valley are best known: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. Codorníu Raventós is still family owned and is the oldest company in Spain with a winemaking legacy in the Penedès region near Barcelona that dates back to 1551.
The 150 acres of sustainably farmed Artesa estate vines are on a former goat farm with a cool and coastal climate and sea-facing vines. Soils are rocky (sandstone, limestone, and loam). The estate vines straddle the Carneros and Mt. Veeder AVAs and are all at 100-500 feet elevation. Pinot Noir is the most planted with Chardonnay coming in at number two and a bit of Albariño. There is a small amount of Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon in the Mt. Veeder vines. All grapes are handpicked because of the steepness of the vineyards.
Artesa produces 25 distinct wines for a total of 40K-50K cases annually. Ana has been at the helm of winemaking since 2015. She strives for more neutral inputs to let the grapes and the terroir speak for themselves. 100% native fermentation is used, as there is a healthy native yeast population onsite. Researchers were actually brought in and determined that the native yeast onsite does not exist elsewhere; it is unique to Artesa.
For this special tasting, Artesa bottled the component pieces of their wines for educational purposes. Note that these wines were very roughly filtered, bottled by hand, and are not available for sale.
This component comes from Blocks 4, 6, & 7 in their estate vineyard. Both Dijon 96 and Robert Young clones are used. In terms of winemaking, puncheon fermentation and basket press are used, the wines go through 100% malo. With this wine, you smell the winemaking (toast, dairy, and texture). On the nose, I get green apple, pear, a light toast, and a dairy/cream note. The wine has a bracing medium + acid. The palate is quite textured (perhaps from bâttonage)? And there is a distinct note of toasty macadamia nuts.
This Martini clone component comes from Block 15 of the estate vineyard. A pneumatic press and stainless steel fermentation are both used. The wine does not go through malo. Here, I think, you smell a combination of the fruit and the vineyard. This wine is bright with no shortage of fruity, primary notes. It is a bit cloudy, due to the minimal filtering. Green fruit is quite prominent because of the lack of malo.
This finished wine has 20 components parts from 10 different clones. Out of the 20, we only got to taste two (above). This wine feels warm on the nose (it is 14.5% ABV after all!). It is quite layered, almost contemplative. I find many California Chardonnay’s reveal themselves when you first meet. With this wine, I had to get to know her a little better before I could make an accurate assessment. There are certainly primary notes present (green fruit and citrus), along with the requisite secondary notes common to Chardonnay: cream and dairy. There is even a faint nuttiness on the finish.
This Martini clone component comes from Block 24 of the estate vineyard, which is the first Pinot Noir pick in the vineyard. Open top fermentation in puncheon for 20-25 days, then basket press. This wine gives red fruit (cherry, cranberry), blueberry, vanilla, spice/toast, and earth (a twiggy note) on the nose. The palate is warm and comforting with immature acid that is not yet integrated.
This Martini clone component comes from Block 14 of the estate vineyard. Stainless steel open-top fermentation. The wine is a touch cloudy as it is not finished. This is a very primary wine, compared to the first component piece that had oak influence.
This finished wine has 25 components, of which we got to try two. Now, THIS is a finished Pinot Noir. The requisite fruit + spice/earth lead to a good, all-around red that won’t overpower food and is quality enough to enjoy on your own.
Ralph Hertelendy was our host at the LA Wine Writers luncheon in April at Cafe del Rey in the Marina. Ralph is tall, dark, handsome, and he comes bearing his big, bold, gutsy Napa wines. Ok…...is this one of those “all that glitters isn’t gold” moments? We are talking Napa, you know. And in Napa, sometimes the shiny exterior (i.e. the chateau on the hill or the #boldAF bottle of wine) is not all it’s cracked up to be. Is there more than meets the eye at Hertelendy?
Ralph’s family had been making wine in Hungary and Slovenia over 300 years ago. His Great Uncle Gábor Hertelendy created two varietals in his volcanic basalt-mountain vineyards overlooking Lake Balaton: Szürkebarát (better known as Pinot Gris) and Kéknyelű (a rare Hungarian white wine grape only found in the Badacsony wine region). His vineyards were confiscated by the Communists, but they allowed him to stay and work on his former land as a hired hand.
Ralph comes from a diverse family. His mother was born in China, raised in Peru, and met Ralph’s father at UC Berkeley. His father was a classical music critic, and Ralph grew up exposed to music and the arts. He is a classically trained pianist and can pick up just about any instrument and play it. In addition to making wine, he also makes electronic music. His fermentation journey began at age 15 when he made shitty (his own words) beer in his basement. At 25 he made his first wine (a Bordeaux blend) from purchased grapes.
Hertelendy’s first vintage was 2013; a new kid on the block in the Napa world. A Howell Mountain winery owner once told Ralph, “I’ll sell you my grapes, even though you’re a nobody.” It’s statements (and people) like that, that give Napa a bad name. That perpetuates the elitist mentality so often associated with the area. Hertelendy now owns the 4-acre Rockwell Ridge estate vineyard, which is 35 feet below the prestigious Howell Mountain AVA demarcation line, so they are unable to use that in their labeling. In addition to their small estate vineyard, they also source fruit from all over Napa.
Ralph’s motto is to not play by the rules. His wines showcase “bold elegance”. They do not have a private tasting room, but their wines can be tasted at the Vintner’s Collective in downtown Napa. In addition to their Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and other Bordeaux blends, they are launching a Cabernet Franc later this year. Next up: a sparkling wine, Pinot Noir, and a GSM blend. His end game? Scotch.
During the 2017 vintage, 25% of their grapes were picked by Saturday October 7th. The 75% balance was slated to be harvested Monday October 9th. On the evening of Sunday October 8th the devastating Napa wildfires began. Hertelendy was not in a good position with most of their fruit still in the ground. The vineyards did not burn, but lab analysis does show smoke taint in the fruit. At the time of this luncheon (April 2018), the jury was still out as to the plans for this fruit. They might use a filtration method known as reverse osmosis which can remove smoke-derived compounds; although there is a chance this may only be temporary and the compounds return as the wine ages. They might use the fruit for Audēre, their sister label, or they might make a special edition “smoke” wine. Gimmicky, yes. But it could be an interesting experiment.
And now, back to the luncheon!
This salad was to die for. For the wine, grapes were sourced from the legendary Ritchie Vineyard that is said to be one of the best Chardonnay sites in the country. The wine spends 15 months in barrel (90% new French oak). It is unfined and unfiltered. I find it so incredibly complex and layered with notes of sweet citrus (meyer lemon), spice, tropical fruit (guava, ripe pineapple), toast, and sweet spice. Ralph describes it as a Cab lovers Chardonnay. Fun fact: the label changes color when the bottle reaches the optimal temperature of 48 degrees.
Jesus Christ this pasta is good. This wine is the Hertelendy cuvée. It’s an approachable Napa Cab and a good entry level into the region (yes, $135 in Napa can be considered “entry level”). This is their “Right Bank” approach with Merlot making up 81% of the blend. This wine shows great red fruit, black pepper/spice, cedar box/cigar, and floral (violet) notes.
Yowzas! This wine is a delight; very well-balanced and mellows out A TON with food. I get notes of: black fruit (blackberry, cassis), bramble, black licorice, baking spices (vanilla, clove), truffle and forest floor. The fruit used is a combination of Mayacama valley floor fruit plus Vaca mountain fruit. The latter two tasting notes (truffle and forest floor) come from the Valley floor fruit).
This wine is a traditional Cab-heavy Bordeaux blend (76% Cab, 11% Petit Verdot, 7% Merlot, 5% Malbec, 1% Cab Franc) with the expected Cab notes of black fruit plus oak and toast.
This was Ralph’s first Hertelendy vintage. All the fruit was sourced. The wine is predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon with 12% Petit Verdot and 5% Merlot blended in for good measure. One reviewer said the oak was “beautifully disguised”. Parker gave it a 95. I get beautiful, ripe black fruit and bramble.
The group found Ralph to be knowledgeable, personable, and an all-around great guy. He is a Jack of all Trades who seems to be successful at everything he touches! So yes, there is more than meets the eye at Hertelendy Vineyards. There is heart, soul, and a family legacy driving the operation. And the wines.....they kick ass. Definitely worth a taste if you come across them. They can be found at the restaurants listed HERE. Cheers!
Chateau Montelena in Napa Valley is most famous for winning the white wine category of the Judgement of Paris tasting in 1976. The Judgment of Paris was a blind tasting organized by Steven Spurrier, a British wine merchant, in which classic French wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy were competitively tasted next to wines being made in little-known Napa Valley, California. To everyone’s surprise, the Napa wines took home first place in two categories. Chateau Montelena won the white wine category with their 1973 Chardonnay and Stag’s Leap won the red wine category with their 1973 S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon. Check out the movie, Bottle Shock, which tells the story of this tasting and shows how Napa got put on the map.
And now, for a tasting of two Chateau Montelena wines
This wine is from Calistoga, which is one of the warmest sub-regions in Napa and also the northernmost. Those who were here remember 2015 as the driest year on California record. This coupled with warm weather produces dense and ripe fruit.
Tasting Notes: This wine has stewed black fruit on the nose (perhaps blackberry jam) and dark chocolate/cocoa. On the palate I get the same stewed black fruit (including bramble), plus a slight raisined note, as well as cedar/toast, vanilla, and sweet baking spices (cinnamon and clove). This wine is big, juicy and in yo' face. BUT it is very well-balanced. I love this wine. This is everything I want a California Zinfandel to be.
According to the tech sheet, this wine shows Napa Valley greatness without the wait, as it is intended to drink now. The 2013 vintage had a dry and mild Spring, which stresses the vines early on. Summer brought lots of sunlight plus wide diurnal shifts (difference in temperatures between day and night) which helps the grapes retain acidity.
Tasting Notes: On the nose I get predominantly black fruit (blackberry), but also a bit of red fruit (plum) plus vanilla. There is an ever so slight pyrazine (green) note that gives away the fact that we are drinking Cabernet Sauvignon. On the palate I also get black and red fruit as well as strong tannins and acidity. This wine delivers classic Cab flavors and is ready for immediate consumption. 2015 is the current release. The 2015 retails at $61.