The TEW Tour of California, Part 1
The T. Edward team is recently back from a whirlwind tour of our winegrowers in California. Here’s a few excerpts from our team, beginning with Forlorn Hope by Danielle Hilty.
It would suffice to say that the team was extremely excited to get off our 80s-era school bus after a bumpy 2 hour drive from Sacramento into the foothills of Calaveras County, farther east than most wine tourists ever tread. The property was purchased in 2013 by Matthew Rorick and his family as the new home of Forlorn Hope Wines. And it is massive. With 80 acres planted to about 20 varieties, Matthew has plenty to do, as he is a one-man show all but during harvest. And even then, he explained to us at the top of the property, a red mountain of volcanic clay soil hiding gray schist and quartzite deposits, he works around the clock. It’s this element (pun intended) that makes the undertaking worth it to him, a rare deposit of limestone in northern California. For winemakers looking for good grape soil, limestone is as good as gold, that soft yellow medal discovered only 20 miles north a California-lifetime ago.
In 2013 when he purchased the property, most of the fruit had already been contracted out for the vintage, but we were lucky enough to taste some of his estate grown 2014, which has yet to be released. To familiarize himself with the new land he made an estate blend of whites co-fermented with Verdelho, Albarino, Picpoul and Muscat that tastes as much like everything in it as it does a signature Forlorn wine- evasive yet savory. The property came with another golden opportunity: own-rooted Chardonnay planted in 1974 that he is barrel-fermenting whole cluster to a deliciously pale cooked apple yellow.
We continued through the whites including a standard- Que Saudade Verdelho but this time including fruit from the new property (as luck would have it, Verdeldo was one of the varieties already planted on the site). And even though he has more grapes than he knows what to do with (quite literally, he doesn’t believe he has enough barrels to house the upcoming vintage) he’s still sourcing fruit from farmers to mine the potential of this new frontier. We tasted a Gemischtersatz of 30 different Austrian and German varieties from a vineyard to the west. Because the varietals Matthew farms and purchases vary so greatly, it was a forgone conclusion that a busload of buzzed wine professionals would have a blind tasting. Ironically the favorite among many in the group was a dusty rose red that no one could have guessed was the best Grenache from California you’d ever had. I will be waiting eagerly for that one to arrive in bottle in New York, almost as much as I wonder what he’s going to name it.
Scarecrow Winery by Georgia Sugerman
When many of us think about Scarecrow Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon, we think “expensive Napa Cab” or “100 point wine”. But the backstory of how this became the property with the oldest Cabernet vines in California is a fascinating narrative that cannot be summed up with a number.
J. Cohn was born in 1895 in Harlem, NY to Orthodox Jews. His family was so poor he didn’t have fresh bread until the age of 18, and ended up with a preference for stale bread even when he later acquired money. When he started working in the fur industry as a teenager, his employer became a friend and connected him to a new job opportunity as a personal assistant to the founder of a little company called MGM! By the age of 22, J. J. was in charge of production, where until 1970 he had a hand in every movie made, including Wizard of Oz. During this time he fell deeply in love and bought a home in Rutherford, CA at his wife’s request, with 100 acres of farmland planted to plum trees. And since J.J. wasn’t a farmer, in 1945 he let his neighbor plant some Cabernet vines on the property- Saint George root-stocked Cabernet – the “old men” vines as they are known today. Thankfully, this was just before AXR1 was introduced, the phylloxera-prone rootstock that managed to kill everyone else’s vines shortly thereafter.
J.J.’s wife spent her last days in this home, and upon her passing J.J. insisted the home be kept exactly as she had designed it. This property then became the symbol and the core of the Cohn family; and J. J.’s grandson and now Scarecrow owner, Bret Lopez, spent his youth and adulthood in this home admiring his grandfather. Bret then made it his mission to ensure the property did not get sold out of the family, so that he could continue on the Cohn legacy. Years later, Bret managed to purchase his siblings’ shares of the estate, outbidding the Rothschilds, who were buying this Cabernet for Opus One and probably would have replanted it to newer vines upon purchase. Once Bret became the owner, he then employed Napa’s top vineyard manager Mike Wolf and winemaker Celia Welch to make Scarecrow, named to honor both Napa’s agriculture business and his grandfather.
These vines had always been considered special, but it was a surprise when Scarecrow’s first release earned 98 points (the best first release score ever). The San Francisco Chronicle published a 5-page spread on the property, and the wait list became 16,000 people long, upon selling out. The hype may continue, but the story of how this wine came to be should not be forgotten. From humble origins, hard work and a bit of good old-fashioned luck, J. J.’s career soared, as did the family’s cultivation of the unique “old men”, 70-year Cabernet vines that makes one of Napa’s most magical wines.
ZD Wines by Georgia Sugerman
When we describe the property and the wines of ZD, there are many things we take for granted now, as common practices. It is easy to forget the fact ZD was a pioneer, ahead of their time and going against the grain with many of their approaches. Over the course of three generations, they have stuck to these principles, making them quintessential to ZD, the Napa Carneros region, and to our views of California winemaking today.
ZD’s first vintage was 1969, and their 1969 Pinot Noir was the first wine to have Carneros on the label. They were the first winery to the region, where planting Pinot Noir was considered an oddity. At the time, it was unusual to want to establish a winery, and getting a bank loan proved nearly impossible! They were the 36th winery in Napa, which is now home to over 500 wineries.
Organic farming has always been a priority. Founder Norm deLeuze loved working in his vineyards. When he learned that conventional pesticides required him to stay out of the vineyard for 3 days after spraying, he vowed to farm organically, so that he wouldn’t miss a minute with his vines. They have farmed organically ever since, earning their certification in 2001. As technology evolved, there have been countless other sustainable approaches added, from collecting and reusing rainwater on site to polycarbonate lighting and biodiesel tractors.
ZD is proud to use American Oak on their Cabernet and Chardonnay. They have continued to test the results of various oak sources, but the first generation’s approach continues to be the best. When Norman deLeuze and Gino Zepponi first started, acquiring barrels was a challenge. His peers were using new oak staves that added odd pickle flavors to the wines. When Norm and Gino found a whiskey supplier that wasn’t selling all of his barrels to whiskey producers anymore, they managed to get 3 to 4 year-old oak staves for their barrels. ZD still requires their American barrels to have 3 year-old staves, a light toast and a tight grain. It’s what adds the right level of subtlety and air exposure to their wines, making ZD Wines what they are now and have always been for nearly 50 years. These are wines that can be enjoyed upon release or after decades of aging.
So grab a bottle of ZD wines, and enjoy a little Napa-Carneros history and legacy in a bottle!
Robert Sinskey by Georgia Sugerman
I love old California wines, but not all wineries achieve greatness with age, like the cellar of Robert and Maria Sinskey.
We started our day in their new energy-efficient winery, their first remodel since the winery began with Rob’s father 30 years ago. Their first vintage was 1986, before present winemaker Jeff Virnig arrived in 1987. He has made every vintage since. He took us through the cellar to taste some delicious barrel samples, each barrel accompanied by a story, his remembrance a skill that comes uniquely with 27 vintages of honing his craft at a single place.
The night began with 2014 Pinot Noir barrel samples and progressed to 1994 Pinot Noir bottles, with everything in between, including magnums of 1993 Sinskey Chardonnay, 1991 Claret, 1993 Cab, various years of their Perfect Circle site-specific Pinots… “The different between a good Pinot and a great one is 45 minutes,” said Jeff before decanting. We then sat down to eat an amazing meal prepared by Maria Sinskey – pizza with zucchini flowers and pesto, pasta with lamb marinara sauce and baked ricotta over roasted tomatoes. The wines opened up, and we delved into greatness.
Skinner Vineyards by Danielle Hilty
On a tiny hamlet in what is now Cameron Park, east of Folsom Lake, the first California Skinners founded their homestead in 1861. Originally from Scotland, the long journey west brought James Skinner to Gold Country where he found enough prosperity to start one of the state’s, and country’s, first ever wineries. By 1883 the cellar was housing 15,000 gallons of wine. Likely due to prohibition, the winery closed in the early part of the 20th century, but the Skinner family remained in California for the next six generations. Mike Skinner, by now a Bay Area native, rediscovered his winemaking roots in the early 2000s and he and his wife promptly decided to revive and rebuild them for the generations to come. The original property that they purchased is now a historical site in Cameron Park, but the Skinners also hired Chris Pittenger of Marcassin and purchased two vineyards in the area from which to make wines under the family name.
Upon our arrival, Mike Skinner greeted with a glass of “Smithereens” Grenache Blanc blend- a new wine whose name is a playful throwback to the dynamite days of gold-mining. He told us about the Fairplay AVA, which stands as the highest AVA in the country starting at 2200 feet. The winery itself sits on Stony Creek Vineyard at 2,700 feet, the limit of viticulture on the west coast. He explained to us that Rhone varietals are best suited to this property because of its granitic soils and afternoon winds.
Farming organically, which is still uncommon in this area of California, the winery was designed with sustainability in mind, relying more on ambient light and air temperature than on what is generated. The wines are made naturally without filtering or fining (except for the Smithereens white). And Chris knows Grenache. He told us how it prefers heat to direct sun, and how he makes it as one would a Pinot, very gently, because it’s prone to oxidation, whereas the Syrah gets pumped over to invigorate the juice. Chris also does more whole-cluster Grenache than anything else because the stems provide flavor. “I would do 200% stem inclusion on the Grenache if I could,” he said.
We tasted through barrels of single vineyard Grenache from the three soils in the area – from the red volcanic to the north (where they source from Fenaughty Vineyard) to the pale sandy loam in the south at the Skinner property. In between lies the Suma Kaw vineyard, which yields a breathtaking wine, until I finally tried the Grenache from where we were standing at Stony Creek. It had a little more breadth than the Rorick wine from farther south, with a balance that kept you on your toes. I’ve always considered Grenache to be something of a “gateway wine” that pleases a beginner’s palate. It may be that I am still a beginner but these wines are not. It’s as if the vineyards had been building character under the earth all these years, patiently awaiting resurrection by their true heir.