The TEW Tour of California, Part II
This week’s post features a continuance of reportage from our sales team who took part in our TEW Tour of California!
Enfield Wines, by Ryan Looper
Heading up to the Heron Lake vineyard in the Wild Horse AVA of Napa our bus got stuck and couldn’t continue up the hill, so we had to jump in the back of John Lockwood’s pick up truck to make it up to the vineyard. This is not the Napa that most think of. There are not vineyards and tasting rooms everywhere. This is decidedly off the paved road—the undiscovered Napa. There are only a few vineyards in the AVA, and the high elevation topography is framed by sweeping vistas of mountains and hills. The light here is brilliant and clear, and the wind is cool and persistent. It feels a lot like the set of an old cowboy movie, minus the tumbleweeds. The Heron Lake Vineyard originates with the first planting in 1980, and has been bottled as a single vineyard by John Lockwood of Enfield Wine Co. since 2011. John was working as a woodworker when he serendipitously met winemaker David McCaffrey at a woodworking shop. John then worked with David and was soon bit by the wine bug.
Because David worked with fruit from the Heron Lake property for many years, this vineyard holds a special place in John’s heart. The soils here are volcanic and alluvial, and the vineyard has been farmed organically from the beginning. The chardonnay tends to have mid-palate width from the volcanic soil, a course minerality (almost like Quartz) and a saline edge.
We sat down at a long picnic table next to the vineyard and tasted through a TRULY STUNNING group of wines, including a vertical of Heron Lake Chardonnay, John’s Skin Fermented Chardonnay, a thrilling new bottling of Pinot Noir from Antle Vineyard in Chalone aged in old Littorai barrels, a Syrah from Haynes that was showing straight up rhubarb and smoked meat, and Enfield Fort Ross AVA Cabernet. I was absolutely blown away.
This tasting really helped me understand John’s talent. All of his wines have soul and purity, and John Lockwood is definitely a winemaker to follow.
Titus Vineyards, by Ryan Looper
Eric Titus met us at the door of the Titus Vineyards‘ newly built winery in St. Helena. Eric looks like he could have played professional football and has the voice of a Shakespearean actor, but he grew up in his family vineyards. The Titus family purchased a 40-acre parcel on the Silverado trail just North of St. Helena in 1968, making the Titus family one of the older heritage families in Napa. Eric is quick to laugh and is one of the nicest guys in the business. We toured their new winery and it occurred to me that Eric and his winemaker brother Philip (Philip has made the wines at Chappellet since 1990, and makes the Titus wines) are evolving their family estate wines to have a more balanced approach by bringing the winemaking directly to the family vineyard site. Evolution is the Titus way. When Eric and Philip’s parents originally bought the property, it was planted to Mondeuse, Golden Chasselas, Pinot Noir, and a few varietals like Zin that the Titus’s viewed as having potential. The family then decided to tear up the old vines and replant most of the site, utilizing some of the old vines for budwood.
We sat down in the vineyard, had a beautiful lunch together, and tasted through the lineup of wines. I have always viewed the wines at Titus to be honest, “down-home” Napa wines, with good value, and this tasting affirmed that for me.
The new bottling from Titus called ‘Andronicus’ is a Holy Grail wine. A Cabernet based Napa Valley blend that can retail under $30, and is really good.
Matthiasson Wines, by Ryan Looper
There is nothing that will adequately describe what it is like to visit Steve and Jill Matthiasson at Matthiasson Family Vineyards. Everyone should go. Tomorrow. Actually, go now. A visit to their place to taste wine feels more like a tasting that would happen in the old world. All around their house is a garden planted to a few rows of Ribolla Gialla, Schioppettino, Refosco, native plants, and Cardoons for their Vermouth. It really is a little paradise, home to such warm and thoughtful people. Steve happens to be making some of the most important wines in California, but you would never know it until you started tasting. There is a humble nature to everything they do.
Immediately after we arrived, the Matthiasson Rosé 2014 was poured from magnum and the next thing I know, I’ve already had a couple glasses. As Steve thoughtfully talked us through the climates and histories of some of the vineyard sites he works with, the sun went down, and immediately the air began to cool. Sweaters came out…
Dinner was raucous, family style, and delicious—at one point Steve mercilessly blinded us on Aligote, (though I have to say I was proud at how close we got) and I am pretty sure his dog attempted to wrestle with anyone who would take the bait. There were many wines that were memorable, but I especially loved the clarity of the 2013 Matthiasson White blend, the upcoming release of the Michael Mara Sonoma Coast Chardonnay, and a new release of Zinfandel from Limerick lane. Stay tuned.
As dinner was winding down we all huddled closer to the cutting board as Jill led us through a fruit tasting. She is well known for her fruit growing talents. “Smell that first,” she told me. I listened. That’s all you need to do at Matthiasson. Just listen.
Mauritson Wines, by Siobhan Lowe
It’s true that California is a young winemaking region when compared with many other areas of the world but Clay Mauritson has an incredible family history in Sonoma County. His ancestors were homesteaders who settled in Dry Creek Valley and Clay’s children will be the 7th generation of grape growers on this land. They once farmed sheep for Merino wool (which explains the sheep pictured on their labels), and though there were always some grapes planted on their land, livestock was the main business. In 1968, the Mauritson Family lost over 3,000 acres to eminent domaine. The Army Corps of Engineers took their land to build Lake Sonoma, to prevent floods and dam up Dry Creek and to create a new water source to compensate for what Santa Rosa took from the Russian River. They were paid .09 on the dollar, lost most of the property on which they raised sheep, and were left with the poorest land at the highest elevation. At the time it was a tragic turn of events, but it turned out that the land they were left with was ideal for growing grapes.
We visited their vineyards in Rockpile AVA, which was established in 2002, in the northern edge of Sonoma County in between Alexander Valley and the Sonoma Coast. Rockpile AVA has an elevation requirement known to only five other AVAs – the sites must be above 800 feet, which also happens to be the fog line – there is no fog over 800 feet. Rockpile is also 11.5 miles from the ocean with a moderate climate. There is a smaller diurnal shift due to proximity to the coast with plenty of fog, but the depth of Lake Sonoma creates an effect that keeps the fog lower than 800 ft. Because it doesn’t get extremely hot or cold, the Mauritsons are able to obtain a physiological and phenolic ripeness at lower sugar levels. With only 192 acres of planted vines, Rockpile is one of the smallest AVAs. There is not a lot of plantable acreage and water is scarce, but the Mauritsons are able to dry farm the majority of their vines when they are mature.
From the top of a hill covered with oak trees we stood looking out at Mauritson’s Rockpile vineyards. Their Zinfandel sites are so varied here that they harvest five weeks apart between the 1st and last vines picked, and these are sites only 500 yards apart. There are 17 different registered types of loam soil. Tasting through these Zinfandels while looking out over this storied property made clear to us all, just why these wines are unusually complex and varied from site to site.
Brack Mountain, by Siobhan Lowe
Brack Mountain Wine Company was founded in 2008 by Jason Enos and Chris Fitzgerald, and they now work with winemakers Dan Fitzgerald (Chris’ son) and John Harvey.
We visited Brack’s estate in Healdsburg, but their reach is far greater. The goal of Brack Mountain has always been to work with great growers to make site-specific wines at accessible prices. Winemakers Dan and John strive to create wines that are individually expressive and have developed different labels to represent each style. For example, their Oliveto Rosé is a hybrid approach in that they press the fruit to tank and cold ferment to keep aromatics and then age the wine in barrel. Made with grapes that are sourced from cool climate vineyards in the Russian River Valley, the Oliveto Rosé emphasizes elegance and acidity.
Brack’s Boatman Red is another project created to explore the popular palate and how Dan and John might cater to and expand it. The team at Brack blind tasted through a broad selection of wines to develop a wine that is true to their style and accessible.
The Matias and Daniel labels are small production, vineyard specific wines that are elegant and Burgundian in style. After tasting through many of these wines, side-by-side, we were all left with the impression that Dan and John possess the fruit and the skills to produce a range of wide range of wines that vary in style and price, without sacrificing quality.
Red Car Wines, by Siobhan Lowe
Carroll Kemp of Red Car Wines started making wine 15 years ago when he was still living in LA and working as a movie producer. Wanting to change his life in a way that would bring him closer to nature, Carroll saw winemaking as an obvious choice. His first vintage was made in his garage, a wine named Red Car after the old Los Angeles street cars.
Carroll makes beautiful Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah from nine different vineyard sites, most of which are clustered on the Sonoma Coast. As of 2014, all Red Car vineyards became certified Biodynamic, securing the health of the vineyards that led him to leave LA. We visited Doc’s Ranch near Occidental California, passing through some of the few remaining old growth forests in Sonoma. Doc’s Ranch yields the lightest of Red Car’s Pinot Noirs, wines that are lowest in sugar and alcohol. The site is only a little over an acre, sloping up to nearly 1,000 feet in elevation, just four miles from the Pacific Ocean, which can be seen in the distance from the vineyard.
We also got a sneak peak at Red Car’s future education center, which currently is a small house on a property that has a plentiful crop of delicious ripe plums falling from the trees. We snuck a few plums and raised a glass to the future at Red Car Wines.
Porter Bass Vineyards, by Siobhan Lowe
Our visit to the Porter Bass property was an amazing way to end the day. Luke Bass crafts soulful wines on a site in the Russian River Valley that his family purchased in 1980. This is a true family operation with Luke and his wife Elena, and Luke’s parents all living on the property. Luke’s father Dirck is an architect who built the amazing open-plan home on the property, as well as the wagon where Luke, Elena and their son live.
The estate vineyard is surrounded by coniferous forests, which help to protect the vineyards from wind. The trees also provide rapid cooling in the late afternoon, and they contribute to the terroir by elevating the acid content and nutrient availability of the soils. The family turned to biodynamic and organic farming practices early on to restore the health of the vineyards on the property, which had been dormant and eroding for many years.
There is great truth and generosity of spirit in these wines that are reflected in the people that make them. We were lucky enough to be able to eat and drink in the lovely garden on the property and to try a Zinfandel from their very first vintage in 2001. The Porter Bass Zinfandels may have evolved over time but the first one was a beautiful expression of the quality that is inherent in these wines to this day.