plēb urban winery

 

IMG_0359
2018 Maréchal Foch rosé

I have visited plēb urban winery in Asheville, North Carolina, three times over the course of the past five months: October 2018, November 2018, and January 2019. I am planning another visit this month, February 2019, so make that four visits. This may qualify me as a plēbeian and that is OK. I am delighted to share my latest wine crush with you, my readers. (See what I did there?)

plēb urban winery opened in September 2018 offering wines from various regions. However, their mission is to produce small-lot NC wines with grapes sourced within a two-hour radius of Asheville. To date, plēb has released three of their 2018 wines: a rare Maréchal Foch rosé from Appalachian High Country (8.8% ABV), a Chardonnay Pét-Nat from Henderson County (10.1% ABV), and an effervescent, Cayuga-based wine in a can called exuberant white (12.2% ABV). I have tasted all three and enjoyed them immensely because they are a palate match to my Hs (Hypersensitive) Vinotype, with their lower alcohol, higher acidity, no added sulfites, and a “less is more” approach to winemaking. The wines are kegged and offered by the glass or growler. The most intriguing of the three for me has been following the evolution of the Maréchal Foch rosé. When I initially tasted it in November 2018, its higher acid was more pronounced. However, when I tasted it again in January 2018, it was like tasting a different wine. The bright fruit flavors and acid were much more harmonious.

What I most love about plēb is that the winery is bringing Western North Carolina wine to the forefront of Asheville’s craft beverage market, especially to a younger generation of buyers, most of whom are likely craft beer drinkers since Asheville is such a beer destination. I also enjoy plēb because they are changing what the vision of a winery is. The vibe is anti-establishment and anti-traditional regarding the varietal wines they make, their winemaking style, their packaging, and their marketing. Different is good for all wine consumers.

The plēb urban winery team
The plēb urban winery team. (Photo Credit: https://mountainx.com/food/small-bites-pleb-urban-winery-opens-in-the-rad/)

To delve into plēb’s philosophy and approach to winemaking, the wine industry, the urban winery environment, and wine marketing, I interviewed the team: co-owner and business manager, Lauren Turpin; co-owner and winemaker, Chris Denesha; and assistant winemaker, Tyler Kay. Below is the story of plēb urban winery in their own words.

What inspired you to get into the winemaking business?
Lauren: The surge of craft beer and local breweries had me wondering if a similar local tap room approach and concept could be applied to wine. I wanted to start a business that produced a product, engaged with the community and filled a gap in the market. After doing some research, I believed this could be achieved through an urban winery. And that, while I’m not the winemaker, is how I got into the winemaking business.
Chris: It’s the farming and growing aspect that got me into the business. There is something beautiful about working with the land and partnering to make something that has the unique ability to age for a long time and tell its unique story of place and history. Being a part of growing grapes and making wine has more to do with the place and year in which the grapes were grown than anything else. I got into winemaking more as I saw the identity being stripped away from our local grapes and wine to fit a more homogenized and marketable palate. It’s simply not representative of what most people love about wine and we are losing that connection without anyone really knowing that it’s happening.
Tyler: Wine sparked my curiosity in college. My “ah-ha” bottle was a 2007 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir from California. I never tasted anything like it, and I needed to know why. I bought a wine encyclopedia and dove right in. After college, I worked on a vineyard in southern Utah. Then I started my path towards becoming a sommelier. I love to travel, but when you’re balling on a budget, I would study regions and plan a trip. It helped shaped my winemaking style and kept the dialogue of travel alive.

Why and how did you select your location?
Lauren: We selected our location in the River Arts District for its size, accessibility and neighborhood. Wine is art and to be surrounded by hundreds of artists throughout the district, it felt like a natural fit. The size of the space allows us to produce and grow. It also enables us to provide a full-production winery and tap room experience to a large audience. Lastly, being two miles from downtown and Biltmore Village and next to West Asheville, we are well situated to serve locals and tourists.

IMG_1115
My tasting flight

How did you choose the name plēb?
Lauren: The plebeian spirit and their admiration for the gods of agriculture, fertility and viticulture led us to select the unique name. Our focus is on local growers, pursuing local vineyards and grapes that will grow well here in Western North Carolina. We seek to pay growers for their crops a rate that enables them to reinvest in their land. Farmers, winemakers, artists, in Roman times these were the plebeians that were the economic backbone and underappreciated of society. We want to put them front and center.

IMG_1122
Inside the winery space

Will you please share with us details about the winery’s design and décor, both the tasting room and the working winery?
Lauren: Being in the River Arts District and among the large murals, we wanted to bring that design inside since we have large walls befitting their skills.

What is plēb’s winemaking style or philosophy?
Chris and Tyler: We grew up playing baseball, and both of our fathers taught us the old school philosophy of things. I’d say that mentality is carried over in the winery. Old world winemaking with modern technology. This means low intervention in the cellar. Hand destemmed, foot crushed reds. Whole cluster pressed whites and rosés. Only non-competitive yeast strains, or 100% wild spontaneous fermentation. We even used fermenting wine to pitch on new juice to promote fermentation. No sulfur added, no fining or filtering. Just a cold cellar temperature to age, and we’re BIG fans of barrel aging on fine lees. We work in a cold climate and we want to see the reward of patience in time, not heat to showcase these wines.

What kind of vineyard partnerships does plēb seek or have? What are your criteria for selecting partners and vineyard sources?
Chris: We manage about 5 acres up in the Boone area. The rest of our grapes are all contract based with an emphasis on new small growers. We’re focused on Western North Carolina, which is generally higher elevation vineyard sites ranging from 2,100-3,400 ft. We want to build a united mentality for the future and longevity of this new wine growing region. Recognizing our temperate rainforest continental climate and acting accordingly with the right varietals. We believe highlighting French American hybrids and native varieties as quality grapes, along with shorter growing season Vitis vinifera.

IMG_1121
exuberant white wine in a can (Photo Credit: G Social Media)

Why does plēb sell wines by the glass, growler, cans, and/or on tap instead of traditional bottles?
Lauren: We have a commitment to be environmentally friendly and sustainable, not just in the vineyard but throughout our operation. Therefore, we do not bottle in mass. Using stainless steel kegs, we keep the equivalent of 78 bottles of wine free from light and oxygen for an extended amount of time. The growler option allows customers flexibility to choose any wine on tap to-go. Our cans are great for three reasons – first, they are recyclable, second, they are convenient for our outdoor enthusiasts, and third, it’s 375mL or two glasses of wine, which is a good size for one person or two to split. If you see any of our wine in a bottle it’s because either the wine or the retailer demanded it in that format.

Does the winemaking team have any favorite wines to make? Why?
Lauren: Sparkling because they’re my favorite to drink!
Chris: Sparkling because of bottle variation, you never know what you’re going to get!
Tyler: Rosés because so much is dependent on the chemistry of the grapes to dictate the winemaking.

Besides the winery, where can we find your wines?
Lauren: Select retailers, breweries and restaurants in the Asheville area.

Do you have any additional information you would like to share with the readers, such as forthcoming wine releases, events, etc.?
Lauren: I see us as revolutionaries and advocates for WNC grapes and wines and I call upon all those who want to revolt to join us. We will have new single varietal wines and blends coming out on a regular basis throughout the year. Best to check our website and social media for up-to-date information.
Tyler: Live life with no regrets, and everybody Wang Chung tonight.

This blog has been verified by Rise: R5227a7473029dcc2ae473e28aebaa157

Beth’s Smart Sip: 2014 Highlands Winery Zinfandel

2014 Highlands Zinfandel
2014 Highlands Zinfandel, Oakville, Napa Valley

My passion for zinfandel made the way it ought to be was reignited when I tasted this sample from Oakville’s Highlands Winery. It is not often that I use the word lovely and elegant when describing a zinfandel, but this is just that. Black cherry fruit and mouthwatering acidity lead into a subtle peppery finish. Structured, yet restrained, all of this wine’s components, if you will, are woven together quite nicely, resulting in a zinfandel that will complement food, not overpower it. Sharing it with new friends from California, Illinois, and New York was the icing on the proverbial cake. I was delightfully reminded me why I moved to the Napa Valley to follow my dream of working in the wine industry.

Only 200 cases made and a handful of bottles remaining of this 2014 vintage. Winemaker: Bradley Smith. SRP $45. Available at the end-of-vintage price, $30, at this link.

Ten Questions for Madeline Puckette of Wine Folly Magnum Edition

 

madeline-decanting-wine

When I recently received my review copy of Wine Folly Magnum Edition, I was taken aback by the sheer beauty of the book’s cover design. I know that you should not judge a book by its cover (or a wine by its label), but dang, this is a beautiful book. The good news is that it only gets better inside. This book is a plethora of outstanding content, a fantastic resource for the wine novice to expert. With the assumption that one does not know anything about wine, this book starts at the beginning, then breaks this wealth of information into manageable chunks, presenting it to the reader in an aesthetically pleasing, colorful, and easy-to-follow design. While I am thankful for my more formal wine certification program, I must confess that if the content had been presented the Wine Folly way, learning would have been much more fun.

This sample copy of the book left me wanting to know more about Wine Folly – the brand, the books, and the website – so I contacted Avery Books, a division of Penguin Random House, to schedule an interview with author and designer, Madeline Puckette. When you read Madeline’s answers, you will understand why Wine Folly is such a delight in every way, and why you need Wine Folly Magnum Edition in your book collection.

When did you fall in love with wine? Was there a wine moment and/or a special wine?

Wine found its way into my life in stages.  That said, I did have an “aha” wine.  It was a $13 bottle of Côtes du Rhône from the 2005 vintage. Not at all fancy. My boyfriend and I sat there sniffing it, trying to pick out fruit flavors and nothing fit.  Suddenly, he blurted out “olives!” and my mind was blown. Who knew wine could be savory?

I tried to buy more but the vintage sold out and the next vintage tasted gnarly. (and not in a good way.) That experience taught me about vintage variation, French “terroir,” and active wine tasting all in one fell swoop!

What other wine industry roles have you held prior to Wine Folly?

Prior to starting Wine Folly, I worked in restaurants including several steakhouses, a French restaurant, a wine bar with 50 wines by the glass, a cool chef-driven spot (Poppy in Seattle), and even at a large casino hotel. (You’ve never seen a hotel until you’ve seen their laundry!)

I absolutely love working the floor. It’s exhausting and exhilarating all at once. The people who work in hospitality are some of the coolest people to work alongside.

What made you decide to share your knowledge of wine with the world? Was there a void you wanted to fill regarding wine education?

When I became certified in 2010 I was at odds with my level of wine smarts versus other people. It’s like knowing how to speak another language but not having anyone to talk to. And, at certified level, you’re still trying to practice. So, I started Wine Folly to bridge my knowledge to others. To practice communicating. As a communicator, I’m not particularly adept with words, but if you ask me to draw something… This is where I shine.

 What is the history/story and philosophical approach behind Wine Folly both the website and books?

The philosophy behind Wine Folly is intricate, even the word “folly” is multi-layered.  Still, the modus operandi of Wine Folly easy to put words to:  To communicate wine as simply as humanly possible. And, to explore the human condition through the lens of wine.

Side Note: The funny thing about wine is that it deals with a lot of root human behaviors, from our desire to connect with others to our ability to recognize patterns (as a species.)

Why did you choose the name Wine Folly?

Oh, you ask!  Hahaha. This is my folly!  I should have read ahead…

So, the word “folly” has multiple meanings if you look it up. It’s a foolhardy mistake as well as an architectural element that has little purpose (other than just looking good from a distance.)  So, why “folly?”

For those just getting into wine, being interested in wine seems like pure folly because it’s just an alcoholic beverage. Why should anyone care? That said, once you’re inside, you come to realize that wine is an edifice with deep scientific and cultural implications. In short, wine is deep.  It will go as deep as you’re willing to dive.

So, we named it “folly” for that moment when you decide to take the plunge and see what’s out there.

2018-09-22 17.36.58-2
Pairing Wine Folly Magnum Edition with Domaine Carneros Le Rêve

Who is Wine Folly’s audience? 

At this moment, I love teaching wine beginners. That said, we will continue to develop our content past this level. It’s surprising how quickly people are absorbing and using the information with the visual approach!

Wine Folly Magnum Edition is the follow-up edition of your hugely successful first book, Wine Folly: The Essential Guide to Wine? Why did you decide to create this new edition?

The Essential Guide was an MVP (minimum viable product) to use entrepreneurial jargon. I did it to test the model against the market. Sure enough, the model worked!  Hot cakes!

Of course, as soon as the book came out, I felt a burning desire to iterate on the model. Magnum Edition is the iteration.  I’m not sure where the burning desire comes from, but it’s there and it’s unavoidable.

What makes this edition different than the first? Why should purchasers of the first book buy this new edition?

Besides the fact that it has over two times the content and a stunningly beautiful cover, it does a better job of communicating the topic of wine. There is some repetition in the format (and I did save a couple of excellent infographics in book 2), but the added value well exceeds the cover price. It was also redesigned from the ground up so there’s lots of new stuff.

If anything, you can now pass down your last book to a well-deserving wine beginner!

Do you think anything has changed in the wine world, from the consumer and professional perspectives, during three years since the release of your first book? How do you address those changes in this edition?

I’ve observed enormous change since the first book launch.

These days, consumers care more about where wines come from, how they’re made, and what they contain versus the love story and hedonism that defined the past. Of course, the wine world has been very slow to adapt to this new mindset.

So, in this new book, we tried very hard to be information rich and answer the fundamental questions of wine that are often left out of the marketing story. In this way, the book helps consumers take a more pragmatic approach to exploring wine on their own. It’s more about how to think about wine and where to hunt for it than what to think and buy.

What is next for Wine Folly?

I was supposed to write out my five-year plan out today, but I thought answering your questions seemed way less intimidating.

Seriously though, we have the lighthouse vision built and it’s audacious.  We just need to figure out how to paddle there without killing the team or losing the passion. I promise it will be big, or the other option: you’ll find me washed out living by a vineyard in Oregon with a VW Vanagon and a Blue Heeler at my rear. One of the two.

Biltmore Winery: A Model of Quality and Hospitality

wineportfolio12x8__large
The stunning sparkling wines of Biltmore. Photo Credit: The Biltmore Company.

Biltmore has been synonymous with quality and hospitality since the estate’s inception in 1895, with its French Renaissance-style château designed by architect Richard Morris Hunt and landscaping by Frederick Law Olmsted of New York’s Central Park fame. Today, Biltmore continues as a family-owned, self-sustaining 8000-acre estate and world-class destination, with hotels, restaurants, shopping, a plethora of events and activities, and a winery, which replaced the beloved Biltmore Dairy Farms and opened to the public in 1985.

2018-06-15 11.46.32
The wine tasting space at Biltmore

A visit to America’s Largest Home® includes a complimentary tasting at the winery, the most visited in the United States with around 600,000 visitors annually. Biltmore produces over 150,000 cases of wine to meet growing demand and universal appeal. The winery’s wine club has doubled annually the past three years and currently has around 6700 members at the time of this visit. Making around 50 wines for diverse palates and price points might seem like a daunting task, but not at Biltmore. After 32 years of winemaking – first as assistant winemaker, then winemaster – Bernard Delille, who retired in July 2018, along with Sharon Fenchak, who has been at Biltmore 19 years, have honed their craft, creating award-winning wines for everyone. The wines range from sweet to dry and include whites, reds, rosés, and sparkling wines. In addition to the complimentary tasting, Biltmore offers in-depth experiences such as the Premium Wine Tasting, Red Wine & Chocolate Tasting, Behind-the-Scenes Winery Tour & Tasting, Wine & Cheese Hour, and the seasonal Candlelight Winery Tour for an extra fee. With distinct wine collection categories and a Virtual Sommelier, the winery’s website assists online guests with finding wines and food pairing suggestions at all price points. Wines are widely available in the wholesale and direct-to-consumer markets. Biltmore ranks in the top 1% of wine businesses in the United States.

vineyardsunset_biltmoreestate__large
The estate vineyards at Biltmore. Photo Credit: The Biltmore Company.

When the idea of a vineyard and winery first came to fruition in the early 1970s, George Vanderbilt’s grandson, William A.V Cecil, realized the challenge of growing wine grapes in North Carolina and led the charge for statewide research. Like other non-traditional, grape-growing regions, Biltmore and other state producers have had to prove themselves time and time again that Vitis vinifera grapes grown in North Carolina can produce high-quality wines. The reality is that not every grape variety is suited to North Carolina’s growing conditions and some consumers prefer the riper, fruit-forward styles produced in winegrowing areas like California. Thus, Biltmore produces wines from its 94 acres of estate vineyards; key winegrowers in Polk County (NC), Arroyo Seco Vineyards (Monterey, CA), Pietra Santa Winery (Ciegega Valley, CA), Tenbrink Vineyards (Solano County, CA); and California AVA wines from Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Napa Valley, Russian River Valley, and Sonoma County. Biltmore makes and finishes AVA-designed wines in those AVAs, per TTB law.

2018-06-15 11.16.29
Touring with retired winemaker, Bernard Delille

During a recent visit and tasting with Delille and Director of Business Development, Jeff Plack, Delille revealed that the honor of making such a large portfolio of wines from different vineyard locations is what makes winemaking at Biltmore exciting and why he has spent nearly his entire career here. Both he and Fenchak travel extensively to partner vineyard and winemaking facilities to ensure that all aspects of wine production, from vineyard to bottle, live up to Biltmore standards. Plack, a 12-year member of the wine business team, echoed Biltmore’s pledge to wine excellence across styles and price points, as well as took it a step further to emphasize that it is the winery’s renowned model of hospitality which first leads visitors to the winery, where they are treated to tasting experiences led by brand ambassadors empowered to deliver personalized experiences to wine novices and aficionados alike.

2018-06-15 11.28.45
Bottling day at Biltmore

A tour of Biltmore’s production facility confirmed a real, working winery, complete with fermentation tanks, caves, and wines ready to be transported to the winery’s own fulfillment warehouse, not outsourced to a third-party company. It was also bottling day for one of Biltmore’s wines. The crew members were delighted to show off the winery’s bottling line, as they engaged in a friendly competition of most bottles produced in a day.

2018-06-15 12.17.14
Tasting with Bernard Delille

An opportunity to taste three of Biltmore’s estate wines, a Sonoma County wine, and an American AVA designated wine, demonstrated the exemplary breadth and depth of Delille’s and Fenchak’s winemaking talents. The tasting began with their grande dame sparkling wine, the 2015 Biltmore Estate® Château Reserve Blanc de Blancs, North Carolina ($50), which recently earned gold in the 2018 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. A favorite of the tasting, this wine showcases a lovely balance of zingy acidity, mouthwatering citrus, and a yeasty, creamy mousse. The second wine, the 2017 Biltmore Estate® Reserve Chardonnay, North Carolina ($24), is an outstanding value. Barrel fermentation, six to eight months of French and American oak aging, and malolactic fermentation gently cradle the wine’s zesty tree fruit flavors. The third wine, the 2016 Biltmore Estate® Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, North Carolina ($25), is proof that Biltmore can grow and make cabernet sauvignon in North Carolina and do it well. Its softer style and lower alcohol (13%) speak to those who think they do not enjoy red wines. In stark contrast stylistically to the first three wines, the 2015 Biltmore Estate® The Hunt, Sonoma County ($40 for the 2016 vintage), inspired by the estate’s former game hunts, is a robust, luscious, Bordeaux-style blend of 40% cabernet sauvignon, 35% cabernet franc, and 25% merlot, calling for rich meat dishes. At lunch in The Bistro, I enjoyed a glass of the NV Biltmore Estate® Blanc de Noir, American ($25), whose effervescence and vibrant red berry flavors paired exquisitely with the salmon dish of the day.

2018-06-15 09.06.57
Tasting with Director of Business Development, Jeff Plack

Biltmore’s reputation as a premium destination and lifestyle brand is unrivaled in the hospitality industry, so much so that they offer their own “immersion into luxurious world-class service” program through the International Association for Continuing Education and Training (IACET) accredited Biltmore Center for Professional Development. This pursuit of excellence translates into every aspect of Biltmore, including the winery, which, after 33 years, continues to be a pioneer and a leader in American, East Coast, and North Carolina wine production.

Key Links
Visit Biltmore
Biltmore Annual Pass
Visit and Taste at the Winery
Wine Club
Purchase Wines

 

Ten Questions for Gary Lipp of COHO Wines

2018-09-15 12.03.52-1

Recently I had the opportunity to attend one of Sommelier Christopher Sawyer’s first Somm Sessions, an intimate tasting experience with winery owners, at Feast It Forward in Napa. After the tasting, Gary Lipp of COHO Wines graciously allowed me to ask him questions about his winery and wines. Below are his answers in his own words.

What is the history and story of COHO Wines? Why did you choose the name COHO?

I started COHO in 2002 with winemaker and former COHO partner Brooks Painter. The goal was to produce balanced, supple wines, priced to be relevant for the market. Both of us had been working for other California wineries since 1980-81 and wanted to use the expertise we had acquired into producing our own wines. The name was inspired by an old Celtic legend, “The Salmon of Knowledge.” It is about the wisdom to do the right things in the vineyard to promote the long-term health of the soils and all the creatures with which we share the vineyards.

What do you think makes COHO Wines different than other wineries in the Napa Valley?

Our approach to extended maceration, post-alcoholic fermentation is a bit out of step with many of the highly regarded wines produced in Napa Valley. It has become popular to leave the wine in contact with the skins and seeds for two to four weeks, drawing out color, tannin, and varietal character. At COHO, we are pressing the wines six to eight days after the completion of the alcoholic fermentation. I feel we achieve all the elements we need without the density.

How much wine does COHO produce? How many wines and what grape varieties?

The biggest crush we had was in 2012 and we made a little more than 5,800 cases. The last few vintages due to the loss of some vineyard (some our choice, some the vineyard getting a lot more money per ton) we are making between 2500-3000 cases. The current wines we produce are Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and a red blend comprised of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Petit Verdot.

Do you have a favorite grape variety? If so, why?

I guess it would be Merlot, but Pinot Noir is a close second. As to why, it is two-fold. Firstly, I love that when grown in the right conditions, Merlot can have the structure of Cabernet Sauvignon with more finesse and elegance on the palate, displaying blue and red fruit flavors. The second reason is that in the United States, Merlot is still a stepchild. Many consumers and some retailers do not want to hear about it. As a producer of what I consider an exceptional Merlot, I love the challenge of changing their minds and delighting the palates of those that do appreciate how delicious a Merlot can be.

What are your favorite vineyard sources in the Napa Valley and why?

All the vineyards with which COHO sources are in the cooler-climate areas of Napa Valley: Coombsville, Los Carneros, and the hillsides southeast of downtown Napa. I love the spicy flavors and aromatics, and resolved tannins are characteristics of the cool climates in which our fruit grows.

Do you have a wine club or allocation model?

No. With only four wines, there is not enough choice to make for an interesting club. Instead, we send newsletters several times a year that offer our new releases to our direct customers.

Tell us about Feast It Forward and why you decided to become a partner.

Feast It Forward has so many interesting components: a nice lineup of wineries, a cooking studio that broadcasts on their internet station, lots of music, the charitable component, and a fun place to enjoy it all. Also location, location, location: being across the street from The Oxbow Market in Napa has the potential to expose our wines to several million visitors per year.

In addition to Feast It Forward, where does one find and purchase your wines?

COHO wines can be found in fine wine shops and restaurants in fifteen markets around the country and directly from us through our website.

Are there any new wines on the horizon?

I hope to revive a second label wine that we produced in 2012-2014 called Old Poodle Dog. The Old Poodle Dog is named for a notorious San Francisco restaurant of the same name that dates to the city’s Barbary Coast days. We made a Cabernet Sauvignon using the fruit that did not quite fit into the other programs. The wines were very good and would sell quickly. Unfortunately, because of the small harvests in 2015 and 2016, there was not enough fruit to pull from the COHO wines to make any. By 2017, prices for Napa Cabernet Sauvignon grapes have gotten too expensive to make the wine. I am searching for appropriate vineyards and a winemaking facility outside of Napa where we can revive Old Poodle Dog again.

How do you envision the future of COHO Wines?

In 2014, Phillip Carollo-Titus began making the wines, giving us access to several new, exceptional vineyards that are already elevating the quality of the wines. The other side of it, though, is that the price of quality fruit in Napa Valley continues to rise. As a small winery that tries to keep our retail prices accessible and reasonable, I have decided to reduce the total quantity of our wines to be able to pay my growers and not bust the bank. However, I really like the quality of what we are producing and am convinced that our friends will continue to enjoy the wines we are offering.

Villa Maria Estate: Taylors Pass Vineyard and an Interview with winemaker Helen Morrison

2018-06-09 11.17.58

On June 16, 2011, I began this website, writing about wine, travel, and the combination of the two. Almost a year later, on May 22, 2012, I wrote about Villa Maria Estate for the first time. I cannot believe it has been seven and six years, respectively. It feels like we have grown together like longtime friends and family, so I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Villa Maria Estate wines.

In light of these milestones, I thought a great way to celebrate would be to interview Villa Maria’s Senior Marlborough winemaker, Helen Morrison, about the wines that we will be tasting for the summer edition of Villa Maria’s annual First Sip of Summer tweet-up scheduled for 5:00 p.m. Pacific/8:00 p.m. Eastern Time on Wednesday, June 20. This time around, we are so fortunate to be tasting three of Villa Maria’s Taylors Pass, single-vineyard wines, the 2017 Sauvignon Blanc ($26), 2016 Chardonnay ($42), and 2015 Pinot Noir ($42). Below are my sneak peek reviews interspersed with my interview questions and Helen’s answers.

1. How long has Villa Maria been making these single-vineyard wines?

Taylor Pass Vineyard was planted in 1999, the first Taylors Pass Chardonnay was released in 2002, with Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc joining the range in 2003.

2. Does Villa Maria own Taylors Pass or source the fruit? If not, any direct involvement in the vineyard and grape growing? How does Villa Maria ensure growing standards and grape quality?

The vineyard is owned by Terra Vitae group, of which Sir George Fistonich (owner and founder of Villa Maria) is the largest shareholder. Villa Maria employed staff fully manage the vineyard, growing grapes to our requirements. Vine yield is balanced carefully to the site to achieve desired flavours and ripeness levels required.

3. How large of a vineyard is Taylors Pass? How many acres are devoted to the three grape varieties, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, and pinot noir? Any other varieties grown there?

Riesling and Pinot Gris are grown there which are often used in our Cellar Selection tier of wine. The vineyard is 14 acres of Pinot Noir, 14 acres of Chardonnay, 120 acres of Sauvignon Blanc—however only a very small portion of the highest quality of grapes from these acres is made into our Single Vineyard wines.

2018-06-09 11.12.04
2017 Villa Maria Taylors Pass Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc (sample, $26)
I have a palate that craves sour fruit flavors, usually associated with someone that Tim Hanni MW calls the hypersensitive Vinotype, which makes perfect sense as I am also a highly sensitive person (HSP) with a Myers-Briggs INFJ personality type. I was the kid that used to eat lemons, limes, and grapefruit, without sugar added, and loved them. When I taste this sauvignon blanc, it immediately triggers these childhood memories. This wine is squeaky clean and crisp, with steely tartness and minerality.

4. What makes Taylors Pass such a special vineyard? Tell me more about the location, climate, soils, and growing season.

Villa Maria has been on the forefront of defining sub-regions from the word go. By keeping parcels separate in the winery at harvest time, we gain valuable knowledge about the vineyard sites and the differences in flavor profile. Showcasing the different terroir—the sense of place—has always been important to Villa Maria. The Awatere Valley is colder and stonier, and this reflects in style of this wine as well.  One very special parcel that delivers exiting wines year in and year out is the Taylors Pass Vineyard. Located in the Awatere Valley it sits on very picturesque terraces on the northern bank of the Awatere River. With each terrace the soil type changes; stony gravels are nearest the river, whereas the mid terrace has silt over gravels, and the highest terrace is deeper silt over clay-papa base.

5. Do you have a winemaking style? If so, please share your philosophy.

It really depends on the wine. Pinot Noir is the most transparent of the grape varieties, it showcases exactly where it was grown, how the vines were cared for, and needs to be carefully respected in the winery to craft great wines. We try to be hands-off where possible, allowing native yeast from vineyards to take care of the fermentation process, and once pressed, the wines rest in barrels for the next 9-14 months. It takes years of practise not to jump in and “interfere” too much, it’s best to sit back and be confident the wines will express themselves given time. Whereas with Sauvignon Blanc winemaking, we have very close attention to detail, starting right from the harvesting of grapes, protecting aromatics at every stage, very closely monitoring ferments to achieve the desired aromatics and highly focused wine assessment and blending session to ensure we get the best blends to bottle. Chardonnay is a very contested varietal in the Villa Maria group of wineries, with examples made from Gisborne, Hawkes Bay, and Marlborough—so we always keep focused on delivering a style of Chardonnay that truly represents the vineyard. We want consumers to almost feel the stones beneath their feet when tasting this wine.

6. Besides being single vineyard, what makes the Taylors Pass wines different from the other Villa Maria wines that we have sampled in past tastings?

At this price point, the wine expression is more about the texture, complexity, and overall palate weight rather than simple fresh fruit flavours (which is what we expect at Private Bin level). The Single Vineyard wines are an invitation to the consumer to come on a journey to discover the diversity of Marlborough.

2018-06-09 11.09.26
2016 Villa Maria Taylors Pass Vineyard Chardonnay (sample, $42)
Another confession: I am picky about chardonnay. In fact, I usually limit my chardonnay to Chablis and Champagne because I do not enjoy hot-climate, overripe, “sweet fruit” flavored chardonnays (another example of my hypersensitive palate). This chardonnay exhibits cool-to-moderate climate fruit characteristics like grapefruit, green apple, and stone fruits, which allows it to tolerate oak fermentation and aging, as well as naturally occurring malolactic fermentation.

7. Most of us recognize New Zealand as a producer of sauvignon blanc and pinot noir, so why make chardonnay?

Chardonnay and Pinot Noir originate in the similar area in Burgundy, so naturally any soil or micro-climate suited to Pinot Noir will often grow great Chardonnay. But also, Chardonnay is a very popular variety with New Zealand consumers, second only to Sauvignon Blanc, with demand continually increasing at all price points.

8. Does Villa Maria have a location (or locations) where consumers can taste before purchasing, like a winery or tasting room? If not, how (or does) Villa Maria provide public tastings?

Yes, we currently have two cellar door locations, one at Auckland our head office, restaurant, and conference facility, and the other one in Marlborough (where these wines are made). We also have plans to open a cellar door in the Hawkes Bay in the future.

9. Since Villa Maria does not have a wine club or allocation model, where can we find these wines in the retail market in the United States?

You can find these and any of our other wines on villamariawine.com. Click on Where to Buy at the top of the page and add your zip code for a list of local retailers.

2018-06-09 11.11.36
2015 Villa Maria Taylors Pass Vineyard Pinot Noir (sample, $46)
Although I live in California, I am not a fan of the “sweet cherry cola” style of pinot noir. Thankfully, this is not that style. This wine shows dark, ripe fruit flavors, such as black cherry, cranberry, and plum. A hint of spiciness from the mix of new and seasoned French oak, along with some mouthwatering acidity and black tea-like tannins, complete the package. This wine was lovely accompaniment to a baked chicken thigh I had for lunch, so I am sure it would pair with other poultry as well.

Greenwood Ridge Vineyards

2018-02-23 18.22.30
On the drive to the kickoff event at Greenwood Ridge Vineyards for my inaugural Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association Aromatic White Wine Festival, I was nervous. It was billed as a winemakers’ media dinner and was not sure what the dress code was. I finally decided to dress neatly, but also casually and warmly, because it was a cold, February night. Dressed in my comfort zone to mentally combat my first-time attendee jitters, I was ready to experience my first Anderson Valley winery.

2018-02-23 18.26.03

Founded in 1980 by Allan Green, Greenwood Ridge Vineyards is one of the original Anderson Valley wineries. Today, under the ownership of Wilson Artisan Wines, it still produces only around 1500 cases of premium wines, including riesling, late-harvest riesling, sauvignon blanc, merlot, pinot noir, and zinfandel.

2018-02-23 18.38.02

I parked my car and walked confidently to the famed, octagonal-shaped tasting room, designed by Allan’s father and associate of Frank Lloyd Wright, Aaron G. Green, and constructed from one, 400-year-old redwood tree. Someone outside immediately welcomed me and gave me a glass.

2018-02-23 18.39.13
As I opened the door and heard the friendly laughter and chatter, I felt a huge sigh of relief. Allan Green himself was pouring (and sipping) a vertical of aged rieslings from 1985, 1988, and 1996 (prices unknown), which were mind-blowingly delicious. More guests arrived, more wine appeared, and the noise level grew with lively conversation and music. Dinner was a fantastic barbecue buffet, not a fancy, sit-down dinner, and in that moment, I realized that the staff of Greenwood Ridge and the Anderson Valley producers in attendance were my kind of people.

2018-02-23 20.04.56

As the evening progressed, I found myself among friends, new and old. At some point, dinner turned into a party, and the crowd trickled outside into the cold, where we huddled near heaters and fire pits, sipping beautiful Anderson Valley wines and getting to know each other.

2018-02-23 21.01.55
When the cold air won, chilling me to the bone, I made my way back inside. My friend, Sommelier Christopher Sawyer, introduced me to Stacie Lynch, the winery’s manager, who warmed us up with a taste of the Jaxon Keys Winery & Distillery Jepson Signature Reserve Alambic Brandy ($395), simply exquisite.

2018-02-23 21.30.02

Next, she poured the exceptional 1999 Greenwood Ridge Mendocino Merlot (around $24 at release), another showstopper. I was smitten with both Greenwood Ridge and Stacie. She was a consummate host. And, as I was leaving, she gave me a couple of wines to take home, a 1995 Late Harvest Riesling (price unknown) and the 2016 Mendocino Ridge Riesling ($20). The former is awaiting a special occasion. My thoughts about the latter are below.

Rieslings

The Greenwood Ridge Vineyards 2016 Mendocino Ridge Riesling showcases how the cool, maritime influence of the nearby Pacific Ocean benefits grape growing. With only 1.6% residual sugar, this wine is a lovely, mouthwatering play of zippy acidity and delicate, ever-so-slight sweetness. Fruit flavors run the gamut from tropical to stone to tree to citrus, surprising and delighting the palate in every sip. Pair this riesling with nearly anything, but especially spicy Asian cuisine. I would also put a few bottles in the cellar for later, because if the 1985, 1988, and 1996 are any indication, this will be fantastic to try with age.

I have kept in touch with Stacie and she sent me a few more wines to taste. I am sure they will find their way into my heart, too, and be delectable reminders of my first visit to Greenwood Ridge Vineyards and Anderson Valley, a place that feels like a home away from home.