Carmenere and Petit Verdot with Meredith Smith

Winemaker Meredith Smith

We were given a case of wines from the Idaho Wine Commission as part of their efforts to let people know that there is not only wine in Idaho, but some very tasty wine, at that. 

Like many in her profession, Meredith Smith, winemaker at both Sawtooth Estate Winery and Ste Chapelle, actually did something else for a living before deciding she’d rather make wine.

“When I was about 36 years old, I was doing real estate development in Texas,” she said. “I had signed up through a Washington state viticulture program.”

She finished the program two years later, but it was another two years before she quit her job and started out at Sawtooth with a harvest job. Idaho attracted her because she had lived there and had been drinking wines from the region for some time. By the time her harvest job ended, she was the assistant winemaker, taking over as winemaker at Sawtooth in 2012, then adding winemaking at Ste Chappelle to her duties in 2016.

The two wines we got from the wine commission were Smith’s 2013 Trout Trilogy Carmenere from Sawtooth and the 2012 Petit Verdot from Ste Chapelle, two varieties that Smith says you wouldn’t think would do well in her relatively cool climate area, about 3,000 feet above sea level.

“Carmenere surprises me that it does well here,” she said, adding that carmenere and petit verdot are both late ripening varieties. “When I’m harvesting carmenere, it’s October 31, but for some reason it just seems to perform.”

Michael noted the carmenere’s dark color and got a fair amount of spice on the nose. The first taste was a little tart and mid-palate, there was a hint of bitterness. He also tasted some cherry flavor.

The thing is, it’s best as a food wine, but with either milder foods, such as roasted potatoes or vegetables, or something really strong like lamb.

As for the petit verdot, Michael noted the characteristic dark, inky color. The nose was filled with berries, and the taste had some oak, but the tannins were pretty low, making this more of a cocktail wine. It was pleasant, but didn’t really stand out.

Williamson Orchard & Vineyards 2012 Sangiovese

We were given a case of wines from the Idaho Wine Commission as part of their efforts to let people know that there is not only wine in Idaho, but some very tasty wine, at that. We’ve gotta be honest – not everything in the case was stellar, but this one was pretty darned good.

The thing with the 2012 Snake River Valley Sangiovese from Williamson Orchards & Vineyards is that it is a food wine with a hey nonny. It’s okay as a sipper, but if you want it to shine, you’ll drink with your favorite pizza or spaghetti bolognese. It is almost a prototype sangiovese and that’s a good thing.

Michael noted its dark garnet color. He thought the nose was pretty oaky but caught some strawberry notes. The body was decent with good acidity and lots of red fruit flavors, including cherry, cranberry, and raspberry.

But again, it needs food, otherwise, it can be a bit in your face. Like most sangiovese.

In Honor of Marisa Taylor

A couple years ago, we met winemaker Marisa Taylor, whose makes awesome merlot for Rutherford Hill. We were also privileged to feature her here on the blog. Well, the news is not good. Ms. Taylor is battling not one, but two forms of cancer and her friends have set up a GoFundMe campaign to help the family during this really, really tough time. Given what a great interview we got from Ms. Taylor, we thought we’d run the piece again. In the meantime, here’s the link to the campaign, Go, Marisa, Go.

Winemaker Marisa Taylor of Rutherford Hill
Winemaker Marisa Taylor of Rutherford Hill

Today’s lesson is about the much-abused merlot grape and it’s coming from a winemaker who makes some of the most glorious merlot wine we’ve tasted in a very long time.

We met Marisa Taylor, winemaker for Rutherford Hill, at a tasting event for a local TV station. She’s one of the three winemakers featured in Vintage: Napa Valley 2012, a six-part documentary on winemaking. We met her again at the Wine Bloggers Conference in July, where she led a tasting on Napa merlots with P.J. Alviso, Director of Estate Viticulture for Duckhorn Vineyards. It was one of those rare tastings that gives conspicuous consumption a good name. Taylor does not make cheap wine, let us tell you. But it is worth it. So was the chat we had with her after the tasting.

“You can expect a luciousness…  juicy,” Tayler said about what to expect when you open a good bottle of merlot. “I think merlot tends to be more of a red fruit flavor.”

That’s tasting more like cherries or strawberries, rather than dark, heavy blackberries. In short, it tends to be a somewhat lighter wine than its blending pal cabernet sauvignon.

“You’ll know it when you taste it,” Taylor said about the red flavor profile. “Is it just darker or, hey, no. It makes me feel happy and it’s nice and rosy and red. In general, I think that merlot is a nice complement, companion with food. And I think that it’s something that will fill your mouth and be full-bodied. And it’s not like a hard… Cabernets can be tannic and tough and just dry your mouth out. And merlot doesn’t generally do that.”

The merlot grape is one of the five traditional components of Bordeaux wine, where it is grown and blended in varying strengths with cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, malbec and petit verdot. Outside of France and Europe, it’s frequently made as a stand-alone variety.

The wine, alas, got a really bad rep in the late 1990s when it got really popular and everyone started growing and making merlot. And a lot of it was really bad wine. Then, in 2004, the film Sideways came out, about two guys dealing with their issues while wine tasting in the Santa Ynez Valley. And in one memorable scene, Miles (Paul Giamatti), the so-called expert of the two, trashes merlot.

But Taylor thinks that the bad old days are gone when it comes to merlot.

“I think bad merlots have been weeded out from that Sideways effect,” she said. “And I think that we are seeing better and better merlots on the market.”

Taylor’s tips for finding a good one? She suggested looking for the appellation, or where the grapes are grown, such as the Napa region Or…

“Look for Rutherford Hill on the label,” she joked.

Which is not entirely bad advice. We tasted their Napa Valley Merlot, 2010, which is at least 75 percent merlot, but this one also has a little bit of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and syrah blended in. Mike noted its dark color – pretty typical of merlot wine – a caramel chocolate nose, with good acids with smooth, abundant tannins, and a nice finish. Plus it’s got great aging potential. It was Mike’s favorite.

Anne, however, preferred the Atlas Peak Merlot, 2010, which was 100 percent merlot. Mike noted a bit of anise and tar (it’s actually a good thing) on the nose, with good fruity, earthy flavor. The tannins were still there. And while Mike thought this had a shorter finish (the taste didn’t linger as long on the tongue), he also thought this one had even better potential for aging.

Now, the Napa Valley Merlot retails at $28, which sounds like a lot until you realize that the Atlas Peak was second least expensive, at a mere $50 for wine club members. Yipes! The rest of the bottles in the tasting all retailed at $95 and up. Oddly enough, the two above wines were our favorites – and that’s before we knew what they cost.

Idaho Tasting – Crossings Winery 2012 Cabernet Franc

We received a mixed case of wines from the Idaho Wine Commission for free in the hopes that we’d really like them. Well, we liked most of them. 

We have to be honest, the Crossings Winery 2012 Cabernet Franc did not wow us. It’s not a bad wine. In fact, it’s a perfectly serviceable cab franc. It’s just not a great wine.

Michael got graphite and pink fruit on the nose and tasted red fruit, such as cherry, a little dill or spice, and some marzipan. There was good acid and a nice finish.

Let’s be real – you don’t need a transcendent experience every time you open a bottle. And some days, a perfectly serviceable cab franc is what you want. Whether you’d want to pay $18.50 (the going rate for the 2014 cab franc on the website) for perfectly serviceable is up to you and what your budget can handle.

Martin Fujishin and Teresa Moye, Partners in Wine

A few months ago, the Idaho Wine Commission sent us a mixed case from several different wineries in Idaho. We’ll be reviewing the wines (which they may regret) and featuring some of the winemakers.

Harvest may not be the best time to convince your online girlfriend to come out and live with you. But Martin Fujishin managed to do it.

“She seems to think I was on my best behavior that harvest,” Fujishin said about Teresa Moye, who does marketing, design and information technology for Fujishin Family Cellars based in Caldwell, Idaho.

“It’s mostly manageable,” Moye said.

Teresa Moye

 

The two have been together since 2008. Fujishin is producing about 2,000 cases a year of mostly Rhone-style wines.

“We’ve always been kind of a Rhone-style, but we’ve branched out,” he said.

What we tasted was the winery’s 2015 Viognier.

“Viognier is what every white wine wishes it could be,” Fujishin joked.

He noted that his viognier doesn’t have as heavy a floral character as other more traditional ones.

“I think we were going over the top with it in earlier vintages,” Fujishin said.

Indeed, Michael wrote in his notes that the wine had a light golden color, and that the nose was a bit closed. The texture was very light and the flavors were white flowers and a bit of honeydew melon. And it had a nice level of acidity and a long finish.

 

Hat Ranch Winery 2105 Dry Moscato

As has been mentioned, we received a whole case of different wines from the Idaho wine region and we have been slowly making our way through them. While there have been some very good wines and at least one really good one, we can’t say we’ve been impressed by all of them.

Case in point – the 2015 Hat Ranch Winery Dry Moscato. Moscato is actually just another word for muscat, a grape with such a strong, fruity flavor that even the least bit in a blend makes the whole wine taste like muscat. It’s usually a sweet wine (another black mark as far as Anne is concerned).

The Hat Ranch wine was not bad. It just tasted a little tart to Anne. Michael, on the other hand, noticed that the color was very light, to almost water color. The nose was also light – none of that heavy muscat smell. the mouthfeel was full and it wasn’t too cloying. There was some acidity (the tartness that Anne tasted) and a long finish.

In short, there really wasn’t that much to it except the above.

Coco Umiker and Clearwater Canyon Syrah

Coco Umiker

[As noted in an earlier post, we received a case of wine from the Idaho Wine Commission, and have been slowly, but surely, tasting our way through it. We haven’t liked everything, although they’re hoping they’ll get a few good reviews out of the venture.]

Coco Umiker, winemaker at Clearwater Canyon Cellars in western Idaho, works with her husband Karl.

“He’s the grape grower and I’m the assistant grape grower,” she said. “I’m the winemaker and he’s the assistant winemaker. We’re partners in crime in everything here, but one of us has to have the final say.”

Umiker said that one of her primary goals is to let people know about Idaho wine.

“That’s probably our first challenge,” she said. “To educate people.”

Her winery, in the Lewis Clark Valley AVA, is only 30 miles from one of Washington State’s prime wine growing areas and has a climate that’s very good for grapes, with mild winters, plenty of water, and long, dry summers.

“When you look at it, we have all the important things that it takes to grow great grapes,” Umiker said. “We’re empowered with that and we also have this amazing history.”

According to Umiker, 150 years ago, there was quite a bit of wine grape growing in the valley, thanks to the immigrants who settled there and brought their wine growing traditions with them. Unfortunately, in the early 20th Century, Prohibition came along and killed the industry there.

Because this is not as well-known a wine country, Umiker said that it can be both liberating and restricting at the same time.

“It allows us to jump out there and try some things,” she said, such as adding syrah to a red blend. “At the same time, to be taken seriously, you have to do some traditional things.”

We tried their 2014 Estate Syrah, which was really nice. Michael noted the deep red color, with fruit and oak on the nose, and tannins that were nice and smooth. We drank it with our favorite black olive and sausage pizza. The only problem we had with the wine was that it was really tight when we first opened it. Michael thought it was a bit young and would have cellared it for a year or two.

But that is exactly why Umiker said she chooses to release her wines when they’re still a little young. She pointed out that there are some people who prefer a brighter, younger wine. Others prefer a smoother, more aged wine, and are perfectly happy to hold onto a bottle for a year or more.

“If you release it sooner, then people can make that decision for themselves,” she said.

The Lastest on the Avila Adobe Old Vines Project

The 2016 Avila Adobe Wine Symposium (l-r) Deborah Hall, Dr. Thomas Pinney, Stuart Byles, Santo Riboli, Wes Hagen and Michael Holland

We’ve mentioned, but never really did a full post on the Avila Adobe Old Vines. And this being the second vintage with the things looking really good for vintage #3, well, it’s probably time.

The running gag around the Old Homestead here is that we make the things most sane people buy. One of those things is wine. Michael is the winemaker, and in his real life, he’s the archivist for the City of Los Angeles. That’s how he happened to talk to Chris Espinoza, director of the El Pueblo State Park in downtown L.A. about the grape vines on Olvera Street, the oldest street in the city. Michael specifically asked about the vines growing in the courtyard of the Avila Adobe, the oldest building still standing in the city.

Well, Chris said it was okay if Michael harvested the grapes on the vines to make wine. Michael did some research and found out that these are possibly the oldest vines currently growing in the state. In fact, they’re so old, that the University of California, Davis, did the DNA test on them for free, with the results being that the vines are a match for the old vine at Mission San Gabriel. Alas, we’re not sure of the date of that one, either. But we’re guessing the Avila Adobe vines are around 150 years old.

So, that’s how Michael came to make angelica, a local version of sherry, from the grapes he picked. In addition, last year, he organized and moderated a symposium on historic wines at the Adobe as the El Pueblo foundation’s first fundraiser. The silent auction even featured a few bottles of the first vintage of angelica – which was (and is) insanely tasty. At least, Anne thinks it is, and even accounting for bias, there is the reality that she hates stickies and really hates sherry.

This second vintage is coming along just as nicely, with bright fruit flavors and just enough tang to kill any cloying sweetness.

Better yet, the vines which Michael has been caring for, along with winemaker and friend Wes Hagen, are doing really well and it looks like we’ll get another good harvest this September.

If you happen to be in Los Angeles next Thursday, July 20, be sure to check out this year’s symposium, which will be celebrating the centennial anniversary of one of the oldest wineries still operating in the state, San Antonio Winery, which opened its doors in Los Angeles in 1917. The event will take place in the courtyard of the Avila adobe from 6pm to 8pm

Lori Reynolds, of Sonoita Vineyards, and the Mission Grape

Lori Reynolds, of Sonoita Vineyards

The trip to Arizona was supposed to be about vacation, time spent relaxing, visiting Michael’s family. So when we went to check out the state’s three main wine regions it was supposed to be for the fun of it.

So, naturally, we stumbled onto Sonoita Vineyards. It was the first winery in Arizona after Prohibition. They make a wine with one of the most unusual grapes out there, the Mission grape. And the winemaker is a woman.

Well, it took a while, but Anne finally connected with Lori Reynolds, the winemaker, who told us how Sonoita Vineyards was started by her grandfather, Dr. Gordon Duff.

“We had a thriving table grape industry here in the sixties and seventies,” Reynolds said.

However, she explained, competition from the California table grape industry was undercutting the Arizona grapes. So the governor went to the University of Arizona and met with a team there that included her grandfather, Dr. Gordon Dutt, a soil specialist who had been working with the table grape farmers.

“My grandfather said that if table grapes will grow in Arizona, then wine grapes will,” Reynolds said.

The winery was started in 1974 and opened in 1983. Reynolds came on as winemaker after she got her bachelor of science, then realized that she wasn’t as interested in becoming a veterinarian as she’d thought.

“I was having a hard time finding something to do,” she said.

But her grandfather insisted that she was born to make wine, so she studied winemaking through the U.C. Davis Extension, became the assistant winemaker, and in 2013, finally took over the job on her own. She works with her husband, Robi Reynolds, who took over as vineyard manager around the same time after an injury interrupted his plumbing career.

The vineyard grows grapes on 40 acres of the 60 acres they have, Lori Reynolds said. But the most interesting grape they have is a little-known variety that used to be widely planted across the Southwest – the Mission grape.

According to the experts we know, the Mission grape is a hybrid of a grape brought from Spain by Franciscan missionaries in the Eighteenth Century. And, actually, they were growing it in Arizona before it came to California.

We have an unusual connection to the grape via Deborah Hall and Michael’s project with the old vines in downtown Los Angeles. So to taste some of Reynolds’ wine was a treat, indeed. And it was quite tasty.

Reynolds doesn’t ferment her Mission wine to full dryness. Instead of letting the yeast eat up all the grapes’ sugar to make alcohol, she stops the fermentation leaving what’s called residual sugar behind.

“It’s very bitter and astringent without the residual sugar,” Reynolds said.

It can be a bit of a trick to get folks to try the wine until Reynolds explains what to expect.

“I always let [customers] know it’s not dry,” she said. “I also let them It’s not very deep in color. It’s always a ruby red. I let them know that it’s a lower acid, it’s got the sweetness and it depends on the vintage. The 2016, it smells a little like chili pepper. And my ’15 is very clove and cherry with some cranberry.”

 

What Oak Does for Wine

Some time ago, we got invited to a lunch and wine tasting featuring wines from Rioja, Spain. Not only were there some amazing wines, the winemaker was there and led us through a flight of the same red wine aged in different types of oak barrels.

Now, normally, Anne scoffs at tastings like this. Tasting wine based on what oak it was aged in is the sort of thing that wine snobs turn into exercises in precious without breathing hard. And they suck all the joy out of it in the process, too.

The other reason Anne scoffs is that the potential for groupthink in these situations is so high that whatever results you get are darned near pointless. What is groupthink? It’s what happens when people are in a group and someone says A, someone else agrees and the next thing you know, everyone is going along with it, us being the social critters that we are.

It’s how Riedel sells their variety-specific glasses. I don’t doubt their reps honestly believe that a type of wine actually tastes better in a specific glass. But I’ll bet they won’t let you do a tasting blind and/or by yourself, which we did. The wine works better in a specific glass because they keep telling you it will, and someone agrees and next thing you know, the whole room is going along with it.

But what made this Rioja tasting different is that the winemaker wasn’t trying to sell us on any one wine. He was merely trying to explain why he used different types of oak barrels to age his wine in.

Now, here’s the thing about oak. Once upon a time, all wine was aged in oak barrels. Or wood barrels, but since oakwood was particularly good for making barrels, that’s what folks used. And because steel was insanely expensive and difficult to manipulate, it was put to better use as swords and other stuff. Even after the Industrial Revolution made big-ass metal containers easier to make and cheaper to sell, oak kind of hung on in the winery because old habits die hard and there wasn’t a clear benefit to using big-ass metal containers, at least, not right away, there wasn’t. That the wine picked up flavors from the wood, well, that was part of the flavor of wine.

Eventually, however, stainless steel tanks started showing up in wineries and winemakers realized that they could make white wines, in particular, taste really good without all that woody flavor. The red wines, not so much.

What oak barrels do is add a certain creaminess (lactic acid) to wine. In addition, because they are not completely air-tight, a tiny bit of the wine evaporates and the wine left inside is left with more intense flavor.

The interesting thing about oak is that it’s actually a plant and it’s affected by the same things that grape vines are. So oak from different places in the world adds slightly different flavors to the wine that’s aged in it.

It’s not a huge difference. It’s pretty subtle, in fact. You’re not going to taste a wine blind and know that it was aged in Hungarian rather than French oak. That’s the precious nonsense that makes Anne so crazy. But if you taste a wine that was aged in American barrels side by side with the same wine aged in French and/or Hungarian barrels, you can taste a slight difference. That’s kind of fun.