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.
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.
For winemaker Julia Iantosca, it’s all about the blending. So when her bosses, John and Nancy Lasseter hired her to work at their newish winery, Lasseter Family Wines, it was their preference for blends that got her on board.
“My interest in blending dovetailed with theirs,” Iantosca said. “It’s been wonderful… Certainly for the style of wine I want to make.”
It’s an interesting fact that European wines (which are known primarily by their place names) are almost all blends. Burgundy is the big exception to the rule, being made almost exclusively out of the pinot noir grape, with whites made out of chardonnay. Iantosca said that the Lasseters came into wine drinking in Europe, which was how they got interested in drinking wines that are blends of grapes.
“As a winemaker, [blending] allows you a fair amount of latitude in honing a wine to an ideal,” Iantosca said. “And by working with the grapes, you can really steer the direction and the personality of the wine. And that’s a really enticing way to personalize your style.”
Iantosca came into winemaking at a time when women winemakers were pretty rare. She was mentored by Merry Edwards, who was a pioneer among women winemakers in California.
Iantosca said that many of these early women got their start working in winery laboratories.
“Merry came at it from the cellar side,” Iantosca said, adding that a lot of men didn’t think women were up to the heavy work of moving barrels and other such tasks. “You just have to work smarter. There’s a reason that forklifts were invented, for example.” She added that there are a lot more women working as winemakers than there used to be.
“There are certainly far more opportunities for women coming into the wine business than when I started,” Iantosca said. “It was just such a male-dominated industry. The idea of being in charge didn’t seem all that possible. It’s just taken time and a lot of women who have a lot of talent and determination to keep putting their head down and moving forward and having the quality of their work.”
But while there are a lot more women in the business, Iantosca pointed out that there are also a lot more wineries. Still, the business does remain male-dominated. Iantosca said that she noticed something when went to some large wine-business functions recently.
“It’s the only time when the line for the men’s restroom is longer than the line for the women’s,” she said.
By the way, if the name John Lasseter sounds familiar, he is best known for his day job – running Pixar Studios and Disney Animation.
We met grape grower Judy Starr late last fall at the Paso Robles Garagiste Festival and really enjoyed talking to her about how she got started growing grapes. So fast forward to early this month, and we’re doing a bus tour of the Paso Robles region with the Cellarmasters home winemaking club. Our last stop was Starr Ranch Vineyard and Winery. Starr was not only there, she stayed open late for us, then poured while we sat around tables in her winery yard, overlooking the vines, as a soft breeze rustled the trees above us. One of our friends called it our nap for the day, it was so relaxing. And the wine was even more amazing. So amazing Anne blew the wine budget and then some buying several bottles.
So we highly recommend getting a glass of nice, crisp rose, then hauling it and your laptop outside under a tree somewhere and watching the below video. There’s a transcription underneath, too. Oh, and one quick note – most winemakers enjoy chatting with people and pouring their wines, but they really don’t like the sales part of it.
I began life 14 years ago as a vineyard. When I got here, I did not expect to have a label called Starr Ranch. I just wanted to grow fruit.
So, that’s where I started and I now know that’s a good place to start, because you’re sure of your grape supply and the quality of it from the beginning. So after I’d done that for a few years, I started my own little label. Because, after all, you’ve nurtured these grapes from the beginning, and then you take the next step.
Q – How did you start growing grapes?
Interesting question. Actually, it was sort of a… It wasn’t a mid-life crisis kind of a thing. But my children grew up and they did what they were supposed to do. They left home and got jobs. And so then I decided I had enough time and energy to do something interesting. And I wanted to grow something. I didn’t know at that point what it would be. I looked around for about for about four or five years and decided it would be wine grapes. Once I got to wine grapes, Paso [Robles] was pretty easy. It was 14 years ago and there were 33 wineries.
Q – Do you enjoy selling your wines?
Actually, I do enjoy selling the wine. Because it is an expression of what I put my time and energy into. I’m not the winemaker, as such, except if you believe that the wine is made in the vineyard. That’s my job. I care a lot about farming the fruit and producing excellent product. So if you have that, then the winemaking piece of it is easy. So I think for me, yes, the most fun is… is… seeing harvest every year. You put a lot of time and energy into it. A lot of work, a lot of hand work, a lot of people. Even when harvest approaches, you get this sense of anticipation that permeates everything. And it’s a very intangible sort of thing, but it’s certainly there when you farm.
Depending on where you live, of course, you can buy Starr’s wines from her Starr-Ranch.com website. And if you’re going to be in Los Angeles on July 11, you can go to the L.A. Garagiste Festival at the Wiltern Theatre
It’s kind of a long story why this particular post got kicked repeatedly to the back burner when we actually tasted William Allen’s awesome syrahs last June at a Rhone Rangers tasting event. The Rhone Rangers is an advocacy group touting wines made in the style of France’s Rhone Valley. Rhone-style wines usually mean syrahs, mourvedres and grenaches or a blend of those three also known as GSM.
Allen’s wines, under his label Two Shepherds, really stood out because while the syrahs were nice and meaty, they were also well-balanced and smooth, unlike several of the other wines we tasted that day. But what makes Allen even more interesting is that he is not a full-time winemaker. He works a day job as an engineer to pay the bills while building his winemaking business.
“I don’t have much of one,” he joked about his life. “The most challenging time of year is harvest.”
And given that he’s leased blocks of grapes from seven different larger vineyards in five different counties, you can imagine he’s putting in some very long hours when it’s time to bring the grapes in. He also works with a custom crush facility, Inspiration Vineyards and Custom Crush.
But it works for him for the time being. He told us that he doesn’t have to put in the huge overhead most wineries require to do business for winemaking facilities, vineyards, storage and bottling equipment.
“It’s all money in advance,” he said.
The Two Shepherds are the two goals Allen works toward. One is Shepherding the Palate – Allen is also an active wine blogger and works actively with the Rhone Rangers to promote Old-World style wines. That usually means wines that are more balanced and subtle than many of the traditional California-style wines. The second shepherd is Shepherding the Grape – using minimal intervention to make his wines, including native fermentation (not adding yeast to get the sugars in the wine to ferment), and doing little more than protecting the wine from harm as it goes through the various processes on the way to us, the consumers.
The only problem is that he doesn’t really have a tasting room, but he will make appointments to taste at the Sheldon Winery in Santa Rosa, California. You can also buy his wines on the website TwoShepherds.com.
It almost seems as though Jim Milone, winemaker at Terra Sávia, makes organic wines because it’s never occurred to him to do otherwise.
“We hate to shower,” he joked when asked why organic. But then he got down to business.
“Really, it’s just the way that I’ve been making wine for the past 34 years,” he said.
Terra Sávia winery, where Milone makes his wines, is a small outfit out of Hopland, California, in Mendocino County. The winery not only offers a full range of wines, it sells olive oil and honey, as well.
Milone is a firm believer in growing the best grapes and intervening as little as possible in the winemaking process. Now, he will add tiny bits of sulphur to help keep his wines stable (organic wines can go bad more easily than traditionally made wines) and he does use very specific yeast strains because he wants to know what’s going on with his wines.
“So, I’m not renegade organic,” he said. “I believe in making wine. But I believe in doing as little as possible.”
Milone has been making wine since he was 18 years old. He went to California State University, Humboldt, where he studied eco-systems and natural resources.
“When I came back from school, I just wanted to live off the land, as a naturalist and that just kind of fit my style of making wine,” he said.
But making organic wine from organic grapes poses several challenges. His crops are smaller because they can fall prey to pests and other issues that most commercial growers treat with chemicals, which means he has less wine to sell. Also, marketing organic wines isn’t as easy as you might think in these green days.
“Sometimes it’s been a hindrance,” he said about being organic in terms of the market. “Sometimes we’re penalized by the fact that we’re organic. Our wines, even though they should be more expensive because we get lower yields, and they’re not, really. And the consumer still has not quite embraced the true value of organic products.”
But interest in organic wine production has been growing of late, and Mendocino County is a major center for sustainable and organic growing and wine making. Next up – do Milone’s wines pass the taste test? Check out OddBallGrape.com later this week to see.
One of the advantages of massive tastings like Hospice du Rhone is that you get to try wines that are harder to find and from places you don’t get to see every day. Such as South Africa.
We met a couple of really interesting producers from there, including Edmund Terblanche, of La Motte, in the Franschhoek Valley in the Cape winelands. It being Hospice du Rhone, Terblanche was pouring the winery’s shiraz wines. Yes, shiraz is the Australian name for syrah, but apparently, it’s also the preferred term in South Africa, too.
“That’s the name that we’ve grown up with,” Terblanche said. “But you’ll find in South Africa you have people using the syrah word, as well. People probably want to express some style or something. But you taste the whole line-up, the shiraz, the syrah, you can’t really taste the difference.”
So naturally, we had to ask what makes a South African syrah unique. All lot of things, Terblanche said.
“There’s such a lot of influences here,” he said, explaining that people can imitate the rest of the world or they can make a more unique wine. “With the influences from two oceans, with the altitude and some of the oldest soils in the world, we can definitely make something unique.”
Selling it to the rest of the world can be challenging. Terblanche explained that because La Motte is one of the older wine brands in South Africa, having started in 1995, they do sell about 70 percent of their wine in South Africa. However, they are trying to branch out – having had some success selling to the United Kingdom and Germany. But they do want to reach the U.S. and are actively looking for the right representation to do just that.
“It’s extremely difficult to introduce the category of South Africa,” Terblanche said.
But that was why he was at Hospice du Rhone.
Needless to say, getting wine from La Motte here in the States won’t be easy, but the wines are available in Canada. And here’s the website, in case you happen to be in South Africa, www.la-motte.com.
It started somewhat insidiously – with a gift of a winemaking kit one Father’s Day.
“It was god-awful disgusting stuff,” said Steve Anglim, owner and winemaker of Anglim Winery.
But it was enough to get him making wine, eventually leading to the winery, which began in 2002. Steve and his wife Steffanie Anglim run the place, taking turns pouring at events and running the tasting room in Paso Robles, California, while their younger daughter plays in the back room.
“You have to divide and conquer because there’s so much to do,” Steffanie said.
The winery produces 3,500 cases of mostly Rhone-style varietals, like syrah and viognier. Steve sources his grapes from several local vineyards but really has no yen to get out and start farming, himself.
“It’s just what you enjoy doing,” he said. “They’re fundamentally different kinds of work.”
After Anglim’s first winemaking kit failed to produce anything really drinkable, Steffanie encouraged him to see what he could do if he got some good fruit.
“That’s how I met James Ontiveros, from Bien Nacido and others,” Steve said. “Of course, he would laugh hysterically when I would call and ask for Bien Nacido pinot in the mid-nineties.”
Nonetheless, Steve was not deterred and ramped up his personal production considerably over the next few years, to the point where maybe they had a little too much.
“My friends said they couldn’t drink anymore,” Steffanie said. “You know, when you’re a home winemaker, you have to give it away. And we had a lot of it. So it needed to be either smaller or bigger.”
The final push came when Steve’s employer at the time, Nissan, decided to move its headquarters to Nashville, Tennessee, and Steve decided that he didn’t want to go. It was time to change careers. As for the old saw about making a small fortune in the wine biz by starting with a big one, well….
“Our mistake was that we didn’t have one of those,” Steve joked. But, “We’ve been doing it for eight years. I’m not dead yet. I’m still here.”
You can find out more about the winery and order wines at their website, AnglimWinery.com
It happened a few months ago, but one day, Michael gets an email in his personal box inviting him and a guest to a tasting at a local contractor’s store near us. Huh? It was from David Vergari – a winemaker who lives in Sierra Madre in Southern California, but makes a collection of red wines out of a custom crush facility in Sebastopol, California. They’re mostly cabs and pinots – varieties we don’t usually focus on here at OddBallGrape.
But what makes Vergari’s operation a little more up our alley is how he’s selling his wines – through a series of open houses that he uses to build his wine club list. Such as the one we attended. The contractor specialized in high-end kitchens, so among the counter top samples and tile books, there was a small jazz combo. The caterer was using the contractor’s demo kitchen to heat hors d’oeuvres and chill the couple whites Vergari had purchased for those who like whites.
Vergari told us that he likes to make his cabernet sauvignons with a “pinot sensibility.” Either way, his wines feature excellent acids and good balance.
“I’m not in an arms race,” he said when we asked him about the lower alcohol levels in his wines. “I like acids.”
The first time we went up to Calaveras County’s wine country – part of a visit to Jeff Stai and Twisted Oak Winery – we drove right past Jeff’s neighbor at Irish Family Vineyards. For some reason, we looked at the signs Irish had out and concluded it wasn’t our style of place. We so should have known better.
It was during our next visit to Twisted Oak, Jeff and one of his tasting room staffers both said Irish was really good and we should try them. They were right.
Not only does Russell Irish make some outrageously good wines, we had a blast while we were there. The room looks like a slightly cluttered barn filled with Irish memorabilia – Irish is the family name, not just their heritage. Some of it’s a little dusty and has been there a while, but it feels homey and welcoming and casual. The kind of place where you won’t be embarrassed if your elbow gets jostled and some of the wine spills.
Better yet, Jeff Stai had invited us to join him and some other couples for dinner in Murphys. Not only did Russell help the other couple in the tasting room make reservations at the same restaurant we ended up at, Russ and his wife turned out to be one of the other couples at dinner. Dinner with two professional winemakers – wow.
But back at Irish – we also got a barrel sample of Russell’s latest blend, called Pogue Mo Thoin (no, we can’t translate the Gaelic). A barrel sample is new wine that has generally been fully fermented but not aged or bottled yet. Not only was the Pogue Mo Thoin not your traditional blend, hence the name, it was the sort of wonderful stuff that… Well, the tasting notes cometh.
There are two lessons here – one is that your best source for your next stop on your personal wine tasting tour is the person pouring at the winery you like, even if you’re not sure you agree. You never know. The second lesson is that there is only one answer to the question, “Would you like a barrel sample?” Yes!!! Pretty please? Yes! Yes!!!
It’s hard to know where to begin when talking about Walter Schug. This guy has been working in the California wine industry since 1966, when he was a grape buyer for Gallo. He is still hip-deep in making some phenomenal pinot noirs and has been continuously since he started working for Joseph Phelps in 1973. Our conversation ranged from the latest on this year’s harvest – “It went on a long time,” he noted – to the history of the California wine industry to the development of yeast in Germany.
We discovered the winery last spring as we were tooling around the Carneros region. They do make other wines there, but the pinots are what got us excited. These are lovely, gentle food wines – not the high-alcohol fruit bombs that, as Schug put it, were made to impress Robert Parker. It may not be the done thing these days, but that doesn’t seem to bother Schug.
He started out making wine in the Rheingau region of Germany, following in the footsteps of his father, who oversaw pinot noir production in Assmannshausen (as in the yeast, for you wine geeks – it was developed in the winery his father oversaw for the German government).
“I was born and raised with pinot noir,” Schug said, pointing out that his father managed the only red wine facility in “an ocean of riesling.”
Schug, himself, got his enology degree in Germany in 1959 and eventually found his way to California, where, as noted above, he worked for Gallo, touring Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake counties to find the best grapes for the huge winemaker. He went on to make wine for Joseph Phelps, in particular, pinot noir – the grape of his youth. Unfortunately, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Americans were just getting the idea that varietal wines were more sophisticated than jug wines and there wasn’t much of a market for pinot noir.
“At the time, nobody really believed in it,” Schug said. “But I believed in it. We were only making 1500 cases out of 80,000 cases.”
Phelps decided to discontinue making pinot noir, and Schug was crushed. He went to Phelps and talked the winery owner into letting Schug buy the grapes and make his own pinot noir that he would distribute under his own label, and thus Schug Winery was born. By 1983, Schug had trained a successor and went off on his own.
“I was out there by myself,” he said, “my wife and I.”
Today the winery puts out about 55,000 cases. His own vineyards only supply 22 percent of his grapes, with the rest coming from high-end producers, including San Giacamo. They have several varieties available, including a brand new pinot noir rose that we didn’t get to taste because it wasn’t released when we were there. You can visit their website here.