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Monday, October 29, 2012

Lake County, Napa's Neighbor, Gains Respect

Reposted from the Wall Street Journal, October 26

Lianne Milton
CHEERS FOR THE LAKERS | Arpad and Peter Molnar, owners, and Alex Beloz, winemaker at the Obsidian Ridge Vineyard
NEAR THE END of the Civil War, the U.S. government gave away 160 acres of land to anyone willing to help settle the West. Vineyard owner Andy Beckstoffer has his own version of that Homestead Act: He has offered famous winemakers and vintners a free trip by helicopter to California's Lake County to check out his vineyards—along with "favorable terms" for the purchase of grapes.
Although adjacent to Napa Valley, Lake County is a world apart with cheap land, low production costs and no social infrastructure-but it's become the destination for California wineries making Lake County wines or "filling out" their Napa and Sonoma bottles. Lettie Teague has details on Lunch Break.
Mr. Beckstoffer is one of the largest—not to mention most enterprising—vineyard developers in the county. He owns about 1,000 acres in Lake County and about the same amount of land in Mendocino and Napa counties. But right now Mr. Beckstoffer is particularly focused on Lake County, which he believes has the potential to produce some very good, very reasonably priced Cabernet. And he's not alone; almost two months ago, the Gallo family made a very big commitment to the county with the purchase of the 2,000-acre Snows Lake Vineyard, whose 800 acres of vineyards are primarily planted to Cabernet Sauvignon. According to Gallo Senior Vice President Roger Nabedian, it's the largest purchase that Gallo has made in at least 10 years, in terms of both money and size.
In its pre-Prohibition heyday, there were close to 3,000 acres of vineyards in Lake County, and its lakefront resorts attracted top Hollywood acts. But over the years, the vineyards were almost entirely ripped out and replaced by more-profitable walnuts and pears (and the top acts all migrated to Lake Tahoe). By the 1980s, the walnut and pear markets had dried up as well, and Lake County's economy—and profile—declined even more.
But the past 10 years have been a time of resurgence and regrowth. There are now more than 8,000 acres of vineyards in Lake County and a few dozen wineries as well. (A few decades ago there were just four.) Five subappellations were drawn up, most notably Red Hills, Clear Lake and High Valley. According to Mr. Beckstoffer, these subdistricts were created by growers as much to recognize their distinctive geography as to distance themselves from the less-than-illustrious Lake County name. "Lake County had a reputation for bad wine in the 1990s," said Mr. Beckstoffer, naming the decade he first ventured north from Napa.
Nick Elias
Andy Beckstoffer's Amber Knolls Vineyard
One of the reasons that the wines were so bad was the grapes were planted in "all the wrong places," according to Mr. Beckstoffer—an opinion I heard expressed several more times from several more growers during my visit last month. The grapes—particularly Cabernet—were planted down in the valleys instead of up in the hills, and the fruit didn't ripen properly. Valley wines also lacked the intensity of wines made from hillside fruit. Not that most wine drinkers had an opportunity to distinguish the difference between the two as most Lake County grapes were added to blends of various grapes from various places, including Napa Valley.
Mr. Beckstoffer and I had this conversation on the way to Steele Wines, one of the earliest wineries of modern Lake County, founded by Jed Steele in 1991. Mr. Steele was the much-heralded creator of Kendall-Jackson Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay but left fame and fortune behind when he moved to Lake County and opened a decidedly low-key place of his own. The Steele winery is a world apart from his past corporate life, which is to say it's quintessential Lake County: a low-slung building just off of the highway, across from a purveyor of farm equipment and pet food.
Although many growers, including Mr. Beckstoffer, believe that Cabernet Sauvignon will make Lake County respectable if not renowned, others, like Mr. Steele, seem to believe that the right grape for Lake County is…everything. Mr. Steele turns out a veritable alphabet of wines—from Aligote to Zinfandel and just about every varietal in between. But not all of his fruit comes from Lake County—sometimes it's from places as far away as Washington state.
Other winemakers have backed other varietals, most notably Sauvignon Blanc or, in the case of Gregory Graham, Viognier. In fact, Mr. Graham, a Lake County pioneer, told me he thought Viognier would "rule the world" in the late 1990s. Although his Viognier is very good, that never happened, and Mr. Graham makes many other wines as well—Cabernet, Grenache, Chardonnay and Syrah.
Sonoma-based superstar winemaker David Ramey, who consults to Brassfield Winery, in Upper Lake, believes that aromatic white wines like Albariño, Gewürztraminer and Roussane are the right grapes for Lake County. And he's quite keen on Malbec, too. That red varietal has a "tremendous future" in the county, said Mr. Ramey, though there are only 25 acres of Malbec in Lake County right now.
If the absolute best Lake County grapes have yet to be determined, they are, at least, still quite reasonably priced. For example, Mr. Beckstoffer charges at least $8,000 a ton for grapes from his top Napa Cabernet vineyard, while at his Red Hills outpost in Lake (which he farms exactly the same way), the cost is $2,500 a ton for Cabernet. The Lake County average is $1,800.
And yet only about a third of the winemakers buying Mr. Beckstoffer's fruit are making Cabernets with a Red Hills label, he estimates. Most, like winemaker Dave Guffy of the Hess Collection in Napa, are using it in blends. (Mr. Guffy uses 45% Lake County fruit in his Hess Select red.) The same is true for other growers—Gregory Graham estimates that he sells 60% of his fruit to Napa Valley wineries who bottle it into a blend. (A wine may be labeled "Napa" as long as 85% of the fruit is from there.)
Peter Molnar, chairman of the Lake County Wine Grape Commission, makes wine in Lake County as well as Napa and Sonoma and showcases Lake County with his wine, Obsidian Ridge. His 2009 is a wine he calls "a hillside Cabernet for the rest of us," priced accordingly at $28 a bottle. Marked by dark fruit, currant and tobacco, it's intense and impressive—one of the best Cabernets I tasted on my visit.
Like many of the producers I met during my visit, Mr. Molnar doesn't live in the county, but several hours away in North Berkeley. Others commute from Sonoma and Napa. That's another big challenge for Lake County—finding winemakers who actually want to live there. Even though an acre of land costs a fraction of what it does in Napa (about $10,000 plus the cost of developing a vineyard), there hasn't exactly been a stampede of would-be resident vintners. Maybe it's just a matter of time—and a few more good wines in the market with Lake County on their labels. After all, it took not one but three Homestead Acts to get the West settled.
See wine videos and more from Off Duty at Email Lettie

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

2011 Harvest time!

I always feel guilty this time of year - while my friends in Portland are Facebooking beautiful pictures of a ton of Pinot they are about to crush, or in California they are taking snapshots of 100-year Zinfandel and waxing over the first sniff of autumn, we are working stupid. Like in the dark stupid.

The vintage so far has been mixed. Lots of heat and a dry start. Lots of growers are picking too early with green seeds and no flavor over concern for the heat. Crop loads are large too, slowing it all down. Some clones of some things look fantastic while others, not so much. There has also been a lot of over watering too with the conditions and as a protection startegy during the heat waves. And then, like a light switch, summer goes away and fall temperatures are here. But, our stuff is tight if moving slow and quality will be very high. This will be the latest we have ever picked Dolcetto by about ten days. We just received Carmeneré from Yolo county at a mere 23 brix and 4.35 pH - another record, the vines totally shut down and sleeping all ready. There is a definite sense of excitement as we move toward a greater percentage of estate fruit - the vineyards where we can't call the pick time drive me insane.

Here is our current status:

  • Muscat - lots finished and finishing
  • Tocai - done and racked
  • Bit o' Chenin Blanc - dragging because it was too small an amount to really settle before fermenting
  • Several rosé bits - all working in various ways
  • Sangiovese - Classico clone from Amador barreled down last night
  • Sagrantino - barreled last night
  • Cabernet Franc for me - 2 clones barreled last night
  • Tinta Roriz for me - two lots about to be pressed or extended - not sure yet
  • Nebbiolo - split into three lots, all working
  • Sangiovese Brunello clone, working

2011 Barbera and Sangiovese bottled, my 2011 Trigrammaton and Cab Franc bottled, with many more to come.
Add to this all of the public pourings and events, and the exciting but always difficult to pack in Flight Nights at the tasting room:

This week will see the first estate block of Primitivo picked, Carmeneré for me, estate Sangiovese, Greco di Tufo and a little Refosco with the rest to follow soon. Bottling will be either Nebbiolo or Montepulciano next when a gap opens in the work stream. I also need to tune up the fruit before it is harvested, presorting getting rid of any bird damage or sunburn before it is picked.

This is just the first wave my friends - much more action to come and we begin our estate harvest in the next few days. The next Flight Night will be October 19th and it will be Greek Night - you can RSVP through Facebook RIGHT HERE. We have been splitting it into two seatings which sell out quickly. Hold onto your hats though, in November we are talking about me doing Thai Night (which I am all for as we pursue this Next Restaurant format). So I apologize for the lack of updates and cool pictures - it is either the stickiness, the sense of urgency or the general tiredness of endless 14 hour days that make me forget to pull out the phone. It definitely is not because of lacking excitement.