Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Corney & Barrow company profile

This article first appeared in Meininger's Wine Business International

In 1992 Corney & Barrow did something that earned it the opprobrium of its peers. ‘Bastards, renegades and traitors was what our noble friends in London called us,’ Adam Brett-Smith, the wine merchant’s managing director recalls.What Corneys had done to provoke such fury was to break ranks and set up one of the first wine broking businesses in the UK. In those days broking – buying and selling on behalf of clients – was a cosy and lucrative business. As Brett-Smith puts it, ‘you bought from anywhere and sold to anywhere.’ No attention was paid to provenance, an issue of such all-consuming importance in today’s fraud-ridden fine wine world that it’s incredible to think it was once seen as a mere detail. In setting up Corney & Barrow Broking Services, the merchant turned that on its head.

‘We tried to redefine the way the broking business operated. We set up standards on broking with absolute emphasis on provenance. We would never buy from auction, never buy from America and never buy from Asia. They were very expensive rules, and it cost us a lot of money, but it was the right thing to do.’

English renegade: Adam Brett-Smith
This of course put the comfortable practices of Corneys’ competitors into unwelcome focus – hence the string of pejoratives. In conversation with Brett-Smith, who joined the company in 1981 as a junior salesman and was made managing director before the decade was out, such epithets are the last thing which come to mind. A man for whom the word ‘urbane’ could have been invented, impeccably turned out, almost cartoonishly tall, he is the very picture of an Englishman. Does he – and the company – trade on that Englishness?

‘I don’t think any of us feel we need to drape ourselves in the Union Jack but there is a subconscious push. One of the legacies of history is that on the whole the Brits are quite well liked. No one’s quite sure why they like us but there are indefinable virtues that still exist.’

He defines those virtues as ‘trust, knowledge and the trading culture’, the British ‘trading instinct, the desire to go elsewhere and build businesses in other areas. It’s not odd to deal with a British wine merchant in Hong Kong, for example.’

Corney & Barrow is the third in the triumvirate of great and long-established British wine merchants. Established in 1780, it is about a hundred years younger than Berry Bros and Justerini & Brooks. It has offices in Hong Kong, Singapore, Edinburgh, Yorkshire and East Anglia, and – under the Corney & Barrow Group umbrella, a thriving wine bar business. Turnover last year was £49.7m, with the eleven wine bars, all concentrated around the City of London financial district, adding £16.3m to the bottom line.

Like its peers (between them they have just short of 800 years’ experience selling wine) Corneys appears both old-fashioned and resolutely modern. The first to set up a provenance-based broking service, it was also the first to recognise the importance of sole agency, a concept that was ‘much derided at the time’, Brett-Smith says.

‘The pursuit of exclusive representation was something the traditional British wine merchant didn’t do.’

It started with Petrus in 1978 or 80, and taking on the Pomerol icon was something even they didn’t quite understand – ‘it was the exception that proved the rule’. A decade later Corneys wooed Aubert de Villaine, proprietor of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, and set the mould for a strategy that is now the company’s unique selling proposition. Of the 600-plus wines on the list, there are 50 agencies, chosen using the simple criterion, ‘wherever good and great wine is grown’, and taking producers of 10,000 cases or less.

If the list is impressive – DRC and Petrus, Comte Georges de Vogüé in Chambolle-Musigny, Domaine Leflaive in Puligny-Montrachet, Champagne Salon and Delamotte, Conterno in Piedmont, Dominio de Pingus in Ribera del Duero, Achaval Ferrer in Mendoza, Hyde de Villaine in Carneros, and dozens of other resonant names – there’s also something slightly claustrophobic about it.

There’s barely a claret, for example, that doesn’t come from the J-P Moueix stable (Christian Moueix and Brett-Smith have known each other for years), and you’re hard-pressed to find anything from California that isn’t either Hyde de Villaine (a partnership between Carneros mastermind Larry Hyde and Aubert de Villaine of DRC) or bona-fide blue-chip like Colgin or Harlan, or indeed Moueix’s Dominus.

In the words of one well-placed London professional, ‘part of me thinks it’s brilliant, and the other half thinks it’s absurd. I love Champagne Delamotte, but do I want to drink that to the exclusion of all others? No.’ 

Brett-Smith makes no apologies. ‘We don’t want to be an enormous basket of every fine wine in the world. Our goal is simple: to supply to the end consumer wines that are exclusive to Corney & Barrow in all the markets in which we operate. We want to be an inch wide and five miles deep, rather than five miles wide and an inch deep.’

It’s the very definition of ‘specialist’, but what about nurturing new talent? ‘We love taking something that is derided, or no one knows anything about, and believing in it and communicating it,’ he says, remembering how Pingus was once unknown, ‘a domaine in Spain’. The bodega’s founder Peter Sisseck salutes Brett-Smith’s vision: ‘They had a lot of courage. I couldn’t have done it without them.’  

Sisseck is anything but an iconoclast now – his latest vintage is on the list at not much less than £300 a bottle – and some may raise an eyebrow at the thought of Corneys as a champion of the derided and misbelieved.

But it’s well to remember that the company’s business model has held good for some decades. One of the reasons for this is the care it takes with the clientele, which Brett-Smith puts in the 35-55 age group. As people get older, he says, they buy less fine wine that requires ageing, so the list of private customers (there are about 550 active on the DRC list) is self-regulating. At the same time, he has an active policy of employing younger people, on the basis that ‘the age of a client is closely linked to the age of the salesforce – usually about eight or twelve years older.’

Keeping your clientele young is vital for survival in any business, as is looking to the future. Brett-Smith predicts that in generations to come (‘When I’m long gone’) his successors will be faced with two developments. The first is logistics. It’s quite possible that, as is happening in Bordeaux with Latour and others opting out of the negociant system, ‘domaines will access the end consumer without any intermediaries,’ and merchants must build storage facilities against that eventuality, just as the big negociants in Bordeaux are doing. ‘We have a shed in Scotland,’ he says.

The second development is that merchants may become growers and producers themselves. Is this something he’s considered? ‘It remains an option. We’ve looked at a shareholding in production.’

Brett-Smith will say no more, but he seems to have been right on a number of counts already, and there’s no reason to suppose he’s lost his touch.

Friday, 4 July 2014

For all my friends and colleagues turning 50...

From Four Quartets (Little Gidding)

Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age
To set a crown upon your lifetime's effort.
First, the cold fricton of expiring sense
Without enchantment, offering no promise
But bitter tastelessness of shadow fruit
As body and soul begin to fall asunder.
Second, the conscious impotence of rage
At human folly, and the laceration
Of laughter at what ceases to amuse.
And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
Of things ill done and done to others' harm
Which once you took for exercise of virtue.
Then fools' approval stings, and honour stains.
From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit
Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire
Where you must move in measure, like a dancer.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Regional profile: Navarra

Navarra: Garnacha to the fore?

This diverse region struggles to compete against Spain’s most powerful brand, Rioja. Is it time to forgo the emphasis on ‘serious’ red blends and international whites so that its native varieties can come to the fore?

Read the full article here

This article appears in the August 2014 issue of Decanter magazine 

Sunday, 29 June 2014

'All of a sudden it connected': Stags Leap District celebrates its quarter century

This is a longer version of the article which appears in the current issue of The World of Fine Wine

Stags Leap District was established as an American Viticultural Area (AVA) in 1989, and its annual Vineyard to Vintner event, when the region’s 20-odd wineries throw open their doors to their loyal public, was chosen to mark its quarter-century. Over the course of a blazing weekend at the end of April, gleaming black limos and minibuses (many with gold hubcaps) swept up and down the three-mile stretch of the Silverado trail that neatly bisects the AVA, carrying Stags Leap enthusiasts from a dozen different states. Texas plates were much in evidence.

The weekend celebrations were kicked off by a seminar on the lawn at Shafer, compered by AVA lawyer Richard Mendelson, and Kelli White, the chief sommelier at Press in St Helena. On the panel, Michael Beaulac of Pine Ridge, Elizabeth Vianna of Chimney Rock, John Shafer, Dick Steltzner, John Conover of Plumpjack (the owners of Odette, the latest additon to the district), and Stag's Leap Wine Cellars vineyard manager Kirk Grace talked us through a vertical of vintages, starting with the 1977 Cask 23 (notes below). Mendelson teased out Shafer's and Steltzner's reasons for alighting in the district in the late 60s. For Shafer it was slope: 'I'd researched and my goal was to find hillside,' he said, 'Bacchus loves the hills.' Steltzner: 'I didn't know it was Cabernet land but I knew it was good drained land. I knew it was good for grapes.' He'd been drinking Inglenook Cabernet with duck he'd hunted, he added, so he knew its possibilities in the valley.

Three miles long and a mile wide, Stags Leap is the smallest sub-district in Napa. It’s not the first – Howell Mountain was established in 1983, and the one-winery Wild Horse Valley in the far south in 1988 – but it is one of the most renowned. This is due in part to the status conferred upon the as-yet-unofficial region when Warren Winiarski’s 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon eclipsed a clutch of Bordeaux first growths at the 1976 Paris Tasting.

While the district’s bigger properties are gradually being taken over by corporations – Chateau Ste Michelle and Antinori paid US$187m for Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars a few years ago, Stags Leap Winery is owned by TreasuryWine Estates; Mondavi, which has substantial holdings of Sauvignon Blanc in the south-west quarter, is owned by Constellation, Chimney Rock by Terlato WineGroup, Pine Ridge by the Crimson Wine Group – Stags Leap District is still dotted with smaller family operations.

There are rich enthusiasts like Greg Lindstrom, who produces 500 cases from a tiny hillside property, or Susie and Tom Jinks’ Robinson Vineyards where the couple's three daughters are very much in evidence, taking orders or handing out pizza on Vineyard to Vintner day, or the Ilsleys, who farm 23 acres (9.3ha) next door to Shafer, where David Ilsley is vineyard manager. Then there is Baldacci Family, and Regusci Winery, formidable family companies both. Even Silverado Vineyards is family-owned, albeit by the powerful Miller clan, descendents of Walt Disney.

Old labels at Robinson: LOL
Taylor Family Vineyards is typical of the smaller property, what could be called a ‘mom and pop’ set-up if it wasn’t for the fact they are sitting on tens of millions of dollars of land. Growers since 1976, they started producing their own Cabernet and Chardonnay from their nine acres next door to Silverado Vineyards in 2002. ‘It’s been an adventure,’ Sandy Taylor, the current president says. You get a sense of pioneering can-do from these families. Tom Jinks at Robinson dug their pocket-sized cellar 'by hand' he says with some pride, and indeed he looks the kind of person who can wield a pickaxe. It's a far cry from the multimillion dollar makeover at Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, less than a mile away.

Towards the Silverado Trail from Lindstrom's knoll
One of the first people to identify Stags Leap in the late 1950s (for the purposes of clarity the apostrophe-less post-AVA spelling will be used throughout, irrespective of dates referred to) was Nathan Fay, the grower from whom Winiarski purchased one of his most iconic vineyards. Fay sold grapes but made a few barrels for himself, and his 1968 homemade Cabernet seems to have gained mythic status. He gave it to John Shafer, who remembers it as ‘stunning…rich and delicious with lush dark fruit,’ as his son Doug described it in his book A Vineyard in Napa.

‘That’s what started the Cabernet movement,’ Dick Steltzner – who planted his Cabernet vineyards in the early 70s and together with Shafer was one of the architects of the AVA – told me over lunch. ‘They [Shafer, Winiarski, and Joe Heitz as well] tried Nate’s homemade wine and all of a sudden it connected.’

Winiarski was so taken by the wine he bought a 36-acre prune orchard (prunes were big business in the region - at one time they were fetching higher prices per ton than grapes) 'as close to Fay's vineyard as I could get it' he told me. That was in 1970. He planted a portion to Cabernet Sauvignon and called the vineyard SLV, sending one of the first vintages, the '73, to Paris in 1976, and straight into the history books.

At the same time, John Goelet, a descendent of the Bordeaux negociant family Guestier, was looking around for prime Cabernet land and with the help of Bernard Portet also bought plots next to Fay, producing  the first Clos du Val vintage in 1972.

Any discussion of what makes Stags Leap different comes back to land. ‘It was founded solely in the soil and the geography,’ Allison Steltzner, sales director of the family winery said. The Palisades, the craggy range that marks the eastern boundary, have a peculiar inward curve, Steltzner says, that circulates cooling winds from San Pablo Bay in the south.

This creates different growing conditions from the rest of the valley, Dick Steltzner puts in. ‘Because of our air movement we have smaller leaves, so we have more sunlight on the fruit.’ Earth, wind and sun come together in the perfect combination. The volcanic alluvial soils of the lower hills – what they call the benchland – are light, and give more stress to the vines, the grapes are more exposed to the sun, but cooled by the wind. Stags Leap District winemakers reckon they have more hangtime than the rest of the valley, giving the grapes more phenolic ripeness, which coupled with cool nights allows acid retention. ‘You get that velvety texture to the wines.'

Every vintner in the world makes claims for the uniqueness of his or her region, of course, but – at their most elegant – the wines of Stags Leap do have characteristics that set them apart from, say, those of neighbouring Rutherford or Oakville. ‘There is a common thread that runs through them,’ Vianna reckons. ‘It’s in the nature of the fruit profile. There’s a backbone of black fruit, and there’s more structure.’  For others it’s acidity. ‘It gives tension and vibrancy, and wonderful ageworthiness’ to the wines, Remi Cohen, the winemaker at Cliff Lede Vineyards, says. Winiarski himself talks of the ‘mystical unity’ of terroir and winemaker.

Stags' Leap Winery's motto - 'Yield to no misfortune'. Apt, 
given the many tragedies that have afflicted successive
By the time Shafer and Steltzner got together in the mid-80s to discuss their AVA proposal, it was obvious that Stags Leap District was Cabernet territory, but they had no plan to restrict plantings. ‘It was a marketing ploy,’ John Shafer said. The only boundaries to the AVA were horizontal and vertical, with an upper limit of 400ft (122m). Newcomers like Lindstrom (2005), Cliff Lede (2002) and Odette (owned by the Plumpjack group) are testament to the openness of the appellation. Doug Shafer: ‘When [new owners] came in, people asked me if I was worried, and I said, “No, it’s great, bring it on. They’re our neighbours, they’ve got Stags Leap on the label and they’re making really good wine”. This is America and you can plant anything you want.’

The creation of the AVA wasn’t all Californian laissez-faire. ‘It was controversial,’ Richard Mendelson, the lawyer who worked closely with Shafer and Steltzner on the proposal told me. ‘There were issues about the name, a long litigation process.’ Both Warren Winiarski and Carl Doumani, then owner of Stags’ Leap Winery (he sold it to Beringer in 1997 and started Quixote) had had their own battle over the name, a case which was settled in 1986 by apostrophe – Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars but Stags’ Leap Winery). Winiarski, a keen supporter of the idea of an AVA was nevertheless against calling it Stags Leap, thinking it would be confusing for consumers to have two wineries and an appellation with the same name.

There were other issues, particularly about the land which lies to the west of the Silverado trail. ‘The boundary was the most controversial,’ Mendelson said. Steltzner and Shafer wanted the Silverado Trail to be the western boundary on the basis that the heavier soils nearer the Napa River, to the west of the Trail, were not suitable for Cabernet. Silverado Vineyards – founded by Diane and Ron Miller in 1978, and one of the first to plant Cabernet – contested that decision and managed to get the size of the district doubled, to inlcude Silverado and also the 400 acre Wappo vineyard owned by Mondavi, mainly planted to Sauvignon Blanc. How much of a controversy was it at the time? Not that much, Silverado’s general manager Russ Weis told me, ‘ours was a foundational vineyard in establishing the reputation of Cabernet Sauvignon in the district. The original decision was just an oversight.’

The chai at Cliff Lede Vineyards
Although the only legal limits are geographical, in reality the appellation is self-regulating. Ninety per cent of the district’s 1300 acres (526ha) of vineyard are planted to Bordeaux varietals, of which 80% is Cabernet Sauvignon. Stags’ Leap Winery, with its extensive Petite Sirah plantings, is an anomaly that would never happen today. At Odette, a strip of fallow land marks where a parcel of Pinotage was recently grubbed up, to be replaced by Cabernet. ‘It would make no financial sense to plant anything else,’ marketing director Christian Ogenfuss says.

Indeed. We don’t know what Jean Phillips, formerly of Screaming Eagle, paid for the 114-acre (46.1ha) vineyard next door to Odette which she bought in 2012. She would have bargained, as the vendors, Pillar Rock winery, had had trouble with taint, but top Stags Leap land can go for up to US$1m per acre (US$2.47m/ha), and is seldom less than half that. As for Cabernet grapes, if you can find them you’ll be paying US$7,500 a ton, way above the Napa average of US$5,500. But it’s academic, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars president Steve Spadarotto says, as there are hardly ever any Stags Leap District grapes on the market – the wineries use up everything they own, and any growers are tied in to long-term contracts.

Rising land and grape prices mean rising wine prices. ‘There is such a limited supply of Stags Leap fruit,’ Spadarotto says, ‘the economics are screamingly obvious.’ US$120-150 wines are now the norm. In the 25 years of its existence Stags Leap District has become, in Ogenfuss’s words, ‘the financial appellation.’

Stags Leap District tasting notes

This is a highly selective list of wine tasted during three days in Stags Leap in April 2014. The lack of notes on Clos du Val is remiss - I'll be tasting the wines in due course and I'll add notes

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cask 23 1977
Earthy fresh bright lifted nose with cherry fruit and savoury, saline, even beefy notes. Such beguiling sweet fruit with spice cinnamon and clove, forest floor, old book leather and red apple skin. Soft tannins and lovely gentle length.

Steltzner Cabernet Sauvignon 1980
Aroma of ozone on the nose, mossy wood sunk in river mud, pencil lead. Bright acidity on the palate, fruit falling off but present and full of charm, light dry tannic length and some juice to the finish with great grip on the end tannins, though losing their elasticity and juiciness. On the downward curve, the ghost of bright youth remaining

Shafer Hillside Select 1988
Light perfumed nose, violet and very old cigar box. Lovely bright tannins, the fruit moving to autumnal flavours – dark cherry, ripe plum, raisins, port, a hint of ripasso. A beautiful old wine heading into elegant  old age

Doug and John Shafer, inscrutable, and Hillside Select 91
Shafer Hillside Select 1991
One of the finest Napa Cabernets I have had, and that is with some competition. Gorgeous perfumed sandalwood nose, fine earthy aromas, fine minerality, soft tannins with lingering grip, lovely perfumed juice on the middle palate alongside bright fruit, perfect weight and balance. The whole fresh, long, and very much alive. Delicious

Pine Ridge Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon 1999
Pine Ridge Stags’ Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon 1999
Bright cassis on the nose, cherry wood and sun-warmed earth with hints of chocolate. Blackberry and blackcurrant with higher notes of raspberry on the palate, secondary flavours coming in – hints of raisined fruit, some sweet porty notes - tannins dry and dissolving into juice. Bright finish

Chimney Rock 2002
Cherry and mentholyptus, some herb and mown grass, salinity, ozone, hint of sea-mud, then hay on the palate, dry tannins with juice on the mid-palate, very structured with lovely juicy length which persists. Secondary flavours underpinned by still-young tannins and brisk acidity

The elegant curved roof of the new Odette winery
Odette Cabernet Sauvignon 2012
The district’s newest addition, created in 2012 when Plumpjack bought 46 acres of Dick Steltzner’s vineyard on the eastern edge of the Silverado Trail. ‘I don’t know how much you paid for it in 1965, but it was certainly a hell of a lot less than we did,’ John Conover of Plumpjack joked.
Bright lifted nose with cherry, chocolate notes. Instant tannic grip on the palate, very sweet dark cherry and sandalwood , dry dissolved tannins leading to juice and freshness, very fine perfumed length, food friendly, persistent for a good minute. Young and vibrant

Cliff Lede Vineyards Stags' Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon 2011
Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot
Formidable 55acre operation founded by Cliff Lede in 2001, with David Abreu in the vineyard and Remi Cohen in the winery. Also buys fruit from Andy Beckstoffer’s To Kalon. Every vineyard named after a classic rock anthem, Stairway to Heaven, Bohemian Rhapsody, Born to be Wild and so on. Music blasts between the tanks at tastings.
Intense earthiness on the nose and then a juicy centre. Powerful concentration of fruit and big, bold tannins but with a nervy precision. Huge and unusual (given Lede’s rock ‘n’ roll style), not jammy, almost a hint of rusticity.

Cliff Lede Vineyards  Moondance Dream 2011
Cabernet Sauvignon with small proportion Petit Verdot
Amidst the cassis and chocolate and tar on the nose is a waft of fresh green mown grass which lifts the aromas. On the palate, black olives and nettle-green, suave tannins (unexpected again – there’s something almost camp about these wines – brash but oddly feminine)

Lindstrom Wines Cabernet Sauvignon 2011
Celia Welch (of Rutherford cult Scarecrow fame) is winemaker at this 500-case family operation, established in 2005 on a high rocky knoll in the middle of the district
Fresh green on the nose – hay and blackcurrant. Really splendid juice on the palate, lovely weight and mouthfeel, precise, intense ripe blackcurrant and damson, chalky tannins carrying through to a fine finish

On the lawn at Robinson Vineyards
Robinson Vineyards 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon
Another homespun (if you can use such a word in Napa) small producer, growing since the 70s but making the first vintage in ’98. Tom Jinks dug the pocket-sized cellar ‘by hand’, he told me
Red fruit getting darker on a complex nose, then blueberry on the palate, and tight, close-knit tannins. A big, tannic wine with grip, but freshness of acidity persists throughout saving it from jamminess

Ilsley Vineyards Malbec 2011
Just down the hill from Shafer in the northern district. David Ilsley is vineyard manager at Shafter
Very fine dark ruby hue, bright cherry and sweet damson on the nose, grainy fine tannins with more cherry, damson and plum. Good concentration, bold, open palate with wonderful juiciness and perfume

Baldacci Family Vineyards Brenda’s Vineyard Cabernet 2010
Established 1997, growers supplying Mondavi and others, until first own vintage in 2000. Also have 20acres in Carneros
Tar and chocolate, spiced damson, intense dry, tight tannic grip, powerful  but fine acidity giving freshness and lift. At the finish the tannins explode into juice, literally mouthwatering wine

Malk Family Vineyards Cabernet 2010
South African born Brian Malk bought a tiny 2-acre plot on the eastern slopes of the district in 1998. His first vintage was 2003, made by winemaker Robbie Meyer
Fresh berry and chocolate on the nose, ripe and spicy with soft, easy tannins and good length. Classic but unadventurous, the tannins too soft to add much-needed grip

Regusci Winery Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2011
Jim Regusci (whose resemblance to the late, great James Gandolfini – or Tony Soprano - is so marked that he is frequently stopped in the street for photographs) makes a range of bold, classic wines in one of Stags Leap’s most historic properties, the handsome 19th century stone Grigbsy-Occidental Winery bought by his grandfather in 1932.
As so often the case, the top-end cuvées were rather hot and extracted for my taste, but this lower-level Estate 2011, with 4% Merlot, had much more restraint. Bright nose with some leather and attractive damson fruit. The palate is surprisingly exotic, with a perfumed nettley greenness at the end, along with classic juicy tannins.

Hartwell Vineyards Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2011
A high-end, sophisticated operation owned by septuagenarian millionaire Bob Hartwell, the winery counts Heidi Barrett and Celia Welch among its winemakers. Also a Sauvignon Blanc from Carneros. Bob told me when he was looking for Cabernet land in Napa, he was advised, ‘get as close as possible to San Francisco Bay, but not as far south as Carneros, which is too cold for Cab,’
The estate Cabernet has 15% Petit Verdot. Bright woody nose, lovely juice on mid-palate with ripe plum, black cherry, powerful spice and violet perfume. Fine finish.

Stags’ Leap Winery Twelve Falls Estate Red 2010
Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah, Merlot
Lovely elegant decay on the nose, powerful acidity, tart blackcurrant very dense and concentrated, green pepper notes, chalky tannins, juicy warm length and dense tannins

The superlative Ne Cede Malis 2010
Stags’ Leap Winery Ne Cede Malis 2010
Petite Sirah, field blend inc Tannat, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat
Lovely sweet cooked raspberry nose with balsamic strawberry, medicinal and fragrant. The body is tight and structured with intense dense tannic heft. Very juicy, with leather and minerality. Intense, concentrated, precise, an anomaly in the district that would be unlikely in today's Cabernet hegemony

Taylor Family Stags Leap Cabernet Sauvignon 2011
24 acres, 10 in vine. The Taylors bought their plot next to Silverado Vineyards in 1976, and started their Cabernet vineyards in 1991. Also make a Yountville Sauvignon Blanc
High dark fruit tones on the nose – blackcurrant and wild blackberry predominant. Dense grippy grainy tannins, dark fruit notes move to high-toned raspberry leaf on palate. Very fine length

Friday, 6 June 2014

Rathfinny: a supply-side boost for English sparkling wine

The evolution of English sparkling wine over the last decade has been remarkable. Ten years ago few outside what was a dynamic but very domestic cottage industry took it seriously. But with investment, huge improvements in technology and vineyard management, and — most important — a clutch of major awards, the best English sparkling is internationally recognized ...Read more on Zesterdaily.com

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

"La mayonnaise prend": Bertrand Girard and the remoulding of Val d'Orbieu

This article first appeared in Meininger's Wine Business International

Val d’Orbieu is one of  those companies that everyone has heard of but no one can quite put a finger on what they do or who they are. Many wine professionals, even those who know the Languedoc well, are hard put to name a Val d’Orbieu wine, apart from the Cuvée Mythique, a blend of vineyards from across the Languedoc which 20 years ago became the first wine from the region to be given more than 90 points by Robert Parker.

It is surprising that a company of the size of Val d’Orbieu is not better known. It is the biggest cooperative in France, with 2,500 producers on its books producing 1m hectolitres of wine annually in the South of France,  and as a negociant it sells 3m hl. It also owns 17,000ha of vineyards (equivalent to about half the total vineland of New Zealand).

It supplies myriad own-label wines to big operators across France. In the UK, Tesco lists several of its wines, and considers Val d’Orbieu ‘a lovely company to work with’. The reason it is slightly ‘under the radar’ compared to its major competitor Les Grands Chais de France, a spokesman told Meininger’s, is that ‘they don’t have any strong brands but are more of an own-label specialist’.

'Benevolent presence': Bertrand Girard
Even the company’s strongest brand – the Cuvée Mythique - is looking a bit dusty. UK Languedoc expert Rosemary George MW makes the point that the Cuvée was brand new in the 1990s when multi-regional blends were less common. ‘But it doesn’t seem so exciting now.’

But recognised or not, Val d’Orbieu has tremendous assets. ‘We don’t pretend to be the biggest in France. We are the biggest,’ Bertrand Girard, the company’s managing director says. They are pioneers, he says, in just about everything. What makes them unique is the possession of such swathes of vineland. As Girard says, their smaller competitors own vineyards but not on such a scale, and their bigger competitors like Castel or Les Grands Chais de France own little or no vineland. GCF, for example, actually owns some 1,500ha.

Their holdings, Girard says, allow them control over their product: ‘We are totally vertically integrated from vineyard to bottling to distribution.’

Val d’Orbieu owns vineyards from Coteaux du Languedoc in the north to Cotes du Roussillon in the south, taking in Faugeres, St Chinian, Minervois, Corbieres and Fitou along the way. The 2,500 growers include 11 cooperatives and 60 estates and chateaux. Members can call on central marketing resources in order to sell their wines, and there are various wines – notably Cuvée Mythique – which are made centrally.

Founded more than 40 years ago, the company went through a period of retrenchment at the beginning of this century. In the 1990s it looked very different, Girard says. ‘We were the rising star, just behind Castel.’ As well as the holdings in the south, it also owned 12 grands cru in Bordeaux.

But by 2000, labouring under enormous debts, faced with falling prices for wine, and losing market share to Australia and Chile, ‘there was a big panic and they had only two things in mind: paying the bills and getting some cash, so the assets were sold off, including the chateaux in Bordeaux, for €100m.’ When Girard joined the company in 2010 he was told the debts were still formidable, and a new strategy was needed. ‘We needed to rebound, to re-invent our future.’

Girard seems diffident and is softly-spoken. The simplicity of his sentences belies the complexity of the task they describe. ‘We have two aims – first to make sure our growers get a decent revenue, which was not the case before, and second, to make customers happy.’ Later on, a third aim is put on the table: to move the company into icon territory.

The three targets obviously go together, and it is the third which is most ambitious. Val d’Orbieu is known – in France at least – ‘as reliable supplier of brands to the supermarkets’, Girard says. But he sees his job as changing the company from a supplier to a winery. ‘We have the resources. We have the wine. A winery can still work with the supermarkets supplying wines and brands but it also has something which is additional in terms of value - it can also have the novelty and the differentiation. We want  to be recognised as a reference winery in France.’
Cuvee Mythique: looking dusty?

To do this, Girard intends to ‘rewrite the strategy’ of the company, concentrating on the shape of the sales pyramid, which ‘doesn’t look the way I would like it to look. We are strong at the bottom, and we are strong in the centre with the brands. But it you go a bit up I think we are not good enough in terms of style – we are far from what the market needs in terms of marketing and storytelling.’

In short, value has been neglected in favour of volume, and this must change. Val d’Orbieu’s most expensive wines at the moment are in the €12-15 range, and Girard wants to change that. To achieve this aim he is exploiting the company’s great asset: the vineyards. Within that portfolio, he says, there must be parcels that are capable of producing icon, single-vineyard wines. To this end he is employing a team of consultants to ‘look at the incredible asset of the vineyards’ and to search out the finest parcels.

The cuvées that will come from this are known as the ‘Black Réserve’ [sic] range. It is another perfectly simple plan, and one that Bordeaux consultant Olivier Dauga, for his part, is very excited by. ‘It’s like the Sleeping  Beauty,’ he told Meininger’s. ‘There is land all over Languedoc which is not being properly exploited.’

M le Couturier: Olivier Dauga
Dauga – Val d’Orbieu somewhat grandly calls him un couturier du vin - is surveying some 350ha of vineyard in a rolling programme that takes in all the appellations of the region. He visits the property, tests the grapes, then vinifies different parcels in small tanks to pinpoint the highest-quality parcels.

To date he has made seven new wines for Val d’Orbieu and will add three more next year. He cites the ancient Chateau Pouzols – owned by the de Fournas family since 1437 – which is under contract to Val d’Orbieu. ‘It’s an incredible place, with wonderful terroir and soils.’ The first new wine to come out of the programme is the AOC Corbières Château de Jonquières 2012, a grenache-syrah blend which was bottled at the beginning of the year. Jonquières, also an ancient domaine, is wholly-owned by Val d’Orbieu. Chateau Pouzols will be released later this year.

Dauga is also working on a new, dedicated brand to be called Avant Garde, an icon successor to Cuvée Mythique, a blend of terroirs in quantities of some 20,000 bottles. He is looking for the right parcels at the moment.

The Black Réserve wines will retail at around €11-15. It’s not quite the dizzy heights Girard is aiming for, but in terms of style and presentation the wines are firmly at the premium end, with matt black labels and gold banding. It is a start of a plan, he says, ‘to be iconic, with wines from €30-50, to compete with the Médoc.’

Girard has something else he intends to exploit: there is a wealth of grape varieties in the vineyards of the South of France, at a time of burgeoning global interest in new, unusual and indigenous grapes. He believes in the cyclical nature of fashions in wine, and that the decade-long enthusiasm for single-varietal wines from the New World is waning.

‘At the moment the English-speaking countries want Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand or Malbec from Argentina, but that will change. Maybe the next surprise will be a Merlot from the south of France.’

Or, indeed, a Roussanne, Marsanne, or Chenin Blanc. ‘We have all of these. There are so many ways we can surprise the customer.’

This is not to say that Girard is losing sight of the mainstay of the company – the mid-range, mid-price wines that make up the vast rump of Val d’Orbieu’s products. He’s not sentimental about it – ‘Wine is a craft product that can be in some areas industrialised’, he says – and he loses little time in worrying about the finer points of organic and biodynamic viticulture. About 120ha of the Val d’Orbieu holdings are certified organic. For the rest, ‘Everything is measured,’ Girard says, ‘it is responsible viticulture but it’s not organic, which I don’t consider is that important, except for in the niche markets in northern Europe and Japan.’

In terms of the mid-market he points to the wine pouch, another of the innovations the company is proud of. The three-litre aluminium bag has been developed by Inno’Vo, a dedicated group set up by Val d’Orbieu, and claims to have all the advantages of a bag-in-a-box, but without the box. Is it working? ‘The response is not that big, but innovation is a long process, and you need luck and determination,’ Girard says. ‘It could be the next big thing.’

The wine pouch aside, Girard’s reforms are obviously working: the balance sheet looks healthy. Sales in China have doubled to more than €6m since he arrived, and since 2010, he says, ‘We have doubled the export business from €150m to €300m’, gaining market share in France and other international markets.

Val d’Orbieu exudes the assurance of a company that knows where it’s going. Its clients notice this. The UK distributor Copestick Murray, which supplies Tesco, is impressed by the way it works. ‘They have an open, transparent trading relationship which goes down well with customers – it’s the complete opposite of the more traditional model of building a wall between customer and producer,’ Copestick’s commercial director David Peek says.

Working with Val d’Orbieu is ‘collaborative’, he adds, citing the example of the own-brand Corbieres Tesco has just taken on. ‘It wasn’t purely a cost exercise. It was a collaborative process at every level, with winemakers involved as well.’

In terms of the more premium products, Peek makes clear that though at present they are just taking supermarket own-brand and private label wines in the £5-8 range, ‘we will certainly build to distribution of the more premium wines to put into independents and the on-trade. That’s very much part of the partnership.’

While his clients like the way the company works, Girard is a popular, low-key chief. At the company’s fairly riotous annual dinner at the Vinisud wine fair in Montpellier, he’s a benevolent presence. As his staff down powerful mojitos and swing each other round the dance floor, he smilingly declines invitations to join them.

He obviously understands people, the greatest asset of any company. He recognises that ‘the grower is the most important person, and it’s not that complicated [to get them behind the new strategy] because they know what we are aiming for. The magic of the strategy is showing people what we want to do and how we want to do it. Then it all comes together. As we say, la mayonnaise prend.’

Friday, 9 May 2014

Scaffolding and bare brickwork: Structuralists shine at Roberson's New California tasting

‘Looking forward to hearing what’s new in the “new” California,’ Claudia Schug tweeted just before Roberson’s London tasting last month. Of course, there’s nothing new about restraint and structure in California – everything in wine is cyclical. Jon Bonné of the San Francisco Chronicle and author of the seminal The New California Wine made that clear at the beginning of the three seminars he chaired at the tasting, referencing the ‘first modern revolution’ – the coming of Robert Mondavi, Paul Draper, Warren Winiarski, the founding fathers of modern California wine, and the subsequent ‘decadent phase’ starting in the late 1980s, when big money first started arriving in Napa.

'it doesn't have to be outré'
Bonné had the vision to recognise a shift in the tectonic plates that underpin the vast mass of the California wine industry. There was the moment, as he put it, when ‘what were fringe experiments were starting to change the conversation. People [like Steve Matthiasson, Cathy Corison or the philosopher-winemaker Abe Schoener - the latter covered in this blog] were starting to change the conversation’. They’d been plugging away at for years, and what they all had in common, it seems, was an instinct – nurtured by exposure to fine European wines – that California didn’t have to be outré.

Matthiasson: 'translucent'
 And there’s nothing new in that. Stephen Brook, author of another seminal book, 1999’s The Wines of California, has been banging the drum of restraint (as it were) for years. I chaired California (particularly Napa) panel tastings at Decanter through the decade of excess from 2000 onwards and lost count of the number of times Brook, faced with yet another ripe glassful said, ‘but it doesn’t have to be like this.’ Indeed, anyone who has tasted old Napa Cabernet (Inglenook 61, Spring Mountain Vineyard 79, Newton 81 to name just three I’ve had in the last year) knows how the last 15 years can be seen as an aberration.

Robert Parker and the Wine Spectator are convenient bugbears, but it's not clear-cut, Bonné said. 'I always come back to the industry’, the massive injections of ‘cash and ambition’ in the late 80s and early 90s, coinciding with the last phylloxera epidemic, the ‘billion dollar round of replanting’ and thousands of acres of young vines producing a flood of exuberant, sweet and fleshy wines for a newly-aware market. This was the beginning of a ‘populist connoisseurship’, as he put it.

The debate will continue. ‘We are starting to see diversity: wines that will show we can have a more detailed conversation about what California can represent,’ Bonné said.

the conversation's getting louder
So in answer to Claudia Schug, daughter of Walter Schug, another Napa pioneer, inaugurator of Phelps Insignia and maker of fine Carneros Pinot Noir, amongst many others, what’s new in the new California is the fact the conversation is getting much louder, and has moved out of the barrel cellar and into central London venues like the handsome rooms of the King’s Fund in Cavendish Square, where we’re sitting.

Tatomer: 'coolest label in the house'

The tasting buzzed with enthusiasm. London journalists, Brook, Jancis Robinson, Neal Martin, Jamie Goode, Steven Spurrier, a big crowd from Decanter, buyers like Greg Sherwood of veteran California specialists Handford Wines, sommeliers: Andrea Briccarello of Galvin, Andres Ituarte of Avenue, Charlie Blightman of Hawksmoor, Claire Pancrazi of MASH and half a dozen others.

doggedly pursuing structure for decades
A fascinating line-up of wines, a range which showed the risk-taking mind-set of Mark Andrew, the crusading Roberson buyer. So alongside established classics like Corison and Hirsch, and those like Arnot-Roberts who are rapidly gaining fame as two of the most fascinating winemakers in Sonoma, or the Spring Mountain men Smith Madrone, doggedly pursuing structure for decades, or the brilliant Steve Matthiasson, are wines from Moobuzz in Monterey, part of the Sebastiani family’s The Other Guys project, which lack the confidence of precision of many of their neighbours, and among the only wines in the room I would class as ‘experimental’ in the sense that they don’t quite work. Oddly enough the first word that came to mind was ‘old-fashioned’ when I tasted the Moobuzz Chardonnay 2012, in that its notes of sweet fruit are instant, and insistent, compared to Smith-Madrone’s ethereal Cabernet 2009, say, where the sweetness is a high chord that only becomes apparent when the structure, the delicate girders and light scaffolding of acid and tannin, has been established.

Arnot-Roberts: 'Ghostly hint of strawberry compote'
How to describe these wines? ‘This is a classic Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon,’ Matthiasson said of his ruby-red, perfumed 2011, adding that he was using the word advisedly, not to refer to the more “classic” classics of the last 15 years. So this is classic as it should be – Cabernet that has herbal notes (these guys don’t subscribe to the received wisdom that green equals unripe), precise tannins, elegant visible structure and bracing acidity. And they are lighter in colour than we’ve been conditioned to expect – many of the reds on show today (Matthiasson’s in particular) are translucent.

There’s also exuberant variety. As the wines of the Jura are increasingly popular amongst the metropolitan wine elite, so the region’s native grape, Trousseau, seems to be appearing more and more on the tasting tables. Arnot-Roberts’ rosé-hued Luchsinger Trousseau is possibly the finest expression of the grape I’ve ever tasted.

that Shakespeherian rag...
Pace the severe In Pursuit of Balance movement (started by Jasmine Hirsch and Rajat Parr and others), which focusses on Chardonnay and Pinot, I think the wider movement should be called the New Structuralism. The word ‘structure’ comes up again and again in my notes, describing wines that are the very opposite of ‘fruit-forward’. Sure there is fruit, but it takes its rightful place as a component of the whole, not strutting about in the footlights but waiting in the wings, to come on just so. It’s like the difference between those old greasepaint and kohl Shakespeherians of the 1930s, and Peter Brook’s productions, all scaffolding and bare brickwork.


This is the full line-up. Except Jamie Kutch’s superb Pinots which I somehow missed. Kristen Kutch has said she will send them over so I can update...

Moobuzz Chardonnay 2012, Monterey
Old-fashioned nose with easy peachy sweetness, very open though and fresh on the palate, interesting hints of lanolin

Moobuzz Pinot Noir 2012, Monterey
Spice and pepper on the nose, good robust fruit palate with damson, not as structured and precise as I’d like

Jolie-Laide Pinot Gris 2012 Sonoma
Fresh dense chalky acidity, grapefruit and saltiness on the palate, even savoury and earthy. The length falls slightly short

Jolie-Laide Trousseau Gris 2012 Russian River Valley
Honeyed nose very promising but there’s a slight misfire on the mid-palate, with bright stone fruit and honey and sweet spice not quite carrying through.

Lioco 2012 Chardonnay, Sonoma coast
Buttery aroma becomes fresh and grassy with woody perfume. High notes of tropical fruit playing above precise structure, dry acidity and fresh open lightly tannic heft. Tongue-tingling acidity and consistent persistent length

Lioco 2012 Pinot Noir, Sonoma coast
Bright light ruby colour, very open and breathy mouthfeel, lovely delicate red fruit – sour strawberry – structure to the tannins and a juicy, food-friendly finish

Lioco 2012 ‘Savaria’ Pinot Noir, Santa Cruz Mountains
Open, fresh, full of elegance, red fruit set off by peppery notes, balanced, nervy, precise, long.

Arnot-Roberts Watson Ranch Chardonnay 2012, Napa Valley
Herb earth and grapefruit on nose, hint of grass, hay lying  in field slightly damp. Surprising peach and pineapple on palate –sudden rush of fruit over powerful  defined acidic and tannic structure. Fruit overlays structure leading  to dry and juicy finish. Very fresh and breathy combination of sweet honeyed fruit and intense nervy acidity. Tightly wound

Arnot-Roberts Syrah 2012, North Coast
Lovely earthy rotted stink to nose – truffles – dry, grainy tannins, minerality, very dark sour black cherry, wonderfully structured wine, very fine

Arnot-Roberts ‘Luchsinger’ Trousseau 2012, Clear Lake
Incredible bright hue more akin to rosé. Sweetness and dryness with a tropical character at first and then ghostly hint of strawberry compote and essence of raspberry. Acidity and tannin in perfect order, overall impression of controlled intensity finishing in delicate tannic dryness dissolving to juice on the tongue. Superb

Arnot-Roberts ‘Bugay’ Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 Sonoma County
Sweet red fruit on the nose, lovely structure and grip, earthy open palate, ripe damson fruit at first giving place to structured tannin, very elegant and delicate. Another triumphant modern classic

Hirsch Vineyards 2012 Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast
Fresh and open nose, surprising heft of tropical fruit but any hint of fatness moderated by precise acidic structure. Wood is present and correct, finish sharp and elegant.

Hirsch Vineyards 2011 San Andreas Fault Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
Very ripe red cherry nose with earthy notes – hint of decay – sweetness on palate with cherry, red fruits and an overwhelming impression of mouthwatering juiciness anchored by minerality. Very very good

Hirsch Vineyards 2011 West Ridge Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
Again ripe cherry on the nose but the palate has alluring savoury, bacon notes. Gouts of juice after a toasted cherry wood attack, earthy, powerful but for all that light and delicate. Robust, fine

Copain Tous Ensemble Syrah 2011 Mendocino County
Bright and dense with a peppery rush on the attack, then ripe damson and cherry fruit. Fine dry tannins, excellent length

Copain Les Voisins Syrah 2011 Yorkville Highlands
Intense white pepper nose, with a palate lighter than you’d expect, some red fruit and darker notes of damson, hints of hay and more white pepper, nice dry tannins, good length. Tight

Copain Halcon Syrah 2009 Yorkville Highlands
100% whole cluster fermentation on this one. Again there’s white pepper on the nose but this turns into sage after a beat or two. The tannins are fine-grained and elegant, the length with garrigue, the whole very structured and elegant. Fine.

Matthiasson Linda Vista Chardonnay 2012 Napa Valley
Impression of precise acidity and sweet, delicate hint of oak (barrel fermented). The structure is provided by minerality and acidity, on which sit sheer flavours – juicy cut pear, apple, and then high tropical notes. Lovely.

Matthiasson Napa White 2012 Napa Valley
Sauvignon Blanc, Ribolla Gialla, Semillon, Tocai Friulano
Deceptively light with excellent body, some fine green flavours, citrus (lime), grapefruit, pineapple, fresh sweetness underpinned by minerality. The component grapes are there to see, but there is no disjoint – more an elegant, revealed structure

Matthiasson Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 Napa Valley
20% Merlot
Bright, almost translucent ruby hue, fresh mineral palate with abundant though never insistent fruit – wild blackberries and damsons, some welcome sagey herbal notes, violet perfume, excellent structure, ripe tannins carrying the whole wonderful understated cornucopia of flavours right to the end. Steve Matthiasson happily describes it as ‘rustic’, which it is, in the best sense, unmanufactured.

Corison Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 Napa Valley
Cathy Corison is one of Napa’s most eminent and respected winemakers, steadily crafting elegant Cabernets at her handsome green-painted ranch on Highway 29, between Rutherford and St Helena. Antonio Galloni described her Kronos 2010, from her famous vineyard, as one of the most ‘hauntingly beautiful’ Cabernets he’d ever tasted
The Cabernet here is sourced from Rutherford and St Helena benchland. Herb and even hay on the nose with a creamy undertow – still there are herbs on palate, with definite warmth and structure, very fresh, juicy, exuberant but anchored with dry tannins dissolving into juice, mint-laden freshness at the end. Bonné: ‘this could not be anything else than Napa Cabernet’. Serious tannic grip and length. One of my favourite of all her Cabs.

Corison Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 Napa Valley
Full, dense, minty blackcurrant palate. Grainy tannins and a depth of acidity. Nearly ten years old and utterly fresh and beguiling, still with primary fruit but with the tannins showing a hint of fuzziness round the edges, a softening to come.

Corison Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 Napa Valley
Along with classic black Napa fruit there’s sour cherry on this 06 which isn’t so noticeable on the others – 06 was a cooler year. The palate is tarry, intense, with precise but serious tannins that are softening (they were pretty tight for a few years, I imagine), and wonderful juiciness. Mouthwatering.

Smith- Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2009
'Bearded pioneer...' Stuart Smith
The Smith Madrone ranch high on Spring Mountain is a piece of Napa history, unchanged since bearded pioneers Charlie and Stuart Smith (on a quiet evening you can hear their guns booming from miles away – the estate is dotted with buckshot-peppered targets) arrived in the 1970s. The tasting room is a comfortable, ramshackle barn with armchairs you sink into. They have an extraordinary list (their Spring Mountain Riesling is renowned, and delicious, though not as original or unusual as their Cabernets). This 09 has a classic nose, blackcurrant and mint vibrating in the glass, then flavours that can only be described as Bordeaux-like, cassis and coffee, but with an additional layer of perfumed fruit that stamps it indelibly as Napa. High vineyards, long hot days and cool nights bring sharp acidity to the structure. Superb.

Broc Cellars ‘Skin Contact’ Roussanne 2011 El Dorado
From the Sierra foothills. Sweet and fresh nose, tactile, even grainy acidity, palate of pineapple, melon and apricot. Mouthwatering acidity. Charming

Broc Cellars ‘Cuvée 13.1’ Syrah 2012 Santa Lucia Highlands
Blended with the Chateauneuf variety Counoise. Palate with high notes of turkish delight, black pepper, spice, dark fruit, elastic though powerful tannins, sweet acidic length

Broc Cellars ‘Whole Cluster’ Cabernet Franc 2012 Lucia Highlands
Amazingly light, lively hedgerow perfume of nettles, cow parsley (how can a wine made in California taste of England?), white pepper, and then red cherry, lovely freshness, a delight

Broc Cellars Vine Starr Zinfandel 2012 Sonoma Coast
Creamy earthy damson on nose, very full palate with white pepper, spicy plum and damson, vibrant fruit and dry, structured but supple tannins and juice at end. This is not fat but voluptuous and elegant. Dry length ending in juiciness

Viano Hillside White 2012 Contra Costa AVA
Chenin Blanc, Muscat, Colombard
Bright and approachable and packed with good brisk fruit – some citrus and sweet stone fruit - not complex, but with juicy acidity. Rather too much toasted character at end palate

Viano Hillside Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 Contra Costa AVA
Fresh and open nose with dark fruit, rustic leathery blackcurrant fruit and grainy tannins, not complex but fresh and very attractive and a very good price

Mount Eden Domaine Eden Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Santa Cruz Mountains
Lovely grassy nose with hedgerow aromatics, complex palate with black fruit, blackberry, menthol, garrigue (sage, thyme), grainy tannins showing all the way through to a fine, long-lasting finish. Excellent

Mount Eden Mount Eden Vineyards Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Santa Cruz Mountains
Intense deep fruity palate with black fruit, more evolved than the 2010 – ripe dark plum rather than blackberry, herbs drier, but lots of juice after dry, tight tannins. Very good

Mount Eden Mount Eden Vineyards Estate Pinot Noir 2008, Santa Cruz Mountains
30% whole bunch fermentation. Very sweet cherry on the nose with red fruit compote and raisin. Unusual raisined palate along with earthy notes and very attractive ripe strawberry; the mid palate slightly hot

Tatomer ‘Kick-on Ranch’ Riesling 2010, Santa Barbara
Winemaker Graham Tatomer says ‘some skin contact’ on this one, which gives it its dry grip. Creamy fresh secondary aromas on nose – not petrol but perfumed wool – open breathy palate with lime, grapefruit, saline hint of boiled lobster, full and mouthfilling, dry tannic length with juice at end. Overall dry length. Serious tannic grip

Tatomer ‘Kick-on Ranch’ Riesling 2011, Santa Barbara
Like its sibling but less evolved – less secondary petrol aromas, more sour lime, cut apple and pear, cooler, lighter, flavours more tail-wagging than quietly welcoming. Still with that attractive dry tannic length. Coolest labels in the house, by the way

Tatomer ‘Meeresboden’ Grüner Veltliner 2013, Santa Barbara
A lovely example of the dry style. Intense minerality, spicy lime, fresh white flowers (jasmine, hibiscus), structured acidity. Restrained but very expressive. Delicious

Sandhi Wines Chardonnay 2012 Santa Barbara
Some of the finest Chardonnays to come out of California are made by Sashi Moorman and star sommelier Rajat Parr, who also own Domaine de la Côte in the Santa Rita Hills. This has a daub of light cream on the nose, dense, sweet tropical lime, apple and a hint of tropical ripeness. Lovely power and body

Sandhi Wines ‘Sanford & Benedict’ Chardonnay 2011 Santa Rita Hills
Very, very fine nose with toasted notes (the wine spends 11 months in 500-litre barrels), sweet citrus, spicy cedar, some earth and floral notes. Excellent

'elegant rot': Dme de la Côte 
Domaine de la Côte Pinot Noir 2011, Santa Rita Hills
50% whole bunch ferment. Lovely deep nose with elegant rot - cream and sweet very ripe cherry – utterly beguiling sweet violet perfume, fresh, minerality and some salinity – mouthwatering juice at end after dissolved chalky dry tannins. Endless length

Domaine de la Côte Lompoc Wine Co Pinot Noir 2012, Santa Rita Hills
Fully destemmed. Superb bright fresh cherry and perfumed spice. Exotic. Full warm length, dense and creamy with mineral buzz

Domaine de la Côte ‘Bloom’s Field’ Pinot Noir 2011 Santa Rita Hills
90% whole bunch ferment, unfiltered and unfined. Bright hue, robust grippy tannins, sheer minerality, raspberry and damson and this lovely spicy plum. Delicious

Domaine de la Côte ‘La Côte’ Pinot Noir 2011, Santa Rita Hills
Whole bunch ferment. Herbal aromatics on the nose, very delicate cushioned juice (bolstered by fruit), supple ripe tannins carrying through to a fine open and generous finish

Piedrasassi Syrah 2010 Central Coast
Made by Sashi Moorman. Powerful stink on the nose, earthy and elegant, reminiscent of the farmyards of my youth (as distinct to the industrial silage stink of a huge modern farm). Wild briar fruits, black pepper, but the whole slightly reduced and not showing its best

Piedrasassi ‘Rim Rock’ Single Vineyard Syrah 2010, San Luis Obispo County
This is more like it, herbal aromas on the nose, more blackberry and dark forest fruits, exotic spice notes (sandalwood is there), white pepper, powerful knitted tannins exploding juicily at the end. Elegant and muscular