Wine Reviews Tasting Notes and Education for the Non-Snob, by Vino Joe, a Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW)

Winery Profile: Rubicon Estate

Photo of Francis Ford Coppola's Rubicon Estate in Napa, California

Perhaps the greatest tragedy in the history of American winemaking is the story of Inglenook.

Most of today’s casual wine drinkers know Inglenook as “one of those jug wines”. However, the “old school” wine folks, and anyone who has did a bit of research on American wine history, knows that the “real” Inglenook is quite the opposite: one of the most respected labels California has ever produced.

But don’t take it from me — pick up a copy of James Conaway’s novel-like book Napa: The Story of an American Eden to read about the Inglenook that once was, or the brief history written by James Laube.

Before the Inglenook winery was sold to liquor giant Heublein, it was owned by the Daniel family, and directed by John Daniel, Jr. Daniel was a visionary and a pioneer in California winemaking, and literally created history in Napa Valley. As Laube wrote,

“…for that amazing 31-year stretch — 1933 to 1964 — Inglenook compiled a collection of Cabernets that stand up favorably to the best red wines on earth; nearly all of these Inglenook wines were made under Daniel’s inspired leadership. . . . it’s arguable that Daniel’s Inglenook Cabernets are singularly the greatest group of wines ever made in California.”

Pretty bold statements, eh? None of what Laube states is aggrandizing, either, which makes the current perception of Inglenook such bitter irony.

However, more than 40 years later, and after over 30 years of effort and investment by another visionary — Francis Ford Coppola — the winery has been rescued, and is once again making extraordinary wines.

Since the Inglenook name has been all but destroyed by insipid, mass-produced plonk that bears its label, Coppola brands the wines as “Rubicon” — in honor of the winery’s flagship bottling. The name Rubicon comes from Caesar’s march on Rome, a.k.a., “The crossing of the Rubicon” — or, the point of no return. Indeed, Coppola’s epic journey to reinstate the Inglenook property to its glory days has been something of a war.

Coppola bought a piece of the old Inglenook property back in 1975, beginning a tireless mission to reunite the estate. Through the years he bought back fragments of land and vineyards that previously comprised the original Niebaum / Daniel holdings, painstakingly reconstructing the historic puzzle. The final piece was laid — actually, removed — earlier this year, when the “concrete box” was demolished.

The “concrete box” was a winemaking factory built by Heublein in 1973 on top the estate’s most prestigious vineyard plot. Amidst the beautiful hills and rolling slopes of Napa Valley, this industrial eyesore was a painful reminder of Inglenook’s demise, and an ugly, misplaced symbol of capitalistic greed. When Coppola knocked down the “concrete box”, the original builder was in attendance to see it; he’d been racked with guilt for his part in the atrocity since the blocks went up.

Like a Coppola-produced movie, the demolition was a fitting final scene — the climax or “falling action” that marked the completion of Coppola’s vision. The denouement, therefore, is the replanting of grapes and eventually, magical wines.

Magical wines, in fact, are the goal at Rubicon. The Daniel family lost money on Inglenook for 84 years in a row, as John Daniel held up original owner Gustave Niebaum’s credo of “pride, not profits”. Absolutely nothing got in the way of making the most fantastic wines possible for those 84 years, and today, Coppola is sparing no expense in creating mystical juice from the Rubicon fruits.

Coppola’s mission with the Rubicon brand is to re-create the vision and standards set forth by John Daniel all those years ago. Coppola went so far as to hire the “dean” of California winemaking, Andre Tchelistcheff, as a consultant back in the early 1990s, and has since enlisted winemaker Scott McLeod with the duty of nurturing the Inglenook vines and wines back to their historic levels. For assistance and guidance to what once was, McLeod has a unique and immeasurable asset with a link to the old days: Rafael Rodriguez. For those who read the aforementioned Napa, you should remember Rodriguez. He and his family moved into a house on the Inglenook estate in 1952, “working from home” as a vineyard worker, before eventually becoming the manager of all the vineyards (as well as those of Beaulieu). Now over 80 years old, Rodriguez continues to put in three days a week at Rubicon Estate.

Meanwhile, McLeod works full-time — and overtime — in his obsession with re-creating the past. He’s been given free reign to do pretty much whatever is necessary to make world-class wines — and he’s consistently succeeded. How many California wineries declassify an entire harvest — in other words, not bottle a wine in a particular year — because the grapes didn’t match the winemaker’s standard level of quality? McLeod did just that in 1998, and will do it again if future grapes don’t pass muster. He’d rather make no wine at all than make one that might lower the image and quality that is Rubicon.

Check back tomorrow for reviews of Rubicon wines.

Keep On Truckin’

Red Truck Wines logoAround the turn of the century — the 21st century, that is — Fred and Nancy Cline bought — at an auction benefiting the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art — a painting of a classic, old red truck created by internationally renowned, Sonoma-based artist Dennis Ziemienski.

Since the Clines also happened to own Cline Cellars — a respected winery well-known for their Zinfandel and Rhone-style reds — they thought it would be cool to use the image of the red truck on a label. As a result, the 2002 vintage of Red Truck Wine was bottled — a Rhone-like blend of Syrah, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Franc, Mourvedre and Grenache. The wine was a success, perhaps as much for its neat-looking label as for the quality juice inside.

In 2005, the Clines sold the “Red Truck” brand to Dan Leese and Doug Walker, who retained Charlie Tsegeletos as the winemaker, and have since expanded the brand to include several reds, whites, and a pink.

No doubt you’ve seen the label in a wine shop somewhere — it’s hard to miss, and tugs at your heart. But can you judge a wine by its label, any more than a book by its cover?

A fair question, and well-dressed bottles have become more prevalent as wine marketers catch up to the latest trends in packaging. Certainly, a sharp label leads to more sales — at least, to first-time buyers. And as with books, the results are mixed — some of the fancied-up bottles contain good wines, others contain plonk. In the case of the Red Truck line, what I’ve sampled thus far has been fair to good.

For ten bucks, you can’t expect a wine to be life-changing, and that’s around the price you can expect to pay for Red Truck wines. Back in February, I recommended their “Pink Truck” as an option for Valentine’s Day, though it’s a bit too far to the sweet side for my taste. Since then I’ve also tried the “original” — the Red Truck Rhone-style red wine blend, and their “White Truck” white wine blend. Both were pleasing enough to justify their under-$9 price tag, and interesting enough that I’ll try other Red Truck wines as they appear on my local retailer’s shelf. For all three — the Red, White, and Pink — the flavor profiles should have mass appeal, and may be more appropriate as cocktail sippers than wines for the dinner table.

Check back later in the week for full reviews of the Red Truck Red Wine and White Truck White Wine.

Winemaker Profile: Elizabeth Vianna

Winemaker Profile: Elizabeth Vianna of Chimney Rock Winery

Winemaker Elizabeth Vianna of Chimney Rock WineryLet’s play pretend for a minute.

Pretend you are a bright young woman with a degree in biology from Vassar, and currently working as the head of a lab at Cornell Medical Center in New York City. Where would you expect to be, say, five years from now?

Just out of medical school? Still at Cornell? A chief of something-or-another at Mount Sinai Hospital?

How about this: winemaker in Napa Valley.

Meet Elizabeth Vianna, biologist-turned-winemaker at Chimney Rock Winery, a forward-looking estate with a range of excellent wines from in and around the prestigious Stags Leap District of Napa Valley, California.

Not long ago, Elizabeth was living in New York City, chief of the clinical toxicology at the Cornell Medical Center, trying to decide whether or not she should go to medical school. At that time her roommate regularly shared with her wines from his father’s cellar — items with names such as Mouton, Latour, and Lafite. Having known “wine” to be the liquid alcohol labeled as Boone’s Farm, Lancer’s, and Hearty Burgundy (c’mon, you were there once too) from her days at Vassar, these French bottles were an epiphany in more ways than one. Elizabeth caught “the wine bug”, and became obsessed with the intricacies of fine wine, attending tastings, lectures, and auctions all around New York City.

One day, she listened to Christian Mouiex speak about his family’s winery in Bordeaux prior to an auction. Mouiex went on to speak about the art of winemaking in depth, and mentioned the wine program at UC-Davis. It was at then that Elizabeth Vianna knew she would indeed be going back to school — not for medicine, but for wine.

Her scientific background is ideal for the often lab-like procedures in modern winemaking, but she also has an artistic side that comes through in the creativity of wines such as Elevage Blanc, a Bordeaux-style white blend of Sauvignon Blanc and, surprisingly, Sauvignon Gris — a grape rarely mentioned among the great (or even run-of-the-mill) wines of the world. Typically, a Bordeaux blanc would blend Sauvignon with Semillon, but as Vianna notes, “Napa Valley is not the best place for Semillon. Sauvignon Gris, on the other hand, flourishes.”

Indeed, Elizabeth’s choice of blending grape was a good one — the Elevage Blanc has a fresh, ripe, and floral nose, and offers good weight and a creamy texture on the palate. It’s an elegant wine with more complexity than expected, and includes a nice salty, mineral edge and ample acidity for easy food matching.

Ah, food matching — one of the central themes of this site. When I asked if food matching was important to her winemaking methods, Elizabeth replied in the affirmative. “In fact, what we’ll often do as part of the winemaking process is take a bottle home, try the wine with different foods, and, if we feel it’s necessary, we’ll make adjustments if we can to make the wine more food friendly.”

Shocking, isn’t it? Usually a California winemaker will go back to the lab to make a wine more “Parker friendly”, or “Spectator friendly”. But “food friendly”? Clearly Elizabeth is going against the grain here.

She went on to say that in addition to making wines that go well with food, Chimney Rock aims to bottle wines that are made to be ready to drink now — though if you can control yourself, they will hold up over time. Also, Elizabeth’s goal is to create wines with great texture. “The tactile experience is just as important as the structure and flavor,” she says.

Her Elevage (red) is a prime example of that goal being met. A Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Petit Verdot, Elevage is well-polished, complex wine with great structure, offering a fine balance of extracted black fruit, ripe tannins, and appropriate acidity, all carried with a creamy texture that might be similar to licking a velvet pillow (did that come out right?). It’s an ideal match for slow roasts and anything braised (i.e., short ribs).

On the basis of those two wines, it’s clear that Elizabeth Vianna made the right decision about her post-grad studies — and we as wine drinkers can benefit directly from her education.

Look for more tasting notes and reviews of Chimney Rock wines in the coming weeks.

Chimney Rock Winery website

Winery Profile: Ravenswood

Ravenswood Winery - No Wimpy WinesThere’s something to be said for branding in the wine marketplace. A wine label that can produce a consistent wine, year after year, or follows a particular philosophy, makes your wine buying much simpler. We’re not necessarily talking about “formula” wines produced for the masses by huge corporations such as Gallo, Beringer-Blass, or Bolla (though those wines have their place on the shelf too). Rather, we like to find wines that can be trusted to deliver a certain expectation. Naturally, the quality of the vintage can have an effect on a wine, and we can accept that. But even in bad vintages, we like our “trusted brands” to have consistency in style — perhaps to go as far as having a trademark, or an obvious goal in mind during the winemaking process.

For instance, the Ravenswood winery in Sonoma, California has a very clear message: “No Wimpy Wines.” It’s more of a promise than a message, actually, and they deliver on that assertion throughout their range of Zinfandels, Cabernets, Merlots and other reds (I have to admit I’ve yet to try their whites). Regardless of which wine you choose, if it says Ravenswood on the label, you are guaranteed to get a plump, rich, heavy wine full of ripe fruit.

Interestingly, they don’t use state-of-the-art technology to extract gobs of jammy fruit from the grapes. Instead, winemaker Joel Peterson employs “old school” techniques, relying on the quality of the fruit to produce the wine. It’s pretty boring, really: the grapes are crushed, native vineyard yeasts are added, the juice sits with the skins for a few weeks, and then it’s aged in small French oak barrels. OK, there’s more to it than that, but that’s the gist of it.

Because of the “Old World” winemaking process, the hardest part of Peterson’s job is finding the fruit. The “Vineyard Designate” wines, for example, are made from grapes grown in tiny vineyards in distinct locations north of Sonoma-based winery. Each of the 10 vineyards is carefully cultivated by its owner. That’s right, Ravenswood doesn’t own the vineyards — they count on experienced, meticulous growers to produce the grapes every year. It makes for an efficient, effective operation — the growers concentrate on the growing, the winery focuses on the winemaking. And the resulting wine is very high quality, usually worthy of 5-10 years of cellaring.

But that’s the top of the line; if you can get your hands, and afford, on one of those wines — such as a Zin from Dickerson, Belloni, Teldeschi, Sangiacomo, or one of the other vineyards (it will have the vineyard name on the label) — by all means do so. You won’t be disappointed.

More likely, you’ll see the “County Series” and the “Vintners Blend” labels in your local shop. They cost less, and are ready to drink upon release, and in my experience have excellent price-to-value ratio. In other words, you get what you pay for, which to me is another key component in trusting a particular brand. As with the Vineyard Designates, Joel Peterson is not too proud to admit that the grapes for “County” and “Vintners” are purchased from farmers. The Vintners Blends are often remarkable values, because some of the fruit blended in is the “declassified” juice from the Vineyard Designates. In other words, any juice that doesn’t meet the extremely high standards of the specific vineyard bottling, ends up being part of a Vintners Blend. So you’re getting grapes grown for fifty-dollar wines in a ten-buck bottle.

The County wines are somewhere in between — both in quality and preparation. Grapes are sourced from farmers in various vineyards in the California county specified on the label. While the vineyards are good quality, they’re not on the extreme level of, say, a Rancho Salina or Big River, and therefore not worthy of “single vineyard” status. If you are familiar with the way France assigns its appellations, then a loose comparison would be that a Ravenswood Vineyard Designate is akin to a Cru, while a County Series wine would be similar to a village wine. For example, Ravenswood Old Hill Zinfandel would be like (in classification, not taste) a Cru Beaujolais “Brouilly” while Lodi Zinfandel would compare to a Beaujolais-Villages. Or something like that.

In the end, what is printed on the label is not nearly as important as what you like. However, if you like big, bold, rich, ripe red wines, then chances are very good that you will enjoy wines made by Ravenswood. Further, there’s a quality wine for every budget — their entry-level “Vintners Blends” start at right around ten bucks, the “County Series” wines are in the $12-18 range, and the “Signature Series” go from $25-55.

Find Ravenswood wines at a retailer near you through WineZap or Wine-Searcher.

Visit the Ravenswood website (a.k.a., “Department of Zinformation”)