Hot Brands 2016
Every year, when Wine Business Monthly creates our annual list of Top 10 Hot Brands, we look for vintners, growers, wineries and wines that are making a statement in our industry. Quality is always an important consideration, but Hot Brands is more than a list of the “best” or most interesting wines we’ve tasted during the year.
Through the years, the definition of “hot” has changed for us. When the list was first created, an oversupply of wine created a market full of “critter labels” and high-production, low-priced brands that would sell like “hot”-cakes. Eventually the oversupply part of the wine cycle ended and so did that particular meaning of this list. Now, the Top 10 Hot Small Brands list delves into what it means to be a part of the American wine industry, part of the American wine culture. And that culture is increasingly more diverse.
California is no longer the only wine-producing powerhouse. Wine is produced in every state and the number of wineries in each, pretty much across the continent, continues to grow. Consumers are increasingly becoming more educated about the wine they drink and are progressively asking for more local wines—just like they do for their food. To touch on a quote-unquote “Millennial” trend, consumers are looking for something new and, perhaps most importantly, something authentic.
This year, we’ve selected wines from pioneers, newcomers, long-standing winemakers and more. While each may grow a different grape or go about making wine in unorthodox ways, all the winemakers selected reflect the diversity that is the wine culture in the United States and all have an innate desire to produce something they, and the consumer, will love.
Some other themes did present themselves in deciding on wines. Many of the winemakers have learned that following their guts are the best way to keep moving forward. They’ve decided that taking a leap and diving in are necessary risks. Taking cues from mentors, industry leaders, artists and visionaries, this group is a bunch of risk-takers. In the years that we’ve been choosing Hot Brands, never have we had such an enterprising group of winemakers.
And for many of them, the lessons that they’ve learned from their mentors has stuck. Don’t try too hard to make a wine, let the grapes speak for themselves and “try not to screw it up”
In the end, this list is comprised of wines that we here at Wine Business Monthly would serve to winemakers. That’s exactly what we do, as representatives from each of these wineries (oftentimes the winemaker) will be on-hand to serve their wines to winemakers, grape growers and industry members at our annual Bottle Bash party at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in January. Cheers!
2015 Walla Walla Valley Semillon
Forging Interest in a Lesser-known Varietal
Jean-Francois Pellet has been making wine in Washington state for decades. When he signed on as a partner/winemaker at Pepper Bridge Estate in 1999, there were only 18 wineries in Walla Walla. Today there are more than 100—but a very few number are making Semillon.
In the early days, the Switzerland native, along with the Goff and McKibben families, planted a variety of Bordeaux varietals for the Pepper Bridge Brand. Eventually, an interest in Syrah gained traction in the region, and Pellet knew it was time for the Pepper Bridge family to try its hand with the grape. However, the partners had already decided that they would not grow or make anything other than Bordeaux varietals for their Pepper Bridge brand.
Thus was the basis for the formation of Amavi Cellars—to focus on Syrah—but Pellet was thinking about the vineyard he had in his native Switzerland, the land planted to Semillon. He asked the owners if he could “borrow” a couple vineyard rows and made his first barrel of the grape in 2001, the single barrel that vintage. The wine proved a hit and since then, total production has multiplied to anywhere from 800 to 1,000 cases per year, which are poured and sold mostly in the tasting room and for visiting sommeliers. It hasn’t been an easy journey, but it is one that is setting the stage for a bit of a Semillon “Renaissance” in the coming years.
“Growing Semillon is one thing, though I’ve been extremely surprised it does so well in hot countries,” said Pellet. “Making it is not easy. Now selling it, that’s very different. That varietal has no consumer attention.”
Amavi has carved a bit of a niche in the tasting room with its Semillon. It’s obviously a lot easier to sell after a guest has had a chance to try it, especially with an informed tasting room employee on hand to answer any questions. Sommeliers, naturally more inclined to take a chance on a new variety, or a variety in a new region, are loving it, Pellet said.
“It’s cool to get a lot of people excited about it. People love it when they try it, especially in the somm community,” he said.
While the vast majority of Semillon is grown in France and Australia, there is some growing interest in the New World, and it can still be found in Chile and South Africa, early producers of the grape. In the United States, California is the largest producer/grower of the grape, with more than 3,500 tons crushed in 2015, according to the latest United States Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service (USDA NASS) Grape Crush Report. Total acreage in the state fell in 2015. Washington state growers produced 900 tons of the grape in 2015, slightly down from the previous three-year average of 1,000 tons, making it the seventh-highest produced white winegrape in the state, according to the latest USDA NASS report.
While Amavi isn’t the only winery in the state making Semillon—L’Ecole N° 41 is also a major producer—Pellet and the McKibben and Goff families have done a great job promoting the grape, helped along by the popularity of its sister winery, Pepper Bridge. For now, production will not increase too much in the coming years.
As the Walla Walla wine industry continues to grow, Pellet is quite content to keep focused on the vineyards and brands he already has. The vineyards are all sustainably produced, something he believes very ardently in, and his attention will always be on producing the best possible wine to reflect the quality of the vineyards.
“Winemaking is really very simple. I really believe in the vineyards,” he said.
The hottest year on record in Walla Walla was in 2015, which was a blessing in disguise for Semillon grapes. “It started hot and stayed hot,” said Pellet. “Rain was almost welcome to clean it up. Picking time is critical for me, especially in a hot year like that. An extra couple of days could have made the wine flabby.”
In the end, a temperate spring that turned into an incredibly hot summer gave way to a warm fall with cool nights and allowed for near-ideal acid development in the grapes. Since Semillon is not, by nature, a very aromatic varietal, he used 100% French oak barrels (none new) and blended in 15 percent Sauvignon Blanc to give the final wine some striking notes on the nose, such as honeysuckle, orange blossom and wet stone.
“We love this wine because it’s so different,” Pellet said.
Dan Cohn Cellars
Legacy Son Steps Out on His Own
Many recent college graduates looking for employment will tell you that often it’s not your qualifications or achievements that finally land you a job—the old adage that “it’s not only what you know, it’s who you know” has been engrained into their brains.
Truer words could not be said for Dan Cohn, son of Bruce Cohn and former CEO of B.R. Cohn Winery (which was sold to Vintage Wine Estates in 2015). Born and raised in wine country to a family that ended up creating one of the most well-known Sonoma County brands, Dan learned about grape growing and winemaking from a very early age from some of the industry’s most respected figures, including Helen Turley, Merry Edwards and Steve MacRostie, while working 24 hours a day on a press or jumping in to clean a tank. All the while he was watching people he admits knew much more about winemaking than his family did.
“I look back on my early childhood and my exposure at a really early age. . . .We were a bunch of dumb, hick farmers not knowing what we were doing—but we had creativity and perseverance, and that artistic perseverance came out in those early days.”
He relates that determination back to his father’s music work managing bands, where he would spend 12 hours a day in the studio recording the same song again and again in pursuit of a top hit. It inspired him in his new brand, Bellacosa.
When his father stepped down as president/CEO of the company in January 2014, he passed the reins on to his son. Just a year and a half later, the Cohn family was forced to sell the wine, olive oil and events company it had grown.
Despite this setback, the foundation had been laid for Dan to branch out and start his own winery, Dan Cohn Cellars, without the limitations and restrictions that come with owning an established brand. It was his to fashion as he chose, resulting in the inaugural vintage of Bellacosa Cabernet Sauvignon.
Harnessing his connections, he turned to his buddies in the industry to source grapes from various vineyard properties around Sonoma and Napa counties. Tom Hinde, currently winemaker for Yao Family Wines and other brands and former director of winemaking at Flowers Winery and La Crema, is leading the winemaking team.
“I just want to produce the best possible wine at the best possible price. It met every expectation, definitely way over-delivered. All my partners want to see it sell for double: It looks like a $50 bottle and drinks like a $100 bottle,” Cohn said.
He’s building his new winery one brand at a time, one customer at a time. In a new hotel every night, he’s trying to meet as many people in as many different cities as he can. Cohn just wants to share the wine he loves.
“I want Bellacosa to be the wheelhouse brand; I want people sharing with me the energy around their life experience, that subtle force that brings everyone together. When you have those moments out with friends and family and Bellacosa on the table, that’s the award.”
Word-of-mouth via social media is helping him on this path, and his limited-production wine is selling quickly. Eventually, he hopes to expand to small-production Carneros and Russian River Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. When that time comes, he wants all his family—those who supported Bellacosa from the beginning—to have first dibs on them.
This kind of genuineness is important to him and is at the core of all his sales and marketing efforts. “It has to be authentic. I want them to try my wine. I want to know them too—where they’re from, why they’re here and what they like to drink,” he said.
With the number of brands available in the market, he hopes that his honest approach will help make a name for Bellacosa. It seems to be working; he had more than 300 reviews posted on Vivino, a popular wine review, catalog and education app, in October 2016 and it’s received more than a few high scores from Tasting Panel and Robert Parker—all validation to him that he’s on the right track.
“You can do all the hard work, everything you can to make the best possible wine. When the consumer has it and they’re posting about it, that server from Raleigh, North Carolina is hugging the bottle, that’s the consumer telling us what they really want to drink.”
Fujishin Family Cellars
2014 Amatino Red Blend
Making Wine Amid Idaho’s Renaissance
Though farmers have been growing winegrapes in the state since the 1800s, Idahoan wine is breathing new life in the 2000s. When Prohibition started, the industry failed, and took much longer to revitalize itself than other states after the ban was lifted. In 1976, there was just one winery in the state. That grew to 11 in 2002, and in 2015, 51 wineries called Idaho home.
“In the early 2000s, the industry started to become an industry that was working well. New blood came in,” said Martin Fujishin, owner and winemaker for Fujishin Family Cellars. It was from these pioneers that Fujishin was able to learn about winemaking in the state. He started as tasting room manager at Koenig Winery in 2003 and worked his way up to cellar master and then to assistant winemaker. It was at the Koenig winemaker’s suggestion that Fujishin start his own winery.
He is now part of a third wave of growth in the state, where educating consumers about wine quality is a much higher priority. Though quality has always been a part of wine-growing and winemaking in Idaho, the challenge now is two-fold: find a niche to rally wineries around and then market that to consumers who are often befuddled that Idaho wine actually exists.
“The biggest question we get is, ‘What do you make wine out of? Potatoes?’” Teresa Moye, who serves as a jack of all trades at the winery, joked that the Idaho potato connection remains strong. She and Fujishin know that Idahoan wine can hold its own against the wine produced by its neighbors to the west, but the struggle will be in making others realize it.
“The future of Idaho is in the hands of growers and wineries to determine. We have so much potential and possibility,” said Fujishin. We still don’t know what the vineyards and wines are going to be yet. It’s very much an open book; we turn the pages every day and see where it takes us.”
Fujishin Cellars has made a name for itself on Rhône varietals—Syrah, Viognier, Mourvèdre and Petite Sirah do very well in the high-desert climate of the Snake River Valley, which was granted AVA status in 2007, two years before Fujishin Family Cellars became a bonded winery. The Amatino Red Blend, a combination of 60 percent Syrah, 35 percent Petite Sirah and 5 percent Viognier, is his winery’s most popular wine.
For him, it was the perfect opportunity to showcase his favorite Rhône varietals. “The Syrah gives it some spice, the Petite Sirah provides structure and the Viognier provides the aromatics. I had heard about this technique before and just wanted to give it a try,” he said.
That “trying” spirit is pretty typical for Fujishin. Through a process of trial and error, he planted Tempranillo, which is a close second in tasting room popularity—likely because Idaho is home to the world’s largest Basque population outside of Basque country. It’s important for Fujishin that he keeps the locals happy—about 60 percent of its business is considered “local”—though that keeps changing as Snake River Valley gains a stronger reputation for fine wine.
Well-positioned on a road along the border of four states, Fujishin Family Cellars’ tasting room sees a lot of guests stopping in on their way to or from the more well-known Walla Walla Valley area. “It’s a great opportunity to educate people, one glass and one bottle at a time,” he said.
Boise, the closest big city, has seen remarkable growth, he said, with a tremendous number of people moving into the area. Salt Lake City has also been a big market, though getting wine into Utah has always posed some interesting challenges. Most of their customers will stop at the winery on the way to their final destination in Oregon or Washington.
“We’re seeing more out-of-state travelers,” said Moye, who has more of a hand in the tasting room. “Usually, they are pretty surprised to see wine. It’s very exciting to introduce them to us and to the entire area.”
Some of the recognition is owed to the increased marketing push undertaken by Fujishin Family Cellars and by the Idaho Wine Commission, which has made a concerted effort to not only raise awareness for brand Idaho outside its borders but within the local market as well.
“My hat goes off to the Idaho Wine Commission,” said Fujishin. “They have done a good job talking to the greater community. Without the push from them, and some of the larger wineries, we wouldn’t have the recognition we have now.”
Fujishin says that going forward, he’d love to keep production low so that he can focus on maintaining that small, family-owned and experimental philosophy. At 2,500 cases, with a number of small batches, he has the flexibility to keep trying new things to see what works and what doesn’t. “The biggest challenge for Snake River is for it to find a place it can hang its hat. There are 52 wineries in Idaho—that gives us the opportunity for a lot of experimentation. For us, that’s really exciting and very challenging,” he said.
2014 Estate Pinot Noir
Remaining True to the Farm
Nestled amongst the hills of the Willamette Valley, on a south-facing slope with stunning views of the region, lies Illahe Vineyards and Winery. A warm spot, this vineyard seems in every way the typical, picturesque site you would imagine for northwestern Oregon: rolling hills, vines and farms for miles, and a multi-level wine production facility in the background. At first glance, Illahe Vineyards could be just any Oregon winery, until you notice a horse pulling a ton of grapes up the slope to the winery.
When Brad Ford and his (now) wife Bethany Ford first purchased the vineyard site in conjunction with Lowell and Pauline Ford in 2000, they planted Pinot Noir and sold the grapes to more established Willamette Valley wineries, like Bethel Heights, Cristom Vineyards and others. As the vineyard matured and gained recognition for its Pinot Noir, Brad decided that the time was right for him to start making his own wine. In 2006, just after he finished up the viticulture and enology program at the local community college, he made his first vintage.
It was around that time that a local reporter out of The Dalles, Oregon, stumbled on the winery and interviewed Brad. The reporter asked, “What does this vineyard do that other vineyards in the area don’t?” and Brad was dumbfounded. He said he didn’t have an answer. “He gave a strange face at that answer. I thought, ‘This is not good.’ People are curious to see something different,” he said.
This standard reporter’s question started Brad down a path that would eventually lead to Project 1899—one fairly unique to the West Coast of the United States. As wineries across the country modernize and update their technology, Brad would distinguish his brand by doing the opposite: creating a wine using only the methods and technology available to winemakers in 1899.
Using horse-drawn towing equipment, wooden vats, no electricity and a whole lot of manpower, Ford and his team produce a limited number of cases each year. In 2014, they took the project further, using a canoe and the local river system to “ship” (pun intended) their wines to retailers/restaurants in Portland.
“People assume that we do all our winemaking the hard way. The good part is that consumers think, ‘Oh, you’re the place that uses horses and canoes your winery to Portland.’ But we don’t do everything that way,” he said. “More than anything, it works because people are interested in it; it gets them to look us up and come see what’s going on.
“We’re probably the only place in the United States that actually makes wine on some commercial level with no electricity. That’s the spark that gets people interested.”
Though not all of their wines are created in this manner, the ethics, message and methods of the Project 1899 brand have permeated through to other tiers and brought some much-deserved attention to the winery, which aims to make all its wines as naturally as possible. The 2014 Estate Pinot Noir is a perfect example of the attention and devotion to this vineyard expression Ford is looking for.
The 2014 vintage was a hot year, though not as hot as 2015, Ford pointed out. Sugars in the grapes spiked in September, following a heat wave near the end of harvest, and Ford was picking grapes that shot to more than 24° Brix in less than a week. It was a low-rainfall year, forcing some fairly low pH and a loss of malic acid.
From there, the Pinot Noir underwent a natural fermentation, something Ford picked up from his former client, the Cristoms.
“Cristom was the one winery with no yeast in its database. It’s the one place they have been doing native fermentations for years and years. It has created a more complex wine, and we hope that as we continue to do it, the inoculated yeast population will decrease a bit to maintain that complexity and strong fermentation,” Ford said.
Continuing his hands-off approach, Ford doesn’t use any additions or acid and does not filter the finished wine.
“It’s just another example of use trying to be hands-off,” he said. ”The Estate has been a consistently good bottle of wine—we get good feedback from distributors and buyers. People enjoy it. I think we’ve been able to do that by having a good vineyard in the first place and by maintaining a simple, natural winemaking style.”
Since the vineyard’s inaugural 22-acre Pinot Noir vintage, the Fords have expanded the site in both acreage and varietals. Illahe Vineyards is now home to 51 acres of Pinor Noir and another 9 of Pinot Gris, Gruner Veltliner, Tempranillo, Viognier, Lagrein, Schioppettino and Teroldego.
With all his success, Ford doesn’t see too much changing at the winery in the future. “We’re in a really nice place right now, and are looking forward to celebrating what we’ve done and continuing to increase the quality of production,” he said.
Infinite Monkey Theorem
Capturing the Urban Market
When Wine Business Monthly first heard about Infinite Monkey Theorem, the editors thought the winery’s wine-in-a-can brand would be a shoe-in for its Hot Brands list. Wine-in-a-can, as a category, is seeing some phenomenal growth—especially amongst the younger “experience-oriented” demographic—and publications across the world are catching on (see WBM’s 2013 Hot Brands list, which featured Union Wine Company’s can solution, as an example). But we were pleasantly surprised when, as we were tasting through Infinite Monkey Theorem’s portfolio, we were so blown away by the Colorado-grown and -made Syrah that we had to change our plans.
After talking with winemaker Ben Parsons, we learned that in addition to a killer Syrah, he’s got a good pulse on the future of the wine industry—and a business plan to match.
Parsons’ winemaking resume has entries across the world, selling Bordeaux and Burgundy in London, and stints in Australia and Illinois. “After that, I found a job in Colorado. I had no idea they made wine in Colorado,” he said. “They flew me out from London to Grand Junction at the age of 25, and I started making wine on the western slopes of Colorado. Colorado is not an established wine region by any means, so it was a massive culture shock.”
Parsons started consulting for 20 wineries in the area, including some in New Mexico and Missouri, and he eventually found a rhythm, working with the incredible vintage variation and the unique trials encountered to grow grapes in the state. Selling the wine, however, was a challenge.
“I would have to drive from the Four Corners up to Denver to sell the wine. I was knocking on restaurant doors, meeting chefs and owners and sommeliers and convincing them that [Colorado wine] was cool,” he said. “But it was stupid having a winery a six-hour drive from where everyone lived.”
In the midst of the Great Recession, Parsons pulled together $280,000 to buy equipment from other wineries going out of business and started his own urban winery in the heart of west Denver. Building on his prior relationships with Colorado growers, Parsons wanted to bring wine directly to its citizens. “The whole idea was a winery where we could create a local community based around wine, where they could come and hang out, listen to music and embrace the idea of knowing where the wine was made—just down the street from where they’re living.”
You might think that making wine in the middle of a thriving, urban jungle can be a bit muddled, and it defintely is, he said. Part of that plays into the winery’s name, which is based on a mathematical theory that, given enough time, a random generator (say, a room full of monkeys) can write anything ever written. “It’s all about getting order out of chaos, and no more so than in Colorado, with multiple challenges compared to other regions,” he said. “It’s an inherently chaotic system, but somehow we manage to pull it together.”
While it took a while for the concept to see success, Parsons created a brand that was fun, accessible and unpretentious for the people of Denver. He first started out with kegs, which seemed to resonate well with the craft beer-loving crowd. But his canned wine, originally a research and development product done in conjunction with Bull Canning, took four or five years to explode, even while Frontier Airlines picked it up to serve on its flights. Wine in traditional glass bottles is the final category of products offered and, of them, is the 2013 Syrah.
“It is my favorite wine to make. It’s not like an Old World, and it’s not a New World wine. It’s somewhere in between—concentrated, rich, but no massive fruit.”
While he acknowledges that it is not the most “fashionable” grape variety, Parsons thinks that it can be a truly outstanding wine. He won’t make a single-varietal Syrah every year if the grapes are not up to par—he’s not afraid to use it only as a blending component if needed.
The western slope, 210 miles west of Denver and 34 miles from the Utah border, has a high-desert, arid climate. It becomes very hot in summer and cold in winter, though very little snow falls. Trunks often split when harsh winter temperatures drop below 10° F. Late spring frosts can damage vines even further in a 165-day growing season.
“2013 and 2014 were really tough years. We only made 320 cases of that Syrah. That vineyard was hammered by late spring frost, and we received very little crop on the year, maybe 20 percent,” he said. “It made the wine a little more concentrated.”
Based on his success in Colorado, Parsons opened up another branch of Infinite Monkey Theorem in Austin, Texas in November 2015, featuring the wines of the Texas High Plains. If all goes well, he says, he’s looking to open new locations in places where consumers aren’t already saturated with local wine. “Tulsa, Minneapolis and Cleveland have a lot of opportunity with the young demographic, who are looking for something fun and exciting to do. Nashville and Charlotte are up and coming; more and more people are moving to those cities.”
NV Blanc de Blanc
Keeping it Local in Lodi
In the long-established wine region of Lodi, California, one man is forging a new category: sparkling wine.
That’s not to say he’s reinventing the wheel, or even the first to make a Lodi sparkling wine, but he certainly saw an opportunity to fill a gap in the region, and is capitalizing on it.
For Eric Donaldson, Lodi has been a great stepping stone. He has been welcomed by the Lodi community: with low barriers to entry, friendly winemakers and growers and high-quality fruit, Lodi was the perfect place for him to start his winery, and now he wants to give back.
Donaldson grew up in Ohio before attending the University of Miami to study botany and geography with a minor in entrepreneurship. While growing grapes is a bit different than mapping plant communities, which he had learned in college, his studies at least sparked an interest in the science of winemaking. He later attended the University of Cincinnati to study chemistry because he liked the winemaking side more.
Fast forward through some time spent at wineries in Healdsburg and New Mexico to 2014, when Donaldson received a license for his very own winery, LVVR Cellars. Named for four sisters—Leticia, Virginia, Vanessa and Rose—with whom he had done some winemaking consulting work back in 2012, the project is solely focused on keeping methode champenoise in Lodi.
“No one in Lodi is making it here. A lot of base wine for sparkling starts in Lodi but goes somewhere else. I’m going to keep it here in Lodi,” he said. Each harvest, truckloads of Lodi-grown grapes are shipped up to crushing facilities in the Napa, Sonoma and Sacramento areas, and sometimes down into the Central Valley, later to be bottled under the “California” label. Donaldson wants to change that and give Lodi fruit the recognition it deserves by keeping it local. It can be a challenge, he said, but one that he is actively ready to meet.
Because of the hot climate, Donaldson spends a lot of time watching the chemistry of the grapes and is prepared to harvest a lot sooner if it means keeping the numbers tight. He’s very careful to watch the pH—it’s essential to keep it low. His Blanc de Blanc is a mostly Chardonnay base made from grapes harvested at Axle Vineyard.
“I ferment a little warm because I’m going for a more austere product,” he said. Wine is fermented in stainless steel, goes through a partial malolactic fermentation with standard heat and cold stabilization. With an eye for consistency from batch to batch, his wine sits in bottle for six to nine months, is disgorged and finished up with a dosage.
For the most part, he sticks pretty close to the traditional method, but Donaldson’s main method for adapting the process to Lodi is to add a bit of Viognier to the base wine.
“You have to break away, know what’s tradition and what’s science. In Champagne, they do it by tradition, but there is a science behind it. Here I had to break out of traditional climates and figure out how to make it happen in a different climate region,” he said.
“Working in the Southwest, in the desert, I picked up the trick of adding the Viognier. I thought it brought a nice element to the final wine. I wanted something to round out the palate and the bouquet, and I think Viognier does it nicely,” he said.
His sparkling Rosé sees a 1 to 2 percent Alicante addition as well, and he’s completely unfazed by how unusual it may seem. “It’s totally unconventional, but it’s the end product I have to look at and produce what I want to achieve.”
Climate conditions aside, a pretty sizable investment was necessary to produce his Blanc du Blanc—a common barrier to entry for a lot of established wineries. It’s often said that the cost of the specialty equipment is part of the reason there aren’t many sparkling wine producers in California. Donaldson, however, was propitious enough to be able to purchase some of Woodbridge Winery’s older pieces, find a space at a reasonable price and meet a number of local winemakers interested in custom crush. “I’m very fortunate. I’m making it work,” he said.
Current production is limited to 6,000 cases, but Donaldson has plans to increase his production capabilities with additional equipment pieces. But the increase in production is not just for his benefit. He wants to spread the wealth, as it were, and open up his custom crush program to more wineries as well.
LVVR wines are just starting to take off, with a lot of word-of-mouth selling and some retail placements locally. He says that though he hasn’t hit the mass market yet, selling sparkling wine from Lodi shouldn’t be a problem. “A lot of people will say, ‘Sparkling wine from Lodi, that’s odd.’ And I’ll tell them, ‘Well, no, it’s not.’”
Mi Sueño Winery
2012 Russian River Pinor Noir
An Insatiable Thirst for Knowledge
Rolando Herrera might just be the hardest-working vineyard manager/cellar rat/winemaker/designer/salesman in the business. The man does it all. From humble beginnings in El Llano, Mexico to washing dishes at Auberge du Soleil, to the founder and winemaker of his own winery, Herrera has learned every facet of the business. He’s built a self-sufficient winemaking enterprise in the Napa Valley and still maintains the family farm/business feel.
Harnessing his insatiable desire to learn, Herrera spent his formative years in the wine business learning from rockstars—and knew when to seize an opportunity when one presented itself. He’s referred to quite a few of his decisions as the “best decisions I’ve ever made.”
After just one year as a cellar rat at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, he had learned enough to be promoted to cellar master, a position he held for seven years, and spent that time absorbing as much as he could. “Warren Winiarski is my father in winemaking. I learned so much simply by being exposed to his philosophy and attention to detail,” said Herrera. “He always had wise words, which are engrained in my mind to this day.”
While he didn’t think he had the proper credentials to be an effective assistant winemaker at Stag’s Leap, the winery inspired him to want to learn more about vineyard management and winemaking, and strike out on his own. In 1994, he left the winery for an interview with Chateau Potelle, which started with a tasting of the wines. “When I was done tasting the flight, I was like, ‘Oh my God, I want to do whatever it takes to work here. I want to be here to see how these wines are made and what they’re doing,’” he said. Herrera even offered to work for free.
“When she [the owner] first showed me the winery, it’s like ‘bang.’ It looked like an old garage sale, but it had a lot of personality. It needed a lot of organization, a lot of cleaning. But that’s my strength. I want to go where I do everything. I want the opportunity to work in a lab, be in the vineyard, be the assistant winemaker. Be careful what you wish for, I guess, because Chateau Potelle gave that to me.”
It was this culture that inspired the need to have full control of his wine, from dirt particle to the label’s font size. But first he had to test himself, and that meant a purchase of 2 tons of grapes in 1997. If the wine turned out well, that would be his resumé, and he would go forth into the world seeking to become a winemaker. Turns out his wine was so good, his family and friends convinced him to bottle it, slap a label on it and start his own winery, which he would later name Mi Sueño.
Translated from Spanish, Mi Sueño means “my dream,” and Herrera has been pouring his heart and soul into it ever since. “Now, looking back, the biggest compliment I get is on the name. Who doesn’t have a dream, who doesn’t have a story?”
Today, that dream has extended to include the purchase of vineyards so that he could better control the fruit coming out of it (in 2015 he purchased his first property on Mount Veeder, a 23-acre parcel) and a 10,000-case winery.
“I love what I do and I just want to do it all. As a winemaker, my biggest challenge is to make great wine consistently every year. That goes for all of us because, in the end, we are at the mercy of Mother Nature.”
The growing conditions in 2012, however, were ideal. “It was a very classic, consistent growing season. Those are the years we joke, ‘If you don’t make a good wine out of this vintage, what are you doing here?”
The 2012 Russian River Pinot Noir was grown in a vineyard off Guerneville Road in the northern part of Sebastopol, which also provided fruit to Paul Hobbs and Mark Cober. While he no longer sources fruit from this particular vineyard, Herrera says that 2012 was one of the best vintages. True to Burgundian traditions, Herrera employed a natural fermentation, a 100 percent malolactic fermentation, battonage and a lees stir once every two weeks. The wine spent 10 months in barrel, giving it a good creaminess and richness while still maintaining a natural, balanced acidity.
While Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon are mainstays for Mi Sueño, Herrera does have an experimental side to him. He’s playing around with Tempranillo, for example, and his most popular wine, El Llano, takes up half of his production and is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petit Verdot and Malbec. “I have to be careful,” he said. “Otherwise, in the end I’d make 100 wines. I need to keep my focus—after all, it is a business.”
2015 Pinot Noir Rosé
Finding the Right Freshness in Rosé
The Murphys have long been fans of some of the best Pinot Noirs in the world—from those made in the illustrious Old World Burgundy region, to the (relatively) new Californian wines. The attraction to the grape is based on a lure toward wine with freshness, and the family found that Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noirs are much preferred.
“I’ve worked short stints at wineries that were pulling Pinot Noir from all over the state and even from Oregon, and I noticed that the balance of the savory and spicy quality we got from the Santa Maria Valley were super interesting. I love the cinnamon elegance,” said co-founder and president of Presqu’ile Winery, Matt Murphy.
So, in 2007, the Murphys acquired 200 acres just 16 miles from the Pacific Ocean and planted 73 acres to Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah. Led by Madison and Suzanne Murphy, their three adult children, Matt, Anna and Jonathan, and their daughters-in-law, Amanda and Lindsey, Presqu’ile Winery was formed on the basis of creating the best cool-climate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that California could offer.
“California and the Santa Maria Valley are much different than the Old World, or even Oregon, where you have hail or lots of rain. Our challenge at Presqu’ile is getting grapes to ripen. Everything we do is about preserving site and nuances of our site. We think this is one of the best places to grow Pinot Noir,” Matt said.
To that end, the family brought on winemaker Dieter Cronje, who helped shape the sustainable, minimalist approach to growing and making wine. He and the Murphys are very much proponents of letting the vineyard site speak for itself, allowing it to have its long growing season.
When the vineyard was ready to produce wine-worthy grapes in 2010, the team at Presqu’ile found that there were a few blocks in the front section of the property hanging heavier and yielding much more fruit than anticipated. They decided to try to make a fresh, fruit-forward Rosé with the additional fruit—a decision that turned out well for the winery, recently named the best Rosé in California by Karen MacNeil.
The Rosé category has been growing quickly the last few years. The most recent Nielsen data available at press time showed that in the 52 weeks ending December 3, 2016, the value of Rosé priced above $7.99 a bottle in Nielsen-tracked off-premise accounts rose 56.1 percent, equating to a total of more than $135 million dollars. While the very high double-digit growth may seem monstrous, Rosé above $7.99 grew from a small base—it held a 1 percent market share in that time period, up from 0.5 percent to 0.7 percent in the years prior. By volume, it is much the same story. In the 52 weeks ending Dec. 3, 2016, Rosé priced above $7.99 increased 55 percent, to a total of 869,381 cases in the off-premise accounts tracked—just 0.5 percent of the market.
“Traveling across the country over the last four to five years, I’ve seen an expansion of people drinking Rosé and a growing interest in it. Many had a preconceived notion of Rosé based on certain boxed wines. It’s been great to play a small part in educating people on what it could be when done with intention.”
That intention, at least for Presqu’ile Winery, is a finished wine that is bright, fresh and crispy clean. Grapes are picked a little bit earlier, pressed for 90 minutes and are settled in stainless steel overnight. From there, they are aged for five months and then bottled, usually around February each year. The 2015 production was a bit smaller than they would have liked, as the winery was not immune to the many yield challenges seen across the region and through the rest of California.
“In 2013 we saw the effects of the drought—earlier harvest, budbreak and in some cases less acid and higher pH. It leads to a wine that’s more open and accessible and, in some cases, that’s a good thing. In 2015, there were some yield challenges and we made much less than we have in the past. You just roll with the punches in any growing season,” said Matt. “But when you have good weather and good quality with less fruit, that’s not too bad an equation.”
Though the inaugural Rosé was made as a fun side project, the Murphys have been very happy with it’s success. It even inspired another project, one that sets them apart from many other wineries in the state.
Since 2011, Presqu’ile has been producing sparkling wine—entirely in-house. An extremely capital and labor intensive endeavor, the team has been producing small batches of the wine, “just to try something different.” Because the Santa Maria Valley is a prime example of cool-climate vineyard’s lengthened ripening times, they can pick grapes at 18.5° Brix and have 9 grams of acidity—perfect for sparkling’s base wine.
It’s this adventurous spirit and dedication to the terroir that keep this winery going.
“We keep our heads down and do as good of a job as we can to represent the Santa Maria Valley,” he said.
2014 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay
The Occidental Boys
Ask 10 people in Sonoma County for a new or exciting wine recommendation and at least one will mention Senses Wines. For the last few years, Senses has been the talk of the town, the love of their brand spreading like wildfire in a drought. When looking to choose this year’s Hot Brands, WBM asked friends, family and neighbors for suggestions, and more than a few chose “the Occidental Boys.” It’s been incredible to see that so much community support—in a heavily saturated wine region no less—spread in such a short amount of time.
“The word-of-mouth is insane. The amount of sign-ups that we get to the mailing lists, the amount of buzz we have on social media, all that’s organic. We haven’t done any advertising at all,” said Chris Strieter, one of the founders.
Friends since their kindergarten days in Occidental, California, Strieter, Myles Lawrence-Briggs and Max Thieriot had some of the best connections in the Sonoma Valley. Strieter spent time working corporate finance, strategy and accounting for Jackson Family Wines. Myles’ family owned a vineyard and had been farming it since he was a kid, and Max’s family owned a unique and well-known vineyard nearby. None of them, however, had really aspired to run their own winery…yet. A fateful trip home was all it took.
“I came home, and it just turned out Myles and Max were both in the area. I worked a vintage at Red Car Winery, which was a small producer out there. I learned what really was happening on the West Sonoma Coast and, in particular, Occidental, and how it was the epicenter for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. I was like, “Max and Myles’ families own two of these prime vineyards. Why don’t we raise our hands, learn what it takes to grow grapes, take a class at the JC, ask everyone around for help and literally make 100 cases of wine.”
And that’s just what they did. In 2011, while Myles was wrapping up his college degree, the three got together and made 100 cases from grapes grown from their family vineyards. Strieter called it their “Tesla Roadster”—the proof of concept, so to speak. The trio started taking winemaking classes at the local community college, partnered with a local winemaker and sold half of their production directly. The rest of it went to local restaurants.
It was this “crazy” idea, this wild whim, that caught the attention of Thomas Rivers Brown, a locally renowned winemaker who had been purchasing fruit from the Thieriot vineyard when the boys took it over. According to Strieter, Brown approached them and said, “My passion is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Why don’t I help you make the wine, you sell me grapes, and we build a brand together?”
The rest, they say, is history.
That’s not to say all of their success came easily or without work. There have been plenty of stressful weather woes, early morning vineyard sprays, and even a complaint or two from the neighbors when their enthusiasm spilled into the wee hours. The three are dedicated to producing quality wine and farming strictly from the best Occidental vineyards, and they aren’t afraid to work for it. In 2012, they sourced from Hillcrest Vineyard, in 2013 it was B.A. Thieriot, in 2014 it was Charles Heintz Vineyard, Terra de Promissio Vineyard in 2015 and another prominent Russian River Pinot Noir vineyard in 2016. “We’re just going to keep adding the best of the best, so which vineyard is it next? I don’t know yet, but we’ll find out,” said Strieter.
With premium vineyards producing premium grapes, the trio needed an expert winemaker to show them the ropes. It is under Brown’s guidance that the 2014 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay, with a bit of pineapple and natural Coastal acidity to it, came to be.
“Working close with Thomas has always been very easy. We’ve learned a lot. He’s been super helpful. We are farming the vineyards, we’re walking the sites all the time, we’re tasting the berries,” said Strieter. “I love the winemaking style. It’s so hands-off. Our job is just to grow the best grapes and make sure to pick them at the right time—but everything else should be a pure reflection of the site.”
Even with their meteoric rise, don’t expect the Occidental Boys to increase production too much. “We have access to more fruit, plenty of fruit, but we’re not going to put the cart before the horse. For us, quality first and then, over time, we’ll grow naturally.”
What you can expect to see is more vineyards come online: they planted 10 acres of Pinot Noir in Bodega across the fence from Kistler’s estate vineyard with the intention of having three estate vineyards. Occidental and the West Sonoma Coast will remain their focus, even working to promote the region as its own distinct sub-AVA. The Occidental Boys are here to stay.
Sleight of Hand Cellars
2014 “The Conjurer” Red Blend
The Magic of Winemaking
Whether luck, intuition, knowledge or a combination of the three, the team at Sleight of Hand Cellars is making some stellar wine. Combining a love of music, magic and wine, Sleight of Hand knows that science should always come second to philosophy and artistry. As winemaker Trey Busch put it, “You should only know enough science not to screw it up.”
When Busch met Eric Dunham (the winemaker for Dunham Cellars) in 1998, he didn’t know that his world would be turned upside down. Through his friendship with Dunham, Busch found a way to escape his life as a buyer for Nordstrom in Seattle by moving to the Walla Walla Valley to become a cellar rat. At the time, Dunham Cellars was an emerging brand and, in exchange for informal winemaking lessons, Busch agreed to use his Nordstrom’s experience to help out on the sales and marketing side of the business.
With no previous winemaking or science background, Busch started to pick up on Dunham’s philosophies, practices and habits. There, he learned that a gut feeling was enough to make a solid, exciting wine. Despite moving up the ladder and taking a position at another winery, the lessons that Busch learned stuck with him.
“The core of what I do is still everything that I learned from Eric. Eric was an artist and I’m not a science-based winemaker. Picking decisions and blending decisions were never science-based—all was sensory and feeling based. It’s not as easy to teach as the science side, I think,” Busch said.
In true artistic spirit, Busch decided to strike out on his own and start his own winery. With the help of his friends Jerry and Sandy Soloman, he was able to finance the project in 2007. The condition: Busch would need to teach Jerry and Sandy the intuitive side of winemaking, just as Dunham had done for him years before.
And thus, Sleight of Hand Cellars was born. When naming the winery, Jerry came to Busch with a list of ideas—all of which were titles of Pearl Jam songs. A native of the band’s hometown, Busch was instantly excited by the idea, and they eventually settled on the title/name: Sleight of Hand. Magic, therefore, was a natural progression. The team found a mentalist, Felix Hopkins, or “Professor Felix,” in Denver, Colorado, who was creating his own show posters. Busch and the Solomans were impressed by his artistic talent and Professor Felix ended up designing a majority of Sleight of Hand Cellars’ labels.
From its humble and creative beginnings, Sleight of Hand Cellars has seen tremendous growth. In 2011, the group purchased 10 acres and built its first winery building, moving production from a neighbor’s custom crush winery. In 2015, a second winery building was constructed in order to accommodate growth, bringing total production capability to 9,000 cases. At the same time, Sleight of Hand signed 20-year grape contracts for four of their favorite vineyards.
As part of the explosive growth, Sleight of Hand secured a key first account—the Magic Castle in Hollywood, California, home to some of the greatest magicians, illusionists and mentalists in the world. The Castle brings in top-notch talent and proudly serves Sleight of Hand Cellars’ red and white wines (the Spellbinder and Magician brands, respectively) as part of its by-the-glass program. This account proved to be propitious. Actor Neil Patrick Harris, an amateur magician and a member of the Magic Castle’s board of directors, enjoyed one of their glasses of wine so much that he joined the wine club—and was later immortalized on The Conjurer, which is sold at the Magic Castle in its by-the-bottle program.
The 2014 Conjurer is a blend of 59 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 28 percent Cabernet Franc, 12 percent Merlot and 1 percent Petit Verdot. Grapes are sourced from the renowned Red Mountain Vineyard, Blue Mountain Vineyard and Phinny Hill Vineyards. It’s a prime example of a warm, Columbia Valley vintage. According to Busch, it’s texturally better than the 2013 and has more fruit-forward qualities. “It’s dynamite out of the gate with some ageability. It’s more approachable,” he said.
After plenty of success and nearly 10 years at the helm of Sleight of Hand, Busch has learned to follow his instincts. “Eventually you just trust yourself. There were plenty of times I would second-guess myself. You can’t go back in winemaking. Part of it is knowing the vineyards you work with, and now I’m very comfortable with them and know them and their habits and patterns even with vintage variations,” he said.
Going forward, Busch hopes to continue to make his wine accessible to the masses. He’s just opened up a second tasting room in Seattle (the original is in Walla Walla at the production facility), with walls covered in vinyl and the Beastie Boys playing on the stereo. “Our goal is to make the best wines in Washington state, but we’re going to have fun doing it and have fun presenting it,” Busch said.
All photos were provided by the individual wineries.
This article originally ran in the February 2017 issue of Wine Business Monthly