Not Your Typical Cali Zin

Today’s Story: Joseph Swan Vineyards

Joseph Swan Vineyards was founded during the early 1970s by Joe Swan, a man whose passion for wine spawned at an early age through reading. However, Joe’s career did not begin in wine but rather as an artist, a flight instructor for the Army Air Corps during WWII, and ultimately a pilot for Western Airlines. Though Joe retired in 1974, his passion for wine remained strong through those middle years and he even produced Zinfandel when stationed in Salt Lake City and made friends visiting the Enology and Viticulture department at UC Davis following the war. In 1967, Joe purchased a small farm planted with 13 acres of Zinfandel, fruit trees, and a pasture near Forestville in the Russian River Valley with a plan to follow his dream of operating a small vineyard and winery. Though Joe made Zinfandel in 1968, he quickly received encouragement from André Tchelistcheff (a highly influential winemaker I discussed in my BV posts, as well as Joe’s friend and mentor) to replant his vineyards to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. With significant inspiration from French winemakers and the belief that lower production would increase his quality, Joe selected low production clones and both pruned and thinned his vines to significantly reduce yield. In 1987, Joe’s son-in-law Rod Berglund worked the Joseph Swan harvest with him and this would unfortunately be Joe’s last vintage. Joe fell ill during 1988 and passed away January, 1989 but his perfectionism and love of wine carries on with his daughter Lynn and son-in-law Rod today.

Today’s Wine: 2012 Mancini Ranch Zinfandel

100% Zinfandel; 12.9% ABV

The 2012 Mancini Ranch Zinfandel is moderately opaque and medium garnet in color with ruby hues. Once this opens up, the nose showcases aromas of tart cherry, strawberry rhubarb, dried raspberry, aged leather, forest floor, truffles, smoked red meat, savory green herbs, baking spice, and cedar. On the palate, I get notes of blackberry, blueberry, cherry pie, dusty strawberry, red licorice, dried tobacco, damp earth, mushroom, cinnamon, pepper, and slight oak. The wine is medium-bodied with medium acidity, medium (-) tannins, and a medium (+) length finish. Overall this is very well-balanced and a complex depiction of old-school Zinfandel that upon tasting does not seem like anything from California.

Price: $32. Joseph Swan produces some of my favorite Pinot Noir in the $35-$45 price-point, and I can now add their Zinfandel to this list of great values. This is a gorgeous Zin unlike many I’ve had from California and demonstrates the restraint this grape can display. Pair this with barbecue chicken, leg of lamb, or tomato-based pasta.

Pioneer of the Russian River Valley

Today’s Story: Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery

Gary Farrell is one of the great pioneering winemakers in the Russian River Valley, playing a big role in marketing the area and Sonoma County as a whole as one of the greatest regions for Pinot Noir before the Russian River Valley even had its own AVA status. During the 1970s, Gary apprenticed under legends including Joe Rochioli, Robert Stemmler, Davis Bynum, and Tom Dehlinger before landing his first winemaker gig at Davis Bynum Winery in 1978. Though Gary shortly became involved in early releases at Rochioli Winery, Limerick Lane, and Moshin Vineyards, he produced his first namesake wine, a Pinot Noir, in the 1982 vintage using fruit from the famed Rochioli Vineyard. Making a name for himself by producing quality RRV Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Gary expanded his winery during the 1990s by developing the Starr Ridge and Cresta Ridge vineyards before ultimately constructing a production facility in Healdsburg. Gary sold his namesake brand in 2004, however, and later sold his vineyard properties and started Alysian Wines focused on small quantities of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Today’s Wine: 2014 Westside Farms Chardonnay

100% Chardonnay; 13.9% ABV

The 2014 Westside Farms Chardonnay is medium gold and almost straw in color while being completely transparent. On the nose, this wine showcases aromas of golden pear, apricot, white peach, lemongrass, honeysuckle, butter, toast, vanilla, and some white spicy minerality. Once in the mouth, this Chardonnay displays notes of green apple, tropical citrus, lemon and lime zest, starfruit, jasmine, vanilla cream, and saline minerality. This is medium- to full-bodied with mouthwatering high acidity leading into a crisp finish that lingers with you for quite some time.

Price: $50. I could see almost any California Chardonnay drinker enjoying this wine for its classic notes while being not too overly butter-bombed, however I think at this stage it seems to be a little out of balance and needs a couple more years of cellaring to settle. Pair this with lobster, crab, citrus-spiced chicken, or asparagus salad.

Velvety Smooth Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

Today’s Story: Davies Vineyards

Davies Vineyards is one of the most storied wineries in the Napa Valley, tracing their roots back to 1862 when Jacob Schram purchased 200 acres and began developing hillside vineyards. The winery, at the time called Schramsberg, greatly ramped up production by the late 1800s and proved a success, however after Jacob Schram died in 1905 the winery sold in 1912 and fell out of prominence. Jack and Jamie Davies purchased the 200 acre Schramsberg property in 1965, however, and resurrected the great vineyards and Schramsberg name. Known for their Diamond Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon, Davies also produces sparkling wine under the Schramsberg label and an assortment of Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast to the Anderson Valley and beyond.

I first reviewed Davies wines with the 2012 Ferrington Pinot Noir in Who Wants Pie?, then the 2012 JD Cabernet Sauvignon in Easy-Drinking Cab, the 2013 Jamie Cabernet Sauvignon in The Matriarch of Diamond Mountain, and the 2005 J. Schram Sparkling Rosé in Premier American Sparkling. Check them out if you haven’t already for more history of the winery as well as tasting notes across other portfolio offerings.

Today’s Wine: 2015 Piedra Libre Vineyards Pinot Noir

100% Pinot Noir; 14.2% ABV

The 2015 Piedra Libre Pinot Noir is medium ruby/purple in color with rose petal variation near the rim and is moderately transparent. On the nose, this wine showcases aromas of red cherry, blueberry, plum, violet, damp earth, tobacco, baking spice, white pepper, vanilla, and oak. There is also some heat from the alcohol. Once in the mouth, the wine offers notes of cranberry, raspberry, wild strawberry, cassis, cola, loamy soil, chocolate, coffee grounds, and rose. This is medium-bodied with mouthwatering medium (+) acidity, light tannins, and a long finish that ends in notes of cherry liqueur and mocha. 225 cases produced.

Price: $65 direct from the winery. Certainly one of my favorite Davies Pinots I’ve tried, but I can never get around to justifying the price-point on these wines. Pair this with pork stir fry, a bacon cheeseburger, or herb-roasted chicken.

One of the Most Important Women in Wine

Today’s Story: Merry Edwards Winery

Merry Edwards Winery was established in 1997 by Merry Edwards and her husband Ken Coopersmith. However, Merry experienced quite a successful career before creating her namesake winery starting with her master’s degree in Food Science with an emphasis in Enology from UC Davis in 1973. After graduation, Merry fought to become a winemaker (not a lab technician like many women in the field during that time) and she was ultimately hired by Mount Eden Vineyards in February 1974 as winemaker. Merry spent three vintages with Mount Eden and during 1975 selected some of their Pinot Noir cuttings to send to UC Davis for heat treatment and propagation which resulted in UCD clone 37 (the “Merry Edwards selection”) that is planted in the Georganne Vineyard which sources fruit for the wine I am reviewing today.

In 1977, Merry Edwards spent time in France studying clone research at the University of Beaune and later moved to Sonoma County to become the founding winemaker of Matanzas Creek Winery. Shortly thereafter, Merry purchased property in the Russian River Valley in 1981 with plans for a family winery and built Merry Vintners Winery (focused on Chardonnay) in 1984 alongside her consulting business. Several years later, in 1996, Merry purchased 24 acres of what would become the Meredith Estate Vineyard and, in 1997 after meeting her would-be husband Ken, co-founded Merry Edwards Winery and produced her first namesake Pinot Noir.

Over time, Merry and Ken grew their holdings through vineyard purchases and leasing agreements and today produce Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc. The Sauvignon Blanc is Merry’s favorite white wine from what I’ve heard, and it is indeed a must-try for any Sauvignon Blanc fan particularly those made in a Bordeaux Blanc style. This being said, Merry’s winemaking career that almost spans 50 years is dominated by her being a self-proclaimed perfectionist with a goal of producing wines that reflect the terroir rather than her own hand. Coupled with her winemaking philosophy, Merry also believes in sustainable farming and energy practices that help prolong both her own land and the environment around it. For more on Merry Edwards, check out the very extensive website here, as I could surely write an entire novel on this blog post and bog down your emails.

Today’s Wine: 2015 Georganne Pinot Noir

100% Pinot Noir; 14.2% ABV

The 2015 Georganne Pinot Noir is medium to deep purple/ruby in color and almost entirely opaque. I simply let this open up in the glass for 15-30 minutes to reveal aromas of black cherry, black raspberry, blueberry, acai, charred cedar, damp forest floor, wet gravel, blue and purple florals, and a hint of wild herbs mingled with peppery spice. Once in the mouth, this wine displays notes of cherry, dried raspberry, tart wild blueberry, red florals, sweet tobacco, loamy soil, mushroom, chocolate, clove, and oak. The wine is medium- to full-bodied with high acidity, medium (-) tannins, and a long finish dominated by herbaceous and cranberry tones.

Price: $63 upon release (I’m now seeing closer to $85 average online). Georganne is one of Merry Edwards’ newest vineyards and I am surprised by the elegance and finesse this wine displays as compared to some of her other vineyard designated wines that take more time in the bottle to blossom. Pair this with salmon, duck, or Panko-crusted rack of lamb.

Sonoma County Continues to Showcase Its Value

Today’s Story: Cenyth

Cenyth was established in 2009 as a collaboration between winemaker Hélène Seillan and musician/artist Julia Jackson (daughter of Jess Jackson and Barbara Banke). Hélène Seillan is the daughter of renowned winemaker Pierre Seillan, the man behind Vérité winemaking and their micro-cru philosophy, and the two of them work together at Vérité as well. If you recall, I wrote about Vérité in Both Complexity and Elegance from Sonoma County when I reviewed the 2008 Le Désir and you can read a bit more about the winemaking style and history of the Seillan family there. While Hélène handles the wine at Cenyth, Julia created the label art and selected her palette in homage to Sonoma County: “blue for the Pacific Ocean, yellow for the mustard flowers, gray for the fog, and green for the vineyards.” While Cenyth represents the knowledge and mentorship Hélène gathered from her father over the years, it also represents the friendship between Hélène and Julia who grew up together in the vineyards of Sonoma County and France.

Today’s Wine: 2009 Proprietary Red

47% Cabernet Sauvignon, 28% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc, 8% Petit Verdot, 7% Malbec; 14.5% ABV

The 2009 Proprietary Red (Cenyth’s inaugural release) is deep purple in color with deep ruby variation near the rim. Once this opens up, the nose showcases aromas of blackberry, black cherry, redcurrant, licorice, tomato paste, green herbs, mint, tobacco, cedar, and a hint of vanilla. On the palate, I get notes of blackberry, blueberry, plum, cherry, mild forest floor, cigar box, black pepper, dried cooking herbs, rocky minerality, smoke, and oak. This wine is medium- to full-bodied with vibrant medium (+) acidity, medium tannins, and a long finish dominated by sappy red and black fruit alongside notes of iron.

Price: $60. Very solid value Bordeaux blend from Sonoma County, offering both complexity and the structure to go the distance. I am curious to try more recent vintages to see how style developed over the years. Pair this with ribeye steak, lamb, duck breast, or a good burger.

Buttery Surprise

Today’s Story: Williams Selyem

Williams Selyem is another winery with a homegrown, almost comical, origin story. During the 1970s, Burt Williams received several tons of free grapes from a grower with an abundance of fruit that would otherwise most likely go to waste. With his friend Ed Selyem, in 1979 the pair started making wine at Burt’s house over the weekends with Zinfandel grapes from the Martinelli family. Though the two set out to make wine only for themselves as a hobby, Burt and Ed fully devoted to the endeavor in 1981 and named their winery Hacienda del Rio.

They bottled their first vintage in 1982 and released it commercially in 1983, however Hacienda Winery quickly sent a cease and desist letter that resulted in removal of “Hacienda” from Burt and Ed’s labels. In 1984, Burt and Ed moved production to a nearby garage in Fulton and released the first vintage with the now famous and globally-recognized Williams Selyem label.

If this sounds familiar, you’ve probably heard of this cult winery before or read my prior post Cult Cali Pinot back in October, 2019 when I reviewed the 2014 Ferrington Vineyard Pinot Noir. If you haven’t read my prior post or Williams Selyem is new to you, check it out for the remainder of their story including the explosion into cult status.

Today’s Wine: 2016 Three Sisters Vineyard Chardonnay

100% Chardonnay; 13.9% ABV

The 2016 Three Sisters Chardonnay is pale to medium gold/straw yellow in color and completely transparent. The nose showcases aromas of yellow apple, pear, melon, white wildflowers, hazelnut, spice, vanilla cream, and buttered toast (which is a little strong in my opinion). Once in the mouth, this wine displays notes of green apple, white peach, lemon peel, beeswax, snap peas, white pepper, white lily, vanilla, and butter (again, a little strong). This Chardonnay is full-bodied with high acidity and a lush, medium length rounded finish.

Price: $65 direct from winery upon release. Perhaps this needs more time to come together, but for now I’d suggest taking a look at their Chenin Blanc or Unoaked Chardonnay due to the surprisingly high butter notes in today’s bottling. Pair this with lobster, crab, or roasted chicken.

The Steve Jobs of Wine

Today’s Story: Paul Hobbs Winery

Paul Hobbs Winery was founded in 1991 by Paul Hobbs with his initial release of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Sauvignon from purchased fruit. Paul grew up in upstate New York on a working family farm and orchard, so one could say agriculture was in his blood from an early age. Though Paul helped plant, harvest, and sell crops at nearby farmer’s markets before school each morning, his first foray into wine (if you will) was helping his father achieve his dream of replanting some of the apples, peaches, and nuts in their orchards to wine grapes.

When it came time for Paul to go to college, his father encouraged him to study viticulture and enology but instead Paul followed in his great-grandfather’s footsteps by studying medicine and graduated with a BS in Chemistry from Notre Dame. His father’s persistence paid off, however, and Paul moved to California after graduation and studied viticulture and enology at UC Davis where he received his Master of Science degrees three years later. Fresh off his new degree, Paul was hired by Robert Mondavi for his advanced knowledge of oak aging and he was quickly promoted to the inaugural Opus One winemaking team. Following his experiences at Robert Mondavi and Opus One, Paul joined Simi Winery as their winemaker before beginning consulting roles for Peter Michael, Lewis Cellars, Bodegas Catena, and soon other wineries around the world.

Throughout these experiences with wine, Paul Hobbs crafted a dream of his own to produce vineyard designated wines under his own name. In 1991, Paul spoke with Larry Hyde in Napa and Richard Dinner in Sonoma about purchasing some of their fruit, and the resulting 5 tons of fruit from each vineyard culminated in the first Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Franc of Paul Hobbs Winery. Paul’s dreams entered their next phase in 1998, however, when he purchased his family’s first estate vineyard and established the Katherine Lindsay Estate (named after his great-grandmother) in Sebastopol, CA. The first vintage of this wine came with the 2003 harvest, and today Paul Hobbs consists of seven estate vineyards in some of the preeminent Californian regions for Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Paul Hobbs practices sustainable farming in caring for his vineyards and a minimalist approach in producing his wines. To sustain the integrity of his fruit and each vineyard block, Paul demands a constant flow of communication and knowledge from the vineyards to the cellar. When it comes time for harvest, all Paul Hobbs fruit is hand-harvested using hand sheers to keep the fruit in pristine condition. During the winemaking process, all wine is fermented using only native yeasts that originate in the vineyards and the cellar and the wine is aged in finely grained French oak barrels. With his finished product, Paul bottles the wine unfined and unfiltered in an effort to display the purity of the fruit and the place of each wine with elegance and transparency.

Fun fact: Paul Hobbs is widely known as “the Steve Jobs of wine” thanks to his “ardent exactitude” and immensely high demands for quality.

Today’s Wine: 2015 Katherine Lindsay Estate Pinot Noir

100% Pinot Noir; 14.3% ABV

The 2015 Katherine Lindsay Estate Pinot is pale to medium ruby in color and is moderately transparent. This requires about 30-45 minutes to open up, but once it does the nose showcases aromas of cranberry, cherry, dried strawberry, cola, violet, clay, leather, baking spice, and a hint of oak. Once in the mouth, this Pinot offers notes of black cherry, pomegranate, juicy ripe strawberry, black truffle, forest floor, and black pepper. The wine is medium-bodied with medium (+) acidity, light tannins, and a medium (+) length finish.

Price: $100. This is certainly an upper-echelon RRV Pinot but it needs some extra time in the cellar to fully come together. If you buy some, open some more reasonable Pinot in the $35 sweet spot I’ve mentioned before while this sits a few more years. Pair this with duck, pork loin, roast chicken, or charcuterie.

Both Complexity and Elegance from Sonoma County

Today’s Story: Vérité Winery

Vérité was founded in 1998 by wine industry visionary Jess Jackson. Though Jackson is most well-known for starting Kendall-Jackson after purchasing 80 acres of land he converted to vineyards in 1974 (he started bottling his own wine in 1982), he always wanted to create a wine that would stand up to the greatest in the world. This vision, and his belief that it could be accomplished in Sonoma County, helped lay the foundations of Vérité. During the 1990s, Jackson traveled to France and met vigneron Pierre Seillan who had already spent decades creating world-class wines in Bordeaux and Tuscany. The two struck up a friendship, and when Seillan visited California in 1997 Jackson asked him to start Vérité with him and this passion was born.

Seillan is a vigneron who follows a micro-cru philosophy throughout the viticultural and winemaking processes. This philosophy came about after Seillan worked across eight different appellations in Bordeaux, allowing him to realize the endless nuance between different vineyard sites. In bringing this philosophy to Vérité, Seillan crafts each wine from more than 50 micro-crus harvested and fermented separately before being aged in French oak barrels varying in toast. The resulting wines are characterized by an elegant and complex architecture that “embodies the timeless traditions of France and the limitless possibilities of California.” Though Jess Jackson passed away in 2011, his vision lives on through Seillan and will continue to do so under Hélène Seillan who joined as assistant winemaker to her father.

Vérité produces three wines including La Muse (Merlot dominated), La Joie (Cabernet Sauvignon dominated), and Le Désir (Cabernet Franc dominated). In addition to the micro-cru philosophy, each wine is produced with a belief that we are servants of the soil in winemaking and the wines should therefore “express the unfettered voice of the terroir.” Sonoma County is one of the most diverse winegrowing regions on earth and with vineyards located in the Bennett Valley, Alexander Valley, Chalk Hill, and Knights Valley appellations Vérité wines elegantly display this nuanced terroir.

Today’s Wine: 2008 Le Désir

61% Cabernet Franc, 31% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Malbec; 14.3% ABV

The 2008 Le Désir is a beautiful medium ruby color. These wines are made for the long haul, so we decanted this bottle for about an hour before trying any. Once the wine opens up, the nose showcases aromas of dusty blackberry, black cherry, peppercorn, sous bois, white truffle, cigar box, mint, and oak. In the mouth, this beauty shows notes of blackberry, blueberry, purple florals, cigar box, smokey earth, green herbs, pepper, licorice, and a hint of oak. The wine is full-bodied with medium acidity, medium (+) tannins, and a long finish.

Price: $400. I’ve wanted to try a wine from Vérité for quite some time, though it is no easy price to stomach. Thanks to a very generous friend who brought this over for a party, I finally got a glimpse into why their wines are so pricey. Pair this with grilled beef (especially filet mignon), duck, or lamb.