History. Quality. Ridge.

Today’s Story: Ridge Vineyards

Ridge Vineyards, another historic California winery, found its beginnings near the top of Monte Bello Ridge in 1885. Osea Perrone, an Italian doctor in San Francisco, bought 180 acres and constructed the winery into three levels of the mountain using native limestone. He produced the first vintage under the Monte Bello Winery label in 1892, however later as Prohibition crippled the wine industry the facilities were abandoned.

Once Prohibition ended (thankfully), a man by the name of William Short purchased the winery and replanted several parcels to Cabernet Sauvignon in the late 1940s. The breakthrough came, however, in 1959 when the winery changed hands again to Dave Bennion, Hew Crane, Charlie Rosen, and Howard Ziedler and the partnership produced a quarter-barrel of “Estate” Cabernet. One of the greatest Cali Cabs at the time, this Monte Bello wine inspired Dave Bennion to leave Stanford Research Institute (where all partners worked) to focus on winemaking full-time.

As winemaking ramped up at Ridge, I would be remiss not to mention their Zinfandel, first made in 1964 from vines further down the mountain. In 1966, they produced their first Geyserville Zin that many of you should be able to find at your local wine store. By 1968, the winery was approaching 3,000 cases of annual production and had grown from 15 to 45 acres following an acquisition of the original Monte Bello terraces. Ridge demonstrated a quality and character in the upper echelon of California wines, with their 1971 Cab ultimately entered into the Paris Tasting of 1976, which I briefly talked about in my Chateau Montelena post.

As further background on Ridge, I’d like the opportunity to discuss their winemaking practices as well. Calling their style “pre-industrial,” Ridge shies away from chemicals and additives prevalent in the industry nowadays. They ferment their wines only with natural yeast, do not use commercial enzymes or nutrients to affect color, flavor, or tannin in the wines, and are certified organic. Further, one of my favorite features of a bottle of Ridge is the back label that tells the winemaking process and lists ingredients, which is not common.

And finally…

Today’s Wine: 2015 Syrah/Grenache/Mataro

35% Syrah, 23% Grenache, 42% Mataro; 14.3% ABV

Most of you who know me know how much I love Syrah, and Rhône varietals in general, so I was very excited to find this bottle of ’15 GSM to taste and review. Our wine is medium ruby in appearance and fairly transparent. On the nose are aromas of black and blue fruits, redcurrant, lavender, mild earthy white cheese, cured meat, and slate. This was still somewhat tight as a pop-and-pour so I gave it about 30 minutes of air before drinking. Once in the mouth, the wine showcases notes of blueberry, ripe blackberry, dried cranberry, parched dirt, mushroom, underbrush, and a touch of blood. Full-bodied with medium (+) acidity, medium tannins, and a long (surprisingly bright fruit) finish.

Price: $40. Though I’ve watched the prices for Ridge rise over the past several years, I still think their wines (especially the range of Zins) are some of the best values for the quality. Today’s GSM blend is no different and, quite honestly, this was better than I expected. Pair this with red meat and mushroom sauce.

Blood, Sweat, and Pinot Noir

Today’s Story: Kosta Browne

Kosta Browne is a very storied, highly sought-after winery whose Pinot Noir amassed a cult following over the years. The “winery” started in 1997 with two friends, Dan Kosta and Michael Browne, who both happened to work at a restaurant in Santa Rosa but desired to make their own Pinot Noir. Every night they both worked in the restaurant, each would save $10 of their tips stashed in an envelope in Dan’s desk (he was the restaurant’s GM and Michael was the sommelier). Once their savings grew to about $1,000, they were (almost) ready to make wine.

Short in their ability to purchase both grapes and machinery to produce wine, Dan and Michael received $400 from a chef at the restaurant to push them to their goal. With $1,400 to their mutual name, they spent $400 on winemaking equipment and $1,000 on grapes from Everett Ridge in the Russian River Valley which allowed them to produce one barrel of wine (24 cases when all said and done). Most of this barrel went to VIP restaurant patrons, and as it emptied KB turned to Sauvignon Blanc due to its lower-priced grapes and no need for barrels to age. This Sauvignon Blanc allowed them to turn profit more quickly, paving the way for a return to their focus on Pinot Noir.

Following that batch of Sauvignon Blanc, in 2000 Michael networked tirelessly to find someone willing to sell him (a small, unknown producer) high quality Pinot Noir grapes. His efforts paid off when he convinced John Ferrington, the former assistant winemaker at Williams Selyem, to connect him with the owners of Cohn Vineyard who ultimately sold him grapes. As their second batch of Pinot aged in the barrels, Michael constructed a business plan and the pair partnered with investors to augment their return to Pinot Noir.

Now, I would love to run through more of the history of Kosta Browne but it is quite an extensive story with many trials and tribulations along the way. Even more so following what I wrote above! I encourage you to visit their website https://www.kostabrowne.com/pages/stories/, which provides all you will ever need to know.

Note: Duckhorn Wine Company purchased Kosta Browne last year. At that time, KB’s waiting list consisted of 30,000 members who account for 85% of the 30,000 case annual production. The remaining 15% typically goes to restaurants or high-end wine stores in small quantities. It will be interesting to see how Duckhorn’s ownership affects the KB brand.

Today’s Wine: 2014 Keefer Ranch Pinot Noir

100% Pinot Noir; 14.6% ABV

Though I’ve been familiar with Kosta Browne for quite some time, this is actually my first time drinking a bottle. The wine is bright, clear ruby red in appearance with hues of rose petal toward the rim of the glass. On the nose are aromas of crushed raspberry, strawberry, pomegranate, florals, a touch of leather, and a waning hint of alcohol. In the mouth, the palate showcases notes of sweet cherry, ripe red berries, spice box, green herbs, and vanilla. Medium-bodied and elegant, this Pinot shows moderately high acidity, low tannins, and a medium (+) length finish. Overall a very velvety wine that will only get better with a few more years in the bottle.

Price: $140. This is definitely pricey for a Pinot, however given its rarity I see why it is priced this way. There are certainly other Pinots that deliver a stronger QPR (even their “entry” Sonoma Coast can be found online for $80), but if you really want to make an entrance and tell your company an incredible wine story, grab a bottle of single vineyard Kosta Browne…if you can find one.

Going Against the Grain

Today’s Story: Susana Balbo

Susana Balbo’s career in wine is truly incredible and her broad range of wines and critical acclaim speaks to it. Susana originally hoped to study nuclear physics, however her family would not let her leave Mendoza to pursue it because the pathway was “unconventional” at the time. Instead, Susana remained in Mendoza and took up her family’s business of viticulture. Polar opposite of a degree in nuclear physics, Susana graduated with a degree in Oenology in 1981 and still managed to challenge the status quo by becoming the first women in Argentina to do so.

After working throughout the world as consultant to wineries in Spain, Chile, Italy, Brazil, Australia, and California (the first women from Argentina to do so, no less), Susana created her own winery in 1999. Located in Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza, Susana Balbo Wines prospers from their location at the foothills of the Andes Mountains where the ice melts into pure water during spring and summer for use in the vineyards. Like many higher-quality wineries nowadays, Susana Balbo Wines is committed to sustainable practices like avoiding chemical and machinery use in the vineyards, utilizing drip irrigation on the vines, and using pruning waste to nourish the soil.

To truly appreciate the history and significance of Susana’s career, I highly recommend trying some of her wines if you see them at your local store. While I am reviewing one of her “entry level” offerings today, her Nosotros Single Vineyard Malbec received outstanding notes and is worthy of seeking out. Hopefully I can review one for you someday soon.

Today’s Wine: 2011 Signature Malbec

90% Malbec, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon; 14.5% ABV

I’ve had an opportunity to taste Susana Balbo Malbecs on multiple occasions, but they have all been more recent vintages so I was intrigued by this bottle (served to me blind) with eight years of age. Today’s wine is medium purple to ruby in color with moderate staining on the sides of the glass. On the nose we have aromas of blackberry, blueberry, anise, sweaty locker room, and flint. The palate is not complex and the wine is very easy drinking, showcasing notes of plum, dates, cigar box, and baking spice. Good value for the money, this is medium-bodied with medium (+) acidity, medium (+) tannins, and a medium length finish. This bottle makes me excited to try her higher-end wines in the future.

Price: $20, a solid price-point for Malbec. Pair this with a burger, skirt steak, or dark meat chicken.

Why Wait for Screaming Eagle?

Today’s Story: Jonata

Jonata came onto my radar in unlikely fashion about two years ago, as these wines very rarely call retail stores home. I sat on the Screaming Eagle waitlist twiddling my thumbs for the chance to purchase an allocation (I am still waiting), and I received an email that their sister winery, Jonata, had offerings for purchase. I quickly discovered that Stan Kroenke, owner of Screaming Eagle and the LA Rams, owns Jonata as well and since their wines are highly regarded began seeking some out.

Jonata’s vines are planted in the Santa Ynez Valley on California’s Central Coast, and although Kroenke bought 586 acres of property only 84 acres are planted under vine. Like many wineries in the area, Jonata found success planting Rhône varietals such as Syrah but also grows Sangiovese and Bordeaux varietals. As far as soil goes, the entire Jonata property is sand (specifically Careaga Sandstone) which is known to be highly aerative with low water holding capacity and therefore low fertility for fruit. However, thanks to their adept winemaker Matt Dees, Jonata is able to produce exceptional wines and some of the best Cabernet Sauvignon in the Ballard Canyon appellation.

On the topic of quality, Jonata in their words seeks to become “the vanguard of an emerging quality movement in California winegrowing.” Great care is put into their vineyards and the winemaking process, resulting in a relatively small production of about 4,725 cases per year across 8 wines (2,426 cases being their Todos red blend). Sustainability is also a major point of focus for the winery, integrating livestock (chicken, turkeys, goats, pigs, and sheep) into the farming model to naturally enhance the soil. Jonata also maintains a communal garden and an orchard that produces olive oil and honey from bees raised on the ranch. Source: https://www.jonata.com/.

Today’s Wine: 2005 El Corazón de Jonata

41% Syrah, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Cabernet Franc, 11% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot, and 2% Sauvignon Blanc; 14.9% ABV

Our wine today is a very deep, opaque purple color with ruby variation toward the rim of the glass. We let this slow ox in the bottle for about 30 minutes before additional air-time in the glass, as it was still slightly tight as a pop-and-pour. On the nose are enticing aromas of black cherry, blackcurrant, red berry fruit, cigar box, sweet tobacco, licorice, and oak. Once in the mouth, we get notes of jammy blackberry, black cherry, blueberry, graphite, smokey/charred earth, and a touch of chocolate. Opulent and showing no signs of age, today’s Jonata is full-bodied with medium (+) acidity, mature medium tannins, and a long finish that lingers with notes of iron.

Price: $65. I think this is a little high (I’d love to see ~$50) but still worth a try due to its rarity and complexity with plenty of gas left in the tank. We paired this with smokey barbecue chicken, but I think this would also stand up well to a New York Strip.

Traditionally Unconventional

Today’s Story: Paolo Bea

Paolo Bea is a beautiful, working farm winery located in the hilltop commune of Montefalco in the region of Umbria. Records indicate that the Bea family lived in Montefalco as early as the 16th century and to this day produce fruits, vegetables, olives, and livestock to both sustain themselves and sell in the marketplace. While Paolo Bea, the senior member of the family today, spearheads the practices of the winery, his two sons Giuseppe and Giampiero farm the vineyards and assist in the vinification process, respectively.

A traditionalist through and through, Paolo Bea creates his wines in an effort to showcase the rustic character of grapes native to Montefalco, especially with his red made of Sagrantino. All care for the vineyards is organic, harvesting is done by hand, only native yeasts are present during fermentation, and the wines are bottled without fining or filtration. Many wine producers around the world create wines for the international stage (higher alcohol, bigger fruit, more forward) yet vintners like Paolo Bea remain my favorites because they want to share what their land produces in an open and honest representation.

While the Sagrantino is one of the greatest value wines I’ve been able to find from Italy, the white wines produced by the winery are some of the most interesting you can find. For example, Bea leaves his whites in contact with the grape skins for a time which adds tannin and body to the wines. The Arboreus, made from Trebbiano grapes, for instance shows a gold/amber color and medium tannins thanks to this process. My wine today, the Santa Chiara, shares similar tannin and body characteristics but is a true orange wine.

Today’s Wine: 2015 Santa Chiara

20% Grechetto, 20% Malvasia, 20% Garganega, 20% Sauvignon, 20% Chardonnay; 13.5% ABV

“Interesting” is the word uttered profusely by my tasting companions when we drank this bottle. I speculate that is because this was the first orange wine for many of them and only my second. Our wine today is amber orange in appearance, captivating for many of us in the room. On the nose are aromas of sweet (almost candied) cherry, apricot, melon, caramel, white wildflower, crushed stone, and mineral. The nose evolved dramatically over the time we drank this bottle, which made for a very unique experience. On the palate are notes of peach, apricot, honey, assorted nuts, vanilla, and mineral. Very complex and fun to drink, this is medium-bodied with moderate acidity, medium (-) yet grippy tannins, and a long finish characterized by notes of citrus and herbs. Another excellent and intriguing wine from Paolo Bea.

Price: $50. Well worth a try if you stumble across this in a store. Paolo Bea wines are full of character and produced using traditional methods in relatively small quantities, justifying the price. This would pair well with Korean dishes like Bibimbap.

Sensual Syrah

Today’s Story: Lillian Winery

Lillian came to fruition in 2004 with their inaugural release of Syrah. The winemaker, Maggie Harrison, worked as assistant winemaker for Manfred Krankl of Sine Qua Non (think $200-$1,000 bottles of cult Rhone varietals) when he encouraged her to begin producing her own Syrahs. With grapes coming from the White Hawk Vineyard, Maggie bottled 150 cases of her 2004 Syrah and, though I have not had that vintage, the several vintages I’ve had sense clearly reflect on her experiences at Sine Qua Non.

Over time Lillian grew from 150 cases and, although still small, sources grapes from White Hawk Vineyard, Stolpman Vineyards, Bien Nacido Vineyards, and now Cabernet Sauvignon from True Vineyard on Howell Mountain. Additionally, Maggie makes Lillian Roussanne from Stolpman Vineyards. Each vineyard offers different character to her Syrah (White Hawk is sandy soil producing dark fruit personality, Stolpman is calcareous soil producing brighter fruit but more tannin structure, and Bien Nacido is cooler producing smokier and floral notes with higher acidity and tannin) and when they come together produce a very elegant wine.

Today’s Wine: 2013 Lillian Syrah

100% Syrah; 14.5% ABV

Looking at today’s wine in the glass, we have a purple/ruby color that is not as opaque as many Syrahs that I’ve had. Without a decanter, I let this slow ox for a couple hours before drinking, which helped open the wine from my initial pop and pour taste. On the nose we have elegantly intertwined aromas of blackberry, black cherry, violets, wet gravel, and ground coffee. I could smell this wine all day without taking a sip. Once in the mouth, we get flavors of blueberry, black fruit, cola, black pepper, and a hint of oak and tobacco. Full-bodied like most California Syrah, today’s Lillian shows moderate acidity and dusty, refined tannins into a medium (+) length finish.

Price: $90. Considering Maggie Harrison’s history with Syrah and how beautiful and elegant this bottle is, I think this is well worth a try. Adding how difficult it can be to find a bottle of Lillian, this is a must-try. Pair this with a leg of lamb or lighter, slightly smokey barbecue.

Vitality from Spain

Today’s Story: Envínate

Founded by four friends who studied Oenology together, Envínate quickly became one of, in my opinion, the most important producers in Spain. These individuals (Roberto Santana, Laura Ramos, Alfonso Torrente, and José Martínez) came together through their mutual passion for growing grapes native to Spain and making wines that demonstrate with full truth and transparency a range of terroir with a coastal focus. Add this to the fact that they produce wine in a very traditional sense (vineyards are hand-picked, grapes are foot-trodden, and the wine is fermented with native yeasts and stored in neutral-oak barrels with sulfer only added in small amounts if needed at bottling) and there’s no surprise Envínate is showing the world what true Spanish wine can be.

On the topic of terroir, Envínate added to vineyard holdings over time with their vines now grown in Ribeira Sacra, Tenerife, and Almansa. Each of the three areas have unique soils ranging from slate to volcanic to chalky with their ultimate intent to demonstrate the different terroir in its most honest sense across grape varieties that they plant.

Discussing Envínate, I think it is quite apparent why they are such an important fixture in the Spanish wine community. The care, dedication, and traditional winemaking style employed elevates their wines onto high-end wine lists and into the inner circles of sommeliers and wine aficionados that may not otherwise learn to appreciate what makes Spanish wine Spanish. While they are a relatively small operation and Envínate wines are somewhat rare and hard to find, if you spot a bottle in your local wine store do not pass up trying it.

Today’s Wine: 2018 Envínate Albahra

100% Garnacha Tintorera; 13% ABV

I’ve tried a couple other wines from Envínate, but this was my first bottle of the Albahra and both my tasting companions and myself were thoroughly impressed. We let this open in the decanter for about 30 minutes before drinking and that seemed to do the trick. In appearance the wine is a very deep, opaque purple with moderate staining on the glass. On the nose, we have aromas of plum, black fruit, asphalt, volcanic soil, and a hint of dark chocolate. Once in the mouth, flavors of blackberry, red fruit, graphite, smoked meat, and charred earth abound. This medium- to full-bodied wine is bold, yet easy drinking, with medium (+) tannins, medium (+) acidity, and a long finish.

Price: $24, an outstanding value that cannot be missed. I think this would go great with game, red meat, and lamb.