Chianti is an old land, and this is an old post, taking literal months to think through a whirlwind tour of Tuscany — and to digest the full experience, food, wine and culture.
What is Chianti?
Well, there is a definition according to the region’s authorities themselves, which seems to offer up a strict set of guidelines. But as we will see, those guidelines can play out differently in different places. There is more than a “bit” of wiggle room, even in Chianti Classico. Chianti wine is first and foremost wine made in Chianti, and the authorities tell us that:
Other fundamentals and other requisites concern the ampelographical base—or the types of grapes that can be used in the preparation of the wine. The rules provide for a minimum ratio of 80% for Sangiovese, the typical red variety of the zone. Along with the Sangiovese, other red grapes of the area can be used in a maximum percentage of 20%. These grapes include natives like Canaiolo and Colorino as well as “international” varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, all recommended and/or authorized for the production zone. Among the principal sensory characteristics indicated by the production rules, there is the ruby red color that can become at times intense and profound, depending upon the wine’s origin. The odor offers floral notes of violets and irises combined with a typical character of red fruit. The flavor is harmonious, dry and sapid with a good level of tannin that fines in time, becoming soft and velvety. Other requisites requested include a minimum alcohol level of 12 degrees for young wines and 12.5 degrees for the Riserva.
A quick analysis of these guidelines gives us an initial picture of a lithe, drinkable, sanguine wine, originating from the native Sangiovese grape and perhaps a scattering of local field varietals. Flowers and raspberries dominate the palate, and at 12 percent alcohol, it’s quite sessionable.
That is Chianti… or is it?
A more pointed analysis would highlight that the guidelines only specify 80 percent Sangiovese, and that the authorities allow international varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. 20 percent of either varietal is enough to change the structure and personality of the wine into something much more forward. It’s more robust, perhaps showing oak and age-worthiness. And because the guidelines only specify a minimum alcohol… it can climb higher, into the 14-15 percent range sought by many consumers, especially those in America.
So which is the real Chianti?
Our mid-September trip to Castello di Gabbiano showed us a full range of Chianti wines, from acid-driven, chuggable table wine at Dario Cecchini’s steakhouse to serious reserve bottlings like the Castello’s “Belleza,” which earned the mark of “Gran Selezione.” The Gran Selezione is a new moniker created by the Chianti Classico authorities to designate the most prestigious wines in the region. A panel of winemakers and region experts grades submitted wines on taste and overall character, approving only the “best.” As a whole, the new practice is a clearly bold move to bolster Chianti’s claim as a region producing high quality wines … and to appease to an international export market that demands high-scoring, slightly bigger wines than the kinds of Chianti wines brought to U.S. shores years ago.
And oh, those wines. Straw-covered bottles and served alongside crockery thin-crust pizza, or Americanized Italian red-sauce dishes on checkered table cloths. They were nothing to write home about, and that’s part of the problem for many regions like Chianti that used to produce such inferior wine for export. On the one hand, some of traditional Chianti wine has always been a little lighter, more like good Beaujolais or Loire than ultra serious Napa or Bordeaux. And as in places like rural France, there has always been a culture of table wine or home-made wine, which wasn’t ever intended to compete in magazines for top awards. Moreover, the Chianti region historically viewed wine and food as nearly inseparable — both originate from the terroir of the region. The downside is that, at export, these lighter Chiantis earned a reputation for being second-rate, downgrading the region as a whole. New winemakers and large holding companies believe Chianti has the potential to be a world class region, and so they’ve taken it upon them to produce something different… more developed, bigger, riper. And as in many places around the world, this generation of winemakers and companies is doing so through the use of modern technology and winemaking techniques, to get the most from grapes while meeting international demands. It’s smart business!
But again, that brings us back to our original question… what is Chianti?
At the Castello, I tried several times to push winemaker Federico Cerelli on the question, urging him to elaborate on his vision and what motivates him to make the kind of wine that he does. I wanted to get at the soul of Chianti wine, at least from his perspective. He is a very smart, personable winemaker, and he clearly knows the kind of wine he wants — and needs — to produce, to achieve the results he and his employers want.
Parsing that last sentence out, Federico is, at his core, a modern winemaker. He is well-trained, and the latest releases from Castello di Gabbiano all have a level of quality derived from that training. Looking at the range of wines and Federico’s influence on the winemaking of Castello since coming on board and since the the property was purchased by the Australia-based Treasury Wine Estates, there is a progressional blending of New and Old World attributes as the wines increase in price. The reserve wines, including the Gran Selezione “Belleza,” have an enhanced mouthfeel and gravitas that exudes a certain richness, aging and “proper” correction. You know these are good, ripe, balanced wines. They are well-made and display a consistent value-quality proposition.
For this, Federico and the Castello team should be congratulated, for they accomplished the very rare feat of producing good wine at affordable prices, and secondly, producing good wine that many people will enjoy. One thing gives me pause, though, or at least raises the specter of the original question again — that the wine I enjoyed most at Castello wasn’t a reserve bottling, but the standard Chianti Classico, which is lower in alcohol and lighter overall. And, in discussing that fact with the Castello’s chef, Francesco Berardinelli, we seemed to be in general agreement that the cuisine of Chianti harkens back to these kinds of wines, although there is a clear time and place for more expressive, age-worthy bottlings.
So, what is Chianti? Is it a lighter, more local style? Is it something increasingly worldly and serious? Is it old-fashioned? Is it modern? Is it more natural? Is it more corrected/influenced?
Chianti, as it turns out, is all of these things. The beauty is that we, the consumer, can select a Chianti for every occasion.
A note in advance — I approach any and all media trips with a bit of skepticism, in no small part because I make a living in the world of public relations. It takes a great deal for me to be impressed, and there’s a sort of natural apprehension about “giving in” too easily. You don’t want to be that wine writer.
So, when approached by the team from Castello di Gabbiano about an opportunity to visit their estate in Tuscany, I accepted, but with a whole host of immediate questions. For one, as most readers of this blog will readily realize, I usually write about small, up-and-coming winemakers in lesser known regions. Secondly, it almost sounded too good to be true — a 12th century castle, formerly home to some of Florence’s most famous noble families, overlooking more than 300 acres of vines in the storied Chianti Classico.
The big question, then — would it be overdone? Over-commercialized? Lacking in authentic character? Could a “big name” castle retreat still satisfy a geeky hipster wine nerd like me?
The answer couldn’t have been more resounding. I adored my time at the Castello, to the point that I might want to question my journalistic integrity. As a writer, you sometimes get that weird feeling of actually enjoying and liking the subjects you’re talking about, and that’s a dangerous thing.
Still, I’ll try to be objective — and even while tempering my personal enthusiasm for the Castello’s gorgeous landscape views and hospitable staff, I can tell you that if you’re ever in the Chianti region, you would do well to make a stop in San Casciano Val di Pesa. To be sure, I have my quibbles and questions, but at the end of the day … few places on earth could be as relaxing, enjoyable and smile-inducing.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll pen a series of articles diving into issues as far-ranging as authentic Tuscan cooking (and the lack of salt in the region’s bread) to the questions surrounding viticulture and wine-making in a region best-known for hay-wrapped bottles doubling as candlestick holders. But for now, let us meditate on the Castello, and why it’s worth writing about.
In all sincerity, one must confess that there is a certain elitism present in the wine industry, and especially in the industry of wine writing. We all want to experience the unattainable — the rarer the better, the more exclusive the better, the more unusual the better. And so, we also see a particular strain among us who might disapprove of “corporate” wine estates, owned and operated by large international holding companies. Castello di Gabbiano, which is held by the Australian-based Treasury Wine Estates (which also owns Beringer in California), is one such label.
Long story short, Castello di Gabbiano produces a lot of wine — definitely more than many of the producers about which I’ve been known to wax poetically. And because of that, there most definitely would be a segment of the wine cognoscenti who might write off the estate, simply because it’s bigger than they would like. Winemaker Federico Cerelli, a native of Tuscany, is a far cry from the kind of eccentric vignerons celebrated in too-cool-for-school Paris natural wine bars. The wines themselves don’t smell like manure or oxidation. They don’t have that racing electric acidity, or that shocking drinkability, or that uncanny uniqueness that might characterize some small-label wines. What they do have is universal appeal and a global distribution. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the fact remains that some wine snobs (the only word to accurately describe such an attitude) might instead choose to solely define “good wine” as “wine other people can’t have.”
The truth, though, is that this kind of snobbery resembles an unfair demonization of things we all like and should appreciate more. It’s an inversion of values, in the interest of pushing back against something that seems too comfortable if you’re rough around the edges. The Castello is gorgeous. It’s historic. It’s peaceful. And though the wines aren’t going to radically change your perspective on what wine can or should be, they’re carefully calibrated and dialed in. The entry-level Chiantis are sure to please, and given their ready availability, you’d be a fool to pass them up. The higher end bottles have a seriousness that rewards careful contemplation.
And the Castello’s food, from chef Francesco Berardinelli? OK, you’ve got me. Now you know the real reason I fell so hard for the Castello.
Berardinelli’s name won’t appear in any “top chef” listings, but he’s the real deal — exuberant, enthusiastic, and hell-bent on not achieving the kind of fame his cooking deserves. His sourcing is impeccable — take the suckling pig, from a farm and butcher dating back centuries — and his training superb (he was once a consultant for Alain Ducasse). But now, at the Castello, he nearly hides, content at producing rustic Tuscan food out of a two-person kitchen adjacent to a vineyard, fruit trees, and herb boxes. In short, he’s living the dream.
Berardinelli’s restraint — that he isn’t just OK with, but happy to serve country-side dishes like braised wild boar in an era of over-reaching young chefs — ultimately might be the best way to explain the Castello’s charm. It’s isn’t going to blow you out of the water. It’s not the Selosse hotel, or Frank Cornelissen’s vines on the side of Mt. Etna in Sicily. But it is what it is — and that is a retreat, a happy place, an escape. It’s luxuriously comforting, like a bowl of Berardinelli’s homemade pasta with tomatoes found only outside Florence.
And if that doesn’t make you smile, doesn’t make you yearn to visit, then nothing will. This isn’t a place to sip cult wines or make a discovery that will impress your wine geek friends. But it is a place to walk amid olive groves in the moonlight, full of wine and wild boar, and to delight in the simple things that make life — and Tuscany — so special.
It had been six years since my last visit. Much has changed, while some properties seem frozen in time. The Napa and Sonoma Valleys were the birthplace of my romance with wine. In previous articles, I have recounted how, in 1982, I came to San Francisco for a sports exhibition and was seduced by wine instead. Over the next 25 years, I have visited the North Coast wine regions 50 times or more. Each vacation and long weekend was spent going there or, occasionally, another viticultural appellation. I was smitten, and there were so many new wineries waiting for me to explore them.
Then came a sudden retirement, followed by a two-year search for the perfect place for Your Humble Scribe and The Happy Cooker to live out our leisure years. We finally settled in Las Vegas – excellent weather, no natural disasters to worry about, no state taxes, low cost of living, inexpensive housing, incredible entertainment, fine restaurants, and a city where anything is accessible 24/7. The only drawback was the oppressive heat of July and August. But hey, that is why air conditioning was invented!
For the first two years, I was content to sit back and enjoy the Good Life. The casinos were hurting during the Recession, and they plied the Las Vegas residents with all manner of free things to occupy our time: two-for-one dining coupons (even to high-end establishments), the same for shows on the Strip, and frequent free casino play. I think they used the locals as shills to keep up the appearance of a busy casino, a fair trade in my book.
Then, as things began to turn around economically, the freebies started to dry up. At the same time, I began to be visited in Dreamland by the ghosts of Wine Trips Past. I longed again for the trips of my youth, so heady in anticipation and subsequent serendipitous discoveries.
First, along with friends Bob Johnson and Tom Madrecki, I began this website, Wine Lines Online, to chronicle the many wine adventures of the past. For some 15 years, both Bob and I had written about our wine experiences in monthly newsletters, weekly newspaper columns, and wine publications. The thought was to catalog these writings at a one-stop blogsite. Our young web savant Tom Madrecki came on board to set up and monitor the site and to write about the East Coast wine scene and Old World wines.
Launched two and a half years ago, we have now put up many articles from the past, as well as hundreds of wine reviews and wineblogs from the present.
But the ghosts of Wine Trips Past kept haunting my slumber. In 2012, and again in 2013, I spent the month of August in the Central Coast of California to escape the heat and feed the wine trip specter. Over 20 wineries were visited and blogged about, along with some very good restaurants and fun destination spots.
Still, the North Coast was calling. It was time to return to where it all started for me – the Napa and Sonoma Valleys.
On October 7, I boarded a flight to San Francisco and began a journey to my wine geek roots. A two-hour car ride brought me to the city of Napa, at the southern edge of the Napa Valley wine country. From here, I visited four iconic wineries: Beringer, Chateau St. Jean, Etude, and Stags’ Leap Winery.
Over the next few weeks, I will chronicle my experiences at each estate, and share wine reviews made along the way.
As for now, the wine wisps of my dreams have given me a small respite. I am sure they will soon return to entice me again.
First up… Etude Winery.
Part 5 of a 5-Part Series
If this series has motivated you to plan a trip to Long Island wine country, you’ll be happy to learn that numerous resources are available.
But before going any further, let me tell you about an annual event that has just about reached its conclusion for 2013: It’s called Jazz on the Vine, and it’s part of the Long Island Winterfest. It provides a great excuse to brave the winter weather and visit “wine country” during a season you might otherwise not consider.
Over a six-weekend span, wineries and other venues on Long Island play host to live performances, providing a cool backdrop for your wine-tasting adventure. When the temperature is brisk outside, nothing beats sitting inside with a glass of wine and some smooth sounds.
Unfortunately, unless you’re at least semi-local, it’s probably too late for you to take part in the 6th annual Jazz on the Vine. The final performances of 2013 are set for March 24.
But if you do live nearby (remember, Manhattan is only two hours away)… or if you’d like to get an idea of what to expect for a trip next winter… all the information you need is here.
For general trip planning — including information on all the wineries, dining destinations, lodging, other attractions and special events — the Long Island Wine Council’s website is the place to go.
And if you’d like to explore the wine regions of New York beyond Long Island, the Uncork New York! website is packed with helpful information.
In order to get the most out of wine and all its wonders, sometimes we need to get out of our comfort zone. Yes, great wines are made in Europe and America’s West Coast states, but they do not have the market cornered in that regard.
The Long Island wine region demonstrates that, and serves up a number of pleasant surprises. If you have the opportunity, give the wines of Macari Vineyards, Roanoke Vineyards and Sparkling Pointe a try. You just may discover a new favorite.
Part 4 of a 5-Part Series
Some of the best California sparkling wines I’ve ever tasted were made during the mid-1990s at Roederer Estate, located in the bucolic Anderson Valley of Mendocino County. That makes perfect sense considering that Anderson Valley is known for its world-class Chardonnay and Pinot Noir — the two primary varietals used to craft world-class sparkling wine.
During that timeframe, the assistant winemaker at Roederer was Giles Martin, a native of France. Today, Martin makes wine for Sparkling Pointe, the lone estate in Long Island wine country — in the entire state of New York, for that matter — devoted exclusively to sparkling wine.
And what an estate it is, designed in the style of a French country manor, with walls adorned by bright, colorful paintings that proprietors Cynthia and Tom Rosicki have brought back from frequent trips to the annual Carnival celebration in Rio de Janeiro.
As this picture illustrates, the interior somehow manages to meld sophistication and fun, not always an easy undertaking. On the one hand, you have white walls, modern furniture, a high ceiling and glistening chandeliers. On the other, you have the bright colors of the Brazilian paintings. Perhaps the best word to describe the ambience is festive.
That’s not a bad word for the wines, either — particularly the “Cuvee Carnaval,” a wine that demonstrates how good a semi-sweet sparkler can be, if given half a chance… and half the sugar.
Wholesale Manager Leonardo Manno led us through a tasting of four wines, and I’d say the “Cuvee Carnaval” was the most distinctive. And there’s a reason for that beyond its sweetness.
According to Manno, the wine is made mostly from the usual suspects: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. A small amount of “Reserve” wine also is included in the blend. But none of that explains the intriguing spice note in the wine’s nose.
“That comes from the Gewurztraminer,” Manno says.
Gewurztraminer? In an otherwise “traditional” sparkling wine? Could that have had anything to do with winemaker Martin’s tenure at Roederer Estate? After all, the Anderson Valley also is a hub of traditional Alsatian varieties, including Gewurztraminer.
Unfortunately, Manno did not know, and Martin wasn’t there on the day of our visit. But if I were a betting man…
At the other end of the spectrum, in terms of both style (dry, as opposed to semi-sweet) and price ($60, as opposed to $27), is Sparkling Pointe’s “Brut Seduction.”
This 51/49 blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (no Gewurztraminer) bubbles with class and sophistication.
“All of the fruit was hand harvested to control the quality,” Manno explains. “Only free-run juice was used [the practice for all Sparkling Pointe bottlings]. The wine spent nine years on the lees.”
In other words, Sparkling Pointe pulls out all the stops when making this wine. Or as Frenchman Martin might put it, “Brut Seduction” is Sparkling Pointe’s “tete de cuvee” — the best of the best. It’s poured by the glass at New York’s Mandarin Oriental hotel, Manno says.
In the middle of that rather wide spectrum are a non-vintage Brut with a fine, persistent mousse, and a 2007 Blanc de Blancs, which pours with a frothy head. Both are well made, perfectly balanced and refreshing.
If you’re a fan of sparkling wine, Sparkling Pointe is a must stop on your Long Island wine country expedition. A few other wineries on the island dabble in bubbly; Sparkling Pointe specializes in it.
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Here are our reviews of the four Sparkling Pointe wines tasted:
Part 3 of a 5-Part Series
You might say that Richard Pisacano gets around.
Now, before you go and get on the phone with Mrs. Pisacano (Soraya), let me explain: Pisacano gets around Long Island — specifically, the North Fork. And more specifically, the vineyards of the North Fork.
When folks started planting grapevines where potatoes and other crops traditionally had been grown, they could depend on Pisacano to be there to help. In those early years of the emerging wine region, if Richard Pisacano didn’t plant the grapevines, chances are he helped maintain them.
Long story short: There isn’t anyone with more grape-growing experience on Long Island. Wolffer Estates has benefited from his experience for the past decade.
In 2004, the Pisacanos decided the time had come to make wine under their own label. That was the beginning of Roanoke Vineyards, which shares winemaker Roman Roth with Wolffer Estates.
“Considering the background of our owner, you can see why Roanoke is all about allowing the vineyard to express itself through the wines,” says Scott Sandell, the Creative Director for Roanoke Vineyards. “We’re looking for wines that are true to the variety and also true to the vintage. As long as those two criteria are in place — and the wines are in good balance — we’re happy.”
That vision is put to the test in a wine called “The Wild!” It’s a 100% Chardonnay that Sandell says “is allowed to become whatever it wants to be” via a “wild fermentation” process.
“You know how some winemakers want to manipulate every step of the process?” Sandell poses. “This is one wine that the winemaker has very little to do with. It can be kind of stressful from day to day, because one day the fruit will be really expressive, and the next day it might be kind of muted. But in the end, I think we came up with a very nice wine.”
Of course, winemaking is a business, and “The Wild!” approach would not be advisable for all of the bottlings in a winery’s portfolio. It still takes people to make good wine and then sell it, and Roanoke has an exceptional staff.
As the Creative Director, one of Sandell’s jobs is to create all of the winery’s labels, and his artistic talents definitely show through. In the picture, Sandell is joined by Robin Epperson-McCarthy (center), Roanoke’s Senior Sommelier and Director of Education, and Amanda Fortuna, the Wine Club Coordinator.
There also are people involved in some of the names of the wines produced at Roanoke. The red blend dubbed “Marco Tulio” is named after Don Marco Tulio, who is Richard Pisacano’s father-in-law. The 2010 vintage is scheduled to be released in late April, and is a four-varietal blend with Cabernet Franc comprising just over half.
Cab Franc also plays a starring role in another “named” Roanoke wine: Gabby’s. This 100% varietal bottling honors the patriarch of the Pisacano family, Gabby Pisacano — whose likeness, sunglasses and all, is artistically rendered on the label by Sandell.
But this is not a story of nepotism. Gabby actually oversees the farming of 12 rows of Cab Franc vines that are dedicated to this bottling. Whether outside doing the work himself or directing others, Gabby sees to it that each vine gets just the right amount of sunshine and (when necessary) drops just the right amount of fruit to guarantee the most expressive grapes and the most delicious wine possible.
Roanoke grows a lot more Cabernet Franc on its estate, but those 12 rows could very well be home to the best-cared-for grapevines on Earth.
We tasted the 2009 vintage, which was sold out, and found it to be very food-friendly. We also sampled the one-year-younger “regular” Cabernet Franc, which is more floral and more complex — which means that the not-yet-released 2010 Gabby’s could be a benchmark wine.
The 2009 Roanoke red blend called “Prime Number” certainly is a candidate for “benchmark” status. Tasted blind against any number of Napa Valley Meritage bottlings, it would “win” at least half the time.
Roanoke Vineyards is a testament to the oft-cited belief that all great wines begin in the vineyard. And on Long Island, few know the vines as intimately as Roanoke owner Richard Pisacano.
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Here are our reviews of the six Roanoke Vineyards wines tasted:
Part 2 of a 5-Part Series
We hear a great deal about Biodynamic winegrowing these days. Not every winery goes to the extremes that a Biodynamic approach requires, but almost all wineries now take stewardship of their land very seriously.
At Macari Vineyards — owned and operated by three generations of the Macari family on Long Island’s North Fork — Joe Macari Jr. had embraced Biodynamic farming before Biodynamic farming was cool.
Macari refers to the 200 acres of grapevines on the 500-acre estate that backs up to Long Island Sound as a “vinegarden.” A virtual Noah’s Ark of animal life contributes to the estate’s composting, and cover crops are embraced instead of sprays to help keep the vines healthy.
“It’s expensive,” Macari admits. “There are much cheaper ways to grow grapes. But I think it’s important to do it the right way. This property has been in our family for a long time, and the only way it’s going to stay in our family is if we take care of it.”
Like most vineyard plantings on Long Island, the Macari vineyard is relatively young, established in 1995. Through the years, Macari has experimented with a great many winegrape varietals, working to determine which fare best on the estate.
“You do all your homework when you’re first getting started,” Macari says. “You talk to experts, you choose specific clones for specific reasons. But until you have several harvests under your belt — a track record — there’s still a lot of experimentation and guessing.”
Merlot was an early star on Long Island, and Macari has made several very good bottlings. But he’s not about to jump on that bandwagon.
“I think it’s way too early for anyone to say that Merlot is the wine of Long Island,” he says. “I also think it’s too early for anyone to dismiss Chardonnay. Every vintage, we learn something new, and sometimes what we learn is very surprising.”
Winemaker Kelly Urbanik agrees. The University of California at Davis graduate grew up in the Napa Valley town of St. Helena, and says she enjoys the breadth of winemaking work she gets to do at Macari.
“Some people think I’m crazy for coming here,” she says with a smile. “You can’t get much farther from Napa Valley than Long Island, and still be in the United States. Even though it can be challenging some years, most of what I get to do here is really fun. [For example], we do three different kinds of Chardonnay.”
There’s the “Estate,” which spends no time in oak. There’s the “Reserve,” which mirrors the oaky style made famous in her native state/county/city. And then there’s the best of the three, at least as far as my palate is concerned — a 100% Chardonnay called “Early Wine.”
The grapes used to make the Macari “Early Wine” are picked earlier than others during the harvest season, so the flavors tend to mirror those found in a Blanc de Blanc (grapes for sparkling wines also are picked early in the season).
The wine is bottled and released mere weeks after being made, so in that sense, it also fills the role of a “Nouveau” wine — the first release of any given vintage. Also like a “Nouveau,” it’s bright, refreshing and all about the fruit.
Urbanik had the best word for it: “fun.”
That’s also an apt description of my favorite wine among Macari’s current releases: the 2010 Rosé. To understand this wine, you need to forget virtually everything you know about rosé-style wines.
First of all, it is not sweet. That’s true of France’s great Rhone rosés as well, but in many wine regions, a rosé is presumed to be sweet.
Secondly, the Macari Rosé is not light-bodied. This is a big rosé, both in mouthfeel and its alcohol level — 13.8%, higher than many red table wines.
Finally, the varietals used to make the wine are unusual. It’s basically a traditional Bordeaux-style blend — a melding of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec — but made in a very different style. And in this case, different is good. Very good.
We reviewed a baker’s dozen of Macari Vineyards wines, and not one scored lower than 86 — amazing across-the-board quality, especially considering the far-from-reliable Long Island weather.
Is it the Biodynamic farming? Is it Joe Macari’s willingness to experiment? Is it Kelly Urbanik’s UC-Davis training?
We can only surmise that the answers are yes… yes… and yes.
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Here are our reviews of the 13 Macari Vineyards wines tasted:
The 1980s saw a boom in the California wine industry, especially in the North Coast regions of the Napa and Sonoma Valleys. A few hundred family-owned wineries and vineyards there had trebled to a thousand, and there appeared to be no end in sight. The land rush for vineyard properties was not unlike the state’s Gold Rush of the 1850s, or Alaska’s Gold Rush at the turn of the 20th century.
Sadly, things change. People’s thirst for higher-end wine often mirrors the ebb and flow of a nation’s economy. During the good times of the mid-’80s, mid-’90s, and mid-2000s, the prices for fine wines skyrocketed. At the end of each decade, economic downturns caused inventories of wine to languish in warehouses, and prices to plummet. Since the most recent economic downturn that began in 2007, many well-known winery institutions in Napa and Sonoma have either gone belly-up or sold, pennies on the dollar, to large winery consortiums.
The wine world is not for the faint-hearted. Fortunes can be won or (more likely) lost as those bitten by the Wine Muse heed her call.
For Betsy and David Lawer, diverse backgrounds — he is a lawyer and weekend chef, she is a financial tour de force who manages the largest state-based bank in Alaska — led them to inevitably take the plunge and buy vineyard acreage in Knights Valley, straddling the Napa and Sonoma County line just northwest of Calistoga. For years, Napa Valley had been a vacation destination for them, and they decided to develop a property that could serve as a gathering place for family and friends.
With hallowed neighbors like Peter Michael and the Beringer empire, there was no doubt that the land purchased could produce world-class wines. Establishing a winery in 2002, the first few vintages were mostly for personal consumption and the enjoyment of those close to them. The Lawers loved the laid-back, genteel feel of the North Coast wine country, and began spending considerable time there when not in Alaska, their home state.
Rather than produce over-extracted, cult-style wines that are the darlings of the wine press, the sensibility born from three generations of living in Alaska drove them to seek a style that was balanced and food-friendly.
They hired John Pina as their vineyard manager. With 44 years of experience in Napa and Sonoma vineyards, he knew the land and the types of grapes that would thrive there. Today, the acreage owned by the Lawer family is planted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Zinfandel, Chardonnay and Viognier.
In 2006, they brought on board Larry Levin to make the wine. When Levin took the helm at Dry Creek Vineyard at age 22, he was the youngest winemaker in the United States. Since then, he has worked with a number of wineries and industry icons around the world. His wines have graced the cover of Wine Spectator and have been regularly featured in the magazine’s annual “Top 100 Wines” list.
Now pushing a production of 3,000 cases annually, and with expectations of moderate growth in the near-future, the Lawers are going commercial. They currently have three label designations: Three Coins, Duck Shack and Hooker. Each celebrates a milestone in their history.
Three Coins is a tip of the hat to Betsy Lawer’s father, who worked as a gold prospector in the foothills of Alaska’s Mt. McKinley. To ensure that he didn’t have too much water pressure while sluicing payload from the hillside, he would toss three coins onto the area to be worked that day. If the coins didn’t show up in the bottom of the sluice box, it meant that the pressure had been too great, and the coins, along with gold, had been washed into the tailing pile.
Coming from avid outdoors-people stock, Betsy recalled the many nights she and her three sisters spent at the family duck shack. The men were there to hunt, but there also were the magical nights, looking up at the star-filled sky and occasionally glimpsing the Aurora Borealis. The Duck Shack label is a nod to this childhood memory.
The third label, Hooker, stems from the family history of playing rugby. Betsy’s father had been a rugby player during his days attending Stanford University, where he played the position of Hooker. When Betsy was a student at Duke, she was smitten by a young man with curly blond hair and steely blue eyes who was a standout Hooker on the Duke rugby team. Despite Dad’s protestations that she shouldn’t date hooligans from the rugby team, Betsy and David married, and the union has lasted some 40 years (and counting).
All in all, the Lawer Family Winery is a reflection of the principal owners. The wines are made in a ready-to-drink style, with enough acidity and balance to be food friendly, yet structured for years of graceful aging.
Check out our reviews of the latest Lawer wines here.
There are plans on the drawing board to build a tasting room for the public, and the three houses on the property are available for rent for visitors coming to the North Coast wine country. Additional information about the winery, favorite recipes, and ways to order wine can be found on the Lawer website.
When putting together the list of Wine Lines Online’s Top 10 Wines of 2012, we considered the scores awarded to wines during our review process throughout the year. But that was just the beginning of the process.
Any such list is highly subjective, of course, and so it is with this one. Beyond the scores, we were looking for wines that “spoke to us” when we sampled them. Was there something unique or unusual about them? Did they come from a surprising source? Did they represent good value?
We shied away from the “cult wines” that are virtually impossible to obtain, and instead selected bottlings that have been widely available in the marketplace. Be aware that some may have moved on to a more recent vintage, so be sure to note the year shown in our reviews when putting together your shopping list.
Paring a list of hundreds of reviews down to a mere 10 was a daunting task, but ultimately we were able to do it. And over a two-week period, we’ll share our list with you, countdown-style.
Are you all set for New Year’s Eve?
Frozen appetizers ready to thaw and heat up… check.
Plenty of silver and/or plastic ware… check.
Tunes selected for the party’s “soundtrack”… check.
Lots of Champagne… oh-oh!
Not to worry. Your friends at Wine Lines have been sampling many of the sparkling wines — Champagne and otherwise — that you’re likely to find on your local supermarket shelf or fine wine shop, and have been posting our notes in the “Sparkling” section of the Reviews area.
If you still need to stock up on bubbly for the big bash, this section doubles as a great shopping guide.