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Imagery repeats as CA State Fair California Winery of the Year

In a repeat performance, Imagery Estate Winery founded by Joe Benziger in 1985 has been honored for the second year running by the California State Fair as the 2018 Golden State Winery of the Year. Benziger, who was at the helm for the 2017 award, has now retired but serves as guide and mentor for his second daughter Jamie Benziger, 31, who stepped up as winemaker in 2018.

With wines appellated from Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Peak, Sonoma Valley, Sonoma County, North Coast, Paso Robles and California, Imagery had 22 award-winning wines represented in the 2018 competition. “2018 represents a milestone in many ways,” said Jamie Benziger. “It was an incredible honor to be acknowledged as Winery of the Year in 2017 and to receive the award again in my first year as winemaker is truly humbling.”


Jamie Benziger

2018 is also the first year Imagery’s California tier wines ($18 – $20) have been entered in to the competition. This California-appellated portfolio has been in development for the last few years as a collaboration between the father-daughter winemaking team. “The wines are designed to bridge the generational gap between Boomers and Millennials,” said Jamie Benziger. Developed as blends, eachof the four wines have a dominant variety but with a twist.

The Sauvignon Blanc is “enhanced” with 20 percent dry Muscat, Chardonnay gets a whisper of Chenin Blanc, Pinot Noir sees just 10 percent of Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon finds a comfortable blending partner in Petite Sirah. While all of the wines were awarded, both the 2016 Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc received Best of Class of Appellation awards with the latter also scoring Best of Region – White.

No easy feat given the number of entries in those categories and the range of styles competing for the honors. “For the last 33 years Imagery has been a 15,000-case direct to consumer-winery. The introduction of our California tier which is being distributed nationally is reaching a much wider audience,” said Jamie Benziger who anticipates that national visibility will draw more wine enthusiasts to the bucolic Glen Ellen winery.

Both the winery and the wines escaped damage from the wild fires that burned right up to the tasting room door during the final stages of harvest in 2017. “It’s important for people to know that our winery and Sonoma Valley are just as beautiful as ever and that we’re eager to share this with them.”

Like her father, Jamie Benziger is a hands on winemaker. Her interest in the craft quickened after she spent a harvest working in the lab at Benziger and in the cellar at Villa Maria in New Zealand. After graduating from Sonoma State University in 2009, Benziger turned her attention to the production end of the business.

“There came a point when I realized that winemaking held the inspiration for a lifelong career.” Working side by side with her father for the last few years while completing a winemaking certificate program at UC Davis, Jamie began paying close attention to what makes him tick as a winemaker. It’s something she likens to the intuitive school of winemaking, “it’s a happy balance between formal education and learning on the job.”

Paraiso Vineyard: The backbone of the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA

Spanish missionaries at Mission Soledad first planted vineyards in the region now known as the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA in the late 18th century. But winegrowing on the windswept terraces of the Santa Lucia mountain range began in earnest in 1973 when Rich and Claudia Smith established the Paraiso Vineyard. Parasio is the tenth iconic vineyard to be acknowledged by the California State Fair as Vineyard of the Year.

The Smiths were among a handful of pioneering winegrowers in the region and their early successes enabled them to plant Paraiso to Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Riesling. These original varieties selected by Rich Smith have now become hallmarks for one of the coolest climate AVAs in the state.

For the next sixteen years the Smiths focused on growing grapes but in 1989 they became vintners and bottled their first Pinot Noir and Chardonnay under the Paraiso Springs label. Referred to as the “home ranch,” Paraiso is home base for the company’s offices, shop, winery and tasting room from which they manage 3200 acres of wine grapes in Monterey County. With 800 acres under vine in the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, they are the largest grower in that region.

Rich Smith has been an outspoken advocate for Monterey County viticulture and in 1991 he, Nikki Hahn and Phil Johnson led the effort that succeeded in establishing the Santa Lucia Highlands as an American Viticultural Area. His leadership efforts didn’t stop there; Smith held the office of President of the local Farm Bureau and the California Association of Wine Growers and was a founding member of many industry organizations.

Today, second-generation winegrower Jason Smith, President and CEO of Smith Family Wines, runs a fully-vertically integrated business that was founded on the Parasio Vineyard. “We’re growing fifteen different clones on our 350-acre home ranch estate vineyard: seven Pinot Noirs, five Chardonnays and three Syrahs,” said Smith. “As the demand for Santa Lucia Highlands fruit has grown, we’ve been the backbone of programs that make it possible for wineries to have SLH-appellated wines in their portfolios.”

The iconic Paraiso vineyard has been farmed for decades using the Sustainability in Practice program known as SIP. Rich Smith was early adopter of this rigorous vineyard and winery certification program and the Smith Family vineyards were among the first to be SIP Certified in Monterey County. Jason has continued those efforts and from 2013 the ranch has been solar powered expanding the company’s commitment to green practices.

Looking forward, Jason is focused on furthering wine quality for the Smith Family labels. “We’re working to identify cru-quality sites on the estate and vinifying different lots with a focus on single clones in a concerted effort to find the best of the best.” The future looks bright for the iconic Paraiso as Jason and the Smith family builds on his father’s legacy and advances the family’s stewardship of the vineyard.

Shaw Organic: Is This the Next Miracle from Bronco Wine & Trader Joe’s?

The Wine Economist Mike Veseth on Fred Franzia’s latest Trader Joe’s brand Shaw Organic: Is This the Next Miracle from Bronco Wine & Trader Joe’s?

Reaching a Tipping Point

In 2013,  a hemp strain known as Charlotte’s Web drew national attention to the therapeutic benefits of cannabidiol (CBD), especially for children suffering from health issues that make them prone to seizures. Developed by six siblings known as “the Stanley Brothers”—the founders of Colorado-based CW Hemp—Charlotte’s Web represents one of hundreds of commercial CBD products now sold throughout the U.S. that contain THC levels of less than 0.3 percent.

The efficacy of Charlotte’s Web and similar hemp strains paved the way for Epidiolex, a hemp-derived CBD solution approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) June 25. Developed by London-based GW Pharmaceuticals to treat patients as young as 2 who suffer seizures caused by two rare epileptic syndromes, Epidiolex is referred to by the federal government as “Cannabidiol Oral Solution” (CBD-OS) and could be legally available as soon as this fall.

Historically, hemp has played an important role as a utilitarian plant; widely deemed a “superfood” today, it’s also consumed as a nutritional supplement. Once the regulatory floodgates are opened, consumer adoption of hemp-derived CBD as a plant-based medicine seems like an obvious and natural next step.

The FDA’s approval of Epidiolex, as well as the recent introduction of the Hemp Farming Act of 2018 in Congress, will help pave the way for the legal sale and distribution of CBD across the United States. This would be viewed as a boon for the entire cannabis category, as it establishes a precedent for the medicinal value of cannabis and should further the acceptance of CBD as a safe and therapeutic treatment option.

Read the article here CBD Reaching a Tipping Point

Residual light and the color gradation of rose

While the level of residual sugar plays a role in the finished style of a wine, the color of all wines—and the color of everything we see, for that matter—is determined by residual light. Any systematic analysis of wine begins with a careful observation of color and what we see is the result of light waves being reflected by compounds in the liquid.

The plant pigments associated with flower and fruit coloration are known as flavonoids, with the most commonly known being the anthocyanins—derived from the Greek words for flower and blue, anthos and kyanos. These water-soluble pigments found in leaves, stems, roots, flowers, and fruits show us red, purple, or blue hues depending on their pH levels.

Read the article here Residual Light June-July 2018s

Third Year’s a Charm for Willamette: The Pinot Noir Auction

Seventy eight lots of barrel-selected 2016 Pinot Noir and three collaborative lots of Chardonnay were auctioned by the Willamette Valley Wineries Association on Saturday, April 7 at the Allison Inn & Spa in Newberg, Oregon. The event which is now in its third year raked in a total of $800,000, an amount that bested the 2017 take by more than half and exceeded expectations for both average lot ($9,099) and bottle price ($124).

The exceptional quality and range of style of the 2016 vintage was showcased at preliminary tastings held April 6th at Domaine Drouhin Oregon and Stoller Family Estate and the auction lot wines were poured for final consideration during the few hours preceding the live auction. 2018 auction chair Laurent Montalieu, owner and winemaker for Soléna Estate and Hyland Estates, said “We expect 2016 to go down in history as a benchmark year for Oregon.”

Returning auctioneer Fritz Hatton met little resistance from an enthusiastic crowd of national and international bidders almost half of whom were first-timers at the event. Antica Terra winemaker Maggie Harrison’s five-case lot from the Antica Terra Vineyard which she explained during the tasting was “topped up with rocks” to prevent sullying the barrel took top dollar with a bid of $33,000. The wine which is well on its way to becoming a unicorn bottling will only be available to consumers through retailer Unwined located in Alexandria, Virginia.


Rounding out the top five Pinot Noir lots were the Zena Crown Vineyard “Barrel and Foot” Pinot noir: $24,000; Alexana Estate Winery “By A Landslide” Pinot noir: $20,000; Bethel Heights “Vesper Bell” Pinot noir: $19,000; and 10 cases of Hyland Estates “The Perfect Pair” Pinot noir: $20,000. A five-case lot of “Nautical Dawn,” a collaborative Chardonnay produced by Bethel Heights and Walter Scott Wines, was the top-selling white at $12,000.

The Willamette Valley is home to rare vineyards of own-rooted, older Pinot Noir vines planted to a cross section of volcanic Basalt, Jory terra rossa and loess sedimentary soils. In addition to well-known Dijon and Pommard clones, the Swiss Wadenswil clone with its amplified tannin structure plays a role in many trifecta blends.

A survey of winemakers revealed they predominately rely on traditional Burgundian techniques preferring punch downs or pigéage to pump overs and the use of varying percentages of whole clusters in the tank. The 2016 vintage showed a wide range of styles with leaner, savory Dijon-dominate wines expressing more red fruit while black-fruited, robust Pommards with vanilla, graphite and dark spice were at the other end of the spectrum.

Auction proceeds are slated to fund marketing and education initiatives for the Willamette Valley Wineries Association which represents almost 250 members from Portland to Eugene. The 2019 Willamette: The Pinot Auction will be held April 6 and is open to licensed wine sellers.

Climate change a double-edged sword for Amarone producers

This year the Consorzio Tutela Vini Valpolicella marks its 50th anniversary, a milestone that coincides with the release of the challenged 2014 Amarone della Valpolicella vintage one that allowed the top performing wines presented during the anteprima tastings to stand apart.

Due to wet conditions that delayed ripening and diluted fruit concentration, the consorzio wisely moved to reduce the 2014 production of Amarone by approximately half.  As a result, there were 50 percent fewer wines presented at the anteprima in January when 43 wines were poured at the blind tasting in comparison to 83 in 2017. My list of the wines that scored 89 points or greater can be found below.

While vintage conditions in Valpolicella have become increasingly variable, according to University of Verona Professor Maurizio Ugliano climate change is actually working to hasten the drying process that is so critical to the production of Amarone.

Regulations stipulate that producers are allowed to cool the air in the fruttai or drying rooms using fans but they cannot artificially heat it.  As such, warmer conditions during the several months of drying work to reduce pressure from muffa nobile or Noble Rot but Ugliano cautions, “Wines subject to hot, fast drying will be boring.” Winemakers are largely responding to challenging vintage conditions by adjusting their practices in the cellar the most notable being the move away from the use of native yeasts.

Yeast choices for Amarone fermentation

During an interview with winemaker Daniele Accordini who oversees the production at Cantina Negrar, a cooperative of 230 winegrowers in the Valpolicella Classico region, and his own label, Accordini detailed his preferences and rationale for yeast choices and winemaking practices.

For 80 percent of his wines, Accordini prefers the yeast strain “Uvarum” sold by Lamothe-Abiet which combines two species of Saccharomyces: S. cerevisiae and S. Uvarum. The properties of S. uvarum such as cryotolérance, low production of acetic acid, high production of glycerol, strong release of esters (phenyl-2-ethanol) and thiol allow for the development of aromatic, complex and round wines.

Accordini also uses ‘Premium Zinfandel” a which is a 100 percent Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast well suited to high alcohol fermentations sold by Vason, a Verona-based company owned by the family of re known Valpolicella producer Valentina Cubi.


Daniele Accordini discussing a 2008 Cantina Negrar Amarone poured as part of a retrospective tasting that began with a 1950 Bolla, the region’s first commerical Amarone.

The hybrid yeast strain Uvarum is well suited to high alcohol fermentations and early co-inoculations. According to Accordini, fermentation starts slowly at 5 – 6 ° and goes quickly to 16 – 17 ° with volatile acidity between 45 – 47 mg/l producing more glycerol while holding volatile acidity in check. However, he points to lower aroma profiles in his wines which he considers an acceptable compromise given the alternatives.

Accordini switched to Uvarum in the mid-1990s after climate change made the use of native yeast significantly more challenging at Cantina Negrar’s scale of production. However, he still makes a point to taste wines that are made using native yeasts and sees that they show more complex aromas, often have higher levels of volatile aroma compounds and can take several months to complete fermentation.

Beyond higher levels of volatile acidity in the finished wines, this extended period of fermentation can result in far greater potential for stuck fermentations and the problems that ensue when vinifying wines from musts with high levels of sugar.

According to Professor Ugliano, excessively high alcohol in Amarone is largely a factor of manipulating airflow during drying. Theoretically, average alcohols are over 16% when drying is speeded up due to increasing air movement in the fruttai (drying rooms) with fans. This practice concentrates sugar levels in the grapes too quickly and creates potential alcohols of 16 – 17% making it quite easy for the finished wines to reach 18% due to high osmotic pressure.

Historically, potential alcohols were 13 – 14% when a long, slow drying process takes place using only natural air. This protracted period of drying (100 days+) results in greater gene activity and significantly higher amounts of stilbenes in withered Corvina grapes.

Another practice Accordini is trialing is simultaneous malolactic (ML) respiration with the primary fermentation. He co-inoculates early, on the third day of fermentation, and the bacteria eventually succumbs to higher alcohols. Opponents of simultaneous ML in dry wine styles point to finished wines that are less complex and more commercial in style and the practice is generally avoided by winemakers seeking to make wines that transparently express terroir. As Amarone producers seek to express the complexity of the Corvina grape in relation to its terroir, we can’t assume that the practice undermines their perception of wine quality.

Regarding the 2014s, it struck me that many of the wines seemed to be relying on higher percentages of new oak in an effort to amplify depth of fruit flavors and concentration. There also seemed to be a general divide between the wines that were showing well i.e. demonstrating varietal fruit character and balance on the day of the tasting and those that could fare better on another day. Many wines fell right on the cusp, hovering around 89, and I’d certainly revisit them before excluding them from the top picks.

2014 Amarone della Valpolicella producers who scored 90 points or greater in the blind tasting:

Accordini, Stefano – 94

Antiche Terre Venete – 90

Bennati – 94

Ca’Rugate – 93

Campagnola, Guiseppe – 90

Cantine de Soave – 91

Cesari – 91

Collis-Riondo Castelforte – 94

Collis-Riondo Calesan – 91

Corte Archi – 90

Le Bignele – 90

Le Guaite Noemi – 91

Massimago – 89

Monteci – 89

Pasqua Vigneti e Cantine – 90

San Cassiano – 94

Santa Sofia – 89

Secondo Marco – 90

Vignetti di Ettore – 89

Villa Canestrari – 93

Villa San Carlo – 89

Villa Spinosa – 89

Zonin – 91


The pursuit of luxury

Considering the benefits of spending more on wine.

Luxury wine brands rank among a handful of product categories that are an outright contradiction of the law of demand. Known as Veblen goods after the American economist Thorstein Veblen, luxury products like wine, cars, jewelry, and artwork occupy a rarified status among consumers who are inclined to buy more as the price increases.

While conspicuous consumption stands in direct opposition to the pursuit of quality for value that drives many a savvy wine buyer, neuroscientists have reported that when we buy luxury goods, we experience emotions of trust, security, contentment, and confidence over the duration of ownership. Apparently there’s more to the experience of drinking a bottle of ultra-premium Champagne, even if its lifespan lasts just a few hours during dinner.

Authenticity and timelessness are considered the hallmarks of established luxury brands, but it’s possible for newly-minted brands to achieve a similar status when their underlying concept demonstrates those principles. Champagne is unquestionably a luxury product, and many brands and wines of the highest quality occupy the rarified space of a Veblen good. To further explore the taste of luxury, I sat down with Gilles de Larouzière, President and the eighth-generation head of the Reims-based Champagne house Maisons & Domaines Henriot.


Gilles de Larouzière, President and the eighth-generation head of the Reims-based Champagne house Maisons & Domaines Henriot.

The company produces the Cuve 38 La Réserve Perpétuelle NV, a 100% Chardonnay Côte de Blancs Grand Cru which spends five years on the lees and retails for $599 per magnum bottle. Henriot releases 1,000 bottles of wine annually, with the 2012 vintage (drawn from a solera blend of 1990 – 2010)  scheduled for release this year. As a brand, Henriot achieved its opulent status when it was declared the court Champagne of Franz Joseph I, emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Royal appointments may now be a thing of the past, but the traditional method of production— although modernized by the introduction of the wire cage, stainless steel tanks, and the gryopalate—is itself authentic and timeless.


Cuve 38 La Réserve Perpétuelle NV, a 100% Chardonnay
Côte de Blancs Grand Cru which
spends five years on the lees and retails for
$599 per magnum bottle.

“We employ the best techniques related to our vision of the wine,” said de Larouzière, who oversees the production of five different wines and 1.5 million bottles annually. “But it’s not our goal to increase volume or accelerate our time to market.” In an effort to quantify the value add of a wine like Cuve 38, I asked de Larouzière about the eight governing principles of luxury. “At a time when unsold wine was being poured into the Marne, my great-grandfather’s patrimonial vision of the business prevailed,” he responded.

Like many family-owned companies, the focused, engaging vision of its creator has been key to the longevity of the Henriot brand. Origin, obsession with perfection, rarity, and exclusivity meld with an attention to detail and appearance firmly reassuring the purchaser that the wine’s price confirms its worth. “The identity of the place [Champagne] can be found in the bottle,” he said.

According to Landor’s Nick Foley, president, SE Asia Pacific and Japan, the eight principles of luxury are:

1 – Vision which sets the tone.

2 – Rarity and mystery heighten appeal.

3 – Obsession generates excellence.

4 – Origins serve as a touchstone.

5 – Emotional intelligence anticipates needs.

6 – Exclusivity ups the ante.

7 – Appearance coveys status.

8 – Expense is reassuring.

Aszú revolution: Modern styles redefine Hungary’s historic elixir

From grapes desiccated by noble rot in the Tokaj wine region of Hungary burst forth a plethora of traditional and modern wine styles. Rarest among them is the world’s sweetest and most complex grape elixir, Eszencia: a honey-like nectar once reserved for royalty that’s been coveted for centuries. The long history of wine made from aszú fruit (originally meaning “dried grapes,” the term has evolved to include grapes with high sugar levels affected with noble rot, or Botrytis cinerea) in Hungary dates to the mid-16th century.

By the year 1737, a three-tier classification system of the Tokaji vineyards was in place—notably predating the sweet wine classification of Port by several decades and Sauternes by more than a century. Sweet and aszú Tokaji wine styles rely on clean fruit, botrysized bunches, or individual aszú berries. The latter are picked in multiple passes through the vineyard and then worked into to a paste or dough; varying amounts of this material are then macerated in fermenting must or wine.

The two main grape varieties allowed are Furmint and Hárslevelu” , but Sárgamuskotály (Muscat Blanc à Petite Grains), Zéta (Oremus), Kabar, and Kövérszo” lo” are also permitted and used in small amounts. Both sweet and aszú wines are aged in Hungarian oak casks or barrels that can vary in size; two of the most common, Gönci and Szerednyei barrels, hold roughly 136 and 220 liters, respectively.

Finished wine styles are determined using a combined measure of minimum residual sugar and dry extract, which refers to the dissolved solids in the wines that have been elevated due to concentration imparted by noble rot. Traditionally, the wines of Tokaj have been made with oxygen freely available during fermentation, which occurs over a period of many years in some aszú styles. This practice helps stabilize the wine without contributing oxidative flavors and defines these traditional skin-contact sweet styles.

Read the entire article here – AszuRevolution22018

Amorim's Dr. Paulo Lopes.

The Myth Buster: Dr. Paulo Lopes dispels long-held beliefs about cork

When it comes to wine storage, old habits are hard to break. But Dr. Paulo Lopes, Research and Development Manager at Amorim Cork, advises that if temperature
and humidity are maintained at the correct levels, wine can be stored upright
with no ill effects.

In fact, sparkling wine should always be stored upright: a little-known fact that seems lost on many wine experts. During the course of his groundbreaking research, Lopes has seen no difference in the amount of oxygen found in wines that have been stored horizontally or vertically.

Using science to debunk the myths that persist within wine culture is liberating largely
because the facts can be even more compelling than the misleading maxims. In his recent presentation at the San Francisco Wine School on the reductive and oxidative nature of wine, Lopes made it abundantly clear that, after bottling, the main source of oxygen in wine comes from the cork itself.

Atmospheric oxygen doesn’t make its way through the cork (neither does mold, for that matter); rather, the air trapped in cork’s lenticels, or pores, diffuses into the wine over a period of roughly three years. Wines bottled under cork are impressionable in their youth (they’re a bit like humans in this way). How a wine ages over an extended period depends largely on the amount of oxygen released by the cork during the wine’s first few years in the cellar.

Not surprisingly, different grades of cork contain different amounts of oxygen: A longer, higher-quality Grade A cork with fewer lenticels will release less. “Longer corks are
much more homogeneous in oxygen release,” said Lopes. “Also, due to the [sloping]
shape of the bottle neck, the cork is less compressed and thus releases less oxygen.”

Read the full article here – Lopes22018