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Lodi home to California’s best wine value

Collier Creek 2016 Front Coach Chardonnay is, by all accounts, a first class
ticket for the price of coach. With a retail price of $9.99, you might assume that massive amounts of this wine are being produced but winemaker Susana Rodriguez Vasquez made just 5,000 cases.

This stand-alone brand resides under the umbrella of Lodi’s Peltier Winery and Vineyards which has a solid track record of over delivering in quality for value and this year’s Best Value Wine is no exception. According to Rodriguez Vasquez, Front Coach Chardonnay is deeply lemon-hued and very aromatic with pear, peach and pineapple aromas that indicate a riper style. She describes the wine as full-bodied with bright fruit flavors, a round mouthfeel and a crisp green apple and citrus finish. “This is a refreshing, fruit forward style that’s stainless steel fermented and because it hasn’t undergone malolactic fermentation it doesn’t have any buttery flavors,” she said.

In crafting Front Coach Chardonnay, Rodriguez Vasquez relies entirely on fruit quality and purity because she’s not using oak or manipulating the wine to mask or enhance flavors. She sources Chardonnay from the winery’s Lewis Ranch, an Elk Grove estate that lies in the northern-most part of Lodi’s Alta Mesa sub AVA. The site benefits from cooling delta winds that blow from the nearby Sacramento River creating what is deemed a perfect micro climate for growing wine.

Vineyard manager and proprietor, Rodney Schatz farms the estate according to the Lodi Rules for sustainable wine growing, a certification program that relies on no less than 120 standards and is being adopted by wine growing regions around the world. Rodriguez Vasquez believes the quality of the Collier Creek wines is “a clear reflection of a healthy vineyard and these agriculture practices.” While there’s no question that meticulous farming costs more, Peltier Winery is able to machine harvest the vineyard which helps keep costs down for consumers.

Working with such high quality fruit also means less intervention in the winery for Rodriguez Vasquez. Collier Creek Wine Co. was introduced in 2016 to honor the Lodi Appellation by third generation wine growers Rodney and Gayla Schatz. The brand includes five varietals: Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir and Merlot. The Schatz family farms over 1200 acres in Lodi and they made the leap from grower to vintner when they bottled their first wines in 2005.


Winemaker Susana Rodriguez Vasquez

Bolivian-born Rodriguez Vasquez spent the previous ten years working with E & J Gallo and Constellation Brands working with fruit from all over California and New Zealand before joining the Peltier team as winemaker in 2016. She’s approaching her third harvest with the winery and couldn’t be happier with the reception the value brand is receiving, “We are very excited with the Collier Creek product line, and we are happy to see it grow so rapidly.” Collier Creek Front Coach Chardonnay is available at retailers across the United States.


Picchetti Winery scores big with 2017 Sauvignon Blanc

At first glance, this ethereal Sauvignon Blanc which is described by Mike Bruzus, associate winemaker at Picchetti Winery, as “almost color less, the palest straw” could be mistaken for water. But from the moment your nose comes within a few inches of the glass, there’s a rush of aromas, a jumble of fragrance that includes pink grapefruit, pineapple, gooseberry, honeydew melon, guava, lychee and mineral notes of wet rocks and saline. A precursor of what’s to come when you taste it and a certain indicator that this isn’t a “simple” wine.

picchetti ranch engagement session

Mike Bruzus, Picchetti winery

Consulting Winemaker, Craig Roemer sources the Picchetti Sauvignon Blanc from the Cedar Lane Vineyard in the Arroyo Secco AVA. He attributes the complexity and intensity of this wine to a combination of the perfect match between clone and the unique growing conditions there and to attentive winemaking.

The Cedar Lane vineyard began life in the 1980s as a rootstock nursery that was eventually grafted over to Sauvignon Musque, Pinot Noir and Syrah in 2000 when grower and winemaker Mark Chesebro and his partners took it in hand.

According to Chesebro, he and other growers have preserved the Sauvignon Musque clone in Arroyo Secco because, as evidenced by the Picchetti bottling, “it delivers more complex and exciting flavors at a lower brix level than other Sauvignon Blanc clones which are very vegetal until they are over ripe.” Reason enough to persevere with a clone deemed “virused” and unceremoniously removed from the Foundation Plant Services registry.

Flavors of the Best of Show White mirror its aromas but are dialed up, amplified and racy. The wine is instantly mouth coating with layers of acidity from key lime, gooseberry, tart pineapple, candied Meyer lemon, white peach, honeydew and a persistent, citrus-driven finish.

Having stellar raw materials to work with is certainly an advantage but a wine of this caliber can’t exist without the intention of the winemaker. In a serendipitous twist of fate, Bruzus who mowed the lawn and helped in the tasting room at Picchetti while he was in high school returned there as associate winemaker in 2015. A graduate of Cal Poly, San Louis Obispo, he was previously an assistant winemaker at Chamisal Vineyards and for Tooth & Nail Winery making wine from the  Murmur Vineyard in Santa Maria and vineyards in Paso Robles.

At Picchetti, The Pantling Family’s primary focus is organically-farmed Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and “Picchetti clone” head trained, dry farmed Zinfandel from vines planted in 1896 by the original Picchetti family on Montebello Road. “We specialize in diversity,” said Bruzus who sources a wide range of varieties from small vineyards in Arroyo Seco, Carneros, Paso Robles, Clements Hills, and Santa Clara Valley. “When our club members come to pick up their wine shipments on a quarterly basis, the wine list is almost completely different from the last time they visited.”

The winery makes 8,000 cases of wine a year and sells only from the website and tasting room which is housed in a historic cave and masonry barn nestled in the foothills of the Santa Cruz.

Iberian varieties victorious for Lodi’s St. Amant Winery

If you enjoy port, the rich, fortified wine of Portugal’s Douro Valley, you’re already a fan of Touriga. Touriga Nacional as it is known in Portugal is one of the five classic grape varieties that are blended to make Port wines. The Touriga variety that won this year’s Best of Show Red at the California State Fair made its way from Portugal to UC Davis where it was selected by St. Amant Winery’s late Tim Spencer and planted at an estate vineyard in Amador County in 1980.

Spencer who was an early adopter of Iberian varieties replanted the original vineyard, a flat site that sits at 200 feet in altitude, to the same Touriga clone in 1994. “Touriga has continued to perform exceptionally well on the heavier alluvial clay soils here which add more concentration and higher levels of tannins to the wines,” said Stuart Spencer who became winemaker at the Lodi winery in 2006.


Barbara St. Amant Spencer and Stuart Spencer

This late ripening, small-berried variety benefits from the cool air that spills off of the nearby Sierras; a key factor that helps the grapes retain acidity and lends freshness to the wines. St. Amant’s Touriga is a richly textured wine with distinct violet aromas and a spicy red fruit character. “We originally vinified it in the Port style and used the grape in dry wine blends,” said Spencer. Today’s version of The Old Soldier ($21 SRP) is a monovarietal Touriga that was destemmed in small lots and aged in neutral oak barrels.

“Touriga is expressive and the wine style in any given year is always going to be dictated by what the vintage gives us. 2016 was a darker vintage with amplified flavors and 15 % abv.” When asked about the name of the wine, Spencer replied, “We have an old dump truck on the property that we fondly called the ‘Old Soldier’ and we felt it was a good name for a wine from an old vineyard site. Both are a testament to our 40-year history of working the land.”

The future for Touriga looks bright as more California vintners are sourcing the grapes and St. Amant has grafted over additional acres to meet that demand. Spencer also sees Touriga as a natural rosé blending grape which means it’s very likely he has a Touriga rosé in the works. The winery produces several Iberian varieties including Tempranillo aka Tinta Roriz, another key port variety, and Verdelho, a crisp lemony white wine in addition to award winning Zinfandel, Barbera and Petite Syrah.

This is the second Best of Show Red award for St. Amant Winery which celebrates its 40th anniversary of winegrowing and winemaking next year. In 2016 Spencer won with an Amador County 2014 “The Road Less Traveled” Tempranillo ($18). “Our business continues to grow as consumers discover Lodi as a destination for enotourism and superb wine quality,” he said. In addition to his role as St. Amant winemaker and vintner, Spencer is the Executive Director of the Lodi Winegrape Commission, an organization that represents more than 750 winegrape growers and 85 wineries in the Lodi American Viticulture Area (AVA).

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