Mark Aselstine
 
March 24, 2014 | Mark Aselstine

R2 Wine Company

When Matt and I started Uncorked Ventures, our first tasting appointment was with Alpha Omega in Napa Valley.  The first time we ventured to Sonoma, we had a 10am appointment (yes, we’re *professionals* so we taste that early) at Copain and despite Matt losing a shirt to a coffee stain at the front gate, Copain became one of our favorite wineries to work with.

That was a few years ago and while we continue to be fans of Wells Gunthrie and Copain, I recently ran into a new wine project called R2 Wine Company.  Drew Huffine was part of the winemaking team at Copain when we were there at the beginning of Uncorked Ventures (which coincided with their shift into lower alcohol wines) and now Huffine is the winemaker in charge of R2. R2 Wine Company is owned by Roger & Richard Roessler, originally known for founding and then selling their namesake brand, Roessler Cellars which had Wells Guthrie from Copain as winemaker. While the Roessler story is certainly important, it’s a bit of an off shoot from my experience with R2 Wine Company and a story for another day.

I had the chance to meet Drew Huffine, the winemaker at R2 Wine Company at Bratavelle (Berkeley, California) on the morning of Valentine’s Day along with John Rojas from Titan Wines.  I love where I live, partially because my family enjoys the city of San Francisco, but also because I’m only a half hour or so outside of Napa and Sonoma.  It’s rare though that I meet a winemaker who lives nearby and Drew lives only a few miles down the road.  He’s also a Santa Barbara guy as well, which I appreciate.

R2 is an interesting winery in concept, theory and most importantly, execution.  Production on an overall basis doesn’t seem incredibly small, but in reality half the total production of the winery is a single wine, Black Pine.  I’ll have some comments about this wine and Huffine’s marketing skills, at the end of the article since Black Pine, isn’t their most important when it comes to our customers.

The other half of production centers around a series of smaller production wines.  The morning of our tasting I had the chance to taste a range of offerings from R2 and came away impressed with the lot.  In many ways, these are wines which are reminiscent of Copain.  Not overly big or fruit forward, but not translucent either, they walk a nice middle ground in terms of fruit vs acidity, as well as flavor combinations.

On the white wine side two wines stood out to me.  First was the Big Bend White.  In reality, it’s a Chardonnay from Carneros. I’ve voiced my general displeasure with many Chardonnay’s in this space before because of their overall lack of acidity, but I am happy to report, this wine doesn’t suffer that same fate.  Sourced from Big Bend Vineyard which sits at the base of the hill which separates Petaluma from Sonoma, Big Bend is in many ways, a typical Carneros Chardonnay, only it retails for $25 instead of the $40-$50 price points that you’ll see elsewhere. It’s a wine that sips well by itself, as well as with food (this is where I see some of the Copain influence on Huffine’s style more than other winemakers I taste with) and carries a nice combination of tropical fruit on the nose, followed by more zesty citrus notes.  It’s a wine my wife and I could drink, which isn’t typical for a Chardonnay.

The second white that deserves a note here is the Vin Blancs.  So, we shipped this wine to a few of our wine club members last month, so that might tell you all you need to know about how I felt about this wine-but it really deserves more of a mention here.  Simply put, this is one of the best examples of Viognier I’ve found in the past two years.  You’ll notice, they didn’t call this wine a Viognier even though they could (it’s 80% Viognier, 16% Roussane and 4% Grenache Blanc) for a couple of reasons.  To start, Huffine talked about the ability to blend as they see fit on a yearly basis.  Given the sourcing of the fruit coming from the Central Coast, Huffine said he could imagine years where the Viognier is well under the required 75% for it’s name to be included on the label.  Plus, it’s harder to sell a Viognier than it is a randomly labeled white.  While others have written about this much more authoritatively than I can, I think there are two main issues selling Viognier.  First, the average consumer can’t pronounce it, so they aren’t going to ask for it.  Second, most of the Viognier that gets produced tastes like over extracted oak bombs that will make you pine for a beer.

This wine walks the hard line between the reasons why the French have loved Viognier as the backbone for blends in the Rhone for generations and why, it can be difficult to make well.  Viognier has a certain, rounded mouthfeel.  I’ve called it my favorite white wine grape to serve to people who “only drink red wine” in the past because to me, it’s the closest to a red wine in terms of a full mouthfeel.

That mouthfeel often gets a bit out of control and it becomes hard to imagine finding a good food pairing for the wine, which is where I think you see some of the innovation that the California wine industry is known for.  If you buy a red wine blend from the Rhone, it’s like a GSM (Grenache, Syrah, Mouvedre) but you’ll note only a small percentage of the wine is typically Mouvedre. Mouvedre is typically extremely tannic and is used in these blends to provide some additional backbone to the wine.  I bring that up because of the small amount of Grenache Blanc in this blend.  Anthony Yount, the winemaker at Denner and his own Kinero Cellars project sent us a Grenache Blanc sample a year or so ago, that we loved, but couldn’t ship because the acidity nearly knocked us over.  Matt described it as bracing.  I found it interesting.  As I’ve found, some vineyards on the Central Coast consistently produce Grenache Blanc with that level of acidity.  If you were a winemaker, knowing the history of blending in the Rhone and elsewhere, wouldn’t including some Grenache Blanc with your Viognier seem to make sense?  Huffine told me that the Grenache Blanc exists here speficially for the acidity and helps to show where winemaking is as much art, as science.  Without going into too many superlatives, this Vin Blancs is a pretty picture and if you’re stuck in a Chardonnay rut, find a bottle.

On the red wine side, select wine club customers have received the Rhapsody Red Wine Blend from R2 Wine Company.  This was interesting.  When I heard, red wine blend, I was prepared for another GSM.  As it turns out, this samples like a GSM from Paso Robles, but gets there in a different path.  54% Grenache, 23% Mourvedre and 23% Carignane.  The flavor profile is familiar, yet different at the same time.  R2 calls it complex, yet approachable which is a statement that I can agree with. Of interest to me is the way that the Carignan (in California we tend to add a trailing “e” that you won’t see in French versions) interacts with Grenache in the blend, imposing its color and structure to the wine. It’s a bright and vibrant wine that I’m as happy to open with friends on a Tuesday, as I am on a Saturday.

R2 Wine Company Black Pine Pinot NoirLastly, I need to say something about Huffine and marketing in general.  When we first opened, that meeting at Alpha Omega occurred with a winemaker who was also the General Manager of the winery.  That’s something of an ideal set up for us, we can decide on a wine that we like and then figure out a purchase path with the same person.  Sales guys are fine, but can complicate matters and let’s be frank, I didn’t start a wine business to deal with the winery’s sales guy. Huffine isn't the GM of R2 Wine Company, that’s getting increasingly rare as more money pours into the industry and sales targets, the ability to run SalesForce and marketing majors are increasingly in rougue, but R2 is a smaller winery where you get the idea that one partner, knows whom the winemaker is meeting with and why. We didn't run into a, "I need to ask my boss" type of response for anything, which is always a refreshing way to have a meeting.   I mentioned the Black Pine earlier, which represents about half of the production at R2, but doesn’t fit my program-so a bottle wasn’t available to sample.  A couple of days after we got together a bottle of the wine was waiting for me, magnum format signed by Drew Huffine.  It was a nice touch, but also showed that sometimes, winemakers simply care more for what they produce than do others and that of course, R2 is in good hands.

As you might have grown to expect at this point, yes this was written by Mark Aselstine.

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