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Napa Valley Continues It’s Age Old Struggle

Early Napa Valley Berry Growth

The Napa Valley Register continued to do the type of reporting that’s of critical importance to the industry.

Yesterday they ran an article about Napa’s board of supervisors and their continued struggle to define what agriculture is and how the valley wants to grow over time.  I’ve written about quite a bit of the history in my page about Napa Valley, but a quick reminder.  For about a hundred years now, there has been a push and pull in Napa Valley between growers and vintners. Growers generally want less traffic, less commercial buildings and of course, enough water to grow crops.  Vintners want those things, but they have the added issue of selling wine, so they’d like the ability to hold large scale marketing events, largely whenever they please. Tasting by appointment only? That makes selling wine harder?  The main road through St Helena being only a single lane, with people parking off it and stop lights everywhere? Makes selling wine harder. The lack of large scale hotel development? Makes selling wine harder. The lack of BART (it’s our version of the Metro, or Subway in the San Francisco Bay Area) to downtown Napa? Makes selling wine harder.

The rules tend to ebb and flow in small ways as the county board of supervisors itself changes hands from conservatives to liberals. In many ways, it might remind you of the health care debate happening currently in Washington, it’s every bit as contentious and often insane.

That being said, it’s different than Washington in one single and incredibly important way: the two sides talk to each other.  Both sides believe the other is valuable and that they have ideas which are to be expected.  It hasn’t always been that way, but Napa Valley has settled into a new normal, a sort of balance exists between growers and vintners. They still don’t especially like each other, but they understand how important each aspect of the wine industry is.

Where this goes from here? Nobody knows

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Benessere Vineyards: A Comeback in the Works

Grapes on the Vine

Amazingly it was about 2 years ago now that I ran into a group of wines from Benessere Vineyards in Napa Valley.  Benessere is located between the Silverado Trail and Highway 29 as St. Helena begins to quickly morph into Calistoga.

At the time, the state of the property didn’t quite fit what is a GREAT site, as well as an impressive set of people. Winemaker Matt Reid and general manager Stephanie Grubbs both come across as true professionals. Plus, Matt’s one of the more talented guys you’ll come across in the Napa wine industry. Have a look at People’s Wine Revolution which is his personal brand.

Putting the story together over time I learned that both Stephanie as well as Matt were new to Benessere and with new blood, often comes changes.

I had the chance to taste through a set of Matt’s first vintages at Benessere and came away impressed.  The white’s are crisp and acidic and Matt has a perspective on red’s that’s still pretty unique to this section of Napa, he carries more acidity and a delightful lighter touch than many.

Ok, so here’s the thing about the Benessere property that makes it important over the longer term.  In Napa (and in the Russian River Valley and the wider Sonoma Coast for that matter) we are starting to see a monoculture be formed. If you bought a vineyard today, you’d almost have to plant it exclusively to Cabernet Sauvignon. I mean, if the grapes are worth 3x to 4x what any other grape vine is in the same space, how can you make any argument against it?

The problem though is that, it makes the area less interesting for wine drinkers, winemakers and the industry as a whole.

Benessere has a range of red wine grapes.  Yes, they have some Cabernet Sauvignon.  They have a ton of Syrah-it’s a dying varietal more than any others and yes, they might not be around for long, anywhere.

But, the Italian grapes are really what’s pretty interesting at Benessere and they’re keeping them. It was said a few generations ago that you had to have a last name that ended in a vowel to make wine in Napa, while I don’t think that was a positive comment, it helps to explain why as that changed, how many Italian grape varieties were simply pulled out, or never considered. It was a clear backlash against the prevailing culture when Napa became, Napa.

Outside of Sangiovese, they also have Anglianco and a one or two others. Hell, they have some Merlot sitting around which I heard multiple people say that might end up being worth something because after all, in a decade these might be the last Merlot vines in all of Napa Valley.

Outside of making good longer term choices in the vineyard, Stephaine is helping to create a winery that does feel more like the rest of Napa Valley. I think there’s a lot of value in zigging while others zag so to speak, but in terms of facility quality, Benessere is a generation behind in terms of their front of house operations. Plus, this might be the smallest tasting room for 10 miles in any direction.  It fits a small handful of folks comfortably, without seats.  I won’t be surprised when they announce a new tasting room has been approved and that construction has began.

Here’s where Benessere is truly playing catchup.  They’re offering more higher end wines, at a higher price point with their top tier wines creeping up from the $40 range into the mid $70’s.  That may still be 50% less than their neighbors and there’s clearly room to grow here.

The best news for Benessere is that the winery is clearly in good hands.  Stephanie is a professional hand, having come up through the Mondavi marketing department and Matt’s a talented, down to earth winemaker that we’d all happily have in charge of our winery.

In any case, Benessere Vineyards will be interesting to watch progress over time.

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What’s That Smell?

Mark at the Pumpkin Partch

It’s funny, I don’t get to bring the kids (and my wife of course) to Napa Valley very often on weekends.  We get up occasionally during the week, but kids, especially the 1 year old and traffic along highway 29, aren’t very good bedfellows.

My littlest is also a reluctant car rider on a good day, he seems to believe that if the area isn’t serviced by BART, it isn’t worth his time. My oldest doesn’t think a car is a necessity…after all, BART and Uber can get him pretty much everywhere he’s interested in going.

But, our favorite pumpkin patch is in Napa, so we took a Sunday morning trip up.

We started the morning by having a quick breakfast and coffee at Oxbow Public Market. Owbow always offers something interesting to eat and usually something new that might be of interest for a wine gift basket along the way as well.

Afterwards, it was Stanley Lane Pumpkin Patch. It’s tucked where the 29 meets the 121.  It’s cheap enough for pumpkins, has some piglets and goats to see, no rides, actually is a family farm, no bouncy houses, but there is a giant slide coming down from a multiple story hay tower.

Anyway, as we turned onto the 29, there was a familiar October smell in the air: fermenting grapes.  We only smelled it for a bit while we were in American Canyon, but the question came pretty quickly.  Pumpkins? Grapes? Why is the smell so strong?

It’s one of the things that initially struck me about harvest in Napa, the smell pervades the entire valley seemingly. Hotels are booked, stuff is more expensive than it is even normally…..but it’s a fun thing to experience.

Just watch for winemakers crossing the road, especially around coffee shops and craft breweries….they haven’t slept much (they joke almost universally about their significant others being harvest widows for the month).  But, this is the fun part for many involved in the industry, seeing what’s happening.  After all, it’s nature.  No matter how everything looks, tastes etc, fermentation tends to bring it’s own share of surprises.

Mark at the Pumpkin Partch

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Troll Bridge Big Club 2010

I’ve worked with a Troll Bridge wine before, but thought that given our Reserve Selections members were receiving this wine shortly, that it deserved it’s own write up now.

Troll Bridge is at least as much about the owner, as it is the winemaker, which is a statement that I don’t get a chance to make very often.

Owner Allan Ezial is a graphic designer by trade, having formerly worked out of a space on Berkeley’s famed 4th street art and design district, he now works out of the north bay-which makes sense because he has a number of winery clients: many of which are names you’d recognize, namely Caymus.

His connections to the wine industry run pretty deep and over lunch & margaritas at Picante, a long time standout in Berkeley (also one of his favorite old lunch haunts….& since his office has moved, it seems he misses the place) we talked about his vision for his winery and why he decided to make wine in the first place.

A number of years back Allan told the story that he was having lunch with a group of growers in Napa and they were talking about how they wish their vineyards would perform like a couple of the rows or blocks that needed literally zero maintenance throughout the growing cycle.  The specific blocks changed every year, but these high end vineyards always had a few.

Allan wondered what could be done if someone bought only these small maintenance blocks and had a wine made with them?

Troll Bridge is the project that has made that happen.

Over the past month or two, the majority of you have received a bottle that I made.  I bring that up here, to highlight the spare no expense style of wine bottle that we’re looking at.  I paid about 50 cents per bottle and an additional 15 cents for the unbranded, completely generic corks. Those prices were lower than normal because I also piggybacked on a longer and larger bottling run, but you get the idea….I bought expensive fruit and then dealt with pricing elsewhere as best as I could.

While Allan didn’t want to share exactly what he paid here, I’m guessing that the etched bottle ran him into the $3 range and the cork a similar price step up from mine, perhaps close to $1.  I know you’re thinking, Mark that’s only a $3.50 difference from yours and this is a $100 bottle.  Ok. That being said though, he’s made similar choices throughout the winemaking and marketing process.

Talking to friends with similar projects, he might not be making a profit of more than a few dollars on his sale to me.  Partially, I bring that kind of stuff up to simply say, finding these incredibly high end Napa projects at this price point isn’t as easy as it initially sounds & yes, Troll Bridge prices are likely to increase as time goes on.

Apart from some great vineyard sources, the winemaker for Troll Bridge is Jon Engelskirger.  Jon’s one of those guys. who has been around the valley for quite some time (and since we seem to exist in 2 valley’s right now, I’ll clarify that I’m talking about Napa instead of Silicon) making wine for a litany of interesting and influential names such as: Silverado, Robert Pepi & Turnbull among others.

If you’re wondering why someone leaves the likes of Turnbull and shows up a smaller project, like Troll Bridge, Jon’s working on his own wine project based out of Contra Costa County.  Contra Costa’s an interesting place.  On one side of the hill that faces San Francisco, it’s damn cold.  On the other, an inland valley is hot enough that Italian and Portuguese immigrants found it among the best spots near SF to plant their native grapes. Jon’s making about 2,000 cases of an interesting mix of grapes in a town called Brentwood, out of a farm that he owns personally.  It seems that even winemakers whose names we recognize, can’t find land to buy on and make wine from any longer in Napa….which is unfortunate.

I think the 2010 Napa Valley vintage also deserves a mention at this point.  I’ve talked about vintage a ton in this space over the past few years.  Basically my argument boils down to this: if it’s a great year, buy wine from anyone.  Anyone can do a good job of making wine in a good year.  If it’s a bad year, taste wine from respected winemakers and choose what you like.  It’s bad practice for consumers, as well as, the industry as a whole to try and avoid entire vintages. If we all do that, the 1,000 case wineries we all love and want to support will simply cease to exist.

Ok, so the 2010 vintage. Was it 2009? No, not even close….it was a challenge.  So here’s the exact way that you get vintners and growers really worried about a vintage.  Start with rain or simply cold weather to get everything started late.  Have cooler than normal temperatures continue throughout much of the spring and into early summer.  Napa wines need to be ripe, so the natural reaction by most is to cut some fruit and make sure that they get opportune ripeness for what remains.

Then, have an extremely hot spell come through during the late summer and early fall. Sunburned grapes (yes it happens and it’s about as bad as you’re thinking it is) don’t make for good wine. But, vintners have to choose to risk the burn to get to the ripeness level that they want.

In 2010, there was some severe heat in late August, but for vintners who decided to hold off picking (most did, the one’s who were impatient ended up with substandard wine, better put into the bulk market) that was followed by what I’ve heard described as a “glorious” month of Indian summer where the grapes added sugar, without dropping much acidity.

All in all, most call it a challenging vintage, but most were also incredibly happy with the results, as long as the growers and winemakers were patient.

The folks growing the grapes for Troll Bridge, as a collective, have been doing this for some time.  It’s been said that farming is one of the most patient of professions and these are truly professionals.

They waited-plus, with the vineyard blocks needing little maintenance, all the more reason to let the grapes hang a couple of extra days right?

All in all, I’m happy to provide what I believe to be an absolutely prototypical Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon at a price point that I hesitate to call a good bargain.  But, at $95, this feels right.

Plus, Allan’s someone that deserves our support for swimming up stream here.