wine maker interview

An Evening with Robert Craig, part 2

This is part 2, to first read part 1 click here
After the initial interview Mr Craig went back to his hotel room to get ready for

BLT reception area

The Champagne reception area

the dinner.  During this time I was introduced to Trudy Thomas, director of beverage for the Camelback Inn.  Trudy introduced me to the other guests and we chatted and mingled while sipping champagne  in the reception area before being seated in the private dining area.  Trudy gave me a quick tour inside the wine cellar.  While not large in terms of quantity, this cellar is impressive for its big Napa and Bordeaux representation.  There is at least $100,000 worth of wine in a long narrow walk in cellar that resembles a library in a mahogany hallway.   Trudy is one of those people is truly passionate about what she does.  What she does is manage all the beverages for the resort, and among other things she  helps create the winemaker dinner experience.   She has a perfect job, but it’s definitely not just luck.  Trudy has 18 years in the wine business and is the only person to have taken both Society of Wine Educators CSW and CWE exams on the same day and passed.  I met the man who administered the test and he said that Trudy actually knows even more about spirits! She is meticulous with the details of every aspect of each wine maker dinner.  She can spot a spot on a glass a mile away.  In fact while we were talking she casually turned a glass upside down and set it back on the dinner table, it was my glass, I wondered what she was doing and seamlessly from out of nowhere a waiter silently appeared and replaced the glass with another. Trudy said that these dinners are not about making money for the resort, in fact at $85 a plate it barely covers the costs.

BLT at the Camelback Inn wants to be known for being the valley’s go to place for fine dining, an experience without equal.  The wine maker dinners are all about showcasing their talent, their creativity and their  attention to detail.

At 6:30 all the guests were escorted into the

BLT private dining entrance

The private dining room

private dining area adjoining the wine cellar.  Awaiting us, were glasses of Robert Craig’s only white wine.  The 2008 Robert Craig “Durell Vineyard” Chardonnay from Sonoma Valley. We took our seats and awaited for Mr Craig’s arrival.  He arrived to warm applause and he humbly smiled and lowered his head and sort of shuffled over to his seat.  He spoke for a few minutes before sitting down.  He spoke a little bit of his history, the history of the vineyards and his wine making philosophy, which is once you reach a certain point it’s not about making more wine it’s about making better wine.

The first course arrived and the guests began enjoying the Chardonnay.  The first course consisted of Country Style Duck Pate, brandied Cherries, a little bit of pistachio and some spicy rocket, also known as arugula.  I found the Chardonnay to be a good representation of the terroir of Sonoma in terms of Chardonnay.  Not oaky, not buttery, just well-balanced almost understated.

As guests were finishing up, the waiters and waitresses began bringing in glasses of red wine for everyone.

wine glasses on a table

Pre pouring the wine saves time

One of the details that Trudy employs to help keep the evening moving forward is to have the wines poured outside of the room and brought in.  It is much quicker than moving about the room pouring the wines while the guests wait.  The second course was roasted pork belly with Ricotta Gnudi, root vegetable fricassee, and crispy pork skins.  This was paired with Robert Craig’s 2007 “Affinity”.  Affinity is Robert Craig Winery’s flagship wine.  each year about 5,000 to 6,000 cases of this Bordeaux blend are made.  This wine is made with the restaurant setting in mind.  Which means it is to be consumed sooner rather than later, and without the need of too much decanting.  Mr Craig said that he wanted to make a wine that restaurants didn’t have to hold on to for 10 or 20 years before they are ready to drink.  And just in case you think drink now means lesser quality, the 2007 Affinity received 96 points from Robert Parker.

Robert Craig Winery 2007 Affinity

I found this wine to be incredibly smooth and supple.  Perfectly balanced.  One thing that really stands out is the beautiful aromatics.  The wine is a blend of 79% Cabernet, 10% Petit Verdot, 8% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc and 1% Malbec.  5,700 cases of the wine were but I was informed by wine broker Mattias Stolpe that this wine was virtually already sold out.  It retails for only about $50 so you can see why it’s almost gone.

The third course consisted of hunter style Grouper stew, Lobster mushrooms, Chorizo and Northern beans.  This was paired with the 2006 Mount Veeder Cabernet.  It’s not common to pair fish with red wines, let alone a massively powerful mountain wine like this.  But it worked, fantastically, amazingly.

wine bottle

2006 Mt Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon

The Mt. Veeder Cabernet is actually 81% Cab and 19% Merlot and alcohol clocks in at 14.9% which is amazing to me because the was absolutely no heat present.  This wine is still young, still just a baby.  It has big bold chewy velvety tannins, it makes your mouth pucker up at this point but has a long, long finish.  One of the things that Mr Craig told me about is that he feels that enjoying wine is not so much about enjoying wine at its prime as it is about enjoying wine throughout its life cycle.  Enjoying and experiencing it young and enjoying it right on through to its prime and even past.

Next up was the highlight of the night.  Course number four was a thick, pepper crusted New York Strip, hidden under the steak were huckleberry Braised beef cheeks.  I never would have thought to buy beef cheeks at the grocery store and wouldn’t have known how to prepare them, until now.  I asked the chef how they made them and he said they boiled them and then seared and marinated them in wine and huckleberry.  The result was stunning, delicious.  The two styles of beef were paired with the 2006 Howell Mountain Cabernet.

wine bottle

2006 Howell Mountain Cabernet

This wine was quite different from the Mt Veeder.  It is much Riper and the tannins are more in check but with a seemingly never-ending finish.  This wine is a blend of 84% Cabernet, 12% Merlot and 4% Cabernet Franc.  Only 1,240 cases were produced. The wine saw 20 months in French oak, 75% new and 25% 2nd year.

In between wines and courses Mr Craig would visit the guests at their tables, and while sitting at the table he would ask questions of me, as I was trying to ask questions of him!  In his very quiet and humble way he shows an interest in people equal to the interest people have in him.  We talked about his safari to Africa which is a topic close to me, as I was born in Africa and lived there until I was almost 9.  I also asked him about what sorts of things, besides wine, is he interested in and he said Native American heritage and culture. In particular preserving the languages.  He also enjoys sailing and given his Coast Guard background I can see why.

Trudy Thomas and Robert Craig

The fifth and final course consisted of Caramelized French butter pears with Cambozola ice cream inside of a walnut crisp pastry.  This was paired with the 2007 Howell Mountain Zinfandel.  This pairing really pushed the envelope.  The pears were delicious.  The Cambozola ice cream was like ice cream made from Brie and Blue cheese.  Your mind is ready for some vanilla and suddenly you are struck by the aftertaste of blue cheese.  The pears really are the sweet part of the desert, and are a perfect match with the ice cream.  The Zinfandel was really amazing.  If you like jammy zins this is not a wine for you.  This is a seriously big peppery zin but with powerful mountain tannins and a good concentration of black raspberries.  Only 800 cases were produced and it retails for about $50 a bottle.

While the final course was being served Chef Marc Hennessy came out and spoke briefly with the guests.  He explained a little bit of the theory behind the pairings.  He wanted this and the other wine maker dinners to really be a showcase for what can be done, not just for its own sake, but to make something that amazes people.  He jokingly referenced the pastry chef’s insistence that the ice cream be made entirely of blue cheese by saying “There is no way there is going to be blue cheese ice cream”  Instead he struck a compromise, and I would say luckily!

This night turned out to be one of the highlights of the year for me.  It was great to meet one of the people who has been instrumental in getting Napa Valley on the map and especially Mt Veeder, Spring Mountain and Howell Mountain.  I am looking forward to future vintages as the focus on producing higher and higher quality wine continues.

Trudy Thomas on Twitter  @INNtoxic8ting

Robert Craig Winery Website

Camelback Inn Website

Bistro Laurent Trouondel (BLT) website

An Evening with Robert Craig. part 1

Robert Craig Winery is one of the producers I highlighted in a Corkd.com series titled “5 affordable California cult wines”.

Robert Craig wine bottles

Robert Craig Wines

In combing through the internet literature I put together in my mind an idea of the man Robert Craig and his wines.  Shortly after the article posted Claudia Chittim, the Executive Director of the Howell Mountain Vintners and Growers association was able to introduce me through email to Robert and Lynn Craig.  I noticed Mr. Craig was going to be in Phoenix in September and so we made plans to meet up.

What transpired far exceeded my expectations, not that my expectations were low but here’s what happened.  Instead of doing just a quick flipcam video interview, I was invited as a guest of the Craig’s to attend the Winemaker dinner at BLT restaurant.  BLT is located at the Camelback Inn which recently underwent a 50 million dollar renovation.

I met with Mr Craig before the reception and we sat on a couch near the bar.  We chatted a while learning a little about each others backgrounds.  I learned that Robert Craig was actually born in  Bisbee, Arizona.  He lightheartedly referred to his age and said that in fact he was born after Arizona received statehood.  His family had been coal miners back east and decided to move to Bisbee to mine copper.  But eventually moved to South Texas and became electricians.  This led to Robert Craig becoming an electrical engineer,  he joined the coast in the mid 1950’s and was transferred to the coast guard base at San Fransisco International Airport.  San Fransisco was where he met Lynn, his wife, and where they both developed an affinity for wine.  After he got out of the Coast Guard Mr Craig became involved in real estate.  In the mid to late 1960’s when Haight Ashbury, Monterey Pops and the summer of Love were happening, the Craigs were heading up into the hills of Napa Valley.  San Fransisco was the epicenter of a huge cultural shift towards the future and progressiveness. The Craigs ventured up into the hills and back into the Old World.  It was around this time that Robert Mondavi started out as well.  Mr Craig’s job involved assessing the value of land and real estate and by the mid 1970’s he had come across some interesting opportunities.  However, the company he worked for didn’t seem to be too interested in Mr Craig’s ideas about vineyards on the tops of mountains at the north end of Napa Valley.  One opportunity presented itself that Mr Craig couldn’t pass up, and he put together a few investors and together they bought some land atop Mt Veeder.

Fast forward 32 years.  Robert Craig has been instrumental in getting Mt. Veeder and Spring Mountain A.V.A status.  He sold the original vineyard to the Hess Collection and helped develop that brand before acquiring some land on Howell Mountain to start the Robert Craig Winery.  These days the Winery produces about 10,000 cases of premium and super premium wines, almost exclusively mountain grown Cabernet Sauvignon.  In 2006 Robert Craig was included in Wine Spectators Top 50 Napa Valley Cabernets ranking based on the past 15 years of ratings.  So he’s obviously achieved virtually everything a struggling wine maker dreams of and I asked him “What’s next?”

“People always ask me what’s next, and I say, well I’m 72 so I don’t know.  You know here in America the culture is that if you are not doing better and bigger and producing more than the year before and bigger than the year before then you’re not a success.  In Europe they don’t tend to have that as much. ”

Mr Craig went on to say that 10,000 cases is the maximum that he will produce.  10,000 cases is still quite a lot of wine if you think about it, but with Robert Craig’s name he could easily sell double.  But his focus is not about quantity, it is now singularly focused on quality.  All he wants to do is make better and better wine each year, not more and more wine.  I asked him about his prices.  Why are they so low compared to other Napa wines, considering the reviews and demand.

“I come from humble beginnings and I just don’t feel that its right to charge too much”

We are very fortunate that Mr Craig feels that way because it allows many of us the opportunity to try a 96 point Bordeaux blend from one of the most famous A.V.A’s for about $45 retail.

Here a quick video of Robert Craig, I will post part 2- the part about the actual dinner soon, cheers!  Read part 2 here

Interview with John McLoughlin, winemaker Bitter Creek Winery

I recently made the trip from Phoenix up to Jerome to meet with Jon McLoughlin, winemaker at Bitter Creek Winery.  It was nice to get away from the summer heat, and up into the mountains.  Jerome is built on the side of a mountain and is situated at 5,246 feet.  I emailed John some questions and he responded, and I also interviewed him on camera,  First the emails:

Weekly Wine Journal:  How has the weather been so far this year and how is the 2010 crop doing.

John McLoughlin:  So far luck is with Dragoon Mountain Vineyard!  Early in 2010, we had two days of a late freeze!   Not good when the vines are just starting to “push”.  Many of the vineyards in the State were hard hit.  Dragoon Mountain Vineyard was fortunate, our land is pretty flat, and that allows the air to move across the vineyard.  When there are depressions in the contour of the ground, the cold air will settle in the low points and that is when frost can occur.

Weekly Wine Journal: Which varieties are doing the best.

John McLoughlin: Right now the Big Reds are doing very well!

Here is the video:

More Videos at the Weekly Wine Journal’s YOUTUBE Channel

Bitter Creek Winery, Tarot labels by Rick Wyckoff


On July 9th, 2010 Bitter Creek Winery released the first 9 of a possible 26 wines centered around the Tarot deck.  Each wine has a Tarot card for the label. Bitter Creek Winery is located in Arizona.  Winemaker John McLoughlin says about 99% of his work is done down in South Eastern Arizona, and about 1% in Jerome, Arizona.  Jerome is not far from Verde Valley where Popular Verde Valley artist Rick Wyckoff calls home.  Rick is the artist who was commissioned by John to create the labels.  Rick  is not only known as a tattoo artist, but a craftsman of many mediums. His art career began in 1988 at the art center of Tucson, which led to the completion of his degree in production art and design. During his college years, he became involved in metal art and blade smithing, which he still enjoys today. Upon leaving college he sought employment as a commercial artist. However, his youth would not allow him a sedentary life of an office worker. So into the military he went! Shortly after leaving the military, he returned to blade smithing and the Renaissance fair circuit, where he discovered tattooing. 18 years later he is still on the quest!

Since opening his first shop in 2002 in Jerome Az, he has expanded his range of mediums to wood sculpture, painting, illustration and furniture making. His intent being the introduction of art and beauty into as many aspects of life as possible, and sharing that passion for evoking emotion with as many people as possible.

Drawing his inspiration from nature, history and cultural traditions from all over the world. His hope is to continuously reinvent and transform not only his art, but art perspective in general. Which is why his primary focus is on tattooing and it’s inherent transformational qualities.

It is his hope that his art brings inspiration, illumination and joy to all who come in contact with it!

Interview: Ann Roncone Lightning Ridge Cellars

I met Ann Roncone Winemaker and Vineyard Manager for Arizona’s Lightning Ridge Cellars.  From very humble beginnings making wine in her garage to producing just under 1,000 cases of wine now, she has taken a hands on approach to all aspects of her wine business.

Making Wine for the first time, by Jim Wiskerchen

Last year I made the fateful decision to start my own business, My Wine Helper, which is a wine marketing and event planning business in Arizona. In the same stroke, I decided to try my hand at making wine for the first time.  Learning about and drinking wine is one of my life’s greatest passions.  I’ve worked in the retail wine business in Arizona for 15 years.  In that time, I have traveled to many wine regions throughout the world and met and learned from a great many people equally as passionate about wine. You could say that I’ve caught the wine bug, big time!

In my travels I’ve seen the winemaking process probably a hundred times. Let me tell you, until you actually get down and dirty and involved with the process it is hard to fully understand and appreciate all the money, hard work, and patience involved.   I now understand more intimately the heartache that a grower feels when a crop is damaged by frost or the cost involved in purchasing and selecting the right oak barrels and grapes to produce a certain result.

I am blessed having had the opportunity to taste many great wines over the years, thereby developing knowledge about what a great wine is even supposed to taste like.  Working in the industry, I’m also fortunate to know people that can now assist me to realize my dream of making a wine that I can call my own.

One of the hardest parts about the winemaking process is the sheer time it takes to make great wine. In some ways making wine is like childbirth.  Nine months of development in the womb I liken to secondary fermentation i.e, aging the wine in oak barrels. Bottling the wine is like birth but usually without the same level of pain.  My wine is still resting comfortably in barrel but I can only imagine that there is an amazing amount of pride involved after the wine is bottled and released to your friends and family. I can imagine it must be impossibly hard to hear other people say negative things about your child or finished wine.  With newborn babies people typically don’t say things like, “That is the ugliest baby I’ve ever seen”, at least not to your face.

I certainly have a deeper respect for what winemakers go through as a result of making my own wine.  I always try to be respectful about other people’s wine, even if I don’t like them.  I’ll make a comment like, “That wine is not right for my taste”.  Most often I just use descriptors about a wine and not make any personal judgments.  Now that the shoe is on my foot, I have a deeper respect of what the winemaker goes through in making any wine.

Making wine was one of those last unfinished goals in my wine career.  Like all addictions/hobbies, I’m sure I will now want to make wine every year, start my own label and build a beautiful winery. That little bit of knowledge is dangerous and now I feel empowered to do more and isn’t that how addictions always start! There are many wines that I enjoy drinking.  Now that I know I can make them the only thing stopping me are those bags full of cash.  If you happen to be a cork dork like me, I would highly recommend making your own wine at least once in your life.  Be forewarned, making wine is highly addictive, they’re like potato chips, you can’t eat just one.

Cheers,

Jim Wiskerchen-Owner

MyWineHelper.com

See Jim talking about some Arizona Wine at a wine tasting: CLICK HERE

Interview: John McLoughlin, Bitter Creek Winery.

I met up with Arizona winemaker John McLoughlin at an all Arizona wine tasting at Whole Foods in North Scottsdale. Hot off the heels of the Judgment of Arizona wine competition the public interest in Arizona wines has increased dramatically. There was hardly enough room to move at this event! In this interview I asked John about the 52 varieties he has planted on his 100 acre vineyard. I also asked him about Zinfandel in Arizona, I had heard that the small tight clusters are not conducive to the humid Arizona summers, but John gave me new information on the matter.

Interview with Kevin Mehra, 90+ Cellars, Latitude Beverage Company

This is an interview I conducted through email with Kevin Mehra of 90+ cellars.

WWJ: How long has 90+ cellars been in business? Where is the company based?

Kevin Mehra: The company Latitude Beverage has been in business since 2007 but we launched Ninety+ Cellars August of 2009 and it has quickly gained customer acceptance, we have already shipped just over 19,000 cases. The company is based in Boston MA.

WWJ: How does 90+ cellars ensure that the wine they originally sampled is the wine that they receive?  I have heard of other Negociants having to “send the wine right back to China, where it came from” so to speak.

Kevin: A few things:

1.       We deal with wineries that have a reputation already and can be trusted.

2.       We also send every wine into a lab for a chemical analysis on the wine to check for any impurities.

3.       When we taste a wine and decide to buy it we keep a sample of the wine as the standard, when the final Ninety+ bottle arrives we sample it against the standard to confirm it is the same wine. If the wine passes we pay the remaining balance due to the winery.

WWJ: How many releases has 90+ cellars released, how many current releases are there?  What would you say are some of the best values?

Kevin: We are excited to be bottling lot 20 Reserve Pinot Noir from Sonoma Coast this week and just approved an Oregon Pinot Gris which would be lot 21. The best values would be the wines that sold out the quickest which would be lot 15 Pinot Noir from Carneros, it was a phenomenal wine from a producer that would retail it for around $35, our partner retailers sold that same wine for $15, and we sold out of 2,400 cases in 2 weeks. Other wines that have become very popular that we have partnered with the wineries to make extended lots and buy the next vintages on the wines are lot 2 Sauv Blanc and lot 7 malbec, which are $10 a bottle retail and are consistently our top selling wines.

WWJ: Do you reveal where the wines originally came from or did you have to sign NDA’s?

Kevin: No we do not reveal where the wines are coming from and do sign NDA’s if required.

WWJ: There is a lot of talk about “the coming carnage in the California wine Industry” as Alder Yarrow at Vinography puts it.  Basically there is a wine glut, and now there are hundreds of California wineries facing foreclosure.  This provides opportunities for Negociants such as yourself, but how are you going to sort through the hundreds if not hundreds of thousands of cases of unsold vintages some dating back to 2004?  how do you see this cataclysmic re-organization playing out?

Kevin: I believe that things will settle down this year with consumer’s slowly moving back up to the luxury wines and wineries with luxury and trustworthy brands will be back on track. For us I am confident with our relationships with wineries in California and around the world there will always be an opportunity to buy excess wine from each vintage. We represent a very profitable part of their business, they get paid within 30 days and they don’t have to budget any commission or marketing dollars on selling the wine. Many wineries may have over-reacted to the down turn and have laid off half or all of their sales staff which I think is a mistake, in hard times you need to work harder to service your customers. The biggest problem for wineries is the technology in vineyards has improved so much that yields are much higher, I think it’s the increased yields that in the future will be the cause of the wine glut.

WWJ: The wines you purchase, are they back blended?  Do you only buy finished bottling blends, or do you also buy mixing components and rework them yourselves, as some negociants do?
Kevin: No we don’t do any back blending we currently only buy finished wines or clean skins.

90+ cellars website

Rise of an American Wine Negociant

The Oxford Companion to wine defines a Negociant as “a wine merchant who assembles the produce of smaller growers and wine makers and sells the result under its own name.”

According to the Wine Curmudgeon, this approach is a centuries old tradition that began in the French region of Burgundy.  Some well-known negociants you might have heard of: Louis Jadot, George Duboeuf?

During the recent economic recession, I picked up a part-time job selling wine nights and weekends for one such negociant.  The merchant is Cameron Hughes Wine Company.  The way the company works, is they track down orphaned mixing components from premium and ultra premium producers and retool them, and or they buy actual bottling blends.  Cameron’s family background is in the liquor and wine business, and so he knows a thing or two about over production in the wine industry.  He negotiates  deals with producers and a big part of the deal is that the producer is to remain anonymous.  The producers have expensive brand names to protect and so what Cameron does is offer something called the “Cameron Confidential”.  He gives you just enough information for you to speculate, but not enough to reveal the source.   Sometimes these deals can take months to come together, sometimes the deal never materializes and sometimes a deal just falls right in his lap.  Each deal that Cameron completes is given a “Lot’ number.  It’s the easiest way to track which deal is which.   I am reminded of the story of Lot 84.  According to “Cameron Confidential” This deal came to him through his banker!  His own banker had financed the original deal on the winery and now that the partnership was being split and the property being sold, he had a tip.  The new owner was not interested in running vineyard, or keeping the brand, he just wanted the Mount Veeder property for the view.  So within a couple of hours Cameron had his winemaker knocking on their door to buy all the remaining inventory.  The result is 2,400 cases of wine that retailed between $60-$80 through their tasting room and mailing list only, being sold by Cameron for $19! The 2 prior vintages received 92 and 93 point ratings. I had a chance to pick up a half dozen bottles of this wine, and now that they are all gone, I am wishing I had bought more.

With the recent recession, there has been a lot more wine for Cameron to choose from.  The recession came on so fast that most wineries had little time to adjust their production, and rather than lower their price to move product, they are willing to part with some of their juice.  In fact, some places have parted with half or entire vintages.  Nowadays Cameron is  not only buying the remaining mixing components,  he is  also picking up finished bottling blends, the exact same stuff that these producers are selling for $95+.

Have you ever heard of a 90 point Stag’s Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon for $20?  see Lot 100. How about a 90 point Chalk Hill Sonoma Cabernet for $16? see Lot 140 How about a 92 point Diamond Mountain Cab for $22?? See Lot 146 You get the point: Extreme value.

Cameron Hughes Wine was rated by Inc magazine as the 18th fastest growing company of 2008, ranked #2 out of the top 100 San Fransisco-Oakland-Freemont area businesses and ranked #3 in the top food and wine businesses overall!

Visit Cameron Hughes Wines website here