Wine Personality

Scott McWilliam shares some of his new wines

I recently had the opportunity to meet up with Scott McWilliam, 6th generation Australian wine maker for McWilliam’s wines.  A quick primer on McWilliam’s: Founded in 1877,  McWilliam’s is Australia’s most awarded winery.  They won 40 trophies and 889 medals in 2009 alone! Scott has been making wine since age 14 and has spent time in Bordeaux.

We tasted several wines in this sitting including Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon and a special Bordeaux blend called “Jack’s Blend”

A quick video introducing  Jack’s Blend:

A quick video introducing McWilliam’s Cabernet:

an even quicker video introducing McWilliam’s Riesling:

McWilliam’s WEBSITE

Gary Vaynerchuk retires

Gary Vaynerchuk retires

Gary Vay-Ner-Chuk!

Gary Vaynerchuk is arguably one of the biggest names is the wine business and social media.  He built a $65 Million wine empire out of the Wine Library through passionate daily wine videos.  He pioneered the idea of personal branding through the new media.

Late last year Gary announced that he was pulling out of his daily wine community website, Corkd.com.  Then on his 1,000th Wine Library TV episode he announced that he was retiring from WLTV, to pursue a new venture called The Daily Grape.

Yesterday Gary announced that he is retiring from producing wine related content altogether.  The news came as quite a surprise to much of the social media and wine blogging community.  In explaining why he was doing this Gary explained in episode #89 of The Daily Grape that he just felt ready, he felt that it was time to move on.  He explained that he has always been an entrepreneur first and that he sold lemonade and baseball cards before he got into wine.  He is going to be looking for new opportunities,  unrelated to wine.  Many people have speculated that this has something to do with his Social Media and Branding company, Vayner Media, but Gary also said that he is not retiring so he can do more of Vayner Media.

It will be interesting to see what he comes up with and how long he can manage to abstain from making wine videos for!

Dinner with the Craigs

As wine consumers we are accustomed to perusing wine reviews, sometimes as we are shopping for wines.  We are used to reading the flavor profiles and scanning for points.  We do this quickly and efficiently, searching for gems, or just for something decent to pair with tonight’s dinner.  But if we dig a little deeper there are the stories of the vineyards, the wine makers and the terroir.

Howell Mountain wine maker

Robert and Lynn Craig

On my recent trip to Napa Valley I was treated to an amazing dinner as the guest of Robert and Lynn Craig.  I first met the legendary Napa Valley Wine producer in Scottsdale, Arizona in September of 2010 at a wine maker dinner.  After that event, Robert and his wife Lynn invited me to visit them in Napa the following summer (2011) and to attend The Taste of Howell Mountain.

Well when the time finally came, I couldn’t have been more excited, and was happily surprised that they still knew who I was!  I guess not everyone has a sub par memory like me!

Napa tapas bar

Zuzu Tapas and Paella

We met at ZuZu tapas in downtown Napa, overlooking the banks of the Napa river.  We enjoyed a multitude of various tapas, including sautéed jumbo shrimp, and flat-iron steak.  The wine?  A bottle of the 2008 Robert Craig Affinity!

But the wine was just a back drop to the conversation.  Over our 2 hour dinner we talked about almost everything and anything that came to mind.  From my recent affliction to gluten and lactose, to their adventures in the Okavango Delta in Botswana and Alaska/Denali.

In a previous life, Robert Craig was in the Coast Guard and was stationed in the Alaskan panhandle for a while, and he said very little had changed in the nearly 50 years since he had been there. It was while he was stationed in San Fransisco that he met his future wife, Lynn. In the late 1960’s San Fransisco was the epicenter of the counter culture movement. During this time the Craig’s would venture north into the relatively undiscovered Napa Valley. Robert was involved in real estate and eventually he came across a deal he couldn’t let go and he put together an investment group to acquire vineyard land on Mt. Veeder. Robert Craig was instrumental in Mt Veeder becoming an official AVA. The investment group sold the land to Donald Hess  and Robert stayed on as General manager of the Hess Collection. In 1992 Robert Craig started his own winery, sourcing grapes from a friends Howell Mountain vineyard and making wine at various facilities.  In 1998  he acquired some prime vineyard land on a steep slope right near the peak of Howell Mountain, over looking Napa Valley to the west and Pope Valley to the east. He planted right away and in 2002 the Robert Craig Winery in its current form was born, sourcing grapes from his own land, and making wine in his own premises.

As we were discussing the serious matters of mountain fruit versus valley floor fruit and Lynn was explaining how she edits the website information, I noticed Robert sniffing the cork of the bottle of Spanish Albarino he had ordered. The cork was plastic. Out of the corner of his eye he glanced at Lynn, who sensed he was looking at her. She looked at him for a second and then smiled
“Bob, stop that!” she laughed
He chuckled and his eyes twinkled.
His endearing sense of humor, often under the radar, understated and Lynn’s appreciation of that humor are some of the things that has kept them happily married after all these years!

Well the food plates kept coming and the Craig’s kept telling me to “eat, eat!” This was a familiar feeling, as my own grandparents had often said the same thing, they used to tell me I ate like a bird..peck peck. The evening finally drew to a close, and we made plans to meet the following morning at the Culinary Institute of America in St Helena where I would join the Craig’s in their vehicle for a ride up Howell Mountain and a private tour of their vineyard!

Affordable California Cult Wines | Robert Craig

Robert Craig Wine label

96 points, Robert Parker

The 5th and final (for now) installment of my Affordable Cult California Wines series brings us to the Howell Mountain District of Napa.  At $50 and up per bottle, this wine is by far the most expensive of series and a lot of people would consider it to be profoundly unaffordable.  However, if you put the price in the context of its appellation, total production, and ratings, it is one of the best values coming out of California.

Let’s start with a quick look at the Howell Mountain A.V.A.  It is home to well known brands like Cakebread, Duckhorn, and Robert Foley.  Robert Foley produces a Howell Mountain Cabernet (available only through lottery) and a Claret.  The 2001 Robert Foley Claret received 99 points from Robert Parker and the 2007 vintage received 98 points.  Unfortunately, these wines only start at $110 a bottle, giving them “Cult” status, but not “affordable cult” status. There is however another Robert in the Howell Mountain district whose wines are more affordable and equally legendary.
Before we get to him, let’s take a closer look at the area.  Howell Mountain became an A.V.A back in 1983, making it the first sub appellation of Napa. The history of vines on Howell Mountain date back to the 1880’s.  Howell Mountain is located in the northeast corner of Napa in the Vaca mountains with the elevation of its vineyards ranging between 1,400 and 2,200 feet above sea level. The elevation means that the vines are located above the fog line, allowing ample access to sunlight, as well as cooler days and warmer nights. There are two types of soil in the Howell Mountain A.V.A: volcanic ash, also known as “Tuff’ and a dry red clay, both of which are not nutrient rich.  As if that is not enough, the terrain is rocky and porous.  This environment places stress on its vines, which fits right in with the “High Risk, High Reward” philosophy of viticulture.  Stressing the vines produces smaller harvests and smaller berries, but the fruit that is produced is considered superior, more concentrated, intense and complex.
Which other Robert am I talking about?  Robert Craig.  The Robert Craig Winery is located in the very north end of the Howell Mountain District. Robert Craig has been making wine for the better part of 30 years.  Craig was actually in real estate-asset managment in the ’70’s and in 1978 he formed a group and purchased a 300 acre vineyard on Mt. Veeder. Three years later they sold the vineyard to Donald Hess. Hess asked Craig to stay on and he became the general manager of the brand new, well-known Hess Collection Winery.  In 1991 Craig also established the Pym Rae Vineyard, and in 1992, with the help of friends, he finally established his very own vineyard.
Robert Craig Winery has recently been receiving rave reviews.  In 2006, Wine Spectator ranked Robert Craig one of the top 50 Napa producers based on the last 15 years of ratings.  Speaking of ratings, how about the ratings from Robert Parker on the 2007 vintage?  Mt. Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon: 93 points. Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon: 94 points. Affinity: 96 points. Finally, Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon: 96 points!  The ‘07 Howell Mountain Cabernet is not yet available on the website, so instead, why not try the ‘06 vintage while you wait?
The blend is 84% Cabernet, 12% Merlot and 4% Cabernet Franc.  The wine saw 20 months in French oak, 75% new.  The alcohol comes in at 14.8% and production was a minute 1,240 cases.

Robert Craig and I

If the $70 price tag is too rich for your blood, you could pick up a bottle of the 2007 Affinity for only $48!  The Affinity should be much more widely available, with a more accessible but still small 5,700 cases produced.

Want to read about my prior four Affordable Cult California Wines? They can be found below. Let me know if you have had the chance to taste any of these, and if you’d agree with me. Also, do you have any wines that you consider to be “Affordable California Cult” wines? I’d love to know about ‘em!

Cooks & Corks Arizona Wine Seminar

The Scottsdale Culinary Festival featured a special event called Cooks & Corks.  Guests paid $65 a ticket to be wined and dined inside the Scottsdale Center for the Performing arts.  Within this special event was an even more exclusive Arizona Wine Seminar.  Seating was limited to just 65 guests who were treated to a run down on the Arizona wine industry featuring guests speakers, Pavle Milic, Todd Bostock and Kent Callaghan.  Bellow you will find 3 videos of the seminar.

Anthony Dias Blue talks Wine History

Anthony Dias Blue spoke at the Devoured Culinary Classic in Phoenix and gave a very interesting seminar on the history of wine in America.  Below you will find the 4 part video of the entire talk.

Cameron Hughes Wines | A Revolutionary Wine Business Model

Wine bottlesThose of you that read my blog know that Cameron Hughes wines are nothing new to me.  For those of you unfamiliar with the Cameron Hughes label, do yourself a favor and read the recent Wall Street Journal article titled Taking advantage of the wine glut.

Cameron Hughes has undertaken an innovative business model, buying up the excess supply of high-end winery’s wine at a bargain basement price. The Cameron Hughes label is then slapped on the bottle and sold for a fraction of the price to retailers across the states. Hughes has taken advantage of the current over supply in California to build a reputation for quality, affordability, and entrepreneurial prowess.  The 2008 Cameron Hughes Lot 200 Napa Valley Cabernet really takes his business model to the next level.

Lot 200 Label

Lot 200, $200 Juice?

The fruit for this monster Napa Cab comes from three of Napa’s most prestigious sub appellations: Stag’s Leap, Rutherford and Oakville. On his website Cameron gives just a glimpse of who’s juice this maybe.  He had to sign a 3 page Non-Disclosure Agreement which left very little left to say except that the people he acquired this wine from do not sell a bottle of wine for under $200 and have multiple 100 point scores under their belts.  This wine was available for $27 on the Chwine.com website but sold out in a matter of weeks when Costco bought almost ALL of the 4,000 cases produced!

lot 182 label

Lot 182, 4 years in shiners

Another outstanding value is Lot 182 Atlas Peak Meritage.  As the story goes there was a mix up in this deal and the labels had already been printed when Cameron discovered that this Meritage was actually 90% Cabernet and could have been sold as an Atlas Peak Cab, but c’est la vie!  This wine was purchased in shiners and had been minding its own business in a cellar for 4 years before being released.  It is drinking really well right now, and I use it as my go to “pop and pour” wine.

The Cameron Hughes production model has been able to thrive in a time when California wines have suffered, becoming less fashionable during the shaky economic climate of the past couple years. California 2009 retail wine sales were down about 3%.  Have you tried any Cameron Hughes Wines or any American wine negociants?

More Reviews:

Lot 200

Lot 182

Affordable California Cult Wines | Von Strasser

Von Strasser Diamond Mountain Reserve

The "Reserve" labels will cost you $150+ a bottle, but you can pick up the DMD labels for around $50

The fourth installment of “Affordable California Cult Wines” takes us to the Diamond Mountain District of Napa. Most everyone who follows Napa wines has heard of Oakville, Stag’s Leap and Rutherford Districts but what about the districts that make up the Eastern Vaca Mountain Range in the Mayacamas?  There are five: Atlas Peak, Mt. Veeder, Howell Mountain, Spring Mountain and the newest of the 5, Diamond Mountain District (DMD) which became an AVA in 2001. Although the AVA is 5,000 acres, only 500 acres are planted with vines, most of which is Cabernet, making it the smallest of the Napa sub appellations.   Diamond Mountain itself is named after the volcanic glass crystals found in its soil. With a climate that is moderately warm, it is significantly cooler than the Napa Valley floor during the day, but slightly warmer at night.  As the name suggests, this is a higher elevation region, starting at 400 feet all the way up to 2,200 feet. The wines are generally more tannic than the wines produced on the valley floor. Some of the more well known wineries and vineyards from DMD include Sterling Vineyards and Schramsberg Vineyards. They have great structure and aging potential. Cabernet Sauvignon is the predominant variety but according to The Wine News it is also home to the greatest concentration of Petit Verdot in Napa.

The Von Strasser vineyard is home to the second largest planting of Petit Verdot in the Diamond Mountain District. The winery is known for using high doses of Petite Verdot in their blends, sometimes upwards of 44%. While it may seem like a wacky blend to some, Rudy Von Strasser has plenty of wine making credentials to put your mind at ease. His wine career began after graduating UC Davis in 1985 and working as an intern at none other than Chateau Lafite-Rothschild.  Rudy returned to Napa a year later and was hired by Trefethen Wines. From there he went to Newton, and by 1990 he managed to purchase the Roddis Estate Winery located on Diamond Mountain. The Von Strasser brand has a 3 tier system: “Reserve” which is only made in great vintages, “Single Vineyard”, and “DMD”, or Diamond Mountain District.  While the first two tiers can run upwards of $100+ a bottle, the Diamond Mountain District Cabernet is available at a very reasonable $50, direct from the winery website.
The 2006 Von Strasser Cabernet Diamond Mountain District is a blend of 85% Cabernet, 6% Malbec, 5% Petit Verdot, 2% Zinfandel and 2% Merlot. The alcohol is a moderate 13.5%, with a Bordeaux-like structure, along with tart blackberry and cherry fruit encompassed by smoky oak. The tannins are more intense than most Napa Cabs, yet the wine is still wonderfully balanced and has a nice lush mouth-feel.  Wine Enthusiast gave this wine 91 points and they estimate that the wine should continue to develop through 2012, which is just around the corner.  You won’t have to wait too long for this wine to reach its peak.  The wine was aged for 22 months in 100% French oak, 30% of which were new barrels. A miniscule but attainable 2,465 cases produced, making this wine the most accessible in my ‘Affordable California Cults’ series wines. Von Strasser is starting to get some rave reviews and was recently crowned Value Winery of the year (2009) by Wine & Spirits magazine, to go alongside their Wine & Spirits Winery of the Year award, received in 2005. Get your hands on Von Strasser’s wines now, before more wine publication awards send its prices high and its availability low!
Edited by Jon Troutman

Affordable California Cult Wines | Shulz Cellars

California cult wineThis is the third installment in a five part series featuring some Affordable California Cult wines. Their track record, quality, and small production make these collector’s items, but their price tags are what really differentiate them in a sea of overpriced California wines.

Along the west side border of Napa, just off of the Mayacamas mountain region, is the Mt. Veeder region. Responsible for a small fraction of the Valley’s wines, Mt. Veeder doesn’t receive the love and attention that some better known counterpart regions, like Oakville and St. Helena, but it is quietly turning out world class wines from its high elevations. It should come as no surprise, since people have been growing grapes on Mt. Veeder since the 1860’s. Despite the rich history, it wasn’t until 1993 that Mt. Veeder became a formally recognized AVA (American Viticultural Area).
Located north of Carneros and west of Oak Knoll, Yountville and Oakville, the mountain is rugged, steep, and faces the cool Pacific currents. The berries of Mt. Veeder are relatively small due to the cool fog and high elevations, which results in wines of intense fruit flavor and smoother tannins. Of the 15,000 acres that make up the Mt. Veeder, only 1,000 acres are planted to vineyards.  Some of the vineyards are on slopes as steep as 30 Degrees – you could ski down these bad boys!
Though few people know much about Mt. Veeder, it has quietly produced many well known wines, including Hess and Mayacamas Vineyards. Add to that list Schulz Cellars, which was formed in 2005 by John and Michelle Schluz.  Their path to owning a wine company includes significant sales background rather than just a pure wine making background.  John spent 10 years in sales with Franciscan and Michelle spent 5 years in sales with up-and-coming Cliff Lede.  Currently John does sales consulting for a number of ultra premium Napa wineries and Michelle is the Direct to Consumer marketing manager for Arrowood winery and Matanzas Creek Winery.
This winning combination of sales and wine making experience was a recipe for success. The Schulz’s were lucky enough to befriend John and Ashely Derr who own Lampyridae Vineyard, located at about 2,500 feet, near the summit of Mt Veeder. The highest vineyard in the entire Mayacamas range, Lampyridae is Latin for firefly, which is what the lights of San Fransisco look like at night from the vineyard.  This vineyard doesn’t have a shabby background, as it is also a contributing component for Beringer’s (legendary) Private Reserve Cabernet.  The high elevation vineyard produces smaller even more intense fruit with bolder tannins.
So with those two backgrounds in mind, I present to you:
2007 Shulz Cellars Mt. Veeder Zinfandel
This is 100% Zinfandel, aged in 50% French and 50% American Oak (50% of which was new oak) for a total of 18 months.  The alcohol rings in at a tolerable 14.7%, not nearly as high as many neighboring zinfandels out there.  In my last post I talked about the Venge Scout’s Honor.  This wine is almost the polar opposite.  If you don’t like the ripe Lodi style of Zinfandel then you will probably love this wine.  It has a formidable nose of clove and spices, and an intense palate full of cherry, blackberry, and big, chewy tannins. Available for under $30, this wine tastes that much sweeter. And with only 175 cases produced, it’s justified its title as an affordable California Cult selection.

Interview | Curt Dunham | Lawrence Dunham Vineyards

I took a little tour of Curt Dunham’s personal wine cellar at his home in Fountain Hills, Arizona.

Lawrence Dunham Vineyards WEBSITE