Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Humility, Grace and Wine - A Dinner with Steven Spurrier and Paul Draper

(May 2016) One of the marvels I’ve witnessed over the years is that often the most famous winemakers are the most humble. This is the case with Heidi Barrett, who’s 1992 Screaming Eagle broke the world record for one of the highest priced wines sold at auction, as well as with Aubert and Bertrand de Villaine from Domaine Romanee Conti, who lovingly produce some of the most coveted wine in the world from “God’s vineyards.” More recently I had a similar experience when I met Paul Draper of Ridge and Steven Spurrier, the man who launched the 1976 Judgment of Paris Tasting.
Dinner with Steven Spurrier at University Club in San Francisco
It happened at one of several Judgment of Paris 40th Anniversary Dinners in California.  This one was held at the University Club in San Francisco, and was organized by my friend Cheryl Lincoln. She had arranged for Steven and Paul to present an amazing selection of eleven wines that she had collected to pair with seven courses (see wines and menu below).

British Sparkling Against Le Reve

The first course was a selection of appetizers served with two sparkling wines: Domaine Carneros Le Reve Blanc de Blanc 2008 and a wine made at Steven’s winery in Dorset England called Bridge Valley Blanc de Blanc 2013.  Le Reve has long been one of my favorite California sparklings, with exquisite balance and complexity, and it did not disappoint on this occasion.  However, when compared to the Bridge Valley with its razor sharp acid and hints of chalky minerality, La Reve definitely showed its riper California heritage.  I love both wines, but was especially thrilled with the Bridge Valley, and was surprised that a few other people did not appreciate its light body and piercing acidity as much as I did.

Wine Served at the Dinner with Steven's Bride's Valley Sparkling second to the left

For the remainder of the meal, all the wines, with the exception of the concluding port, were served blind. Cheryl grouped them in varietal pairs, with one from California and the other from France. The nearly fifty dinner guests had to guess the provenance, and then Steven and Paul facilitated the discussion.

1978 Ridge Montebello Cabernet Sauvignon Steals the Night

The dinner was progressing nicely, and most guests were able to determine the wines quite easily, until we came to the clash of the cabs.  You would think that a 1978 Ridge up against a 1982 Chateau Leoville Las Cases would be easy to determine, but the exact opposite happened. If we had just used color we would have been fine because the Ridge was a medium garnet, whereas the Las Cases was a darker ruby.  However on the nose the two wines were quite surprising. The Ridge opened with copious amounts of barnyard bret, causing most people to place it squarely in Bordeaux. The Las Cases, on the other hand, showed classic cassis and herbal notes, but was almost too green with tarragon and pepper.

As the wines opened up, the bret blew off the “Bordeaux,” and the wine evolved into a mesmerizing symphony of dried berry, spice, leather, fine-grained tannins, and a very long finish. It had a wonderful texture that enticed you to taste it time and again. The “herbal” wine continued to stay in the green camp and developed complex earthy notes.  Conversation around the table was heated as everyone discussed the two wines.

Then Steven asked Paul to tell us which wine was his, and most were surprised when he pointed to the wine with the bret.  Just when many were thinking what an excellent Bordeaux it was, we discovered it was from the Santa Cruz mountains. It almost felt like the Judgment of Paris all over again!

The Humble Paul Draper of Ridge

Afterwards we asked Paul to talk about how he made the 1978 Ridge, and he said he didn’t do much at all.  He gave all of the credit to the Montebello vineyard site, and reminded us that he had never even trained as a winemaker. Instead he said he read a lot about how to make great Bordeaux, and then let the wine make itself as naturally as possible. He was so humble and self-effacing, and didn’t seem to want to take any credit for the great masterpiece we were tasting.  Even at the great old age of 1978, the Ridge Montebello was fresh, flavorful, and enticing.

Later I asked Paul about the bret, and he grinned and said, “Yes, we do have a little bret in some of our older bottles of Ridge.”

Steven Spurrier – A True Gentleman Exuding Honor

I had met Steven several years earlier at a Decanter tasting in London, but had never had a chance to talk to him much before this evening.  Despite the fact that he had celebrated his 70th birthday in 2011 with his first Bride Valley harvest, he is still incredibly good-looking, dashing, and the ultimate British gentleman. He spoke eloquently about the wines, and described his journey to California in 1975 to select the wines for the Judgment of Paris tasting. On that journey he met Paul, and they’ve been good friends every since.

Towards the end of the evening, I approached Steven to thank him for helping to put California wines on the world map. I told him I was a fifth generation California, and that what he had done meant a lot to me. Then I asked him a question that had always puzzled me, “How did you decide to feature California wines against the greatest wines of France?”

“Oh,” he said, “it wasn’t my idea.  It was Patricia Gallagher’s.”


“Yes, my partner in the wine school in Paris.  She was American and thought it would be fun to feature California wines to celebrate 1976.  She was always telling me how great the wines were, so she did the advance trip to Napa, and then I came over later to make the final selection.”

“Really?” I said. “How amazing!  Where is she now?  Why isn’t she here?”

“She’s off sailing the Adriatic with her husband,” Steven responded with a charming smile.  “She love’s sailing.”

As I walked away, I thought how humble and honorable Steven was to give all of the credit to Patricia.  Many people would not do that – especially since he was the person who facilitated the famous tasting. It did, however, make me want to meet Patricia, the sailor, even more.

So as I departed that delightful dinner, incredibly impressed with the amount of planning and creativity Cheryl had employed in pairing the wines and food, I also left with a deeper respect for Paul and Steven. Obviously they are both brilliant and talented professionals who have offered much to the world of wine, but they are also very honorable and humble human beings.

Cheryl Lincoln, the Brilliant Organizer of the Event

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Tasting the Power of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 2009 S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon

This post is in honor of the 40th Anniversary month of the 1976 Judgment of Paris tasting, and is an excerpt from my book: Call of the Vine: Exploring Ten Famous Vineyards of Napa and Sonoma.

Photo Credit: SLWC
   After touring Stag's Leap Vineyard, I was honored to be able to taste the 2009 S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon, along with sister wine, FAY and the 2009 CASK23, a blend of the two famous vineyards.

The winemaker for the 2009 vintage was Nicki Pruss, a soft-spoken brunette with baby blue eyes and a passion for winemaking. She actually went to podiatry school and became a foot doctor, but switched to wine when she was “bit by the wine bug,” on a biking trip through the vineyards of France. A native Californian, she started her winemaker training at both Napa Valley College and UC-Davis Extension, and then answered an advertisement to be a harvest intern at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in 1998. Nicki’s strong science background and fascination for wine was appreciated by Warren Winiarksi, who was still working there at the time. He mentored her and after working for 7 years on the winemaking team, she was promoted to head winemaker in 2005.

The 2009 Vintage in Napa Valley

“In Napa Valley in 2009, we had a cooler vintage than previous years,” stated Nicki.  “Therefore we were able to let the grapes hang a it bit longer on the vine to achieve more intense flavors and color.  But we were fortunate in that we completed the harvest before the October rain came.”
Winemaker Nicki Pruss.
 Photo Credit:
As I tasted the 2009 S.L.V., I detected clear signs of a cooler vintage in the glass.  The wine was a deep red-black in color with a nose of forest floor and rich dark fruit.  On the palate the tannins were huge and not yet well integrated, but would mellow out over time.  There were notes of blackberry, coffee and complex herbs and spice, and the wine had a long lingering finish.  This was a huge wine that needed more time in the bottle or a juicy char-grilled steak to help tame the massive tannins.  The oak seemed well integrated, and Nicki said she used 84% new French oak for 20 months.  The alcohol was moderate at only 13.5%.
“The majority of the grapes in the bottle,” said Nicki, “came from Blocks 2 & 3 but at the wine’s core is Block 4 of S.L.V. where the oldest vines reside.”  As I sipped the wine, I thought of the huge shaggy vines and it seemed fitting that they would produce such a powerful wine in a cooler year.

The Painter's Palate of S.L.V.

“How do you feel about S.L.V.?” I asked.
I feel quite fortunate that S.L.V. has played an integral role in my development as a winemaker. In my opinion, the soil, the topography, the vines and their interaction with the Stags Leap District mesoclimate creates an alchemy that is very special for the development of Cabernet Sauvignon. Based on where a block is located in the vineyard there is enough diversity in the raw material between the blocks to create wines that produce what I like to call a “painter’s palette” of Cabernet Sauvignon.”
“So it’s a little bit like being an artist when blending the blocks?”
“Yes, there are nuances held within S.L.V. that allow the winemaker to create liquid art and “paint” an exceptional wine; one with subtle power, restraint and elegance. In my opinion, those words describe the “finger print” of S.L.V..  It is a vineyard that produces wines which can stand the test of time.”
As I sipped the wine, I had to agree with her.  This was a wine that was designed to age, and had the grace and backbone to do so.

Stag's Leap Vineyard as a "Painter's Palate." Photo Credit: Rosa Bonheur 

The Elegance and Grace of FAY Vineyard

Next I tasted the 2009 FAY, which was more of a dark red-purple in color, with a fruiter nose of both red and black fruit with a hint of violets.  On the palate, the fruity notes became clearer, expressing themselves as cassis and raspberry with toast and vanilla.  Most distinctive, however, were the velvety tannins that glided across my palate, highlighting their clay soil origins.  FAY’s tannins did not attack my mouth, as did those of the young 2009 S.L.V. from volcanic soil.  However, FAY’s finish was warmer due to a slighter higher alcohol of 14%.  The 2009 FAY was aged for 19 months in 84% new French oak.
“You can definitely taste the difference between the two vineyards in the glass,” Nicki commented.  “S.L.V. is all about structure and subtle power, whereas FAY is approachable elegance and grace.  They both have their place in the world, but often when we blend elements from the two vineyards together to create CASK23, we achieve a higher level of synergy.”

The Marriage of S.L.V. and Fay to Create Cask23.  Photo Credit: SLWC

Andre Tchelistcheff Inspires Cask23

CASK23 was actually started in 1974 when Andre Tchelistcheff was still consulting winemaker. During that harvest Andre noticed that one lot of the wine from S.L.V. was so unique and compelling that he thought it should be bottled separately. Therefore, he put it in a French oak Oval that was labeled CASK 23. Over the years, wine from FAY was blended in, and today CASK23 is always a combination of both vineyards. The result is a harmonious mixture of the structure and power of S.L.V. married to the velvety richness and perfume of FAY.

As I lifted the 2009 CASK23 to my nose, I was immediately overcome with the earthy perfume of violets.  The wine was the same black-red color as S.L.V., but on the palate it exploded with rich black fruit, coffee, spice, and earthy notes.  The level of complexity was quite high and the finish seemed to go on forever.  Here the tannins were well integrated with toasty oak, and the wine seemed perfectly balanced.  Nicki said there was a bit more oak – 90% - but it was also aged 20 months just like the S.L.V..  The wine in my glass was clear proof that blending two great vineyards can result in something truly incredible.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Owl Vines & Wildlife: A Tour of the Famous Stag’s Leap Vineyard (S.L.V.)

This post is in honor of the 40th Anniversary month of the 1976 Judgment of Paris tasting, and is an excerpt from my book: Call of the Vine: Exploring Ten Famous Vineyards of Napa and Sonoma.

California Poppies Near the Vineyard
Neon orange poppies appeared in clusters along the Silverado Trail as I drove to Stag’s Leap Vineyard on a breezy April day. The sky was a clear porcelain blue, not as vibrant in hue as it would become in the hotter Summer days ahead, and the temperature matched the Spring season with a moderate 68F. Vineyards marched along both sides of the two-lane road, their foliage a pale green blur with small leaves only a few weeks past bud break.
I drove slowly, just below the speed limit so I could enjoy the expansive view. April is still a relatively calm month in Napa in terms of tourists, and the Silverado Trail, running parallel to crowded Highway 29 on the opposite side of the narrow valley, usually has much less traffic, and so is a preferred route of many locals.  However, despite the lack of traffic, my leisurely speed ended up irritating other drivers who sped up to pass me.
The turn off to Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars appeared suddenly, obscured slightly by large trees on a gentle turn in the road. Then I saw the sign announcing the famous vineyard, home of the cabernet sauvignon wine that won the Judgment of Paris tasting in 1976. After parking my car underneath some trees in the shady parking lot, I entered the tasting room where I was scheduled to meet Kirk Grace, vineyard manager.

A Meeting in the Tasting Room

     Since I was a few minutes early, I perused the merchandise and was delighted to find a large pile of George Taber’s book, The Judgment of Parisdetailing how an unknown wine brand from California, the 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, had beat out grand cru Bordeaux wines in a blind tasting in Paris France in 1976. The results of the tasting were publicized by Time magazine, and put Napa Valley on the world map as a top quality wine region.  Though, I had read the book several years ago, I picked up a copy and was soon so engrossed in the chapter on Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars that I was caught off guard when a tasting room representative brought me a glass of sauvignon blanc to sip while I was waiting.  The wine was fragrant and delicious, and I was enjoying both the beverage and the book when Kirk arrived.
“Hope you weren’t waiting long,” he said as he reached out a hand in greeting.  He was dressed in the standard California vineyard manager wardrobe of blue jeans and work boots, complemented by a green checked shirt.  He seemed to bring a breath of the outdoors into the tasting room.
“No, not at all.  I was enjoying reading this book again.”
Kirk glanced at the book and smiled.  “Yes, great reading.”  I noticed that he had light blue eyes in a tanned face, and the silver wings in his short sandy hair gave evidence to his many years of experience, including managing the vineyards of both Sterling and Sinskey wineries before moving to Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars seven years earlier.  He had a degree in Crop Science from Calpoly, and an extensive background in environmental science.  A native of Napa Valley, his parents had founded Grace Family Vineyards, so Kirk had grown up immersed in local agriculture issues.
“Where would you like to start today?” he asked.
“S.L.V.,” I said, using the shortened name for Stag’s Leap Vineyard.
“Do you also want to see Fay Vineyard?”
“Definitely!”  FAY was the original vineyard that had inspired Warren Winiarksi, the founder of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, to plant S.L.V.. 
Kirk smiled.  “Great, let’s go.”

Kirk Grace, Vineyard Manager at Stag's Leap

History of Stag's Leap Vineyard

     It was in the late 1960’s that Warren Winiarksi had the epiphany that led him to plant Stag’s Leap Vineyard.  A former professor, he had been working in Napa Valley as a consulting winemaker and grape grower for several years, and was on the look-out for a property that he and his wife could purchase in order to start their own winery.  One day he was visiting with Nathan Fay who owned a small cabernet sauvignon vineyard in the Stags Leap District just north of the town of Napa off the Silverado Trail.  Nathan offered him a glass of wine made from his vineyard, and it changed Warren’s life.
According to an interview in The Winemaker’s Dance, Warren reported, “I was unprepared for the experience when I first tasted Nathan Fay’s wine….when the perfume of it spread through the small room where we stood together….I recognized immediately that this was the kind of wine I wanted to make (p. 126).”
Warren was transfixed by the experience and immediately began to look for property near Nathan Fay’s vineyard.  Fortuitously, the 50-acre Heid Ranch next door was for sale, and Warren was able to purchase it for $110,000.  He then set to work clearing the land of plum trees, and in the Spring of 1970 planted Stag’s Leap Vineyard with two-thirds cabernet sauvignon vines and one-third merlot.
Warren tended the vineyard carefully over the next three years, then in September of 1973, when the vines were of sufficient age to make quality wine, and the growing season had been nearly perfect, he hired a crew of pickers to assist with the harvest.  Over a five-day period, they picked 32 tons of grapes from the vineyard, and Warren hired his good friend, Andre Tchelistcheff, to provide advice in the winemaking process.
The grapes were fermented in individual lots and aged in French oak.  The final blend was 90% cabernet sauvignon and 10% merlot, and the wine was released to the market in July of 1975.  There were a total of 1800 cases produced and it was named the 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon.
It was this wine that Steven Spurrier, a British wine merchant living in Paris, selected as one of six California red wines to compete in a blind tasting against famous French wines.  Surprisingly the Stag’s Leap wine came in first, winning out against the great Bordeaux wines of Chateau Mouton Rothschild, Montrose, Haut-Brion and Leoville-Las Cases.  Even more amazing was the fact that all of the judges were well-known French experts in wine and cuisine.
When the results were announced they “had a revolutionary effect, like a vinous shot heard round the world” wrote Barbara Ensrud in the Wall Street Journal.  Overnight, Napa Valley became known as a famous wine region, and Stag’s Leap Vineyard was recognized as one of the most legendary plots of land in the world.
In 2007 Warren retired and sold the winery and vineyard for $185 million to Ste. Michelle Wine Estates in Washington in partnership with Marchesi Antinori.  Today the winery continues to produce the S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon from 35 acres of cabernet sauvignon and 1.5 acres of merlot, though the original 1970 vines have been replanted.

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars - Photo Credit: SLWC

Touring Stag’s Leap Vineyard

Kirk ushered me into a large four-door silver pick-up truck parked behind the tasting room, and soon we were driving down a small gravel road and into the front section of Stag’s Leap Vineyard.
“As you may know,” said Kirk keeping his eyes on the road. “S.L.V. is currently 36.5 acres and includes 10 different blocks that have been planted at different times over the years.  Right now we are driving through some of the newer blocks, but I’m taking you to the back portion of the vineyard where vines were planted in 1972.”
Gazing out the window, I was impressed with how green and healthy all of the vines looked.  They were organized in straight rows with the trunks about three feet tall and long cordons on each side trained to a VSP trellis system.  Bright new green leaves flared on shoots that ranged from two to six inches in length.  Between every other row a carpet of short green grass with tiny yellow wild flowers spread out in long strips, while the opposite rows showed bare brownish-red soil.  It looked like a luscious field of striped saltwater taffy.

Newer Block in Stag’s Leap Vineyard

Kirk steered the large truck around a curve in the road and I noticed that we were closer to the craggy knoll that rose tall and sandy colored above the back of the vineyard.  I knew these were called the Palisades, and they were an impressive range of rocky ridges that gave proof to Napa Valley’s volcanic past.
“We call this Block 4,” said Kirk, stopping the truck and engaging the parking brake.  “This is currently the oldest section of S.L.V., and I had a chance to work with the founder, Warren, for a few years before he retired.  Unfortunately the 1970 vines that went into the wine that won the Judgment of Paris are gone due to old age and disease, but this section was planted in 1972 so it is still quite historic.”
I jumped down from the truck and walked quickly towards the wide rows of big, shaggy vines.  They stood with outstretched arms, and with the shorter green foliage of the season, looked almost like a group of eagles with wings unfurled, waiting to take off.  A few of the vines had small holes in the wide trunks near the top of the cordon, which gave them the appearance of having a face.
“What caused these holes?” I asked.
Kirk smiled.  “We actually have some squirrels who place acorns in these old vines.”
“Does it hurt the vine?”
“No, because the vine’s vascular system is able to work around the damage, and the vine gets most of its nutrients from the roots.  Besides it is part of our program to support and protect wildlife.”

Old Vine with Squirrel Hole - Looking like a large eagle with wings spread

Once again I was reminded of the wide diversity of wildlife that are attracted to vineyards, and live in a symbiotic relationship with the vines.  Stretching out my hand, I touched the shaggy surface of the vine that had lived more than forty years, and felt the warmth of the sunshine on the bark.  The new leaves were a combination of pale and medium-hued green, and small tiny shoots hinted at the grape clusters that would form and bloom in a few weeks.
Kirk directed my attention to the ground.  “So take a look at this soil,” he said.  “Do you see how it is slightly reddish-brown in color?  This is because S.L.V. is primarily on volcanic soil that has poured down in alluvial fans from the Vaca Range up there.”  He turned and pointed to the craggy Palisades behind us with the even steeper Vaca mountain range beyond.  “As you can see, this part of the vineyard is also on a slope, whereas the newer part of S.L.V. is on flatter land.”

The Legend of the Leaping Deer

Glancing around I realized he was right, and that the vineyard was slightly higher where we were standing, and that the slope increased in height as the vines marched further towards stands of dark oak trees and the craggy mountains beyond.  High above the vineyard were two large outcroppings of rocks with a narrow opening in the middle.
“So is that the famous cleft in the mountain where the deer story happened?” I asked, pointing to the rocky cliffs.
“Yes,” Kirk grinned.  “Apparently in the olden days the Indians used to hunt deer up there, and their method was to chase the deer against the cliff face to corner them.   However, one day, a very smart deer got to the top of the rocky cliff on the left and instead of falling to his death, he leaped across the divide there and landed safely on the other side.  So it became known as Stag’s Leap.”
“What a great tale!”
“Yes, so the settlers named this district Stags Leap, and later, when the winery was founded, the term was incorporated into Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.”

Block 4 of S.L.V. with Cleft in Rocks Where Stag Leapt Across

Glancing around at this very famous vineyard and thinking of the historic tasting in Paris, I realized that the vines must have been quite young to produce a 1973 cabernet sauvignon.  “So if Warren planted the vines in 1970, and the first harvest was in 1973, then the vines were only three years old then!  Just babies!”

“Yes,” Kirk nodded.  “There are some people who say vines go through stages of growth where certain ages produce better quality wines.  For example, current wisdom says that vines produce higher quality when they are very young and when they are older, but not as good during the troublesome “teenage” years.”  He laughed.  “Whether this is true or not is not clear, but it is a fact that the 1973 vintage was excellent in Napa Valley.  So even though our vines were young, they produced a wine that won the Judgment of Paris.”

SLV was so beautiful, it became the front cover for the book

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Tasting Bacigalupi Chardonnay with Patrick Sullivan from Edge Hill Estate

This posting is part of my series to honor the Judgment of Paris tastings that are happening in the San Francisco Bay Area this week and next. In my book, Call of the Vine:Exploring Ten Famous Vineyards of Napa and Sonoma, I included two of the famous vineyards that won in the 1976 competition. One of these was the Bacigalupi Vineyard, which produced a large percentage of the  chardonnay that went into the bottle of 1973 Chateau Montelena.

Today these historic chardonnay vines are still alive and doing well (see previous post). Over the years, the Bacigalupi’s have sold the grapes to some very famous wineries in both Napa and Sonoma. This posting is an excerpt from the book describing a tasting with winemaker, Patrick Sullivan, who knows the Bacigalupi vineyard quite well.

Tasting the 2011 Edge Hill Bacigalupi Vineyard Chardonnay

I was fortunate enough to taste the 2011 Edge Hill Bacigalupi Vineyard Chardonnay with winemaker, Patrick Sullivan. A Sonoma County native, Patrick has an impressive wine pedigree including a Masters in Viticulture and Enology from CSU-Fresno, and work experience in such prestigious wineries as Peter Michael, Paul Hobbs, and Lewis Cellars. He worked at Rudd for more than 7 years, and while there, crafted the 2011 Edge Hill wine. Tall and lean with short dark hair and olive green eyes, Patrick has a direct style of communication, a good sense of humor, and enjoys being outdoors in vineyards just as much as he relishes making wine in the cellar.
“I remember the harvest of 2011,” said Patrick. “It was a cooler year than normal, and we didn’t pick the Baci chardonnay until the third week of September. I recall being there in the vineyard to help pull leaves and pick grapes with the harvest crew, Helen’s son John, and her grand-daughters.”
“You actually helped harvest the grapes in this bottle?” I asked in surprise.
“Yes,” smiled Patrick. “I always assist in the harvest. It is part of the job that I really enjoy.”
“So you know the Bacigalupi family rather well?”
“I’ve spent many hours discussing viticulture issues with them in Helen’s kitchen. It’s like being with my own family. We had many discussions and even some bickering, but it is all part of the warmth and enjoyment.”

A Vineyard Orchestra

“So what were your thoughts of the Bacigalupi vineyard the first time you saw it?”
“Old school,” responded Patrick, “and by that I mean it was like a vineyard from a different century. The grass between the rows is very tall, and the vines are allowed to sprawl and grow naturally without much interference. Of course, they do some canopy management such as pulling leaves to allow the air to circulate on the grapes, but otherwise it is a ‘very natural’ vineyard.”
“So why do you think the vineyard produces such exceptional grapes?”
“I believe it is a combination of factors. Primarily it is a great location for vines. The soil, sight, and climate are perfect for chardonnay. Another factor is I believe there is a great mix of clones in the vineyard.”
“But it is the Wente clone,” I said, puzzled by his statement.
“Yes, but keep in the mind the Wente clone is actually a combination of clones as well. Do you remember how Mike Grgich kept exclaiming about the flavors in this vineyard? Well, when I walked around and tasted the grapes, I could tell it was an old-field blend of Wente clones. Even today, if I was blindfolded, I could taste the difference between some of the vines. That is the magic of the Bacigalupi vineyard. It has so many wonderful and different flavors of chardonnay.”
“Interesting,” I said.  “That reminds me of many of the vineyards I visited in Burgundy.  When I asked the winemakers which clones were in the vineyard, they just shrugged their shoulders and replied ‘mixed selection,’ meaning it was a combination of different clones that had developed over the years.”
Patrick nodded enthusiastically.  “Yes, in a way, it is like a vineyard orchestra, and I think it is what makes the Baci chardonnay so special – that and the fact that the vines are older.”
“So you can taste the difference between the Baci chardonnay and others?”
“Definitely.  We had many blind tastings at Rudd, and the Baci chardonnay always stood out as distinctive and special.”

Bacigalupi Chardonnay Vineyard with Tall California Native Grass
That was a signal for me to try the wine, so I picked up my glass and immediately noticed the warm golden color, which is a sign of a chardonnay that has been aged in oak for some time.  Swirling the wine in the glass and bringing it close to my nose, I was immediately enveloped in a cloud of lemon and golden apple with a hint of minerality. Taking a sip, I swished the wine around in my mouth for a long time and was surprised at the many complex flavors. The rich lemon notes continued and were joined by pineapple, subtle butter, well-integrated toasty oak and an exquisite acidity that made my mouth tingle in a delightful way. The finish was extremely long, and a little warm due to the 14.2% alcohol.

It Tastes Like Baci

“So what does this wine taste like to you?” I asked Patrick.
“It tastes like Baci.”
“What do you mean it tastes like Baci?  And do you always used the shortened term ‘Baci’ for Bacigalupi.”
Patrick laughed. “It is much easier to say ‘Baci.” Then he paused and seemed to be searching for words.  “I always have a hard time explaining this,” he said, “but Baci chardonnay to me has an uplift to it. Obviously it has citrus, minerality, and toasty notes, but it is that uplift at the finish that makes it special. It has both weight and an ephemeral component to it that makes it Baci chardonnay. I think it is the vineyard speaking in the glass.”
“So do you try to allow the vineyard to express itself in your winemaking?”
“Yes,” he said immediately. “I try to find out how the wine wants to be made, and it may be different depending on the vintage, but with chardonnay it is all about elevage – or aging.”
“So tell me how you made this.”

Winemaking Methods

Patrick Sullivan 
Patrick described that after he helped harvest the grapes at around 24 brix, they were loaded into refrigerated trucks and transported to Rudd winery where they were immediately whole-cluster pressed and then allowed to settle in tank for one day. If necessary adjustments were made at that time, such as adding nutrients, water or acid, but he did not use SO2 until after malolactic fermentation. The juice was then transported to 225 liter French oak barrels that were 40 to 50% new. Alcoholic fermentation was allowed to start naturally with no added commercial yeast in a 60 F degree cellar. In some cases, the wine took up to 2 weeks before it started to ferment.
Once alcoholic fermentation was completed and malolactic fermentation (ML) began naturally in barrel, he conducted battonage every two weeks, slowing to once a month as ML finished, usually in March. Battonage is a French term that refers to stirring the wine in the barrel in order to mix the lees (particles) on the bottom into the wine. This process usually adds a nutty quality to the wine, as well as additional depth and creaminess. It is a method used by most chardonnay winemakers in Burgundy, and many in California.
Patrick didn’t add SO2 until ML was complete. The wine was topped as needed, but never racked off the gross lees until it was ready for bottling after 15 months of oak aging. The French refer to this as “sur lie,” meaning the wine rests on the lees until ready to be bottled. Patrick said the wine was bottled without fining or filtering.

A Brown Out

Browning Apple
Photo Credit:
“I like to make my wines as naturally as possible,” explained Patrick. “I don’t use very much SO2 in the beginning because I want the chardonnay juice to brown out.”
“Brown out?”
“Yes, like an apple turns brown naturally. By letting the wine brown out naturally, you can reduce bitterness as well as the total amount of SO2 you add to the wine.”
“Interesting,” I said, very impressed with the depth of flavor and new elements I continued to find in the wine as I sipped it. “It is a truly magnificent wine.”
“Thank you,” said Patrick modestly. “I like to think that I helped to capture the magic of the Baci vineyard. It is rare to find an old chardonnay vineyard like that.”
“You believe that old vines provide higher levels of quality?”
“Usually,” said Patrick, “and that is why I’m encouraging my parents to plant more vineyards.  When it comes to vines, I believe in the old Chinese proverb that goes something like: ‘The best day to plant a tree is yesterday. The second best day is today.’”

For more information on this famous vineyard, please see:  Call of the Vine: Exploring TenFamous Vineyards of Napa and Sonoma.