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Brand Building in the Wine Business, It Ain’t Easy

A brand is a set of expectations. We think of McDonalds and Coca-Cola as brands, but those are just the names. The golden arches and red can with white script are the brands’ symbols. The real brands are the collected expectations those names and symbols represent. Whether you like the products or not, you know exactly what a Big Mac is, how McDonalds french fries differ from those of Wendy’s and can tell the difference between Coke and Pepsi in a blind tasting.

320px-McDonalds Times SquareMcDonalds and Coca-Cola are strong brands not because we recognize the name but because we know what they stand for. Decades of advertising and your personal experience with their extremely consistent products have almost literally etched their products into your brain. How many wine brands can you say that about?

Building a brand is difficult and expensive. It requires uniformity of products, seemingly endless repetition of messaging and many, many personal experiences with the product by each target consumer. This presents serious challenges for the wine industry.

The first problem is that the quality and character of wine is subject to change from year to year because of weather, harvest dates, increasing vine age, circumstances during fermentation and numerous other factors. Compounding that lack of constancy is the fact that wine changes as it ages in bottle. Consumers may drink it any time from the date of release to many years later. And then there’s the way serving temperature affects a wine. The only wineries that can achieve anything like the product consistency of a McDonalds or a Coca-Cola are those that produce at very high volume and don’t mind using additives—or at least blending multiple vintages as in Champagne— to build wine to a relatively simple and specific flavor profile.

Another issue is that fine wines often have complicated, multi-part names. In one hand we hold a McDonalds Big Mac sandwich. In the other we clutch a 2011 Wind Gap Chardonnay James Berry Vineyard Paso Robles. Which is easier to understand? The Big Mac is, or was, a cute but generic name. Today we know it to be just one thing, a two-patty, three-bun burger with cheese, shredded lettuce and special sauce.

wind gap bottleshot whiteBut the wine’s name is full of variables. You can tell Wind Gap is the winery name and you may be aware they make small-production wines of individual character and high-quality.

Next we see “Chardonnay.” Okay, that’s easy. Most wine lovers know that Chardonnay is a white wine. Experienced sippers will know that Chardonnay is a dry wine... except when it’s a little bit sweet.

What else do we know about Chardonnay?

  • Chardonnay smells and tastes like lemon or green apple or yellow apple or pear or peach of varying degrees of ripeness. And it can have accents of chalk or limestone, lemon curd or cheese rind, baking spice or flowers...
  • Chardonnay is fermented with native or commercial yeast
  • Chardonnay undergoes malolactic fermentation making it round and buttery or partial malolactic fermentation making it a little crisp, a little smooth and not very buttery or no malolactic fermentation keeping it very crisp and medium-bodied.
  • Chardonnay is fermented in oak, stainless steel or, very rarely, concrete.
  • Chardonnay is aged in new oak, probably French, or aged in neutral oak or it’s not aged at all.

So far so good? We also know 2011 was the vintage and have heard it was a cool year. But then the grapes came from Paso Robles which we know to be warm. So that means...? And wait, isn’t Paso Robles best-known for Cabernet Sauvignon? No worries! It’s from the James Berry Vineyard which is kind of famous. Um... for Syrah.

Please allow me a brief aside. Lately it’s been fashionable to bash tasting notes and call them unnecessary. If, after simply reading the name of this wine— that was made from America’s most popular grape by a famous, small winery from a vineyard that has produced 100-point wines in an AVA that’s one of the United States’ best-known—you can honestly say you know what that wine is like, then you’ve either tasted the wine before or your name is Larry Stone. For everyone else, here’s my tasting note which is way better than nothing.

2011 Wind Gap Chardonnay James Berry Vineyard Paso Robles
The grapes came from the vineyard’s last remaining block of Chardonnay (own-rooted, 50-year old vines of Wente clone). The juice was fermented with native yeast in concrete and stainless steel tanks, then aged 12 months in neutral French oak barrels. The wine is medium to medium-plus in body with matching acidity and light-grained texture. The nose is controlled but expressive, the palate even more forthcoming. Aromas and flavors of yellow apple are embellished with notes of baking spice, apple blossom and dusty soil. Highly Recommended.

So, back to branding. The complexity of wine makes it very difficult. That is true whether we’re talking about a single bottle of wine, a winery producing many different wines or even a growing region.

If you’re trying to build recognition for an AVA, you have to educate consumers on it’s character. That character is determined at minimum by its climate, topography, soils and principal varieties, plus the quality and style of its wineries. There is also a danger that the region will be overshadowed by individual producers or the grape varieties.

French wines are labeled by region rather than variety. That’s great at building awareness for the region, perhaps too good. I can’t tell you how many Americans I meet who think Burgundy is a grape variety.

Here in California we tend to label varietally. I’m convinced this straightforward approach helps the average consumer. It doesn’t help regions though. As with the wine above, our eyes go first to the winery and then to the grape. People often stop reading at that point, especially if the producer is recognized and the variety something common like Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc.

So how do you go about building the brand for a region? Next week I’ll tell you about one winery’s attempt to do exactly that. It’s a cool, if quixotic, project.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to Copyright 2013 NorCal Wine. Photo of McDonalds in Times Square by Sallicio. McDonalds and the golden arches are registered trademarks of McDonalds. All rights reserved.

An "Interview" with Roger Ebert on Wine Criticism

You probably don’t know that Roger Ebert had thoughts on wine criticism. It may have surprised Mr. Ebert too. He didn't address wine writing directly. [He was actually a recovering alcoholic, dry since 1979, and wrote well on that topic.] However, much of what he’s said and written about film criticism is directly transferrable to wine reviews.

ebert620MontyBrintonI first thought of Ebert in the context of wine criticism more than a year ago during the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers. There were lengthy discussions on the nature of wine notes and the style of wine reviews, a pitched battle about how to address readers. How much reader knowledge do you assume? Are 100-point scores, or any scores, too simplistic? Are they artificially precise? Do you describe a wine or tell a story, detail the flavors or recount the drinking experience? Do capsule reviews have value? I realized that Roger Ebert had dealt, very successfully, with essentially the same issues for years.

How cool, I thought, would it be to do an email interview with him about this? That never happened. But, through his writings and interviews, I’ve been able to assemble a virtual interview pairing questions I would have asked with things he’s said relative to film. That interview makes up the latter portion of this article.

Roger Ebert vs. Robert Parker, Film vs. Wine

Wine-centric people might say Roger Ebert was the Robert Parker of movie criticism. It’s really the other way around though. Ebert preceded Parker in criticism, in gaining a national audience and in finding a way to make his work accessible to a broad base of consumers.

Both men have been champions for certain producers and genres. Both eventually supplemented their print work with alternative media, Ebert with much a greater enthusiasm and following. Roger Ebert wrote more than 40 books, his articles were widely syndicated, his television show, Sneak Previews—the most popular “entertainment” show ever on PBS—eventually went network. He embraced blogging and collected more than 800,000 followers on Twitter.

Like Parker, Ebert created a controversial, and extremely popular, new rating system that massively disrupted his industry. Ebert primarily used a four-star rating system that included half-stars. (In essence, it was an eight-point system. Zero-star ratings were reserved for films that were “beneath contempt.” Four stars were awarded to “first-rate” films.) However, he later created the even more accessible thumbs up/down system, popularized by his television shows with Gene Siskel. Thumbs resonated with consumers but enraged many of Ebert's colleagues who saw it (and the TV show) as the ultimate dumbing-down of criticism. Ebert argued, among other things, that it made film criticism much more accessible and created more film enthusiasts who would go on to want more analysis.  [See Richard Corliss and Ebert debate this subject through published articles, collected in Ebert's book, Awake in the Dark.]

Ebert knew that the “right length” for a review depends on the medium, publisher, audience, topic and audience intent. He wrote reviews of various lengths: multi-page, column and “minute reviews.” Full-length reviews allowed him to cover worthy films and their related subjects in detail and with meaningful digression. Columns suited some publishers’ needs while still providing readers with useful context. Minute reviews covered the same films and more in four or five sentences, briefly addressing plot, cast and quality. Many films got coverage of each type.

Film criticism and wine criticism have many things in common. Both have transitioned from a predominating style that was long and writerly, appealing to a small, passionate audience, to a period dominated by experts writing brief, easily digestible reviews and then to today’s world of ratings without context, aggregated scores, one-line exhortations and the notion that anyone with five senses and access to the internet is a valid a critic. The film and wine industries have grown more savvy in their media relations. Newspapers and magazines are much less willing to pay for good content and, after a decade or so of vastly expanded coverage, are reducing it drastically or going out of business entirely. Critics in both fields like to write about other critics and the state of criticism.

One might think wine and film are very different to consumers. I’m not so sure. Both have casual consumers who just want a tasty beverage or diverting flick. Both have enthusiasts longing for something challenging, a memorable experience, a spark for conversation with friends. Either way, people want to know whether the product is two hours of pleasure or a waste of time and money. And the price of either a bottle of wine or a movie for four people can easily range from $3.50 to $80, not including popcorn.

A Virtual Interview with Roger Ebert on Wine Criticism

[Change the words “movie” and “film” to “wine” as appropriate. Footnotes indicate sources.]

Fred Swan: Do you feel badly when writing negative reviews about wine?

Roger Ebert: You have to realize you're not writing for the filmmakers, you're writing for the potential film audience. And I would much rather hurt somebody's feelings who made the picture than send somebody to see a movie and spend two hours of their life seeing a move that I don’t think is worth seeing1.” [However,] what you must do is take them [the movies] seriously, and consider them worthy of your attention. You cannot be a useful critic if you dismiss them or condescend to them... If you believe a movie is good or bad or wins its audiences dishonorably, that can be a splendid beginning for a review, but you must remember that the people making it and seeing it have given up part of their lives in the hope that it would be worth those months or hours.2

FS: How do you approach wines from a region, or intentionally made in a style, to which you’re not partial?

RE: “You must be open to artistry and craftsmanship even in a movie you disagree with... It is meaningless to prefer one genre over another. Yes, I “like” film noir more than Westerns, but that has nothing to do with any given noir or Western.2

FS: What are your thoughts on wine writing heavy in jargon?

RE: "If you cannot write about it so that anyone who buys the paper has a reasonable chance of understanding it, you don’t understand it yourself.2"

FS: There seems to be an endless supply of “best lists” for wine. You’ve written a lot of lists yourself. Are these lists fair to the wines, do they really mean anything?

RE: “I avoid “best” lists whenever possible, this is a duty I fulfill. Because ranking films is silly and pointless, but gathering a list of good ones is useful.2

FS: As a critic, you’re committed to your opinions. How do you react when you get the inevitable negative comments from people who hated a wine they bought on your recommendation?”

RE: “When people write me saying they hated a movie I recommended, I am not inclined to write back telling them why they’re wrong—because they’re not wrong. You can never be wrong about your own opinion.3

FS: Critics, some in particular, are sometimes criticized for the style of wines they seem to appreciate and for giving high scores to wines that many people feel are of an inappropriate style.

RE: “As a critic, I am at the service of my personal reaction. If I laughed, I have to say so. I can’t suppress that information and lecture the filmmakers on their taste.3

FS: The internet—with blogs, user reviewer sites, message boards, Twitter and Facebook—has led to a proliferation of “critics.” How can the average wine lover tell the difference between an authoritative critic and someone merely offering well-written opinion?

RE: “The genuine critic will write in such a way as to acknowledge that he had a subjective personal experience that he wants to share with you, and which reminded him of other films or other subjects. He will wear his knowledge lightly and never presume to speak for other than himself.3

FS: You’ve talked about reviews reflecting your personal experience. Many people think wine reviews should be objective.

RE: “I have no interest in being objective or in reflecting the public’s opinion... The only critics of any use or worth are those who express their own opinions, which the readers are then free to use or ignore.3

FS: There’s often a popular backlash against critics, a complaint that reviewers have rarified tastes and don’t give good scores to mass appeal products. And then there are the “studies” that show consumers often prefer inexpensive wines to high-priced bottles in blind tastings. Should critics make recommendations based on consumer preference?

RE: “Any person who believes a critic must reflect the views of the public has not thought much about the purpose of criticism.3

FS: But you made an obvious appeal to those consumers, creating a rating system which is a vast simplification and leads people to make yes/no decisions without context.

RE: “There is a gulf between people who go to the movies (the public) and people whose lives revolve around them (critics, movie buffs, academics, people in the business). For most people with seven bucks in their pocket and an evening free there is only one question... that is relevant: Will I have a good time?... Writing daily film criticism is a balancing act between the bottom line and the higher reaches.4

FS: What are your thoughts on the the multi-tier system of wine distribution and the degree to which it limits consumer access to a broad assortment of wine?

RE: “The most depressing statistic I know about patterns in American film exhibition [] that an average subtitled film will take 85 percent of its box office gross out of theaters in only eight American cities and will never play in most of the others4.


Sources: (Page numbers not available due to Kindle format. Some of the quote appear in more than one of his books.)

1 "Fresh Air" broadcast of an onstage interview with Terry Gross and Gene Siskel, 1996

2 Roger Ebert, Ebert's Bests (Chicago Shorts), The Ebert Publishing Company, 2012

3 Roger Ebert, Questions for The Movie Answer Man, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 1997

4 Roger Ebert, Awake in the Dark, The University of Chicago Press, 2006


Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on Facebook. Also check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to Copyright 2013 NorCal Wine. Photo of Roger Ebert by Monty Brinton. All rights reserved.

Premiere Napa Valley 2012 in Photos

Premiere Napa Valley 2012 took place on February 25 at the Culinary Institute of America's Greystone Campus in St. Helena. I thoroughly enjoyed the event. The best thing for me was the ability to taste wines and meet winemakers from so many top echelon Napa Valley wineries. They were conveniently collected for me and the other attendees in the spacious barrel room.

I did not try to taste every one of the wines offered by the 200 attending wineries. Instead, I primarily sought out the wines and principals of those wineries listed as first-time Premiere participants. It was my first experience with many of them.

In this post, I'll offer some tasting notes and interesting factoids. But I really want to give you a taste of the event through photos. If you're looking for more complete coverage, here are some articles I recommend:

Premiere Napa Valley is an annual auction of custom barrel lots of wine made by Napa Valley vintners. The wines are donated by the wineries. The event is open to trade (wine shops, distributors, restaurants, etc.) and media only. Proceeds from the event go to support the Napa Valley Vintners trade association. This year's auction brought in a record-breaking $3.1 million.

After arriving at the Culinary Institute, attendees registered in the main floor lobby. Registration began at 9am. There was coffee in the lobby and this excellent layout of cheese upstairs just outside the barrel room to ensure everyone was sufficiently fortified for the tasting.

Buy this cheese! It's amazing. The Flora Nelle is a semi-soft, blue cheese made from organic cow's milk. The ash-rolled cheese is made by Rogue Valley Creamery of Central Point, Oregon, one of my favorite producers. It's has a ligher, fruitier flavor than their best-known blues, Caveman Blue and Crater Lake Blue.

Reluctantly, I left the cheese. Armed with glass and spit cup (handed to me by the sagacious Russ Weis of Silverado Vineyards), I entered the hall of deliciousness.

In an unusual, yet delectable, move, Casa Piena and Jones Family Vineyards teamed up on an auction lot. Winemaker Thomas Brown took Casa Piena's Yountville valley floor fruit and the Calistoga hillside grapes of Jones Family to create an excellent wine that was rich yet fresh and had ample structure so well-integrated as to be almost subliminal. I thanked Casa Piena owner Carmen Policy for his contributions to all those great 49er seasons. It was a pleasure to meet veteran vintner Rick Jones for the first time as well.

Just steps away, I was greeted by Frank Farella and his son Tom Farella of Farella Vineyard in Coombsville. Tom was a driving force in that region's recent elevation to AVA status.

Managing partner Craig Camp and winemaker Jeff Keene of Cornerstone Cellars poured a three-vineyard blend. Davis Block Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon was rounded out with 10% Merlot from the Stewart Vineyard in Carneros and 5% Cabernet Franc from the Talcott Vineyard in St. Helena. The wine had a gentle attack, loads of juicy cherry balanced by plenty of ripe tannins, and a very long finish. As with most of the recent Cornstone Cellars wines I've tried, it's ageworthy yet immediately accessible.

Sean Capiaux of O'Shaugnessy Estate Winery on Howell Mountain poured a unique blend from its two estate vineyards. The wine was 74% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Malbec and 10% St. Macaire. The latter was one of the eight original, sanctioned grapes of Bordeaux. Today, O'Shaugnessy is one of very few wineries in the world to grow it. The wine was very good, sporting fresh cherry and berry fruit, medium body and a long finish.

Winemaker Cathy Corison once again delivered an elegant and balanced Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Her Premiere wine was a special blend of Corison Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvigon and Kronos Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. To learn more about Cathy and her wines of "power and elegance," check out this short video interview by Ed Thralls.

Normally, the weather is something you discuss when you can't think of anything else to talk about. Not so in Napa Valley last week. Warm days and beautiful cloudless skies may well lead to an early start for the growing season. Darioush winemaker Steve Devitt and I discussed the impact of the mild winter. He said bud break could potentially come this week.

Scott and Joann Snowden of Snowden Vineyards poured a Cabernet Franc from their hillside estate vineyard that lies above Auberge du Soleil. The wine was tasty and replete with bright red fruit.

If you need to find MLB Hall of Fame first baseman Eddie Murray, hang around bottles of Shafer Estate. I met him at the winery on Friday where he celebrated his birthday with the great wines they poured at their pre-Premiere party. I ran into him again on Saturday the Shafer's barrel and got him to pose with proprietors John and Doug Shafer. Murray knows a good thing when he tastes it. 5-cases of the Shafer Sunspot Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon sold for $40,000.

Dirk Fulton (left) and his wife, Becky Kukkola are the proprietors of The Vineyardist. The winemaker is Mark Herold (right).The Diamond Mountain property, originally called Calarcadia, was first planted with vines in 1884. Purchased in 2000 by Fulton and Kukkola, it's now bearing Cabernet Sauvignon managed by Jim Barbour. The Vineyardist auction lot, a 2010, is from that winery's second vintage.

Denis Malbec makes wine for Kapcsandy, Blankiet and his own Erba among others. I tasted the Kapscandy auction lot, a Cabernet Sauvignon pulled from barrels normally reserved for the Kapcsandy Grand Vin. It was one of the best wines I tasted that weekend; long, very well balanced, textured and full of beautiful fruit yet somehow restrained. The 10-case lot sold to the Nakagawa Wine Company of Tokyo for $60,000. Nakagawa also snagged the Cabernet Sauvignon from Ovid Napa Valley, one of my favorite wines from the Friday tastings, for $55,000.

Among the other wines I tasted worth noting are:

The very luxurious 2010 Dana Estates Cabernet Sauvignon made by Philippe Melka from the fruit of three vineyards: Helms (Rutherford valley floor), Lotus (a west-facing vineyard at 1,200 feet on Howell Mountain), and Hershey (at 1,800 feet on Howell Mountain). This 5-case lot brough the day's top price. $70,000. That's $1,167 per bottle.

The 2010 Moone-Tsai Cabernet Sauvignon from the To Kalon Vineyard, also made by Philippe Melka, was a ripe and chalky wine that whispered sweet "drink me's" in my ear. The 5-case lot sold for $31,000.

Lunch Time!

Nothing makes a person hungry like tasting 200 wines. Satisfying that hunger was no problem at Premiere Napa Valley. Greystone is a tremendous venue in this regard with its huge teaching kitchen and legion of cooking instructors and students. They prepared a massive buffet spread.

Ellie Proctor slides massive butternut squash agnolotti into a steaming cauldron.

Plates full, attendees gathered in the baking center to talk about their favorite wines — and sample more — while chowing down.

The Auction

Napa Valley Vintners Executive Director Linda Reiff offered opening remarks and introduced the day's auctioneers.

Among the vintners on-hand for the auction was Koerner Rombauer. His winery put a 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Proprietors' Reserve Stice Lane on the block.

Restauranteur and ex-NBA star Mark Eaton attended, completing a Premiere sweep for the big three sports. He played his entire career with the Utah Jazz and is now part owner of a Holladay, Utah restaurant called Tuscany. The restaurant, which holds a Best of Award of Excellence rating from Wine Spectator for its wine list, has been a successful bidder several times in the past. The 7' 4" Eaton definitely had an advantage in spotting top wineries in the packed tasting room. This year they grabbed Roy Estates' Voix Basse for $25,000.

1(Pro)WineDude Joe Roberts watched the proceedings closely along with other members of the media.

Fittingly, bidder #1 was among the first to jump into the fray, going after the opening lot from Pine Ridge.

"Sold!" says Auctioneer Ursula Hermacinski.

I have to admit that I didn't stay for the entire auction. As I'm not trade, I wasn't bidding and I wanted to spend some time enjoying the vineyards with their explosions of brilliant yellow mustard.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on Facebook. Also check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to Copyright 2012 NorCal Wine. Photos by Fred Swan. All rights reserved.

Updated: Antonio Galloni Identifies a New Generation of Cult Wineries

Update: The numbers in my own original analysis below omitted a number of wines Antonio Galloni reviewed, due to an issue with "search" on the WA site. After reviewing the reviews that I had missed, my general point with regard to the new wineries that he has identified remains correct. However, the ratio of new wineries to old is quite a bit lower than it had first appeared. The number of high scores he handed out is also substantially higher. The majority of them went to "the usual suspects," including Abreu, Kongsgaard, Screaming Eagle, Colgin, Dominus, Joseph Phelps, etc. I've updated some of the text below accordingly. To the list of "new" wineries that Galloni touts should be added Magie Rouge (winemaker Luc Morlet), Barrett & Barrett (joint project of Heidi and Bo Barrett), and James Johnson (winemaker Thomas Rivers Brown), Cabaud Wines (winemaker Luc Morlet), Casa Piena (winemaker Thomas Rivers Brown), Paratus (winemaker Massimo Monticelli), Pott Wine (winemaker Aaron Pott) and Seaver Family Vineyards (winemaker Thomas Rivers Brown).


It’s been a big week for calculating point-spreads and over-unders. Will the home team come out on top? Or will they be relegated to second class by a powerful national ranking system?

After crunching the numbers and reviewing the film, W. Blake Gray and Alder Yarrow concluded that our local heroes, the Napa Vintners, will prevail. Antonio Galloni inspected the wines. He ranked them and published the results. There was no major re-ordering of Napa Valley’s established stars. Nor was there a wholesale rejection of the Big 12, or big wines in general.

The most notable differences between Galloni’s assessment and that of his hugely influential predecessor, Robert Parker, were

  • A bunching up of wines — fewer stratospheric scores but also an elevation from sub-90 for others resulting in a slightly higher average score
  • Better scores for Corison, long seen as an example of elegance and great wine under-scored by Parker

The general take-away is as Gray said, “much more is the same under Galloni than not.” Yarrow’s view is essentially the same, “Galloni's scores match Parker’s with an almost scary precision, except for the fact that Galloni seems to be a tougher grader.”

There was natural uncertainty as to what would happen with a new reviewer of California wines. And there was some concern, because Parker’s scores had done so much to promote the region and especially it’s more ripe and fleshy wines. Frankly, many wineries owe their continuing existence to sales driven by Parker scores. On the other hand, it would have made little sense for Parker to cede such a high-profile region — popular with consumers as well as collectors and Wine Advocate subscribers — to a person that would immediately contradict what had been published before.

antonio_galloniIn interviews with Galloni not long after the announcement, he didn’t talk about upsetting the apple cart. But he did note several times an interest in discovering new wineries. "I'm convinced there are a lot of young producers who are under the radar, and I'm looking to discover them," Galloni said. "Discovering lesser-known wineries is really where the excitement is.”


Two Rivers-Marie Cabernet Sauvignon wines from the 2009 vintage were rated at 95 and 94 points. These were the first ever reviews for Rivers-Marie by Wine Advocate. The label is new but the winemaker is no stranger to top WA scores. Rivers-Marie is the project of winemaker Thomas Rivers Brown and his wife Genevieve Marie Welsh. Brown also makes the wines for Schrader, Outpost, Black Sears and others. All have received excellent Parker scores in the past with Schrader having hit 100 six times.

The 2009 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon from Gandona Vineyards also received 95 points. This was Gandona Vineyards’ first Wine Advocate listing as well. The wine, which is sold via a mailing list and retails for $190, is crafted from the Pritchard Hill grapes by star winemaker Phillipe Melka.

At 94 points, there are familiar names such as Crocker and Starr, Behrens and Hitchcock and Bryant Family. There are also two “new” names. Carte Blanche received 94 points for both a 2009 and a 2008, their first vintage. Carte Blanche is owned by Nicholas Allen, great-grandson of Clarence Dillon who long owned Chateau Haut-Brion and whose family later took on La Mission Haut-Brion. Luc Morlet makes the wine for Carte Blanche. He has received high WA scores in the past while at Peter Michael Winery and Staglin.

Another name with a 94 next to it is Derenoncourt for a 2008 Stagecoach Vineyard Merlot. Only one wine from the Derenoncourt label had been previously reviewed at WA. That was their first offering, a $27 red table wine. The Merlot along with the 93-point Coombsville Cabernet Franc and 92-point California Cabernet Sauvignon are the first of Stephane Derenoncourt’s high-end wines with published reviews in WA. However, Derenoncourt is also no stranger to Robert Parker reviews. He is a famous flying winemaker who first grabbed attention at Chateau Pavie Macquin and then La Mondotte, both in Bordeaux. His bio says he now consults for more than 60 wineries around the world, one of which has been Rubicon Estate.

Other new wineries at 92 points or better included Brand Estate (winemaker Phillipe Melka), Moone-Tsai (winemaker Phillipe Melka) and Harbison (winemaker Russell Bevan). Galloni has made good on his promise of identifying hot new wineries.

On the other hand, every single one of the new wineries Galloni heralds have uber-famous winemakers and have been designed from the ground up to produce the scores they are getting. There are no surprise appearances from “little guys” or unknown winemakers. To get back to football analogies, these highly-rated new wineries are like the 49ers under Harbaugh. They couldn’t be considered underdogs. Their success in making well-reviewed wine was almost assumed. Only the speed and scale of that success might be a surprise.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to Copyright 2011 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

Introducing the Coombsville AVA in Napa Valley

Yesterday, December 14, 2011, the Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) approved the Coombsville AVA (American Viticultural Area). Located in eastern Napa, Coombsville becomes the 16th AVA in Napa Valley. The new AVA goes into effect on January 13, 2012.

The petition for granting an AVA had been made by Tom Farella and Bradford Kitson. It was a redrafting of an earlier petition for an AVA called Tulocay which the TTB had denied. The proposed Tulocay AVA had been slightly larger and crossed into Solano County. The TTB also felt that the name Tulocay did not have sufficiently broad acceptance.

The Coombsville AVA is named for an area of the city of Napa called Coombsville. It's namesake was Nathan Coombs, one of the founders of the city of Napa and a large landholder there. At one time, he held 2,525 acres east of the Napa River. The area has been referred to on official maps as Coombsville since at least 1876. Wine grapes have been grown there since 1870, if not earlier. It was then that the Carbone family started a vineyard. About ten years later, the Carbones built what was probably Coombsville's first winery.

The Coombsville AVA totals 11,075 acres, 1,360 of which are within commercial vineyards. It is roughly bordered by the Napa River on the west, the ridge of the Vaca Range on the east, Monticello Rd. on the north and Imola Ave. on the south. Much of the AVA is at sea level, but it rises to 1,900 feet on Mt. George in the northeast corner. The soils of Coombsville are substantially alluvial on top of volcanic ash. The alluvium includes large stones and gravel, formed by erosion of volcanic rhyolitic tuff from the Vaca Range. It drains well. The volcanic ash, which settled after eruptions of Mt. George, holds water that can be tapped by deep-diving vines.

ackermanvineyardsThe Coombsville AVA has a cooler growing season than many in Napa Valley. The nearby San Pablo Bay and Napa River moderate temperatures. Morning fog is common. During Spring and early Fall, the waters also keep Coombsville warmer and make frosts less frequent. These factors combine to create a long, moderate growing season. It average about 19 inches of rain per year, two more than Los Carneros but two-and-a-half less than Oak Knoll District. Likewise, it averages 2,550 heat summation units, 100 more than Los Carneros but 338 less than Oak Knoll District. This puts Coombsville very close to the coolest end of region II in the Winkler climate classification system.

Cabernet Sauvignon is by far the most-grown varietal in the Coombsville AVA. Other red Bordeaux varietals, especially Merlot and Cabernet Franc, are also popular. Syrah can also be found and some areas are cool enough to do well with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

The Coombsville Vintners and Growers association includes 25 wineries and 13 additional growers. They are all characterized by the association as small and family-owned. Visits are by appointment only. However, while case-production levels are small, there is a big range in the level of investment put into the wineries and their facilities. There are modest wineries, but others that are truly amazing. Ackerman Family Vineyards was featured in the book Spectacular Wineries of Napa Valley. Palmaz Vineyard has built one of the most impressive winery facilities I’ve ever seen. Their’s is a huge gravity-flow operation, tall as an 18-story building, but all set into the side of Mt. George.

Four wineries currently feature the name Coombsville on some or all of their labels: Bighorn Cellars, Laird Family Estate, Farella-Park Vineyards and Monticello Cellars. These wineries have notified the TTB that they are all in compliance with TTB regulations for the new AVA as the wines in question are made from at least 85% Coombsville fruit.

The Wineries of the Coombsville AVA

Ackerman Family Vineyards
Ancien Wines
Black Cat Vineyard
Blue Oak Vineyard
Burly Wine
Caldwell Vineyards
Daviana Winery
Farella Vineyard
Frazier Winery
Inherit the Sheep
Le Chanceux
Marita’s Vineyard
Meteor Vineyard
Palmaz Vineyard
Porter Family Vineyards
Prime Cellars
Sciandri Family Vineyards
Silverado Vineyards
Sodaro Estate Winery
Thomas Michael
Tulocay Winery

The Growers of the Coombsville AVA

Angel Acres
Bennett Vineyards
Christian Vineyards
Coutese Vineyard
D’Ambrosio Vineyards
Darrin Family Vineyards
Dead Fred Vineyard
Francis Vineyards
McCrorie Family Vineyard
Sciandri Estate
Simpkins Family Vineyard
Toivola Family Vineyard


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This article is original to Copyright 2011 NorCal Wine. Ackerman Vineyard photo courtesy of Ackerman Vineyards. All rights reserved.