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NorCal Wine Blog

Building Brands for a Winery and Region Simultaneously - Goodland Wines

Last week I wrote about brands, brand building and the difficulty of doing that in the wine business. One of the big challenges is that the very thing which makes wine so compelling—it’s complexity and variability from one place, vintage or winemaker to the next—disallows the consistency that many consumers need to develop brand affinity. A second issue is that “sub-brands,” such as varietal or regional designations, provide important information but can also detract from the strength of the main brand.

For example, a typical consumer may think all Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon are pretty much alike and purchase in that category based on price rather than winery brand. Or consumers may prefer to buy any New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, even if they’ve not tasted it, over any Happy Canyon Sauvignon Blanc regardless of winery name. The former has a powerful brand against which any Sauvignon Blanc must compete for attention no matter how different the style.

One way to eliminate these problematic comparisons is to avoid mention of the varietal. If you have a very good and unique Sauvignon Blanc from Happy Canyon, just call it a Happy Canyon White Wine. You still need to build your own brand, and that of Happy Canyon, but you won’t be doing it in the shadow of New Zealand. This is exactly the approach Goodland is taking in Santa Barbara County.

Goodland is a new producer in that region. It’s essentially a four-partner company. Matt Dees is best known as winemaker for Jonata but has also did work at Staglin and Craggy Range. Dave Potter makes wine and works the room for Municipal Wines in Santa Barbara. Ruben Solorzano, affectionately called “the grape whisperer,” is a very highly respected vineyard manager who tends many plots in Santa Barbara County. He lives in the middle of Stolpman Vineyard which he’s managed since 1994. Chris Snowden has worked in cellar management and sales at various wineries, including his family’s Snowden Vineyards in Napa Valley.

When I first heard about their project I was skeptical. Buyers of California wine are accustomed to buying on a varietal basis. Few of those buyers know much about California’s wine regions either, or even what an appellation is. Beyond Napa Valley, Russian River Valley, Paso Robles and two or three others, AVAs are a total mystery to the average wine drinker. Most will think of Santa Barbara County as the place where the town of Santa Barbara is, not a place that good wine comes from.

The idea of launching a wholly new wine brand in Santa Barbara County with labels that refer only to region, not varietal, seemed masochistic to me. I thought it more likely to confuse customers than help them. I anticipated a difficult sales job. But the more I consider the situation, the smarter it seems.

First, production quantities at Goodland are small. They are unlikely to get stuck with inventory. Goodland’s highest volume wine is just 81 cases.

Second, the pricing is moderate. Matt Dees and Ruben Solorzano told me they want to makes wine they and their friends can afford to buy. Bottles range from $15 to $40. That’s high enough to allay concerns that the somewhat generic names signal. On-premise prices can stay below $50 for whites and $100 for reds.

Third, they are avoiding those troublesome comparisons with other wine regions’ varietals. Goodland needn’t compete as directly against Russian River Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc or Napa Valley Cabernet. Nor do they have to deal with Syrah’s cursed brand.

For more detail, please watch this video interview I did with Matt Dees and Ruben Solorzano.


Tasting Notes for Goodland wines, tasted on August 12, 2013

2011 Goodland Sta. Rita Hills White Wine, $35
Chardonnay is far and away the most-planted white wine grape in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA. Matt Dees fermented this one in neutral barrels and allowed little to no malolactic fermentation. The lees were stirred every two or three days. The Goodland Sta. Rita Hills White is elegant and complex on nose and palate with ripe lemon-lime, dry grass, green apple skin, baking spice and accents of stone fruit. Medium-plus body and acidity, lengthy finish. Highly Recommended.



2011 Goodland Happy Canyon White, $25
Happy Canyon is, relative to Sta. Rita Hills, quite warm. It’s still a bit cooler than Oakville though. Hot days and radically cooler mights make it a happy canyon for Sauvignon Blanc. With stainless steel fermentation and no malolactic fermentation, this wine is a study in fresh citrus and acidity. The nose shows lime, grapefruit and mineral. The very fresh, medium-bodied palate has fine-grained texture and adds flavors of green apple and tart stone fruit to the persistent citrus and minerality. Lengthy finish. Highly Recommended.





2011 Sta. Rita Hills Red, $40
While not as dominant in the Sta. Rita Hills for red wines as Chardonnay is for white, Pinot Noir is still the AVA’s signature red grape. 2010 was arguably the coldest growing season that always cool appellation has seen. However, 2011 wasn’t much warmer and lacked the late season heat spike that provided a final push to ripeness in 2010. Goodland’s Pinot Noir comes is lithe and flavorful but just 12.2% alcohol. Earthy red fruit—especially cherry—brown spice, savory herb, cherry stem, smoke and dried orange zest. The palate is finely textured and sophisticated with medium body and medium-plus length. Highly Recommended.



2010 Santa Ynez Valley Red Wine, $25
This Syrah/Grenache blend was the first wine in the Goodland project. Dees said he was looking for a fruit-driven wine of density, not worrying about representing a single variety. It’s ripe and slightly earthy with plum and other black fruit, dark spice and partially dried herb. The palate adds elements of dark chocolate, smoke and old leather. The light-grained tannins and body are just short of medium-plus, the finish lengthy. Highly Recommended.



2011 Happy Canyon Red Wine, $40
While Goodland looks to build awareness for Santa Barbara County’s appellations and wine styles, they aren’t afraid to dance on the edge. When it comes to this Cabernet Sauvignon for example, they went old-school (late 70’s Napa) rather than building a fleshy, hedonistic wine. In Happy Canyon, that meant going high-elevation. There you have not only the big—up to 50 degrees—diurnal temperature shift but also howling winds that limit bunch count, berry size and ripening. Highly Recommended.

Dees told me the grapes for this wine were tiny and it took a couple days of foot stomping to get the juice out. In the glass, it’s what Dees called “dusty, herbal and angular in the best way possible.” I found plenty of fruit, but it’s not even in the same universe as jammy.

Dry forest floor and herb, spice, trail dust, dried flowers, red currant and cherry on the nose. Medium-plus body, acidity and tannins (fine-grained and powdery). Flavors match the aromas but add cocoa and black olive to the mix. The finish is quite long. Decanting will be beneficial as will extended cellar aging.



2011 Ballard Canyon Red Wine, $35
“Ballard Canyon is like [the porridge that’s just right in Goldilocks and] the Three Bears, not too cold and not too hot,” Dees says. “And it’s got that hint of corruption than makes Syrah so cool.” I was the one that came away corrupted though. The 2011 Ballard Canyon Red has a split personality but both are beguiling.

Aromatically, it is floral with high-toned spice and purple fruit, leading me to expect a slender palate framed by acid. But no, it’s a nearly full-bodied wine with moderate acidity but a wealth of fine-powdery and talc-like tannins. The flavors of mocha, leather and lush black fruit and just delicious. Very Highly Recommended.


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. All rights reserved.

Chardonnay and Botrytis

Typically when we think of botrytis, it’s with respect to Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon or Chenin Blanc. When "noble rot" comes together with those grapes, the result can be some of the world’s very best dessert wines, including Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese, Sauternes and Quarts de Chaume. Chardonnay is less vulnerable to botrytis than those varieties, but it’s not impervious.

I spied noble rot hiding in scattered Chardonnay bunches while touring some vineyards just before harvest began this year. Fortunately, botrytized Chardonnay provides attractive flavors. And, since the amount of affected grapes in any one block or vineyard is typically quite low, the bunches with botrytis can be fermented with unaffected grapes and the resulting wine will still be dry and very much a typical Chardonnay. Some winemakers appreciate the added complexity botrytis provides. Others instruct pickers to leave afflicted bunches on the vine or simply remove them or  specific berries during sorting.

Botrytis on a Chardonnay bunch about two weeks before harvest.  Photo: Fred Swan, August 2013

A magnification of the same botrytized Chardonnay bunch. Photo: Fred Swan, August 2013

While botrytized grapes make their way into both dry Chardonnay and traditional sparkling wines, some vintners do produce late-harvest Chardonnay dessert wines. The ones I’ve tried were quite sweet and full-bodied but retained plenty of acidity. Flavors included ripe apple, peach, nectarine, pineapple and spice, plus botrytis’ own signature notes. The most recent bottles I enjoyed were from Sonoma Coast Vineyards. I highly recommend those, but they’re not on the standard list of available wines so you’ll need to contact the winery for availability.


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. All rights reserved.

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.

The New Minerality: An Evolution in California Wine

Minerality is not a hallmark of California wines, nor New World wines in general. When expert tasters find overt minerality in a wine they are trying to identify blind, they narrow their focus to Europe. But, more and more, I’m perceiving minerality in California wines. Why is that?

First, here’s what I mean by “minerality.” It’s a flavor decidedly unlike fruit, spice or wood. The taste may be of salt water, chalk, gravel or metal. It can be a little bitter. It might smell like chalk dust, wet rocks, etc. Minerality of this nature is more common in white wines than red.

Where does minerality in wine come from? That’s a hotly debated topic. Though some people believe it to be true, we can be quite certain wine does not taste chalky because a whole bunch of chalky soil is dissolved, sucked up through vines’ roots and captured in the grapes. The mineral content of a soil does impact a wine’s flavors, but that’s because differing levels of potassium, magnesium, sulfur, calcium, iron and other minerals effect the way a vine grows and how the berries ripen. Grapes do contain trace amounts of various minerals but not enough iron, for example, to make a wine taste ferrous. If chalky soil ever makes its wine taste like chalk, it’s because dust stirred up in the vineyard by vehicles and wind can settle on the grapes and find its way into the fermentation tank.

Why do European wines generally taste more like mineral? Europe has limestone and slate, but so do we. France has Chardonnay, we have Chardonnay. Italian tractors probably don’t kick up any more dust than ours do.

I suspect the molecules that create a sense of minerality exist in many wines from both regions, but their aromas and flavors are subtle, easily overwhelmed by stronger ones. Ripe fruit, sweetness, high alcohol, strong spice, oak and oak-derived flavors can be much more potent. Relative strength aside, sweetness and fruit also work to balance bitter flavors. It’s also possible that a few of the flavors call mineral are actually signatures of a certain state of ripeness that disappear when grapes hang longer or get more sun.

White wines tend to have less strongly flavored fruit and oak than reds, hence minerality is more often detected in white wine. European vineyards usually don’t ripen as fully as those here and their table wines usually have less decadent fruit, residual sugar, alcohol and oak than their Californian counterparts.

But California wineries are increasingly producing lean, site-driven wines. Winemakers seek out interesting cool-climate vineyards or simply pick at lower brix because the riper fruit gets the less distinctive it is. Heavy use of new oak, especially in white wines, is declining too. That’s partly because oak masks terroir but also because French oak barrels have gotten extremely expensive.

Neutral oak and concrete tanks are fashionable now. Both expose more minerality than stainless steel. Oak and concrete allow some oxygen transfer thus preserving less dynamic, fresh fruit than air-tight stainless tanks.

The relative lack of minerality in Californian wine used to be ascribed to a variety of factors that didn’t make a lot of sense but, barring evidence to the contrary, were hard to dismiss: general superiority of European vines and vineyards, deeper roots, lack of irrigation (even if their sites get more rain than ours), more characterful earth, etc. Now it appears we’ve had minerality all along. It was just hidden beneath layers of more obvious flavors.

Here’s a handful of the California wines I’ve tasted recently that clearly express minerality.


2012 Jolie Laide Pinot Gris
Aromas of flowers, pear and subtle nectarine. Medium-plus body and lightly textured in the mouth. Flavors of lime, mineral, pear and green apple. Highly Recommended

2012 La Montagne Pinot Blanc Sierra Madre Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley
Lemon-lime, mineral, green apple, delicate flowers and a hint of white grapes on the nose and palate. Medium-bodied, lightly textured and slightly mouthwatering. Highly Recommended.

2011 Goodland Happy Canyon White (Sauvignon Blanc)
Aromas of lime, grapefruit, mineral and spice carrying through to the palate which also includes tart stonefruit and green apple. Medium-bodied with fine-grained texture and a lengthy finish of citrusy minerality. Highly Recommended.

2010 Thomas Fogarty Estate Chardonnay Langley Hill Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains
Flavors and aromas of smokey mineral, yellow apple, pear, cinnamon and other brown spices. Medium+ body and plenty of acidity. Somewhat savory and salty on the palate, especially throughout the long finish. Very Highly Recommended.

2012 Two Shepherds Grenache Blanc Saarloos Vineyard, Santa Ynez
Focused notes of white flowers, tangy stonefruit and spice lead into a juicy palate with medium-plus body. There’s a light texture, fine and powdery, plus persistent saline minerality. Highly Recommended.

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. All rights reserved.

Eight Good Books about California Wine

September is California Wine Month here in the golden state. It’s our annual reminder to do more than just enjoy a few glasses. We think about the significance of the wine industry locally, nationally and globally. We consider new trends, the latest sales and crush statistics, etc.

California Wine Month is also a good time to brush up on our knowledge regarding California wine. Like a nearby tourist attraction you’ve never actually visited yourself, it’s easy to take our local product, its producers and its growing regions for granted. They surround us, their ubiquity breeding nonchalance. Many Californian lovers of wine spend more time learning about the vineyards of France or Italy than those close to home.

So let’s crack a book this month or resolve to take a class. Here are eight of the many books on California wine I recommend.

American Wine: The Ultimate Companion to the Wines and Wineries of the United States by Jancis Robinson and Linda Murphy
Sonoma County-resident Linda Murphy, formerly wine editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, did the vast majority of research and writing for this invaluable resource. It’s billed as a book on American wine and is certainly that. However, 128 of its 279 pages of text, maps and photos are devoted to California. Books focused on individual regions in California will have more depth, but the breadth and meaty overviews make this one well worth the money.

A Companion to California Wine: An Encyclopedia of Wine and Winemaking from the Mission Period to the Present by Charles L. Sullivan
Sullivan’s encyclopedia is one of my favorite resources and the California wine book to which I most frequently turn for answers. If you want an amusing little challenge, try to think of people, wineries and vineyards that are important in California wine history but not found in this book. It’s not easy. 

The Finest Wines of California: A Regional Guide to the Best Producers and Their Wines (The World's Finest Wines) by Stephen Brook
There is always controversy with books such as these. Why is this producer included and not that one? Some people have complained that Screaming Eagle is not covered. I’m sure other people think the omission appropriate. Nonetheless Brook, a contributing editor at Decanter Magazine since 1996, does chronicle many very important California wineries. The final pages of the book provide excellent synopses, up to half a page each, of every California vintage from 1990 through 2009. As a both a writer and a collector of California wine I refer to it often.

The Wines of California (Faber Books on Wine) by Stephen Brook
This book was originally published in 1999 and there have been some updates. I like the original though, because it’s a snapshot of history—what California wines were like then and how they were perceived. Included in the 685 pages are profiles of 630 wineries, plus vineyards that were significant at that time, and more. Comparing those descriptions to the present day highlights the evolution of California wine. I find that both enlightening and useful. And, since you can get a used paperback (the book is out of print) for as little as 21 cents plus shipping, it’s an inexpensive pleasure.

New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff by Steve Heimoff
Heimoff spoke with a good number of important winemakers and published the transcripts. He’s divided the book into three sections based on which decade a winemaker came onto the scene: 1970’s, 1980’s or 1990’s. The style is casual and, of course, conversational. The reader will get to know the winemakers in a way that’s not normally possible without speaking to them in person. Having done so myself with many of these folks, I can tell you that their personalities, speech patterns, etc. are authentically represented. I can see and hear them speaking while I read the words.

A Vineyard in Napa by Doug Shafer, Andy Demsky and Danny Meyer
This is a personal account of the founding and development of Shafer Vineyards in Napa Valley's Stags Leap District. Shafer came to the valley as a high schooler in the 1970’s when his father moved the family from Chicago to get into the wine business. It’s a story about the growth of a premier winery, but also the growth of the industry and the evolution of Napa Valley.

Zin: The History And Mystery Of Zinfandel by David Darlington
This book was originally published as Angels’ Visits in 1991. Our knowledge about the genetic origin of Zinfandel has since grown and superseded that element of Darlington’s book. Wineries have come and gone too. Young winemakers have become... seasoned winemakers. Yet Zin is still an engaging read with interesting background on iconic wineries such as Ridge and Ravenswood. Enjoy it like you would old home movies.

Zinfandel: A History of a Grape and Its Wine (California Studies in Food and Culture) by Charles L. Sullivan
Charles Sullivan is a serious historian. His in-depth research leads to a less page-turny book than Zin but one that is rich with accurate and sometimes surprising detail. Here you’ll find the truth about Zinfandel’s origins, the role played by Agoston Haraszthy and more.

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. All rights reserved.