Jul 2009 issue

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PAGES (60-66) July 2009

Cult Wines for Tough Times Marlene Rossman

In the olden days (before mid-2008), a label was considered a “cult” wine if it regularly received scores of 95 points or more, was hard to find due to limited production, cost $300 or more at release, and was sold only by mailing list to a few early adopters. These über-fabulous wines would often be “flipped” or sold on the secondary market for two to three times the release price.

We all still want to drink good—no, make that great —wine, but spending hundreds of dollars on a bottle seems a bit obscene nowadays. And to be perfectly honest, is a $750 bottle really 10 times better than a $75 bottle? So what’s a wine geek to do? Take a bottle of wine from the next generation of cult winemakers and call me in the morning.

In this “post-crash” economy, you really need to know about the up-and-coming winemakers who are crafting exquisite wines at reasonable prices. A few of these names may sound vaguely familiar, while others are flying so far below the radar that you’ll need sonar to find them. In any case, you will assuredly be hearing a lot more about these six winemakers. Most of them are young; all are modest, unassuming, and passionate about their art. They’re at the top of their trade; their wines are astonishing, if still little known—and none costs more than $75.

Another attribute shared by these “cultish” winemakers is a non-interventionist philosophy. We’ve all tasted “Frankenwines”—bottlings that have been manipulated with additives and techniques to make them flashier and boost their ratings. The winemakers I’m writing about use craft, not chemicals, to let the terroir shine through.

MAGGIE HARRISON, ANTICA TERRA AND LILLIAN WINERY

Harrison apprenticed as assistant winemaker with Manfred Krankl and his wife, Elaine, at Sine Qua Non for more than eight years. Krankl’s tiny-production wines, known only to a few lucky “listers” and other cognoscenti, are deeply concentrated, sublime—and wildly pricey. With fantastic labels and quirky names like Boots, Pasties, Scanty Panties and a Ten Gallon Hat (a Roussanne) and Just For the Love of It (a Syrah), Krankl’s wines have transcended mere cult status.

Harrison had no winemaking education or training, having majored in international relations. After hoofing it around Africa, however, she moved in July 2008 to California, where she landed the job at Sine Qua Non “through a mixture of serendipity, fate, and shameful persistence.” In addition to a Krankl-like Lillian Syrah from Santa Barbara County’s White Hawk Vineyard, Harrison also makes outstanding Pinot Noir at Antica Terra, an Oregon winery in which she bought a share of ownership in 2005.

KENT HUMPHRIES, ERIC KENT WINE CELLARS

Like Harrison, Humphries holds no formal winemaking degree; his academic background is in advertising. Before establishing his Eric Kent winery in Sonoma County, he gained experience working for Napa’s Ballentine Vineyards, where he made Cabernet, Merlot, Zinfandel, Syrah, and Chenin Blanc; and at Chasseur, a boutique producer of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in western Sonoma County.

Humphries credits Bruce Devlin, the winemaker at Ballentine; Bill Hunter, owner and winemaker at Chasseur; and Mike Officer, owner and co-winemaker at Sonoma’s Carlisle Winery & Vineyards, for spending many hours answering every question he threw their way. His Kalen’s Big Boy Blend Syrah has already been acclaimed by the wine press, and his Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs are ethereal. His philosophy: “When the work is done well in the vineyard and nature cooperates, intervention and manipulation are rarely needed.”

Humphries and his wife, Colleen Teitgen, a former art director, encourage up-and-coming local artists by commissioning them to design the beautiful Eric Kent back labels, as well as by supporting Sonoma arts events.

BRYAN KANE, SOL ROUGE AND VIE WINERY

Kane is unique among these winemakers in that he owns his own land. He recently bought 70 acres in Lake County, the relatively undiscovered viticultural area just north of Napa Valley, for his Sol Rouge vineyard and winery. Once a home winemaker, enthusiast, and collector, Kane credits winemaker Scott Shapley, formerly with Sonoma’s Siduri Wines and Copain Wines and now the winemaker at Roessler Cellars, for helping him learn his craft.

Today, Kane makes wonderfully polished Rhône-style wines and Zinfandels for Vie Winery, based on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay, with sexy names like Les Amours Syrah (also from the White Hawk Vineyard), L’Imaginaire Grenache, and L’Intruse Mourvèdre. At Sol Rouge, Kane has sourced grapes from Oakville’s Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard for his extremely limited-production (50 cases) 2006 TKL Cabernet Sauvignon. His 2005 Sol Rouge Cabernet Sauvignon, from the To Kalon and Dr. Crane vineyards, received “Best-of-Appellation” honors from Appellation America in May 2008. Sol Rouge is one of the few producers offering reasonable prices for To Kalon Cabernet—most others still charge $100-300.

JASON MOORE,MODUS OPERANDI CELLARS

Moore is a true Napa Valley garagiste ; at a 2002 tasting, he met grower Tom Thompson, who was willing to give him an acre of his first crop and set him up in his own garage. Moore applied the basic knowledge he had picked up from extension classes at the University of California-Davis and Napa Valley College, but ultimately, he had to figure things out on his own. When he had a problem with the wine (and he often did), he would first research how to address it, then come up with a strategy, and finally e-mail his list of mentors (including Jon Berlin, Robert Foley, Michael Havens, Steve Lagier, Craig MacLean, Brian Mox, Mark Porembski, Mike Trotta, Chris Tynan, and Kirk Venge), describing how he intended to fix the problem. Moore credits these winemaking luminaries for responses ranging from “great job” to “wrong!” Today, his approach is to let the vineyard guide him.

In 2005, Moore worked the harvest at Viader. In 2006, he was hired as production manager of Silenus Vintners, a custom-crush facility, where he served as assistant winemaker for 14 brands. (Still multitasking, he now makes wine for a half-dozen emerging wineries.) His first commercial vintage of Modus Operandi consisted of a mere 200 cases of 2004 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2005 MO Cab was the runaway favorite at a trade tasting last year.

ROB NEWSOM, BOUDREAUX CELLARS

Newsom is a colorful character who earned his degree in forestry, became a mountain guide, and developed products for Gore-Tex. During his frequent travels around the world, he discovered a taste for wine and began visiting many producers and estates. One day back home in Washington, a friend of his, legendary Leonetti Cellars founder Gary Figgins, dared Newsom to make his own wine. That began a three-year process of garage winemaking under Figgins’s tutelage.

In 2001, Newsom went commercial with Boudreaux Cellars—four miles off the power grid and the only completely self-powered winery in Washington. The name has nothing to do with Bordeaux; Newsom is a Louisiana native with a sense of humor that shines through on his website: “Good gosh, Gertie! This sure is purty. Big, long, Merlot. Funner than a strip show.”

Sourcing fruit from such celebrated Washington vineyards as Champoux, Horse Heaven Hills, Klipsun, and Seven Hills for his 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, Newsom has already reached the cult stratosphere. “What is hard,” he says, “is to make the same wine you made last year. Everybody loved last year’s wine, but fruit changes every year. Without diversifying, you risk losing consistency.”

GREG STACH, KANZLER VINEYARDS

Say the word “Kanzler,” and most wine geeks think of Kosta Browne. Of course, Michael Browne has long produced one of his stellar Pinot Noirs from Kanzler Vineyard fruit, as have the winemakers at A.P. Vin, Kutch Wines, Rhys/Alesia, Roessler Cellars, and Landmark Vineyards. Landmark’s assistant winemaker, Stach, is also the young impresario at Kanzler Vineyards.

When Stach was a kid in Napa Valley, his parents grew vegetables and raised livestock on a small family farm. Stach says this had “a profound effect on my palate,” teaching him “to focus on how things taste and feel in the mouth.” He got his start in the restaurant business as a waiter and later as a wine buyer in Reno, Nev. There, he was able to try first-growth Bordeaux, grand cru Burgundies, and aged Champagnes. He was hooked.

In 1998, Stach went back to Fresno State University to learn the technical aspects of winemaking; unlike the other five next-generation winemakers, he holds a degree in enology. In 2001, he moved to the Russian River Valley to work at Landmark as a “cellar rat,” making Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Stach credits Landmark winemaker Eric Stern as his mentor. And at his initial crush, he met Steve Kanzler, who offered him half a barrel of Pinot Noir grapes and thus started him on his own course. Like his young colleagues, Stach’s philosophy is “to find the best grapes and let the vineyard speak for itself.”

When economic times get tough, the tough look for under-the-radar winemaking virtuosi like the six profiled here. But since these “new cults” are all limited-production wines, let’s not tell too many people—or I won’t be able to get my allotments.

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