April 30 2010 issue

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PAGES (8-15) April 30 2010

MAILBOX, NOTEBOOK, CALENDAR, HOT PICKS

Mailbox

POSTCARD

Considering my Europhilic palate, it should be no surprise that my first Postcard from my native California would come from the Chalone American Viticultural Area. Compact, isolated, relatively uniform in geology, decidedly cool-climate, with earth-driven wines and hard-working winemakers, it offers great drinking for both the near and long term—at a price. Nothing comes cheap here except, perhaps, the sunshine.

Nestled within the Gabilan Mountains east of Soledad, mostly in Monterey County, the area draws its name from the Chalone Peaks of the Pinnacles National Monument—remnants of an extinct volcano born 28 million years ago—and the Chollen tribe, which once resided here. Less than 500 acres of vineyards are planted out of a potential 8,600, and its 1,800-foot average elevation keeps it above the Salinas Valley fog, providing diurnal swings as wide as 50-90ºF. Three out of five vintages experience difficulties with spring frost. Rivulets of limestone with clay pockets permeate the friable, sandy-loam topsoils (often tilled for better drainage), running 1.5-4 feet deep before hitting granite. The decomposed granite and limestone subsoils, unique to this part of the state, offer adequate drainage for the root system. Phylloxera is rarely a problem, though nematodes and gophers are. The chaparral climate receives only 12-15 inches of rainfall per year, making irrigation a necessity and creating a recurrent fire danger during summer.

Delayed twice in four days by the August 2009 fires, I visited immediately upon getting word that the roads were open. No vineyards were harmed, but a few winery structures were damaged. Although 19 wineries, including Brousseau, Lioco, Tantara, Testarossa, Thomas Fogarty, and Woodward-Graff, usually participate in the annual Pinnacles Wine Festival, 2010’s festival will be skipped because of the fires and the current economic conditions.

The only fully equipped winery within the AVA is the pioneering Chalone Vineyard. Currently held by British-based Diageo, the property was once owned by Napa Valley winemaker Bill Dyer’s family, who first grew grapes on it as early as 1921. The Dyers sold Chalone to the Silvears, whose historic Chenin Blanc vines can still be found at the edge of the estate. But it took the vision of Dick Graff, later joined by Chicago-based financier Philip Woodward, to call attention to Chalone’s potential in the early 1960s. Graff helped establish the practices of malolactic conversion, barrel fermentation, and barrique aging for California white wines.

Robert Cook, Chalone Vineyard’s fourth winemaker, led me around the property of 1,000 acres, 300 of which are planted to vines. He mentioned that Woodward suspects grapevines were planted here in the late 1800s, but lacks firm evidence. In the genial winemaker’s view, the Dijon clones planted prior to his arrival five years ago were detracting from typicity in his Pinot Noirs. Although the 2006 was tasty, I was inclined to agree with him that the fruit was overpowering the mineral character. The Chalone Chardonnays are generally oaky and malolactic-driven, full-throttle, warm, and clearly acidified, but they do age well. Syrah and Grenache were planted in 1998; the 2006 Grenache harvest consisted of five barrels, showing streamlined tannins and an alluring delicacy. Never having been a fan of oaked Chenin Blanc, I felt that Chalone’s small-production batch would have had plenty of flavor without the wood, to which Cook countered that its loyal customers favor this element.

Cook’s predecessor, Michael Michaud (pictured above), now wrangles his own vineyards northwest of his former employer, closer to the ocean and farther from the Pinnacles, and so harvests as late as two weeks after Chalone. Established in 1998, Michaud Vineyard is owned by Michael and his wife Carol, a partner at wholesaler-importer Chambers & Chambers. Perhaps learning from his Chalone experience, Michaud planted a mixture of Pinot Noir clones for a more typical expression of the grape. His 28.5 acres of vines also include Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Syrah, and Sangiovese, along with some non-commercialized Melon and Marsanne; Albariño and Tempranillo are under consideration.

Enduring a characteristically stiff afternoon breeze, Michaud told me of his garden-loving Swiss father, who regularly served wine at the family dinner table. But it was a ’71 Mondavi Zinfandel that turned Michael on to making wine, leading him to major in both chemistry and enology. UC-Davis classmate Randall Grahm directed him to Graff, with whom he shared 19 vintages of ceaseless experimentation. His adherence to native-yeast fermentation is a holdover from that time spent with Graff. Today, Michaud’s wines are more dramatic and fuller-bodied than his neighbors’, if tougher to find.

Cheers, David Furer

SPECIAL EDUCATION ISSUE

I am currently in the process of turning a hobby and passion into a new career in the world of wine, after having spent 25 years on Wall Street. I have earned my CSW from the Society of Wine Educators and passed the Intermediate Level exam at the Wine & Spirit Education Trust. I am halfway through my studies to earn the Advanced certificate from the WSET as well.

For me, your Roundtable discussion in the March 15 issue hit right at home. The same thoughts I have had since I began this process--standardization of educational materials, wine-tasting techniques and practices, the diverse backgrounds of my fellow students, wine terminology and jargon, and most of all, what to do with all these certifications--came back to me in a direct and personal way. What I appreciated most about the article was that it emphasized the industry's willingness to assess its progress through self-examination--"Are we getting it right? Are we meeting the needs of today's students? Are we consistent in both our approach and goals? Are we doing everything we can?"--which, I believe, is a crucial and paramount exercise for all educators to perform.

Thank you for assembling such a talented group of educators, journalists, and wine professionals who deliver informative, educational, concise, and well-written articles in each publication.

KEITH J. PIGNATARO
Summit, N.J.

CLARIFICATION

In the Master's Quiz from the March 15 issue, the answer to question 1 in the Introductory Level section, regarding the only Burgundian appellation to produce both red and white grands crus, was given as d) Corton. Technically, a) Musigny is also correct: Domaine Comte Georges de Vogüé owns a small parcel of white grapes within the Musigny vineyard that may be vinified as grand cru. Our thanks to reader Doug Schulman for bringing this to our attention.



Notebook

MARKET TRENDS TRACKED

Danny Brager, Nielsen vice president group client director for beverage alcohol, shared recent data on wine-industry trends at the Wine Market Council’s Fifth Annual U.S. Wine Consumer Trends Conference in Dallas on Jan. 21. Dollar sales of wine increased 2.6% in the year ending Dec. 12, 2009, more than beer (2%) or spirits (1.4%), but not as much as craft beers, which have grown by 2% in sales over the past six months. The Brewers Association’s 2009 report on craft brewers supports Brager’s finding: while overall U.S. beer sales were down by about 5 million barrels in 2009, small and independent craft brewers reported an increase in sales of 10.3% and in volume of 7.2% over 2008. In 2009, the total number of craft brewers increased from 1,485 to 1,542. "Crafts are good marketers," said Brager. "We need to make sure we’re as intense about telling our story to compete effectively."

According to Brager, the most significant growth in wine sales has been online and in convenience stores, drug stores, and club stores for bottles costing $3-6 and $9-15. Boxed-wine sales are also increasing, as are sales of 187-ml four-packs and Tetra Paks. In the 13 weeks ending Feb. 2, overall off-premise wine sales increased 3.5%; 4,000 more retail stores were selling wine in December 2009 compared to a year earlier. The data also indicated a trend toward localization, with wine sales growing by double digits in smaller-production states such as Indiana, Missouri, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Brager noted that more than 50% of consumers say they try to buy locally made products.

Nielsen-tracked data also revealed that in the year ending Feb. 6, domestic wine sales grew by 4.7%, while imported wine sales declined by 1%. Argentina and New Zealand, currently ranked fifth and sixth, respectively, in imports to the United States, remained the international growth leaders. Based on varietal, Riesling, Pinot Noir, and Sauvignon Blanc showed the most sales growth, with Malbec, Moscato, Petite Sirah, and Tempranillo also gaining market share.

IN MEMORY OF ALOIS KRACHER SR.

The Burgenland wine region in southeast Austria, centered on Lake Neusiedl, has been famous for its botrytis-affected dessert wines for more than 30 years. That growth in popularity has been due in large part to the efforts of Alois Kracher Sr., the visionary winemaker who died of cancer in March at age 81.

I met Alois while traveling in Austria during the summer of 2009. A year and a half earlier, his son, Alois "Luis" Kracher Jr., had died unexpectedly of complications from pancreatic cancer. At the time of my visit, Weingut Kracher’s fate still hung in the balance, and the stress of running a family winery without an essential cog was palpable. Nonetheless, even though I spoke no German, Alois was courtly, cordial, and polite—a model gentleman. What I remember most clearly is his aura of perpetual motion, an almost frenetic quality that marked him as an unusual octogenarian.

Alois planted his initial plot of grapevines in 1959 on 1.2 acres near the family home. His first successful sweet wine was bottled in 1965, and he continued to improve and expand the operation until he owned 79 acres of vineyards. He handed control to Luis in 1986. Even as the younger Kracher’s botrytised wines found international fame in the 1990s, Luis greatly valued his father’s experience and opinions.

Immediately after Luis’s death, there was skepticism over whether Gerhard (Alois Sr.’s then-26-year-old grandson, who’s now the winemaker), Michaela (Luis’s widow, who oversees the winery business), and Alois himself (who came out of retirement after his son died) could keep their surname synonymous with Austrian Trockenbeerenauslese. All indications are that under Alois’s guidance, Weingut Kracher has weathered that storm. But the self-effacing Gerhard, who worked side-by-side with his father and grand-father for nearly a decade before taking over, is quick to point out that no one person is capable of filling all of his legendary ancestors’ roles.
—Benjamin T. Weinberg

2010 SALON DES VINS DE LOIRE

In a sign of tough economic times, the 24th edition of the Salon des Vins de Loire, France’s longest-running regional wine trade fair, was marked by an 8% downturn in attendance. Still, the wines, people, and organization of this event, held Feb. 1-3 in Angers, maintained their traditionally high quality. Benjamin Béranger of La Rochelle won the annual sommelier competition, with Christian Pechoutre, France’s 2000 top sommelier, as chief judge.

A walkaround tasting of 22 Savennières yielded a couple of surprises. Better known as a sweet-wine specialist, Beaulieu-sur-Layon’s Pierre Bise showed a tight, mineral-driven 2008 from the Clos le Grand Beaupréau site. From the same vineyard, Domaine Ogereau’s ’08 was also minerally and long, while Domaine de la Bergerie’s ’07 was distinctively light due to overcropping. Another winemaker better known for his sweet Chenins, Patrick Baudouin, poured his first vintage of Savennières "off the list" to good effect. For years, I’ve found the wine of Domaine Madame Laroche to be overly austere, but not her ’08, a layered and complex number with crystalline, ripping acidity. As a testament to the ability of these wines to withstand the passage of time, Domaine des Baumard’s 1982 Clos de St. Yves was still generous, with all corners rounded off.

Highlights of the three-day fair were the 2009 collection from Noël Pinguet of Domaine Huet, the best from this venerable Biodynamic estate I’ve tasted since 1996. "My objective is to show elegance rather than power," said the gracious winemaker. Star central valley wines included a Pinot Noir from François Crochet and a Reuilly white from Claude Lafond. Muscadet leader Domaine Pierre Luneau-Papin provided an unparalleled opportunity with a vertical tasting of its granitic L d’Or vineyard dating back to 1995.

Florent Baumard, a master of Chenin Blanc and screwcap devotee, lamented a pending French court decision regarding a large swathe of his vineyards over a glass of his ’06 La Calèche, a Vin de Pays du Jardins de la France punching well above its weight. While I’ve long enjoyed the Coteaux du Loirs and Jasnières of Joël and Ludovic Gigo, the explosively pungent, mineral-driven versions from the fully organic Domaine de Bellivière were a revelation. Surprisingly lacking a U.S. importer, the stalwart Château du Breuil produces various Anjou whites and reds; most memorable here was the clear and persistent ’08 Anjou Blanc, a sizable step up from its ’07.

I was privileged to attend a dinner and 20-year vertical tasting of the Clos du Papillon at the Château des Vaults of Evelyne de Pontbriand, who now owns the lion’s share of "the butterfly," with many vines dating to 1939. The work of Evelyne and her mother, along with that of Baumard, have certainly earned this 20-acre site the right to be crowned with cru glory. Their 1988, 1996, 2001, 2006, and 2007 editions were all very good to excellent.
—David Furer, CWE

COMINGS AND GOINGS

Lafitte has been opened in San Francisco by chef-owner Russell Jackson; Shannon Tucker oversees an ever-changing wine list focused on limited-production bottlings. Also open in the city is Georges from Leo Lippi and chef Elias Bikahi, with Rene Dominguez, formerly of Quince and Boulevard, as the bar manager. Chef Vincent Schofield has partnered with owners Craig and Tony Dropalas to open Ebb & Flow , serving sustainable West Coast seafood; David Vogler is the co-executive chef, and Rob Perkins is the sommelier. Locanda Da Eva will open this summer, with partner-chef Huw Thornton, former executive sous chef at SPQR, creating an Italian-influenced seasonal menu. Partner and wine director Robert Lauriston offers 20-25 wines by the glass—none at more than $10—and a reserve list of 100 bottles; Jacqueline Patterson is the consulting bartender. Amy Glaze, formerly with New York’s Le Bernardin, is the new chef at Le Club , and the long-running Aqua has closed. Chef-partner Jeremy Fox has left Napa’s Ubuntu, where Aaron London, former executive sous chef, is the new chef de cuisine. In Newport Beach, Calif., Andrew Weil plans to open True Food Kitchen this summer under chef Michael Stebner, who will oversee a Mediterranean-Asian-Californian menu; organic wines, beers, and sakes will be listed. First & Hope has launched in Los Angeles, serving traditional American cuisine and featuring a wine lounge with Enomatic machines. Las Vegas closings include Charlie Trotter’s Restaurant Charlie and C Bar in the Palazzo hotel, Daniel Boulud Brasserie at the Wynn Las Vegas, and David Burke Modern American Cuisine at The Venetian, which is being turned into E.B.’s Timpano Tavern , an Italian chophouse with lower-priced fare. Benny Siddu has opened Benny’s Prime Chop House in Chicago, with Jonathan Lane as chef; Justin Leone, formerly with Alinea, as sommelier; and Josh Kaplan as general and beverage manager. Kurt Mittelberger is the new executive chef at Zest in the InterContinental Chicago, and chef Bob Zrenner has moved on to 33 Club . The city’s A Mano has closed. Four Colorado wineries have partnered in bringing an "urban wine-tasting destination" to Denver. Located in three storefronts in the old Highlands neighborhood just west of downtown, Denver Winery Row comprises Bonacquisti Wine Company, Verso Cellars, Garfield Estates Vineyard and Winery, and Cottonwood Cellars. Bonacquisti, which has been in the location for three and a half years, is the only vintner that makes its wine on the spot; the others produce their wine on Colorado’s Western Slope, about four hours’ drive west of the city. In May, chef Susan Spicer will open Mondo in New Orleans. Chef Michel Richard is launching Michel at The Ritz-Carlton Tyson’s Corner near Washington, D.C., in the fall. In New York, Allen & Delancey, Bouley Bakery and Market, Eighty One , and The Laundry (after 30 years of service) have all closed, while openings include two new ventures by Jean-Georges Vongerichten: The Mark Restaurant by Jean-Georges in The Mark New York hotel, where Pierre Schutz is the chef, and ABC Kitchen , with local and organic fare from chef Dan Kluger. Richard Sandoval and partner Plácido Domingo have opened Zengo ; Akhtar Nawab oversees the Asian-Mexican menu. Michael Psilakis has left his owner-chef post at Anthos , while Donatella Arpaia retains ownership; Sylvain Portay has replaced Joel Dennis as chef at Adour Alain Ducasse . In Brooklyn, Benchmark Restaurant has opened under chef Ryan Jaronik. Nick Goldschmidt has been named consulting winemaker for Atlas Peak; Darryl Brooker is the new winemaker for CedarCreek Estate Winery in British Columbia; and Alan Kinne has been named winemaker at Chrysalis Vineyards in Virginia. Figgins Family Wine Estates of Washington state has launched two new business ventures: Figgins, a single-vineyard estate red wine, and Lostine Cattle Company. Foster’s Wine Estates Americas has named John Grant to division vice president, California, while Palm Bay International has appointed Alain Barbet as president, Palm Bay international spirits. Palmetto Distributing, Inc., has been acquired by Brad W. Norton of Paul Spin Wine and Bryan C. Lewis and Justin T. Lewis of Mobile Media Enterprises.

Hot Picks

VALUE WHITE

2009 Balletto Pinot Gris, Sonoma Coast $14
I once thought it was impossible to produce Pinot Gris grapes in California that would be as naturally crisp (without acidulation) and fragrant as those of Oregon or Italy. Wrong. Balletto grows Pinot varieties in its own cool-climate vineyards on Occidental Road, outside Sebastopol, and in the fog-shrouded hills south of Sebastopol, skirting the Petaluma Gap. The resulting Pinot Gris characteristics are as pretty as any in the world: perfumes of sweet pear and apple, fresh cream, and honey butter, veering toward mango; a silken, creamy texture from partial neutral-barrel fermentation and lees contact; and pure, delicious fruit sensations punctuated by lemon-zest and mineral undertones. It makes Oregon and Italian whites of comparable quality look grossly overpriced. www.ballettovineyards.com .

HIGH-END WHITE

2006 DuNah Chardonnay DeDee’s Estate, Russian River Valley $40
If, like many sommeliers, you reached Chardonnay ennui long ago, here’s a wine guaranteed to shake your tree: an amazingly elegant white of pinpoint, crisp-edged, yet long, silky, viscous, rich, and seamlessly textured qualities, directly reflecting the unique terroir of DuNah’s hilltop vineyard in the Sebastopol Hills. The nose is multifaceted and downright gorgeous, dripping with white peach, Hawaiian pineapple, a pungent stoniness, and the honeyed-smoky-yeasty nuances of judicious barrel fermentation. www.dunahwinery.com .

VALUE RED

2008 Balletto Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley $22
It’s not difficult to find an American Pinot Noir that you can list for less than $40, but it’s nearly impossible to find one that tastes like Pinot Noir. Balletto dedicates more than 90% of its plantings (some 390 acres in all) to moderately priced wines. Exemplifying the style of Pinot Noir grown at the coldest, southernmost end of the Russian River Valley, this version has a beautifully bright, luscious, focused nose of fresh-crushed raspberry and cherry with cardamom and star-anise spices. On the palate, soft tannins support long, lush, jammy impressions unfettered by oak tannin or toast: lively in the center, crisp on the finish. www.ballettovineyards.com .

HIGH-END RED

2007 Suacci Carciere Pinot Noir Suacci Vineyard, Russian River Valley $48
The Sebastopol Hills are the mother lode for the sleeker, crisper, lower-alcohol, fruit-forward California Pinot Noirs now being produced. The expression begins with this kind of nose: sweet strawberry notes accompanied by sprigs of wild mint, cooking spices (cardamom, cumin, clove), and mere suggestions of smoke or oak. A soft, velvety entry gives way to rounded tannins and zippy acidity in the middle, allowing the red-berry flavors to surge fluidly toward a lush, almost sweet finish. Crafted by rising-star winemaker Ryan Zepaltas, who also assists at Siduri while fashioning Pinots of similarly svelte profiles for Soliste and his own Zepaltas label. www.suaccicarciere.com .

RANDY CAPAROSO
Contributing Editor
Sommelier Journal

VALUE WHITE

2007 Dominique Cornin Pouilly-Fuissé Clos Reyssié, Burgundy $35
Although Cornin’s white wines all show finesse and precision, his 2007 Clos Reyssié is a true triumph in demonstrating the potential of Pouilly-Fuissé. The vineyard is more than 70 years old, planted by Cornin’s father just as the dark period of World War II was beginning. Biodynamic farming of the complex clay soils yields the region’s finest Chardonnay—pure, rich, healthy fruit. Cornin is judicious with wood; many of his wines see none, but the Clos Reyssié has the flesh and the flavor to integrate with the effects of barrel fermentation and 11 months of oak aging. This is an intensely flavored, pure, mineral-driven, fine wine. Importer: Martine’s Wines, Inc., www.martineswines.com .

HIGH-END WHITE

2006 Stony Hill Chardonnay, Napa Valley $50
Stony Hill’s Chardonnay vineyard sits at an elevation of 600 feet, the vines range in age from 15 to 25, and the grapes are dry-farmed (that’s right, in Napa). This ’06 was fermented in 37-year-old barrels, and malolactic conversion was prevented. The result is a brilliantly defined wine, redolent of fresh green apple and pear, with crisp mineral notes and a clean, lean finish. www.stonyhillvineyard.com .

VALUE RED

2006 Robert Michel St. Joseph Le Bois des Blanches, Rhône Valley $25
Expressive and delicious Northern Rhône Syrah, this wine is "old school" in the best sense of the term. Its nose is effusive, with notes of smoked meat, mission fig, and mushroomy earthiness. On the palate, the Bois des Blanches shows a firm grip and textured tannins, revealing layers of complexity in its dry flavors. This is the opposite of the fruit-bomb Syrah style—an authentic combination of classic winemaking and the terroir of St. Joseph. Importer: Rosenthal Wine Merchant, www.madrose.com .

HIGH-END RED

2008 Arnot-Roberts Syrah Clary Ranch, Sonoma Coast $45
A gorgeous, deep ruby-red with purple hues, this wine is as pleasing to look at as it is to drink. The nose is a beguiling mix of blue fruits, plum, and cassis with smoky, earthy, peppery, meaty notes. On the palate, the wine is full-flavored, with a seamless texture and a long, lingering finish. This beautifully balanced Syrah is a tribute to its cool site in the Petaluma Gap; the grapes were harvested in mid-November. A mere three barrels were produced, but it’s well worth seeking out. www.arnotroberts.com .

CHRISTIE DUFAULT, ACWP
Sommelier
RN74
San Francisco

HIGH-END SPIRIT

Sombra Mezcal Agave de Oaxaca, Mexico $45
Sombra is a collaboration between Richard Betts, MS, and négociant Charles Bieler, with the guidance and blessing of Del Maguey founder Ron Cooper. Mezcal should be the perfect spirit for the wine geek: it’s all about the place where the agave is grown. This particular strain, called espadin ("sword"), is harvested exclusively in the village of San Luis del Río, 8,000 feet up in the hills of Oaxaca, and made organically with indigenous yeasts. The typical roasting of the piñas provides a distinctive smoky perfume, accented with beautiful floral and spice tones. The texture of this spirit is amazingly rich and round. Although it can be used in many cocktail applications, it is best enjoyed on the rocks or neat, with a lime wedge as a garnish. Importer: Del Maguey Ltd., www.mezcal.com .

HIGH-END WHITE

2008 Hirsch Vineyards Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast $50
From a relatively challenging vintage on the Sonoma Coast, the Hirsch is a delicious example of California Chardonnay. Showing a refreshing restraint in its use of new wood, it is driven by mineral tones and lively acidity rather than toast, vanilla, and caramel. It has an Old World sensibility, yet retains all the joy and electricity of New World fruit. This tiny, family-owned winery upholds the highest level of integrity and quality, and its wines are proof. www.hirschvineyards.com .

VALUE RED

2008 Page Springs Cellars Grenache Arizona Stronghold Vineyard, Arizona $24
Maynard James Keenan is better known as the frontman for the band Tool than as a leader in the Arizona wine industry, but his Page Springs winery, located just southwest of Sedona, is making wine worthy of our attention. The Stronghold Vineyard lies at an elevation of 4,300 feet, in the foothills between the Chiricahua and Dragoon mountains of southeastern Arizona. The soils are a combination of deep loam and clay-loam—ideal for Rhône varieties. This Grenache, blended with 3% Syrah, spends 11 months in neutral French oak. Those of you thinking I’m nuts to suggest a wine from Arizona need to try this producer. www.pagespringscellars.com .

HIGH-END RED

2004 Thierry Allemand Cornas Les Chaillots, Rhône Valley $98
I tasted this wine recently with some good friends in Georgia, and it reminded me that I need to drink more Cornas. Allemand produces one of the greatest examples of Northern Rhône Syrah, sourced from the limestone slopes of Chaillot, northwest of Cornas; and La Côte, a granitic slope to the west. It’s made from super-low-yielding, mature vines, using gentle racking and no filtering—all of which contribute to a luscious texture backed by remarkable floral, iron, and meaty aromas. The only tragedy is that there isn’t more of this cuvée available. Importer: Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant, www.kermitlynch.com .

BRETT ZIMMERMAN, MS
Mountain and Desert Regional Manager
Domaine Select Wine Estates
Boulder, Colo.

Classifieds

For sale: Boutique Winery near Sedona, Arizona. Ten-plus rolling acres, large tasting room, brand new winery, living quarters. Great location. Asking $2,350,000. Call Mike at (928) 649-0290.