Slow Wine Guide 2020 to feature 200+ California wineries.

Above: Rhys Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains. One of the things that has amazed me about California viticulture is how so many of the top growing sites are located in heavily wooded, wild areas.

The first edition (2018) of the Slow Wine Guide to the Wines of California featured 70 wineries.

With the second (2019), that number grew to roughly 120.

With the third (2020), it’s looking likely that the guide will include more than 200 estates.

(As in years past, the guide will be published in the spring and hard copies will be available for purchase at each of the events along the Slow Wine tasting tour across the U.S. It will also be made available for download.)

These last three years of working on the guide have been an eye-opening — or should I say palate-expanding — experience for me.

There’s so much great wine in California, I’ve discovered, that never seems to get the media coverage it deserves. As I’ve written here on the blog, I believe that’s partly due to the fact that a lot of California’s greatest wines are sold nearly exclusively to mailing lists and high-end restaurants. The iconic wines of Philip Togni, a Napa benchmark, are a great example.

Above: Mark Pisoni showing me his garden insectary at the family’s Pisoni Ranch. There’s a waiting list for those who want to buy the estate’s top wines.

It’s also due to the fact that there’s a relatively small group of “new wave” producers who have received the lion’s share of the media’s attention over the last 10 years or so. The new kids on the block, most of them négociant labels, make great wines, too (and I’ve tasted a lot of them over these last three years as well).

But I’ve also met a myriad of legacy growers who have quietly gone about their business of growing and raising great wines for decades, often without the media attention they merit (especially among the new generation of wine writers who’ve emerged since the advent of the enoblogosphere).

The expansion of coverage for this year’s guide is thanks in great part to our new senior editor Pam Strayer, a former environmental and health journalist who now writes passionately and expertly about organic and biodynamic viticulture.

Thanks to her extensive contacts on the ground and her impressive experience tasting wines across the state, our team has managed to nearly double the number of wineries we covered last year.

The energy and commitment that she brings to our work have been an inspiration for me.

From Pam’s About page:

    A leading specialist on American wines from organic and biodynamic vineyards, Pam Strayer is the author and publisher of 7 apps as well as forthcoming new web sites and books for the wine industry and consumers. She also consults to organic and biodynamic producers and organizations on marketing, strategy and communications.
    She is currently organizing a webinar for Women of the Vine & Spirits that will be held on Oct. 18 on the organic and Biodynamic sector of the wine industry (open to WOTVS members as well as the public) and writing an article for Beverage Media called “Green Wine: Where Are We Now.” She is also working on new books, Organically Napa, and Organically Sonoma, to be published along with a new newsletter.

Her wonderful blog is a great resource for those who follow organic and biodynamic grape farming in the state. I highly recommend it to you. She also leads consumer tours.

Apotheosis: Napa Valley finds one of its greatest expressions in Philip Togni

Above: “mountain” Cabernet Sauvignon Napa has become all the rage over the last decade or so. Togni planted at 2,000 ft. in 1981.

A most remarkable thing happened during my August visit to Philip Togni Vineyard on Spring Mountain Rd. not far from the western border of Napa County.

“Buona sera!” exclaimed dottor Togni when a Slow Wine editor stepped out of his truck.

“Buona sera,” replied said editor. “Come sta?”

“Bene, grazie. Benvenuto!” answered the iconic St. Helena grape grower and winemaker, whose family produces one of Napa Valley’s most coveted wines.

Above: the soils of the Togni vineyard are primarily volcanic in origin.

It should have come as no surprise: before settling with his family in the mountains to the west of St. Helena, the polyglot Philip Togni studied winemaking and made wine all over the world, including France, Chile, and Algeria. He had already mastered many languages before reaching California in the 1970s. But it was his Ticinese heritage that prompted him to study the language of Dante at Napa Valley College, he told the editor — in impeccable, seamless Italian.

(See Frank Prial’s wonderful 1990 profile of Togni for the Times.)

Above: the rocky soils and their drainage are ideal for the classic Bordeaux blend favored by the Togni family.

Over the course of our late afternoon visit, dottor Togni and I spoke almost exclusively in Italian.

But when it was time for a walk around the vineyard and tasting, his daughter Lisa, the current winemaker, switched to English as our lingua franca.

After three seasons of working with the Slow Wine guide, I’ve had the chance to experience their extraordinary wines on a number of occasions. And I have to say, they entirely reshaped my understanding of what Napa Valley can be.

They only make two Philip Togni wines: an “ageworthy Margaux-type” blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, their flagship; and a sweet wine made from Black Hamburgh, a rare table grape evidently not found elsewhere in Napa. Wines not deemed worthy of their top label are sold under a separate label.

Above: the Togni family crest in their barrique room.

There are few wines from Napa that achieve the elegance, balance, and clarity of the Philip Togni blend, made from the same vineyard each year. As for many Napa icons, Bordeaux is clearly the model, as they acknowledge. But the freshness and the vibrant acidity of the wines make them stand apart from the crowded field of predictable valley floor offerings.

Some would ascribe the brilliance and deliciousness of the wine to the altitude and exposure of the site. But when you stroll through the vines, planted on rocky volcanic-origin soils and surrounded by forest and wildlife (not far from the Bothe-Napa Valley State Park, where some of California’s most inland redwoods breathe), you begin to wrap your mind around what an exceptional site this is.

Above: the Togni family — figlia e padre — feel that their wines should be drunk only after a decade out from the vintage. 20 years, said Lisa, was when they really start to hit their prime.

The gently spicy oak was present but very much in balance on the 2016 Philip Togni poured me in their cellar. It had been open for two days, she said, and the slightly underripe red and black fruit was showing gorgeously.

In another era, a less experienced taster might have dismissed this wine because of the presence of oak. After all, many young wine trade observers still believe — wrongly — that oak is by its very nature “bad.” In fact, oak aging, in the classic French style, is what gives this wine its extreme finesse without compromising its lean character.

Sadly for me, the wines land above my price ceiling and I’ll probably only ever get to taste a properly aged Togni wine when and if a generous collector takes pity on me.

In the meantime, I’ll feel glad that the Togni family has shown me the true potential of Napa Valley viticulture — the appellation’s apotheosis.

La ringrazio, dottor Togni, per la visita, davvero eccezionale. Arrivederci.

At Kistler “setting the tone” for greatness…

“Maniacal.” That was the word that sprung to mind during a walk through Kistler Vineyards’ main farm and winemaking facility in Sebastopol last week.

Maniacal farming practices. Maniacal vinification protocols.

Winemaker Jason Kesner (above) chuckled in agreement when a wine blogger shared the thought with him. The vineyards he oversees are among the most (literally) manicured you’ll ever find — each bunch coddled to perfection, each cluster pampered until it realizes its full potential.

When we headed inside the winery proper, he showed me the temperature-controlled tanks used for fermenting the winery’s Pinot Noir.

After the grapes arrive during harvest, he told me, a 24-hour crew manually monitors temperatures in the vats in at least four places. Temperatures inside the vessel, he explained, vary from top to bottom. And while most winemakers, even the best ones, would perform a classic however quasi-robotic punching down of the must and skins, his team manages the cap in accordance with each tank’s particular and ever-changing thermal profile. No one’s sitting a home checking on the temperature of the vat with a smart phone app, hitting a button to warm or cool the tank, and then going back to sleep. No, at Kistler each tank is watched over with meticulous precision — exactness that echoes throughout the winemaking process.

Note how the barriques are perfectly aligned, Jason suggested when we visited one of the four Chardonnay fermentation rooms.

“It sets the tone for everything we do,” he told me.

The aesthetic touch may seem like affectation to some. But when it comes to the clarity of fruit and the elegance and balance of the wines, the taster realizes that Jason’s perjinkities are the product of the deep-reaching thoughtfulness and nuanced soul that he and the owners of this iconic estate summon to deliver these spectacular wines.

All of Kistler’s Chardonnay vineyards are planted to the “Wente” clone (as opposed to the Burgundian “Dijon” clones). The concept of the winery has never changed since its inception. The clone is always the same. The farming practices are uniform (and uniformly maniacal). The winemaking approach is unvaried. As a result, each bottling is reflection of the place — of the terroir — where those grapes are grown.

I’ve written before about how an inexperienced taster, clouded by peer pressure, didn’t have the palate or tasting chops to understand what makes these wines great.

Generous friends and colleagues have treated me to bottles of Kistler over the last two decades and I’ve come to appreciate, greatly, the compelling wines Jason and his team produce. When I visited last week, I wasn’t surprised to discover the ethos and ethic that make them a supreme expression of Californian viticulture.

Thank you, Jason, for one of the most extraordinary winery visits of my career. And thank you, Katie, for the fantastic tasting!

Prayers for our sisters and brothers affected by California wildfires

Our thoughts and prayers go out this morning to our sisters and brothers affected by California wildfires.

The photo above was taken in early September of this year in Oregon House, California (Yorba County), about an hour’s drive south of the town of Paradise, which has been all but leveled by the natural disaster.

It gives you a sense of how much fuel — dry brush — the fires have to feed on.

Check out this terrifying photo posted by my friend Melanie K on Instagram from Santa Monica. Apocalyptic is the first word that comes to mind.

The fires were never this bad or this frequent when I was a kid growing up in California. This year’s fires are already on track to be the state’s deadliest and most devastating ever.

Our hearts are heavy this morning as we pray for the victims and their families. G-d bless them all.

Thoughts and prayers for our sisters and brothers in Michael’s path

Hurricane Ike struck southeast Texas, where Tracie’s parents live, just a month after we started dating in 2008. Back then, people in Louisiana and Texas were still reeling from the aftermath of the 2005 hurricane season, which included Katrina and Rita.

These days it seems like a given that hurricane season will deliver devastation by means of a massive storm like Florence or Michael.

A year after Harvey, you can still see debris piled up along the streets of our neighborhood. For many residents here, it was the second or third time their houses flooded in three consecutive years.

Does it really matter whether or not humankind is to blame for climate change? I believe it is but that’s beside the point: the climate is changing and the storms and devastation are becoming more and more frequent, the human loss and damage more grave. The same can be said of the wild fires in California where I grew up.

Today, our hearts, thoughts, and prayers go out to all of our sisters and brothers in Michael’s path.

Image via the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Flickr (Creative Commons).

2007 Barbaresco in glorious focus right now: Produttori del Barbaresco Asili

From the department of “will you take me as I am?”

Every summer when the Texas Parzens visit the California Parzens, our good friends Jon and Jayne at Jaynes Gastropub in San Diego let us bring a few bottles from my cellar to pair with their delicious food and share with our friends.

This year, the flight included two bottles of Produttori del Barbaresco 2007 Barbaresco Asili. The wines were purchased on release and delivered to my wine locker in San Diego where they have been sitting undisturbed since they arrived.

The 2007 harvest was part of a string of excellent-to-extraordinary vintages in the appellation (check out this superb article on 2007 in Piedmont by Antonio Galloni; he focuses on Barolo but he also offer some excellent overarching observations about 2007 in Langa).

Tasted last year, this wine was still very tannic. It was already showing signs of opening up but it was still “tight” in wine collector parlance.

But, man, when we opened it on Saturday early evening, every drop just sang as it flowed from glass to palate.

My dining companions and I had dropped one bottle in an ice bucket to chill it slightly. The other was served room temperature (my preference). Both bottles delivered notes of delicate rose petal and berry fruit on the nose. In the mouth, the richer berry fruit was balanced by that ethereal hint of earth and subtle mushroom, all the while wrapped in a sheen of acidity.

We followed these two with a bottle of 2008 Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco Rio Sordo. 08 is arguably the better vintage but that wine was “shut down”: the tannic character and earthiness seemed like a jealous new lover who doesn’t want to let its fruit dance. Still a great bottle but not nearly as expressive and nuanced as the 07 Asili. The latter is considered to be one of the appellation’s greatest crus while the former is one of its lesser growths. But given the closed character of the 08 Rio Sordo, I’m going to wait until next year to start revisiting my 08s.

In other news…

Parzen family drove our new Ford F150 to California at the end of July.

We had a great time in my hometown of San Diego: visiting with my mom, spending time my brother Tad and his family, lots of swimming and beach, a rocking show with all my buddies (I dedicated my rendition of “Back in the USSR” to Donald Trump), dinner at Jaynes, dinner at Bahia Don Bravo (my favorite fish taco joint). All in all, it’s been a great trip.

This week we’re driving back. That’s sunrise, above, at our Palm Springs hotel this morning (I always get up super early to get work done before I take the girls to the pool). Friday we’ll be at the Grand Canyon.

The girls have been so well-behaved in the car and have really picked up their parents’ love for travel (is it genetic?).

I love the long drives, especially across the desert where I have time to think and reflect. And the best part is we are all together, all the time. That’s where my true joy is.

Thanks to Parzen family west for a great visit and thanks to all my folks in southern California: I have the best friends a man could wish for. That’s the truth.

There’s so much more to tell, including some great winery visits for the Slow Wine Guide.

But that’ll have to wait. My little bunnies and the pool are calling…

Rock out and taste with me in San Diego: July 27-28 #music #Lambrusco

Above: my San Diego-based band The Grapes plays mostly psychedelic country and British invasion.

Please come rock out and taste with me in San Diego on July 27-28!

On Friday, July 27 my band The Grapes will be playing at Beaumont’s in La Jolla (northern San Diego). We’ll probably go on around 9 p.m. And the amazing country guitarist Dave Gleason will be sitting in with the band (not to miss).

And then on Saturday, July 28, I’ll be hosting a Lini Lambrusco tasting at my favorite San Diego Restaurant, Jaynes Gastropub. I don’t have the exact details yet but it will be late afternoon. And Tracie and the girls will be joining me for dinner that night. So please come down and taste some Lambrusco and say hello!

Thanks for your support! Please stay tuned for details and have a great weekend…

The Grapes
Friday, July 27
Beaumont’s
5662 La Jolla Blvd.
La Jolla CA 92037
(858) 459-0474
Google map

Lini Lambrusco Tasting
Saturday, July 28
3-5 p.m.
$15 per person
Jaynes Gastropub
4677 30th St.
San Diego CA 92116
(619) 563-1011
Google map

Lambrusco image via Corkscrew Concierge.

Slow Wine: Deborah Parker Wong named senior editor for California guide (2019)

The 2018 Slow Wine Guide to the Wines of California featured 70 producers. Next year’s edition will include twice that number.

As coverage of Californian wine expands, the editorial team is growing as well: I couldn’t be more thrilled to share the news that California wine writer and educator Deborah Parker Wong has been named Senior Editor for the 2019 guide.

About Deborah:

Veteran wine writer Deborah Parker Wong is Global Wine Editor for SOMM Journal, Tasting Panel and Clever Root magazines where she reports on the wine and spirits industries with an emphasis on trends. As a Wine & Spirit Education Trust Approved Program Provider she offers Level 2 and Level 3 WSET certifications to students in the United States and she teaches as an adjunct professor in the Wine Studies department at Santa Rosa Junior College. She is the co-author of 1000 Great Everyday Wines (Dorling Kindersley 2011). In addition to writing and speaking about wine, Deborah judges wine competitions and scores wine for Planet Grape Wine Review.

Related: Slow Wine: Michael Alberty named senior editor for new Oregon guide (2019).

Cannabis impacts CA wine industry in unforeseen ways

Above: the West Sonoma Coast is one of California’s youngest wine regions. Growers are petitioning to create a new Americana Viticultural Area designation there. The Pacific Ocean lies just a stone’s throw to the west of the vineyard in the photo.

Much has been written about the impact of newly legalized recreational cannabis on the California wine industry. The fear among some trade observers is that consumers will spend less on wine as their spending on pot grows.

But weed is affecting the California wine trade in unexpected ways, even just four months into legalization (which took effect in January of this year).

One of the most interesting elements to emerge from a touring tasting organized by West Sonoma Coasts Vintners last week was the winemakers’ concern that the lucrative cannabis business is attracting current vineyard and farm workers.

“It’s a lot nicer to be using tweezers in a greenhouse” to pare cannabis flower “than it is to be working in a vineyard,” noted one winemaker. Evidently, according to the growers, it also pays better.

Making matters even more challenging for wineries is the fact the the Sonoma, Napa, and Paso Robles fires last fall have drastically reduced the availability of affordable housing. This, combined with the current White House hard-line on immigration, has also made the industry less attractive to the migrant and seasonal workforce.

Another issue faced by wineries, said the vintners, is the decreased availability of storage and industrial space. The cannabis business is so lucrative that the new wave of pot growers is willing to pay higher rent for coveted warehouse and industrial park rentals. Winemakers need those spaces to store and age their wines.

The West Sonoma Coast is just one of the many wine growing areas affected by the nascent recreational cannabis business. But as a relative newcomer, in one of California’s more remote locations, it seems — at least anecdotally — to have been more acutely affected.

There is no doubt that cannabis is already reshaping the California’s agricultural landscape. It remains to be seen how its viticultural industry will react in the face of mounting challenges.

The best Zinfandel I tasted in 2017…

From the department of “my other son, the wine writer”…

It’s not the first time that my fingers glide across my computer keyboard and deliver the following mea culpa to the screen: “California wine, I was wrong about you. And I’m sorry.”

My role as the coordinating editor of the 2018 Slow Wine Guide to the Wines of California has been an eye-opening and humbling experience for me (you can read our winery profiles for the 2018 guide, soon to be published in print, as they come online — free access — on the Slow Wine guide blog).

When Slow Wine editor-in-chief Giancarlo Gariglio first contacted me about joining the project, I asked him, “are you sure you have the right man?”

When he pressed on, I wondered out loud, “will we even find enough wineries to fill the pages of the guide?”

But I finally succumbed to his insistence, despite my skepticism and reluctance.

Man, was I wrong!

In early June I began visiting wineries in southern and northern California, tasting and talking with grape growers and wine makers. In late June, I joined my fellow editors — Giancarlo, senior editors Elaine Brown and David Lynch, and field editor
Elisabeth Fiorello-Sievers — for a tasting of more than 200 wines we had requested.

Over the summer, we traded notes, I wrote and I edited our contributors’ profiles, and we decided on the top wines and wineries that would be awarded the guide prizes.

I was simply blown away by how much great wine we tasted. And I was also impressed by how many wineries in California employ sustainable farming practices. In many cases, I learned, the sustainable legacy stretched back at least one or even two generations.

Although it didn’t win awards in this year’s guide, one of my favorite wines was the 2013 Moon Mountain Zinfandel by Winery Sixteen 600, made with fruit grown by biodynamic pioneer Phil Coturri. Named after the family’s address “on the mountain” (one of Sonoma’s most famous and storied houses, with ties — and tie dyes — to the Grateful Dead), the winery and tasting room is managed by one of Phil’s sons, Sam (whom you might recognize from yesterday’s post).

Not only was this lithe and fresh yet meaty wine utterly delicious, with buoyant red fruit and tasty minerality, but it reminded me of the Louis Martini Zinfandel from the 1970s that Darrell Corti (the renowned Sacramento retailer) once poured for me in his home.

When I shared that red thread with Sam, he smiled broadly and revealed that the cuttings for this wine actually came from the same vineyard where Louis Martini farmed its wines back in the day — before the overwrought, highly alcoholic and concentrated style of Zinfandel emerged as the new hegemony in the 1980s.

For years, the Coturri family has advocated for the Moon Mountain District and I believe Phil had a hand in lobbying for and creating the Moon Mountain AVA (in 2013). Not a lot of California wine lovers are aware of this newish appellation. But I believe it’s one of California’s most exciting wine growing regions, where more and more marquee-name wineries are looking to source higher-altitude, volcanic-soil fruit.

The Winery Sixteen 600 2013 Moon Mountain Zinfandel isn’t cheap. But it’s one of the purest and most elegant expressions of California’s antonomastic grapes. I loved it and highly recommend it.

Check out the 2018 Slow Wine Guide to the Wines of California here. Thanks for reading and buon weekend a tutti… have a great weekend, everyone!