Brassfield Estate — Under the Volcano

There’s a lot to be said for not following the crowd…going off the so-called beaten track…doing your own thing. That’s especially true in California wine country, where a slight detour off Route 29 or the Silverado Trail can yield great rewards and discoveries.

I’m not referring to a simple turn onto Zinfandel Lane, or Ehlers Road, or a jaunt over the Yountville Grade into Sonoma. There are great wines to be found, no doubt, but if you really want to go outside the box, then go outside of Napa and Sonoma, up into Lake County. In the volcanic surroundings of Clear Lake, there is much to be admired. Like the wines of Brassfield Estate, for example.

Casual wine tourists very seldom stray from the rows of tasting rooms that crowd together on the St. Helena Highway. But a half hour ride north of Calistoga, you’ll find a stunning landscape, a heap of wineries, and Brassfield Estate.

I discovered this winery at a trade tasting during the South Beach Wine & Food Festival in February. When you critically sample 50 or 60 wines in an afternoon, the wines you remember are the wines you want to buy. The Brassfied Eruption 2010 was one of those wines for me. It has a lot going for it.

First, the winemaker is David Ramey, and the guy knows his stuff.  Second, he’s created a somewhat whimsical blend that might remind you of Orin Swift’s The Prisoner, or a similar off-the-wall concoction. But it works. The Eruption blend consists of Syrah, Tempranillo, Malbec, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Petite Sirah, and Zinfandel.  And it works. I tasted it amid a sea of wines, and my eyes opened wide.

On the nose, there’s rich dark fruit…blackberry and blueberry, with an overtone of cocoa or mocha. The alcohol level is an impressive 14.9%, but you’d never know it, because it’s so well balanced by the rich, round tannins.

Brassfield makes a wide assortment of wines, including Serenity, a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, and Gewurtztraminer (of all things). There’s a Pinot Grigio, a Pinot Noir, and several others. I guess those other wines were on the table to sample, but I tried the Eruption first and it stopped me cold. I’d give it 92 points, but that’s not the best news.  You can probably find it for under $18 a bottle. Steal some soon.

Pali Pinots…Great Wines at Great Prices

One of the toughest things about being a wine lover is finding good wines at prices that won’t cost a mortgage payment.  Nowhere in the wine world is this more difficult than when searching for decent  Pinot Noir.

They don’t call Pinot the “heartbreak grape” for nothing. While Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and some other major varietals will grow just about anywhere you plant ’em, anyone who’s seen the movie Sideways knows that Pinot just doesn’t work that way. Not only must it be planted in certain very specific locations, but if there’s any disease, disorder, or fungus that a grapevine can catch, you can be sure that your Pinot Noir vines will catch it first.

Then, figure in this little fact:  the most costly Cabernets in the world (like a 2010 First Growth Bordeaux) might set you back $1,200 a bottle, but the most costly Pinot Noir in the world (like a Domaine de la Romanee-Conti La Tache) will hit you for over $6,000. That kind of puts the search for bargain Pinots into a somewhat unpleasant perspective.

However. I’m pleased to announce that some are, in fact, available, and they come from the unlikely California appellation of Lompoc. It’s right in the neighborhood of Buellton and  Solvang, about an hour north of Santa Barbara, and it looks like winemaker Aaron Walker at Pali Vineyards has managed to put a whole lot of wine fun into those round-shouldered bottles for not a lot of money.

Even though the winery was started in 2005, they’ve come a long way in a short time.  Interestingly, Aaron sources his fruit from a wide range of climates and terroirs, from Willamette Valley to Sta. Rita Hills to the Russian River. To get you started, try the “Riviera” Pinot, made from Sonoma Coast grapes, and retailing at around $20.

With winemake Aaron Walker at Pali

This wine offers overtones of spice, and red berries, and if you ever wanted to drink Pinot Noir every day, this is a good place to start. The “Alphabets” Pinot at $20 is another steal. Since it’s from Willamette, it’s a bit less fruit-forward, and more on the earthy, forest-floor side…just like a great Burgundy.

Of course, if you grow Pinot you also grow Chardonnay, and Pali doesn’t miss the boat with that varietal, either. The “Charm Acres” label comes from Sonoma Coast, and offers a great experience for around $20.

Winemakers who are demented enough to attempt Pinot Noir will inevitably try their hands at some of the more sophisticated approaches. Pali’s selection of higher-end bottlings come from some of the most revered vineyards in the area, like Cargasacchi and Fiddlestix. They might sell for around $50, but they drink like wines that cost twice as much.

Even at the $20 level, Pali is my go-to Pinot for everyday drinking. The values don’t get much better than this.

WINEMAKERS — The Fouassiers of Sancerre

The hilltop village of Sancerre

I’ve always been a big fan of the wines from Sancerre. The village is lovely, sitting atop a hill that offers stunning views of the countryside and the vineyards below. It’s delightfully lost in time, and if there’s a traffic light or a stop sign anywhere, I never saw it.

The village square

But the best thing about the area is the range of stunning Sauvignon Blancs produced by families who have been there for generations.  In fact, Sancerre, and the neighboring village of Pouilly across the river, along with the rest of this part of the Loire Valley, is pretty much the spiritual home of this particular grape.

During the five days I spent at VinExpo 2011 in Bordeaux, I discovered the wines of Domaine Fouassier. For about an hour and a half, I sat with Pierre Fouassier and his nephew Benoit, sampling some stunning examples of the best the region has to offer. My only regret is that I didn’t know about their winery when Debi and I were in the area in November of 2007. Now we have a reason to go back…as if we really needed a reason.

This winery was founded around 1902, when Jules Fouassier planted a vineyard called Clos Paradis. In many ways, Jules was a pioneer in the area, being among the first to use copper and sulphur to combat vineyard diseases such as oïdium and downy mildew.

Today, about ten generations later, his descendants cultivate both Sauvignon Blanc and, surprisingly, Pinot Noir, and they’re very good at it. Most of the wines from recent vintages are rated 90+ points by the critics, and after sampling their selection, it’s easy to see why.  Best of all, most of their wines are available here in the States for under $25 a bottle. Here is a list of my favorites.

Domaine Fouassier Pouilly Fume Sur le Fort – made from up to 9 separate vineyard blocks, vinified separately and then blended. Light straw color in the glass with a great fresh nose of minerals and lemon. Fabulous palate of white flowers, citrus, and almonds.  WW 94

Domaine Fouassier Les Chasseignes – medium dark yellow in the glass, very lean and minerally, with a nice balance of acidity supporting pear and peach flavors. From a vineyard due west of the village. WW 92

Domaine Fouassier Les Romains – Clear transparent yellow in glass, with a nose and palate of minerals, wet stones, lemon, and white flowers.  WW 91

Melodie de Gustave Fouassier 2007 – The darkest and richest-looking Sauvignon Blanc I sampled, due to the time it spends in barrel. This wine, sold only at the vineyard, and in some local restaurants, is a blend of the best grapes from several vineyards. It is barrel fermented and aged sur lie for 10 monts, racked and further aged in vats, then bottled unfiltered and unfined. Very rich, with a distinct apple overtone. WW 93-94

Domaine Fouassier Le Etourneau 2006 – This Pinot Noir is more impressive on the palate than in the glass. It’s a dull reddish brown to the eye, but offers elegant flavors of cola, cherry, and red plum. The tannins are well integrated, and it’s very round in the mouth. WW 92

Domaine Fouassier Empreinte 2006 – This Pinot Noir is aged half in new oak and half in 1-year old barrels. Made from 45-year-old vines, it is a dark red Burgundian style, but still feminine, with interesting smoke aromas on the nose. The tannins are very present, giving the wine a strong structure. WW 92-93

FISHER–The Winemaking Family

Unlike most wineries in the Napa/Sonoma area, Fisher is not easy to find.  There’s no glamorous tasting room and gift shop on Route 29, no group tours, and no slick commercial roadside presence. Rather, you have to be willing to go up in the hills – way up – to enjoy the hospitality they’re always eager to extend.

From the Calistoga side, you wind your way up Porter Creek Road, branch off at Calistoga Road, then hang a hard left again onto St. Helena Road, which runs along the very top of the Mayacamas mountain ridge, and forms the border between the Napa and Sonoma regions. “We knew we wanted mountain fruit,” Juelle Fisher told me. Well, they got it, because you can’t get any higher up in the mountains than they are.

And the wines?  Extraordinary. At a recent extremely-well-attended Fisher wine dinner at Angelina’s Ristorante in Southwest Florida, Juelle poured a selection that included the Fisher Mountain Estate Chardonnay, The Unity Napa Valley 2006, Fisher “Cameron” Napa Valley, and their flagship Coach Insignia Cabernet Sauvignon 2005. There wasn’t any left over.

Juelle and Fred Fisher

Juelle and her husband Fred started the winery from scratch in 1973, locating just the land they wanted.  When they cleared it of the trees, they milled the lumber to build the winery and associated structures.  Now, more than three decades later, they also farm 57 acres on the Silverado Trail adjacent to the famed Eisele Vineyard, and encourage their children Whitney, Cameron, and Robert in their efforts to continue the family tradition.

Today, after 37 years, she’s content to watch her three children achieve their own success at running the family business, while she travels around the world as an ambassador for Fisher wines.

The Wedding Vineyard

Family. It’s an important word to Juelle, who maintains that “the family is in the wine.”  She understands that when visitors meet the family who makes the wines, they gain an added understanding of the ground, the grapes, and the mission of the company. “When you find a wine you like, you have to go there,” she says. “When you do, you understand the emotional and spiritual part of what we do.”

And, as we have all discovered, the love of good wine opens us to relationships with new friends and interesting people. “Our visitors enrich our lives,” says Juelle. “Wine makes us meet amazing people.”

She’s right. After all, I met her, didn’t I?

WINEMAKERS — Peter Lehmann is the Happiest Aussie

I’ve met lots of people from Australia over the years, and every one of them has been genial, jovial, and jocular (pardon the alliteration). I don’t mean to cast any cultural stereotypes, here, and I’ve never met the folks from Peter Lehmann winery, but you can tell just by looking that they seem to embody the optimism and cheer of the general Australian culture. (If my family made wine like they do, I’d be happy all the time, too).

I’ve always maintained that wine is a cultural artifact, and that’s certainly true of the juice from Down Under. Unlike wines from other regions I could name, it’s easy to get to know Australian wines. Not only are they approachable, but they come right up to you, yell “G’day, Mate,” and give you a slap on the back that just about knocks the wind out of you.

Consistently rated better than 90 points by Wine Spectator, Lehmann’s Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Semillon, and Chardonnay offer big, satisfying, mouthfilling flavors that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed over the years.

You’d get plenty of argument (and maybe a fistfight or two) if you tried to decide which region of Australia produces the best wines, but you can be sure that Barossa Valley will always be in the forefront of the conversation. In Barossa, the soil, the climate, the rainfall, all the elements wine grapes love, have come together, making the wine industry the major economic engine of the area.

Since the first vines were planted in the 1840s, Barossa has grown into a major center of the country’s wine industry. Even wineries not based in the region have a significant presence there, either cultivating their own vineyards or contracting with small growers.

Better yet, it’s a mere kangaroo hop away from the city of Adelaide, which makes it a major destination for wine tourists. In fact, it’s closer to the city than Napa is to San Francisco. The vineyards start right at the edge of the suburbs.

Now, about Peter Lehmann. It’s said that he is to Barossa what Robert Mondavi was to Napa. A pioneer who, when the government was pressuring grape growers to rip up their vines, pledged to buy what they grew so they could stay in business. The family continues that practice to this day, sourcing grapes from almost 200 small family growers who cultivate 900 individual vineyards. I’m told that many of the farmers are direct descendants of families who planted the first vines over 100 years ago, and at least some of the business is still done on a handshake basis. Unfortunately, he passed away in August of 2013, and will most definitely be missed.

And speaking of those vineyards, they are among the oldest in the world, still flourishing on their original rootstock because the area was spared the ravages of the phylloxera epidemic that just about wiped out the world’s wine industry years ago. That means the roots go deep, and the vines yield big, concentrated wines. The Lehmanns take that big fruit and fashion 12 reds and whites that put all kinds of power, finesse, and elegance in your glass.

No worries, mate.

WINEMAKERS: Andrew Geoffrey Enjoys the View

Peter Thompson meets us at the bottom of Diamond Mountain Road just southeast of Calistoga, and bids us follow him up the hill to his vineyard. Good thing, too, because we never would have found it on our own. The road runs up Diamond Mountain at about a 50-degree angle, and the Andrew Geoffrey prime real estate is about as close to the top as you can get.

Peter Thompson (L) and Jerry

Peter is another successful winemaker who followed the dream, abandoning his legal practice in San Diego (following in the footsteps of Chateau Montelena’s Jim Barrett, who did exactly the same thing), and moving north to Napa Valley. He bought 60 acres in the Diamond Mountain district, cleared 13 of them, and planted some very fine Cabernet Sauvignon.

The view is spectacular. All of Napa valley is spread below, and Peter constructed a kind of party platform at the vineyard’s highest point, with coolers, tables, and shade, so visitors can sit comfortably, enjoy his major-league Cabernet, and soak up the view.

Named after his two sons, Andrew Geoffrey produces just enough premier-quality Cabernet Sauvignon to get Peter some national distribution. However, in his pursuit of quality he limits yields so strictly that only several hundred cases are available each year. For example, in 2008 he picked less than 17 tons, which works out to one ton per acre. Miniscule.

Mount St. Helena from Andrew Geoffrey vineyard

But the proof is in the bottle, and in the soil. There are many prime growing sites in the Napa area, as we all know, but few of them have attained the reputation and prestige of Diamond Mountain. From the Brounstein’s Diamond Creek brand to the more boutique efforts of Teachworth, this particular hill has always produced outstanding wines, and Peter’s Cabernet, since 2001, has supported the stature of the area.

Andrew Geoffrey is labeled as a Cabernet Sauvignon, because it contains more than 75% of that grape, but the vineyard actually contains a few rows of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, which Peter blends in to add structure, perfume, and elegance.

It won’t be easy, but if you see Andrew Geoffrey on a wine list or on a shelf, buy it. The wines, if not sold out, can also be ordered from the winery. It’s one of our favorites.

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