Thursday, March 21, 2019

Black Hills Addendum is excellent revival

Photo: Black Hills Wine Experience Centre

The latest releases from Black Hills Estate Winery show the touch of new management.

Black Hills was acquired in 2017 by Andrew Peller Ltd. That triggered the voluntary departure of winemaker Graham Pierce, who moved to Harry McWatter’s Time Winery in Penticton, after making 10 vintages at Black Hills.

At the beginning of this year, Ross Wise took over the Black Hills cellar. He had previously been the winemaker at Phantom Creek Estate Winery. Born in New Zealand, Ross has a winemaking degree from Charles Sturt University in Australia. Currently, he is close to completing his Master of Wine studies.

He came to Canada to join Flat Rock Cellars in Ontario in 2009. He left there in 2012 and, for the next four years, consulted with a number of Ontario wineries before joining Phantom Creek in September, 2016.

Phantom Creek, which is expected to release its first wines this spring, has not yet named his successor.

Another consequence of Peller ownership at Black Hills is an increased access to vineyards. Black Hills now has the opportunity to supplement the fruit from its estate vineyards.

Addendum, for example, includes fruit from Peller’s Sandhill Vineyard as well as from the two Black Hills estate vineyards, Sharp Rock and Double Black. All three are on Black Sage Road.

Currently, Black Hills has two vineyards close to each other on Black Sage Road. The Sharp Rock Vineyard, with 25.20 planted acres, was the original property planted in 1996 by the founding owners of Black Hills. The two largest blocks are Cabernet Sauvignon (9.75 acres) and Merlot (6.14 acres).
The Double Black Vineyard, which has almost 14 planted acres, was also developed in 1996. Black Hills managed it for a few years after the death of the original owner and then bought it in 2011. It is planted entirely to Bordeaux red varietals and Syrah.

Access to Peller vineyards gives Black Hills the opportunity to increase production. I don’t anticipate a sudden surge in Black Hills production but, given how strong the brand is, there is a logic in making at least some more wine.

The Pinot Noir just released is a first of Black Hills, which has largely been a Bordeaux red house. For this wine, grapes were sourced from Naramata Bench growers.

Addendum is a revived label. The label appeared previously on a trial wine when the winery was testing whether to begin aging Nota Bene in oak for an extra four to six months. Traditionally, Nota Bene was always barrel-aged for just 12 months. Graham Pierce argued he could make the wine more complex with more time in barrel – and he was right.

But the Addendum revival suggests there is nothing much wrong with the old Nota Bene formula. This wine has been aged just 12 months in barrel. It tastes pretty good.

Here are notes on the wines.

Black Hills Chardonnay 2017 ($29.90). This is the style of Chardonnay that will appeal to consumers who a fruit-forward, fresh wine with minimal oak. The wine was aged 10 months in French oak but only 15% was new. The wine begins with aromas of citrus, nectarine and pear with a touch of vanilla. The wine is rich on the palate, with flavours of guava and apple mingled with vanilla. 92.

Black Hills Pinot Noir 2017 ($39.90). This is the first Pinot Noir from Black Hills. The grapes are from vineyards on the Naramata Bench. The wine was aged 10 months in French oak (20% new). It begins with aromas of strawberry, raspberry and cherry which are echoed on the palate. There is a classic earthy/forest floor note on the finish. The wine is drinking well not but it deserves another three or so years in the bottle. 91.

Black Hills Addendum 2017 ($49.90). The blend is 80% Merlot, 10% each of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine was aged 12 months in French oak (35% new). As this is Merlot-dominant, there are appealing aromas and flavours of blueberry and black cherry mingled with notes of vanilla and chocolate. The long ripe tannins and the juicy texture give the wine immediate accessibility, although more bottle age will add to the complexity. 92.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Culmina's yin and yang wines

 Photo: Elaine and Don Triggs

It must be spring when wineries begin releasing their rosé wines.

One of the first to arrive at my door has been the 2018 R&D Blend from Culmina Family Estate Winery.

Strangely, it was accompanied by Culmina’s flagship red, the 2014 Hypothesis. The yin and yang of the Culmina portfolio, perhaps, but satisfying wines all the same.

For some background on Culmina, here is an excerpt from the 2014 edition of John Schreiner’s Okanagan Wine Tour Guide:

The winery is the culmination of a career in wine for Donald and Elaine Triggs and their daughter, Sara. The parents spared no expense to create the south Okanagan’s most ambitious winery - at an age when others would retire. “Retirement to me is a nasty word because it implies stopping,” says Donald, who was born in Manitoba in 1944. “I don’t think life is about stopping. It is about continuing and doing what you love.”

He began his career in 1972 with the winery arm of John Labatt Ltd. He left that a decade later to run the North American operations of a British fertilizer company. But in 1989, when Labatt sold its wineries, Donald led the team buying them. This became Vincor which had grown to the world’s 14th largest wine company by the time Constellation Brands (the largest) took it over in 2006. A year later, he and Elaine bought what has become 22.6 hectares (56 acres) of densely planted vines on three mountainside benches on the Golden Mile.

They tapped the expertise of Alain Sutre, the same Bordeaux consultant they had worked with when Vincor (with a French partner) began the Osoyoos-Larose vineyard and winery in 1999. Alain assured them they could produce wines of even greater quality because the Okanagan terroir is much better understood.

The three vineyard benches, each with differing soils and elevations, provide winemaking options. Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon comprise the largest blocks, followed by Chardonnay, Riesling, Syrah, Malbec and Petit Verdot. The surprise is the one hectare of Grüner Veltiner, the Austrian white, planted on the highest elevation vineyard in the south Okanagan.

Here are notes on the two recent releases from Culmina.

Culmina R&D Rosé Blend 2018 ($19). R & D are the initials of the twin Triggs brothers, Ron and Don (although Ron is not involved in the wine business). While the blend is not available, the wine likely is similar to earlier vintages – Merlot, Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon. The colour is fashionable pale but this dry rosé delivers good aromas and flavours. It begins with strawberry notes mingled with rhubarb. The wine is crisp and refreshing. 91.

Culmina Hypothesis 2014 ($46). This is a blend of 45% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Merlot and 22% Cabernet Franc. It was aged 16 months in French oak (30% new). The wine has aromas and flavours of black cherry and black cherry with notes of dark chocolate on the finish. The tannins still have grip. Even after double decanting, the wine took its time to open; but it is a wine that rewards patience. 93.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Old Vines Zinfandel: California treasure

Photo: Ravenswood founder Joel Peterson

In the renewed interest in Zinfandel wines, California vintners have the significant advantage of producing Old Vines Zinfandel, wines of depth and complexity from vineyards more than 100 years old.

A tasting panel at the recent Vancouver International Wine Festival celebrated Old Vines Zinfandel – and discussed the varietal’s roots in Croatia.

“I hope there is a good future for high quality Zinfandel,” said Robert Mondavi winemaker Mark de Vere. “If we had been tasting a flight of Cabernet Sauvignons of a similar quality level, you would have been looking at prices two or three times higher. You can get interesting wines that are much more affordable than the more prestigious Cabernet Sauvignons we produce in California.”

Zinfandel has long been regarded as California’s grape because more acreage of the variety grows in that state than anywhere else in the world.

“Zinfandel is a grape that came to California really early – 1852,” said Joel Peterson, who founded Ravenswood Winery in 1976 to make wines from the grape. “In a very short time [after the varietal arrived in California], it was the most planted grape in the state. There were about 34,000 acres of Zinfandel planted by 1888. It was the right grape in the right place and it met the needs of California farmers.”

That vast acreage meant that numerous vineyards survived Prohibition, enabling the California wine industry to get back on its feet in 1933. E & J Gallo, now California’s largest winery, used Zinfandel in a successful blend (still being made) called Hearty Burgundy.

“I got to work with vineyards that were way older than I was,” Peterson said of Ravenswood. “They were vineyards that usually were planted in the 1880s, 1890s, early 1900s. That was the time they were replanting after phylloxera. They were vineyards that had the characteristics suitable for great European vineyards. They were planted in the right place because all the ones that were planted in the wrong place got taken out during Prohibition. They had the right crop levels – two to two and a half tons an acre – and they were often dry-farmed, which kept the clusters small and the flavours intense.”

Today, numerous other California wineries are also producing Old Vines Zinfandel. There is no regulated definition of Old Vines but it is generally accepted that such vineyards should be at least 50 years old. Plenty of serious Zinfandel wines also come from well-managed younger plantings.

At one time, it was believed that the varietal was indigenous to California. That was clearly erroneous because Zinfandel is a vinifera grape – and vinifera is not native to North America.

Where did Zinfandel originate? The answer was provided about 20 years when Mike Grgich, the founder of Grgich Hills Estate in Napa, encouraged the University of California Davis to do the genetic work that linked Zinfandel to Croatia.

Grgich was born in Croatia. As soon as he arrived in California, he was struck by the similarity in appearance of Zinfandel vines to Tribidrag, a native Croatian varietal closely related to Zinfandel.

“It was a very prestigious grapes in the Middle Ages in Dalmatia and in the Adriatic region,” winemaker De Vere said. “In California, Tribidrag is not listed as a legal synonym. Zinfandel is the legal variety in California.” In spite of that Grgich Hills recently imported some Tribidrag vines from Croatia (where Grgich also has a winery).

There are other varietal names in the tangled history of Zinfandel. The precise genetic work by UCDavis also linked Zinfandel to Crljenak Kaštelanksi. That particular varietal was down to nine vines when the UCDavis studies found it in Croatia. There is a cousin in Croatian vineyards called Plavac Mali. In southern Italia, Zinfandel is called Primitivo.

“The oldest reference we have to Tribidrag is the commercial sale of a barrel of wine from Croatia to Puglia in 1488,” Peterson said. “That was before Columbus came to the New World. It is a really old grape.”

How the variety ended up in California is a bit uncertain. The original vines to grow on American soil were planted in a nursery in New York early in the 19th Century, likely from cuttings from the Imperial nursery in Vienna. The Austrian empire then included Croatia.

 “There is something about the variety in that it has longevity, which not all varieties have,” winemaker De Vere said. “When Zinfandel is young, it can be very high yielding. As yields start to decline with age, some varieties get pulled out.  A lot of the old families that own these Zinfandel vines have still been getting commercially viable crops. They did not have the necessity of pulling them out. Then, when people recognized the value of old vines, it was recognized that it is harder to get a great wine from a young Zinfandel vine because of its tendency to crop highly. If you have the gift of an old vine where the yields are naturally reduced, that is where the quality comes from.”

He continued: “One of the great gifts of Zinfandel is that you can deliver a full-bodied, rich wine with a relatively smooth palate feel as compared with Cabernet Sauvignon.”


Monday, March 11, 2019

Blue Mountain Gamay and friend

Photo: Gamay Noir

On four occasions at least, the governing authorities in Burgundy issued bans on growing Gamay Noir.

Anyone tasting Blue Mountain’s recently released 2017 Gamay will wonder why the varietal suffered all this hostility. Perhaps Burgundian vintners were not growing it as competently as Blue Mountain, where the grape produces a full-bodied red that is eminently drinkable.

Numerous wine writers have recounted the attempts to banish Gamay. I rely on the authoritative account in Wine Grapes, the massive 2012 book on 1,368 varietals by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz.

“Gamay Noir is a very old Burgundian variety whose name first appeared in an official ban promulgated by Duc Philippe le Hardi in Dijon on 31 July 1395,” they write.

They translate the ban’s harsh language: “a very bad and disloyal variety called Gaamez, from which come abundant quantities of wine … And this wine of Gaamez is of such a kind that it is very harmful to human creatures, so much so that many people who have had it in the past were infested by serious diseases, as we have heard.”

It is difficult to understand such a far-fetched notion. However, there were further bans against planting Gamay in Burgundy in 1567, 1725 and 1731. The fatwa against Gamay clearly failed. In 2009, there were more than 75,000 acres planted in France. It is the grape that produces Beaujolais.

The last time a vineyard census was published in British Columbia, we had a mere 150 acres of Gamay planted. However, the wines being produced hardly reflect whatever it was the irritated the Duke in Burgundy. In addition to Blue Mountain, other B.C. producers of excellent Gamay include Robin Ridge Winery, Desert Hills Estate Winery, Deep Roots Vineyard and Joiefarm. That is not an exclusive list, just producers that come to mind.

The Blue Mountain Gamay 2017 has just been releases at the winery and it soon be in wine stores and restaurants. This is also the case for the 2017 Chardonnay.

How serious is Blue Mountain about Gamay? The winery grows three clones of Gamay and the vines are 12 to 30 years old. The winery does not break out its acreage but I suspect this is one of the largest blocks in the Okanagan.

The winemaking techniques are precise. The grapes are hand-harvested and destemmed into open-top fermenters. The 20-day maceration on the skins includes both pump-overs and punch downs. Fermentation is with native yeast. The wine is aged 12 months on the fine lees in four-year-old French oak.

The Duke of Burgundy seemed to have no issues with Chardonnay. However, the variety suffered from modern-day fatwas from consumers who decided they would drink anything but Chardonnay. That bias stemmed from a predominance of over-oaked Chardonnay wines in the 1980s and 1990s.

That style has largely disappeared. The Blue Mountain Chardonnay is fresh and bright with just a subtle suggestion of oak aging. It is not surprising that the wine is sold out.

Here are my notes.

Blue Mountain Chardonnay 2017 ($21). This is a delicious wine with aromas and flavours of citrus, peach and pear. Aging on the lees has given the wine good weight and a delightful nutty note on the finish. 92.

Blue Mountain Gamay Noir 2017 ($23). Dark in colour, the wine begins with aromas of black cherry and cassis. On the palate, the texture is fleshy with flavours of black cherry and blackberry and with a lingering, spicy finish. 92.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Painted Rock releases its 2016 reds

Photo: Painted Rock's John Skinner

For several vintages now, Painted Rock Estate Winery has released varietal wines that are 100% of the grape named on the label.

Among the current releases, only the Red Icon is a blend – intentionally so, for this is the winery’s flagship Bordeaux blend.

The objective of making single varietals is prevent obscuring the flavour and the terroir of any varietal by blending in a small percentage of another grape. That is not to say a wine with another grape blended into it would not be good; it might well be terrific, especially from the Painted Rock vineyard.

It is just that the individual grape blocks in the vineyard are performing so well that Painted Rock owner John Skinner can afford to be a purist. It puts a spotlight on the superb viticulture in the 25-acre vineyard, planted about 15 years ago on a west-facing slope above Skaha Lake.

“What has happened at Painted Rock over the last three years is there has been a remarkable development,” John says. “We have a layer of topsoil on top of a layer of alluvial silt down to the rocks, where it is granite and gravel. Over the last three years we have excavated trenches in the planting blocks and we can see the roots have reached down to the rocks. The flavour profiles have developed remarkably.”

That accounts for Painted Rock’s ability to produce wines that impress discriminating palates both here and in Europe, to which the winery exports. A few years ago, a group of French winegrowers stopped at Painted Rock for a tasting. One individual tasted just the Chardonnay, several times, and then ordered several cases to be shipped to his home in France. It turned out he owns one of the top vineyards in Burgundy.

A lot of the credit for the quality of the wines attaches to John’s decision, when he started planting in 2005, to retain Alain Sutre, a leading consulting winemaker from Bordeaux. At the time, John’s background in wine was as a consumer. He was concluding a successful career as an investment dealer.

“The biggest advantage I had coming into this industry was not coming from it, and thus having to hire qualified people and listen to them,” John says.

It was a discipline he had learned in his previous career. “I did 1,000 mining deals,” he says. “I never knew anything about the political situation in Colombia, for example, so I would hire an expert. I didn’t know anything about the geology, so I hired an expert. What I did was handicap risk. You would know what all the variables were and then you made a decision.”

Alain Sutre advises, or has advised, other top Okanagan producers; but Painted Rock has become his major client.

The current releases include a number of reds from the 2016 vintage. Judging from the Painted Rock wines, 2016 is a stellar Okanagan vintage. The wines are as ripe as they were in 2015 but, with a little more acidity, are brighter and more elegant.

Here are notes.

Painted Rock Chardonnay 2017 (Sold out). The winery went to great lengths to produce a wine that is complex and delicious, starting with four picks over two weeks to capture specific fruit qualities. The wine has aromas and flavours of citrus, apple, tropical fruits, all mingled with a subtle vanilla/oak note. Some 80% of the wine was aged just six months in French oak (40% new) while 20% - from the fourth pick – was aged in stainless steel. Only 40% of the wine went through malolactic. Consequently, bright acidity has been preserved to give the wine a lingering, refreshing finish. 93.

Painted Rock Merlot 2015 ($34.99). This wine was fermented in small lots, which were aged 18 months in French oak (30% new). The lots were blended prior to bottling. The wine begins aromas of cherry, blueberry, cassis and vanilla. These are echoed on the palate, along with flavours of spice and plum. The texture is rich, with long ripe tannins. 94.

Painted Rock Syrah Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 (Wine club exclusive). The blend is 70% Syrah, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon. The Syrah gives the wine a classically meaty and plummy aroma mingled with black cherry, blackberry and black currants. On the luscious palate, there are flavours of fig, plum and chocolate. 91.

Painted Rock Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 ($39.99). This elegantly polished wine begins with aromas of black cherry and cassis leading to flavours of cherry, blueberry. There is spice and toasted oak on the finish. This is a remarkably accessible wine for a young Cabernet Sauvignon, with ripe tannins. 93.

Painted Rock Cabernet Franc 2016 ($44.99). This bold red (14.9% alcohol) begins with aromas of black cherry, blackberry and black currant. It delivers rich, dark fruit flavours to the palate along with notes of cherry and chocolate. The wine was aged 18 months in French oak (30% new). 93.

Painted Rock Malbec 2016 (Wine club exclusive). This is a small lot release, with most of the vineyard’s Malbec dedicated to the Red Icon blend. It begins with aromas of plums, cherries and mocha, leading to flavours of blueberry and black cherry with spice and red licorice on the finish. 92.

Painted Rock Syrah 2016 ($39.99). The wine begins with aromas of deli meats, black cherry, vanilla and pepper. On the palate, the wine is rich and earthy, with flavours of black cherry mingled with black cherry and plum and a touch of pepper. 94.

Painted Rock Red Icon 2016 ($54.99). The wine is a blend of 45% Merlot, 24% Cabernet Franc, 11% Malbec, 11% Petit Verdot and 9% Cabernet Sauvignon. It was aged 18 months in French oak (30% new). The wine begins with aromas of blackberry, cassis and spice. The flavours are redolent with black cherry, blueberry and black raspberry mingled with subtle notes of chocolate. The tannins are long and silky. 95.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

SpearHead releases stunning 2017 wines


 Photo: SpearHead winemaker Grant Stanley

I tasted the new SpearHead Winery releases with Brent Gushowaty, a passionate devotee of Pinot Noir with an unparalleled knowledge of British Columbia Pinot Noir.

He pinpointed a significant, and positive, change in the style in the wines now that Grant Stanley is the winemaker and general manager. The flavours are more intense, the texture is more generous and the alcohols across the board are 14%. These are bold, ripe wines, delicious and satisfying in the glass.

Located in bucolic East Kelowna, SpearHead specializes in Pinot Noir even though it debuted in 2010 with well-received Bordeaux reds made with grapes purchased from a Black Sage Road vineyard. These were discontinued in 2013 after the estate vineyard began producing fruit.

“We don’t grow Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon and I don’t think it would make sense to plant those varietals in our area,” proprietor Bill Knutson says.  “I think a wiser course is to focus on Pinot Noir and do a good job with it. The Kelowna area is emerging as a pretty strong region for Pinot Noir.”

SpearHead’s six-hectare (15-acre) Gentleman Farmer Vineyard grows multiple clones of Pinot Noir, along with small blocks of Riesling and Chardonnay. “I hope we can develop a niche with a significant variety of Pinot Noir clones for different bottlings,” Bill says.

The current releases have begun to achieve that primarily with single vineyard wines, drawing on vineyards in Summerland and West Kelowna as well as the estate vineyard.

Here are notes on the wines.

SpearHead 2017 Chardonnay Clone 95 ($30 for 550 cases). The winery has also produced 50 magnums. This barrel-fermented wine, made from a low-yielding French clone, begins with aromas of citrus, apple and vanilla. The wine is rich and creamy on the palate with flavours of citrus, apple and stone fruit. The alcohol is 14.5%, no doubt accounting for some of the power of this wine. 91.

SpearHead 2017 Pinot Noir Club Consensus ($25 for 100 cases). This wine has become something of a tradition at SpearHead: members of the wine club are asked to make the blend, selecting from barrels in the cellar. In some vintages, the wine has won gold medals in competition – a credit both to the underlying wines and the skill of the blenders. The wine begins with aromas of cherry and plum that are echoed on the palate. The tannins are silky. 91.

SpearHead 2017 Pinot Noir GFV Saddle Block ($33 for 300 cases). The wine is made with clones 115, 777 and 828 from the estate vineyard. The fruit is fermented with indigenous yeasts and is aged 13 months in French oak (25% new). In the glass, the wine shows good richness of colour. That sets you up for a wine with intense aromas of spice and cherries and rich, savoury flavours of cherry, blackberry, vanilla and spicy oak. 93.

SpearHead 2017 Pinot Noir Coyote Vineyard ($33 for 200 cases). These grapes are from Grant Stanley’s Coyote Vineyard in West Kelowna. It is entirely clone 115. The grapes were fermented with indigenous yeasts and aged 13 months in French oak barrels (25% new). The wine begins with aromas of red berries and oak. Silky in texture, the wine has flavours of strawberry, raspberry and cherry. 93.

SpearHead 2017 Pinot Noir Golden Retreat Vineyard ($33 for 300 cases). This is a well-managed Summerland vineyard from which SpearHead contacts fruit. The clones are 115 and 667, fermented with indigenous yeasts and aged 13 months in French oak barrels (25% new). This is a full-bodied wine that will age well. It begins with dramatic aromas of cherry, dark fruits, earthy spice, even hints of red licorice. On the palate, the luscious fruits include plum and strawberry. 92.

SpearHead 2017 Pinot Noir Cuvée ($38 for 350 cases). The wine also bottled 50 magnums. The grapes, all from the Gentleman Farmer Vineyard, are clones 828, 115, 667 and Mt. Eden. The wine, fermented with indigenous yeasts, is aged 13 months in French oak (40% new). The aromas mingle toasty notes with plum and cherry. On the palate, the fruit is concentrated, with almost meaty flavours of plum and cherry. The polished texture will support aging – as the winery says, “careful imprisonment for 10-20 years.” 95.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Geneviève Janssens: veteran Robert Mondavi winemaker

Photo: Mondavi chief winemaker Geneviève Janssens

Geneviève Janssens, the chief winemaker at Robert Mondavi Winery, and I share a common experience that had a profound impact on our careers.

We both first visited the Mondavi winery as tourists and has the good fortune of meeting Zelma Long, then a Mondavi winemaker and subsequently a legend in California winemaking. Geneviève told me of her encounter in an interview during the Vancouver International Wine Festival, where she represented the Mondavi winery.

My experience preceded hers by two years. In March, 1975, after a trip with my children to Disneyland, I decided to spend a day visiting wineries in the Napa Valley. My wife and I arrived, three children in tow, at the Mondavi winery without an appointment. It was not needed at that time because wine tourism in the Napa was in its infancy.

We were offered a tour led by Zelma Long, whom I had never met. Such was her charisma and enthusiasm that we were positively aglow when we left the winery. While I had previously visited wineries in Australia, her tour fired a new interest in wineries. I began visiting Okanagan wineries the following year. There were just a handful and the wines were a far cry from the excellent Mondavi wines. Nevertheless, it was the start of my romance with Canadian wineries that led me to write 17 books championing a dramatically improving wine industry.

“I had a similar approach to the Robert Mondavi winery,” Geneviève told me. “I came there just as a tourist in 1977. I was an enologist, of course. The world knew the winery and Mr. Mondavi for his innovation and leadership and his desire to put Napa on the map among the world’s best wines.”

She continued: “I had a tour – not with Zelma, but with a tour guide. I was so impressed by the tour that I asked to talk to the winemaker – and Zelma Long came. I had a good hour of chat about winemaking. I thought it was so special and wonderful I said, ‘If you have a job for me, I will come.’ Two months later she called me, and here I am, 40 years later.”

From the Mondavi website, here is a biographical note on Geneviève:
Born to a French family in Morocco and raised in France, Geneviève’s formal wine education began under the tutelage of the legendary “three fathers” of modern enology – Jean Ribereau-Gayon; his son, Pascal Ribereau-Gayon; and Emile Peynaud – with whom she studied at the University of Bordeaux, France. After receiving her National Diploma of Enology 1974, she returned to her family’s vineyards in Corsica and France, which she managed from 1974 to 1977. Concurrently, she also owned and operated her own enology laboratory in Provence and served as consulting enologist to many French chateaux in the mid-seventies.

Working for Mondavi appealed to her for at several reasons.

“The Napa Valley is where I thought it would be the best for my passion,” she says. Robert Mondavi treated employees, including women, with respect.
“In Bordeaux [in the 1970s], my only career would have been in a lab,” she suggests. “Now, it is changed, but in 1977, it was better for my career to come and work in the Napa Valley, and for Robert Mondavi because of his vision. It was a big vision.”

Another attraction was the opportunity to make wine with grapes, notably Cabernet Sauvignon, from Mondavi’s To Kalon Vineyard, one of the most storied terroirs in the Napa Valley.

To Kalon – Greek for “place of highest beauty” - was planted originally in 1868. In the 1890s, a winery called To Kalon was producing and selling highly regarded wines nationally. Then the Napa’s first phylloxera infestation devastated vast areas of vineyard. To Kalon went bankrupt in 1899 but struggled on until Prohibition in 1920 forced its closure. The winery was revived briefly in 1933 but was destroyed by fire in 1939.

The area called To Kalon was part of a 2,000-acre estate that very nearly became a housing development. The Mondavi family, which operated the Charles Krug Winery, bought 325 acres in 1958; and more subsequently.

Robert split with his brother and father, who were producing bulk wines, to build his own winery in 1966 for the production of world-class wines. The litigation went on for years but Robert eventually ended up in control of about 550 acres of To Kalon. Today, Mondavi’s parent company, Constellation Brands, owns about 450 acres of one of the Napa’s finest vineyard sites.

“Constellation maintained our traditions,” Geneviève says. “They are supporting the winery to make the best wine. They know it is very important for their portfolio.”

Constellation acquired control of Mondavi in 2005 and has since invested significantly in replanting the vineyard, to correct plant virus issues and to get absolutely the best varieties growing here. Zinfandel, Syrah and Pinot Noir were removed. The vineyard now grows just Bordeaux varietals, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc.

The finest red from the To Kalon Vineyard is the Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, a wine structured to age. “The Reserve can age 60 years,” Geneviève says. “We had our 50th anniversary recently and we opened bottles of 1966, 1968, 1970 and they were still delicious – all the Reserve.”

The Cabernet Sauvignon being tasted at the Mondavi tasting during the Wine Festival is the 2015 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($40), a wine that shows the ability of To Kalon grapes to make more “popular” wines.

“The beauty of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is the fruit and the texture,” Geneviève says. “The wine is not made to age more than 10 to 15 years.” 

During some of the tasting sessions, the winery also will pour another outstanding example of To Kalon fruit, the 2016 Oakville Napa Valley Cabernet Franc. Grab this wine if it is also in the festival’s on-site wine store.