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One Brilliant Bottle

organic/biodynamic/natural wines in Vinland

Category Archives: United States

Tres Sabores ¿Porqué no?

United States (California)

zinfandel (76%), cabernet sauvignon (12%), petite sirah, petit verdot

Tres Sabores ¿Porqué no? 2007

If this colourful wine has a reputation for being the life of a party it’s because it likes to play with the senses and be perfectly charming at the same time. Deep and rich in the glass, but not brawny. This unusual varietal combination is packed with flavour and very drinkable. Youthful, and a bit exotic. Black fruit, spices, tobacco, chocolate. A pleasant tannic touch. One cork popped leads easily to another.  ¿Porqué no?  $

I think of it as a bit of a melting pot of a wine. Our celebratory wine for the reelection of Obama. Bravo. ¡Bravo.

Tres Sabores translates to “three flavours.” Three tastes. Three components (according to their website) of good winemaking – the terroir, the vine, the artisan. When Tres Sabores was in its formative years, three winemakers were hired, given their own section of zinfandel vines, and the complete freedom to do with it what they will. The result – three cuvées, three bottlings, three different wine drinking experiences.

The owner behind this experiment was Julie Johnson. That was 1999 and Johnson, once a public health nurse in the Napa Valley, had decided to make her own strong foray in the business of making wine. Years before she had co-founded Frog’s Leap Winery with her first husband and a third partner. But this was a move well beyond that. By 2003 she was wine-making herself, learning lots, and very much enjoying the experience.

Suddenly disaster struck. In the fall of 2005 a huge fire in Vallejo destroyed a wine storage facility used by 95 wineries and many private collectors. Tres Sabores lost 2000 cases. It was a devastating blow, but one from which Johnson emerged with renewed vigour. (What little she salvaged from the fire she made into a meat marinade and glaze which she sold as Fire Roasted Zinfadel Sauce!)

Johnson knows the value of her vineyards. Set on the western side of the Napa Valley near the top of the Rutherford Bench, a “sweet spot”, to use her words, for her red grape varietals. The ranch style property has been long certified organic (likely one of the first in Napa), and not only for its five hectares of grapes, but also for olives, pomegranates, lamb and guinea fowl. Visitors consistently report the generous welcome they receive, in a family-friendly atmosphere that remind them of the Napa of the 1970s.

It’s reassuring that such places still exist, given that Napa seems all about big business these days. ¡Bravo.


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Coturri Winery Albarello

United States (California)

carignan (40%) grenache (20%) petite sirah (20%), zinfandel (20%)

In Chicago, there are hot dogs…

…and then there are hot dogs!

Nothing but an American wine would do.

Coturri Albarello 2008

There is a juicy earthiness that stopped me in my tracks. Smoke on the nose, bright, fresh, instantly approachable. A nice cut of acidity in the mouth, full of flavor, delightfully unpolished. Naturalness at its Californian best. Like a Chicago-style hot dog – an unabashed blend of multiple ingredients. A workingman’s wine. It ran out way too soon. Bring on more dogs. $

The winery is Sonoma born and bred, located near the village of Glen Ellen in what is known as the Valley of the Moon. For 30 years Tony Coturri has been bringing to the market wine at its natural best, long before natural (organic and sulfur free) wine had much of a profile. Some wine outlets liked to call it ‘hippie juice’ and relegated it to the offbeat netherland of wine shops. It suffered an image problem.

But no more. Natural wine bars have sprung up in many major cities. Whole books on the subject of natural and organic wines have appeared, including Alice Feiring’s recent “Naked Wine”. There is a hard core of wine enthusiasts singing the praises of a natural, non-interventional approach to what goes into a wine bottle. They appreciate the fact that consistency across vintages is not necessarily something to strive for. Variation from year to year can be an exciting prospect.

Take 2008, the vintage of the bottle at hand. It was the year a vast number of wildfires raged in Northern California. The 2008 Coturri vintage is touched by smoke, a lingering secondary characteristic, as well as an element of the terroir unique to that year. It’s a touch of history in the wine.

The roots of Coturri go back to the turn of the last century, with the arrival of Enrico Coturri from Tuscany. He brought with him the culture of wine making. It fell to his son “Red” to first turn the interest to a commericial venture, and to his two grandsons Tony and Phil to enlarge and refine the venture to what we have today. Now Enrico’s great grandson, Nic, is poised to lead it into the decades ahead.

Phil oversees the Coturri vineyards, as well as hundreds more acres supplying organic grapes to a bunch of other wineries. Brother Tony defines himself, not as a winemaker, but as a “custodian” of grapes, a reflection of his hands-off approach. Let the grapes do what comes naturally following their biodynamic cycle in the vineyards. The grapes are gently crushed, the “must” led into open redwood fermentation tanks which are promptly covered by white sheets. Beneath the sheets the naturally occurring yeasts set to work for up to two weeks. The must is retrieved and then basket pressed for a further collection of wine.

Coturri has its own cooperage, producing reconditioned 230-litre French Oak barrels. Here the wine matures for up to two years, during which time the wine is racked several times. The wines are hand bottled, having been neither filtered nor fined. Nor does it see the addition of any sulphur. Coturri produces in total only 5,000 cases annually.

I was very pleased to discover this bottle in Chicago, at an artisanal food and wine shop called Pastoral. I would buy it again in a flash.

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Bonny Doon Vineyard Le Cigare Volant

United States (California)

syrah (43.6%), grenache (43.5%), cinsault (1.7%), mourvèdre (1.1%), carignane (0.1%)

Thanks to a good friend who travelled from Toronto for the holidays, I was able to bring to the dinner table not one, but two top tier wines from Bonny Doon Vineyard. The question eventually became which one of the Cigare bottles to choose for the blog. We embraced them both, but in the end I opted for the red. Perhaps because it had a certain inexplicable something and maybe, just maybe that’s what Bonny Doon is all about.

The flying saucer (the ‘Le Cigare Volant’ of the label) has landed! And right in a vineyard of Rhône varietals! Can an alien Châteauneuf-du-Pape be the result?

Bonny Doon Vineyard Le Cigare Volant 2006

A dark purplish-red (garnet, some would say) in colour. But what of the nose? Pungent certainly, lively, but difficult to pinpoint. Earthy, provocative, full of the fruits of farmyard labour. (ummm…) Gamey, of a type. More descriptors escape me, but the aromas engender great interest and why ask more of a wine. Nobody said a wine should smell like anything but itself. And what of the taste? Tannic, with rustic elements, sun-dried herbs, minerals. Rhône-like as intended. An all around very positive experience. A good landing!  $$

The wine man behind Bonny Doon is Randall Grahm. He looms big, in the zany ways of the California generation which came of age in the 1970s. You have to admire his humour and his marketing savvy. And admire his willingness to sell off a massive chunk of a successful venture, and focus on a production level of roughly 40,000 cases (less than one-tenth the size of the original winery), all for the sake of making (to quote the man) “the most soulful wines we can muster — wines of vibrant vitality, a deeper sense of place and life force.” Randall Grahm is nothing if not hip and thoughtful, nothing if not unpredictable.

His foray into wine began in 1983 with the founding of Bonny Doon Vineyard in Santa Cruz. He pioneered the introduction into California of syrah, grenache, cinsault, mourvèdre, and other Rhône varietals, and blended them in the Châteauneuf-du-Pape style. Many people see him as the original Rhône Ranger. The winery grew steadily in parallel with Grahm’s status as a non-conformist winemaker. He was the first in California to use screwtops for premium wines, the first to use micro-oxygenation. And through it all endeared himself to legions of wine drinkers (if not wine critics particularly, who seemed not to share his sense of humour.) His loyal followers remain, as the figure of 350,000 followers on Twitter would seem to indicate.

Yet, for all his past success, about ten years ago something was beginning to feel wacko. He sensed a need for radical change. He saw the light…from a flying saucer perhaps. Since 2004 Bonny Doon has turned to chemical-free, biodynamic winemaking, with much more attention being paid to what goes on in the vineyards and without the manipulation in the cellar that was once a regular part of the winery’s routine. The wine was always good, but it seems to have gotten a whole lot better.

And, Grahm would contend, more soulful. As he has said,  ‘I live for the juice, man!’

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Freestone Vineyards Fogdog Chardonnay

United States (California)


I was perversely attracted  to the label, living in a port city that’s been chilled and fog-stricken through much of June. (Has anyone seen summer?) In the mist of it all, we acquired a puppy. The bottle begged to be opened. And on one of the few days to see the sun we popped the cork on the Fogdog.

Freestone Vineyards Fogdog Chardonnay 2007

For those who like their chardonnay with a serving of buttered oak, this one’s for you. California all the way, from the moment the aromas of the brassy yellow liquid hit the nose to the full-in-the-mouth experience. There is no surprise that before bottling it spent 15 months in French oak (60% new, 40% two and three year old). So it’s a matter of what side you stand on the great oak divide. If you are among the ‘yeas’ then there is much to recommend this rich and robust, near chewy wine. There’s a lovely lemon citrus in tandem with the vanilla. Doesn’t truly need food, but lobster does nicely.  $$

Freestone Vineyards is the creation of Joe Phelps and his son Bill. The pair are synonymous with Napa where, since its founding in 1972, Joseph Phelps Vineyards has been a leading producer in the Bordeaux style. By the late 1990s they were searching Sonoma, with the intention of planting Burgundy varietals, pinot noir and chardonnay. In west Sonoma, just six miles from the coast, near the village of Freestone, they found what they were looking for. They planted 40 hectares of the two grapes, made a commitment to biodynamics, and by 2005 their first vintage was in wine stores.

When discussion turns to the character of Freestone wines, the owners point to the special characteristics of their three vineyard sites. Elevation ranges from 60 to 150 metres above sea level. The soil drains very well, forcing the roots deep, and as the vines mature an increasing percentage of the vineyards are able to be dry farmed. The influence of the ocean is central to the success of the vines. Nights and mornings tend to be cool, with fog giving way to lengthy afternoons of full sun — the makings of a long, slow-ripening, superb growing season.

The grape harvest is taken to Freestone’s new three-storey, gravity-advantaged winery, where head winemaker Theresa Heredia is in charge. She produces chardonnay under three labels, each with its own distinct profile, all aged in oak. Fogdog (meaning ‘a bright or clear spot in breaking fog’) is the lowest priced of the three. Hopefully a few more dollars will dim the oak influence a little and let the brilliance of the fruit shine through even more.

Doggie agrees.

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Chappellet Mountain Cuvee

United States (California)

cabernet sauvignon (51%), merlot (46%), malbec (1%), cabernet franc (1%), petit verdot (1%)

Chappellet Mountain Cuvee 2007

A pleasing, substantial nose of dark fruit, cedar and spice. Medium in body, a smooth, polished blending. A little tannic now, and more alcoholic (14.9%) than I like, but overall great juice with good heft that should work well with a variety of foods. Nicely focused Bordeaux blend and offering very good value for the pocketbook.  $

The winery founders are Donn and Molly Chappellet, with second generation family members now in charge. Chappellet, started in 1967, was only the the second winery to establish in the Napa Valley after Prohibition, and the first Valley winery to set its sights above the Napa Valley floor. Out of range of fog, with longer, sun-filled days and a steeper contrast in day/night temperatures, Chappellet vintages went from strength to strength. It has long been seen as one of Napa’s premier wineries.

Chappellet lies atop the renowned Prichard Hill, its vineyard elevations extending from 800 to 1800 feet above sea level. It is made up of 34 separate and distinctive blocks, the majority devoted to cabernet sauvignon. It is the varietal for which Chappellet is best known. It makes up the majority of the 25,000+ cases produced annually.

Yet only 16% of the property is under vine, a reflection of the winery’s commitment to the health of the ecosystem. The uncultivated land surrounding the vineyards acts as a natural buffer, keeping out chemical blow-over from other properties. The Cappellets have long seen themselves as stewards of a profoundly important part of the Napa Valley, a commitment that goes back to the early 1980s. The Napa winery was one of the first to use cover crops to maintain a natural organic soil balance and to prevent soil erosion. Today its social responsibility extends to on-site composting, water conservation, solar energy, and even the construction of bird boxes in the vineyards to encourage natural predators to keep insect and rodent pests in check.

In charge of winemaking for the past two decades has been Phillip Corallo-Titus. He generally ferments and ages the vineyard blocks individually, to take complete advantage of the individual variation in soil makeup, elevation, and exposure. The blocks each have their own character in terms of vine age and cultivation, giving the talented winemaker much to work with, allowing his creative talents to fully express themselves, in good and not-so-good growing years. It is this intimate knowledge that has produced such an eye-catching blend as Mountain Cuvee. No optical illusion.

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