Wednesday, November 21, 2018

The Zinfandel Capital of the World?

*These wines were received as samples for review

If you have read this blog before, then you know I am a BIG fan of the Lodi wine region. Lodi wines are quality, terroir-driven, and the value is unmatched! Your dollar certainly goes far when visiting and buying wine in Lodi.

Did you know that Lodi is the Zinfandel capital of the world? Over 40% of the state’s Zinfandel comes from the Lodi AVA. There are over 125 winegrape varieties grown here, but Zinfandel is the true stand out. Zinfandel thrives in Lodi’s mediterranean climate. The warm, sunny days, and cool evenings (in other words, a wide diurnal range) help the grapes to ripen fully, yet not get too ripe, as can happen in places where the temps don’t cool down at night.

Lodi is most commonly known for their Old Vine Zinfandel. In fact, Lodi has more acres of old vines than any region in California. While there is no exact definition of “Old Vine”, many vines are 50 years old, or more. When I visited for the Wine Bloggers Conference in 2016, I visited vineyards that had 100+ year old vines. Gnarly, old vines are fascinating to look at. There’s lots of twists and dark, old-looking wood. The yields tend to shrink the older the vines are, so each vine is precious, as more vines are needed to make a single bottle of wine.

Lodi Zin thrives in the deep sandy loam soils common to the Mokelumne and Clements Hills appellations, and most of the older plantings are own-rooted. Below are a couple of Old Vine Zinfandels I was sent for review:

Mettler 2014 Epicenter Old Vine Zinfandel 15.5% ABV ($25)
This wine is 85% Zinfandel with some Petit Sirah, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon blended in for good measure. The Mettler family has been farming in Lodi for six generations. Their vineyard lies in the “Epicenter” of Lodi’s old vine Zinfandel district, hence the name. The grapes are organically grown. This wine is delightfully purple in color. The nose shows red plus black fruit (plums and prunes), black pepper, cedar, sweet vanilla, and molasses. There is an interesting earthy, smokey note. The palate: WOAH! Chocolate and coffee reign here. So much so that it almost feels like you are eating some sort of mocha dessert. Speaking of dessert, sometimes I opt to drink my dessert rather than eat it. I am not a huge dessert wine fan, so my dessert sometimes ends up being a nice, full, ripe dry red. This would be my “dessert” wine of choice. Oh and the finish on this wine….it never ends. A stellar showing for Old Vine Lodi Zin.

Vintage tasted was 2014

Fields Family Wines 2013 Old Vine Zinfandel 14.5% ABV ($28)
The grapes for this wine are from 60-70 year old vines in the Family Vineyard in the Mokelumne River AVA of Lodi. This wine is medium garnet in color. So. Many. Raisins. Both on the nose and on the palate. Raisins almost always bring me to Old Vine Zin. Also, spice box (cinnamon, clove, nutmeg), vanilla, leather/saddle, plus cocoa/mocha. This is a special wine to be enjoyed slowly. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Kiona Vineyards & Winery: Small But Mighty

Sunset over the Red Mountain AVA

In 1970 John Williams was said to have proclaimed “this just might be a pretty damned good place to grow wine grapes” when speaking of the area that is now known as the Red Mountain AVA in South Central Washington. Because of his proclamation and the subsequent formation of the Red Mountain AVA, I found myself at Kiona Vineyards & Winery in early October at the Red Mountain AVA pre-conference excursion as a part of the annual Wine Bloggers Conference. John Williams and his family are what I consider "the OGs" of Red Mountain. The original “first” family.

Our first stop in Red Mountain was at Kiona Vineyards & Winery where we met with JJ Williams, grandson of Kiona founder, John Williams. JJ met us casually in a baseball hat, jeans, and plaid shirt. Fine wine country fashion! The highlight of the conference for me was our time with JJ as he spoke so passionately and eloquently about Kiona and the Red Mountain AVA. He was unapologetically honest, which you don’t always get when people are speaking to the media/press. 

JJ Williams of Kiona Vineyards & Winery
Where the heck is Red Mountain, you ask? Red Mountain is a sub-AVA of the Yakima Valley in South Central Washington. It is the smallest and warmest grape growing AVA in Washington with about 65% of vines planted to Cabernet Sauvignon.

Source: washington

And what do Red Mountain wines taste like? Instead of giving you my impressions after spending a mere 24 hours in the AVA, I will give you word for word, what JJ Williams has to say. While with JJ, he led us through a tasting of 4 Red Mountain wines alongside 4 red wines from classical wine regions throughout the world: Bordeaux, Napa, Italy, and Australia. It was a fascinating exercise, and one that JJ refers to below:

Red wines from Washington tend to show the following characteristics: Strong fruit characteristic, vibrant acidity, and strong varietal typicity. Cabernet tastes like Cabernet, Merlot tastes like Merlot, etc. Remember back to our tasting: the Washington wines were described by fresh fruit descriptors: blackberry, cherry, cassis, plum, etc. The first descriptor used on the wines from other areas were often not fruit; but words like savory, herbal, leather, wood, and oak. The fruit in Washington takes a front seat. Okay, so if all of that is true about Washington/Columbia Valley wines in general, Red Mountain wines take that up a notch. Within Washington, winemakers will use Red Mountain fruit if they need more color, more tannin, or more structure… basically, more “oomph.” It can almost be viewed as a Petit Verdot type of addition in a blend. Deep color, stout tannins, and strong fruit character are Red Mountain calling cards.

John Williams (JJ’s grandfather) and Jim Holmes met working together in the 60’s at General Electric. In 1972 they bought the first plot of land destined to be grapevines in what is now the Red Mountain AVA. In 1975 the first vines were planted: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Riesling. In fact, below is a picture of 4 of the original Cabernet Sauvignon vines. The first vintage of their wine was produced in 1980 under the Kiona name. Kiona then became one of the founding members of the Yakima Valley AVA in 1982. And in 1994 the Holmes family sold their share to the Williams family, giving them full ownership. And that is how it is to this day. No investors. No banks. Only family. It is no surprise that in 2018, Kiona Vineyards & Winery was named Washington Winery of the Year by Wine Press Northwest.

4 original vines in the Red Mountain AVA

Scott, John’s son and JJ’s father, is now the vineyard manager and winemaker (no rest for the weary!) at Kiona. JJ tells us that he remembers when Red Mountain and the Kiona property was a sea of brown and a little bit of green (now with so many vines planted, it’s the opposite). He said that the importance of his father in the Kiona and Red Mountain story is sometimes lost in the narrative. His father made it his life’s work to turn 10 acres on a dusty slope into a grape-growing area that was worthy of attention. And now Kiona (who own/farm over 200 acres) grow grapes for 60+ producers in the area, therefore they have a vested interest in making sure Red Mountain succeeds. If that is not motivation to do good work in the vineyard, I don’t know what is! JJ says “it’s a tremendous opportunity and responsibility to stand on the shoulders of two generations of greatness, and it’s not something my brother and I take lightly.”

According to JJ: Kiona operates with roles that are less traditionally-defined than most. Even though they have their titles, both Scott and JJ operate as Co-General Managers, with his (Scott's) focus being primarily production, and JJ's focus being the business side of things. JJ’s younger brother, Tyler, has dedicated his education and career thus far to being a world-class winemaker, with stints in Bordeaux, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Sicily, and more. He is also finishing up a masters degree in enology. Succession plan? They’ve already thought of it. According to JJ: Tyler (my brother) and I needed to specialize in areas that would affect the company in the most dramatic ways, and assume positions that would be difficult/impossible to hire an outside person to do as well as we were, given our backgrounds, experience, and last name. I do a lot of things that would—traditionally—fall under the “winemaker” umbrella, including blending, product/portfolio composition and execution, as well as broader decisions such as barrel/aging philosophies, vineyard/grape allocations, etc. But in terms of wearing galoshes and hooking up hoses/pumps in the winery, that’s not my day-to-day experience.

The Red Mountain AVA is over 4,000 acres with 2,600 planted under vine. And according to JJ, all the good, plantable land is taken, so this is pretty much it for the AVA. What is planted now is what the region will be in 20-30 years. Pretty cool.

What defines Red Mountain and makes the wines what they are? These are the 5 pillars that those in the area count as their competitive advantage to make good wines.

Slope: The area has a good slope and SW aspect, which is beneficial for prolonged sun exposure and warmth. This helps to create ripe tannins, which is a characteristic of Red Mountain fruit.

Low Rainfall: The region is relatively dry with an average of less than 5” of rain annually. Irrigation is necessary. Low rainfall helps to mitigate disease/pest pressure.

Breezes: Which come out of the SW. This air drainage keeps clusters small and concentrates fruit, which is also a hallmark of Red Mountain.

Soils: In Pre-Historic times, Ice Age flooding made the land barren, left only with basalt soils. Winds deposited fine granite-based silt and dust (aka loess) on top of the rock. The resulting soils are fine grained, well-drained, and perfect for growing grapes because of minimal disease/pest pressure

Heat: The vines receive 16-17 hours of sun daily. This creates ripe and concentrated fruit. Plus, cool evenings help the grapes retain their acidity, which aids in maintaining balance and structure.

While with JJ we also had an interesting conversation about oak use. Most wineries are not going to be so honest and we all appreciated JJ’s candor on the topic. He shared that it is his belief that as a general rule, winemakers want to use less oak. But the issue is that consumers demand it (in the sense that they want a certain style of wine; one that generally sees oak treatment) and on the same token, if you seek to receive ratings/scores, those critics generally demand oak use (even if it a subtle demand in that the styles of wine that receive the good score have generally seen more oak). JJ left us with this thought: If you’re a winery with a wine club, you have allocated wines, and/or seek ratings and’re going to use oak. It’s an interesting lever to pull and a very complex topic with many opinions on the table.

Lastly, as part of the Red Mountain tastings, JJ never poured his own wines. Now that is humility. 

Kiona vines

Monday, November 5, 2018

The Lenné Experience

Walk into some wineries and you can tell that they’ve read the studies: millennials are drinking wine at increasing rates and the way to get to their hearts (and wallets) is through an experience. These wineries have crafted Instagrammable moments onsite, they sell wine tchotchkes (including t-shirts that say “rosé all day”), and there is bus/shuttle parking out back for the birthday and bachelorette parties coming through. Those wineries are (generally) fun to visit and have a convivial atmosphere, but the wine isn’t always so great. Sooner or later the bachelorette party starts getting loud and you realize the people behind the counter at the tasting room don’t really know much about wine or have any connection to what they’re pouring, other than to regurgitate tasting notes that appear on the tasting sheets.

Now imagine the complete 180 of that. That would be Lenné Estate in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. To say that Lenné doesn’t have as much “atmosphere” would be completely inaccurate. For those wanting a more authentic and less gimmicky experience, Lenné Estate is the answer. The focus is the wines. Period. And don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a super serious experience only for wine connoisseurs. You still have Scarlet, the requisite winery dog who I could NOT get enough of. The tasting room is beautiful with sweeping views of the Yamhill-Carlton AVA. And they’re looking to add a winery house onsite. Something tells me it wouldn’t be a bachelorette type destination, but more of an escape for those seeking a quiet haven in wine country. Lenné is the winery to visit if you want a wine-focused tasting experience; minus the wine charms and key chains for sale on the tasting counter.


Lenné Estate resides in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA of the Willamette Valley of Oregon. Owners Steve and Karen Lutz bought the property and planted their first vines in 2001. Six long years later the vines produced their first vintage and the tasting room opened. Steve is notorious for proclaiming that his 20-acre vineyard has the poorest soils in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA. Their Peavine soils are nutrient deficient, low vigor, and depleted. Perfect for growing grapes! The vineyard lies on a steep hillside. So steep that one year a tractor tipped in the vineyard. There have also been many “almost” tipped stories. Steve likes to say they grow “death-defying Pinot Noir vines”.

Death-defying slopes at Lenné Estate

Stepping out of the vineyard and into the bottle, we have minimalist wines at Lenné made from both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. In all, approximately 1500-2000 cases are produced each year, and they have no intention of expanding. Steve likes to make single-block wines so the customer can understand and study terroir. The tasting room is comfortable with ample seating, which is important to Steve. This isn’t a drive-by tasting kind of experience. He wants you to get comfortable, get to know the wines, and maybe enjoy one of his epic charcuterie plates.

The tasting room is open Wednesday-Sunday weekly. Steve also holds wine seminars throughout the year, including blind tastings of his Lenné wines alongside top Pinots from around the world. This is a gutsy move to put your wines alongside Pinots from Burgundy, for example. However, this fact alone shows how transparent Steve is. His wines are not meant to replace or compete with Pinots from Burgundy, New Zealand, or anywhere. The goal is to showcase the unique attributes of each wine and where they came from. 

Steve Lutz, Owner & Winemaker

I asked Steve if Lenné has any plans for growth. Any desires to make wine elsewhere? Nope. This site here. This is Steve’s story.

“This site is ingrained in my DNA” says Steve.

“I didn’t choose Lenné. It chose me”.

Wines Tasted

2016 Chardonnay $45
My notes: Bright fruit aromatics. Does not smell like a Chardonnay. Great green fruit on the palate with medium acid.
Their notes: Asian pear and green apple with lively acidity and creamy texture.

2014 Lenné Pinot Noir $40
My Notes: Oh yeah. Big nose here: bright red fruit plus pepper and smoke. I also get a minerality on the palate. This is their largest production wine.

2015 Jill’s 115 Pinot Noir $55
Their notes: Tighter grained, smaller tannins give a silkiness to the wine. Currant, mocha, and Bing cherry aromatics and a long, elegant finish.

2015 Lenné Estate Pinot Noir $40
My notes: A very balanced combination of red and black fruit. Great mouthfeel (texture) plus a clean, medium plus finish.
Their notes: Black cherry, black raspberry, and mocha aromatics surround a soft mouthfeel and long finish.

2015 Eleanor’s 114 Pinot Noir $55
My notes: Cherry on the forefront of the nose and palate. A good chunk of dirt/earthiness that I expect from a Pinot Noir.
Their notes: Black raspberry fruit, mocha, and truffle aromatics and a rich mouthfeel.

2015 cinq élus Pinot Noir $72
My notes: No words. Wow. This is my favorite wine of the group.
Their notes: This is their five-barrel blend of the best barrel from each of their clonal blocks. Mixed black and red fruit, mocha, and earth aromatic frame a dense wine with layered, and rich finish.

2015 South Slope Select Pinot Noir $55
Their notes: Seeing nearly 80% new oak, this wine has plenty of tannins an should be our longest-lived wine of the vintage. Dark Bing cherry, red fruits, smoke, and mocha aromatics and a long finish.

2008 Lenné Estate Pinot Noir $100
Their notes: 600 cases of this wine was made and 200 cases were held back. It was re-released in 2015. This wine still hasn’t peaked but is delicious, with black and red fruits, forest floor, truffle and the longest finish of any wine we have ever produced.