Leoni Farms: Winemaker Jon by Joe Campbell (no relation to Jon)
On many a weekend in the lovely small town of Sutter Creek, California, on Main Street, visitors will walk by the tasting room of Leoni Farms and hear the hearty laugh of Jon Campbell holding court. Conversations will range from television episode recaps of Yellowstone, to politics, to reminding you about how much he detests the Robert Parker point scale. “See this Rolling Rock I’m drinking? It scored a 97,” notes Jon, with a sarcastic smirk. During those summers and long harvests, cheap beer becomes a winemaker’s best friend.
Above the great conversation and Cheers-like ambiance that Leoni Farms provides, a local sense of camaraderie and family permeates the building. After spending ten minutes with Jon, you feel like you have known him for the past 20 years. The Campbells are a fifth-generation family in Amador County. Some of the vineyard plantings on their property go back 50 years.
Jon began his career working in the cellar before moving up to assistant winemaker at Drytown Cellars. He then took a job as a winemaker in Lodi running a processing facility.
Jon would eventually return to his roots in Amador County to start Leoni Farms. Leoni is an old family surname and the farm part of the name is critical as well, because at the end of the day, Jon considers himself a farmer at heart. He indicated he would grow alfalfa if he could make money doing it.
Jon’s wines are a reflection of him: unpretentious and unafraid to try new things. Along with Amador County mainstays like barbera and zinfandel, he has also released interesting varieties like charbono and alicante bouschet.
Blend 16 A blend of 75% cabernet sauvignon, 25% mourvèdre. Released in August. A meaty full bodied wine that is seductive, yet allusive, conjuring up images of sun-drenched Southern Spain while maintaining that beautiful, black-cherry nose. This wine would pair well with a juicy pork loin during a Sunday dinner with family or friends.
Humbug Hill Red 100% Zinfandel. 13.9% ABV. A nice, light, cherry red, and restrained Sierra Foothills beauty at a reasonable price point. Throw a couple of burgers and hot dogs on the grill. The Humbug Red is your casual weeknight grilling and chilling companion.
Leoni Farms Tasting Room 67 Main Street Sutter Creek CA 95685 (209) 256-5175 email@example.com Hours Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday 1:00 pm–5:00 pm Friday and Saturday 11:00 am–6:00 pm Sunday 11:00 am–5:00 pm Closed Tuesday
About Writer Joe Campbell Based out of the Sierra Foothills of California, Joe Campbell, aka Sierra Wine Guy on social media, is an experienced software technology solutions consultant by day while spending his weekends and evenings working on the family farm and ranch properties while providing color commentary as well as insight within the wine industry both from the lifestyle consumer and business segments of the industry. Bio Courtesy of The Vintner Project.
We had the best laid plans: choose the food pairings, blind taste the wines, take notes, discuss the wines, reveal the wines, discuss the wines further, and take lots of photos. I must confess, though, that nothing went as planned with regard to note and photo taking, and perhaps Joe might be disappointed that this article is not going to be as much about the wines individually, but more about them collectively, the camaraderie we shared at the dinner table, and most importantly, Joe’s story. Truth be told, nothing inspires me more than to discover a brilliant, spirited entrepreneur with a passion-filled story to share.
Eight of us came together on a Sunday night to taste the wines blind as part of a multi-course dinner. As usual, my brothers Gary and Ben outdid themselves purchasing and preparing the food: spicy bacon-wrapped jalapeños, shrimp and grits, kale salad, grilled asparagus, grilled pork, and chocolate cake, all dairy free and healthy. We hid the wines in tissue paper, rather than paper bags, which added a festive touch.
What happened next is how wine is meant to be enjoyed. Instead of sticking to the plan, the dinner evolved into something much less structured and formal. We began the evening with the pétillant naturel in celebratory sparkling wine glasses, as a toast to my new career. This wine was by far the most unusual of our tasting, aptly described by Joe as a “kitchen sink” blend of grapes. Throughout the evening, we tasted (er, drank!) the Gewürztraminer, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Chambourcin (the first for all attendees except me, I think!), and Cabernet Sauvignon. The Gewürztraminer was an ideal pairing with both the bacon-wrapped jalapeños and the shrimp and grits, while the four reds elevated our enjoyment of the pork. I do not think anyone at the dinner but me had tasted wines from Ohio. Because I live in Napa, California, a few guests assumed that the wines were from here, and remarked they had never tasted similarly balanced, elegant, lower alcohol, and food-friendly wines from California. Others commented that the wines were Old World in style, comparing them to wines from the Loire Valley, Burgundy, and Bordeaux. Some tried to guess the grape varieties and were surprised to discover what they were during the reveal. A testament to the deliciousness of these wines was that not a single drop remained at the conclusion of dinner.
Once I revealed the grape varieties and that the wines were from the Lake Erie AVA, located outside of Cleveland, Ohio, I was hammered with questions from the dinner guests. We had experienced an authentic and genuine wine moment and were eager to learn more. Everyone wanted to know more about the Joe, the guy behind these wonderful wines. I immediately jumped on my iPhone, messaged him, and relayed his answers to the dinner guests. Below is the conversation.
Me: Questions! Minds blown!
Firstly, I told everyone that you were young! How old are you? I’m 27 years old.
What grapes are in the pét-nat? Pét-nat is mainly Pinot Noir dominant, with Muscat Ottonel being around 25% and other grapes like Lemberger and Müller-Thurgau at just a few percent each.
What is your background in winemaking? Any family history? I am 100% self taught (though perhaps it shows at times). I do not have family in the industry. I was raised as an inner-city kid from a lower-class household. I have always had a love of plants, and at age 13, was given the opportunity to work in a local vineyard, pruning, and harvesting. I started working in the cellar when I was 16 years old, helping make the wine, and by age 18, I began at the new startup winery, Vermilion Valley Vineyards. My role was to grow grapes and make wine. In 2013, when I was 22 years old, the partnership at Vermilion Valley Vineyards folded and allowed my wife, Kristi, and me to assume ownership. We acquired a partner two years ago that is allowing for our expansion.
Do you grow all your grapes? How many cases do you produce annually and how many cases of each of the wines we tasted? We are 100% estate grown and are trending to 160 acres over the next few years. Our current production is around 3,000 cases. We are building out our new production facility to 55,000 cases. As to the wines you tasted, Pét-Nat – 245 cases, Gewürz – 185 cases, Pinot Noir – 125 cases, Cabernet Franc – 285 cases, Chambourcin – 190 cases, Cabernet Sauvignon – 65 cases.
What wines inspire you? I love whites with structure. Typically lees aged and perhaps a bit of skin contact. We drink California Chardonnay more than anything. With reds I like rich, powerful wines, but with finesse and complexity. High-alcohol fruit bomb doesn’t cut it. We drink primarily Italian reds like Super Tuscans.
Everyone enjoyed the wines! You might get some friend requests and Instagram follows. One suggested you should be making wine in the Loire. I am glad to hear it. The feedback is greatly appreciated and thank you for taking the time to show them off. The Loire is a dream trip.
How many grape varieties do you grow? Which ones? Above is the full list. Some are to be planted this season, so not all in production yet. Thirty varieties in total. It a lot but we have an extremely variable climate here so it helps us spread out our risk to allow us to have a number of exceptional wines in every single year. That, and for blending purposes.
Any events you would like to share with my readers? GORDY’S 4th BIRTHDAY PARTY (6/9/19) Gordy, our vineyard pup will be turning four and will be having a huge birthday bash on Sunday, June 9th, from 1 to 4 in celebration. This is a pet friendly event so bring your dog to help celebrate Gordy’s birthday. There will be music, people food trucks, a puppy food truck, 50/50 raffle, and basket raffles. This is a benefit to raise money for Partners With Paws Of Lorain County, Inc., an organization that distributes funds to many Lorain County animal rescues. There will be a $10 entry fee and all raffles and T-shirt proceeds will be donated to the cause. Radio Stations WOBL & WDLW will also be there broadcasting live. Mark your calendar and save the date now: SUNDAY, JUNE 9TH, 1:00 TO 4:00 PM AT VERMILION VALLEY VINEYARDS. (All dogs must remain on a leash) Please share with all of your animal loving friends!
More about Joe Juniper In addition to his ownership and duties at Vermilion Valley Vineyards, Joe serves on the board of directors for the Ohio Wine Producers Association. He holds degrees in viticulture and agriculture business from Missouri State University and The Ohio State University. Follow Joe on Instagram at @myvinesmywines.
Vermilion Valley Vineyards 11005 Gore Orphanage Road Wakeman OH 44889 Main Number: 440-965-5202 Sales: 419-239-1259 General Inquiries and Weddings, Parties & Meetings (Kristi Juniper): firstname.lastname@example.org Sales (Joe Juniper): email@example.com Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/VermilionValleyVineyards/
Photos Credits: Elizabeth Smith and Joe Juniper/Vermilion Valley Vineyards
I have visited plēb urban winery in Asheville, North Carolina, three times over the course of the past five months: October 2018, November 2018, and January 2019. I am planning another visit this month, February 2019, so make that four visits. This may qualify me as a plēbeian and that is OK. I am delighted to share my latest wine crush with you, my readers. (See what I did there?)
plēb urban winery opened in September 2018 offering wines from various regions. However, their mission is to produce small-lot NC wines with grapes sourced within a two-hour radius of Asheville. To date, plēb has released three of their 2018 wines: a rare Maréchal Foch rosé from Appalachian High Country (8.8% ABV), a Chardonnay Pét-Nat from Henderson County (10.1% ABV), and an effervescent, Cayuga-based wine in a can called exuberant white (12.2% ABV). I have tasted all three and enjoyed them immensely because they are a palate match to my Hs (Hypersensitive) Vinotype, with their lower alcohol, higher acidity, no added sulfites, and a “less is more” approach to winemaking. The wines are kegged and offered by the glass or growler. The most intriguing of the three for me has been following the evolution of the Maréchal Foch rosé. When I initially tasted it in November 2018, its higher acid was more pronounced. However, when I tasted it again in January 2018, it was like tasting a different wine. The bright fruit flavors and acid were much more harmonious.
What I most love about plēb is that the winery is bringing Western North Carolina wine to the forefront of Asheville’s craft beverage market, especially to a younger generation of buyers, most of whom are likely craft beer drinkers since Asheville is such a beer destination. I also enjoy plēb because they are changing what the vision of a winery is. The vibe is anti-establishment and anti-traditional regarding the varietal wines they make, their winemaking style, their packaging, and their marketing. Different is good for all wine consumers.
To delve into plēb’s philosophy and approach to winemaking, the wine industry, the urban winery environment, and wine marketing, I interviewed the team: co-owner and business manager, Lauren Turpin; co-owner and winemaker, Chris Denesha; and assistant winemaker, Tyler Kay. Below is the story of plēb urban winery in their own words.
What inspired you to get into the winemaking business? Lauren: The surge of craft beer and local breweries had me wondering if a similar local tap room approach and concept could be applied to wine. I wanted to start a business that produced a product, engaged with the community and filled a gap in the market. After doing some research, I believed this could be achieved through an urban winery. And that, while I’m not the winemaker, is how I got into the winemaking business. Chris: It’s the farming and growing aspect that got me into the business. There is something beautiful about working with the land and partnering to make something that has the unique ability to age for a long time and tell its unique story of place and history. Being a part of growing grapes and making wine has more to do with the place and year in which the grapes were grown than anything else. I got into winemaking more as I saw the identity being stripped away from our local grapes and wine to fit a more homogenized and marketable palate. It’s simply not representative of what most people love about wine and we are losing that connection without anyone really knowing that it’s happening. Tyler: Wine sparked my curiosity in college. My “ah-ha” bottle was a 2007 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir from California. I never tasted anything like it, and I needed to know why. I bought a wine encyclopedia and dove right in. After college, I worked on a vineyard in southern Utah. Then I started my path towards becoming a sommelier. I love to travel, but when you’re balling on a budget, I would study regions and plan a trip. It helped shaped my winemaking style and kept the dialogue of travel alive.
Why and how did you select your location? Lauren: We selected our location in the River Arts District for its size, accessibility and neighborhood. Wine is art and to be surrounded by hundreds of artists throughout the district, it felt like a natural fit. The size of the space allows us to produce and grow. It also enables us to provide a full-production winery and tap room experience to a large audience. Lastly, being two miles from downtown and Biltmore Village and next to West Asheville, we are well situated to serve locals and tourists.
How did you choose the name plēb? Lauren: The plebeian spirit and their admiration for the gods of agriculture, fertility and viticulture led us to select the unique name. Our focus is on local growers, pursuing local vineyards and grapes that will grow well here in Western North Carolina. We seek to pay growers for their crops a rate that enables them to reinvest in their land. Farmers, winemakers, artists, in Roman times these were the plebeians that were the economic backbone and underappreciated of society. We want to put them front and center.
Will you please share with us details about the winery’s design and décor, both the tasting room and the working winery? Lauren: Being in the River Arts District and among the large murals, we wanted to bring that design inside since we have large walls befitting their skills.
What is plēb’s winemaking style or philosophy? Chris and Tyler: We grew up playing baseball, and both of our fathers taught us the old school philosophy of things. I’d say that mentality is carried over in the winery. Old world winemaking with modern technology. This means low intervention in the cellar. Hand destemmed, foot crushed reds. Whole cluster pressed whites and rosés. Only non-competitive yeast strains, or 100% wild spontaneous fermentation. We even used fermenting wine to pitch on new juice to promote fermentation. No sulfur added, no fining or filtering. Just a cold cellar temperature to age, and we’re BIG fans of barrel aging on fine lees. We work in a cold climate and we want to see the reward of patience in time, not heat to showcase these wines.
What kind of vineyard partnerships does plēb seek or have? What are your criteria for selecting partners and vineyard sources? Chris: We manage about 5 acres up in the Boone area. The rest of our grapes are all contract based with an emphasis on new small growers. We’re focused on Western North Carolina, which is generally higher elevation vineyard sites ranging from 2,100-3,400 ft. We want to build a united mentality for the future and longevity of this new wine growing region. Recognizing our temperate rainforest continental climate and acting accordingly with the right varietals. We believe highlighting French American hybrids and native varieties as quality grapes, along with shorter growing season Vitis vinifera.
Why does plēb sell wines by the glass, growler, cans, and/or on tap instead of traditional bottles? Lauren: We have a commitment to be environmentally friendly and sustainable, not just in the vineyard but throughout our operation. Therefore, we do not bottle in mass. Using stainless steel kegs, we keep the equivalent of 78 bottles of wine free from light and oxygen for an extended amount of time. The growler option allows customers flexibility to choose any wine on tap to-go. Our cans are great for three reasons – first, they are recyclable, second, they are convenient for our outdoor enthusiasts, and third, it’s 375mL or two glasses of wine, which is a good size for one person or two to split. If you see any of our wine in a bottle it’s because either the wine or the retailer demanded it in that format.
Does the winemaking team have any favorite wines to make? Why? Lauren: Sparkling because they’re my favorite to drink! Chris: Sparkling because of bottle variation, you never know what you’re going to get! Tyler: Rosés because so much is dependent on the chemistry of the grapes to dictate the winemaking.
Besides the winery, where can we find your wines? Lauren: Select retailers, breweries and restaurants in the Asheville area.
Do you have any additional information you would like to share with the readers, such as forthcoming wine releases, events, etc.? Lauren: I see us as revolutionaries and advocates for WNC grapes and wines and I call upon all those who want to revolt to join us. We will have new single varietal wines and blends coming out on a regular basis throughout the year. Best to check our website and social media for up-to-date information. Tyler: Live life with no regrets, and everybody Wang Chung tonight.
My passion for zinfandel made the way it ought to be was reignited when I tasted this sample from Oakville’s Highlands Winery. It is not often that I use the word lovely and elegant when describing a zinfandel, but this is just that. Black cherry fruit and mouthwatering acidity lead into a subtle peppery finish. Structured, yet restrained, all of this wine’s components, if you will, are woven together quite nicely, resulting in a zinfandel that will complement food, not overpower it. Sharing it with new friends from California, Illinois, and New York was the icing on the proverbial cake. I was delightfully reminded me why I moved to the Napa Valley to follow my dream of working in the wine industry.
When I recently received my review copy of Wine Folly Magnum Edition, I was taken aback by the sheer beauty of the book’s cover design. I know that you should not judge a book by its cover (or a wine by its label), but dang, this is a beautiful book. The good news is that it only gets better inside. This book is a plethora of outstanding content, a fantastic resource for the wine novice to expert. With the assumption that one does not know anything about wine, this book starts at the beginning, then breaks this wealth of information into manageable chunks, presenting it to the reader in an aesthetically pleasing, colorful, and easy-to-follow design. While I am thankful for my more formal wine certification program, I must confess that if the content had been presented the Wine Folly way, learning would have been much more fun.
This sample copy of the book left me wanting to know more about Wine Folly – the brand, the books, and the website – so I contacted Avery Books, a division of Penguin Random House, to schedule an interview with author and designer, Madeline Puckette. When you read Madeline’s answers, you will understand why Wine Folly is such a delight in every way, and why you need Wine Folly Magnum Edition in your book collection.
When did you fall in love with wine? Was there a wine moment and/or a special wine?
Wine found its way into my life in stages. That said, I did have an “aha” wine. It was a $13 bottle of Côtes du Rhône from the 2005 vintage. Not at all fancy. My boyfriend and I sat there sniffing it, trying to pick out fruit flavors and nothing fit. Suddenly, he blurted out “olives!” and my mind was blown. Who knew wine could be savory?
I tried to buy more but the vintage sold out and the next vintage tasted gnarly. (and not in a good way.) That experience taught me about vintage variation, French “terroir,” and active wine tasting all in one fell swoop!
What other wine industry roles have you held prior to Wine Folly?
Prior to starting Wine Folly, I worked in restaurants including several steakhouses, a French restaurant, a wine bar with 50 wines by the glass, a cool chef-driven spot (Poppy in Seattle), and even at a large casino hotel. (You’ve never seen a hotel until you’ve seen their laundry!)
I absolutely love working the floor. It’s exhausting and exhilarating all at once. The people who work in hospitality are some of the coolest people to work alongside.
What made you decide to share your knowledge of wine with the world? Was there a void you wanted to fill regarding wine education?
When I became certified in 2010 I was at odds with my level of wine smarts versus other people. It’s like knowing how to speak another language but not having anyone to talk to. And, at certified level, you’re still trying to practice. So, I started Wine Folly to bridge my knowledge to others. To practice communicating. As a communicator, I’m not particularly adept with words, but if you ask me to draw something… This is where I shine.
What is the history/story and philosophical approach behind Wine Folly both the website and books?
The philosophy behind Wine Folly is intricate, even the word “folly” is multi-layered. Still, the modus operandi of Wine Folly easy to put words to: To communicate wine as simply as humanly possible. And, to explore the human condition through the lens of wine.
Side Note: The funny thing about wine is that it deals with a lot of root human behaviors, from our desire to connect with others to our ability to recognize patterns (as a species.)
Why did you choose the name Wine Folly?
Oh, you ask! Hahaha. This is my folly! I should have read ahead…
So, the word “folly” has multiple meanings if you look it up. It’s a foolhardy mistake as well as an architectural element that has little purpose (other than just looking good from a distance.) So, why “folly?”
For those just getting into wine, being interested in wine seems like pure folly because it’s just an alcoholic beverage. Why should anyone care? That said, once you’re inside, you come to realize that wine is an edifice with deep scientific and cultural implications. In short, wine is deep. It will go as deep as you’re willing to dive.
So, we named it “folly” for that moment when you decide to take the plunge and see what’s out there.
Who is Wine Folly’s audience?
At this moment, I love teaching wine beginners. That said, we will continue to develop our content past this level. It’s surprising how quickly people are absorbing and using the information with the visual approach!
Wine Folly Magnum Edition is the follow-up edition of your hugely successful first book, Wine Folly: The Essential Guide to Wine? Why did you decide to create this new edition?
The Essential Guide was an MVP (minimum viable product) to use entrepreneurial jargon. I did it to test the model against the market. Sure enough, the model worked! Hot cakes!
Of course, as soon as the book came out, I felt a burning desire to iterate on the model. Magnum Edition is the iteration. I’m not sure where the burning desire comes from, but it’s there and it’s unavoidable.
What makes this edition different than the first? Why should purchasers of the first book buy this new edition?
Besides the fact that it has over two times the content and a stunningly beautiful cover, it does a better job of communicating the topic of wine. There is some repetition in the format (and I did save a couple of excellent infographics in book 2), but the added value well exceeds the cover price. It was also redesigned from the ground up so there’s lots of new stuff.
If anything, you can now pass down your last book to a well-deserving wine beginner!
Do you think anything has changed in the wine world, from the consumer and professional perspectives, during three years since the release of your first book? How do you address those changes in this edition?
I’ve observed enormous change since the first book launch.
These days, consumers care more about where wines come from, how they’re made, and what they contain versus the love story and hedonism that defined the past. Of course, the wine world has been very slow to adapt to this new mindset.
So, in this new book, we tried very hard to be information rich and answer the fundamental questions of wine that are often left out of the marketing story. In this way, the book helps consumers take a more pragmatic approach to exploring wine on their own. It’s more about how to think about wine and where to hunt for it than what to think and buy.
What is next for Wine Folly?
I was supposed to write out my five-year plan out today, but I thought answering your questions seemed way less intimidating.
Seriously though, we have the lighthouse vision built and it’s audacious. We just need to figure out how to paddle there without killing the team or losing the passion. I promise it will be big, or the other option: you’ll find me washed out living by a vineyard in Oregon with a VW Vanagon and a Blue Heeler at my rear. One of the two.
Biltmore has been synonymous with quality and hospitality since the estate’s inception in 1895, with its French Renaissance-style château designed by architect Richard Morris Hunt and landscaping by Frederick Law Olmsted of New York’s Central Park fame. Today, Biltmore continues as a family-owned, self-sustaining 8000-acre estate and world-class destination, with hotels, restaurants, shopping, a plethora of events and activities, and a winery, which replaced the beloved Biltmore Dairy Farms and opened to the public in 1985.
A visit to America’s Largest Home® includes a complimentary tasting at the winery, the most visited in the United States with around 600,000 visitors annually. Biltmore produces over 150,000 cases of wine to meet growing demand and universal appeal. The winery’s wine club has doubled annually the past three years and currently has around 6700 members at the time of this visit. Making around 50 wines for diverse palates and price points might seem like a daunting task, but not at Biltmore. After 32 years of winemaking – first as assistant winemaker, then winemaster – Bernard Delille, who retired in July 2018, along with Sharon Fenchak, who has been at Biltmore 19 years, have honed their craft, creating award-winning wines for everyone. The wines range from sweet to dry and include whites, reds, rosés, and sparkling wines. In addition to the complimentary tasting, Biltmore offers in-depth experiences such as the Premium Wine Tasting, Red Wine & Chocolate Tasting, Behind-the-Scenes Winery Tour & Tasting, Wine & Cheese Hour, and the seasonal Candlelight Winery Tour for an extra fee. With distinct wine collection categories and a Virtual Sommelier, the winery’s website assists online guests with finding wines and food pairing suggestions at all price points. Wines are widely available in the wholesale and direct-to-consumer markets. Biltmore ranks in the top 1% of wine businesses in the United States.
When the idea of a vineyard and winery first came to fruition in the early 1970s, George Vanderbilt’s grandson, William A.V Cecil, realized the challenge of growing wine grapes in North Carolina and led the charge for statewide research. Like other non-traditional, grape-growing regions, Biltmore and other state producers have had to prove themselves time and time again that Vitis vinifera grapes grown in North Carolina can produce high-quality wines. The reality is that not every grape variety is suited to North Carolina’s growing conditions and some consumers prefer the riper, fruit-forward styles produced in winegrowing areas like California. Thus, Biltmore produces wines from its 94 acres of estate vineyards; key winegrowers in Polk County (NC), Arroyo Seco Vineyards (Monterey, CA), Pietra Santa Winery (Ciegega Valley, CA), Tenbrink Vineyards (Solano County, CA); and California AVA wines from Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Napa Valley, Russian River Valley, and Sonoma County. Biltmore makes and finishes AVA-designed wines in those AVAs, per TTB law.
During a recent visit and tasting with Delille and Director of Business Development, Jeff Plack, Delille revealed that the honor of making such a large portfolio of wines from different vineyard locations is what makes winemaking at Biltmore exciting and why he has spent nearly his entire career here. Both he and Fenchak travel extensively to partner vineyard and winemaking facilities to ensure that all aspects of wine production, from vineyard to bottle, live up to Biltmore standards. Plack, a 12-year member of the wine business team, echoed Biltmore’s pledge to wine excellence across styles and price points, as well as took it a step further to emphasize that it is the winery’s renowned model of hospitality which first leads visitors to the winery, where they are treated to tasting experiences led by brand ambassadors empowered to deliver personalized experiences to wine novices and aficionados alike.
A tour of Biltmore’s production facility confirmed a real, working winery, complete with fermentation tanks, caves, and wines ready to be transported to the winery’s own fulfillment warehouse, not outsourced to a third-party company. It was also bottling day for one of Biltmore’s wines. The crew members were delighted to show off the winery’s bottling line, as they engaged in a friendly competition of most bottles produced in a day.
An opportunity to taste three of Biltmore’s estate wines, a Sonoma County wine, and an American AVA designated wine, demonstrated the exemplary breadth and depth of Delille’s and Fenchak’s winemaking talents. The tasting began with their grande dame sparkling wine, the 2015 Biltmore Estate® Château Reserve Blanc de Blancs, North Carolina ($50), which recently earned gold in the 2018 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. A favorite of the tasting, this wine showcases a lovely balance of zingy acidity, mouthwatering citrus, and a yeasty, creamy mousse. The second wine, the 2017 Biltmore Estate® Reserve Chardonnay, North Carolina ($24), is an outstanding value. Barrel fermentation, six to eight months of French and American oak aging, and malolactic fermentation gently cradle the wine’s zesty tree fruit flavors. The third wine, the 2016 Biltmore Estate® Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, North Carolina ($25), is proof that Biltmore can grow and make cabernet sauvignon in North Carolina and do it well. Its softer style and lower alcohol (13%) speak to those who think they do not enjoy red wines. In stark contrast stylistically to the first three wines, the 2015 Biltmore Estate® The Hunt, Sonoma County ($40 for the 2016 vintage), inspired by the estate’s former game hunts, is a robust, luscious, Bordeaux-style blend of 40% cabernet sauvignon, 35% cabernet franc, and 25% merlot, calling for rich meat dishes. At lunch in The Bistro, I enjoyed a glass of the NV Biltmore Estate® Blanc de Noir, American ($25), whose effervescence and vibrant red berry flavors paired exquisitely with the salmon dish of the day.
Biltmore’s reputation as a premium destination and lifestyle brand is unrivaled in the hospitality industry, so much so that they offer their own “immersion into luxurious world-class service” program through the International Association for Continuing Education and Training (IACET) accredited Biltmore Center for Professional Development. This pursuit of excellence translates into every aspect of Biltmore, including the winery, which, after 33 years, continues to be a pioneer and a leader in American, East Coast, and North Carolina wine production.
Recently I had the opportunity to attend one of Sommelier Christopher Sawyer’s first Somm Sessions, an intimate tasting experience with winery owners, at Feast It Forward in Napa. After the tasting, Gary Lipp of COHO Wines graciously allowed me to ask him questions about his winery and wines. Below are his answers in his own words.
What is the history and story of COHO Wines? Why did you choose the name COHO?
I started COHO in 2002 with winemaker and former COHO partner Brooks Painter. The goal was to produce balanced, supple wines, priced to be relevant for the market. Both of us had been working for other California wineries since 1980-81 and wanted to use the expertise we had acquired into producing our own wines. The name was inspired by an old Celtic legend, “The Salmon of Knowledge.” It is about the wisdom to do the right things in the vineyard to promote the long-term health of the soils and all the creatures with which we share the vineyards.
What do you think makes COHO Wines different than other wineries in the Napa Valley?
Our approach to extended maceration, post-alcoholic fermentation is a bit out of step with many of the highly regarded wines produced in Napa Valley. It has become popular to leave the wine in contact with the skins and seeds for two to four weeks, drawing out color, tannin, and varietal character. At COHO, we are pressing the wines six to eight days after the completion of the alcoholic fermentation. I feel we achieve all the elements we need without the density.
How much wine does COHO produce? How many wines and what grape varieties?
The biggest crush we had was in 2012 and we made a little more than 5,800 cases. The last few vintages due to the loss of some vineyard (some our choice, some the vineyard getting a lot more money per ton) we are making between 2500-3000 cases. The current wines we produce are Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and a red blend comprised of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Petit Verdot.
Do you have a favorite grape variety? If so, why?
I guess it would be Merlot, but Pinot Noir is a close second. As to why, it is two-fold. Firstly, I love that when grown in the right conditions, Merlot can have the structure of Cabernet Sauvignon with more finesse and elegance on the palate, displaying blue and red fruit flavors. The second reason is that in the United States, Merlot is still a stepchild. Many consumers and some retailers do not want to hear about it. As a producer of what I consider an exceptional Merlot, I love the challenge of changing their minds and delighting the palates of those that do appreciate how delicious a Merlot can be.
What are your favorite vineyard sources in the Napa Valley and why?
All the vineyards with which COHO sources are in the cooler-climate areas of Napa Valley: Coombsville, Los Carneros, and the hillsides southeast of downtown Napa. I love the spicy flavors and aromatics, and resolved tannins are characteristics of the cool climates in which our fruit grows.
Do you have a wine club or allocation model?
No. With only four wines, there is not enough choice to make for an interesting club. Instead, we send newsletters several times a year that offer our new releases to our direct customers.
Tell us about Feast It Forward and why you decided to become a partner.
Feast It Forward has so many interesting components: a nice lineup of wineries, a cooking studio that broadcasts on their internet station, lots of music, the charitable component, and a fun place to enjoy it all. Also location, location, location: being across the street from The Oxbow Market in Napa has the potential to expose our wines to several million visitors per year.
In addition to Feast It Forward, where does one find and purchase your wines?
COHO wines can be found in fine wine shops and restaurants in fifteen markets around the country and directly from us through our website.
Are there any new wines on the horizon?
I hope to revive a second label wine that we produced in 2012-2014 called Old Poodle Dog. The Old Poodle Dog is named for a notorious San Francisco restaurant of the same name that dates to the city’s Barbary Coast days. We made a Cabernet Sauvignon using the fruit that did not quite fit into the other programs. The wines were very good and would sell quickly. Unfortunately, because of the small harvests in 2015 and 2016, there was not enough fruit to pull from the COHO wines to make any. By 2017, prices for Napa Cabernet Sauvignon grapes have gotten too expensive to make the wine. I am searching for appropriate vineyards and a winemaking facility outside of Napa where we can revive Old Poodle Dog again.
How do you envision the future of COHO Wines?
In 2014, Phillip Carollo-Titus began making the wines, giving us access to several new, exceptional vineyards that are already elevating the quality of the wines. The other side of it, though, is that the price of quality fruit in Napa Valley continues to rise. As a small winery that tries to keep our retail prices accessible and reasonable, I have decided to reduce the total quantity of our wines to be able to pay my growers and not bust the bank. However, I really like the quality of what we are producing and am convinced that our friends will continue to enjoy the wines we are offering.