Chardonnay, Napa Valley, Yountville 8/9/14. Beautiful in spite of the fact this is no place to grow chardonnay.
August dawn Napa Valley Yountville AVA
Yountville cabernet sauvignon 7/24/14
I taste our wines frequently, often three or more times every week. More often then not they taste slightly different to me each time. Actually that's not correct, so let me rephrase that. It's actually me that's tasting them slightly differently each time. I know these wines in a way no one outside the winery could. This kind of repeated exposure to the same wine is something only someone who makes them experiences.
That's the reality of the situation. We are not tasting machines pumping out precise data to a perfectly calibrated computer. The world we live in changes our ability to taste. The time of day, environment, who we are with, our mood, health, food, temperature and an endless array of variables impacts the way we perceive a wine. Most of the time, unless a wine has been damaged, the variations winemakers see as they taste and re-taste their own wines is not any change in the wine itself, but a change in the taster.
So taste and wine is moving target. Someone who assigns a score to a wine after just a quick tasting reflects more the momentary situation of the taster than the true state of the wine. When you see only one frame of a movie you can never hope to understand the whole story.
What this means for a winery is that getting scores from critics is a crap shoot unless you make them in a big, sweet, fat oaky, high alcohol style, which is the only thing that they can taste when hammering through dozens if not hundreds of samples. Obviously the public's bullshit meter is not very sensitive because they continue to buy this obvious manipulation of the system. Hey buddy, would you like to buy a bridge....
Any taste scientist will tell you that those that claim they can taste and accurately rank to the precise point are just fooling themselves. It is simply not possible for humans to taste at this level - and they can prove it. You can bet that Robert Parker, James Laube and their like will never let the accuracy of their palates be put to a scientific test. Would you? Having to focus an a few key points is the only way to pump scores out when tasting dozens or even hundreds of wines. This dumbs wine down.
The 20th Anniversary of The French Laundry here in Yountville was a big event bringing in culinary luminaries from around the globe. As part of the celebration Thomas Keller teamed up with Mast Brothers Chocolates to produce a special dark chocolate bar to celebrate the anniversary. In four of the bars are "Golden Tickets", a la Willy Wonka, which entitle the winner to a dinner for two at The French Laundry. The only restriction is that you have to live in Yountville to buy one of these potentially golden bars, as you might expect from Thomas Keller, all the proceeds go to charity. As a Yountville resident I could not pass up that chance. I did not win the dinner, but that first taste of this amazing chocolate was almost knee-buckling in the intensity of the taste experience. Each time over the last few days I have returned to that bar of Mast Brothers chocolate for my daily ration and each bite has been a delight, even a revelation, but the mind expanding intensity of that first taste is gone, never to be repeated. That is the fleeting nature of the tasting experience, there is that one brief moment to experience something in a totally new way and then that opportunity is gone forever. Our taste experience moves forward in perfect rhythm with our environment, our knowledge and expectations. We have as much impact on our perception of taste as the product we are actually tasting.
The only way to take the true measure of a wine with any complexity is to spend time with it. Conveniently this is actually what wine is made for - taking time.
Cabernet sauvignon sizing up Yountville Napa Valley 6/29/14
Every vineyard, vintage and variety has its center. It's our job as winemakers to find that center and let it speak through the wine. If you think I feel there is Zen in crafting a wine you'd be right. When you find that center the wine truly has not only something to say, but something worth listening to.
This is why Cornerstone Napa Valley Cabernet Franc is so distinctive. We let it be Franc. Many wineries seem to want to tame the cantankerous cabernet franc's edgy personality, but we don't. In fact, we revel in its idiosyncrasies. Being Franc is everything to us.
Where is cabernet franc's center? For me it a little on the wild side, sauvage, as the French call it. Not wild like crazy, but like nature. Cabernet franc should have an edge aromatically showing wild herbs and mint and a firm structure that grabs your attention. Like most really interesting things, it's not for everyone. Perhaps that what we like about it as we freely admit we are not trying to make wines for everybody.
Finding cabernet franc in the Napa valley is not easy and, unfortunately, expensive. We have been fortunate to find some amazing sites that allow us to weave the diverse characters of vineyards in St. Helena, Oakville, Coombsville and Carneros into a wine that embraces its Franc-ness. A dollop of spicy merlot from Carneros rounds out the texture and expands the aromatics with the herbal touch of merlot from a cool site echoing the sauvage of the cabernet franc itself. The fresh acidity lifts and separates each aspect of the wine allowing it to be voluptuous, yet finely balanced. This is a full figured Napa beauty that displays all of its seductive charms while never losing its elegance or firmness. I don't know if we make a sexier wine.
Just a note on the vintage, there have been a lot of knocks from the press on the 2011 vintage in the Napa Valley, proving once again a little bit of knowledge can be dangerous. The fact is if you took the weather we had in 2011 and gave it to Bordeaux they would be drinking Champagne and slapping themselves on the back. The only people that had trouble with this vintage are those winemakers dreaming of making big-point-fruit-bombs by picking at brix levels approaching thirty. Winemakers that were looking to harvest ripe grapes, as compared to overripe ultra-hang time fruit, cruised through the vintage just fine. A case in point being our 2011 Cornerstone Napa Valley Cabernet Franc, Black Label Stepping Stone Cuvée.
We believe we have found our center with the 2011 Cornerstone Napa Valley Cabernet Franc, Black Label Stepping Stone Cuvée by being willing to let franc be franc. We hope you will take the time to enjoy this wine in a state of mindfulness. Being Franc requires concentration.
Sometimes a pat on the back also gives you a kick in the butt. It never hurts to have some fuel tossed on the the fire of the passion you are pursuing. That is how I feel about Alder Yarrow's article about me and Cornerstone Cellars on Vinography - fired up.
I knew going in it would be a challenge to market Napa Valley wines made in a more elegant style. Certainly it would have been easier to just make a massive wine, slathering on oak and alcohol in a style many critics adore, but where is the pleasure in making wines you don't like to drink?
When we started releasing our more restrained style of Napa Valley wines we took our lumps from Laube and Parker, which, proudly puts us in a sort of elite club with some very fine winemakers whose vision we share. However, rejection by the old boys club has been more than countered by the likes of this exciting article in Vinography and excellent reviews in Connoisseurs Guide to California Wines, The Wine Enthusiast, Stephen Tanzer and a host of wine bloggers.
It's easy to make wines that get big points from the old guard, you can hire a consulting company that guarantees results point-wise (do they charge by the point?). But is it really easier? Does scamming the system just to get those points really bring you satisfaction? Maybe for some, but not for me.
What brings me satisfaction is tasting a wine we created and having it excite and thrill, well, me. What brings me even more satisfaction is seeing someone else have that experience too.
It also brings true satisfaction to have someone I respect as much as Alder write such a, for me, moving article on the work we are doing at Cornerstone Cellars. Please take the time to read his article at the link below.
Old vineyard near Yountville Napa Valley
Old vineyard near Yountville Napa Valley late May
Sandstone near the Timber Cove Inn just north of Fort Ross
I love these "new California" wines. Many a night they grace my table and make my meal and my life better. Yet as full of pleasure as they are, they seem rarely profound. The same goes for many so called "natural" wines coming out of Europe these days. Delicious, full of pleasure, exciting, but not profound. Their experience is more in their juicy fresh flavors than their soaring soul. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
Perhaps it was because my palate was hammered on the anvil of the classics that I cannot find profundity here. One of the advantages of being a certain age is that when I was young and just getting into wine in the 1970s, great wines were just minor extravagances no more dear than the price of a dinner at a good restaurant; Lafite, Gaja and Lafon were all under $50. They've put on a few zeros since then.
Today's anvil, that everyone is pounding on, is confusingly called "natural wine". It's an odd phrase as wine, if left totally to its own devices, is just a stopping point on the way to becoming vinegar. While in the past bigger was better, now it seems that being different is, on that merit alone, now better. As usual we replace one oversimplification with another.
For example, much has been said about indigenous yeast fermentation although the science these days points toward the idea that such a concept isn't really possible. Obviously there is still much we do not know about how nature gives us wine. Yet, common sense tells me there must be some difference in regions where indigenous fermentation existed for hundreds of years before yeast were even discovered, much less produced industrially. In these areas natural selection would have refined the yeast population as it is clear from recent research that although we like to think of indigenous ferments as benefiting from a myriad of yeasts to build complexity, in the end one strain wins out and runs the show anyway. But what about the new world where densely packed wineries have been using aggressive commercial yeast strains for decades? It's fair to assume that those strains are now dominate in so called indigenous populations of compact areas like the Napa Valley.
However, this does not preclude that in many cases an indigenous fermentation may produce a more interesting wine than one from cultured yeast. It is also clear that the opposite can produce the same results. In other words anyone who says they know the answer is full of something or other. You can only do what you as a winemaker believe will craft wine to your own taste. Your vision and palate is all you should rely on as it is well proven that no matter the road you choose, if you have skill, great fruit, passion, focus and dedication to what you believe, you will make wines that will turn heads. Maybe not the heads of critics, but those of people who love wine.
Diversity is to be celebrated, but not for the fact that just being different is enough. As exciting as it may be to find an old vineyard in California from lesser known varieties like barbera or fruliano we must remember we do not drink in a vacuum. Yes that juicy barbera from Lodi may be tasty, but it's good to remember that in Italy old barbera vineyards are not a rarity. Forced to pick between a "new California " barbera or an old vine Barbera d'Asti, I know where I'll put my money. Some of this rush towards the obscure is driven by writers who always need something new to write about so diversity in itself becomes glorified as writers also have to find a way to stand out from the pack.
There is also the dirty little secret of many of these "new" wines everywhere in the world. Too many are marred by winemaking faults, which some confuse with terroir. The most common problem I run into is reduction, but the list is long. While not obsessed with squeaky clean wines, I just can't tolerate faults that obliterate sense of place and variety.
That being said I am an unabashed fan of many of these new wines, but that does not preclude loving the classics and once in awhile finding that wine that goes beyond delicious into profundity. Not every variety planted can be profound, but many can be delicious, which come to think of it, is a pretty good thing.
Winemaking is often called art, but to me it is more artisan. Like a fine piece of furniture crafted by a master craftsman or a master chef turning out a classic meal, these are things we live with and that make our lives better. For me this is the most wonderful part of wine. It has a unique ability to bring us together, to slow us down and make us smile. These are the highest callings a wine can aspire to achieve. Anything beyond that is too subjective to quantify.
Is it a wine's job to be profound or to bring pleasure, happiness and health to us? A simply delicious wine with friends, family and food is one the great synergies of existence. Perhaps profound is for museums (aka three star restaurants) and simply delicious is for living.
Delicious wine makes me happy. I can live with that.
Frequently, as people taste our Cornerstone Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon wines I get the same comment over-and-over, “your wines actually taste like cabernet sauvignon.” It appears that many people find it curious to taste the varietal character of cabernet sauvignon in their glass of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. However, this is not as curious as it might seem.
Indeed Cornerstone Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon tastes curiously like cabernet, or, at least like cabernet used to be. Used to be as in the wines that made the Napa Valley great like those that won the famed Judgement of Paris in 1976. Perhaps the most important aspect of the Judgement of Paris was not that the California wines won both the white and red judging, but that the judges themselves could not discern which wines were French and which Californian. Such a confusion is not likely to take place today as Californian wines have increased in girth, dominated by sweet oak, overripe fruit and alcohol. The fashion for big wine with big flavor, promoted by certain critics, erased the character of the noble cabernet sauvignon variety as well as any sense of place of the vineyard itself. The resulting wines showcased winemaking technique instead of treasuring the character of variety and vineyard.
There have always been producers that ignored fashion to make elegant wines which honored the true flavors of Cabernet. Wineries like Corison, Dunn and Ridge have carried that flame for decades. I am proud to say Cornerstone Cellars has joined that group of wineries making wines that taste curiously like Cabernet Sauvignon.
What does Cabernet Sauvignon taste like? First of all it does not taste jammy, sweet, flabby or like oak barrels. Classic Cabernet is bright and alive with a herbal tingle that wakes the tastebuds. Most of all, everything is brought into sharp focus by a fine tannic structure that makes Cabernet Sauvignon the most intellectual of wines. Pinot noir may be the most sensual, but Cabernet is the most thought provoking.
We are now releasing several new wines that taste curiously Cabernet, now that’s something to think about. For us it’s something that makes us very proud.
There is a lot of pink wine out there, but there seems to be fewer and fewer real rosé wines. Just because you’re pink does not mean you’re a rosé.
There are several pretenders to the rosé title out there. The ubiquitous white zinfandel is the domaine of industrial wine production conjured up out of centrifuges and chemistry. Residual sugar provides the only flavor in an otherwise flavorless beverage. Certainly white zinfandel has its role as a starting place for many consumers, who then graduate up to real wine. Unfortunately because it’s pink (or kind of pink anyway) too many people think that all pink wine is sweet plonk. Also, it’s a problem as you can actually make a lovely real rosé from zinfandel.
Then there is the elegant sounding saignée, which when translated sounds less so as it means to bleed. However, it accurately describes this wine making process where juice is removed from a fermenter after a very short time. The original need for this was in cooler regions, where in lighter vintages the technique was used to help concentrate their red wines. A common practice in Burgundy, where they called the resulting wines vin gris as, I guess, the French just have too much respect for real rosé. While this is a good and useful idea in a place like Burgundy, it challenges the imagination as to why someone would feel the urge to actually need to increase the concentration of their red wines in a warm place like California. The down side of producing a pink wine in this manner is that you are harvesting your grapes at ideal ripeness levels for red wine, but not for pink wine. When done in a warm climate you get the candied flavors, higher alcohols and odd neon colors that you see in so many pink wines.
Then there is real rosé. Wines made in the classic tradition of Bandol and Tavel. Vineyards are selected to be for rosé from the start and farmed to create ideal fruit for this type of wine. The grapes are picked when the flavors are fully ripe, but you don’t have to wait for the skin tannins to ripen like you would when making red wine. This means you can pick at higher acids and lower sugars that will give you a balanced, elegant and complex rosé. With a very short contact with the skins to give just a hint of color, real rosé often can be a very light pink, but don’t let that fool you as you’ll find an explosion of flavor waiting for you. The lower sugars mean you can ferment to absolute dryness without excessive alcohol levels to mar the fresh fruit flavors. The best of these real rosé wines then spend a short time on the lees in mature oak barrels to broaden flavors and develop a rich, creamy texture. Simply delicious.
Such a wine is our Cornerstone Corallina Napa Valley Syrah Rosé. Corallina is a real rosé made in this classic style. Made as we make our white wines, the fruit was gently whole-cluster pressed over several hours to maintain freshness, elegance and complexity. Corallina Syrah Rosé is then fermented to total dryness then followed by five months in barrel as we patiently wait for every part of the wine to come into full harmony. Produced from a single vineyard in Oak Knoll, Corallina Syrah Rosé is both a pleasure to look at and to drink, a classic rosé at its best.
You can find our Corallina Syrah Rosé here: http://d.pr/n/42Ws
Opening Day has come and gone, which means only one thing: it's time for our spring wine releases! These two new releases are all about fun and immediate gratification and should be in your glass right now!
Nothing says spring more than the beautiful coral color of our 2013 Cornerstone Corallina Napa Valley Syrah Rosé. One of our Artist Series wines, Corallina Syrah Rosé is an explosion of pastel colors both inside and outside the bottle. As always, Cornerstone Cellars always does things a bit differently and Corallina Syrah Rosé is no exception. This is what I call a real rosé, not a wine drained off of a red wine tank as a second class citizen, but a classic, authentic rosé. The vineyard, tucked off in a cool section of Oak Knoll, was destined, before the first leaves appeared, to be Corallina Syrah Rosé and farmed to produce rosé each day of the vintage. Picked at the precise moment to capture the brilliant fruit flavors, just three hours gentile skin contact in the press was all that was needed to get that touch of coral color we love. Then the wine was fermented totally dry and aged in mature French Oak barrels for five months to achieve a unique creamy texture on the palate. The 2013 Cornerstone Corallina Napa Valley Syrah Rosé is totally seductive. You will not be able to resist. With only 417 cases produced it is sure soon be only a beautiful pink memory.
Each year Stepping Stone by Cornerstone North Coast Red Rocks! has gotten better and better as we've gotten better and better at making it. Our inspiration has always been the beautiful blends of Southern France from Languedoc-Roussillon and Provence. These wines have a savory complexity mixed with pure charm that is so perfect for the rustic, flavorful country French cooking of those regions. With the release of the 2012 Stepping Stone by Cornerstone North Coast Red Rocks! I feel we have hit the target. Bright, savory and vivacious, I can't think of a better wine for our own American country cooking, which at this time of year usually means grills, steak, chops, sausages and burgers. With the release of the 2012 Red Rocks! I believe we have crafted a wine with the balance and depth that makes it a true Cornerstone. As always with Rocks!, the blend is our secret and the pleasure is all yours.
Baseball and summer food are back and we've got the perfect wines to go with both!
Sometimes you come to the fork in the road and you must make a choice as you can't travel both. We've made ours. We decided to take the path less traveled.
The choice was simple: quality or price. There was no hesitation in our choice as quality was the only answer. The market is price obsessed, but we believe there are those that understand you get what you pay for from wineries whose ego is based on what's in the bottle instead of on the ego of the owner. For many there is a deeper understanding that in wine, true quality is not in a label, but in the hearts of the people who craft it. Ninety-five percent of the wine in the world is an industrial product, manufactured based on market research, and the rest is divided between charming country wines and people with a passion to let nature express its beauty through their wines. Oddly enough, many of the world's most expensive wines fall into the first category, not the latter.
Our decision was to move forward and to let something old and comfortable fade away. As comfortable as Stepping Stone was to everyone as the wines got better and better, there comes a point when you have to forgo comfort to obtain excellence. This is especially true in the narrow confines of the Napa Valley, which is a mere thirty miles long and five miles wide. This small valley is one of the world's most distinctive vineyard regions and such distinction does not come cheaply.
Our vision is to make dramatic, elegant and complex wines from great vineyards. This means that the value in our wines is not that they are inexpensive, but that they have such an expressive personality, combined with our singular character, that their value is not on their price tag, but on your palate.
So we have decided to take the path less traveled and give up a less expensive line of wines to introduce a new range of wines made with no concessions in the tradition of our iconic White Label Cornerstone Cellars wines. The one thing we have not left behind is our obsession with offering exceptional values. However, we are a small company and can't do everything. To produce this new group of exciting wines something had to go by the wayside. So this is both the end of an era and a new beginning as we could not travel both paths.
With the 2010 vintage we say goodbye to Stepping Stone and with great pride introduce you to Cornerstone Cellars Black Label selections. Our first release of our Black Label wines is from the 2011 vintage and includes Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Syrah. These are not wines declassified from our White Label Reserve wines, but wines produced from specially selected vineyards. While our White Label wines are unabashedly made to cellar for decades, our Black Label wines are selected from vineyards that naturally produce a more forward style of wine that can be enjoyed in it's youth, but will gain complexity and depth with shorter term cellaring.
The roads between price and quality diverged, but not the one between price and value. So we took the one less traveled by, quality, and that has made all the difference. While the reception to raising prices can be frosty, we know that once these new wines are tasted that other path will soon be forgotten.
We are proud and honored to introduce you to a totally new range of wines: Cornerstone Cellars Black Label Selections.
Every vintage is a do over. You agonize over every possible imperfection and then look forward. It is not so much that you feel you were unsuccessful. How can you as critics rack up scores (not repeated in this points-free zone) and rave about your current releases. The thing is once the wines are in the bottle they are what they are and your mind goes to the future. As a winemaker your mind is in the future building, always building, on past vintages. Vintages are experiences, part of a voyage, not just end results. Winemakers have no favorite vintages just treasured experiences and the pain and pleasure of continually second guessing yourself.
The vines are now being pruned in the vineyards and the cycle that is agriculture begins again. In many ways it is comforting to work in a world governed by such a precise metronome. You know how you got here and where you're going.
There are always frustrations though as winemaking is slow motion business - you only get one 'iteration' per year. What are some of my current frustrations?
- Alcohol levels continue to challenge us. While we have reduced them by more than 1% over previous vintages, we're not quite there yet. I think the sweet-spot for Napa Valley Cabernet is between 14 and 14.5% and for Oregon Pinot 13 to 13.5%. this gives you the depth, complexity and mouthfeel we hope for while still letting terroir show through. It's a tightrope, but we'll get there - we are getting there.
- The cost of making wine in the Napa Valley continues to increase and will force wine prices even higher.
- Too many wine reviews are published without ever tasting the wine with food. This is like tasting just the sauce and then writing a review of the whole dish. You can never understand how it all works together.
- The fact that so many sommeliers do not have an open mind when it comes to California and, in particular, Napa Valley wines. They are not all the same.
What makes me happy?
- The limitless potential of Oregon makes it one of the most exciting wine regions in the world. This is a region where you can argue the best vineyards have not even been planted yet. It's a brave new world with no where to go but up.
- The growing appreciation of wines with a more balanced, restrained style is exciting. While for the most part this reawakening of taste has not enlightened old-school wine media yet, new wine media is all over it. The old guys better wake up or get left in the dust.
- The growing recognition and excitement around rebel, back-to-your-roots winemakers in the staid world of the Napa Valley.
- The exciting, exploding community of wine lovers on social media. Finally small wineries can actually have a marketing edge over corporate wineries. After all, real people are a lot more fun to have a conversation with.
- What I am happiest about is how far we've come with our wines. They are so, so much better. Uplifting wines that are refreshing and elegant. While I know I will always think we can do better no matter how great the vintage, these are wines I am proud of sharing with anyone.
Do over? Not really, each vintage is a new beginning. How lucky are we?