First, let's peek underneath to see what's emerging: A birdcage?
Well, not literally, but surely figuratively.
Many changes are under way at Renwood Winery, founded in 1994 in Amador County's Shenandoah Valley, eventually evolving into one of the Mother Lode's larger and more diversified brands before financial setbacks saw it end up on the auction block. That was last summer, and since then the new owners have been quietly but diligently setting the stage for a much more striking and industrious Renwood. A portion of its vineyard infested with the root-louse phylloxera has been replanted. Fermentation tanks are being shuttled around and bolted together with catwalks. "Thousands" of new oak barrels and puncheons are being trucked in, along with several new-age stainless-steel barrels. And the old tasting room is being so extensively remodeled that oldtimers aren't likely to recognize it when it reopens on or about the first day of fall.
|Brent Cohen, left, with Dave Crippen|
From its inception, Renwood attempted to build its standing primarily as a zinfandel house, a commitment the new owners have been quick to embrace and expand. It's extended the winery's lineup of zinfandel wines while shedding secondary varietals. The new owners are tweaking just about every aspect of the operation, but they are retaining the Renwood name, perhaps unconsciously reinforcing an aspiration of the original owners to put Renwood on the same plateau as California's more notable zinfandel producers, the names of which start with "R" - Rosenblum, Ravenswood, Rafanelli, Ridge. Ironically, one consultant they brought aboard is seasoned zinfandel vintner Kent Rosenblum. (Others are Jeff Cohn of JC Cellars in Oakland, and Alberto Antonini, a high-profile Italian consultant for wineries in numerous countries.)
At a preview tasting of Renwood's new lineup at the winery the other day, 15 zinfandels were poured. Many of them were small-lot vineyard-specific releases, but instead of a vineyard designation they carry the name of a kind of wren - Timberline, Musician, Niceforo, Merida and so forth. My favorites were the bright and beefy Renwood 2010 Amador County Clarion ($20), a proprietary blend of 74.8 percent zinfandel and 25.2 percent syrah; the fine-boned, juicy and spicy Renwood 2010 Fiddletown Zinfandel ($75; more about Renwood's pricing strategy in a moment); the solid and chewy Renwood 2010 Amador County Grandpere Zinfandel ($40); the earthy yet accessible Renwood 2010 Dry Creek Valley Reserve Zinfandel ($35); the elegant, supple and long Renwood 2010 Amador Musician's Zinfandel ($40); the peppery and lean Renwood 2010 Amador Niceforo Zinfandel ($40); and the floral, complex and persistent Renwood 2010 Amador Merida Zinfandel ($40).
|New Renwood barrels await their first vintage|
Secondly, Renwood raised eyebrows when competition results listed prices exceptionally dear for zinfandel, topping out at $100. The prices that accompany competition results invariably are the winery's suggested retail prices, but that wasn't the case with Renwood's entries, though neither the winery nor the competitions made that clear. The prices of some of the award-winning wines were indeed retail prices, but the higher prices were prices that restaurants are expected to charge for the wines, explained Cohen. In effect, Renwood's marketing strategy involves three price tiers. Wines bearing the red Renwood label are to be sold principally through mass-market supermarket chains. Wines with the black Renwood label are to be sold through markets with an ambitious wine focus, like Nugget Markets and Whole Foods Market. And wines with the white Renwood label are intended solely for restaurant wine lists. Wines to be sold in supermarkets and specialty wine shops generally will sell in the $20 to $40 range, while wines in restaurants are expected to be priced between $75 and $100. This tactic avoids a touchy point between vintners and restaurateurs, who aren't keen about guests wondering why a wine on the list is priced at $85 when they can find it at their neighborhood supermarket for $25.
For the record, Renwood's zinfandels have been showing well on the competition circuit. Seven have won gold medals, with the Renwood 2010 Amador County Timberline Zinfandel ($75) turning in the most consistent showing by winning gold at three judgings - the California State Fair, the Amador County Fair and the Long Beach Grand Cru.
As summer morphs into fall, Renwood is expected to finish and unveil its expansive and sleek new hospitality complex. Like two other artfully designed new additions to the Shenandoah Valley wine scene (the wineries Helwig and Andis), Renwood's tasting room has been designed by forward-thinking Sage Architecture of Sacramento. The grounds are to be appointed with olive trees, fire pits, plush furnishings and an organic vegetable garden, the building itself with a roomy private tasting room and a deli with olive-oil tasting, cheese tasting and "seasonally themed" sandwiches and salads designed by a "noted Los Angeles chef and caterer." "We believe this area deserves the best," says Cohen in talking of the chef, whose identity he didn't disclose. As Cohen groped for one word to summarize the overall appeal of the hospitality complex, Renwood's new marketing and communications manager, Jamie Lubenko, stepped up to say, "Resorty."
When Cohen is asked why Bulgheroni is investing so heavily in Amador County in his first wine-related venture outside South America, he says the new owner has an abiding confidence in wine's continued global growth and that he's keen on capitalizing on new markets. Bulgheroni, he notes, favors "out of the way, unknown wine regions with great potential." Those are the kinds of areas he's searched out in Argentina and Uruguay and that's the kind of area he sees in Amador County. "This is somewhat of a unique area, undiscovered and unappreciated," says Cohen. "We believe this area deserves better recognition." Renwood, he indicated, signals just the start of Bulgheroni's expansion into the United States.
Cohen avoids talking about how much money Bulgheroni has invested in Renwood beyond the purchase price, but Dave Crippen, Renwood's winemaker for the past decade, speculates that it must be around $5 million, primarily in new equipment, including between 3,000 and 4,000 new oak barrels. Future vintages of zinfandel passing through Renwood, then, can be expected to show more oak influence than the initial releases. Cohen expects Renwood's zinfandels to be more refined than they have been. "The wines were always good, but with the tools and resources they had they only could do so much," says Cohen. The new equipment and the additional advice they are tapping will result in further refinement of the wines so they can be as good as any, he adds. Total annual production is expected to be around 70,000 cases. When Bulgheroni took over, the winery had "nine or 10" employees. It now has 20, with 14 more expected to be hired just for the hospitality complex, to be the staging area for special events ranging from Sunday brunch to private tastings in the vineyard. For now, the tasting room is housed in a small modular structure at the eastern edge of the property along Steiner Road. As the wren flies, it isn't far at all from the old tasting room.