Monday, August 6, 2012

A New Renwood Takes Flight

The shroud that fell over Renwood Winery at its distress sale a year ago is about to be yanked off.

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
 And as far as a birdcage is concerned, the new owners are breathing new life into the winery's old mascot, a cute little bird that resembles a wren, a species not native to the area but nevertheless adopted by the winery's founders for its logo. Fitted with a smart new crown, he's migrated to the new label, where he has a lot of company, including a much larger and more noble eagle, swirling leafy vines, and clusters of grapes. The label now looks like an ancient German woodcut from a collection of children's fairytales. As the folks at Renwood tell it, the art represents a fable in which a flock of various species attempts to see which can fly the highest. The one to come closest to the sun would be crowned king. Not surprisingly, none soars higher than the eagle, or so it seems at first. Hidden in the eagle's plumage, however, is a tiny stowaway, a wren that flies even higher than the exhausted eagle, winning the crown. The moral can be spun in several ways. Ingenuity winning over strength is one take. Teamwork will get us all to where we want to go is another. That seems to be the lesson favored by Renwood's top eagle, Brent Cohen, the winery's president since wealthy Argentine oilman Alejandro Bulgheroni picked up the property for nearly $7 million during an auction in bankruptcy court at Sacramento last summer. "This whole region has to succeed for us to succeed. We want to be the catalyst to see that happen," says Cohen. Thus, in revitalizing Renwood he's bringing in new equipment, new concepts, new energy and new talent, all of which he's counting on to help improve grape growing and winemaking beyond Renwood itself.

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
As the shroud began to rise over the restyled Renwood this spring, the vision of a vital new winery began to take shape, primarily through the results of wine competitions to which it had rushed its new releases. Those results generated buzz for two reasons. One was that Renwood now would be making zinfandel with grapes from Dry Creek Valley in northern Sonoma County. According to Cohen, Renwood remains devoted primarily to zinfandel from Amador County, but in recognition of how the varietal can produce different "taste profiles" depending on where it is grown, the winery also will make zinfandels with fruit from other regions. Dry Creek Valley is the first, and he wouldn't elaborate on which area might be next.

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.


  1. Great article for great wines made by a great winemaker! Nice to see Dave still at his craft! :)

  2. Interesting all the flash and mirors as the original Amador "R" - Runquist Wines - enjoys astronomical growth just by making stunning wines at "normal" prices.

    1. Love Runquist wines! However, Jeff didn't start making wines under his own label until after Renwood was established. FYI.

  3. its great to have them here and they'll be a real asset to our community......

  4. Mike I generally love your columns, but this one reads more like a press release than a critical assessment of what this winery is up to.

    1. Guess I should have gone with the original version of this post, Patrick, but I decided to tone down the snark, for a change. Seriously, the story out of Renwood today is upbeat, especially compared with the winery's not-too-distant past. Right now, I don't see much to be negatively critical about, though I have reservations about bringing in an LA chef to run the food program and about bringing in all those oak barrels, but those are chapters in Renwood's story yet to play out. If you are aware of negative concerns that need to be pondered and debated, speak up.

    2. Thanks for the added persp., Mike. I don't know of any neg. concerns about Renwood except maybe their prices, but the market will sort that out I hope. I am a totally faithful reader of yours because you care about the Sierra Foothills. It's where I was born.

  5. One thing I love about Amador and the rest of Gold Country are the wonderful small and family-owned wineries. High price wine seems a bit out of the norm for this area. I hope Renwood can make some great Zins well under the $20 mark. Sobon does.