Friday, August 24, 2012

Turley "Jazzed" Over Amador Purchase

The vintage of 2012 on Buck and Karly Cobb's Shenandoah Valley estate in Amador County starts today with the harvesting of sauvignon blanc and orange muscat, but for the first time in 32 years the Cobbs won't solely be overseeing the picking of the grapes.

Within the past couple of weeks, the Cobbs sold their winery - Karly Wines- and a portion of the vines they've been farming since 1980.

The prominent buyer is Turley Wine Cellars, which also owns wineries at St. Helena in Napa Valley and Templeton in San Luis Obispo County. No price was divulged by either party to the sale.

"We're jazzed," says Ehren Jordan, Turley's director of winemaking and general manager, whose 19th harvest is getting under way. Turley is celebrated for producing the sort of dark, dense and powerful zinfandels for which Amador County also is recognized.

Though Turley has been buying grapes in the Sierra foothills since "1996 or 1997," says Jordan, the winery's principals weren't actively seeking property in Amador County until they met the Cobbs and struck a deal that came about so quickly that not all the paperwork has been completed to permit the grapes being picked today to be crushed at the Karly facilities. As a consequence, they will be hauled via refrigerated truck to the Turley winery in Napa Valley. "This came together more rapidly than we expected," says Jordan. "Larry (Turley) and Buck just hit it off. Larry's a pilot, and Buck's a retired fighter pilot, so they had that in common. And then our thoughts on wine synced up."

Buck Cobb (2007)
Turley bought the winery and an adjacent 70 acres, around five acres of which are in vines. The Cobbs kept two parcels that include their house and 40 acres, 15 of which are in vines. The Cobbs had hoped to hand down the winery to their children, but none was interested in keeping the family in the wine trade. (One of the three died recently.) Buck Cobb says he had earlier opportunities to sell the winery but turned them down because he still was enjoying the business. Lately, however, he found his enthusiasm waning. "After 32 years the business gets tougher and tougher. We got tired of adapting, we were running out of energy," says Buck Cobb.

The sale came about so fast, and with harvest commencing, the new owners have yet to settle on their business plan for the property, indicates Jordan. The "Karly" name likely will be retained, at least for non-zinfandel wines like sauvignon blanc, mourvedre, syrah and barbera, the latter a varietal that Jordan never has made but with which Amador County also is being identified; zinfandels from the Cobb site and from other growers in the neighborhood probably will be put up under the "Turley" brand. Cobb's portfolio of zinfandels included such vineyard-designated and proprietary wines as "Sadie Upton," Warrior's Fire," "Pokerville" and "Buck's 10 Point." "I think some of those names will continue. Let me make the wine first and then we will see what to call it," Jordan says. "I've enjoyed Buck's 'Sadie Upton' and I look forward to making 'Sadie Upton' myself."

Jordan isn't sure whether he will expand the five-acre vineyard that Turley acquired in the purchase, but if he does he might put in varieties associated with France's Rhone Valley rather than zinfandel. Turley was attracted to Amador County primarily by its old-vine zinfandel vineyards, and that's what it wants to exploit primarily. Jordan had worked for two years in the northern Rhone Valley, where soils of decomposed granite bear a strong resemblance to what he sees in Amador County, so any enlargement of the vineyard could go in the direction of syrah and the like, he indicates.

While Turley makes zinfandels from other regions, zinfandel from Amador County is distinctive enough to add diversity rather than redundacy to the winery's lineup, Jordan suggests. "Amador has totally different soils. They're granitic, and that's the only place (in California) you find them. Climatically, it's much more rugged - hot in the summer, cold in the winter, with huge dirunal swings in temperature. You get power in the wines from the sunshine, but they also have tremendous acidity," Jordan says.

In recent years, Karly Wines has been producing about 6,000 cases annually. Jordan expects to bottle less than that from this year's crop, but eventually annual production should settle in at between 6,000 cases and 10,000 cases.

For now, the tasting room at Karly Wines is closed pending an anticipated remodeling.

Buck Cobb, in the meantime, is looking forward to overseeing his real-estate interests and to pursuing his passion for fly fishing. "I don't think I'm going to miss the business much, but I'm going to miss the relationships we've developed with customers, wholesalers and others. They've become lifelong friends. I'm going to miss those relationships, but I hope to continue to visit with them. It will be fun to spend time with them socially, without the press of wine business getting in the way."

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Back Home, Catching Up

Not much posting here lately. August will do that to you. So will a family reunion in Wisconsin. Not that Wisconsin doesn't have vineyards and wineries. It does, and while we were tempted to check out a couple of them we got distracted by the beers of New Glarus Brewing Co. of New Glarus, just down the road from the old family farm. They make several styles, none of which is distributed beyond Wisconsin. But if you are in the neighborhood, be sure to sample the vibrantly hoppy Moon Man, the rich Fat Squirrel, the brisk Totally Naked and the lively and finely balanced Spotted Cow.

A Frank Lloyd Wright fencepost
We also paid a visit to Taliesen, architect Frank Lloyd Wright's sprawling and somewhat sagging estate about an hour's drive west of Madison. As much as home and studio, it was a working farm, right down to a small vineyard. Our guide didn't know what varieties of grapes were grown by Wright and whose vines still form a patchy hillside plot, but wine from the fruit was made as recently as two vintages ago, she said. None could be found in the gift shop, indicating that the fellowship responsible for maintaining the property could be missing an opportunity to generate funds badly needed to keep up the place. The guide also pointed out that even the fenceposts of the vineyard were designed by Wright, their curving top intended to suggest a shepherd's staff, but safety also was on his mind in bending over the tops of the iron posts.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, we've been catching up on some really good wine- and food-related stuff floating about cyberspace lately, including:

- This entertaining video interview with Santa Cruz winemaker and restaurateur Randall Grahm. An hour's commitment is a lot to ask of any audience these days, but interviewers Sonja Magdevski and Brandon Bartlett keep the dialogue going with well-briefed questions and engaging patter. Among other revelations is that Grahm apparently has moved on from  biodynamic farming to something called biochar farming, the practice and goals of which sound similar, but without steer horns filled with esoteric soil supplements and then planted in the vineyard.

- This balanced backgrounder by Wine Spectator columnist Matt Kramer on the Abbey of New Clairveaux, the Cistercian monastery and winery way up in Tehama County, a vineyard so isolated and remote few wine journalists make the trip.

- This thoughtful and even account of the production of foie gras, the dear treat now banned in California.

- This explanation of "sustainable farming" as practiced by California and Argentina winemaker Patrick Campbell. If you are as mystified as I am by marketing jargon like "sustainable farming," you will find his practices illuminating. Hopefully, they are being followed by other vintners who exploit the term. Here they are, as outlined in an email:
     • vineyard irrigation is from snowmelt in the Andes mountains via gravity flow through canals: no deep well and attendant pumping needed
     • snowmelt water is rich in minerals picked up as the water courses through the mountains - no mineral supplements are needed
     • flood irrigation drowns phylloxera and other vineyard pests: no need for pesticides
     • Mendoza's dry climate (less than 6" rain per year) discourages growth of molds and bacteria: control by organic sulphur and Bordeaux mixture is effective and all that is generally needed
     • weed control is mechanical - herbicides are not used
     • no yeasts are added at fermentation (= natural, not cultured, yeast usage)
     • malolactic bacteria are not added - malolactic fermentation occurs naturally
     • no SO2 is added prior to fermentation (in order to promote natural yeast development)
     • fermenters are raised 1.5 meters above floor level, which allows for gravity flow (less pumping = less electrical usage)
     • winery is on two levels, allowing gravity flow of wine into lower level tanks (less pumping = less electrical usage)
     • following fermentation, Tierra Divina Vineyards wines are shipped from Mendoza to our US winery in bulk; shipping in bulk leaves a substantially smaller green footprint than does shipping heavier and bulkier bottled wines (packaged wine is 46% heavier than bulk wine)
     • wine is shipped from Mendoza to the Chilean port via truck in winter, which avoids the need for refrigeration
     • no refrigeration is needed during the ocean voyage, as wine is stored below the ship's waterline: the cold Pacific Ocean serves as a natural coolant
     • heavy, wasteful bottles are not used (during shipping)
     • bottles are sealed with screwcaps, which are, arguably, "greener" than corks
     • we are embarking on "bottling" in kegs (we will be the first malbec to be shipped in kegs); we believe this will result in a lower carbon footprint: ie, less volume and less packaging

- And, finally, there's this treat, a fun interview conducted by author Michael Cervin for his website Into Wine.

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.