February 2012

A Working Winter in Wine Country


Traveling to Napa and Sonoma for business is almost routine for professionals in our industry. It’s the old “someone’s gotta do it” answer you give your family or layman friends, who, if they could see you in your element, may turn green with wine-envy.

Rudd Winery Director Kenny Koda on the Oakville estate amidst Cabernet Franc vines brought from Pomerol’s Vieux Château Certan. “This variety is as important to us as Cabernet Sauvignon in our blends, and ripens well in cooler vintages.”

Although I promise I never take it for granted that I get to taste with winemakers, distributor royalty and winery owners as part of my job, there is always time to ponder on what point I want to make in the stories to tell about each visit. That’s the real work: getting a message to our readers who find themselves in an ocean of choices. There may be a lot of fish in the sea, but I think it’s the purpose of THE TASTING PANEL to angle the line so that our (sound) bites are informative in some of your purchasing decisions.

The 2011 harvest is past us, and expectations are high for lower yields with concentrated, lush fruit in this vintage’s future releases. And although at this time of year the vines were dormant, sales, distribution and marketing efforts cracked at a humming pace.

OPUS ONE: For A New Generation

The 2011 harvest marked the 33rd vintage for one of the world’s greatest wineries, Opus One. “We think if we get to 50, it’s a pretty good start,” says Roger Asleson, VP Public Relations. Following the vision that two legends, Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild, paved for the winery—to be come the benchmark for the exceptional wine that could be produced in the heart of Napa Valley—its current leaders are realizing the dream. CEO David Pearson was the first person singly responsible f or Opus One (while Constellation maintains a 50-50 joint ownership with Rothschild, the winery has operational independence in administration and vineyard management as well as sales and marketing), and winemaker Michael Silacci was the first to assume full responsibility for viticulture and winemaking.

“Opus One has grown up,” Asleson adds, “we’re experiencing a measure of independence we didn’t have before.” Part of that independence is being able to make decisions about not replanting after a harvest. The new vines are grown in a nursery for a year.  It’s like prep school for grapes. “We practice economic and philosophical patience from the time the grapes begin to grow, in absolute uniformity.”

RUDD: Readying For A New Direction

Grown on steep grades in volcanic clay, the Rudd 2010 Mt. Veeder Sauvignon Blanc (SRP $58) is an OMG white that can pass for a Loire Valley beauty. Blended with Sauvignon Gris, Muscadet and Semillon, it is exquisitely fragrant and opens with tropical pineapple leading to lanolin, gooseberry and honeyed white peach.
A hillside across from Screaming Eagle, Phelps’s Bacchus Vineyard, Bond and Plumpjack, Rudd Oakville Estate is in magnificent company. Leslie Rudd came to Napa in the mid 1990s to create a generational winery, but it was a world apart from his other businesses; Rudd owns Dean and DeLuca gourmet markets, Oakville Grocery and San Francisco’s No. 209 Gin among other ventures.

Being the brilliant businessman that he is, Rudd recruited Kenny Koda as the winery’s new Director. Koda worked for Rudd in other capacities, but the trained Sommelier (he was certified in 2005) is taking the necessary steps to revive, re-organize and develop everything the winery needs, including a restored identity.

“Immediate returns are not as important to us as long term quality,” Koda tells THE TASTING PANEL. “So if we can afford something that will help to make our wines better, then we’ll do it. Ultimately, our wines have to be identifiably Rudd.” 

J Vineyards proprietor Judy Jordan and winemaker Melissa Stackhouse.


J VINEYARDS: A New Winemaker

“This is where we need to be,” says George Rose, Communications Director extraordinaire, whose long career path led him to his present position at J Vineyards. He is pouring a glass of the Pinot Gris for which this winery has become known. “We are now the number one–selling California Pinot Gris,” he adds proudly.

I am tasting the wine with Jim Allen, Senior VP of Fine Wines for Southern Wine & Spirits of CA. “The growth for us has been phenomenal,” he comments. “Pinot Gris is such a versatile food wine, and J’s version covers more flavor spectrums of food than most. It has body and character and length—a defined style of crisp and clean.”

Judy Jordan started the winery 25 years ago and built a sparkling wine legacy, but it was eventually a Russian River Valley identity that would be responsible for the specialness at J, which has ten vineyards scattered throughout the appellation.


J Vineyards Brut Rosé (SRP $28) and the J Cuvée Brut Non-Vintage 25th Anniversary magnum (SRP $38) form the forefront of the winery’s méthod champenoise Russian River Valley–sourced sparkling wine program. The pretty soft blush-cherry-pink color of the rosé is dialed in through its clear glass bottle.

Now with Melissa Stackhouse at the helm of the winemaking team, Jordan can continue to build a statement about being “the best.”

“It’s about growing on what you have,” she says with determination in her voice. A former geologist with a degree from Stanford, Jordan speaks of the 20 different soil types in the area—a richness of terroirs that makes evolving the profiles of her Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs a special challenge as well as a joy.  “In France, there are roughly five to six soil types,” Jordan notes. “Melissa can work with our soils and paint the picture.”

Stackhouse’s power lies in the talent and knowledge to micro-manage the estate vineyards to pull out those enviable Russian River personalities. As the winemaker scrutinizes the fields, she concedes, “This is where the most vexing Pinot Noirs begin.”

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