Robert Whitley's Creators Syndicate Columns

March 17, 2015

Living the Dream

Creators Syndicate

Some winemakers live the dream. Then there is Chris Phelps, whose path to an exalted position in the Napa Valley has the ring of a fairytale.

Winemaker at Swanson Vineyards in the Napa Valley the past dozen years, Phelps is now a quarter-century into a journey that began when he graduated the University of California at Davis with a degree in enology.

He also took classes in French throughout his undergrad years and yearned to visit Bordeaux. He had an opportunity to spend a year at the University at Bordeaux to further his winemaking studies and embraced it.

“I took French language classes throughout college and loved it,” he remembers. “It was a great opportunity to practice my speaking skills. That was the 1982 vintage. After studying at the University of Bordeaux, I decided to stay for harvest.”

Phelps applied for an internship with Chateau Petrus, the fabled estate of Christian Moueix in Pomerol. Though he was initially awarded the internship, his response arrived too late and he was passed over for someone else.

Instead of an internship, Phelps was so highly regarded by the Moueix team he was offered the job as winemaker at a chateau Moueix owned in Puisseguin, a satellite appellation of Saint-Emilion.

“It was incredible to be able to be a (full-time) winemaker so fast after college,” Phelps said.

The fairy tale didn’t end there. Moueix had plans to open a new winery in the Napa Valley in 1983 and asked Phelps to be the winemaker.

“At first I turned it down,” Phelps remembered. “It wasn’t enough money, not to live in the Napa Valley.”

Moueix made an adjustment in the compensation and the rest is history. Phelps and Moueix launched Dominus together and Phelps stayed at Dominus for 12 years before moving up the road to Swanson, essentially to oversee one of the Napa Valley’s finest Merlot programs.

“It was all about the Merlot,” said Phelps. “The entire (Swanson) estate vineyard is clay loam.”

Clay, of course, is the soil that dictates the planting of Merlot in Saint-Emilion and Pomerol, where Cabernet Sauvignon rarely ripens.  When the estate vineyard was planted, the late great enologist Andre Tchelistcheff advised against planting Cabernet on the site, so Swanson went all-in on Merlot. For more than two decades it has been among the finest Merlots produced in the Napa Valley, though when Phelps came on board he worked to craft a more structured Merlot that would be as age-worthy as Napa Valley Cabs.

He also altered the estate’s proprietary blend, Alexis, eliminating Syrah from the blend and making it a true Bordeaux-style blend.

“I felt Syrah overwhelmed the Alexis flavor profile,” Phelps explained.

Now, after 25 years, the fairytale winemaking journey continues. Phelps will cut back at Swanson (he says to 50 percent) and move into more of a supporting role as he launches a new business as a consultant.

“I can’t reveal some of the names of wineries I will be working with, but I can tell you I will be working on a project with Banfi (famous Italian producer from Montalcino) in Eastern Washington,” he said.

And so the stars continue to align for this talented fairytale winemaker.

March 14, 2015

The Giesen Brothers

Creators Syndicate

While tasting a stunning bevy of sauvignon blancs with Alex Giesen, one of the three Giesen brothers, more than a year ago, it occurred to me that while a bit of a discovery, the Giesen wines were certainly no surprise.

The brothers had planted their vineyards in New Zealand’s Marlborough district, at the northern tip of the South Island, near Christchurch, which is New Zealand’s sweet spot for sauvignon blanc. This is the land of Cloudy Bay and Villa Maria, the sauvignons that put New Zealand on the map in the uber-competitive world of fine wine.

More recently I had the opportunity to taste a presentation of Giesen wines by Theo Giesen, another of the brothers, and the experience proved to be a revelation.

To be sure, there was an impeccably made sauvignon, Giesen’s 2012 The Fuder, Matthews Lane Sauvignon Blanc ($40) from a single vineyard. This was a layered, creamy, complex sauvignon crafted in a unique style through the unusual practice of aging in 1000 liter barrels.

Two other Giesen wines – 2012 The Fuder Clayvin Chardonnay ($40) and 2012 The Fuder Clayvin Pinot Noir ($55) – surprisingly stole the show, however. First of all, Marlborough’s reputation has been built on sauvignon. The finest New Zealand Pinot would be found in Central Otago and the finest Chardonnay on the North Island outside of Auckland, specifically the Kumeu River wines made by Master of Wine Michael Brajkovich.

The Clayvin Vineyard chardonnay reminded me of a top-notch Chassagne Montrachet, exhibiting that rare combination of richness and firm spine that is typically only found in France’s Burgundy region. Theo Giesen’s considers the purchase of the Clayvin vineyard to be one of his family’s most important business decisions.

Giesen’s Clayvin Chardonnay is every bit the equal of Kumeu River’s finest and Leeuwin Estate’s Artist Series from the Margaret River region of Western Australia, which are the two finest chardonnays from this part of the world in my humble opinion.  Giesen’s 2012 The Fuder Clayvin Pinot was every bit the monumental wine as the chardonnay.

“You can now see why we bought the Clayvin vineyard,” Theo explained in a serious understatement.

These two Giesen wines can stand with Burgundian-style wine anytime, anywhere. I can hardly wait to see what the next year, and the next Giesen brother, bring.

March 2, 2015

Gaja, the Next Generation

Creators Syndicate

Coming out of World War II the vineyards of Italy and the families that tended the vines were devastated. Virtually everyone was poor at the time, so grape growers and winemakers tended to emphasize quantity over quality because wine was their currency.

The hangover from the war kept Italian wine on the skids for the better part of two decades, until a younger generation came along with the crazy idea that there was a different way of doing things.

“When I think of an artisan winemaker, I think of someone who has a crazy idea to do something that no one could ever imagine,” said Gaia Gaja of the Gaja wine family from Barbaresco, in the Piedmont region of northern Italy. “Take Bolgheri for example. At one time it was a swamp. You would never think to make great wine there. Then Sassicaia came along and proved it could be done. Now there are 50 wineries there.”

She was also talking about her father, Angelo, who took over the family winery in 1961, at the age of 21, and turned Gaja into one of the most important names in Italian wine over the next 50 years. The renaissance in Italian wine began with Angelo Gaja in Piedmont and Piero Antinori in Tuscany and continues to this day as Italy stands at the forefront of innovative winemakers with a passion for quality.

Gaia, with a degree in business, oversees that end of the Gaja operation these days though her father, nearing 75, is still active in winery operations on a day-to-day basis.

“I always knew I would go into the family business,” she told me on a recent trip to the United States to visit distributors and key clients. “I loved my grandfather and father and I always wanted to share in what they had created, to work with them; not to finish but to continue what they started.”

And Gaia acknowledges that it was a crazy idea ever to think a small winery from Barbaresco could become the most famous producer of nebbiolo in the Piedmont.

“Barbaresco was always No. 2,” she said. “The most famous producers of nebbiolo had always been from Barolo. If you were making wine in Barbaresco, you were always trying to be Barolo.

“I am proud that my family could impose itself (in the market and world consciousness) with nebbiolo from Barbaresco. I am proud my father had the vision, that crazy idea that no one could have imagined. I am proud that he was such an innovator and crazy pioneer.”

Gaja, for example, was the first winery in the region to use barriques. Angelo’s work in the cellar was meticulous, and his respect for the work in the vineyards legendary.

Over time he added two small wineries in Tuscany – Ca’ Marcanda in the Bolgheri district making Bordeaux-style blends from cabernet sauvignon and merlot, and Pieve Santa Restituta in Montalcino producing Brunello di Montalcino – to the Gaja stable and both benefit from the attention to detail that is the Gaja touch.

Angelo personally commutes to Tuscany from Barbaresco, sometimes a couple of times a week, to monitor the operations in Tuscany.

“He will be 75 soon but he runs himself hard,” said Gaia. “This is his life. It is what he feels he has to do. Finally we got him to accept having a driver for the trips to Toscana. It helps him, because otherwise he was up at 4 o’clock in the morning to get ready for the drive to the wineries.”

Even with all of its success, Gaja continues to innovate.

The most obvious example is its decision to eschew a riserva designation for its Brunello, which would require an additional year in barrel.

“In the old days that might have been necessary,” Gaia explains. “The grapes did not get as ripe and the extra time in the barrel was needed to soften the tannins and smooth at the rough edges to make a riserva.

“But today we get that from the sun. The grapes are perfectly ripe when we make the wine. There is no need to leave the wine in the barrel longer. That would ruin it!”

Instead, Pieve Santa Restituta produces two “normale” Brunellos that are vineyard-specific. Of course, vineyard-designate wines are almost unheard of in Montalcino. So Gaja is breaking new ground. So what else is new?

Follow Robert on twitter @wineguru.

February 11, 2015

The Jackson Legacy

Creators Syndicate

It has been nearly four years since Jess Stonestreet Jackson, the visionary vintner, passed away. Jackson was, like Robert Mondavi and Ernest & Julio Gallo before him, a towering figure in the California wine industry.

His namesake winery, Kendall-Jackson, introduced an entire nation to the pleasures of chardonnay, one of the world’s great white wines but barely a blip on the radar of American wine enthusiasts before Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay became a household name in the early 1980s.

Later in a career that spanned nearly four decades Jackson embraced mountain vineyards and the idea that he should grow most of the grapes that went into his wines, as opposed to purchasing fruit as he had done in the early years of K-J.

Today K-J owns thousands of acres of vineyards from Mendocino to Santa Barbara, and everywhere in between along the coastal corridor that produces most of California’s finest wines. It wouldn’t have surprised anyone if K-J had slipped a notch or two following the death of Jackson, but his widow, Barbara Banke, has maintained her late husband’s zeal for the K-J brand.

That was evident recently when I say down to taste the entire Kendall-Jackson portfolio – more than 30 wines – with longtime winemaker Randy Ullom, who’s been at the helm of the K-J winemaking team for the past 17 years.

“Barbara just picked up where Jess left off,” said Ullom.

Over the course of a couple of hours I ran the gamut of Kendall-Jackson wines, from its $13 Vintner’s Reserve Sauvignon Blanc to the $125 Stature red Bordeaux-style blend. Over the years I had done the same tasting with Jess, always impressed at his command of the subject, for Jackson was an attorney by trade and only got into wine later in life.

I can say with utter confidence that, if anything, the Kendall-Jackson wines are better than ever. What’s more, there is value at the entry level Vintner’s Reserve end and extremely high quality in the estate and vineyard-designate tiers, which range in price from $30 to more than $100.

Jess Stonestreet Jackson may be gone, but his vision for his beloved K-J lives on.

The Report Card

2014 Vintner’s Reserve Pinot Gris, California ($15) B

2013 Avant Sauvignon Blanc, California ($13) C+
2013 Vintner’s Reserve Sauvignon Blanc, California ($13) A-
2013 Avant Chardonnay, California ($17) B+
2013 Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay, California ($17) A-
2013 Grand Reserve Chardonnay, Monterey-Santa Barbara ($22) A-
2013 Jackson Estate Seco Highlands Chardonnay, Arroyo Seco ($35) A+
2013 Jackson Estate Piner Hills Chardonnay, Russian River Valley ($35) A
2013 Jackson Estate Camelot Highlands Chardonnay, Santa Maria Valley ($35) A-
2013 Jackson Estate Chardonnay, Santa Maria Valley ($22) B+
2013 Stature Chardonnay, Santa Barbara ($100) A+
2013 Vintner’s Reserve Riesling, Monterey ($12) B
2013 Vintner’s Reserve Pinot Noir, Monterey-Santa Barbara ($18) B+
2013 Grand Reserve Pinot Noir, Monterey-Santa Barbara ($26) B+
2013 Jackson Estate Pinot Noir Los Robles, Santa Barbara ($40) A+
2013 Jackson Estate Pinot Noir Seco Highlands, Arroyo Seco ($40) A+
2013 Jackson Estate Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley ($30) A-
2013 Jackson Estate Pinot Noir Outland Ridge, Anderson Valley ($40) A
2013 Avant Red, California ($17) B+
2012 Vintner’s Reserve Summation Red, California ($17) B+
2012 Grand Reserve Meritage, Sonoma County ($30) A
2012 Vintner’s Reserve Syrah, Santa Barbara ($16) A-
2013 Jackson Estate Syrah Los Alisos Hills, Santa Barbara ($37) A
2013 Vintner’s Reserve Zinfandel, Mendocino ($16) A-
2012 Vintner’s Reserve Merlot, Sonoma County ($24) A-
2012 Grand Reserve Merlot, Sonoma County ($28) A-
2012 Jackson Estate Merlot Taylor Peak, Bennett Valley ($40) A
2012 Grand Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma County ($35) A
2012 Jackson Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley ($40) A+
2012 Jackson Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Hawkeye, Alexander Valley ($55) A+
2012 Jackson Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Trace Ridge, Knights Valley ($70) A
2012 Jackson Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Mountain, Mt. Veeder ($70) A+
2012 Stature Red Bordeaux Blend, Sonoma County ($125) A+

January 21, 2015

Benziger Family Rocks San Diego

Creators Syndicate

It was an impressive weekend for Benziger wines at the San Diego International wine competition, where the wines of Benziger Family Winery and Imagery Estate, both owned by the Benziger winemaking clan of Sonoma, California, walked off with many of the top awards.

Benziger Family Winery took the Best of Show award for red wines with its 2012 Tribute ($80), a red Bordeaux-style blend that was the highest scoring wine of the competition with 97 points (out of a possible 100). It also won Best of Class Pinot Noir with the 2012 Benziger Pinot Noir de Coelo Arbore Sacra ($75) from the Sonoma Coast.

Imagery Estate, a sister winery established by Joe Benziger more than two decades ago, won Best of Class for Tempranillo, Barbera and Muscat.

Between them, the two Benziger-owned wineries won 19 medals from 26 wines entered and were name co-wineries of the year in a stunning exhibition of quality across a broad range of grape varieties.

The Benziger performance was a strong message for the wine industry on the benefits of organic and biodynamic farming. The Benziger clan is one of the leading proponents of both in the California wine industry.

Judges at the 32nd San Diego International, one of the oldest wine competitions in America, are seasoned wine professionals and taste all wines “blind” without foreknowledge of the producing winery. Complete results can be found on the results page at

Other highlights from the SDIWC:

Bargain hunters can feast on the wines of Barefoot Cellars, which won 25 medals with wines that all retail for less than $10 a bottle. It’s top award was a platinum for its Barefoot Bubbly Extra Dry sparkling wine, $9.99.

Best of Show sparkling wine went to the 2010 Domaine Carneros by Taittinger Vintage Brut, $32, an elegant expression of New World bubbly from winemaker Eileen Crane.  Domaine Carneros is one of the top three or four sparkling wine producers in America and consistently wins accolades and awards with its vintage brut.

Sonoma-Cutrer has long been a benchmark producer of California Chardonnay. Situated in the cool Russian River Valley it makes Chardonnay that possesses structure and elegance, giving it the ability to improve with age. Because of the success of its Chardonnay, the Sonoma-Cutrer Pinot Noir is one of the best-kept secrets in the world of wine. While its 2012 The Cutrer Chardonnay, $35, was winning Best of Show white wine, the Sonoma-Cutrer Pinot Noir, $30, was taking a platinum award with a score of 95 points.

Chateau Morrissette struck a blow for Virginia wine with a platinum award and score of 94 points for its 2012 5 Red Grapes, a proprietary blend of Bordeaux grapes combined with the hybrid Chambourcin at $15. Virginia is coming up in the wine world and Morrissette is one reason for that.

Alexander Valley’s DeLorimier Winery had an impressive showing with 13 medals won, including a platinum award and 95 points for the 2011 DeLorimier Cabernet Sauvignon, Kenneth Carl Reserve, $150. DeLorimier also won six gold medals.

Best of Show dessert wine went to a sherry house from Jerez, Spain. Dios Baco claimed the top prize in the dessert category with its Dios Baco Cream Sherry, Jezez DO, Spain, $25. The sherry was awarded a score of 95 points by the judges. Dios Baco won six medals overall, including another platinum and three gold medals.

V. Sattui of the Napa Valley was the overall leader in medals with 18, including Best of Class Cabernet Sauvignon for the 2011 V. Sattui Cabernet Sauvignon, Preston Vineyard, $55. Judges gave the Preston Vineyard Cabernet a score of 96 points. V. Sattui also won 10 gold medals. The venerable winery, with the finest picnic grounds in the Napa Valley, is unique in that it only sells its wines at the winery or online.

Sutter Home was runner-up in the medal-count for individual wineries with 15, including four gold medals, for value wines priced at $6 suggested retail.

St. James Winery from Herman, Missouri and Tabor Hill Winery from Michigan scored big for Midwestern wines with a dozen medals each. St. James specializes in fruit wines and hybrid grape varieties while Tabor Hill leans toward hybrid grapes, although it also won medals for Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Gewurztraminer, Muscat and Pinot Gris. Between them, St. James and Tabor Hill won eight gold medals.

Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru. To find out more about Robert Whitley and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at