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2008 Crocker & Starr Malbec and a ten year old Syrah- Premiere release

When Pam Starr and Charlie Crocker got together to begin producing wines in the late ’90s, Starr already had significant experience with making wine for the likes of Carmenet and Spottswoode. As the partnership grew and flourished she began adding new varieties to the Cabernet Sauvignon and Franc that Crocker planted the property to beginning in the late ’70s. A couple new releases only available to their Casali Club are rare opportunities to experience the winery pushing the stylistic envelope beyond the solid Cabernet Franc, and Stone Place (Cabernet Sauvignon).  

Why do I say rare? Both bottlings represent a miniscule three barrels each and the Syrah is a 2001. You read it right - a 10 year old Syrah being released for the first time. I won’t tell you the story as to how it finally got released; that is for the winery to share. I can tell you it is like opening a time capsule, as it was perfectly stored in warehouse since bottling. It isn’t a surprise that many Syrah from California fall short of grabbing attention from consumers as some can be big, brooding wines in their youth and given the choice, a lot of people opt for something more approachable.  A decade of age, however has imbued this example with a smooth, mature palate and still plenty of pretty aromatics. On the other hand, the Malbec has a playful yet enduring appeal that is hard to put down. 

As mentioned, there is only one way to source the wine, through the winery’s Casali Club. 


2001 Crocker & Starr Syrah St. Helena, Napa Valley; DW 91 $44.00                  

 14.9% alcohol, 70 cases produced

The nose shows smooth and slightly reduced tarry, black fruit (not surprising for a wine this age) that still packs complex dense layers that evolve with air. To its credit, the palate is moderately full, rounded showing ripe black fig, macerated currant and a little bacon fat/loam. 

2008 Crocker & Starr Malbec St. Helena, Napa Valley; DW 92+ $62.00 

14.9% alcohol, 80 cases produced

The complete antithesis of the Syrah, the premiere release of the very limited Malbec is an exotic curveball with a pure, incense-laden nose of crumbled violet, red raspberry and white pepper washed with a briary piquant sweetness. The palate has generous ripeness with deep red/black cherry core along with a little savory tapenade. It leaves an impression of scuplted and polished approachability and is a delight to drink.

The above wines were tasted with the winemaker in St. Helena, CA


Visiting the UC Davis Oakville Experimental Vineyard

One of the advantages of being a wine critic living in Napa Valley is I am seldom far from the action that essentially defines what I do. Meeting with producers I know and tasting their wines or finding out about new producers and chasing down their wines, then writing about them, is literally right under my nose. That has always been an important differentiator of what you read from me.

Beyond that ‘bread and butter’,  too seldom are the opportunities to not only experience, but also appreciate some of the aspects of what goes into winemaking that most wine drinkers, or for that matter, wine writers never think about. About the only thing most of us notice besides what is in the bottle is the scenic beauty of the region. Those who have travelled to Napa Valley know what it looks like this time of year, a shimmering sea of undulating green canopy everywhere you look around the villages north of Napa. Come to think about it, the rest of the year isn’t so bad either.

Beneath this seemingly serene surface appeal, nature almost always presents a different reality to the grower and winemaker whose livelihood and success depend on dealing with what few of us see, much less understand. Countless factors need to be intelligently planned, correctly identified, effectively managed or eliminated long before grapes ever get picked. Pests, viruses, rootstock and clonal selection, canopy management, cover crops, vine density, soil science, vine direction, irrigation are just a few. Many of these factors such as rootstock selection, vineyard direction and density need to be planned for years before wine makes its way to the market.

Luckily, there is an extensive world-class resource for winegrowers and winemakers in the valley. It is the UC Davis Oakville Experimental Vineyard that occupies an anonymous forty-acre property on Oakville Grade Road. It is here that hundreds of different experiments have taken place on rootstock, clones, pruning, trellis, irrigation, cover crops and pests. Originally purchased by USDA in 1913, it languished post-prohibition and was deeded to the University of California in 1954 where formative research into viticulture and enology continues. Very few universities in the world own vineyards and those of this size and location are even rarer.

David De Sante, (l), Jim Wolpert Ph. D (r)I have known about the existence of the station for many years but it wasn’t until I received an invitation from winemaker, David De Sante, to join him and a group of other winemakers for a crack of dawn visit to the site last week for a walk and discussion with Jim Wolpert, Ph.D, Viticultural Extension Specialist and Mike Anderson, Staff Research Associate that I actually had a reason to want to go. David mentioned that I would be the only writer on site. Since the science of viticulture is something I don’t understand well, I promised not to ask more than one stupid question. Usually I expect to have a wineglass and a note pad in my hand when I’m around winemakers. This was an opportunity to just relax, listen and be in the presence of some of the best minds in the business. The proverbial ‘fly on the wall’ maybe with a coffee cup instead?

In essence the facility reminds me of an artist’s studio with dozens of different canvas’ arranged in seemingly un-related patterns at different stages of completion. Only from the guidance offered by Jim and Mike was I able to get a sense of what the experiment was. It was a fascinating glimpse at an aspect of the wine industry that I think most of us take for granted -

Here is an example: I recall being told by winemakers that the reason yields may be down is because of a poor set after bloom. Intuitively, I have no problem understanding why that would affect yield but not until today did I have it explained to me in situ by a Ph.D and one of the brightest winemakers I know. Effectively, after bloom, the flower needs several consecutive days of temperatures over 74 degrees, fahrenheit to pollinate; chilly weather depresses that activity, so what you are left with is ‘bunches’ containing only a handful of widely-placed grapes. David pointed this out on a Sauvignon Blanc vine that required looking underneath the canopy to see any remnants of fruit. It wasn’t pretty…

What is up next? Jim Wolpert talked for a bit about the new winery at Davis where they produce micro batches of research wine in what apparently (as described by De Sante) looks like a biotech lab in its use of state-of-the-art technology. Separately, winemaker, Dawnine Dyer, has suggested I make the trip to the campus to see what is going on. Beyond that, Jim mentioned the first of the experimental wine produced from the site will be ready for a tasting next spring. 

I look forward to be the fly on the wall again… without the coffee cup.

Select this link for more information on the UC Davis Oakville Experimental Vineyard 



Tasting the premiere release - 2008 VHR with Bruce Phillips and Francoise Peschon

I got a chance to personally followup with winemaker, Francoise Peschon and grower, Bruce Phillips yesterday at Vine Hill Ranch in Oakville to walk the property and taste the premiere release. There is a lengthy, comprehensive post available to registered users. Please either login or register here to view the full report featuring the first review on the wine. To go to the complete article click here

This is a new brand that has all of the elements going in the right direction.

Doug Wilder



Thinking of writing a wine blog? Not so fast, kid!

In a recent post from blogger, Steve Heimoff, entitled “A wine blogger on wine blogs, he suggests that ‘the blush is off the rose’ when it comes to online writing about wine. The post didn’t seem to hold out much hope for somebody who hasn’t already arrived on the scene and I think that is the wrong message. As writers who have already attained some level of acceptance we need to be the ones to nurture talent when we see a spark of interest. Before I go any further I want to state my general views on the current state of online wine content.

There is:

  •      An establishment of recognized writers with a high degree of expertise on noteworthy topics
  •      A vast population of hobby bloggers/vloggers who have a lot less stature and relevance 
  •      No shortage of topics for an inspired/passionate writer to build their reputation on over time

As Steve points out almost immediately, he can’t cite any hard evidence for what he suggests, yet doesn’t waste much time coming to a somewhat bleak premise when he states: 

“Something else, too: I think we now know who the players are, and that situation is unlikely to change. The field is set, the top names known. It is now extraordinarily difficult for a newcomer to enter the fray and succeed. It’s too late for that. The country already is saturated with wine blogs. I can’t see how a newbie could jump in and achieve any kind of respectable numbers, unless that person already was famous from something else.”

First of all, let me make clear that ‘fame’ in another area may make you a curiosity as a wine blogger, but certainly not relevant (two examples popped into my head – Snooki and Bono). Further, lets agree that nothing is static. Opportunities arise constantly for new talent, if you don’t believe that just look at major league baseball, and I have no doubt there is still plenty of bandwidth for budding writers to attain some level of prominence. To suggest otherwise is to imply that we as a group of current talent are irreplaceable, and that our ‘hall of fame’ is as good as it gets. I don’t believe that. Furthermore, history tends to bury those who make such claims.

I think there is an identity crisis in the online wine writing community. What I mean by that is:

  •      Writers need to do a better job of defining, and honing their particular niche
  •      Wineries and PR are faced with the daunting task of determining if you matter

If you succeed with the first point, the second one is a lot easier to establish. Here is an example:

I ran into a wine industry colleague at a recent tasting. She is in charge of marketing for a well-known winery that attracts well-deserved attention. We first met in the early ‘90s and have a great deal of respect for each other. I shared the changes that will be happening with my writing in the next few months and she offered an open invitation to visit and taste with the winemaker. From there she continued by remarking about the difficulties the winery was experiencing fielding requests from bloggers (whom they had never heard of) who call wanting access to their guesthouse, private tastings and wine lunches. The impression she got was that there was a sense of entitlement simply because someone wrote a blog. I couldn’t really argue with her.

In researching this post, I wanted to try to get some sense of the growth and maturation in wine blogging and decided the Wine Bloggers Conference website would be a good place to start. I attended the first two conferences in California and recalled the site includes lists of the participants for each of the four annual events. In the inaugural year, 2008, the list covered just about 2 pages and has more than doubled in three years. I could only guess as to what percentage of the wine blogging sphere the list represents.

Once I had a chance to look over the attendees I pulled out some names that I didn’t recognize and plugged them into my browser. A few showed nice layout elements but for the most part there was very little discussion of the background of the writer, site FAQ and even less indication of what the focus is – there was everything from reviews of aerators, wine bar openings, dinners they went to, florist recommendations, my bottle of Chardonnay from Livermore etc.

For any new talent to rise they need to do several things to stand out. This list is not meant to be complete, but when I am asked, “What advice would you give to someone considering starting a wine blog?” my answer is:

  • ·       Ask yourself why anyone should take you seriously
  • ·       Find a niche and own it
  • ·       Discuss your philosophy, intentions, aspirations, experience
  • ·       Be genuine, honest, fair and transparent
  • ·       Use spell check religiously
  • ·       Write because you are passionate about wine
  • ·       Forget about generating ad revenue
  • ·       Make your writing engaging and interesting
  • ·       Post regularly
  • ·       Own your domain name
  • ·       Don’t expect wineries to gush over you, if they do, run the other way



First Sloan, now another big name cult brand changes hands

Yesterday we learned the identity of the recent purchased winery in Napa Valley, Sloan, purchased by a Hong Kong-based investment company. I learned some more details about the deal today and talk about them in the member site. I also talk about the other block-buster sale that nobody else has reported. One hint, it also begins with an “S”.

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