What makes a wine(maker) great?

KC fan.jpgWinemakers are somewhat like doctors. There is a lot of talent in the pool but the great ones are uncommon and especially hard to find because there aren’t any bad winemakers. Think about it. Who ever says “I have a horrible doctor” or “she is an awful winemaker”. There ain’t no sech animal. [ed. here is a doctor right now who knows the difference – and where he belongs – in front of Kenneth-Crawford “winery” in Buellton]
Family docs (like big house winemakers) are never stars. We need them and value them but all we are looking for is reliability over time, no diagnostic mistakes, and the ability to make a good referral when one is needed. The grind-it-out primary care guy keeps the whole thing going but the specialists are the stars. In wine their equivalent is the boutique winemaker. If you ever needed a surgeon or a specialist, then you will recognize how everybody you know wants to send you to their knee guy or shoulder cutter who is always “the best” in his field. How do you really know? How can every specialist – or every boutique winemaker – be the best?
If doctors ran baseball [ed. here he goes] every pitcher would go undefeated and every batter would hit a thousand. Same with winemaking. Every boutique has a star winemaker. And like Helen Turley or Michel Rolland s/he is all over the scene. For the record, consider three under-the-radar winemakers Jim Moore (l’Uvaggio di Giacomo), Bob McKenzie (McKenzie-Mueller) or David Croix (Camille Giroud). Virtually zero hype, comparatively small operations. Consistently fine products at multiple price points.
There is really only one way to find the “best” doctor. Ask his peers. Or try her out. Fortunately, you can try winemakers out at much lower stakes than doctors (see above three examples of low risk and potentially high payout). How would we know when we have found the best winemaking specialist? How do doctors know who is best among their peers? The best ones keep showing up at the most important meetings where they are the speakers. In wine the best winemakers show up on everybody else’s label without being named because the other label owners know who is making the best wines. Until they finally start their own.
Kenneth Gummere and Mark Crawford Horvath made wine for other labels in the Santa Rita HIlls for at least a couple seasons [ed. probably still do]. They formed their own wine label Kenneth-Crawford in 2001 when they released their fist few bottlings. Their style is in your face overwhelming without being too bombastic. In a word their wines are seductive. They immediately impress. They are voluptuous. They make you want more. They also tend to be high in alcohol but the fruit is so pure that the 15%+ alcohol levels are seldom an intruding presence. We report on two wines made by the duo; one under another SRH label and one under their own.
babcock carga2003.jpg2003 Babcock Cargasacchi Pinot Noir $30: This wine was tasted and purchased at the 2004 Wine Cask Futures Tasting, now an event of the past. The 2004 tasting was the first of three the tBoW team attended. This wine was the star, the find, the wine that tBoW and Dotor√© had to have. The wine went through a dumb phase lasting almost two years when it was just awful. [ed. AWFUL] Patience has been rewarded. The wine is showing reddish-brown brick coloring. The nose is caramello. The alcohol is detectable but, characteristically for these guys’ wines, not weighty enough to make the wine go tilt. The dumb phase is thankfully past! This is brown sugar, sour cherry, spicy and beautifully balanced. This wine is at its peak. The remaining bottles will be gone by Labor Day. 13.8%
KC evans syrah 2004.jpg2004 Kenneth-Crawford Evans Ranch Syrah Santa Rita Hills $50 (good luck finding it): Bought this one the following year at the same tasting. This was also the last tasting at which we purchased wine. The last year we attended, 2006, the selection was more limited and the winemakers started holding back their best wines. We can say now (although we understood it then) it was the beginning of the end. Another sexy, luscious wine. Full and warm. Floral nose with a capital F. Alcohol present but in check. Like a cool mountain spring in the mouth which for a full bodied red is remarkably refreshing. Wonderfully balanced. Rich flavors, dark fruit, middleweight. The wine reminds us that Syrah is truly the best varietal coming out of Santa Rita HIlls. Just enough acid to keep you sharp. 15.3%
Then there are the family docs of wine. Here is the Nanni group from Argentina’s Cafayate Valley. One year ago tBoW was touring Mendoza and loving it. The posts that followed positively gushed with praise and wonder. We did not get to the Cafayate Valley which is near Salta in the northwest corner adjacent to Bolivia.nonni.jpg This region looks like a must-visit; high mountain desert (6,000 feet plus), endless arid valleys filled with vineyards, 37 bodegas including Bodega Nanni. Happily, there is plenty of info to be found on the Internet so you are encouraged to go forth and seek. Special thanks to Nikki Knaddison at Denver Spanish House for help learning about Bodega Nanni and all things Latino.
Here are a couple of excellent links: A two year old travel blog that stopped at Bodega Nanni and explored the Cafayate Valley. Nice photos. An excellent cultural site that describes the Bolivian Indian influence is found here. I really like the link at Denver Spanish House. She describes other wineries in the region.
Highlights for Bodega Nanni are organically farmed, 400,000 bottle boutique all local production, family-held for nearly 100 years. tBoW bought the three workhorse wines at the local Whole Foods. Here is what we found.
Nanni Torrontes 2007.jpg2007 Bodega Nanni Torrontes $8: You read it right. These wines are absurdly inexpensive and represent the best quality/price ratio since this blog began. Torrontes is a Spanish varietal long disappeared from Spain, decimated by phyloxera. It does exceptionally well in Argentina and especially in this arid high mountain region. This wine is fresh and fruity similar to a Quince wine. A bit tart. Oily texture. Middle weight. 13.3%
2006 Bodega Nanni Malbec $9: Get used to it. This is what these wines cost…over here. Very rich and ripe, almost syrupy. Dark berries abound. Dark chocolate. A chocolate covered cherry in a bottle. Dotore’ offers “this year’s Malbec is last year’s Cabernet Franc.” OK with that insight. 14.2%
Nanni Tannat 2006.jpg 2006 Bodega Nanni Tannat $8: Another surprise. This is very good Tannat. Must do well in the climate and location because tBoW was not impressed with Tannat tasted in country. This has dark fruit, blackberry. More substantial and better balanced than the Malbec. tBoW remembers the Malbecs from Maipu near Mendoza as particularly charming. This wine is preferred to the Malbec. 14.3%

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