Tuesday, December 30, 2008

With Good Wine, There's Always Hope

So, the year ends on a gloomy economic note, with even more gloom being offered for 2009 by most of the experts. Remaining sanguine, as a small business owner, in times like these is not easy but from a wine-quality standpoint, times have never been better.

There is much to be thankful for and excited about. On a personal note, the family got through another year healthy and happy (relatively!). I am surrounded by an immensely talented and caring team of wine professionals that gets better every year. Our wines are better than ever.

Aging is seldom met with positive feelings unless we are talking about vineyards. Our two estate sites, Ghielmetti Vineyard and HRV (Home Ranch Vineyard) are just now beginning to show how great their fruit can be and our wine making team is making strides as well.

All the joy I get doing what I do would not be possible without the enthusiasm and support of our club members and guests. Thank you for all that you have given us in 2008. We look forward to sharing many great wines with you in 2009!

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Finding a New Direction in the Old

Steven Kent began life with one mission and one wine.

Our mission to create world-class wine hasn't changed since the first day, but our lineup of wines has grown dramatically. 2009 will mark a return to our first love: Cabernet.

With three distinct, potentially world-class vineyard sites now in full production, we have the vinous pieces in place to match our mission to reality. We will be offering seven different Cabernets in the coming year; wines separated by relative quality and production levels. Each of these wonderful wines is complete unto itself and reflects the best of site, clone, and vintage.

Our top tier of Cabernet, the Premier Cabernet Collection is composed of two 2009 release wines: 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon - Ghielmetti Vineyard, Clone 30 and 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon - Ghielmetti Vineyard, Clone 191. Each of these wines is available in 3-pack boxes and will be released in March and September respectively. Only 192 3-packs of each wine were produced. The Clone 30 wine is one of the finest wines we have yet made and is a beautiful example of classic Cabernet flavors and structure.

Three wines make up the 2009 Single Vineyard Series lineup: 2006 Cabernet Sauvigon - HRV; 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon - Smith Ranch; and 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon - Ghielmetti Vineyard. These wines are made in extremely small supply, and each represents the finest few barrels chosen from the larger lot of wine. Only 125, 50, and 75 cases of these wines were produced.

Our 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon - Livermore Valley is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon from three different vineyards and is the only wine we produce that is available, at this time, in stores and restaurants. This wine displays great richness of texture and complexity of aromas and flavors and will be released in April 2009.

The 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon made exclusively for members of our Future Release Program rounds out our 2009 releases.

2009 marks a year of renewal for the Steven Kent Winery. For those who love Cabernet as much as I do, it is going to be a great year.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

It's Soy Good...

Soy. Not a descriptor I would normally attach to a wine. Sushi maybe, wine no. I've seen this word used before to describe wine and as a matter of fact I have heard Steven refer to it several times with some of our pinots in La Rochelle. I never could quite get the soy. I just chalked it up to my amateur palate. Then I opened a bottle of the 2003 Garys' Vineyard Pinot Noir which was created especially for the Steven Kent Future Release Program. One sip and I was hit with a soy bomb. Yes, a soy bomb! It was unbelievable. Not only was the flavor amazing, but the mouthfeel was silky and coated my tongue like a cashmere jacket in autumn. It was perfect. How could I have missed this?

I thought back and remembered when we released this wine in 2005. We had never done a pinot before and I was not familiar with the grape. Sure, I had pinot noir prior to this but it was a casual acquaintance, not a varietal I could appreciate. I remember tasting the 2003 and enjoying it, but thinking I enjoyed cabernet more. Since its release I have had the honor of tasting many more pinots, whether our own at La Rochelle or those we bring in for tasting to compare and contrast with our own. While I still enjoy my cabernet, I have come to appreciate what pinot noir has to offer. I enjoy opening each bottle, wondering what flavor awaits me…will it be earthy…dark fruit…perhaps cardamom - a favorite of mine, or another spice??? Or maybe this time it's soy.

Grab a bottle of pinot and open it up…what do you taste???

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

2002 Vincere - We Meet Again

Vincere, our estate-grown homage to super-Tuscan style wine, started life as an accompaniment to Osso Buco that my friend, Marcello Fiorentino, was making for a dinner we were doing at his great restaurant, La Sirena. The first vintage, 2000, was a blend of 60% Sangiovese and 40% Cabernet.

We named the wine after Marcello at first. "Marcellaia" labels had label approval, were printed even, when we got the call from Engulf & Devour Winery (not its real name) threathening a lawsuit if we continued using this name (in their mind, close to the spelling - but not the pronunciation - of one of their wines) after the first vintage. We decided to change the name...Vincere means to overcome, to win, to be the best...a really good name, I think.

Anyway, to the wine...the 2002 vintage was one of our best overall harvests. The year was fairly cool and fruit hung a long time, gaining complexity and great flavors while sugar levels rose slowly. After making many mock blends, I decided on a 60%/40% Sangiovese/Cabernet mix.

Until yesterday, I had not had this vintage for several years. I have always advocated drinking our red wines younger than older so that all the wonderful fruit and structure can still be enjoyed. With a preponderance of Sangovese, a grape with great acidity but fairly mild tannin, I was even more vociferous in my early-drinking suggestion.

Well, shows how much I know. The 2002 was a revelation. The nose was full of dried cherry fruit, dried rose-petals, tar, leather. In the mouth, the wine had a wonderful, silky mouth-feel, still-evident tannin and beautiful acid. The fruit was gorgeous and very complex. In fact, I think this wine has several more years ahead of it.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Re-visiting an Old Friend

For those who graciously spend some of their time reading my blog, I apologize for the scarcity of posts lately. We are in the midst of harvest time from our estate vineyard (finally!) and my attention has been focused praying to the gods of warm weather and ripe fruit. More on the progress at Ghielmetti Vineyard soon, but while I was writing tasting notes on a couple of new releases, I had the occasion to re-taste (for the first time in a long while) our 2002 Livermore Valley Cabernet.

This wine was a blend of Cabernet and Petit Verdot and is only the second vintage in which the wine was not 100% Cab. I always liked the wine and was very curious to see how it was holding up.

In a word, delicious! The wine has beautiful chocolately, black fruit notes, wonderfully viscous mid-palate mouthfeel and a long sufficiently-tannic finish to reward 5-7 more years of aging.

It is nice to see an old friend in fine health.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

New Premier Cabernet Collection Debut

Our Mission at the Steven Kent Winery has always been to make Cabernet Sauvignon that equals in quality Cabernet made in any other appellation. Hailing from the too-little-esteemed Livermore Valley, we have had to work harder to prove that we belong.

After 10 years of making Cabernet here, I am even more sure now than I was back in the beginning (with that first blush of youthful excitement) that the Livermore Valley is capable of growing the kind of fruit we need to see our Mission through. And with the release of our first Premier Cabernet Collection wines, I think we are beginning to show the promise of the Valley.

On November 1st we will debut the third wine in the series (the first two having sold out quickly), the Cabernet Sauvignon - Ghielmetti Vineyard, Clone 30.

This wine is a study in the tension and balance between power and elegance. Displaying very intense dark berry, cassis, cigar box, and toasty oaks aromas, the wine is wonderfully big and defined in the nose. While some wines have very broad tannins that bleed off quickly, this Cabernet has very focused, substantial tannins from entry all the way through a long finish. Though the elements of ageability are present in abundance, the wine has a hefty silkiness in the mid-palate that sets up well in opposition to the tannins so that overall, the feeling is one of elegance and restraint.

This wine is perhaps the greatest that we have yet made. Only 180 three-packs (fewer than 50 cases!) were produced. It is available only in three-packs and the limit is 2 packs per person. The price is $300 per pack.

The Cabernet Sauvignon - Ghielmetti Vineyard, Clone 30 will be available for purchase starting November 1, 2008 and will be released in March 2009. Join our Interest List to have the opportunity of ordering this wine and for more information.

We will do our best to fully fill your order; please accept our apologies if we are unable to do so due to demand.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Wine and Charity

For the third year in a row, we have developed a small-lot wine a portion of whose price goes toward breast cancer research.

Barnburner, is a blend of Syrah, Barbera, Petite Sirah, and Mourvedre that was put together by members of our Tasting Room staff. The winning team, Jane Randolph, Catie Nielson, Patty Ising, and Cindy Hawken, have achieved eternal glory, bragging rights (Craig, first loser is better than nothing, I guess!), and their proud likenesses carved from week-old ricotta cheese. Breast cancer research will gain $2 from every bottle sold.

Patty Ising, one of the winning team, talks about Barnburner in this video.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

When to Screwcap

Our first priority is always to produce the highest quality wine we can. The most frustrating production issue we face is when we do everything right in the cellar, but the finished product has this skunky, mildewy aroma when the cork is pulled.

Screwcaps in place of corks solves this very real problem with TCA (a molecule that is created in 5-8% of corks by the interaction of bacteria and chlorine used in their processing), but history is still short when we think about using screwcaps for those wines that are meant to age.

We are at an interesting juncture in the history and stylistic preferences of American winedrinkers. Most wine purchased in America is drunk almost immediately. Producers recognize this and have been making wine that emphasizes fruit-forwardness and softer tannins. Whether the style came before the purchase, or the other way around, the growing popularity of a closure that helps to reinforce the fruit and structure prevalent in many of today's wines has made it a truly viable alternative to corks.

The chief advantage of cork is its ability to let air pass through into the wine and from the bottle outward. The wine's dance with oxygen is one of the many chemical reactions that occur in wine, and it is very important in the wine's long-term maturation. One can modify the plastic liner that sits between the metal and glass of the bottle to allow more air in but the effects are not those, yet, of cork. So, for those wines (such as our bigger Cabernets) that benefit by slow aging, we'll stick use the humble bark plug.

For more on screwcaps, take a look at this video.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

2006 Merrillie - Unfiltered Chardonnay Tasting Note

The 2006 Chardonnay, Merrillie, Livermore Valley is an unfiltered and unfined wine made from fruit grown on two Livermore Valley vineyards: the Ernest Wente Ranch and the Wisner Vineyard. Boasting complex flavors of pineapple, guava, melon, and apple, this wine has a beautiful and broad mid-palate just now beginning to show the textures, aromas, and flavors of sur lie aging and barrel fermentation. Only 800 cases of this wine were produced in this vintage. Click HERE to purchase the wine and HERE for a video detailing the nuances of the wine.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Lunch With My Daughter - Part 2

Though I don't succeed as well as I would like to in creating a special and individual time with each of my 4 kids, I keep soldiering on. My oldest daughter, April, is making it easier on me, though, by graciously accepting her dad's invitation for lunch a couple of time a month.

As I noted in an earlier post, April is studying Hospitality Management at San Francisco State, and being only a few minutes from one of the great restaurant towns in the world is a convenient way to indulge in dad-daughter time...great wine...and great food.

On Wednesday, we had lunch at the Slanted Door in the Ferry Building. April is a vegetarian so I figured that this well regarded Vietnamese restaurant would have be right up her alley. It was...and the food was ridiculous.

I asked our server, Johnny, what's the one dish I should have and he told this great story about how the yellow tail collarbone had been discarded as unusable until the chef started making it for the staff meal. The staff raved so much about it that they put it on the menu...no more collarbone for the staff!

The collarbone (before and after pictures below) is flash fried then grilled and arrives on the table with just a dipping sauce. Oh my! Crispy crust, meat so tender it is almost criminal, white flaky meat...so tender....

This is one of those dishes that I will order again even in the midst of an abundance of wonderful sounding food. The two of us shared a dry muscat from Spain that had a bit of fizz to it...very nice and an Oregon Pinot, very typical. The wine list was well put together, favoring more fruit forward and less tannic wines that pair nicely with the cuisine.

The nicest moment for me came when I spied my daughter from across the room with the absolutely perfect day (and the Bay Bridge) shining in from the window behind her holding her wine glass up and contemplating what she was tasting....the cockles of my heart were warmed!

Part 3 in a couple of weeks.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Harvest Festival - True to Its Name

Every Labor Day weekend for the last 27 years, the Livermore Valley wineries have celebrated the grape harvest with thousands of wine lovers. The wineries pull out all the stops: partnering with local restaurants to serve food, set up stages for bands to play, and pulling out a large selection of wines for those oenophiles to taste.

In the preceding 12 years, though, the one thing we had not done at Steven Kent was actually have any fruit come in. 2008 will mark the first time we will have harvested fruit prior to Labor Day weekend. On Friday, we will bring in the Sauvignon Blanc from blocks 8 and 10 at our estate ranch, the Ghielmetti Vineyard.

The Livermore Valley Harvest Festival is the premier event for the Valley's vintners and growers. It is the one true occasion each year in which we get to showcase the natural beauty and world-class quality of our appellation. And with 43 wineries in the Valley now (there were 17 back in 1996 when we started), there is more energy and commitment to quality than ever.

On the Steven Kent and La Rochelle site the crowd favorite, Bacchus Brothers, will be performing, and there will be great BBQ to go along with a wide selection of wines including our Barn Burner, a blend made by our Tasting Room team especially for the Festival.

Join us Sunday and Monday for a great time and great wines.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

What's the Big Deal with Aged Wine?

Perhaps I am a troglodyte, in a camp of one, on the outside, not part of the mainstream, etc. But I don't get all the fuss about aged wines.

Tasting with really knowledgeable and experienced wine drinkers often, there hasn't been a time when someone questioned whether the wine was too young, too old; lamented "infanticide" of a recent vintage, harkened longingly back to that dusty old Bordeaux .

One of the most amazing aspects of wine is its constantly mutable character. The first sip is different than the last; the last bottle of the case showing immense differences from the first. But often, these changes aren't for the better. I am an unabashed lover of young wine. There, I said it!

My father's model was Bordeaux. Growing conditions and winemaking culture necessitated long-term aging before those wines revealed any of their charms. "Charms" is used loosely here. For those wines, to me, have great intellectual interest and curiosity, but little gustatory gusto.

I appreciate the effects that time have on wine, the polished curves, the brandied aromas, soft tannins, melding of fruit and wood. But give me the corners and the over-reaching; the impertinence of youth.

I think critics are on the wrong track in factoring ageability into the matrix for quality. What is a 20-year California Cabernet, but a circus freak? Gone is the exuberance of fruit, the astringency of tannin, the mouth-coating wonderfulness of that glorious richness. Ageability is a vestige of a paradigm that has nothing to do with California...a vinous appendix. Let the Bordelais celebrate their aged and dimmed wines. Raise your glass to impetuosity.

What do you think? How important is a wine's ageability in assessing its quality? Am I just a heathen, or am I on to something here?

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Are There Cracks in Napa's Glass...And Can We Make Them Bigger?

There was an interesting article in the Napa Valley Register yesterday, warning Napa Valley producers that they are not the only game in town anymore. If Napa is to continue its hegemonic position in the wine world, the article's author writes, it needs to refocus its attention on what it does best.

The author points to a new high-end restaurant in Oakland that doesn't have a single Napa Valley wine on its list as proof that Napa is beginning to take for granted its place in the wine world. And while I don't think that there will ever be a time when Napa isn't the dominant wine region in the US, other regions, like the Livermore Valley, need to do more to bring their wines to a larger restaurant and wine shop audience.

I am deeply conflicted about selling wine through the three-tier system. First, the system only benefits the smallest subset of participants: namely the large distributors, mega brands, and the politicians who receive enormous contributions from the distributors. Small brands are not going to succeed long term presenting their wines this way. They do not have the marketing muscle, case volume, profit potential, or visibility that the mega-brands do. Most distributor sales reps are paid on commission, and when it comes to putting bread on the table, it is the order and not the brand building that takes priority. Secondly, I prefer to know what those who consume my wine think of it. Through direct sale at the winery and through our wine clubs, I have the honor of talking with a great many people who tell me exactly what they think. The gratification and responsibility is immediate.

The conflict comes, though, from the fact that looking askance at an opportunity to tell my story, to pour my wine for someone who hasn't tasted yet, is too important to pass up, no matter how it comes about. If a wine region, like Napa did starting in the 1970s, bands together to show the larger world what it can do, and it continually produces better and better wine, it has a chance
to succeed as a group in this incredibly competitive business.

What do you think? Do you search wine lists for Livermore Valley wines? Are you seeing more good wines coming from Livermore today than 5 years ago? What can we do better?

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

How Wine and Soccer are Exactly the Same

If you get into the wine business, you are in for the long haul. There aren't any shortcuts to planting your vineyard, farming it for three years before you get a usable crop, making your wine and putting it in barrel for two years; then putting it in bottle for a year before finally selling it.

This same long build applies to soccer too. Unlike most American sports that put a premium on scoring, a successful game of soccer is a succession of feints and flurries, an accumulation of foreign territory until finally (if it comes at all), the ball finds the back of the net.

Anticipation is huge when it comes to wine...you've been storing this special bottle for years for just the right occasion; you take out your finest glassware, cook that perfect meal, pop the cork, pour, and then you're overwhelmed by vinous goodness. This exact same quality is what makes soccer the great sport it is. The paucity of scoring is what adds such value to the goal when it finally comes...90-minutes of flat-out running, headers, slide tackles, the beautiful synchronicity of the wall pass and give-and-go, all in service to that one moment of fulfillment.

I could also mention the historic, relative lack of enthusiasm (until recently) for wine and soccer in America and the perceived dominance of Europe vs. America in wine and soccer (again, until recently), but the point is made.

Now either I'm right about this or I've been watching too many of my daughters' soccer games. I guess the real point is that, at least with wine and soccer, often much time must pass before the real special richness of each is obvious.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

New Wines Soon

I spent a very enjoyable last couple of days culling through our 2006 Ghielmetti Vineyard Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot lots. I take a glass and a plastic cup and a wine thief and my clip board to the barrel stacks and a taste a sample from each barrel, write notes and grade each wine. Depending upon how far along in their lives the wines are, I am looking for different things.

At this point with the 2006 vintage, I am tasting wines that are pretty close to being where we want them for release. And boy did I find some spectacular wines, too. In part because of the success of the La Rochelle project (with its multitude of small lot wines), but mostly because we now have the right vineyard bearing a wide variety of wonderful fruit, we will be releasing very small lots of wine for all of guests that particularly display varietal typicity, deliciousness, interest, and world-class quality.

I have had the growing sense lately that the decisions I have made regarding, especially, the amount of time some of our Bordeaux varieties spend in wood, need to be revised. Generally, we use a fairly high percentage of new barrels, and it has been our practice to keep Cabernet in barrel a full two years. For the first vintage or so of the other Bordeaux, the practice has been the same. After tasting through these lots, however, I have found some wonderful fruit characteristics showing through at 18 months in barrel that may not be there at 24.

Though we have wine making protocols, they are not recipes. Each vintage is different and requires modified thought processes to make successful wines from them. I think it may play out, however, that we see a more general move to reducing time in barrel (or a higher percentage of older barrels) for more of our wines. Later this year expect a single barrel each of Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Petit Verdot in the Barrel Room in both 750ml and magnum formats.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Lunch with my Daughter

Sometimes parents (ok, I'm talking about myself, here), make assumptions about what their children are going to like or what they might do when they get out of college. My father (5th generation) never talked to me about going into the family business, probably because I made no bones about my desire to do something else. Well, life took the turns it does, and I wound up back in the family business (can't imagine anything else now!). This is where my kids come into play.

It really isn't my nature to let things just happen, and, though I am trying to show enough of the business to them to get them really excited about the thing their dad does, I try to do it in as subtle a fashion as possible.

Good food is an important part of our lives, personally and professionally. And the opportunities I get to have a meal with one of my kids always end up being a wonderful time. My oldest child, April, who is studying Hospitality Management (concentration in Event Planning) is going to school at San Francisco State, and today we had lunch at one of our favorite City restaurants, Rose Pistola in North Beach (try the house cured sardines and summer truffle raviolos with sweet corn, pictures below).

April turned 21 a few months ago, and the wine education is now beginning in force. I can get excited when talking about wine and April and I talked about appellations in Europe vs. California, what grapes go into Chianti, Barbera in Piemonte vs. ours from Livermore...it was really fun (for me, anyway). The chance to express the wonder of wine to one of my kids is just an amazing experience.

Where this intersects with the larger wine world is in the personal-ness of the experience. It doesn't have to be one of my children, I feel a similar jolt every time I have the occasion to talk to someone who shares this passion that I have. I think what underlines everything we do at the Steven Kent Winery is the attempt to make a connection...the desire to make personal what so often is nameless and faceless. We have tried to make sure that all of our club members and guests feel, at least for a short time while they are at the Winery, that they are part of the family. We hope you feel this too.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Tasting the 2002 Smith Ranch Cabernet

Play the video for an update on the 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon, Smith Ranch

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Are We Losing a Generation of Wine Lovers?

Steve Heimoff, a very thoughtful, and talented wine writer with Wine Enthusiast magazine posted a new entry on his blog questioning the interest "millenials" (those folks under 30) have in wine. The conclusions he cites don't make the winemaker's heart sing.

Those cited claim that colorful cocktails have taken the place and the dollar that wine had 5 years ago. Our recent experience at Steven Kent belies this, however.

I have absolutely no evidence for this except for my own, often bleary, anecdotal observations, but I think the number of young people who have visited us in the last year or so has increased dramatically.

And I think the chief reason for this is the same reason that gives me hope that we are building a true, wine-loving culture in California: wine isn't that big a deal any more.

By no big deal, I mean this new group of people ( I hate those generational labels!) is the first that has seen wine as a regular part of their every day experience. Mom and Dad weren't celebrating an anniversary, they were celebrating surviving the day. They knew that the wine they chose would not only ease the cares but also make the food they were eating taste better. A shared bottle of wine was the vehicle for re-connnection, for new-memory making.

In this case, familiarity breeds comfort. As the under-30's (sorry!) find the beginnings of their careers and the income that goes with it, the natural consequence, it seems to me, is that they begin to find their wine legs. The underpinnings have been erected; now they place their own favorites on this framework.

Welcome to wine and to Steven Kent!

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Back to the Beginning

To find the killer of his father, Inigo Montoya follows the advice of fellow n'er do well, Vizini, and "goes back to the beginning."

To reclaim our Cabernet soul, we are going back to our original mission of focusing our attention on producing world-class, small-lot Cabernets that tell a story about a special place. While our production has never been large compared to more well-known brands, we will be concentrating a lot more energy in sucking the marrow from our Cabernet sites to provide the biggest small "wow" we can.

Beginning with the sold-out releases of our first two Premier Cabernet Collection wines (Ghielmetti Vineyard, Clone 4 and Smith Ranch, Clone 8) in November, our goal is to produce 4-5 Cabernets per year that our indelibly linked to a site and philosophy of winemaking. While the first two wines released this year number fewer than 30 cases in production, the PCC wines released next year will be in the 50-case range.

Smallness has its advantages. We strongly believe in a business model that favors the face-to-face transaction: we like to know who is drinking our wine and whether we succeeded in its production. We can't know this if we are producing thousands of cases of wine. We also like to be able to offer our club members and winery guests something unique and new each time they come to visit. Most importantly, though, is the ability to control more of the things that bear directly on quality.

Our goal has always been to produce Cabernet as great as any in the world. Going back to this original impulse, this first commandment, will give us the opportunity to succeed or fail.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Is California "First-Growth" Worthy?

The Wine Spectator's, Jim Laube, had an interesting take on the recent sale of venerable Napa winery, Chateau Montelena. After detailing some of the difficulties this particular brand has had (made even more glaring after all their early success), he concludes that many of the old superstar wines such as Mondavi Reserve Cabernet, Stag's Leap's Cask 23, Montelena's Cab, have seen their best days, and that, by implication, restoring their former glory is next to impossible.

In the past, there have been calls - mostly by wine writers - to create a classification system in California modeled after the 1855 classification in Bordeaux. The four wines that were originally rewarded with "first growth" status were the most expensive (equated, then, with quality) Bordeaux wines made. In the intervening sesquicentennial, only one change has been made to the the first growth rank: Ch. Mouton-Rothschild was moved from second to first in 1973.

Whether Ch. Montelena's (and Mondavi, and Stag's Leap) "fall" is a symptom of America's seemingly insatiable appetite for the next new thing, our still-young wine culture, or an indication of French inflexibility, it is hard to imagine a California brand achieving the consistent highest level of quality for as long as the French wines have.

One of the benefits of the American search for the new is the ability for a wine region like the Livermore Valley to be lifted, through the efforts of the truly dedicated growers and winemakers, to the highest levels of quality. America reinvents itself constantly. What was accepted wisdom for one generation is the peculiar footnote for the next.

Monday, May 5, 2008

The Making of Radius 3

Because of their adventurousness, our wine club members provide me the great opportunity to focus less on what the typical retailer/restaurateur might need from a wine and let my wine blending imagination go a little bit off the beaten track.

Many of our members have been with us for years so I keep one eye on reproduce-ability (if members liked a particular blend in the past, I want to be able to keep the option of doing it again as long as wine quality is maintained). I also keep one eye on putting together new blends so that we don't give our long-time members a reason for being bored.

So there are two eyes: one more eye on the small lot varieties that are available from our collection of wines at any given time, one eye on the required volume of any one variety to make just enough for the club's needs; four eyes on overall quality, and three more on my responsibility to make wines that exceed our members' expectations. And so we have Radius 3. The picture below shows my work table during one blending session, and the picture below that is of my notebook which hopefully captures a little of what goes through my mind as I am putting the wines together.

After 8 different blends, No. G was the wine that best expressed itself in terms of flavor, aroma, structure, and "aliveness." In August members of our Future Release Program will receive Radius 3, a blend of Cabernet (from 3 different sites/clones), Merlot (from 2 different sites), Cabernet Franc, and Syrah.

If you want to get in on the fun, please join the club.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Quality, Critics, and Wines for Those Who Know

A couple of fascinating articles and blog posts I read this morning have reverberated around in my head, knocking loose again these bedeviling personal questions.

What is Quality? How does the notion of a standard (with its implied underpinning of the "objective") of quality affect my business when the method of constructing that standard relies on mostly subjective inputs? How is the wine critic important to me and to those who love our wines?

My goal has always been to make wines from the Livermore Valley that are the equal in quality to wines made from any other appellation. The longer I make wine though, the more I come up against the ineffable, if not illusory, nature of the goal itself. In the larger world of wine, the standard for a variety's excellence is, at best, a confederation of opinions; the most important being that of the critic with the largest bullhorn at any given time. The bullhorn changes hands occasionally, and as it does, a new set of criteria for excellence seeps into the wine arena. Should our notion of quality then change too?

With experience and the coming to terms with what is really important in this adventure, the questions above become a bit more rhetorical. For the Steven Kent Winery, the only definition of quality, by necessity, has to be my own. Ultimately, every wine we release is the physical manifestation of a collection of decisions made by the Steven Kent Winery...everything from picking date to press date to yeast used to bottle chosen to artwork on label employed to how the wines are presented in our tasting rooms. The finished product is something we are proud of, that displays the maximum quality possible for that wine, that year. If we find enough people who feel that same way about it and the other wines we make, as we do, we might have a successful business.

Ultimately, I think this is the only kind of trade I want to be involved in...our efforts as a group
to make wine that hews as closely as possible to the personal vision we have of excellence in exchange for the passionate "yes" from those who respond the same way.

The real goal then becomes passionately making our wines as well as we possibly can for those wine lovers of like mind and heart. We'll leave it up to them to tell us if we've succeeded.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Child-like Awe

Every year it happens. Centuries have gone by, hundreds of vintages, thousands...you know it will happen, you even know about when it will happen, but still...there's a moment (when the first buds break and infuse your dormant vineyard with a living energy) of child-like awe.

Well, here it is.

On March 26th, bud break occurred on our HRV Sangiovese block, and was followed a couple of days later by Barbera and Cabernet. Though there really isn't any first step in this circle of life (cue the music!), bud break is generally acknowledged as the beginning of the growing season. From the buds come the shoots that serve as the nutrient bearing architecture for the fruit that will set in another month or so (depending upon the variety, of course).

In the next six to seven months fruit will set, shoots become canes; we will drop unripe fruit, thin leaves and canes, take numerous fruit samples testing for acid and sugar levels; we will move wires, harvest fruit, press and ferment. All these things, we've done before; they've been done for millenia...but it starts now, and it is inspiring.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Better Driveways Make Better Wines

Sometimes it is the little things that can have the largest and most important impact. And while the addition of a couple of thousand square feet of concrete doesn't make the world safe for democracy, it sure can improve the overall experience our guests can have.

Years of waxing and waning potholes led us to pave the entrance and part of the exit to our two tasting rooms. We hope that over the course of the next couple of years the entire roundabout will be similarly beautified.

Being a small company requires constant choices in how we spend our very limited resources. I think we finally have a handle on barrels and fruit sources (more important to the wine making process perhaps, but only a part of the entire equation), and it came time to make another quality statement.

From the very beginning, I have believed that ALL aspects of our winemaking and winetasting regimen need to be as perfect as possible to create the best possible experience. And though our wines have made a lot of friends, the entrance to our facility set the absolutely wrong tone for what was to come. Too often it takes too long to set the wrongs right. We've made a first step.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Magic in Every Bottle

Mike Steinberger has an interesting post on Slate.com about his experience with the 1947 Cheval Blanc, seen by many as one of the greatest wines ever made.

I asked my father, an industry vet with 40 years of Bordeaux-drinking experience, if he had ever had this wine, and he recounts this story:

In 1969, my first trip to France with Dick Buck, Tom Keating and Sid Canal, Sid and I ended out trip in Bordeaux where he had set up some tours. We spent most of the day with Michael Broadbent at Mouton tasting 27 vintages of Mouton from the '29 on up. We left about 3PM starving, and drove to St Emilion. We were sitting outside at this little restaurant on the top of this knoll and tried to get something to eat. The restaurant was not yet open for dinner but the proprietor agreed to get us some cheese and meats. We asked for the wine list and there was a '47 Cheval. It was, however, $20 a bottle and we were on a very strict budget. After agonizing we decided , what the hell, at that setting we had to order it. In hind sight I doubt that there could have been a better time or place to have the first '47. The day, for a wine drinker, could not have been better and the '47 was very interesting. A big giant wine much like today's Cabs. but not seen back then. It was very controversial back then for it's difference.
It was never my favorite as I grew up with standards like the '45 Mouton but it was fascinating. We had the wine maybe a dozen times since that day. it was always extremely interesting, delicious and unique but never my favorite, except for that one day in St Emilion.

My dad's story of that first bottle confirms one wine-related truth (perhaps the only one!) It's rarely ever really about the wine. It's about the experience...the people you are with, the setting, the moment in time seen through a prism of green, bottle-shaped glass.

Wine has the power to evoke; like Proust's madeleine, to bring back the past. There is potential magic in every bottle of wine, then. Not just a Cheval Blanc, but the most ordinary of village wines, too.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Mushrooms and Feet...

I had the good fortune recently to be invited by Kathleen Ventura and Dennis Lapuyade of Bar Cesar restaurant in Oakland to taste a selection of Burgundies for potential inclusion on their wine list. I brought along a couple of Pinots from our sister brand - La Rochelle - for kicks.

The tasting was fascinating for a couple of reasons; the most obvious of which is that I don't really anything about Old World wines. I commented to one of my partners, Phil Tagami, that the Burgundies (representing a number of Domaines and the 1991 - 2003 vintages) required a whole different vocabulary than CA and OR wines do.

My notes included comments such as mushroom custard, crab bisque, mint jelly, feet.... Even more to the point, these French Pinots have a shape to them that is very different from our own wines...much more austerity when young, a wonderful bracing acid that runs completely through the wine, and an emphasis on non-fruit aromas and flavors.

I enjoyed the wines, didn't love them, not like I love Pinot from the Santa Lucia Highlands or the Umpqua Valley of Oregon. Our wines (I mean New World here) have a vibrancy and exuberance to them that is missing from Burgundy. The French wines may have been more interesting in an intellectual sense (it's more fun than you think to separate the feet from the crabs) but they were not nearly as viscerally satisfying as the younger, more opulent Cali wines.

Thanks Dennis and Kathleen for letting me learn a lot more about the other wine world and for sharing the fantastic food at Cesar (which includes, at their Berkeley location, the greatest french fry I have ever had). BTW, my favorite Burgundy of the night was the 2001 Nuits St. Georges, Clos des Corvees Pagets, Robert Arnoux.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Purity vs. Accessibility

I was at the Winery last week putting the final touches on the blend for a Grenache release for our club members later in the year (the wine will be called Symmetry, the label for which is at right and was created by Emma Alexander). I had gone into it thinking that I would probably add a bit of Syrah to the blend to round the wine out some, give it a touch more softness and a bit more fruit.

As I tasted through the 10 barrels of Grenache and picked the 7 or 8 I liked the best (I carry a little tape recorder with me and voice my notes on each barrel then transfer the info to an Excel spreadsheet...each barrel gets an A-F grade as well), the issue of varietal purity vs. a wine's accessibility made for lively conversation between me, Claude Bobba, and Brad Buehler (two winemakers at Wente Vineyards).

The 8-barrel composite blend of 100% Grenache (this is the first one we have produced) made a wonderful wine...delicious upfront notes of vanilla-tinged berry and citrus, a long, well-balanced finish. What made the wine unusual, apart from its unique fruit palette, were the quite obvious and sturdy tannins that came on like gangbusters on entry and persisted throughout the wine.

The addition of 12.5% Syrah softened the early tannins and rounded the mid-palate as I thought it would. This wine was also wonderful.

So here we are...two very different wines, both delicious; one more singular than the other, and requiring more open-mindedness perhaps...the other, still varietal, more likeable, but less interesting, maybe.

We have made our decision regarding the final blend, but I don't know if it's the right one.

What's more important to you...exposure to NEW wines that are interesting and delicious but may be a little too different or a wine that prizes comfort over differentness?

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Does it Suck Getting Old?

The Wine Spectator's James Laube posted a conversation (subscription needed) with Bill Harlan of Harlan Estate on his blog recently that had to do with the ageability of his wine.

Many of the commentors on the blog seemed offended that a wine as expensive as Harlan, with the kinds of ratings it has received, was not necessarily made to age.

Notwithstanding my personal feelings about the quality of the Harlan wines, the comments made me revisit the question of a wine's ageability. Below is the comment I made:

The question of ageability fascinates me. When did a wine's ability to age become so closely related to its inherent quality?

It would first seem that enough wine drinkers had to accept that the qualities of older Cabernet-based wines were "better" than those of the "younger" wines for that criterion to attain its level of importance.

Then it would seem that this group of wine drinkers would have to agree that the same criterion for quality that is appropriate for Bordeaux should be used for California Cab, which, to me, is more unlike Bordeaux than it is like it.

Bordeaux, I understand. The wines were lower in alcohol/higher in acid, more tannic, less defined by fruit than California when young so their charms needed time to be revealed...I get that.

But using a Bordeaux paradigm to qualitatively describe California doesn't seem particularly useful to me. Nor does being beholden to this arbitrary criterion for quality. There is nothing objectively fine about aged wine; this is a "truth," which like most things wine-related, is a function of fashion.

Then again, maybe I am just hopelessly obtuse and am trying to re-capture my own fleeing youth in each glass of fruit-bombish Cali Cab.

Am I hopelessly obtuse? Or on the right track? Let me know what you think.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Getting to Know You...

My greatest fantasy, still, is riding the 1 line in New York and seeing someone reading my novel and being able to ask if she liked it.

At this rate the book will be done in about 25 years and I'll be too old to get down the subway stairs, but I do have the honor of learning pretty immediately whether we are doing a good wine job or not.

This past Saturday we released Fiore della Vita, an estate-grown Barbera to members of our Collector's Circle wine club at a party to commemorate the wine's debut. 177 club members joined us and I got a lot of valuable feedback.

Our Club members are truly the foundation of our business. For a small winery like ours, there is too little love in the wholesale end of the business...and I mean that literally. One of the most valuable things we can know is if we are creating the right kind of experience for those most enthusiastic about our wines. In the "broad market" the only real indication of "success" is getting another order from your distributor, but even then, you don't have any real sense of how the wine drinker feels about the wine...what pleasure, if any, it gave him.

Every day our club members and guests to the winery teach us more. Every day we get the opportunity to take the bad with the good, face-to-face...and do better the next time. And in a business setting, where real connections are hard to make, this is best kind of interaction we can have.

So, keep it up, make us better...let us know how we can provide an extraordinary experience for you.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Death of the Twinkly Grapes

Twinkly Grapes

Aug. 2005 - Jan. 2007

January 4, 2008 marked the end of the twinkly grapes out on the Steven Kent Patio. Done in by wind gusts that neared 50 mph, our hardy twinkly grape lights twinkle no more. Twinkly grape lights...we hardly know ye...

The first major storm of the year dumped 2.6 inches of rain from January 3 -5 on our estate vineyard, uprooted trees, and destroyed the tent that covers our patio. Livermore averages about 11 in
ches of rain a year (our weather station recorded a total of 5.36 inches in our vineyard), getting half of last year's rain in one three-day period is pretty awesome (in the inspiring awe sense).

In a larger sense, the change agents are everywhere. In this case it was Mother Nature who caring not a whit about our goings-on, had an action plan of her own. It might be the economy, changing wine tastes, a bad review...a good review; whatever the cause, for small businesses like ours, limberness in the face of mutability is no vice.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Honest Right Back Atcha!

Probably, this should have been part of our first post...but if we do this blog-thing right, we will be able to give you more clarity about the wine-wise progress of our Valley, some of the behind-the-cellar-door stuff, some of what makes this such a great biz; and you'll tell us when it's good, and -more importantly- when it's not. And if we do it even better...this thing will morph into something completely different and even more interesting.

So, let us know what you think; what you like and don't like about our wines, wine in general, your experience at Steven Kent...whatever's on your mind. We'll be honest right back atcha!

What It has to do with Wine

In December, among other things, we sold the following items from our Tasting Room...
  • Bling Tee - Long Sleeve (1)
  • Bling Hat (1)
  • Hot choc-Creamy (1)
  • New Tree Big Bar (1)
I don't have any idea what a "New Tree Big Bar" does or what flavors it comes in or what need it fills...and that's the point. It is really hard to predict what part of what we do is going to resonate. Everyone's taste is different...everyone will get something a little different from his or her experience here at the Winery. Though we may have intended a right turn and got a left instead, hopefully you get out of it something a little bit better or a little more meaningful than the right turn down the road.

By the way, this is a "New Tree Big Bar" ------------->