The most important concept in great wine: the winemaker

Mark Vlossak of St. Innocent Winery
Mark Vlossak of St. Innocent Winery
Mark Vlossak

Of the five most important facets of wine--terroir, vintage, appellation, wine producer, and winemaker--the last is arguably both the most and least important. The winemaker is the most critical factor in what comes out of the bottle, yet all winemakers are at the mercy of Mother Nature. In this final post in the Wine 101 blog series, I'll talk about four important aspects of the winemaker's art and offer recommendations of wines that illustrate each point.

I will argue that the winemaker is the most important element in the sense that given the same terroir, vintage, and appellation, one winemaker can outperform others on a yearly basis. For example, Manfred Krankl from Sine Qua None commands the highest prices of any producer from the Sta. Rita Hills AVA, yet works with many of the same vineyard fruits as other winemakers.

Bad Vintage No Problem Mark Vlossak from St. Innocent Winery in Salem, Oregon, is in the heart of pinot noir country. The year 2007 was a challenging vintage as cool temperatures blanketed the Willamette Valley and grapes struggled to ripen. Rain also dampened spirits, and the lack of sun forced many growers to pick unripe grapes in fear of losing the crop to rot. Vlossak decided to gamble and hired pickers early to pull off any and all leaves that would block sunlight to shine on the grape clusters. He also waited to pick until the rain stopped and sunlight reappeared, allowing grapes to increase their sugar levels enough to make good wine. This experienced winemaker gambled and was rewarded with wines that far exceeded his fellow producers. Other than Bergstrom, no one made better wines in 2007.

Available at Artisan Vineyards website.

2007 St. Innocent Winemaker's Cuvee Pinot Noir $43 Medium purple with aromas of raspberry, floral, cherry, and spice. Not tannic, with mild oak, vanilla, floral, cherry, and forest floor on the palate. Medium finish. Enjoy with salmon. 92 points 2007 St. Innocent White Rose Pinot Noir $52 Medium purple. Amazing aromas of floral, cranberry, good funk, and clay. On the palate this is tasting great now with white pepper, roses, cherry, spice, and cranberry. Medium finish and flavors bouncing all over the place. 95 points

Mass Production Meets Quality Wine At most parties you'll find a sea of mass-produced wines that have only a bit more flavor than water or a bitterness that can't be offset by any cheese. But one mass-produced wine I love is Columbia Crest Winery out of Washington State. Ray Einberger has become a legend in the industry and has been Columbia's head winemaker since 2002. Few in the world can deliver quality across the board like Columbia Crest, and it is the largest producer in Washington State. One advantage the Columbia Valley has over Napa and Sonoma is that the cost of land is significantly cheaper and the weather is more consistent on almost every vintage. On average the area gets between 6 and 8 inches of rain a year.

Columbia Crest has four lines of wines that are priced right and that outperform almost every other producer's in each category. The Two Vines series sells for under $8 ($6 on sale), and almost 70 percent of the wines are oak barreled. Its Grand Estates line sells for $11 ($7.99 on sale at most shops), and all of their cabernet sauvignon, merlot, shiraz and chardonnay are oak barreled, which adds complexity and aging potential to the wines. All 10,000 cases of the Grand Estates Chardonnay are hand stirred on a weekly basis, offering a wine that would rival most California chardonnays at $30. The Reserve line is the most impressive, and it sources fruit from some of the best terroir in the Columbia Valley. These wines are all aged in oak for two years and should be cellared for five to 10 years after release for the purest enjoyment. In 2005 the Columbia Crest Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon won the prestigious Wine Spectator Wine of the Year Award. You can find the Two Vines and Grand Estates lines at most retail shops, but Big Top/Sid's carries them all at $5.99 and $9.99 respectively.

2008 Columbia Crest Grand Estates Chardonnay $9.99 A nice wine with oak, spice, pear, and apple on the nose. A concentrated wine with a bite and medium finish. Enjoy with crab. 88 points

2007 Columbia Crest Grand Estates Cabernet Sauvignon $9.99 Dark color with dust, cherry, plum, spice, and oak on the nose. On the palate it is a balanced wine of fruit and earth character. Medium finish. One of the best cabernets you will find for under $10 89 points

Also try the Vineyard 10 Series under the Two Vines label. Some of the best juice for the money!

Not Enough Shelf Space Trying to break into the U.S. market is tough for any winemaker but even more so now. Australian wines in the '90s and into the new millennium were the go-to wines for quality and price, but with competition from South America, Italy, and Spain they are struggling, especially on wines over $25. Tim Smith, winemaker and owner of Tim Smith Wines, handcrafts some of the best Australian wines, but due to competition and lack of shelf space for high-end Aussie wines he has struggled to break into the U.S. Even the wine geeks are not familiar with his wines and tend to drink Mitolo, Amon-Ra, Kaesler, and Torbreck, which have marketed more in the U.S. Tim has to be creative in finding an importer to get thousands of cases into the U.S. His 2005 TSW Reserve Shiraz is a top five wine on my 100-point scale.

2005 Tim Smith Wines TSW Reserve Barossa Valley Shiraz Top five of all time with dark color. On the nose truffles, cedar, black pepper, and blackberries. The palate is off the charts, with depth and concentration few wines can match. The mark of a great wine is the finish, and this goes on for over a minute of pure joy. Could be 98 points over time. 97 points

Cooperative Making Old-School Wines Usually when I hear "Cooperative" attached to wine I am not eager to sample the juice, but in the case of Rocca Sveva the wines meet all expectations. This cooperative makes old-school Italian wines out of the Veneto appellation. Winemakers Paolo D'Agostin and Filippo Pedron produce wines via traditional means while keeping the price lower than many competitors. Their Valpolicella Ripasso (process) is a unique wine in which their winemakers create the Valpolicella wine but add the lees (coarse sediment that accumulates during fermentation and aging from Amarone wines) into another barrel for two to three weeks. The lees really adds complexity and color to the regular Valpolicella wine, and Ripasso will appear on the label. The Rocca Sveva Amarone is the star wine and is at a lower price point in the spectrum of Amarone wines. This wine is made with the corvina, rondinella and molinara grapes and goes through an extensive process. The grapes are handpicked and set out on drying racks for three months. The grapes are affected by botrytis, or "noble rot," and lose around 60 percent of their water. From there everything is temperature controlled and closely monitored to create one of the most unique wines in the world.

Rocca Sveva in the Veneto
Rocca Sveva in the Veneto
Rocca Sveva

Available at Thomas Liquors, St. Paul.

2007 Rocca Sveva Soave Classico $13.99 A refreshing summer wine with floral, orange peel, apple, and nut character. This gets better as it warms up in the glass. 88 points

2007 Rocca Sveva Ripasso Valpolicella Superiore $19.99 Floral, cranberries, and minerals on the nose. The palate is superior to the nose, with sweet cherries, cranberry, blueberries, minerals, and floral. Medium finish and easy drinking. Pair with red meat. 91 points

2004 Rocca Sveva Amarone della Valpolicella $59.99 Medium purple. Intense nose with floral, minerals, coffee, and blueberries. Rich and concentrated on the palate with amazing structure. Complex finish and long. Sample with aged cheeses or wild game. 94 points

In future blogs you will of course see great winemakers featured from around the world.


John Glas Wineglas

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