A weekly radio show and podcast all about the business, science and pleasure of wine. Our guests are the all-star team of the most interesting and influential winemakers in the business, who bring in their favorite wines for tasting. There are always interesting stories behind each vintage and each guest, all in a relaxed, down-to-earth atmosphere.
Don Chigazola Brings Five White Wines from Italy
Don Chigazola is back on California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon and Dan Berger. He is an Italian wine merchant. His company, Chigazola Merchants, imports small lots of fine Italian wine from small family producers located all over Italy, which he sells mainly through the Chigazola Merchants website, to his subscribers. Some wines are also in a few top local restaurants, by the glass.
Don describes how he made the transition from a career in the tech industry to setting up his company. He would go on vacation to italy and sample their great wines, most of which are never imported to America. He would come home and look for them, but he could not find the selection and quality he knew from Italy. So, he set up the company to look for good deals on the best wine. He finds small family producers in the country’s many wine producing regions, and he selects his favorites among them to establish a business relationship.
Dan Berger agrees that there are many great Italian varietals that deserve our attention, that simply do not arrive upon our shores. That’s why Chigazola Merchants has such an important role in the market here. There are great varieties that people here have never heard of, and will never find away from Italy.
Here is the recording that shows the pronunciation of these Italian wine and geographical names, from Sonia Maspero, an Italian broadcaster expert in languages, food and beverages. Grazie Sonia!
Dan says that the key to their success is to monitor the quality all the way from bottling to shipping, in cold containers. It's a complicated process. 200 years ago Don’s ancestors immigrated to America from Genoa, Italy, arriving in to New Orleans, which was the other early center of Italian immigration apart from the northeast.
The first wine they taste is Passerina, it’s bright, fresh, young, elegant with aromatics and a very delicate fresh fennel element with a bit of celery on top. Very bright with no oak, balanced, beautiful acidity to go with just enough alcohol. It’s labeled as 13.5 but feels like less.
The winery is about two kilometers from the beach. Passerina is grown strictly in the Marche, which is the region on the Adriatic coast, along the middle of the peninsula.
Every region has its famous wines. Piedmont is known for Barbera and Barolo, Tuscany is known for Chianti, and central Italy is known for whites. Don's wine club members have been asking for more and more white wines lately. Dan Berger thinks it's because there is too much sameness in Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc in the US. There is some Pinot Grigio which usually isn’t very interesting. The Italian whites grow on you, they all have character of their own.
The same family produces the next wine, a Pecorino. It shares a name with sheep’s milk cheese, because the grapes grew in the mountains where shepherds brought sheep up into the mountains every summer. The sheep and shepherds ate the grapes and the grapes got their name that way.
Don Chigazola has many great stories about friendships made among the families and winemakers. One story of a family in Montemiletto, in the province of Avellino, in the inland hills. There is an old Norman castle there. Don found the piazza in town, in the afternoon, where the local men were congregating. He asked them who made the best local wine and immediately he got a flood of suggestions. He asked them about the De Santis family, whom he was going to visit, and they all said their wine was first rate. So before he even went to the winery, “we had the endorsement of the park bench.” Later, they family got him a private tour of the castle.They also taste the Pecorino, also from Paolo and Carlo Petracci at Cantina Madonnabruna. Dan says it has a very faint hint of dried pineapple. It is great now and could get richer after a y...
Justin Seidenfeld winemaker at Rodney Strong
Tom Simoneau has brought two guests on to California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon and Dan Berger today from Rodney Strong Vineyards. They are Head of Winemaking Justin Seidenfeld and Director of Communication Chris O’Gorman.
Their story begins 55 years ago when a celebrated American dancer, Rodney Strong, retired to wine country after a career dancing on Broadway and in Paris. He was a famous dance prodigy from Washington state. He was asked to bring American dances to the Parisian audiences and he fell in love with wine when he lived in France.
When Rodney Strong planted the Chalk Hill vineyard in 1965 there were 300 acres of Chardonnay in California in 1965. Then he planted 100 acres of it and truly, the rest is history.
Tom Simoneau remembers when he first came to California in 1978 and was playing music at the time, he lived in Healdsburg and they had a big band house Fitz Mountain where they would rehearse. Then they would drive down to their tasting room and taste through everything. This is when he got into wine. Rodney Strong passed away about ten years ago but remained active at the winery into the 1990s even after the Kline family purchased the winery.
Wine Enthusiast’s American Winery of the Year in 2013. Justin Seidenfeld is only the third winemaker at Rodney Strong Winery, the first was Rodney Strong and the second was Rick Sayre.
First they taste a Rosé of Pinot Noir that Justin calls an “intentional” Rosé, meaning that these grapes were grown and harvested just for Rosé, earlier, like 20-21 brix. They have watermelon and strawberry components, jasmine, and lower alcohol. Dan Berger explains that some Rosés are made from juice bled off the red wine tank, which makes a stronger Rosé. This wine, on the other hand, is more like a white wine with a bit of color, more delicate and fragrant than other Rosés.
They have a new label which is part of their rejuvenation project. They have converted to screw caps which have a lot of advantages. They find that their consumers appreciate. Dan Berger explains that the kind of liner in the cap determines the OTR Oxygen Transfer Rate for the wine. They still use cork for the big reds though. “Comitted to Community since 1959” is their slogan. They have always supported the arts in Sonoma County. They are not going to do the big Summer concert series but they are working on a smaller scale Americana concert.
Next they taste the 2019 California Chardonnay which has evolved over the years. Now they are looking for cool climate vineyards, to get the tropical character, and the Sonoma County grapes compliment with their flavors, like green apple. Dan says it’s meant to be enjoyed immediately. Like the Rosé, Steve finds it unique. Tom says this one might take an award away from some more expensive Chards. It is creamy, rich and tangy.
Justin Seidenfeld declares his philosophy that, “The wine is made in the vineyard” and that if there is one term to define his wine, it is balance.
Tom Simoneau tells about a Cabernet Sauvignon he is making called True Love, that he and his wife Brenda picked and made.
They taste a 2019 Petaluma Gap Pinot Noir, from the newest AVA in Sonoma County. This AVA is truly distinguished by its climate. This is the most southernly vineyard in Sonoma County, on the top of a hill about 275 feet elevation.
Cameron Hughes, De Négoce
Cameron Hughes joins Steve Jaxon and Dan Berger on California Wine Country today. He is a wine merchant, following more or less the business model of a négociant in France. He buys bulk wine for a low price and sells it to retail customers through De Négoce, his label and sales company. (The company name is French for "of the trade.")
California produces so much good wine that not all of it finds a buyer. Dan Berger agrees the wine is really high quality wine that simply doesn’t have a home. Cameron Hughes has been doing this for about 20 years. He built a concept called the “lot concept.” He sold that company in 2017. Cinergi was his previous brand. Then in 2019 someone offered him 100,000 gallons of 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon at a really good price and he felt he had to get back into the business. He finds wines that he can sell for 80% below their normal retail price.
En Primeur is the French name of the early buying period in French wineries. (This is also done in Italy, la vendemmia. -ed.) Dan Berger says the difference is that Cameron Hughes has a fabulous palette so customers can trust his choices will turn out well.
Mondavi used to have the slogan, “We’ll sell no wine before its time,” spoken by the great Orson Welles. Cameron Hughes has reversed that and says, “We’ll sell a big chunk of the wine before its time, because it’s what I do.” They did over 90,000 cases of wine in the last year. The website store has launched. Last year, the wine wasn’t even bottled. The earlier you buy in the cycle, the lower the price. They are tasting a Viognier that would sell for about $25 and Cameron Hughes sells it for $8. Since these wines are so young, consumers should cellar them for a while. Cameron agrees and says the need to keep them for a while is the tradeoff for getting a $25 bottle for $8.
California Wine Country's sponsor Bottle Barn is where Wine Country buys its wine. Bottle Barn can ship wine to most states.
Cameron Hughes grew up in Modesto, California and went to high school "with the Gallo kids" and his dad worked for Gallo then for The Wine Group. His first job was to collect and dump old out-of-code wine. He got a sales job in the wine business where he could build up his personal cellar. There used to be a 40% discount given among people in the wine trade, but that’s no longer done. Then he put a brand together and made a sale to Costco that started Cameron Hughes Lot 1. He sold that company and went into the high-end steak business, but was tempted by the wine business again and now has also started De Négoce.
They taste a Chardonnay that Dan Berger says, “…leans in the direction of Chablis” so if you don’t like fancy oak Chardonnay, this will be your taste. It will age for 10-12 years. Now they taste a different Chardonnay, in a different style. It’s a richer, more opulent style. It is 14.2% alcohol, from Russian River Valley. It retails for $95, from a world-famous winemaker. But De Négoce is able to sell it for $20. Dan Berger says that is outrageous. There is a character in the fruit, it is less tropical and more citrus. It leans to a lime-flavor and fresh grapefruit component. There is another Chardonnay to taste. It comes from high up the Mayacamas Mountains, in Sonoma County, about 2000 feet of elevation. Part of the De Négoce business is that Cameron Hughes can not disclose exactly where the wine came from or who made it.
Next is a Sonoma Mountain Cabernet, made by a husband-and-wife team. The vineyard is called Pickberry Vineyard on Sonoma Mountain. It is very young and needs time in the bottle. Dan says it’s hard to tell how long to keep it because it is so young you still get primary fermentation characteristics in it. He would put it away for at least a year. Cameron and Dan agree that the 2018 Vintage of Napa Cabs is a great year.
J Lohr Vineyards presented by Tom Simoneau
Tom Simoneau is in today with two guests from J Lohr Vineyards & Wines, Steve Peck, director of winemaking, and Kristen Barnhisel, director of white wines.
Dan Berger has brought a 2010 Morgan Sauvignon Blanc from Monterey. Dan Morgan Lee makes this wine, he likes the distinctive flavors of valley floor, green pepper, cilantro, parsley, all the green flavors. Dan finds it fascinating and reminisent of 70s and 80s style wines. In ‘95 or ‘97 we started seeing the New Zealand wines which taught us to appreciate the herbaceous flavors. Tom Simoneau would never guess it is as old as it is. Dan explains that its primary characteristics are green, herbaceous. Sauvignon Blanc is not like Chardonnay in any way, which is floral and has citrussy componenets. This is herbaceous. Kristen likes the aroma profile, there is a little dried lime on it with the sweet herbs, very Monterey County. The underripe grapefruit flavors are also part of this.
Steve Peck tells how Jerry Lohr planted his first vineyard in the Monterey Arroyo Seco in 1972 and the original winery is in San Jose. They have dedicated wineries, one in Monterey where Kristen makes Chardonnay. They started making Paso Robles Cabernet, which has become the variety that has made their reputation.
Dan says that the acidity carries the J Lohr Chardonnay. There are flaors of creme brulée banana peach. They’re about 20 miles south of Monterey. They pick at night. They have about 9 different clones of Chardonnay, which gives it its complexity. Dan says the mid pallette acidity carries a bit of under-ripe pineapple and with time, maybe 3 years from now, this wine is going to explode. Tom is getting pepper and oak together, maybe for the first time ever. Steve Peck describes the Riverstone Chardonnay that they are tasting. It is all barrel aged and also barrel fermented. It’s about 25% new American oak and malolactic fermentation.
Some American cooperages made “too much easy money” in the whiskey barrel business, to concentrate and specialize in wine barrels. There are French cooperages opeating in the US with American oak and Steve likes to use them. Dan agrees.
The next Chardonnay is a 2019 Arroyo Vista Chardonnay, their reserve Chardonnay and an ode to Burgundy, as Kristen describes it.
There is another winemaker, Brendan Wood, who looks after their red wines, he has been with J Lohr for 17 years.
Dan Berger tells the story of when Jerry Lohr brought several of his winemakers to Australia in 2006, for the Australian technical winemaking conference and they were the only Americans visible there. Dan agrees Jerry was dedicated to quality. He donated to UC Davis and to the winery at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
They are proud to be part of the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance and to put the authenticity stamp on every bottle.
The 2018 Hilltop Cabernet Sauvignon is next. It’s a blend of three ranches in higher elevation spots and cooler spots, for Cabernet. There is a bit of Petit Verdot in it. Tom Simoneau notices a little herbal quality in it. Steve describes the intersecting of the flavor profiles in his blends. He recommends a splash decant, to get air onto it.
Ross Halleck from Halleck Vineyard
Ross Halleck of Halleck Vineyard joins Steve Jaxon and Dan Berger on California Wine Country today. They begin tasting a 2019 Gewurtz from Halleck Vineyard which just won best of class in the North Coast wine competition. It won a gold medal and Dan Berger was on the judging panel. Ross Halleck likes Alsatian white wines, which he got to know while living in Kenya as a young man. The merchant class at that time was primarily Indian. He grew up on Italian food in Illinois but in Kenya, the restaurants were Indian and he discovered those flavors. They liked to serve Gewurtztraminer. Ross calls it a dry Gewurtztraminer, as it has no sugar. Amber fell in love with Gewurtztraminer when she found that it had floral fruit-forward flavors that the likes about red wine.
Dan Berger says this is a style of wine that is very hard to make. He says it is partially red, pink in the late season. As time goes by on the vine, the red skin color comes out, signifying tannins. That can make the wine bitter. Rick Davis make sure the grapes are not pressed heavily, so the juice is not bitter and keeping the alcohol as low as possible. "It's a very tricky process."
They also taste a 2017 Pinot Noir from Halleck Vineyard. This is the variety that Halleck is best known for. "It's always a fabulous experience..." Rick Davis, the winemaker, gets flavor and aromatics before color, and the wine is pale, that's the Russian River Valley style. Ross calls it garnet or ruby color, Dan Berger says it's perfect Burgundy color. It's not a "fruit bomb" wine. Dan Berger says it is really elegant, and that's what good quality Burgundy is about.
Next they have a 2017 Three Suns, which Ross calls their "handshake wine" which is priced such that it can be sold by the glass at restaurants. It brings people to their door. They sell exclusively to their wine club, and 10 or 15% of their product goes to selected restaurants in Sonoma County, San Francisco, New York and Chicago.
Ross Halleck talks about how difficult 2017 was, with the fires. They did not have smoke issues because the fires happened after harvest, and the vintage was ideal, like clockwork, with bud break in early March and 6 months on the vines, no issues with mold or mitigation. We now know that you've got to harvest these Russian River Valley Pinot Noir grapes early. Their crew did not show up on the morning they needed to harvest and so they had to do it themselves, which was very hard work.
This Pinot Noir comes to the pinnacle of quality, in Dan Berger's estimation.
Alan Baker of Cartograph Wines Returns
Alan Baker of Cartograph Wines returns to California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon and Dan Berger. He has been on this show before, the last time was here, on January 8, 2020.
First, they taste a bottle from Dan Berger's cellar, a 2017 Chardonnay from New Zealand, which was fermented in a concrete egg. It’s the first one made in New Zealand ever, made by a master concrete expert. With the shape of the egg, the fermentation forces the liquid to rotate itself. You don’t need human intervention to mix it. It is an unusual wine. It is very Bergundian, has an earthy funk, and a tropical fruit note, a bit like pineapple. It comes from Tony Bish Wines in New Zealand. It has 13.5% alcohol. It comes from Hawk’s Bay, a cooler region on the North Bay, known for its Cabernet Sauvignon.
They launched the Cartograph brand in 2010 with a Pinot Noir and a dry Gewurtztraminier. They specialize in Pinot Noir and dry Riesling. They do a little rose and sparkling once in a while. Alan Baker worked for Minnesota Public Radio as a producer and recording engineer. He followed his interest out here in 2005, got a foothold here working and moved to California. He has gone to UC Davis to take some classes but doesn’t have an enology degree.
They taste a 2019 Riesling from a vineyard near Marin county, where it’s cold and wet. Dan Berger says it's one of the best Rieslings he has ever tasted. It's about 12.4% alcohol. This wine has "sensational" aromatics, from the long hang time on the fruit. There is a trace of apple, but like a jazz apple, spicier than the usual apple. This Riesling has a trace of sugar and a trace of acidity and both are playing against each other at once, back and forth. Dan says that Riesling reflects its region better than any other white wine grape. It's nice and dry but offset by a tiny trace of sugar. Alan says that's the joy of Riesling. Across the sweetness spectrum, there is still the zip of acid and dryness.
The Cartograph logo is a stylized globe, with five points on the globe that are important to them and their journey with wine. Cartograph is doing personal virtual tastings with wine club members.
Dan Berger says that the Bottle Barn Riesling selection is excellent.
Dan and Alan love Riesling and can’t stop singing its praises. Alan: "It's just such a magical grape. It's the greatest wine grape on the planet." Dan says he has some 30- and 35-year-old bottles of Riesling. The first plantings of grapes in Germany were done by the Romans but most of the grape varieties had trouble with the climate. After hundreds of years, they found that the Riesling was the one that did the best with the least amount of effort. Dan has been on Riesling vineyard properties in Germany that are so steep that you need to hold on to a steel cable to walk around. Steve asks, what about the sweet Rieslings? Alan says the sweetness is a stylistic decision but also depends on your weather, if it’s warm, you will have to stop the fermentation short, so it’s not too strong. Dan says there is almost no limit to how long you can age a good Riesling, which can last 10 or 15 years.
Cartograph Wines does outdoor tastings, roughly at 11, 1 and 3. See the site for details.
Now they taste a Pinot Noir. The knock on domestic Pinot Noir is that it doesn’t age. But Alan says if you make it properly, you may get a good result with age. This is silky, flavors of roasted beets, a taste of pomegranate in the nose, and a spice component like ripe cherries. At first it was fruity. As it ages it has shifted toward truffle and mushroom. Later in its aging it will shift back to its honeysuckle stage. Dan says once it has had two hours of air, it won’t get any better with more time before you drink it.
They taste a Pinot Noir called Leonardo Julio. Julio (“Giulio” in Italian) is a Gallo, his grandfather is L
Glad I found another wine podcast
I'm always looking for interesting wine podcasts that have regular update schedules. I enjoy the hosts' banter and enthusiasm. The guests are more Napa focused and hope they can invite more winemakers or professionals from Sonoma and the North Coast. I also like that they take show notes seriously and provide good descriptions and links discussed during the show.
Stick to wine!
Just listened to the 12/23/2020 Wines of the Year podcast. As usual, the awards went to outstanding wines.
I just wish you hadn’t closed with unnecessary political commentary.
While many people are glad to see the change, not everyone is gleeful about the prospects for the next four years.
Stick to wine!
Duke of Barolo
I'm a longtime listener to this radio show and I'm really glad that it's a podcast too now. If you like great wine or are just curious, this pod is for you. Just listening to the people on this show is an education. People spend a lifetime accumulating this knowledge and making wine and they come on this show and just tell all about it. I love listening to winemakers explain what they do, how and why they make the choices they do.