Nerello Mascalese of Mt. Etna

“[Nerello Mascalese] is to Marcello Mastroianni as John Wayne is to Cabernet.” Alberto Graci, Graci Winery, Passopisciaro, Sicily

The beating of the windshield wipers fought to keep up with the pummeling rain, and I could hardly see through the glass as I slowly inched my rented car along the deserted road at dusk. I saw a small arrow-shaped sign on the right side of the road and came to a complete stop a foot in front of it, trying to read between wiper strokes. I was almost sure that it said “Firriato,” and so I followed the arrow’s direction and turned on a long narrow road, drove through an open gate, and eventually climbed a steep natural stone drive up to a small village.

Etna DOC

My mission here: To explore the Etna DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) wine region and to find out what was percolating on Mt. Etna, other than the still-active volcano.

I could see a courtyard and a ground-lit path on the other side, leading through vineyards to an elevated structure, glass walls proudly displaying the inside of a stream-lined tasting room begging for my approach. Comfortable in the warmth of the tasting room, I ordered a flight of their wines: Firriato’s Etna Bianco DOC, Etna Rosato DOC and Etna Rosso DOC. It was my first tasting of the local wines, and I had waited to try them until I was actually on Mt. Etna.

I’ll skip right to my favorite part of the tasting: Etna Rosso DOC. The Etna DOC correlates to a region in the northeast of Sicily, a crescent-shaped area that wraps itself halfway around Mt. Etna. Etna Rosso consists of Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio grapes indigenous to the area and often grown on vines that are 100-plus years old, vines miraculously saved from the Italian phylloxera of the late 1800s to which so many Italian vineyards fell victim.

The small, round grapes with thick, almost black skins, make unmistakable Burgundian-style wines often compared to Pinot Noir. On Etna, they are grown at high altitudes and cultivated with the alberello (“small tree”) training system to keep each vine’s grape yield minimal for maximum flavor expression.

One might assume that the roots of these vines would be exceptionally hearty to grow in the hardened lava of Mt. Etna, but the opposite is the case. The porous lava rock and soil make it easy for vines to penetrate. And vines grown in this lava earth give their grapes a definitive mineral flavor unique to volcanic regions.

Minerals, climate, and the Nerello grapes culminate in wine that has wine critics cheering. Three of the winemakers best utilizing the ancient vines and indigenous grapes of Etna DOC are Graci, Cantina Benanti, and Tenuta Delle Terre Nere.

Nerello Mascalese

At the Graci Winery in Passopisciaro, Sicily, I spent some time with the owner, Alberto Graci, walking his Contrada Arcuria vineyards and touring the old wine-making apparatus still on display but unused, at his newly modernized winery.

Graci is so enthusiastic about the potential for Mt. Etna indigenous grapes that he became the vice president of the Consorzio di Tutela dei Vini Etna that covers 300 hectares of Etna DOC. He shares challenges and new ideas with his fellow Consorzio members so that they can — as a group — produce higher-quality wines. He tends and nourishes this local association of Etna wine makers with the same sort of care that he heaps upon his grapes. And that care should bear fruit; Graci’s wines have won acclaim from the world’s top wine connoisseurs (93 points, The Wine Enthusiast, 2014).

The Nerellos growing together in the Graci vineyards
The Nerellos growing together in the Graci vineyards

During my visit, Graci described the Nerello Mascalese aptly when he laughingly quoted Piedmont winemaker Angelo Gaja, replacing Gaja’s “Nebbiolo” reference with “Nerello Mascalese”:

“Cabernet is to John Wayne as [Nerello Mascalese] is to Marcello Mastroianni. Cabernet has a strong personality, open, easily understood and dominating. If Cabernet were a man, he would do his duty every night in the bedroom, but always in the same way. [Nerello Mascalese], however, would be the brooding, quiet man in the corner, harder to understand but infinitely more complex.”

While the Etna DOC fan focuses on the Marcello Mastroianni grape, most winemakers combine it with its cousin, the Nerello Cappuccio. Nerello Mascalese is the wine’s dominant partner since it must be at least 80 percent of the blend to qualify as Etna DOC. Wines made with Nerello Mascalese have a dark red fruit character with herbal and mineral notes. Full-bodied and sweet, Nerello Cappuccio adds a bright ruby color to the blend. The combination produces wine with structure and elegance, the hallmark of Etna DOC wines.

Nerello Cappuccio

But if Nerello Mascalese is the Marcello Mastroianni, the Nerello Cappuccio is his oft-overlooked understudy. Cantina Benanti owns most of the roughly 20 hectares of Nerello Capuccio in Sicily and is one of the wineries producing straight up Nerello Cappuccio as well as straight-up Nerello Mascalese. Because Etna Rosso DOC requires a minimum of 80 percent Nerello Mascalese, Nerello Cappuccio is not Etna Rosso DOC, but Sicilia Rosso IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica).

Benanti Tasting in the Vineyard
Benanti Vineyard Tasting

If you visit the Benanti vineyards in Viagrande, Sicily,  the first part of the wine tasting takes place at a wooden table set in the middle of the vineyards. The final tasting was presented inside the main house at a dining table filled with cheese, olives, honey, and charcuterie as a fantastic backdrop to the highly acclaimed wines.

And, let’s not forget about the vineyards. Throughout the Etna region, Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio grapes grow interspersed together in non-linear vineyards. This growing structure makes for breathtakingly beautiful terrain, like Benanti’s vineyard on an old Roman cemetery and Tenuta Delle Terre Nere’s untamed hillsides. Now when I think of Etna vineyards, what comes to mind is the Nerellos, with their little black grapes hanging like jewels from ancient, gnarled vines, growing in the shadow of a percolating volcano.

ETNA WINES:

Tenuta Delle Terre Nere’s Etna Rosso DOC 2014 “Santo Spirito” $58 available at Backroom Wines, 1000 Main St., Napa, (707) 226-1378.

Benanti Il Monovitigno Nerello Cappuccio Sicilia IGT 2013, $33.99, available at Flatiron San Francisco, 2 New Montgomery St., San Francisco, (415) 780-1405.

Layne Randolph,  Napa Valley Register, February 2017 

Hess Collection: World Class Wine Experience

As it so often does in all aspects of life, art sets the scene at The Hess Collection Estate on Mt. Veeder in Napa Valley. Founder Donald Hess’s art collection began when he bought a painting as écor for his new home. Years later, a friend studied the painting and informed him that he owned a Picasso. That gave Hess his first inclination that he might have an eye for art curation.

In 1978, when Hess established The Hess Collection Winery, formerly the Christian Brothers – Mont La Salle Winery, he purchased approximately 1,000 acres on Mount Veeder but committed to only plant a third or less to grapevines. The mountain and its wines pulled him in, but he fell head over heels for the beauty and history of the estate.

He made offers for years before the Christian Brothers finally relented and allowed him –
not to purchase the historic winery built in 1903 – but to lease it for the long term. He then began remodeling buildings, landscaping, and updating winery equipment. He built a new tasting room and added the 13,000 square-foot art gallery, housing pieces from his collection. Four decades later,
Donald Hess formally retired and handed the reins to his daughter and son-in-law, Sabrina and Timothy Persson, the next generation of Hess family whose goal it is to protect Donald Hess’s legacy while advancing The Hess Collection as one of the premier family-owned and family-led wineries in Napa Valley.

In 2014, a 6.0 earthquake hit and caused significant damage to the winery and the original stainless steel tanks in the largest cellar, resulting in the loss of 20,000 gallons of wine. After recovery, the Hess Family eventually unveiled a new and improved winemaking facility— Lions Head Cellar. A giant dented wine tank that the earthquake damaged stands tall at the entrance of the new cellar, like a winemaker’s Tower of Pisa.

The winery withstood Mother Nature and evolved into a wonderland of experiences for connoisseurs of wine and art. Today, Tim and Sabrina Persson continue to share and grow the art collection, which is outstanding by anyone’s standard. Wine and culinary experiences include a wine and chocolate pairing that is one of the most decadent in the Valley. Chef Chad Hendrickson fills Swiss cacao chocolate truffles with a variety of ganache flavors, like cassis, violet, marshmallow, coffee, olive oil, vanilla, and balsamic vinegar. He expertly prepares farm-to-table wine luncheons and cheese pairings complemented with unique artisan touches like slices of persimmons he’s hand-dried for months.
Weather permitting, the “Vine to Table Excursion,” an ATV ride through the vineyards with stops for tastings, is not to be missed. The views from high on Mount Veeder are stunning.

If the wines weren’t so stellar, one might get lost in an overload of beauty and history. The world-class Hess Collection wine portfolio provides the motivation to trek up the mountain and spend a day
tasting and perusing the sculptures, paintings, and installations. It’s hard to imagine what could be better than topping off this extraordinary tasting and gallery tour with a delectable wine and culinary experience on their wisteria-covered courtyard on a gorgeous California day.

Layne Randolph, Napa Valley Life Magazine, April 2020

Healdsburg: A Food Lover’s Paradise

Known for its Norman Rockwell charm juxtaposed with world-class wines and the finest restaurants north of San Francisco, Healdsburg is a must-stop as you make your way through picturesque Sonoma County. It’s laid-back yet surprisingly sophisticated, a condensed, poetic version of Napa Valley, and it’s situated right in the middle of three diverse wine appellations.

“I grew up near here, and I’ve watched Healdsburg go from just a tiny town in a farm community to a top destination spot in Sonoma. It’s not as well-known as Napa, but that only makes it more special to me,” says Lila Brown, Events Coordinator with Lambert Bridge Winery in Dry Creek Valley.

Daily life centers around a town square named one of the “Most Beautiful Town Squares in the US” by Travel & Leisure in 2013. The Plaza, as the locals refer to it, does more than provide a community gathering place, it links the town’s hot spots, and there are many. For foodies, it’s hard to beat Healdsburg for options.

EATERIES FINE AND FRIENDLY

SingleThread (www.singlethread,com) brings a fusion of Sonoma County farm-to-table and Japanese cuisine. It’s the first restaurant in Sonoma County to receive three Michelin stars, and it’s done so for the last two years, presenting intricate eleven-course meals from produce grown nearby at their SingleThread Farm. An artist’s attention to detail comes through in every presentation, not just in the food harvested from their farm, but also in the décor, ambiance, and impeccable service. You’ll need reservations far in advance to score a table, and if you’re staying the night, SingleThread Inn is on the second level, with a lounge and bar on the rooftop.

If outdoor dining is your thing, Bravas Bar de Tapas (www.starkrestaurants.com/stark-restaurant/bravas-bar-de-tapas) has a magical patio with twinkle lights, a menu of sangrias by the glass or pitcher, a Spanish tapas menu, and outdoor paella parties on Fridays, when a chef prepares a massive pan of paella in front of the crowd. Dry Creek Kitchen(www.drycreekkitchen.com), a Charlie Palmer restaurant, offers an outdoor dining area facing the Plaza, affording great people-watching views.

Two brothers with a passion and a dream own the restaurant Valette (www.valettehealdsburg.com), one working the room up front and the other working as a chef in the back, making to-die-for dishes like Scallops en Croûte with caviar and champagne beurre blanc.

If you want a pro to show you the lay of the land, Savor Healdsburg (www.savorhealdsburg.com) provides gourmet food and wine walking tours of the town. Its Owner and Head Foodie, Tammy Gass, laughed, “People are always amazed that owners are cooking in the restaurants and pouring wine in the tasting rooms, but still stopping by to chat and tell their story.”

At Journeyman Meat Co. (www.journeymanmeat.com), Winemaker Pete Seghesio brings his family’s century-old tradition of salumi and sausage making to Healdsburg, with a boutique Italian Salumeria that has received national attention from USA Today and Wine Spectator. You might find a line of locals stopping in, picking up a wood-fired pizza to go, or couples huddled together over glasses of wine and a charcuterie board. After dinner, stop by Noble Folk Ice Cream & Pie Bar (www.thenoblefolk.com), an old-fashioned ice cream and dessert shop with ice cream flavors like almond-cardamom. It’s a small, hands-on shop, that usually has a line out the door and down the sidewalk.

EXPLORE NEARBY WINERIES

Healdsburg is at the epicenter of three world-class American Viticultural Appellations (AVAs). Just a few minutes outside town in any direction, estates and tasting rooms dot the rolling hills of vineyards wrapped around two-lane country roads. Russian River Valley offers internationally famous Pinot and Chardonnay, Dry Creek Valley is renowned for some of California’s best Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc, and Alexander Valley boasts voluptuous Cabernet and Merlot.

This is a casual, bring-a-picnic type of wine region, and many wineries have outdoor areas perfect for sharing lunch over a bottle of wine. If that’s your thing, head northwest into Dry Creek Valley and stop at Dry Creek General Store (www.drycreekgeneralstore1881.com) to stock up for a picnic lunch.

Once in Dry Creek Valley, stop at Unti Vineyards (www.untivineyards.com), a boutique winery famous for Italian and Rhone varietals. Down the road, Trattore Farms (www.trattorefarms.com) produces both wine and olive oil, and during harvest season, you can watch the annual olive press then take home some of the freshest, purest olive oil you’ll ever taste. 

Lambert Bridge Winery (www.lambertbridge.com) is famous for its Bordeaux varietals, and with its beautifully manicured picnic grounds and three outdoor wood-fired ovens, it’s ideal for a picnic. After a tasting, sit outside with a bottle of their Burgundian-style Chardonnay.

Out of town in the other direction, take Westside Road to Flowers Winery (www.flowerswinery.com). With vineyards on the Sonoma Coast, Flowers offers its exquisite Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in a magnificent tasting room, aptly named the House of Flowers. If you’re partial to bubbles, you’ll find Iron Horse Vineyards (www.ironhorsevineyards.com) down the road and at a higher elevation, offering some of the most spectacular views in Sonoma County. Iron Horse’s renowned sparkling wine has been served at the White House multiple times.

THINGS TO DO

There might not be anything better than meandering pedestrian-friendly Healdsburg. Although small, it’s packed with wine tasting rooms, artisan bakeries, antique markets, and specialty shops. Pop in Bon Ton Studio (www.bontonstudio.com) for boho-chic housewares and clothing, or peek inside the tiny Healdsburg Public Library (https://sonomalibrary.org/locations/healdsburg-regional-library/about-healdsburg-regional-library), housing one of the most comprehensive collections of wine information in the world.

TASTE OF THE TOWN

As you wander, peek your head inside a few tasting rooms and sample the offerings. Portalupi Winery (www.portalupiwine.com) brings a bit of Old-World Italy to Sonoma County. Italian winemaking ancestors sold wine from barrels straight into jugs that customers brought back to fill over and over. The Portalupi family honors that tradition today with Vaso di Marina, one-liter bottles that can be brought back and refilled on site.

Banshee Wines (www.bansheewines.com) is a hipster lounge serving wine flights and small bites like crostini with goat cheese and fig jam, and on the other side of town, stop in Idlewild Wine (www.idlewildwines.com) and taste 2017 The Bird Flora and Fauna Red, which was rated Editor’s Choice and #37 of Wine Enthusiast’s “Enthusiast 100” in 2018.

“New visitors come here for what they think is a day trip, then start canceling other plans so they can stay longer,” said Tammy Gass, “I tell them to come back—and stay awhile next time.”

Chase Cellars

Katie Hayne Simpson, one of the owners of Chase Cellars said, “We gave our babies a huge haircut this year, and it wasn’t easy.” She was referring to the 117-year-old Zinfandel vines on the property her family has owned for almost 150 years. “Their arms were breaking off, and we needed to retrain them, and redirect the energy to the right places.”

It’s uncommon to find vines that old and vineyards that have been owned by one family for that long in Napa Valley. It’s truly a historic vineyard, so a little trepidation in pruning the vines is warranted. Chase Cellar’s St. Helena property epitomizes post-Civil War Napa Valley. The original family members who owned the land, William Bowers Bourn, Sr. and Sarah Chase Bourn, owned the Empire Mine, which was the largest hard rock mine in California. They purchased the vineyard in 1872, thus beginning their involvement in the fledgling wine industry. By 1889 they’d built Greystone Cellars, now home to the Culinary Institute of America.

With this amazing pedigree, it’s impressive that the family has kept the vineyard and residence much as it was when originally purchased. Today, William and Sarah’s great-great-granddaughter, Katie, lives in and runs daily operations from the cottage her family used over a century ago as a country retreat from San Francisco. The vineyard name Hayne comes from Katie’s great-grandmother Maud (daughter of William and Sarah), who married William Alston Hayne.

This boutique winery at the base of the Mayacamas mountain range is an unpretentious symbol of Napa Valley heritage and a hidden gem that pays homage to a time of life lived at a slower pace. A visit to the winery is a unique opportunity to walk amongst some of the most storied vines in the valley. The first sip of Hayne Vineyard Zinfandel can captivate the heart of the most avid Cabernet collectors, but perhaps that’s because the wines have been handcrafted by winemaker Russell Bevan since 2014.
Katie attributes much of the label’s success to Bevan. “He’s a true artist, coaxing and developing flavors unique to each site he works with, allowing a sense of place to come through each wine.” Katie refers to him as “a Rockstar who’s elevated the entire portfolio.”

Bevan explained his role as a “personal and passion project with the intention of crafting the most elegant Zinfandel in the world.” Jeb Dunnock of JebDunnuck. com recently awarded Bevan’s 2016 Hayne Vineyard Reserve Zinfandel with 97 points. The truth is in the land, the voice of the vineyards, and the stories they tell throughout the generations. A tasting under the olive grove goes beyond Zinfandel and may include a balanced, beautiful, distinctly California blend of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah, Sarah’s Petite Blend, named for Katie’s mother. Be sure to visit the winery in harvest, and taste berries of 117-year-old and 30-year-old vines side-by-side.

According to Katie, the entire team operates the Chase/Bourn/Hayne family legacy “with a sense of joy and pride,” which is almost palpable in the vineyard, as they encourage visitors to touch the old vines, and share the family’s deep history in Napa Valley.

Layne Randolph. Napa Valley Life Magazine, June 2020

Reviving the Ghosts

As wine regions go, Napa Valley is quite new to the world stage and thus considered part of the New World of wine. Still, its history is rich with the stuff of classic dramas: struggle, success, near defeat, and ultimate victory.

In the late 19th century, thousands flocked to California for the Gold Rush. Many of the miners settled in San Francisco and eventually started new ventures north of the city – planting vineyards. The original Napa Valley wine boom occurred between 1860 to 1890, when more than 140 wineries were operating in the area. The region was booming, wineries were winning international awards, and more and more land was being planted to grapes. But a series of events over the next decades almost killed any hope for the California wine country as we know it today.

Some of the misfortune wasn’t unique to California, or America. Phylloxera, a vineyard disease that had wiped out vast expanses of European vineyards, hit America, effectively killing decades of vineyard growth and closing many wineries. It’s estimated that phylloxera destroyed more than 80% of Napa Valley grapevines by 1900.

Just beginning to rebound from this episode, The US passed the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, making illegal the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors, within the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof, from the U.S. …for beverage purposes”—what we know as Prohibition.

Although most wineries shuttered their doors over the next 14 years, those wineries that managed to stay in business during this time grew rich.

The Volstead Act provided loopholes to Prohibition, excluding wine used for religious purposes, and homemade fruit juice for personal use – up to 200 gallons per year. Two of the oldest wineries in Napa Valley found a way to succeed in this period. Beaulieu Vineyard survived prohibition by negotiating an exclusive deal to supply wine to the churches of the San Francisco diocese, and Beringer Vineyards utilized the Volstead loophole to make wine for religious purposes too.

Inglenook, now owned by Francis Ford Coppola, survived Prohibition by selling wine grapes directly to consumers when operations ceased. Other winery owners sold grapes, grape juice, and raisin cakes to make a living. But the great majority of wineries and vineyards ceased to operate.

By the time the Act was repealed in 1933, only about 40 wineries had managed to survive. Hundreds of wineries were left abandoned as “ghost wineries”, but over the next 100 years, some of these were restored to their former glory, and many still exist. These wineries make up some of the oldest in Napa Valley and are some of the most iconic and revered properties today.

Far Niente is one of California’s oldest wineries and listed in the National Register of Historic Places. It was shuttered during Prohibition and remained abandoned until it was restored in 1979. Charles Krug Winery was founded in 1861 and became the first commercial winery in Napa Valley, and the first public tasting room in California. The winery made it through Prohibition before being purchased by Cesare Mondavi in 1943. It took almost a decade to make the property operational again, and it remains one of the oldest wineries in Napa Valley.

The Napa Valley offers more than world-renowned wine. The region’s incredible history has made it what it is today, and the modern-day presence of ghost wineries is a constant reminder of how far it’s come.

Layne Randolph, Inside Napa Valley, July 2019

You Say Rosato, I Say Rosé

Technically, it’s the French who say rosé; the rest of us have adopted their usage of the word. It’s right that we use the French version; France is the indisputable land of rosé wine. From Côtes du Rhône to Provence, rosé has been a French favorite since long before its recent boom in popularity.

Scoffed at for decades, rosé hasn’t gotten a lot of respect from the typical wine drinker since it went out of fashion in the 1990s. That’s why, when I lived in the Salento region of Puglia, Italy almost ten years ago, I was surprised to see people drinking the pink stuff. “They’re drinking pink wine?” I thought, “How gauche.”

They called it “rosato,” but I knew what it was—cheap, sweet swill.

Boy, was I ever wrong.

Leone de CastrisRosato from Puglia, and especially Salento, is often raspberry pink, which suggests a “sugar bomb.” But much of the rosato comes from the Negro Amaro grape, which translates as “dark and bitter.” Instead of a sweet flavor profile, these rosés are surprisingly savory, dry and full-bodied. My favorite thing about the Salento Rosato is the minerality contributed by the saline air, water, and soil of the peninsula.

Although the color connotes a lesser quality rosé to many, the bright or darker rosés can be more interesting than the pale rosé of Provence, although the pale versions are the current It-Girls of the wine world. There is room for every type of pink wine–the preference largely depends on the cuisine, climate, and taste of the drinker.

Some producers make rosé by blending red and white wines to create a pink wine, but this is not common, and it’s illegal in some places. It’s also common practice to use the saignée method to bleed-off juices during red wine production.
 
However, purpose-made rosé is the creme de la creme. The process involves the direct pressing of dark-skinned grapes, leaving the skins in contact with the juice for a few hours to a few days. The longer they are in contact, the more intense the color of the wine.

My opinion on rosato has evolved in the years since I’ve left Salento. Now when I see someone drinking rosato/rosé, my reaction is, “They’re drinking pink wine? Where’s mine?”

Rosato from Puglia, Italy

Leone de Castris in Salice Salentino makes “Five Roses” – the first Rosè produced and bottled in Italy, and according to the estate, the first sold in the U.S. Bright cherry-red with notes of strawberry and rose, Five Roses is primarily Negro Amaro, with 10 percent Malvasia Nera di Lecce. Its name comes from the odd fact that several generations of the de Castris family had five children.

Cantele Wine’s Rosato Rohesia, made from the winery’s flagship Salice Salentino Riserva of Negro Amaro, is a robust, fresh and flavorful wine with hints of pomegranate and flint.

Tomaresca in northern Puglia makes Calafuria, a crisp and elegant Rosato of Negroamaro grown on their vineyards along the Adriatic Coast. The Tuscan wine dynasty Antinori owns Tormaresca and other wineries around the world, including two in Napa Valley (Stag’s Leap and Antica).

Layne Randolph, Napa Valley Register, August 2017

James Suckling: Building His Brand

James Suckling believes millennials will change the way the world approaches wine. The members of his small staff of innovators are all under 30, and he relies on them heavily to influence the look and feel of his brand.  These days, James Suckling does more than write wine reviews, he produces wine-related documentaries, puts on international wine events, and collaborates with luxury designers to create new products for the wine industry.  

James divides his time between his homes in Napa Valley, Tuscany, and Hong Kong.  Napa Valley is the site of the premier wine scene in the US, so it makes sense that he has a base there.  He lived in Tuscany for over 10 years as the Senior Editor and European Bureau Chief of Wine Spectator – Italy is like a second home to him.  But Asia? He says it’s the most dynamic place for wine now, and it’s also the place where he spends the most time.  He’s holding his signature events like “Great Wines of the World” in Hong Kong and Beijing.  He’s working on [an undisclosed] deal with the Ministry of Agriculture in China.  And he’s possibly their best wine ambassador when he says things to journalists such as, “The future is in Asia.”

I suppose considering Asia as the wine frontier isn’t surprising when you realize the conglomerate luxury brand owner LVMH is now making wine on the border of Tibet.  In fact, their wine, a Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet-Franc, and Merlot blend – is the first Chinese wine that won over James.   

James is no stranger to the luxury world.  When in Italy, he lives on the Ferragamo Estate in Tuscany, and he collaborated with the family to create a leather wine briefcase to hold bottles and glasses.  He partnered with Lalique to make the “The 100 Points Collection” of crystal wine glasses.  The handmade briefcase and Lalique glasses combo retails for up to $8,500.

But these are his side projects, not his mainstay.  He’s focused on sharing his wine knowledge in every way possible.  “I didn’t spend 25 years in the business not to share it,” he says.  He began his post-Wine Spectator career with a website designed to offer wine education, as well as to critique wines. 

He wasn’t wowed by the experience. He quickly found that people were reluctant to pay for content because so much information on the internet was free, and he struggled with the rampant copyright infringement he battled.

Then Mike D. Diamond, of The Beastie Boys, told him that copyright infringement had caused his iconic band to go back on tour instead of selling music. This inspired James to do the same with wine.  The millennial wine event was born. “My goal is to host the best wine events, and to attract younger consumers who want to have fun and taste interesting wines.”

He’s brought a new approach to wine events.  He has a traveling DJ, Australia’s Surahn Sidhu, who was with Empire of the Sun for several years.  Sidhu’s music lends a fresh vibe to the events and crowds have been known to start impromptu dance parties–not exactly your average wine-tasting. 

These days, his event business takes up the greatest proportion of his time.  This year alone there will be “The Great Wines of Italy” event in four US cities, and the “Bordeaux Confidential” in Hong Kong will host barrel tastings from barrels shipped overnight from Paris to Hong Kong.

Other than global wine events, he’s keen on Napa.  “I’d like to taste more [Napa] wines and pinpoint some more of the [best] new producers.  And, I’d like to host ‘Great Wines of Napa Valley’ either this year or next – in either NYC or Hong Kong.” 

James believes there is an exciting movement happening with American wines.  He’s working on a documentary titled “American Wine Revolution,” which looks at “how wine began in America, all the way back to the pilgrims.”  It will be his third documentary.

He says that American wine companies tend to cater to the American market, which is not the same as catering to the global market.  “American palates tend to like super fruity, big, muscular wines,” he says, “which are less popular outside the US.”

But he sees that changing. “I left the US in 1985, then I started tasting American wines again in 2005-2006, and it was crazy how the style had changed.  [In 1985] people were picking at such high potential ripeness, and the wines were so alcoholic. Now, there’s more of a concern for drink-ability.”

The trend to the non-jammy, lower alcohol wines is promising to James.  He notes that “internationally those wines aren’t as coveted as they are in the US, they’re just too heavy.”  But he says that many of the top American winemakers are now making wine in the European-style. 

In fact, these days he’s so pro-American that he named the 2013 Opus One the global wine of the year in 2016.  “I gave it a perfect score.  2013 was a great vintage, the wine is great, and you can buy it around the world.  And that was exciting as an American, to be able to have an American wine as Wine of the Year for JamesSuckling.com.”    

Layne Randolph, Inside Napa Valley, Summer 2017

Tormaresca

“The Tormaresca project began with the dream, now a reality, to discover and enhance the precious native varietals of Puglia, leading the wine renaissance of the region.”  Tormaresca Website

We actually cheered when we finally saw a building in the distance.  We had been driving for hours across Italy from Rome and in the last half hour, we had seen very few signs and only one indicator of our goal: Tormaresca Winery, in the Castel del Monte DOC in the southeastern tip of Italy known as Puglia.

The Tormaresca estate is almost as remote as Tasca D’Almerita’s Regaleali in central Sicily, which sees purposely hidden, and both are well worth the trip.  We parked in what we later found out was the back of the winery, and searched on foot for five minutes to find the entrance.

Wines of Tormaresca
Wines of Tormaresca

Tormaresca is owned by the centuries-old Cantinetta Antinori in Tuscany, Italy which has been in business since 1385.  Antinori bought this property in 1998 to add to its stable of properties.  In 2009, Antinori added Masseria Maìme in Salento to the Tormaresca family.  We decided to visit the original Bocca di Lupo estate in Minervino Murge for a tasting.

There are certain wines from Tormaresca that are renowned throughout Italy.  Among these is Tormaresca’s Masseria Maìme 2012, a pure Negroamaro awarded Tre Bicchiere by Gambero Rosso; Fichimori, a flavorful Negroamaro meant to be served cold; and Tormaresca’s Aglianico 2010 which garnered a 93+ from The Wine Advocate.

Our degustation had some real standouts: the 2015 Calafuria Rosé made from 100% Negroamaro has the slight salinity which is so prevalent in Salento Rosé, a gorgeous peach-pink color, and peachy aromatics.  The Masseria Maìme was the star of the show with its rich, dark cherry and anise aromatics and smooth, elegant finish.

Tormaresca Degustazione

JCB Tasting Salon and Atelier by JCB

JCB Tasting Salon in Yountville, California.

Jean-Charles Boisset is known as a winemaker with inimitable style, and he’s curated some of his favorite things and put them on offer at the JCB Tasting Salon and Atelier in Yountville, California.

And the glamorous and decadent JCB tasting salon is not your average tasting room, either.  The room sparkles as brightly as the JCB bubbles, punctuated by a glorious chandelier over a gigantic extended table in the center of the room.  The myriad of gilded mirrors hung upside down on the ceiling set off the scene, including the Surrealist Boutique glimmering with fine luxury products such as JCB’s custom designed jewelry and L’Agent Provocateur lingerie (yes, you read that right).  It might take a moment or two to adjust yourself to the sensory overload  – and I suggest you have a glass of bubbles while you do.

JCB Tasting Salon in Yountville, California.

Jean-Charles Boisset

JCB comes from a French wine-making family in Vougeot, Burgundy where he grew up learning the business before he brought his skill, taste, and savoir-faire to Napa Valley.  He owns several wineries in the area and JCB Tasting Salon and Atelier is his latest venture and he has pulled it off with aplomb.

Atelier by JCB

Atelier by JCB in Yountville, California.
Atelier by JCB in Yountville, California.

The Atelier houses a highly curated choice of cheeses, meats, and other gourmet products that originate from Italy, France, and other prime spots for gourmet food, including Northern California.  There is no way you can leave JCB without making a purchase in The Atelier – it’s just all so tempting. 

The Wine

A lower caliber wine might get lost here, but instead, the wine – and especially No. 69, a Brut Rose based exclusively on Pinot Noir – accentuates the sumptuousness surrounding you.  Or does the room accentuate the wine?  Either way, it’s a gloriously unforgettable wine-tasting experience.

The JCB Tasting Salon and Atelier by JCB are open daily from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. at 6505 Washington St, Yountville. For tasting reservations or further information, contact them at (707) 934-8237 or at www.jcbcollection.com.

Atelier by JCB's display of gourmet cheeses from around the world.

The Baths of Bormio

Bormio, just south of the Swiss border and smack in the middle of the Italian Alps just a few hours from Milan. The natural hot springs of the area have been in continuous use for thousands of years and are now contained in a lovely resort called the Bagni di Bormio, (the Baths of Bormio). Pliny the Elder was already going on about their beneficial properties back in the first century A.D. And throughout the ages, Leonardo Da Vinci, European royalty and the like, regularly flocked here to “take the waters”.
The Hotel Bagni Vecchi (Older Bath Hotel) is a smaller, cozier, and more traditional Valtellina mountain style hotel, while the Grand Hotel Bagni Nuovi (Grand New Baths Hotel) on the other hand is a sumptuous mid-19th-century Victorian extravaganza, replete with grand dining and dancing halls and Murano glass chandeliers throughout.
Both were built around the terme (natural hot springs), meticulously preserving the original Roman baths but also enhancing them by adding a subterranean spa that boasts modern cedar saunas and mineral water Jacuzzis. The trump card of the terme is an outdoor Roman thermal pool perched up against the mountain that looks out over the ski slopes and picturesque Alpine valley. Add to this the charming town of Bormio itself and it comes as no surprise at all that the Bagni di Bormio has been popular for a very long time.
Layne Randolph, The Italian Notebook