Thursday, December 31, 2009

Perfect Timing

Whew! Finally… a new blog. Some of you might’ve wondered why you haven’t heard much from me lately. Well, there was no catastrophe. At least, I don’t think it’s catastrophic… There’s a reason, a very good reason. It’s just that I’ve sort of --uh, gotten myself swamped, flooded, snowed under, buried alive -- or putting it more mildly -- tied up, held captive, imprisoned, hanged! In other words…I started a winery.

Which doesn’t mean that I didn’t drag my wife Lois into being tied up, held captive, imprisoned and hanged right along with me. To quote Bugs Bunny, “Ain’t I a stinker. Hee-hee-hee.” I must say, this crazy endeavor would never have happened without her enabling and not insignificant heavy lifting. Our first label and current release is a stunning 2007 Russian River Valley pinot noir called Rosalynd. To many of you familiar with my mystery, “The Good Life, A Chris Garrett Novel” also a 2007 vintage by the way, the name Rosalynd will come as no surprise. She’s that captivating character that Chris Garrett chooses to dally with so amusingly throughout the book, having a great deal of feminine grace and personal beauty, but I’ll get to more about Rosalynd and my pinot in a moment; back to my story.

Starting a winery in 2007 couldn’t have been more perfect timing. The wine business as a whole was experiencing an all time high; more Americans were drinking more wine and buying wine at higher prices than ever before, and as a consequence vendors and vineyard sources, if you could find any, were understandably also jacking up prices to the straining point. Meanwhile custom crush opportunities (that’s the term wineries use when their facility is being used to make other people’s wine), again if you could find any available for dreamers like me wishing to join the wine business, were priced more like voluntary muggings -- the only difference was that the wineries weren’t carrying a gun. There also seemed to be an endless supply of new recruits with the same dizzy dream as me lining up to get mugged. Then as everyone knows we had the Great Recession… but I get to more of that later too.

The idea for starting a winery began in earnest in the mid 1990’s. I was writing movie scripts freelance in Hollywood, fighting the wars so to speak, and bloodying my nose and bruising my forehead trying to break into that very closed and cloistered cottage industry. I diligently pounded away at it though, writing 29 screenplays, all the while trying to cope with deranged producers and duplicitous contacts, and discovered that I was drinking a lot of wine to compensate. Wine I was beginning to realize was a lot like writing, the more I learned about it, the more fascinating it became. I soon was reading everything I could find on the subject, even tracking down rare tomes on the art and craft of winemaking held at the venerable UC Davis wine library (which is a hell of a resource on all things wine related for those who might be interested). I was also discovering that reading and drinking wine was not enough, I was itching to get my hands dirty, and I started whipping up batches of wine at home and volunteering as a “cellar rat” at wineries.

One day, after a particularly sour phone call with a surly movie producer, Lois asked me what I was going to do once all this hard work and persistence paid off and I landed my glorious Hollywood whale -- the million dollar movie deal -- and I said, “Why, I’ll buy a vineyard and make wine!” She then cut to the chase, “Why wait, if that’s what you really want to do?”

It was an epiphany. I had been traveling to Napa Valley regularly in recent years in pursuit of ever more perfect fruit for my own winemaking, and truth be told, soaking in the beautiful scenery and the equally beautiful wines. And I had made some friends along the way. One in particular, a flamboyant raconteur named Dave Harmon, founder of the internet portal, who had a vineyard in the Los Carneros region of the valley, had just started a new winery called Carneros della Notte. I had purchased pinot noir grapes from him the last couple years and had helped him bring in the harvest. Maybe Dave had more "cellar rat" chores and could use a hand, for an idea had come to me. Why not put my vocation and avocation together and write a book about wine. Or more precisely, write a mystery about a winemaker that takes place in Napa Valley. It would be the perfect way to learn the ins and outs of the industry and maybe along the way I might figure out how to start my own wine label. So I put the idea before Dave, and since he had recently started a wine distribution business as well, had plenty of work for an eager “cellar rat” to do and put me to work.

A New Winery is Born

Working for Carneros della Notte was a fantastic opportunity, I not only got to see how a small winery gets born and totters up on its feet, but I also got to learn what it takes to make stellar pinot noir. Dave opened up his whole business to me and in doing so opened up the whole Napa Valley. I got to participate in all aspects of the business, from clean up chores to sales trips around the country pouring wine, from wine blending in the cellar and maintaining the vineyard to meeting with the press. I even finished my novel. I had to write most of it from 4AM - 7AM to get it done, because I was so tired at the end of the day from all the physical labor. But the idea for my own wine business had never dimmed. The question was, how to make it happen.

I knew I had gained the knowledge to make great wine and start my own label. I had only one problem as I could see it, how exactly to pull it off. Starting a wine business is more than just an idea. It takes a combination of study, sweat, luck, money, persistence, patience, hard work, more money and a great vineyard source to pull it off. Did I mention how much money is needed? Good God, between the government agencies coming out of the woodwork with new fees or taxes or old fees that were on the books but not collected, or the economic downturn, or that you have to finance three or more vintages before having anything to sell, the wine business can feel like some kind of voracious money pit with teeth. Yeeoww!

And there was still one more thing I needed something I could have used more of in Hollywood -- a friend. James Moss of J. Moss Wines once said to me when I brought up the idea of starting a wine label, “There’s really nothing to it. You just jump.” It’s a leap of faith… I had faith, I just didn’t have a cliff to dive off from. James then said, “Yeah, you do. You can make wine with me.” (That's James Moss in the middle and Chris Bartalotti, another great winemaker friend, on the right, helping me press the 2009 pinot noir.)

Starting a Winery

I now had contacts in the industry. Amazingly I had gotten a foothold in Napa Valley, cabernet sauvignon country, and now had a winery to make wine in (thank you, James) --and it doesn’t hurt having NV (envy) on your wine label. But as much as I liked and could appreciate cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir is the wine that sings to me. And as chance would have it, and as it is with most things in life, chance and a little bit of luck, I found my great vineyard source, but it happened to be in Sonoma County, in the Russian River Valley to be exact. Could I start a wine business with a winery in Napa Valley and source grapes from the highly desirable appellation of the Russian River Valley? Hell yes I could!

Now all I needed was a name for my wine – along with fifty million other things, but who’s counting? I knew I wanted to link the winery up with my book, because a novel is such a novel (ha-ha) way of marketing wine, especially using a mystery novel about a winemaker. Nobody had done that before.

Pinot noir, maybe more than any other wine, conjures up many feminine comparisons, perhaps because it so easily seduces, with finesse and velvety softness. The wine can be plush, floral, full of perfume, and in a word, pretty -- not the most masculine descriptors. If I called the wine Chris Garrett I’d have to go ahead and change my own name -- enough people are confusing the two of us already. In the book, Rosalynd was described as the prettiest woman in the room, and I wanted my wine to stand out as the prettiest pinot noir in any grouping.

I think I have achieved this. From our tasting notes -- “the 2007 Rosalynd Russian River Valley Pinot Noir $38.00 matured in French oak barrels for 18 months, then bottle-aged for an additional 8 months. The color is a brilliant ruby, the bouquet is enticingly floral, the taste is of bright berry fruit with a creamy mouth-feel, the finish is complex with hints of exotic spice.” I’ve gotten a funny response more that once since releasing the 2007, first a stunned look and then a quick incredulous question, “This is your first wine?” I smile and say, “It’s my first commercial release.” Then again, as if they didn’t quite hear me, “This is your first wine?” “Yes,” I say with a chuckle, “but I’ve been practicing for nearly fifteen years.” Practice makes perfect.

Please call us if you’d like to visit Rosalynd Winery – 707/337-3348 – we are at 901B Enterprise Way, Napa, CA 94558. And if you’re in Oakland, our wine is also available in Brian Goehry’s delightful shop Wine on Piedmont. Stop in and see him and grab a bottle or two. Also our wine will soon be in HASR wine shop in Honolulu, Hawaii, where I’ll be doing a tasting and book signing Friday, Jan. 8, 2010. Mahalo.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Problem with Wine Ratings by Guest Blogger Greg Lawson

--A Lawson Rant

Do you drink wine based on its ratings? Do you like wine based on its ratings? Do you buy wine based on its ratings? I firmly believe if you truly love wine, at some point, you have to throw ratings out the door and trust yourself. You need to know what you like, and more importantly, you need to know your own palate.

Being in the wine business both directly and indirectly over the years (all right, my entire life) has taught me many things about wine. One very important thing is: you can never know enough. Wine (I’m talking about the big picture here, not just the stuff in the bottle) has a history and like history it is the most humbling of subjects primarily due to its voluminous character. The difficulty with mastering wine as a subject is like mastering history as a subject; both are living, ever changing organisms that are impossible to fully keep pace with. All one can do is try to understand, learn and embrace what wine and history have to offer and succumb to the simple fact that you are human, you can only comprehend so much. Our wonderful and prophetic wine critics have succumbed… so why not you?

If I told you I had a $15 million winery, wine rating (all in the 90 point area), and limited allotment/production because the grape sources were so rare and demand was so high, would this make you believe that the wine must taste good? What if I told you it tastes good because it’s a $400 bottle and the critics love it? Or would you think the truer test of whether a given wine was great or not would be you, your nose, your mouth, your tongue, and your brain?

We are at a crossroads here in Napa Valley. I believe too many people (corporations included) are making wine for all the wrong reasons. The homogenization of the industry is in front of us and it is very similar to having three Starbucks in every town in the United States, sometimes even across the street from one another. It may be a good product, but it is also sadly the same. Huge companies control larger and larger chunks of the market by buying up wineries and vineyards. They in turn are patronized by large volume wine distribution chains that shun the “small guy” because it’s just too much trouble to deal with so many little brands --it’s easier to sell one wine in every market than to sell many wines in a few markets. I believe these “corporate wines” are just numbing the consumer with sameness. Another problem is the producer making wine not to please the consumer, or to please his or her own palates, but to please the critic in hopes of a great score that will launch the brand successfully. Wines that might have shown some originality if treated differently and respectfully are becoming more and more alike. The true sufferer in all of this is the consumer.

Eleven things the consumer needs to know:

1. There are people out there making wonderful wines (all over the United States) that you may never hear about.
2. A thrill of wine drinking is taking a risk, finding the unknown, and making it your own.
3. Not all winemakers want or seek ratings.
4. Just because some winemakers make very little wine does not mean it is good (or just because it’s popular doesn’t mean it’s good).
5. Just because you never heard about it does not mean you won’t (you might have to look).
6. Cooking for 10 is a lot easier than cooking for 300 (winemaking is much the same).
7. Owning a sports team, a private jet, or a “state of the art facility” (i.e. being famous) does not guarantee great wine.
8. Drink what you like and like what you drink… meaning: looking for only negative characteristics will ruin ANY bottle of wine.
9. Change is a good thing for your palate and your likes/dislikes will change over time… embrace the change.
10. Drinking wine blind in a group of other wines is the truest test for any bottle.
11. Passion can penetrate anything. The love of wine from the vineyard to the bottle has a profound effect.

Greg Lawson is owner and winemaker of Valley Legend, single vineyard cabernet sauvignon wines from Napa Valley.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Hidden Gems

Being a winemaker in Napa Valley certainly has its privileges. By propinquity alone you get to taste some really terrific wines made by friends and colleagues, sometimes before the rest of the world even knows they exist. Yet we’ve all heard a variation on the refrain, ‘Wines like those are often made in such minuscule quantities you need deep pockets or a guy on the inside to get your hands on some!’ I believe this lament is more often about advertising than scarcity. There are many hidden gems made by small producers laboring in the shadows of the palatial wineries dotting Napa Valley, making wines from fantastic vineyards and appellations with voices that just aren’t loud enough to travel very far. So here’s my attempt to turn up the volume, the inside scoop of some wines that recently sent my taste buds soaring.

Ever wonder where the next really great rock star Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon will come from? It wouldn’t hurt a bit to check out these three exceptionally good cab-makers. They’re my picks--and all happen to be single vineyard cabs. So no blending or added varietals, just the grapes from a single source and the barrel choices the winemakers deemed worthy.


Greg Lawson owner of Valley Legend is a third generation Napa Valley winemaker. His grandfather was the first, who over forty years ago had vineyards in Yountville and Knights Valley and in 1971 was made the first president of Beringer when the winery was sold to Nestle. Greg’s father followed later in dad’s footsteps (or is it grape-stomps?) making pinot noir wines in the 80’s and 90’s, which no doubt had a great influence on Greg and his brother Rob Lawson as they were growing up. Winemaking was obviously in the family DNA, so they followed suit.

Brother Rob has certainly garnered his fair share of praise recently with wines like Ghost Block landing in the Wine Spectator’s top 100 wines of the year, and it doesn’t hurt to have a mentor of Rob’s talents lending a hand on your maiden voyage. “I tell everyone my wine just got 104 in the Wine Spectator,” Greg jokes, tongue firmly in cheek. The Spectator only scores wines on the 100-point scale, which makes Greg’s quip a really funny comment on many levels. It also tells you where Greg’s ultimate ambitions might actually reside.

“I got into the wine business less for the money and more for the love of wine,” Greg says. “If you want to make wine in Napa Valley you must enjoy writing checks. Lots and lots of checks.”Like the added costs of meticulously hand-sorting the fruit as it comes in from the vineyard – every single berry is closely scrutinized. “Nothing goes into the wine except perfectly ripe fruit. I want everything to be pristine clean all the way through fermentation, barrel aging and finally bottling.” And it really shows. The 2006 Valley Legend, Narsai David Vineyard, Conn Valley $85 is amazingly focused. Upon first sip you can feel the wine go into a whole new gear as the flavors move through the mid-palette and cruise on for a lengthy finish.

Valley Legend, with its map-like label, shows a swoop across the top that mimics the ridge line of Mount St. Helena. “It’s the physical legend of the area –looming on the horizon from anyplace you happen to be in Napa Valley.” Greg then smiles, “And to excite those wine geeks like me out there, I also put Google Earth coordinates on every bottle showing exactly where the grapes came from, down to the very block. Shows how anal I am.”

This is Greg’s first vintage, but he has two more wines still in barrel coming out soon, a 2007 Narsai David, Conn Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and a new one, a 2007 Rock Cairn Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon. Both are 100% Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon. He’s adding a third wine to this line up when the 2008 are ready. If they’re as good as his first effort, and I have no doubt they will be, watch out!

“Only hand touched fruit, pride and passion. Years from now when I’m dead,” Greg says in all earnestness, “someone’ll crack open a bottle--I want it to still tell my story.”

Valley Legend 4239 Maher Street Napa, CA 94558


I’ve written about J. Moss wines before in (Smokin’ Wines), but the work he’s doing in the cellar is so darn good I thought he needed another plug. Case in point--recently I was invited to a book club discussion of my novel The Good Life, which was a really fun evening hanging out and drinking wine with a charming group of book-loving women and talking about my favorite subject, me. I had brought along a bottle of J. Moss as a gift and was reminded of that classic Marx Brothers movie, when Groucho playing a doctor puts a thermometer in Harpo’s mouth, and Harpo promptly chews and swallows it like it was candy. Groucho reacts, “Wow, I never saw someone’s temperature go down so fast.” Well, I never saw a bottle of wine go down so fast as that bottle of J. Moss. Doesn’t that say it all?

James Moss somehow makes it all look easy. But it wasn’t always so. “I could make a movie about what not to do making wine,” James says, a Texas drawl still flavoring his words. James was born and raised in a small community outside Dallas before coming to Napa Valley over fifteen years ago to be in the wine business. When I ask for an example, James tells about the time early on when they forgot to pre soak the barrels before filling them with wine. “We were so happy to have finished pressing and had decided to soak our tired bodies in the hot tub instead of soaking the barrels. It was an oversight. Wine started leaking out, more like pouring out through the staves and you know like in a cartoon, when people are running around in circles in a panic, that’s what we were doing, trying desperately to think what to do! Talk about funny… When finally I just grabbed a barrel and lifted it into an empty bin single-handedly. It wasn’t completely full, thank God, but with the rush of adrenalin, I never stopped to think how heavy that bad boy was gonna be.” Things have come a long way since then.

What I admire most about J. Moss wines is how they always stands up so well in comparison with the best wines Napa Valley has to offer, and more often than not surpasses them. James attributes this to his palette, trained for fifteen years working in wine distribution before starting the winery. “I got to taste a lot of wines, with a lot of different people and got to learn what the public at large really likes.” I ask what that is, and James blurts, “Fruit, baby, fruit!” He has watched blind tastings where price and brand are hidden and invariably people gravitate toward the wines with the most fruit expression. “It all comes down to great fruit from great appellations.”

J. Moss currently offers three wines, the 2005 Spicer Vineyard Stags Leap Cabernet Sauvignon $60, a 2005 Puerta Dorada Vineyard Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon $60, and a 2005 Galleron Vineyard Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon $60. All are 100% cabs, all impeccably made, and for those terroir purists out there, all amazingly different. James’ extensive experience understanding the American palette has helped him make wines that are true crowd pleasers. All are an explosion of fruit, amazingly balanced, with beautiful integration of oak--in a word, yummy.

J.Moss Wines P.O. Box 5783 Napa, CA 94581
TEL: (707) 647-3388


Rollie Heitz owner and winemaker of Midsummer Cellars (yes, one of those Heitz, if you happen to recognize the name--the Heitz name being one of the half dozen most famous wine families in the Napa Valley firmament) invited me recently to go on a mushroom hunting expedition. Well, actually it was more of an enjoyable stroll through the woods on a seasonally crisp winter afternoon. Before we set out, Rollie cautioned, “Now I better not find you out here in my secret spots without me. Just remember I have access to firearms –one with a scope.”

Duly warned I follow Rollie into the woods. He tells me that when he was a kid, his dad, Joe Heitz, often before Thanksgiving dinner would get the whole family out to these selective forest gardens and hunt wild mushrooms. “Some years we’d find large baskets full of Boletes,” he says like discovering found money.

The process is a little like Easter egg hunting. Rollie points out what to look for, small moundings on the forest floor, as if gophers are pushing up the leafy matter. He carefully lifts one such mount that I would have missed entirely--some decomposing leaves, and low and behold there are the mushrooms. You’d never know it if you didn’t know where to look. Unfortunately, these are not the kind you want to eat.

Rollie tells me the ironic part of his hobby is that his wife Sally is sadly allergic to mushrooms. Most of them that he finds he ends up giving away to friends. Luckily, he’s expert at what to pick, “There are certain families of mushrooms that are safe to pick. I only pick a few types, you have to be very careful or you can end up with mushrooms that can kill you.” Always good thinking.

We talk on about many different subjects, growing up in Napa Valley as a kid, firing potato cannons with the Mondavi clan, notes on a different time and place. Greg Lawson pointed out to me, that he and Rollie are both Carpy Gang football alumni. Rollie says, “My Pop Warner coach happened to be Walt Raymond” (yes, of Raymond Vineyards, another legendary Napa wine family) and a really nice guy, too.”

Inevitably, as all talk in Napa finally does, the subject turns to wine. After breaking away from the family wine business, Rollie could have chosen something completely different to do with his life, but wine gets in the blood so he decided to start his own label. Taking a cue from his many visits to Sweden (his family summers there every year) with the festivals and traditional dancing around the maypole (midsommarstången), Midsummer Cellars was born (The Smallest Winery in Napa Valley). His first few vintages nearly a decade ago were Zinfandels, but he has settled into making single vineyard cabs and for good reason. He’s a master at it. Give a look. They presented Midsummer Cellars 2006 Tomasson Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, St Helena $48 --95 points! I guess the word is starting to get out there.

Midsummer Cellars has two other single vineyard cabs, a 2006 Cañon Creek Vineyard, Napa Valley $48 which is one of my personal favorites, and a 2006 Fowler Vineyard, Knights Valley $30, which at that price is a heck of a value.

All of Rollie’s wines have one thing in common --they are always elegant. When I drink them, I feel as if I should be wearing a tuxedo. I don’t own a tux, but if I keep drinking Midsummer Cellars wines I better get one.

Midsummer Cellars 771 Sage Canyon Road, St. Helena, CA 94574
TEL: (707) 225-4367