Arbios Cellars

The Other Face of Premium Cabernet

Arbios Cellars

Alexander Valley is located at the northern end of Sonoma County, and these days its prime accomplishment is Cabernet Sauvignon, which is arguably indistinguishable from Napa’s yet generally less costly. I and several friends tasted the Arbios 2006 and 2005 Cabernet together with a Silver Oak 2008 Cabernet from Napa. Although these three wines showed some vintage variation, they tasted very much alike, yet the Silver Oak was $110; the Arbios 2005 was $50; and the 2006 was $30. Silver Oak’s own Alexander Valley Cabernet sells for $40 less a bottle than its Napa Cab. The whimsy of the marketplace is undeniable. While the wines may be similar, the two appellations are not, Bill Arbios points out. Alexander Valley is closer to the ocean and thus cooler. It is also “rustic, rural, and real,” he says, while Napa is a “Disneyland for adults.” Both areas are about an hour’s drive north of the Golden Gate Bridge, but “a Napa tasting room manager in Gucci shoes has a limited connection to the wine business.” In Alexander Valley, “the guy behind the counter was probably out plowing his field that morning.” That said, Alexander Valley is not without remarkable restaurants, spas, and fine hotels, centered especially around Healdsburg. Tasting wines in the appellation’s more than 80 wineries can be “quite the romantic afternoon,” Bill says, and can be a nice place to spend a weekend or get married. “We’re keeping the rural and the real while still being able to satisfy a food-interested wine tourist.”

Bill Arbios was the original winemaker for the Lyeth family in 1981 and then began his own winery in 1993. He now makes 6000 to 7000 cases of wine under two different labels. Under the Arbios label, he makes just Cabernet Sauvignon from his high-elevation vineyard at the north end of Alexander Valley, which he farms sustainably, maintaining a permanent cover crop, leaving vine clippings in the vineyard for their nutrients, and encouraging biodiversity with wild flowers and bees. For his second Praxis label, he purchases Pinot Noir, Lagrein, Merlot, and Viognier grapes, having made these same wines for many years. With the Praxis label, “I get to play, experiment, and practice my craft.” He explains that praxis is the Greek word for practice, as in the practice of a doctor or lawyer. Five years ago, he joined nine other local winemakers to establish a collective tasting room in Geyserville, where he pours wine occasionally although he says that his wife Susan is there more often because he “does less well with people than she does.” Given his sense of humor and friendliness , it is difficult to imagine that customers would not enjoy his presence or he theirs. I recount our conversation with minor editing for length and clarity.

What do you learn from the people who come to your tasting room?

I learn a lot about what the consumer wants and likes in terms of wine style. I’m not always right on with what people like, but being there, talking to them about their visions about what wine could be and should be is a lot of fun. One day a guy came in and tasted my Cabernet and said, “Oh, that’s about how I like my Pinot Noir.” That just tells me that a lot of people like that very extracted, tannic, high alcohol style of Cabernet. But there’s room for everybody’s opinion about wine. And I learn that a lot of people care very deeply about wine. For me it’s pretty much the air I breath. It’s always all around me. But for some people, having come clear across the country to visit this one little corner of Sonoma County, see how the wines are made, meet the people who make them, talk about it, that’s tremendous. I really enjoy that kind of involvement in my little corner of the business. Those people are most often, I would say, my age. I just turned 61 not that long ago. I think older people more often have three things that younger people don’t. One is the developed interest, and the others are the means and time. When I was a lot younger, there were kids around, and going for a couple of weeks just to taste wine sounded like a good idea but not really doable. Occasionally we do have young couples come in, and they tend to park their kids over by the door while they taste wine. But that’s not the rule. We do see a lot of younger people employed in the tech industry in San Francisco, and I enjoy their interest and their willingness to explore.

A lot of issues impinge on wine production these days, and I guess there always have been. Climate change is one of them. Would you say that, as a group, wineries are on the forefront of sustainable practice because they are concerned about climate change?

Well I’m very interested in it. Fifty years from now, I’m not going to be making wine. And I don’t know what the future will bring. All I know is that we don’t know yet, and I think doing everything we can to moderate our climate, to be as careful as possible about what we plant and where is of primary importance. What people don’t understand is that St. Helena in the Napa Valley has exactly the same climate as Lodi. Lodi makes some very nice wines but the wines made in Napa are different because they get a little more marine influence than Lodi does, but not a lot. They’re the same distance from the ocean, but a little bit of swirl in the air makes a little bit of difference in the wine. So how we’re able to maintain that, I don’t know. I know that Sonoma County is closer to the ocean. So the ocean, the maritime influence, might help some of our quality wine-producing areas stay that way. I just don’t know if the models that we have today are informed enough and accurate enough to be able to tell us. Right now, we need to do everything we can to take carbon dioxide out of the air and put it in the dirt.

Spanish winegrape varieties are very much of interest to California winemakers now. Because Spain is an arid country, those grape varieties may be important if California becomes warmer.

We have to put the grape in the right spot, but we don’t know yet where the right spot is going to be. It’s like Viognier. When Viognier came to California 15 years ago, nobody knew how to plant it, where to grow it, how to make it, what the right style was, and we’re still trying to figure that out. By the time Tempranillo, Grenache, all the rest of these Spanish varietals get planted in many different areas, it’ll take another 10 to 15 years beyond that to find out if the grapes do well and then how the wines turn out. It’ll be 25 to 30 years down the road before we know any more.

Do you farm organically?

Well, I farm sustainably. Like a lot of people, if I see something bad going on in the vineyards that needs some kind of attention, rather than loose the crop, I do what is necessary. But I do farm as organically as possible on a regular basis. I’m out there as a steward of the land maybe because my family has been in California for five generations since 1852. They came here for the gold rush. But they wanted to make money off the miners, not the gold. When they first came, they started in a little town in the San Francisco Bay Area called Mayfield. And then when they sold, the people who bought had a more forward thinking idea about the name of the village, and they changed the name from Mayfield to Palo Alto [the location of Stanford University and the heart of Silicon Valley]. They were some of the founding residents of the town there. They had a meat market, a post office, hotel, and restaurant. People were coming up and down the El Camino Real, passing through on their way up to the Sierra Foothills. And they were right there on the El Camino Real. Then on my dad’s side, they did go up to the Sierra Foothills. They were there as shepherds, running sheep from one side of the state to the other. In the summer they would be up in the pastures of Hecht Hetchy and Yosemite, and then they would drive the sheep all the way over to the coast range for the winter on foot.

How do you reflect this heritage five generations later?

I don’t know except that I love the land. I love farming. And I’m going to pass the vineyard on to my kids in better condition than when I found it. I have three sons, but they’re very smart. They’ve associated wine with another four letter word that starts with “w,” work. They want to do other things, and I’m happy to let them. My youngest is still in college, but the other two are out. I went to school with Tim Mondavi. When we were at the University of California, Davis, he was an English major. He didn’t want to have anything to do with his father or the wine business. But it worked out pretty darn well for him. And there’s hope for my children yet.

California Wines of the Month


Artisan Series

Praxis – 2008 Lagrein, Central Coast

Winemaker Bill Arbios’ Notes

During a trip to the Italian Alps, I became fascinated by this varietal. I first tried Lagrein with my archaeologist wife Susan while we were on a hunt to see the remains of Utzi, the Alpine Ice Man and oldest natural mummy. Pronounced Lah-grine, this cool climate, high elevation red varietal is a 500 year-old cross between Teroldego and Pinot Noir. The Praxis Central Coast vineyard has similar climatic properties. We believe that we are currently the largest producer of Amerian Lagrein! The color of the wine is saturated purple with red highlights. Aromas of cocoa nibs and mulberry jam rise from the glass with hints of mocha. On the palate, flavors of crushed black fruit, blueberry, and cranberry are predominant. The wine is smooth with mouth filling tannins and a long, soft, plush finish, evidence of its Pinot Noir heritage (alcohol 13.8%, brix at harvest 23.6, pH 3.61, total acidity 0.63).

Anna Maria’s Notes

Aged in oak barrels for a full 30 months and in bottle now for five years, this California Lagrein is as smooth as a red can get. From the beginning to the end of this wine, I taste chocolate. Interestingly, it would be hard to identify the Praxis Legrein with its Italian version, which would be much more textured and crisper. But that’s part of the beauty of wine. It reflects not only the terroir where the vine grows but also the winemaker’s style.

Parxix – 2012 Viognier, Sonoma County

Winemaker Bill Arbios’ Notes

We have been making Viognier for more than a decade. I love the body and flavors of this white wine varietal and prefer to make it in a European style. Our Viognier is crisp, dry, and full bodied with a lingering finish of ripe fruit. To retain the purest expression of the grapes, the wine was fermented in stainless steel with no oak contact. The color is pale straw with hints of green. Delicate floral and citrus scents are followed by guava, jasmine, and white pear notes with a hint of ginger. Rich flavors of white peach and apricot are present immediately, while tropical fruits are more apparent on the palate as the wine opens. The round smooth body of the wine is accented by crisp acidity and a clean finish (alcohol 14.2%, brix at harvest 23.8, pH 3.56, total acidity 0.58).

Anna Maria’s Notes

Viognier is noted for its perfume, and this one has plenty. Serve it just slightly chilled so that the aromas will waft from the glass. When Bill first made the wine, California winemakers were expecting Viognier to replace Chardonnay and were making it like they would Chardonnay with richer flavors and oak accents. But they soon realized that if consumers were turning away from Chardonnay, it was because they were tired of that style. “I just want to keep as much as I can of that floral, fragrant fruit and that heavy jasmine scent,” Bill says. Good choice!

Winemaker Series

Arbios – 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley

Winemaker Bill Arbios’ Notes

The wine’s color is deep garnet with purple hues, classic Cabernet color. Plum and berry aromas are followed by spice, cedar, and cassis notes. Fried red cherries, pomegranate, and plum flavors are complemented by hints of vanilla and pie spices. The wine is soft, full, rich, and well-balanced with ripe tannins. Arbios Cellars produces only one wine, made from 100% Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, sustainably grown on a mountain top vineyard in the Alexander Valley of Sonoma County. Arbios Cabernet Sauvignon is crafted in classic Bordeaux style to have moderate alcohol and good fruit character. Although I have a successful track record crafting blended wines, I prefer the challenges and artistry that go into making our wine from a single vineyard (alcohol 13.6%, brix at harvest 24.8, pH 3.64, total acidity 0.57).

Anna Maria’s Notes

Grapes that are harvested from rocky, high-altitude vineyards tend to be smaller, so normally the wine would have more tannin, since tannins reside in the skin. In other words, the ratio of skin to juice is higher than it would be in larger grapes and, consequently, the wine has more tannin. But in this case, it is difficult to imagine that this wine comes from such conditions because it is extremely smooth, more like the wine from the deep soils on the Napa Valley floor. The fact that Bill chose to age the wine for 24 months in French oak barrels will have contributed to its smoothness, which occurs because of the slight and controlled oxidation of the wine that takes place in porous wood barrels over time. If you like ultra silky soft reds, you’ll love this wine. Serve this versatile Cabernet at cool room temperature with a variety of dishes from wild mushroom risotto to roasted and braised red and white meats.

Arbios – 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley

Winemaker Bill Arbios’ Notes

The 2005 Arbios Cabernet is deep garnet in color with rich purple overtones. Aromas of violets, raspberry, and plum are accented by vanilla, cedar, spice, and hazelnuts. Generous blackberry and sour cherry flavors fill the mouth, followed by hints of clove and vanilla. Aged for 24 months in French oak barrels, the wine is supple with a nice medium bodied structure, moderate tannins, balanced acidity, and long finish (alcohol 13.6%, brix at harvest 24.2, pH 3.60, total acidity 0.64).

Anna Maria’s Notes

Those of you, who are receiving both of the Winemaker Reserve wines, will have no trouble distinguishing the Arbios 2005 from the 2006. While the 2006 Cabernet is exceedingly smooth, the 2005 is a bit more textured. But more obviously, it contains more acid, so it’s edgier, which I appreciate because the wine is a fine complement to food. Serve at cool room temperature with roasted meats and with pasta sauced with garlic, tomato, basil, and a rich olive oil.

Menu of the Month


 

Mediterranean Mother’s Day Lunch

First Course

Spaghetti with goat cheese, spring peas, & mint

Main Course

Baked side of filleted sockeye salmon, garnished
with chopped dill and lemon wedges
Served with oven roasted asparagus and sliced crimini
mushrooms with lemon zest and a drizzle of olive oil

Dessert

Mixed strawberries and blue berries, marinated
with triple sec and mint, served over ricotta mousse

Recipe of the Month


Spaghetti with goat cheese, spring peas, & mint

This lunch celebrates Mother’s Day with the flavors of spring, fresh peas, asparagus, mushrooms, and strawberries. Italian in spirit only, the freshly delicious pasta dish was created by Evan and Sarah Rich for their restaurant, Rich Table in San Francisco, and reviewed by Michael Bauer for the San Francisco Chronicle, although I have adapted the recipe to my tastes. Here in California, sockeye salmon is in markets all year long and is fresh-frozen but still delicious. You may decide to choose a local white fish. Either way, the joy of the dish and its ease of preparation depend on cooking the fish whole or at least an entire filleted side. Rubbed with olive oil and sprinkled with salt, it bakes quickly and can be removed from the oven when the family sits down for the first course, ready to serve after you remove the pasta plates from the table. Last by not least, Prosecco di Valdobbiadene is the wine for the occasion and the meal, from beginning to end. Cheers!

Ingredients

2 cups frozen or freshly shucked peas

4 spring onions, both white and green parts very finely

sliced

1/2 bunch mint thinly shredded

2 limes, zested and juiced

1 cup goat cheese, separated into small bits

1/3 cup olive oil

Salt to taste

8 oz spaghetti

Directions

In a large mixing bowl, add lime zest and spring onions. If using fresh peas, pick off tender shoots and tendrils, roughly chop, and briefly cook in a skillet coated with olive oil until wilted. Then add to large mixing bowl. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Blanch the peas until crisp-tender. Drain and add half of the peas to the mixing bowl, reserving the other half and roughly smashing it with a fork. Then add to mixing bowl. Add lime juice, olive oil, mint and salt and mix well. In a large pot of salted boiling water, cook the pasta until al dente, drain briefly, and add pasta to mixing bowl together with any water that remains with the pasta. Mix quickly but well. Finally add goat cheese and mix briefly without fully blending the cheese into the mixture. Taste for salt and olive oil, adding more of each if necessary to brighten taste or further moisten the pasta and sauce. Serve immediately. Serves 4.