Expression Wines

California Wines Coming of Age

Expression Wines

Over the last 30 years, Bill Hill has developed more vineyards than probably anyone else in the United States. In over 40 locations from the state of Washington down through Oregon into northern and central California and further south to the Santa Rita Hills in Santa Barbara County, Bill Hill has chosen land and imagined which grape varieties, which clones and rootstock, and what vine density and trellising would create the high end vineyards that have brought him fame and fortune. If he’s made mistakes, he’s corrected them. The entity that manages these properties is Premier Pacific Vineyards, which sells grapes from these vineyards and offers other services to prominent wineries. His friend and partner of many years in this endeavor and others is Richard Wallack, who has been involved in all phases of the real estate investment business since 1971. The two men met in the 1960s while both were enrolled in the Stanford University M.B.A. program.

Premier Pacific Vineyards was established in 1997, five years after Bill sold William Hill Winery to the North American division of Allied Domecq in London. At the time, the winery was producing 100,000 cases a year. So Bill Hill has had plenty of experience as a wine producer. As his General Manager Kevin O’Brien puts it, “He’s got a big enough cellar to just sit back and enjoy the wines that he’s made and ride into the sunset. His life wouldn’t necessarily be worse for it.”

Instead, he established the Bighorn label in Napa to showcase the vineyards that he retained after the sale to Allied Domecq, including Broken Rock and Coombsville in Yountville, Camelback in Carneros, and Sugarloaf Mountain and Suscol Bench at the cooler southern end of Napa. Bighorn grew to 8,000 cases of mostly Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.

But now, Bill Hill is moving on to something different. This time the label is Tetra, meaning four and referring to the noble varieties of Bordeaux, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Petit Verdot. Each year, this single super premium wine blends those four grape varieties, harvested from Bill’s top Napa vineyards. So Tetra will exist just for this one wine with a retail price of $65 a bottle for the current vintage and $110 for older vintages to be distributed through the Tetra mailing list and to restaurants, priced so that even with restaurant mark ups, the wine won’t be prohibitively expensive for patrons. Bill wants the wine to be enjoyed, Kevin O’Brien says, and to be sold, we can infer. Case production is just 600 at this point but won’t get a lot bigger.

But that’s just part of the story. The other part is the Expression label, designed with the intent of showcasing Bill’s best vineyard locations for especially Pinot Noir but also Chardonnay. The vineyards that he’s chosen exist at four different latitudes, thus the names of the wines, Santa Rita Hills at 34° in Santa Barbara, Sonoma Coast at 38° in Sonoma County, Anderson Valley at 39° in Mendocino County, both in Northern California, and Eola-Amity Hills in Willamette Valley, Oregon at 44°, all different expressions of the notoriously fickle Pinot Noir. Expression 38° also includes Chardonnay. Retail prices range from $25 for the white label Expression 38° Chardonnay to $75 for the black label Expression 44° Pinot Noir.

“He can’t help himself,” Kevin O’Brien says. “He’s curious but not just curious. He tastes quite often and gets excited about what a particular vineyard might be doing.” Right now, the production for Expression is 4,000 cases a year, which could increase a bit, Kevin says, but like Tetra not a lot. The production is highly focused on the best that these vineyards can produce, a trend that’s accelerating in well established wine regions like Napa.

“The California wine industry is coming of age,” Kevin explains. “It’s just becoming widely known that Zinfandel does well in Amador County. Pinot Noir does well in Sonoma Coast, Anderson Valley, Santa Rita Hills. Here in Napa, Cabernet is king. In Oregon, it’s all about Pinot Noir. There’s merit to the idea.” In these times when the market is crowded with wines from throughout the world, quality counts if a given winery wants to survive and prosper.

“I’m not saying that winemakers shouldn’t produce more exotic wines. I think it’s good to keep a little variety in a region just because it’s interesting. It’s fascinating to try a Charbono from Napa Valley or maybe a Pinot Noir from Carneros. Somebody even makes a Pinot Noir in Rutherford. But I order by region and varietal or by brand at a restaurant. For Pinot, I look at Oregon, Sonoma Coast, Anderson Valley, or Russian River.” Making just the wines that a winery does well resonates with the public, he feels. People may disagree on the style of wine that they prefer, but everyone recognizes a well made, well conceived wine.

Yet Kevin doesn’t ignore the dark side of specialization. “If all your eggs are in one basket, and all of a sudden everyone hates Pinot Noir, you have trouble.” The Merlot crash is still fresh in every winemaker’s nightmare scenario. Grafting over vines that the market has decided to reject is an expensive endeavor, and time passes before the new variety is ready to be made into wine. Pinot Noir is now pervasive for better and worse, but the demand first exploded in 2004 when “Sideways” hit movie theaters and audiences heard Paul Giamatti gush over Pinot Noir after irreparably disparaging Merlot. Seven years later, there’s plenty of Pinot to go around, but it didn’t happen over night. And in the meantime, countless vineyards of Merlot were either grafted over to other varieties or pulled ou t of the ground. Anticipating the next enthusiasm in the market place or creating it is part of the wizardry of wine making.

Regarding Kevin, he’s a happy guy. He was hired six years ago to launch Bighorn, and new brands keep coming. Bill Hill develops an enthusiasm, and Kevin O’Brien takes it to market. The inspiration materializes at the southern end of the Silverado Trail, that quiet country road that runs the length of the valley parallel to and strikingly different from Highway 29 where all the action is. You can easily miss it, but the sign in front of the winery says Silverado Wine Trail Studio. You’d never know from looking at it that Robert Parker and Wine Spectator love the wines that leave through the gate and slip from there into the world.

California Wines of the Month


Artisan Series

Expression Wines – 2008 Chardonnay 38° Sonoma Coast

Winemaker Patrick Mahaney’s Notes

One of the larger AVA’s (American Viticulture Association) in Northern California, the Sonoma Coast encompasses multiple meso-climates that could make a case for being their own discrete AVA’s. Both vineyards used for this appellation blend are located in an area known as the Petaluma Gap, a break in the coastal range that allows a large flow of cool maritime air and coastal fog directly from the Pacific Ocean. This factor combined with the southwest facing hillside locations makes for high acidity, intensely flavored fruit. Aged for 11 months in barrel, the Expression 2008 Chardonnay was bottled without fining or filtration. The result of this process is a Chardonnay that exhibits great fruit and floral characteristics while maintaining excellent balance, minerality, and texture (alcohol 14.2%, cases produced 1,100).

Anna Maria’s Notes

Crisp and balanced with pronounced Chardonnay flavors, the 2008 Expression 38° Chardonnay is a great choice for holiday appetizers and light first courses. The wine avoids common excesses of every sort that can diminish this noble wine, like too much oak, too much residual sugar, and the lack of acid. This is a truly premium Chardonnay.

Bighorn Cellars – 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon, Coombsville Vineyard, Napa Valley

Winemaker Patrick Mahaney’s Notes

Coombsville vineyard is located in the foothills of east Napa at the edge of Mount St. John. The unique microclimate allows one of the longest growing seasons for Cabernet Sauvignon in the Napa Valley. Moderate temperature variation allows the Cabernet fruit plenty of time to ripen evenly. The rolling hillsides of the Coombsville Vineyard are made up of austere, well drained soils that produce intense fruit character in the grapes grown there. This translates into rich, lush, and well balanced wines with smooth velvety tannins. Beautifully complex, this 2000 Bighorn Cellars 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon couples blackberry, cassis, and smoky oak aromatics with full, rich blackberry and cherry flavors and just a hint of cola and vanilla. It is an elegant, yet powerful wine with a long, lingering finish (alcohol 14.6%).

Anna Maria’s Notes

Most of us don’t have the inclination or proper space to age a wine for ten years or more. Our only opportunity to experience an older wine probably would be to choose it from a restaurant wine list. Until now. We purchased the last cases of Bighorn Napa Cabernet Sauvignon from Bill Hill’s cellars at Silverado Wine Trail Studio. Eleven years ago, this wine was a big, full- blown Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Today, the wine has mellowed, but not so much that the aromas or fruit flavors have diminished to a great extent. Aromas still pop from the bottle, and Napa fruit flavors are still vibrant. But altogether, the wine is smoother and more elegant. Notice the residue attached to the side of the bottle where the wine has rested over time. The residue consists of color and tannin molecules that have dropped out of solution as happens with an older wine. We are proud to contribute this wine to your holiday table. Enjoy.

Winemaker Series

Expression Wines – 2008 Pinot Noir 39° Anderson Valley, Mendocino County

Winemaker Patrick Mahaney’s Notes

The Anderson Valley, located in Northern California’s Mendocino County, is a unique growing area highlighted by a maritime climate that funnels in from the Pacific Ocean through the valley via the Navarro River bed. The unique cool climate, combined with well drained alluvial soils of the Feliz and Pinole series that dominate this area, are the primary reasons that the Anderson Valley AVA has emerged as one of the world’s most exciting winegrowing regions. Aged for 12 months in French oak barrels, one third of which were new, this stunning Expression Wines 2008 39° Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley shows off beautiful fruit and demonstrates a combination of power and grace (alcohol 14.2%, cases produced 531).

Anna Maria’s Notes

Anderson Valley is the coolest appellation in California and the home of its top sparkling wine producers, Roederer Estate, Scharffenberger Cellars, and Navarro Vineyards. For at least 20 years, these wineries have been making sparkling wines from the traditional grapes for such wines, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. After consumers developed a taste for still Pinot Noir, winemakers rushed into this obscure valley to capitalize on its ideal climate for Pinot. This delicious Expression Wines 2008 Pinot Noir 39°, Anderson Valley captures the magic of the place.

Expression Wines – 2008 Pinot Noir 38°, Gap’s Crown Vineyard, Sonoma Coast

Winemaker Patrick Mahaney’s Notes

Gap’s Crown Vineyard is just outside of the town of Penngrove, California, situated at the confluence where Sonoma Mountain and its surrounding southwest facing hills meet the Petaluma Wind Gap. Lingering fog in the mornings during the growing season allows Gap’s Crown fruit to ripen slowly, resulting in balanced acidity and ripe fruit flavors and aromas. This unique cool climate, combined with the soil, slope, and aspect diversity of this great vineyard site has made fruit from this property among the most highly sought after in the entire Sonoma Coast appellation. Aged for 12 months in French oak barrels, one third of which were new, the Expression Wines 2008 Pinot Noir 38° is a hedonistic expression of both power and grace (14.5% alcohol, cases produced 100).

Anna Maria’s Notes

The Expression Wines black label marks those bottles that are made from grapes that are harvested from single vineyards. in this case the Gap’s Crown Vineyard outside of the town of Penngrove in Sonoma County. This Expression Wines 2008 Pinot Noir 38° features the rich and distinctive aromas and flavors of Pinot. Note the jewel-like color of both the Pinot Noir Latitude 38° and 39°. Pinot Noir is a lightly pigmented grape, and you should be able to see through the wine to your fingers that hold the stem. Please enjoy this beautiful wine. Serve at cool room temperature.

Menu of the Month


 

Happy Thanksgiving!

Appetizers

Mixed olives, dressed with olive oil and rosemary,
and roasted fennel crostini with cranberry-citrus marmalade

Main Course

Roasted organic, free range turkey rubbed with herbs and stuffed
with apple-walnut dressing, served with pan gravy
Roasted acorn squash with quinoa and red rice stuffing
Fresh organic cranberry sauce
Green beans with thinly sliced red onions and red bell peppers,
and chopped flat-leaf parsley, dressed with extra virgin olive oil

Salad

Finely sliced white cabbage with apples, red onions, and chopped flat-leaf parsley,
dressed with seasoned rice vinegar and olive oil

Dessert

Classic pumpkin pie with whipped cream

Recipe of the Month


Roasted acorn squash with quinoa and red rice stuffing

Regarding the Thanksgiving feast, I’m a traditionalist. Family members expect the dishes that I prepare each year, and they’re my favorites, too. Since we enjoy these foods only once a year in the particular combination that Thanksgiving prescribes, we’re not even close to getting bored. Yet this year, I’m anticipating a slight change. I’ve never seen so many different squash varieties in my small organic market. Butternut, buttercup, red kuri, acorn, spaghetti, kabocha, blue kabocha, delicata, sugar pie pumpkin, and sweet dumplings rest in their boxes, all different sizes and colors. Delicata, sweet dumplings, and acorn are small and beg to be stuffed. So I’m doing exactly that and foregoing sweet potatoes. I’ve chosen a quinoa and red rice stuffing, but any other that you might prefer would be delicious as long as it’s a bit crunchy.

Ingredients

4 acorn squashes, cut in half, seeds removed

1 cup quinoa

1 cup red rice

½ cup almonds, toasted and chopped

½ cup dried cranberries

1 large yellow onion, diced

2 celery stalks, diced

Fistful of coarsely chopped flat leaf parsley

1/3 cup olive oil

Salt to taste

Directions

Heat oven to 400 degrees F.

Coat squash cavities with olive oil and season with salt & pepper.

Place squash halves, cut side down, on cookie sheets.

Roast for about 20 minutes or until squashes are tender when pierced with a fork but not overly soft.

Remove from the oven and set aside.

In the meantime, cook quinoa and red rice, according to directions.

Braise onion and celery stalks in olive oil until limp.

Combine all ingredients, including salt to taste, mix well, and scoop into squash cavities.

Place in oven and roast for an additional ten minutes.

Remove from oven and cut each squash in half.

Garnish with a sprinkling of chopped parsley.

Serves 12 to 16.