Note: The article excerpted below was originally published in The Sacramento Bee and can be found here.
Dunne on Wine: A California wine for everyone on your gift list
For every grape variety it handles, from Cabernet Sauvignon through Malbec, Flora Springs Winery is one of the more consistently reliable producers in Napa Valley. It just never disappoints, and each year at least one of its wines ends up on my list of favorites. This year it is the Flora Springs Winery 2015 Napa Valley Merlot ($30), which all on its own could revive merlot as a staple of the American table for its vivacious fruit, startling complexity and refreshing buoyancy. There are suggestions of plums, cherries and raspberries in aroma and flavor, to be sure, but more intriguing is its thread of green olives.
Note: The following article was originally written by Kim Marcus and published in the Wine Spectator on November 30, 2018 and can be found here.
Peaks & Valleys California Merlot is at its best in Napa, where vineyards at diverse elevations deliver distinctive styles
Though Merlot is grown throughout California, Napa Valley is by far the variety’s powerhouse appellation. Yet the region’s wines are not all cut from the same cloth. There’s a marked contrast in style between wines grown on the valley floor and those sourced from mountain sites. The driving force in both types is texture, but the valley wines tend to be fleshy and richer, while higher altitudes provide more structure and purity of flavor. The two top bottlings in this report-one from a high-elevation site and one from valley vineyards—help bring those styles into focus, and their differences can be instructive when it comes to making buying decisions with this versatile grape.
In the past year, I’ve tasted 135 Merlots and Merlot-based blends, with an impressive 43 scoring an outstanding 90 points or higher on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale. (A free alphabetical guide to all wines tasted for this report is available.) The flagship mountain bottling is the La Jota Howell Mountain 2015 (93 points, $85), which offers intense and pure red fruit flavors. La Jota is in the stable of the Jackson Family group of wineries, as is another outstanding mountain Merlot, the Mt. Brave Mount Veeder 2015 (91 $80), with robust and well-knit dried berry and black fruit flavors. The wines are firmly tannic and fresh-tasting, hallmarks of the higher altitudes where they were grown—both at about 1,800 feet, though on opposite sides of the valley.
Skilled Jackson Family veteran Chris Carpenter made both La Jota and Mt. Brave. “There’s a structure to mountain Merlot that is incredibly compelling. And a lot of how I think about Bordeaux varieties in the mountains is tannin development,” he says. “How are the tannins in sync with the sugars, phenols, acid and other compounds? Ultimately, I’d like to have them all in their respective sweet spots, but they all act independently of each other.”
Tannins are usually bigger in mountain-grown grapes, which are typically smaller in size than valley fruit and have a higher skin-to-pulp ratio (skins are tannin-rich). The small berry size is mostly due to the poorer soils and cooler conditions found in the mountains. “The vines are struggling here more than on the valley floor, because there’s very little clay in the soils that retains water and [the soils] are low in nutrients,” Carpenter adds. “Tannins are protective and are there to allow the fruit to ripen.”
To help wrangle those tannins, Carpenter employs a variety of techniques. He is careful to optimally sequence the harvest down to the individual row or plot, which is complicated by the many vineyard exposures, including the shadows cast by tall mountain forests. That’s more of an issue on Mount Brave, where the slopes are steep compared to the relatively level terrain found at the top of Howell Mountain. In the cellar, Carpenter encourages modest exposure to the softening effects of oxygen through aerative pump-overs along with gentle racking into barrels.
The top representative from the valley floor this year is the Venge Oakville Oakville Estate Vineyard 2015 (93, $70), big and rich, with luscious dark fruit flavors. Grab this one while you can, because its vines were pulled for replanting after the vintage. It was made by Kirk Venge, of the family-owned estate in Calistoga, who is now hoping replicate its quality in future vintages with fruit from the nearby Kenefick Ranch vineyard, among other sources.
“I love the approachability of Merlot. The flavor profile has a softer body to it. It’s fun to see its personality and, compared to Cabernet, it shows the terroir better,” Venge says. “We’ve always stuck by Merlot and never abandoned it, even with Sideways,” he adds, referring to the 2004 hit movie in which Merlot was disparaged and that many believe led to the sizeable drop in demand for the wines in the ensuing years. “It’s wonderful in a blend and great by itself, but it is hard to grow because it is prone to poor fruit set and overcropping. It can give you some attitude.”
Venge points outs that he considers Kenefick, which features a very gentle slope at the base of the Palisades cliffs just south of the town of Calistoga, to be more a benchland site than a pure valley vineyard. It also one of the warmest areas in Napa, and Venge is careful with canopy management to protect against the strong rays of the sun. The soils here are gravelly and well-drained, traits the site shares with the vineyard that produced last year’s top-scoring Merlot, the Duckhorn Three Palms Vineyard Napa Valley 2014, which also took Wine of the Year honors.
“We do ripen earlier here but it’s a good location. It gets sun, that’s for sure, but a little later [in the day] because of the Palisades and the narrowness of the valley here,” Venge explains. A tasting of the yet-to-be-released 2016 Kenefick Ranch Merlot revealed richness to the sanguine and spice box flavors. Venge added 5 percent Petit Verdot to the cuvée to build structure and boost depth of flavor; Carpenter added 3 percent Petit Verdot and 2 percent Tannat to his 2016 La Jota for the same reason.
In the list of recommended wines that accompanies this report, you will find additional examples of both mountain and valley styles. From the mountains, besides La Jota and Mt. Brave, top wines were made by Luna, Pride and Beringer. Due to their powerful structures, most would benefit from short-term cellaring and should be good matches for roasted meats and other savory dishes. The leading Merlots of the valley style include those from Flora Springs, Darioush, Stewart and St. Francis (in Sonoma). These are fine for sipping on their own or paired with pasta or grilled steak.
On the values front, you have to be choosy. High-yielding Merlot can taste thin and herbal, and it requires committed winemaking to make high quality affordable versions. Planting it in the right terrain is key as well—with rich soils, the grapes can overproduce and turn weedy; in poorer soils, the tannins can turn tough.
“Like Cabernet does on thinner soils, Merlot can become a raisin even more quickly due to the size of the berry. Or at least head in that direction. Therefore I look for more glacial soils, loam soils, and if they have some clay, even better,” says Nick Goldschmidt, whose Goldschmidt Dry Creek Valley Chelsea Goldschmidt Salmon’s Leap 2015 (90, $20) is one the top values in this report. Other key factors for Goldschmidt include selecting rootstocks in the vineyard that can produce ripe fruit in California’s bone-dry summers without dehydrating. In the cellar, keeping quality high means long fermentations to extract as much flavor as possible.
An exceptionally priced wine for the quality is the Flora Springs Merlot Napa Valley 2014 (92, $30), with silky tannins behind the spicy red fruit flavors. Outside of Napa and Sonoma, the choices are more limited, though it’s worth the search to experience the varying expressions of this versatile grape. Paso Robles is a reliable alternative, with the likes of the San Simeon Estate Reserve 2014 (90, $22), a big and rich red with loamy accents to the dark fruit flavors, and the Maddalena 2014 (88, $18), with red fruit flavors and minerally overtones.
“The most expensive wine in the world is a Merlot [Petrús in Pomerol] and we should have a Merlot that garners that kind of respect,” though not at such a high price, says Jackson Family’s Carpenter. “We have the terroir for it.”
Ambitions still run high in California for Merlot, both on the mountains and in the valleys. And with the best versions generally rich in dark fruit flavors and appealing spice and savory herbal notes, and a bit softer and more open-textured overall than Cabernet, Merlot remains an enticing big red from the Golden State.
Senior editor Kim Marcus is Wine Spectator’s lead taster on California Merlot.
Note: The following article was originally written by Jess Lander and published in the Napa Valley Register on October 11, 2018 and can be found here.
Creepy visitors, ghostly wines: Flora Springs gets into the spirit of Halloween
As a tribute to their 1885 ghost winery, one of the few remaining in the area, Flora Springs Winery goes all out for Halloween.
You can’t miss the trio of enormous skeletons that dance outside their Highway 29 tasting room in St. Helena. Inside, the walls are covered in cobwebs, rooms are transformed into a crematorium and morgue, and you might just find a headless horseman sitting at your table and struggling to sip his wine (for a lack of mouth). But the decorations, done by local design team, The Baker Sisters, are just the beginning. The winery’s Halloween preparation starts months in advance.
For eight years running, Flora Springs has released a collection of limited release, Halloween wines. Featuring custom labels and usually 100 percent bottlings of varieties that are traditionally used for blending, the initiative was started by Nat Komes, general manager and son of proprietors John and Carrie Komes. He has a personal fondness for the holiday and even tied the knot on Oct. 31.
Komes’ inspiration for the Halloween collection came from an unlikely place: beer. Once a year, hundreds of thirsty fans spend hours lined up outside Santa Rosa’s Russian River Brewing Company, all for a taste of their cult release, Pliny the Younger.
He wanted his own version of that, saying, “I was trying to generate some of that excitement in the wine business.”
There might not be a line outside of Flora Springs, but there’s certainly a high demand among the winery’s followers. The Halloween wines often sell out well before Halloween each year and have become collectors items in the cellars of many wine club members.
It all started with the Ghost Winery series in 2010. For the labels, Komes partnered with artist Wes Freed, best known for his eerie illustrations on Drive-By Truckers album covers. One of those albums was a favorite of Komes’ brother.
“My brother passed away from cancer right when I was starting the Ghost Winery project,” said Komes. “That’s how I got a hold of Wes Freed, because that was his favorite record at the time. I reached out to him, started telling him about my brother, how he loved the art, and he came right back to me and said, ‘Let’s get going on this.’”
Over the years, the Ghost Winery series evolved into the Halloween collection with a Ghost Winery label at its centerpiece. Always a bottling of malbec —fittingly sourced right in front of Flora Springs’ ghost winery — the label is a modern interpretation of the 1978 label. It features a sketch of the stone ghost winery building, which was severely damaged in a fire in 1900, but has since been restored.
While the Ghost Winery Malbec stays the same every year, the labels of the others change. Komes develops his vision by scouring through children’s books, album covers, comic books and even skateboards, then contacts the respective artist and commissions them to create a one-of-a-kind wine label for that year’s release.
His favorite label of 2018 is the 2016 All Hallows’ Eve Cabernet Franc, a throwback to old school Halloween imagery of a black cat and jack-o-lantern. The art was done by artist Emmenline Forrestal, a former wig maker who illustrated the children’s book “Gloppy,” a favorite of Komes’ daughter’s.
The true collectors item this year is the 2014 Drink In Peace Merlot. On it, a hand-etched, glow-in-the-dark skeleton holds a wine bottle across its chest. It even comes packaged in a coffin box.
And then there’s the 2013 Black Moon Cabernet Sauvignon. Available only in magnums, it’s already sold out and therefore as rare as an actual black moon (defined as an additional new moon that appears in a month or in a season, or the absence of a full moon or of a new moon in a month).
Skateboard artist Dennis McNett’s illustration depicts the phases of the moon surrounded by bats, which Komes said are regulars in the steeple of the ghost winery. The art is etched and hand painted on the bottle.
The new ghost tour
Those who want to taste the Halloween wines can reserve a tasting at The Room, Flora Springs’ St. Helena tasting room, but this year, the winery is taking their celebrations to a new level of creep with a ghost tour. Flora Springs has teamed up with Napa City Ghosts & Legends to lead a paranormal tour of the ghost winery and estate on Sunday, Oct. 28 at 10:30 a.m.
Komes said he was always curious if the ghost winery was haunted and that Napa City Ghosts have since identified three spirits during their recent visits. There’s Matthew, who supposedly died in a horse-related accident, a flapper who loves to party, and another man who gave off a particularly unsettling vibe.
Let’s hope he’s not in the mood for socializing that day.
For more information on Flora Springs’ Halloween tastings and ghost tour, visit www.florasprings.com/events.
Tuesday, September 18th, 2018 was a day of “firsts” at Flora Springs: the first day we harvested Chardonnay as well as the first day of harvesting reds. We hand-picked our Lavender Hill block of Chardonnay in Carneros in the morning. The ½ ton bins were delivered to the winery where the juice was pressed out of clusters. The fruit tasted terrific! It’s very tropical, with nice apple and pear characteristics and a good acid balance.
The Chardonnay juice resided in a holding tank at 45°F for 24 hours, and then we moved it to another tank and inoculated it with yeast. Once fermentation gets going we’ll move the juice to various fermentation vessels, including puncheons (a large 130-gallon oak barrel), standard 60-gallon oak barrels, as well as concrete eggs, which some of you may have seen in our cave. We ferment our Chardonnay at cool temperatures to retain aromatics. It’ll take upward of three weeks to ferment the juice to dryness.
We also picked two blocks of Merlot on Tuesday, both from the Rutherford appellation: our Windfall Vineyard at the very southern end of the Rutherford appellation, and a block on the Komes Ranch at the winery’s estate, at the very northern end of the appellation. Block B of the Komes Ranch is the first block to your right as you enter the estate, and the eastern section of this block is always about a week to 10 days ahead of the rest, so we pick this section first. Like the Chardonnay, the Merlots look and taste terrific. In both blocks the grapes were very well balanced on the vine and taste fantastic!
With the Merlot, we “cold soak” the fruit for about four days at 50°F. During that time we do “pumpovers,” where we pump juice from the bottom of the tank and irrigate the cap that forms at the top of the tank. This helps us get color, flavor and tannin from the skins. On the fifth day, we warm up the tank and inoculate the juice with yeast. We ferment at about 85°F, pumping over anywhere from one to three times a day depending on the stage of fermentation.
The cooler than normal temperatures we’re seeing this harvest is allowing fruit flavors to develop slowly on the vine without the spike in sugar – which is a great thing! When we can obtain physiological ripeness with lower sugar, it’s a gift from Mother Nature. We’ll have a bit of a break before we bring in the next grapes, but we expect to harvest some Sangiovese and additional Merlot within the next week. It looks to be another magical harvest!
Today, we’re headed to Napa for a red wine from one of my favorite producers:
2015 Napa Valley Merlot produced & bottled by Flora Springs (St. Helena, California).
This wine is 100% merlot from the Napa Valley. Following fermentation, the wine was aged for 19 months in a combination of new and used oak barrels. It comes in at 14.2% ABV.
Here it is in the glass:
The wine showed a dark ruby color. Blackberry, cassis, mocha, vanilla, plum and oak all arrived on the deep and alluring nose. Blackberry, black cherry, cassis, vanilla, plum and oak followed on the palate. The wine exhibited great structure and length, along with soft tannins. This wine would pair well with a grilled hanger steak.