Celebrating St. Patrick’s Day In Napa Valley by valleyfog

Outside the Rutherford Grange

Waits-Mast Family Cellars (admittedly a non-Irish-sounding winery name) poured our Pinot Noir at “When Irish Wines Are Smiling,” a wine tasting — okay, really, it was a kick-ass St. Patrick’s Day party — held in Rutherford, Napa Valley, last Sunday.

The whole event was organized around California wineries with Irish heritage, inspired by the Wine Geese, a long tradition of Irish emigrants involved in winegrowing and winemaking ventures all over the world.

We both have Irish heritage, with the most immediate connection being from Brian’s late mother who was born and raised in County Louth, Ireland. We also had just recently been back to visit Ireland and learned all about the Wine Geese and vineyards and winemaking that currently exist in this small, perennially damp country. So as soon as we heard about this event linking two of our favorite things – Ireland and wine – we were all over it.

In addition to Waits-Mast (a very British and German name combination), 15 other California wineries with Irish heritage poured their wonderful wines. Included in the event were Fitzpatrick, Murphy, Sullivan, Taylor, Irish Vineyards, Harrington, Brown Estate, Roche, Twomey and other notable Napa and Sonoma wineries. Chefs Kelley MacDonald from the Napa Valley Wine Train and Bob Hurley from Hurley’s, along with Kerrygold (yum: Irish butter and cheese), kept our bellies full with hearty Irish sustenance.

The view from our table

We usually don’t do too much to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, despite our deep Irish connections. Not that we don’t like beer – the Guinness and the Harp are great – it’s just a mob scene in most of the pubs/bars in San Francisco. But this year, the Irish Wines event was a perfect match for us. Not only did we get to pour our wine for a great crowd of people, we got to celebrate ourselves by enjoying other “Irish” wines, great food from local Irish/American chefs, Irish trad music and step dancing. For a mini-tour of the event, click on the video below.

We took advantage of the event to preview two of our unreleased 2008 Waits-Mast Pinot Noirs (one from the Amber Ridge vineyard in Russian River Valley and the other from La Encantada vineyard in Sta. Rita Hills) in addition to pouring our 2008 Waits-Mast Pinot Noir from Hein Vineyard in Anderson Valley. It was helpful to get the early reaction on the two unreleased wines and get a sense for which one was ready for prime time. We’ll be revealing details on our Spring release soon, but in the meantime, here are some of the reactions that we heard about our wines at last week’s tasting. As always, there was almost an even split across tasters in terms of the wine that they preferred:

2008 Waits-Mast Pinot Noir, Hein Vineyard, Anderson Valley:

After winking at Jennifer, one taster said, “that’s really nice.” Others commented that it was “definitely the best Pinot I’ve had here,” “more Burgundian” and “earthy.”

2008 Waits-Mast Pinot Noir, Amber Ridge Vineyard, Russian River:

Tasters said, “this is the nicest one here,” mentioned its “pure Pinot fruit,” described it as a “Pinot for all occasions,” with “a really clean finish,” saying “it’s exquisite” and “spicier” than the others they tried.

2008 Waits-Mast Pinot Noir, La Encantada Vineyard, Sta Rita Hills:

One taster called this the “wine of the day,” with others commenting “that’s dirty…that’s what I look for, that earthy component,” and pointing out its “bright cranberry acid,” saying it’s “a little more complex,”  and “stands out from nose to palate.” Another added, “that’s good hooch.”

While it was a great wine tasting event, in the end it was really about celebrating our Irish heritage in a way that was both close to the homeland and close to home. And true to the spirit of Ireland, the people — the organizers, the wineries, the food purveyors, musicians and dancers and most importantly the attendees with their bua na cainte (gift of gab) — made the event.

Special thanks to Andrew Healy of Three Rock Wine Co. and Becky Tyner of Small Lot Wine Tours who worked in their free time and overtime to pull the event together and make it such a smashing success. We can’t wait for next year’s Irish wines tasting!

2010 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival Tickets Now on Sale by valleyfog

May 14-16, 2010

Tickets for the 2010 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival go on sale today. The festival runs Friday, May 14 through Sunday May 16, 2010 in Mendocino County, with most of the events happening in Boonville and Philo and all along Highway 128. Waits-Mast Family Cellars will be pouring its Anderson Valley pinot noirs, including our 2008 Hein Vineyard Pinot Noir, at the Grand Tasting on Saturday, May 15 from 11am – 3pm at Goldeneye Winery.

One of our favorite parts of the festival is the technical conference, which runs most of the day on Friday. It is a great opportunity to “geek out” on winegrowing and winemaking and also taste some great wines. This year the festival is adding a Consumer Tasting Seminar to the technical conference in the afternoon. This is ideal for attendees not interested in the more technical sessions or those unable to make it up for the 8am start of the conference.

There are also four winemaker dinners worth checking out, featuring wineries like Handley, Phillips Hill, Roederer Estate, MacPhail, Goldeneye and others. These are a real treat because they are small, intimate and often feature library wines. At every table there is a winemaker that you can chat with, so it’s a great way to get to know the people that make these wonderful wines.

Hein Family Vineyard in Anderson Valley, near Philo, CA.

Get your tickets earlier than later because many of the events, especially the technical conference and the winemaker dinners, sell out early.

The Grand Tasting usually limits the number of attendees to around 650 or so, to keep it from getting too crazy. Also plan to spend most of the day on Sunday in the valley because the open houses, which are free, are fantastic. They often feature library wines and great food and wine pairings. Some of our favorite stops include Londer, Mary Elke, Baxter and Esterlina. In other words, take Monday off to recover! We’ll see you up there in May!

Irish Wine Travel, Part 1: Our Visit to Lusca Vineyards in Ireland by Jennifer

Lusca Vineyards in Ireland

This Sunday we’ll be celebrating our Irish heritage at the event, When Irish Wines are Smiling, up in Rutherford.

Although it’s billed as an Irish wine tasting, the wine being poured is from U.S. winemakers of Irish descent.

There’s a long tradition of Irish emigrants (known as “wine geese“) starting up wine making ventures all over the world, and subsequently wineries with a distinct Irish heritage can be found from France (Chateau Lynch Bages) to Napa (Sullivan Vineyards) to Australia (Jas Hennessy & Co.).

As we gear up for that event, we figured it was time to taste some of the REAL Irish wine that we brought back with us from the Emerald Isle. When Brian and I were planning our trip to Ireland last summer, I became obsessed with tracking down wineries, vineyards, and winemakers. I’d heard rumors that there were a few brave souls attempting to grow grapes in Ireland’s hostile climate (rain, clouds, cold, little sun) and I made it my mission to find them.

Armed with the handy reference guide, The Wines of Britain and Ireland, I tried to make contact with the owners of the 5 vineyards listed. We managed to visit 2 of them (it’s unclear if the others even exist anymore), bringing back wine from both.

David Llewellyn at Lusca Vineyards

Last weekend we tasted 2 selections from David Llewellyn’s Lusca Vineyard, located in the countryside of Lusk, just north of Dublin.

David started working with vineyards 10 years ago and was originally “bitten by the bug” while working with a vine grower in Germany.

In Spring 2003 he planted vines and apples on his current property in Lusk. Although he has some traditional, open-air vines which are “not very productive,” the majority of David’s vineyards are housed in tunnels. Some of the challenges he faces include grapes that rarely ripen (in open air) and crop-destroying wasps that will decimate the vineyard if they discover ripening fruit. The first commercial release from Lusca Vineyard was the 2005 vintage.

Although his wine making venture is notable, it’s a tiny fraction of David’s overall farming business, as he has quite a reputation for his apples, apple juice and cider. Last year he only made several hundred bottles of wine, which he sells at Farmer’s Markets, in a few restaurants, and directly to customers. In the near future one will also be able to purchase Lusca wines from David’s soon-to-be-launched website Fruit and Vine.

Grapes on the Vine at Lusca Vineyards, Ireland

It was amazing for us to see the sheer numbers of grape varietals that he squeezed into his tunnels in Lusk.

David is growing Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Schoenburger, New York Muscat, Pinot Noir, and Dunkelfelder under cover. According to David, these vines are “summer-protected with over-row polythene cloche.”

His open-air vines include Rondo, Regent, Phoenix, and Madeleine Angevine grapes and David has successfully produced wine from these vineyards as well (a 2006 red wine).

The wines of his that we sampled last weekend were a refreshing, lemony 2006 Lusca Sauvignon Blanc and a 2007 Lusca Cabernet/Merlot. Both were produced from grapes grown under cover and they were very limited production (80 bottles of the Sauvignon Blanc and 250 bottles of the Cabernet/Merlot were made). They were both pleasant to drink and we even enjoyed the chilled Sauvignon Blanc a day later, which Brian described as crisp and acidic, with light pear flavors.

We were so impressed by David’s passion for winemaking and he’s truly a renegade in Ireland. Since he isn’t part of a winemaking community and is making such small quantities of wine, he has to be creative about ways to save on labor and expense. For example, he has one wine label and simply hand-writes the name of the wine and vintage on each bottle. He has his own crusher and press, but doesn’t make enough wine to justify using barrels (so he uses glass or plastic containers for storage and adds oak chips to his red wines).

Lusca Irish Wine

David prided himself on the fact his grapes are grown organically and are disease-free without the use of fungicides. He also doesn’t filter his wines. He recognizes that there are nay-sayers who critique his method of growing, but he pointed out that every winemaker makes choices and he questioned whether or not using fungicide could also be considered “cheating.”

Since we’re focused entirely on Pinot Noir in our own winemaking endeavors, I asked him a bit about his efforts with that grape. He told us that he just has a few Pinot Noir vines, currently not enough to make wine from. His plan is to plant more Pinot Noir and is anticipating a harvest in 2011 for wine in 2012.

To get some more perspective on winemaking in Ireland, I talked to Stephen Skelton, author of The Wines of Britain and Ireland and UK Vineyards Guide 2010. According to Stephen, there are only 3 Irish vineyards listed in his current guide. He explained that some of the older vineyards in Ireland (rumor has it that some date to the 1950s) were just not productive enough. According to Stephen, “Basically Ireland is too cool and wet. They can grow some apples there, but its mainly Bramleys which are cookers and do not require that much sugar, and growing grapes outside would be difficult.”

He added that, “Tunnels are legitimate and there is nothing in the law that says wine grapes have to be grown outside. One of the best UK reds – Beenleigh – is made from Cab and Merlot grown in tunnels.”

Kudos to David Llellewyn for his commitment to making wine in Ireland. Although most people think it’s crazy to even try, I admire his perseverance and I’m always one to champion the underdog. I’m reminded of a comment that I read about Tool front man Maynard James Keenan’s Arizona wine making project (chronicled in the film “Blood into Wine”). Someone quipped, “why doesn’t he just make wine in Napa.” Well….isn’t that the point?