NL57 SUMMER/FALL 2018
2015 SANGIOVESE RISERVA
2015 SYRAH BENCHLAND
2017 CUVÉE BLANC
Jumping at shadows? Oh well...
It’s funny how the most random of things can influence you.
Twenty years ago there was a small record store next to the Mystic Theater in Petaluma. The owner (or at least I think he was the owner) was the biggest fan of Peter Green, guitarist, and founder of Fleetwood Mac. At the time, I thought Peter Green was good, but it took me several years to appreciate why this owner was so crazy about him.
Peter Green was part of an elite group of respected English guitarists, all influenced by American Blues artists such as Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and B.B. King. Green replaced a guitarist named Eric Clapton (wonder if he had a successful career?) when Clapton left John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. Green then hooked up with Mick Fleetwood and John McVie to form Fleetwood Mac in 1968.
His most famous composition, Black Magic Woman became an anthem for another no-name guitarist and fellow Tesla driver, Carlos Santana. I however was more drawn to Green’s composition of Oh Well, which in my fantasy world would be my ultimate walk-up song in baseball.
A couple years ago, while perusing in another independent record store, I found a double cd called Jumping at Shadows. It is an amazing collection of live and studio performances from the early years of Fleetwood Mac. Apparently, Green wanted to pursue a sound that was beyond the blues, and it is evident in this collection with the addition of guitarist, Danny Kirwan. Fleetwood Mac would continually evolve beyond Peter Green with a unique blend of blues, rock, and pop that, as you well know eventually found huge commercial success (albeit with less of the blues edge).
I love re-discovering a truly great musician and genre of music that is definitely timeless. I find myself viewing Zinfandel in a similar fashion. I’ve recently tasted Zinfandels from the 1970’s and 1980’s that were made with more tannin and complexity (aka Petite Sirah). While the wines are a little tired after so many years in the bottle, these classics are eminently more interesting (timeless?) than many of the big, lush, and often alcoholic Zins of today—wines that are the equivalent of Fleetwood Mac with Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks.
So if that record store owner is still in Sonoma County, please contact me. I have a bottle of 2016 Zin waiting for you.
Jason goes to Italy!
Our winemaker Jason Valenti took his first trip to Italy to participate in an exciting two-day conference called Indigena. Indigena is the brainchild of Ian D’Agata, well-known author, and contributor to the prestigious wine publications Decanter and Vinous. The conference provides winemakers, sommeliers, and wine writers from around the world an opportunity to exchange information on wines made from Italian (native) wine grapes. You may recall I attended the first iteration of this event in 2016.
This year the conference was held in the castle of Barolo, May 3-4. Jason was able to present several wines including our Vermentino, Barbera, Sangiovese, Montepulciano, and Fiano.
(As Jason recalls it) Well...here is the way I describe it to people when they ask me what I did on my "work trip" to Italy: I got to sit down with the world's foremost expert on native Italian grapes (Ian D'Agata) and many of his best contacts/colleagues from around the globe, many of whom, experts in their own right, to taste and discuss the wines of Piemonte and experience the successes and heights Piemonte varietals (as well as other Italian varietals) are achieving in other parts of the world. The heart of the conference (and my favorite part) were the intensive day-long tastings where we would descend into the basement of Castello di Barolo to taste the magnificent wines of Piemonte with the vintners/winemakers themselves: It is probably not too hard to imagine that Michele Chiarlo Barbera d' Asti taste even better when you are tasting it with Stefano Chiarlo or that Marchese di Barolo (Barolo Coste di Rose) taste even better when you are tasting it alongside the estate's elegant, gracious, and articulate daughter, Valentina Abbona. After tasting 130+ wines over a three day period, there were many takeaways and memories, but one particular observation stuck with me first and foremost: Almost without exception, when the Piemonte vintners got up to speak about their wines, the discussion began with the long history of their families and the deep connection they have with their soils. For a "New World" winemaker, it was both humbling and inspirational at the same time. This was the inaugural year for the Indigena conference and I think those of us who were lucky enough to attend know we were present for the beginning of something special and that it was much more than just a conference...it was a rich cultural exchange taking place against one of the most beautiful backdrops imaginable.
(LEFT) Barolo tasting line up (RIGHT) Town of Barolo
100 % BARBERA / 725 CASES
2016 Barbera DCV Superiore?
Barbera is now one of our most highly sought-after wines. No surprise, given the nature of the variety and our more concentrated style of Barbera.
When I went to Piemonte in 2016, I met several winemakers who were taking Barbera to new heights. Many of these folks were younger than yours truly (how hard could that be?) and making their Barbera from Asti, Nizza, and Monferrato—the DOCGs outside of Alba, where Barolo and Barbaresco (Nebbiolo) is rightfully prioritized.
The most compelling wines are called Barbera d’Asti Superiore and Nizza, formerly the sub-region of Barbera d’Asti is now its own DOCG. These Barberas are more full-bodied, made from selected grapes, and aged in wood for a minimum of 6 months. Not surprisingly, this is almost precisely how we make our Barbera.
Italian Wine Guru Ian D’Agata has a nice perspective on Barbera:
“Clearly, Barbera d’Asti Superiore is a bigger wine than Barbera d’Asti, made from selected grapes, and must be aged for at least six months in wood. Nizza is where the most age-worthy and arguably the best Barbera d’Asti is made. Previously called Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza, mercifully the name has now been shortened to just Nizza. The best wines are balanced and powerful, aging well from eight to 10 years after the vintage.”
Since 2015 we have more aggressively thinned Barbera, which brings even more concentration in this 2016 vintage. At the Indigena conference, Jason noticed the similarity between our Barbera and the Barbera Supieriore or Nizza from Asti. I guess you could say that Dry Creek Valley is the Asti or Nizza of California for Barbera. Our evening temperatures here are cool which, provides deep color and bright acidity in physiologically ripe fruit. It gives our Barbera a tad more structure which bodes well for a little aging potential.
This Barbera is slightly more full-bodied than in 2015. It should really start hitting its stride in about a year.
2015 SANGIOVESE RISERVA
100 % SANGIOVESE / 138 CASES
$50 / BTL.
Jason reported that D’Agata felt one of the most impressive wines at the Indigena conference was our 2015 Sangiovese Riserva. Upon tasting our Sangiovese, the most common reaction from several excellent sommeliers, wine buyers, and winemakers like Fred Scherrer and Marco Di Giulio are it has “classic structure of Tuscan wines.” This is music to my ears.
By now you are surely tired of me detailing the challenges of making high-quality Sangiovese. But it bears repeating. Our experience learning how to farm Sangiovese for quality has been a blueprint for making better wine from Grenache, Barbera, Montepulciano, and Zinfandel. Crop thinning, scrutinizing our watering program, and singling out special sections within our vineyards has helped us make the kind of wines we would respect from Europe: Wines that have the personality of the appellation (in Dry Creek its fruitiness) with classic elements of structure (tannin and acidity).
Most California wineries are still learning how to deal with Sangiovese. It is a vigorous vine that is extremely sensitive to the site where it is grown. As such, California has a reputation for making light, fruity, high alcohol and low acid Sangiovese. Doesn’t sound very “classic” to those who know and love Tuscan wine.
This 2015 Sangiovese Riserva comes from the west hillside section of our vineyard George planted in 1992. Now with some vine age, this section produces by far our best Sangiovese. The 2015 Riserva is notch above the last few vintages not because it is more tannic, but because of its depth, complexity, and elegance. It is definitely the closest we have come to making a Brunello-like Sangiovese—one that has a nice long life (6-8 years?) ahead of it.
If you are a fan of our Sangiovese you don’t want to miss this vintage, especially since we only made 138 cases.
76% ZINFANDEL, 18% PETITE SIRAH, 6% BARBERA / 1,125 CASES
Oh Yeah, and we have Zinfandel…
In our zeal to discuss Barbera, Grenache, Montepulciano, Sangiovese, Syrah, or any of our crazy whites, we often relegate Zinfandel to an “Oh, by the way” status. In most vintages, our Zinfandel is still one of our strongest wines. The grape clearly has an affinity with the Dry Creek Valley. And our approach to making Zin is to use Petite Sirah and Barbera to highlight fruit, tannin, and balance. Obviously I understand and endorse “pushing the envelope” by cultivating classic Mediterranean grape varieties beyond Zinfandel in DCV. But it is no reason to ignore the tried and true wine type of this area…even at Unti.
Field blend in the tank
What distinguishes Dry Creek Valley Zinfandels from other AVAs? Climate? A little. Soils? Not really. History/Tradition? Bingo. Dry Creek Valley will probably forever be known as California’s premier AVA for Zinfandel. I think writer Steve Heimhoff said it best in his piece in 2010 Wine Enthusiast:
Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel holds a unique place in California. Napa Valley Zins may be more classically structured and “claret-like.” Sierra Foothills Zins are brawnier and more powerful, Paso Robles’ riper and softer. Russian River Valley Zinfandel is a touch darker and more tannic. But when it comes to the briars and brambles that give Zinfandel its inimitable mouthfeel and flavors, Dry Creek wins the honors. Perhaps no other area combines the special contribution of fruit from old vines with season-long heat and the occasional introduction of what amounts to field blending. The results are wines that exhibit powerful dark fruit flavors, distinctive spice-pepper-cinnamon notes, and a hard-to-define floral undertone, the impact of which balances the high alcohol. The result is classic Zin, robust and hearty, perhaps California’s greatest barbecue wine.
I was attracted to Dry Creek Zin for all of the above reasons. My favorite DCV Zinfandels always included anywhere from 10 to 20% Petite Sirah. Petite gives Zin enough tannin to balance out the alcohol without masking that brambly fruit generated in the AVAs climate. Blending Petite Sirah into Zinfandel has been common knowledge here for some time since most of the old vine Zin vineyards are planted with significant amounts of Petite Sirah and a little Carignan.
In 2010, we grafted 5 rows of our beloved Benchland Syrah vineyard over to Petite Sirah thinking it should provide higher quality Petite. Our reasoning worked because the Benchland site ripens earlier than where we had Petite planted on the winery parcel. In 2016, we were able to harvest beautiful Petite Sirah fruit a day after we harvested our Primitivo-Zin vineyard… so we made a field blend in the tank. Co-fermenting Petite with Zin helps stabilize dark color and tannin structure of the wine. There is an obvious risk… once you combine the two, you can’t change your mind. But we have always been impressed with the results.
So this 2016 Zinfandel would fit right in with its Dry Creek Valley predecessors of the 1970’s and 1980’s (think bell bottoms, mullets, and of course Elvis Costello and Talking Heads). The only twist is our inclusion of Barbera for acidity…which is our way of Unti-izing Zin. It is very much like the description from Mr. Heimhof—extremely dark, fruity, and spicy, with a tannic backbone that is disguised in juicy fruit…a big boy with a soft heart.
2015 SYRAH BENCHLAND
100% SYRAH / 150 CASES
The 2015 vintage really shined in our three best wines: Cuvée Foudre, Sangiovese Riserva, and this, our 2015 Benchland Syrah. The drought conditions in the spring of 2015 created a small crop set which is a common characteristic among great vintage wine anywhere in the world. Additionally, this vineyard, planted in 1991 is starting to show the pedigree of an older vineyard—consistently producing high quality fruit and more complex wine. Funny how I think that being older is now a good thing…
Making Syrah from this, dare I say “iconic” vineyard is pretty straightforward: Very little sorting for bad grapes, de-stem the bunches, cold soak for 5 days in a small tank, let the natural yeasts start the fermentation, punch down once a day for a couple weeks, press and rack into French oak and you have one of our most distinguished wines.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr, when asked to describe his strategy for beating the Houston Rockets in game 7 of the Western Conference Finals, said “Our talent simply took over.” Ultimately Benchland Syrah is not about our winemaking. It is about the vineyard. If we do any “coaching” it is through crop-thinning and canopy management. The vineyard does the rest.
This 2015 Benchland Syrah is a classic vintage in the mold of our 2007 or 2012, meaning it has an extra dimension of fruit to go along with the savory elements and tannin structure we are accustom to seeing from this vineyard. It should age nicely for many years (6 to 8) to come.
100 % VERMENTINO / 170 CASES / LIMIT OF 3 btls
I recently participated in a tasting for ten sommeliers coordinated by Geoff Kruth, head of Guild Somm. Geoff Kruth, a master sommelier, is one of the most thoughtful people I’ve ever met in the wine business.
The first two excellent white wines presented were from two wineries known for making Chardonnay: Peay Vineyards and Hanzel. Both winemakers credited their extremely cool growing site as being responsible for the wines’ high acidity. I introduced our 2016 Cuvée Blanc saying Dry Creek Valley is NOT considered cool-climate, yet the wine had higher natural acidity than the Chardonnays. Vermentino is a grape that can achieve flavor ripeness AND retain high natural acidity in our AVA.
My intention was not to be a shit-disturber (although, it always seems to work out that way, doesn’t it?). It’s just that I believe the “pursuit” of making balanced white wines begins with finding a variety that fits our climate—not the other way around (searching for a climate just to make a certain variety). When you look at it this way, Vermentino is the perfect white grape to grow here in California.
Once you avail your palate to Vermentino, you find it makes an eminently enjoyable wine that does not require barrel fermentation or aging to have personality. And there is that acidity…
This 2017 Vermentino is almost as nervy as the folks who made it. It has a pH of 3.16, meaning it is quite high in acid. Combined with the intensity of fruit we get here in Dry Creek, you have what should be the new classic California non-oaked white. A wine I never get tired of drinking.
2017 CUVÉE BLANC
50% GRENACHE BLANC 50% VERMENTINO / 505 CASES $30 btl
As much as I love Vermentino on its own, my favorite Unti white is Cuvée Blanc. Grenache Blanc and Vermentino are meant for each other. This 2017 CB, like most healthy relationships, is a 50/50 deal.
I love Grenache Blanc when it is made in the style of a French Chablis. This style, however, is not very common. Most Grenache Blanc in Europe and especially California is more golden colored, with rich texture and lower acidity. Since Grenache Blanc is a genetic mutation of Grenache, it can have some phenolics (tannin), so I'm guessing folks harvest a little later than normal to avoid some green tannin.
We feel that reducing the crop on Grenache Blanc helps us achieve mature aromas and flavors at lower sugars when the acidity is high. This more mineral-driven style of Grenache Blanc is complimented by the soft fruity character of Vermentino. The 2017 Cuvée Blanc was the fastest blending trial we have ever had for our whites. When Jason and I tried this blend our eyes lit up because both varieties had great fruit, energy, and acidity. Normally we blend a bit of Picpoul, but in 2017 the Picpoul softened the structure so we kept it out of the blend.
Like most European whites with firm acid structure, this ’17 CB could still use a few more months to really shine. In fact, the wine should age beautifully over the next 2-3 years. How many times have I ever said that about a California white wine (almost none)?
Unti does not have a traditional wine club, rather, we notify you when we have new releases, tastings in your area or events at the winery.