The Withers Winery crafts some bodacious (yes, I just used that word) Chardonnays and some elegant Pinot Noirs. But their passion — if not their claim to fame — are Rhone-inspired wines from the self-proclaimed “Rhone Zone” of El Dorado County. They craft some excellent single varietals including the somewhat obscure Counoise, but I just love how they play with the classic GSM (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre) blend. In fact, when I received my shipment of The Withers wines, I was delighted to see three different takes — each one highlighting a different grape. So while the previously reviewed Bel Canto was more of a GMS, this 2014 Ruben is more of a MSG (but the good kind) — highlighting my favorite of the three ingredients, Mourvedre.
I’m not going to lie — I’ve heard mixed reviews about Justin Winery. It seems my fellow wine enthusiasts either absolutely love or will have nothing to do with this big name winery. But when I decided to do this week-long series dedicated to Rhone, I couldn’t ignore this Paso Robles icon.
When Justin Baldwin first purchased his piece of Paso in 1981 he — like so many others back then — orginally intended to work exclusively with the classic Bordeaux varieties and craft Bordeaux-style blends. Of course, as we all know, Paso Robles is kind of California’s mini-slice of the Rhone Valley and vintners there can’t help but at least have one or two Rhone-inspired wines in their portfolio.
Interesting enough, when I was studying for my recent Rhone article (Read Where We Rhone), I found out that, as odd as it sounds, blending Syrah with Cabernet Sauvignon is not that uncommon — in the New World or the Old. And so it is that I decided to include Justin’s Savant red blend in this series.
I first met Randall Grahm at one of the annual Rhone Rangers events in San Francisco, after which he was kind enough to invite me to his Davenport tasting room and take me through a full line up of his — then — current releases. I was enthralled, not just with Randall’s obvious passion for wine, but his innate ability to teach about wine and pass his passion forward. That first one-on-one meeting will always be a special memory for me.
The thing about Bonny Doon Vineyard wines is that there’s, well, a lot of them — reds, whites, pinks, even oranges and more obscure colors — the common thread being Rhone varietals and Rhone-style blends. As a young winemaker, Grahm sought to recreate the great wines of France here in his native California home, but soon realized that one cannot make French wine if one is not, in fact, in France. So now the very core of his Rhone-style wines is the idea of vins de terroir — wine that speaks of its specific place and time. He’s constantly experimenting with new-to-California wine grape varieties to see if and where they’ll thrive — and if he finds a vine’s sweet spot, rest-assured a wine will soon follow. He also plays with the idea of Rhone-style blends. This eclectic mix of Iberian grapes Tempranillo and Graciano along with the well-recognized Rhone grape Grenache Blanc was, for me, a new concept — and one I couldn’t leave behind in the tasting room.
Founder John Shafer wasn’t always a wine country cowboy. At 50 years old, Shafer left his business shoes and commuter trains behind in Chicago, trading them in for a pair of boots and a TD-9 tractor. Without a green thumb to speak of, he picked up his family and purchased his first piece of Napa Valley property. On that property were old sheds and ancient farming equipment — among them an International Harvester tractor from the 1950s. One of his first challenges was learning how to drive the rickety old beast — but he loved every moment of it.
The TD-9 proprietary red blend is made each year with that same spirit — making the best of what you have and enjoying the process. “Any time you try something new, you take a gamble,” says winery president and John’s son Doug Shafer. “But the story of TD-9 is all about risk-taking and a sense of adventure – it was there at our founding and it’s part of our DNA today.”
If you’ve been following along, you know I’ve discovered my new “winemaker to watch.” Mark Flowers, owner and winemaker for Mark Edward Wines astonished me with his delicate Zinfandel and the friendly expression of his Petite Sirah. So, even though I’m often skeptical of red blends — especially those that begin with Zinfandel — I was not afraid to pop the cork of another one of Mark’s wines. In fact, by this time I was excited just to see what else this young man can do…