We import white and red Croatian wines and make them available to U.S. consumers at our Topochines Vino online wine store: www.topochinesvino.com.
In late 2016 we made our first ever foray to the Balkans, a trip that was planned more or less on a whim and without any goal in mind but to explore the countries that make up the former Yugoslavia. When this former communist country imploded in the early 1990’s, a number of countries formed out of its ashes – either six or seven, depending on whom you ask. Yes, in that part of the world, everything is up for dispute. At a minimum, the former Yugoslavia now comprises Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia and Macedonia. For reasons too complicated to explain here, Macedonia is usually referred to as the FYROM – the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Counting Macedonia, there are six countries that have sprung from the boundaries of the old Yugoslavia. We’ll save the story about Kosovo for another day, but you can see on this map that it is considered an autonomous province of Serbia.
There is a lot going on in this region!
On our 2 1/2 week trip we visited half of the countries that make up former Yugoslavia – Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia & Herzegovina. During this trip – which originated in Venice – we met wine makers and other wine experts that opened our eyes up about this truly fascinating region. We were somewhat familiar with the history of the region, going back to the murder of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo that sparked WWI, extending all the way through the recent Balkan war. A very important detail, though, had escaped us: the region’s viticulture and enology.
During our trip we learned that grape growing and wine making in Croatia, for example, go back 2,500 years to the time of the Ancient Greek settlers. All along the Dalmatian coast of Croatia, grapes were planted and quality wine was made for both domestic use as well as export. In more recent times, private wine production was hampered by the communist Yugoslav government, resulting in much of the wine industry being cooperatives, with private ownership discouraged. After the collapse of Yugoslavia, private ownership of land once again emerged and the commercial production of wine once again became vibrant. For the uninitiated, here is a quick primer on Croatian wines:
Wine Regions. While there are 300 recognized sub-regions in Croatia, they can be broken down into two broad categories: Continental and Coastal. Historically, much of the hype has come from the Coastal region as it encompasses the well-known Istria region (very similar in many ways to Tuscany) and the Dalmatian coastal and island vineyards that produce some of the best wines in Croatia. However, in the past several years producers in the Continental part of Croatia – primarily Slavonia and Plešivica – have begun making wines that are getting international attention. We have recently tasted some of these wines, including some delicious sparkling wines, and plan to import them here to the U.S. and offer them on our Topochines Vino online wine store.
Even with the recent surge of quality in the Continental region, the focus in Croatia is still on the Coastal regions of Istria and Dalmatia. Many visitors to Istria compare it to Tuscany, both for its physical resemblance as well as the quality food and wine available.
Stunning views of Istrian vineyards in Croatia
Both red and white wines are produced in Istria, and vineyards feature both indigenous and international grape varietals. The most common indigenous white grape grown in Istria is Malvasia; the most common red varietal is Teran. We are offering a crisp, refreshing Istrian Malvasia from producer Benvenuti: Buy Malvasia.
Farther down the coast of Dalmatia one encounters some of the most famous regions and vineyards in all of Croatia. most of them producing wine from indigenous Croatian varietals. Dalmatia breaks into three geographic sub-regions: Northern Dalmatia, Interior Dalmatia, and Central/Southern Dalmatia. These regions are largely dedicated to producing indigenous Croatian white varietals such as Bogdanuša, Debit, Grk, and Ninčuša and red varietals including Crljenak Kaštelanski, Dobričić, Plavina and Plavac Mali.
Geographically, the vineyards and wineries in Dalmatia are stunning and unlike anything we have ever seen. One of the places we visited was Grgic Vina, the Croatian winery owned by Napa winemaking legend Mike Grgich (of Grgich Hills). Their winery is a literal stone’s throw from the Adriatic sea and their vineyards a few hundred meters up the slope from the sea.
Grgic Vina on Croatia’s Peljesac Peninsula in Croatia
Along the coast, many of the vineyards can be found on unbelievably sloped hills, some of them with upwards of 45 degree slope with vines running straight up and down the hill.
Plavac Mali vines in Dingac (Croatia)
Obviously, harvest must be done by hand and in most cases the pickers have to be harnessed and tethered due to the extreme slope.
In all of our travels to U.S. and foreign wine regions, we have not seen anything quite like the Dalmatian region of Croatia. While many vines are on the mainland close to the sea, some of the most famous vineyards are on islands and/or peninsulas: Hvar, Brac, Korcula, Vis, and the Peljesac Peninsula that houses the Dingac vineyards above.
Island of Korcula, home to Grk and Posip (Croatia)
Island of Hvar (Croatia)
In our second installment on Croatia wines, we will go deeper into some of the wines that we think are most special and give more information about some of the most important indigenous varietals.
This is the latest chapter in our ongoing series of posts about wines and wine makers that we feature on our Online Wine Store. Our Topochines Vino wine store focuses on small-production wines from family wineries in the United States and Europe. This chapter is dedicated to one of our newer winery partners, Ghost Hill Cellars in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, whose 2013 and 2014 Pinot Noir Blanc are sold on our site.
Most of the world’s champagne is made from the red Pinot Noir grape. After the Pinot Noir grapes are pressed, the extracted juice is removed before the dark skins contribute any color. What emerges from this process is a clear liquid that will, after a couple of fermentations, become champagne. What many people do not know is that a still, white wine can also be produced from Pinot Noir Grapes; this wine is called Pinot Noir Blanc, or white Pinot Noir. We encountered this wine recently during a trip to find unique wines for our Topochines Vino wine store. We were so impressed with the wine that we snapped up several cases and the 2013 and 2014 vintages are now available here: Ghost Hill Pinot Noir Blanc.
Just before Thanksgiving, we spent nearly a week in Oregon’s Willamette Valley crisscrossing the Valley from one A.V.A. to another. One of our favorite stops was the intriguingly named Ghost Hill in the Yamhill-Carlton District. According to legend, in the late 1890’s a miner was traveling from Southern Oregon to sell his gold in Portland. He made the fateful decision to stop for the night and set up camp at the top of what is now known as Ghost Hill. During the night, so the story goes, the miner was robbed and killed, his horse mortally injured, and his hard-earned gold stolen. To this day, the miner is said to wander the hill looking for his stolen gold and to right the wrongs that befell him that night. Hence the name Ghost Hill.
Not hard to imagine a ghost on that hill
While the miner may be still searching for his gold, the Bayliss family has struck gold of its own on this property – wine gold, that is. In total, the Bayliss family owns 234 acres of farmland, a true “Century” farm – meaning it has been owned continuously by the same family for over 100 years. In the case of the Bayliss clan, they are on their fifth generation working this land. For most of the 20th Century, the Ghost Hill land was dedicated to sheep and cattle, hay, and other crops. In 1999, Mike Bayliss and his wife Dendra decided to plant Pinot Noir on a portion of the property and today they farm a 16-acre parcel planted 100% to Pinot Noir. Their Ghost Hill Cellars label produces several different wines from these grapes – the above-mentioned Pinot Noir Blanc, a rosé of Pinot Noir, and two separate Pinot Noir offerings.
We did our tasting in the cozy Ghost Hill tasting room, with owners Mike and Dendra pouring the wines and telling us more about each of the wines. Mike and his son Michael built the wooden Ghost Hill tasting room building by hand,
inspired by prospector shacks of the 1850s. The building features a sliding barn door,
reclaimed windows from the nearby Trappist Abbey Church, and a counter made from the former altar floor.
Ghost Hill Cellars tasting room
Mike and Dendra live on the Ghost Hill estate in the same farmhouse where Mike was born 70 years ago. He and Dendra have been married for 50 years and they are true partners managing this large farm. As Ghost Hill only makes wine from Pinot Noir, we made our way through their portfolio, starting with the whites, moving to the “pink,” and on to the red.
We started our tasting with the 2013 Ghost Hill Cellars Pinot Noir Blanc, and tasted it side-by-side with the same wine from the 2014 vintage.
We enjoyed both wines immensely; they were crisp and refreshing with aromatics of pear and spice and, on the palate, apple, pear and honey. Our next wine was the 2015 Ghost Hill Cellars Rosé of Pinot Noir.
Like the white Pinot Noir, the Rosé was crisp and refreshing with a nice balance of fruit and acidity. Strawberry and citrus on the nose give way on the palate to a luscious blend of watermelon, citrus fruit and strawberry.
Our final two wines were (red) Pinot Noir offerings – the 2012 Ghost Hill Cellars Prospector’s Reserve and the 2013 Bayliss-Bower Pinot Noir. Both of these wines are blends of four different Pinot Noir clones from Ghost Hill’s estate vineyards. Both wines are classic expressions of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, although the Prospector’s Reserve (priced slightly higher than the Bayliss-Bower) is a bit more dense and full-bodied. Either wine would make for a great pairing with Christmas dinner.
For us, the “trifecta” of wine tasting occurs when we encounter (1) wines that we love, (2) in a magical location, (3) made by people that we like and admire. Ghost Hill Cellars hit the trifecta for us.
One of the wines in our Topochines Vino Wine Store is from Oregon winery Vidon Vineyard whose winemaker Don Hagge we met recently and enjoyed a tasting of over a dozen of his wines. The 2016 Vidon Rosé of Pinot Noir is available here for $20.00 per bottle.
We recently ran across a book that asserts “wine is not rocket science.” After our recent trip to Oregon’s Willamette Valley, we are not so sure. One of the wineries we visited as we were scouting wines for our Topochines Vino Wine Store is Vidon Vineyard, located just outside of the town of Newburg in the Chehalem Mountains AVA. Vidon’s founder and winemaker, Don Hagge, is a rocket scientist. Referring to Don as a rocket scientist is not a generic way of saying that he is a really smart guy. Don isa rocket scientist. Literally. Before starting his wine career at the age of 69, Don worked at NASA as Chief of the Physics Branch at the Manned Space Flight Center (now called the Johnson Space Center). So, you see, he really is a rocket scientist.
After completing a 2-year tour in Korea in Naval aviation, Don returned to the University of California, Berkeley (Go Bears!) to complete his engineering degree. While at Berkeley, Don had the opportunity to study and work with Ernest Lawrence, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics (for inventing the cyclotron) and the founder of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. After receiving his PhD, Don did post-graduate work at Lawrence Berkeley Lab and the Centre d’Etudes de Physique Nucléaire in Paris. He then joined NASA and supported a number of key space Apollo space missions including Apollo 11 (Armstrong’s moon landing) and Apollo 13. Transitioning from government to private work, Don moved to Silicon Valley and had a long, successful career managing high tech organizations.
When we first heard Don’s story, we wondered how this stellar scientific career would translate to winemaking. After tasting his wines, we can say the translation is perfect. In everything he does, Don applies his scientific knowledge and challenges pre-existing assumptions about the best way to grow grapes and make wine. His goal is to continue finding ways to do things more efficiently through a test-and-learn approach: try something new, measure the result, and implement the new solution if it is indeed better. Although several wine makers told us their preference for screw tops vs. corks, Don made his case the way a scientist would – with data.
Most wine consumers are aware that a certain percentage of wines are ruined each year as a result of “cork taint,” which involves the cork being tainted by the chemical 2,4,6-trichloroanisole. While the cork industry claims taint occurs in only 1-2 percent of all bottles, the above data suggests otherwise, with 2007 showing a nearly 10% frequency of taint. For their white wines, Don uses a screw top; for the red wines, he uses a glass stopper rather than the traditional cork. In addition to avoiding cork taint, he points out that the use of cork results in unacceptable variability in aged wine. As he explains, a case of red wine that has been aged 10-15 years will have 12 different wines because each cork is different and the oxygen entry will vary by bottle. Generally, wine consumers that age wine are looking for consistency not variability. If there is a theme to Don’s use of science at the winery, it is to eliminate variability in the process so that each wine tastes the way that it should.
To strengthen the scientific fire power in the tasting room, Don decided to double the number of PhD’s from one to two by hiring David Bellows to assist with the wine making. A magna cum laude graduate of the University of Arizona, Dave received his PhD from the John’s Hopkins School of Medicine. Complementing Don’s physics training, Dave is a molecular biologist and has long had an interest in wine. Together, these two run Vidon’s cellar like a lab with more emphasis on predictability and and little to no worry about following conventional methods simply for the sake of tradition.
During our visit at Vidon, we tasted at least a dozen wines, starting with the several 2016 Vidon white whites: Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, and Viognier.
These wines were exquisite examples of their variety – aromatic, crisp and dry – and very nice values at $20.00. We also tasted the 2015 Chardonnay, a lovely “French-style” Chardonnay with crispness and nice acidity but also a lovely yellow/gold color and a full-bodied texture. Before moving on to the red wines, Don poured for us his 2016 Vidon Rosé of Pinot Noir, easily our favorite rosé from among the many we tasted during this Oregon excursion. We made room in our car for a few cases of the 2016 Vidon Rosé so that we could get them up on our website as soon as we got home. This wine has a gorgeous light-salmon color and a beautiful aroma of cherry and apricot with a hint of strawberry. On the palate, the wine is clean and crisp, balancing the fruit flavors with nice acidity to provide a long finish. While perfect for summer, we think this rosé drinks just fine in Fall and Winter as well.
Moving on to the red wines, we tasted the entire range of Vidon Pinot Noir offerings, three of them named after a different Hagge grandchild – Brigitta, Mirabelle and Hans. Measured by total case production, the top Pinot Noir is the “3-Clones.”
This particular Pinot Noir is produced from three different Pinot Noir clones, while the “grandchildren” wines are produced from a single pinot noir clone (777, 115, Pommard) from grapes grown in different blocks on the 20-acre property, of which 12.5 acres are planted to vines.
We thoroughly enjoyed these wines and they clearly reflect Don’s hands-off approach to winemaking. We could definitely discern differences between vintages of the same wine as well as the difference between, for example, the Mirabelle Pinot Noir (clone 115) and the Hans (Pommard clone). As part of Don’s non-interventionist approach to making wine, he generally avoids new oak in fermentation resulting in subtler wines rather than the bolder, fruit-forward wines that many Oregon producers favor as they search for high scores from wine reviewers. Despite this approach, however, the Vidon wines have managed to accumulate an impressive array of scores from the top wine publications.
This is one of Don’s favorite fact sheets in the tasting room as it shows the price difference between his 94-point-rated Pinot Noir and wines from some well-known names in Willamette Valley whose prices are 2.5 times higher per bottle. For us, this was one of the key takeaways of the visit to Vidon: the focus on making high quality at prices much more approachable than many places we have visited in the past.
As we drove away from the Vidon tasting room, one of us said to the other, “When I grow up, I want to be Don.” We were mesmerized by his incredible life story, but even more captivated by the courage and passion to try something so different at the age of 69 and to be still fully engaged at 85. Make no mistake, Don is no figure head or chairman emeritus at Vidon Vineyard. He can still be seen riding a tractor in the vineyards or doing punch downs in the cellar.
The inaugural sparkling wine in our Topochines Vino online wine store is an elegant, delicious Cremant de Bordeaux from Napa Valley’s Rarecat label. Owner Sharon Kazan Harris produces wines in both France and California wine country. Here’s the story of our first meeting.
We had the opportunity a few weeks ago to meet Sharon Kazan Harris, the owner and Director of Winemaking at Rarecat Wines in Napa Valley. There are a growing number of women vintners in Northern California wine country, but Sharon is one-of-a-kind. Not only does her Rarecat label produce wines from Napa, she is also producing, importing and selling wines from Champagne and Bordeaux. Of the many impressive people we have met living in wine country, no one else can lay claim to such a diverse international portfolio.
We met Sharon on an overcast day at the end of last week at her home on Highway 29, a gorgeous property nestled among vineyards in the Rutherford A.V.A. Our first impression was positive as she met us at the car with an enthusiastic welcome. We walked around to the back of the property and Sharon showed us into the stunning space that serves as her office.
Rarecat’s office (photo courtesy of Napa Valley Register)
This office space is a reflection of owner – stylish and bold, open and welcoming, innovative and creative, elegant and unique. We spent nearly three hours with Sharon and she shared the fascinating story of her life so far, a tale that begins in California, moves to France, and bounces back and forth between both places multiple times. Clearly, Sharon never had a “life plan,” instead letting life present her with adventures and moving from one great experience to another. Several times during our conversation Sharon referred to herself as a “California girl,” at one level an accurate description since she was born and raised in Northern California and attended college at UCLA. This California girl, though, made the fateful decision in her junior year to study abroad in France. She ended up in Bordeaux more by accident than design: the study abroad destination for her particular major was the University of Bordeaux.
Sharon arrived in France with no wine sophistication to speak of, having grown up in a household where premium wine was not the adult beverage of choice. She quickly caught on and acquired a taste for everything French: the wine, the cheeses, the food, the cities and towns, and, of course, the people. All good things must come to an end, though, and Sharon had to return to California to complete her senior year. After graduation, she returned to France and had a string of interesting and intriguing experiences. Her first wine job was working at Chateau Haut-Brion which is one of five wineries whose red wines are classified as Premier Grand Crus (First Growth). Her first culinary experience was working with a well-known chef with two Michelin stars. As you can see, Sharon does not do anything by half-measures.
If this were a novel, the story line might be that Sharon brought back her learnings from France and straightaway became a vintner and winemaker in Napa Valley. Like most real-life stories, though, things are never quite so linear or simple. For many years Sharon worked in more traditional fields – advertising and technology sales – and was fortunate enough to be a part of several success stories including an initial public offering. These business successes allowed Sharon to “trade computers for vineyards,” as she says.
As Sharon spoke about her wines and her various projects, we could see the influences of her whole life: the California girl; the expat in France; and even the marketer and saleswoman from her corporate career. She is passionate about wine but also a hands-on businesswoman, building and nurturing her winery’s brand and dealing with a myriad of operational details.
Over the course of our conversation, Sharon shared four of her wines with us, starting with a most unique sparkling wine: a non-vintage Cremant de Bordeaux made from 100% Semillon grapes.
Rarecat’s Cremant is produced according to the methode traditionelle with two fermentations, the second of which occurs in the bottle. Classified as Brut, this Cremant is crisp but balanced with plenty of fruit on the nose and the palate. This was our inaugural Cremant de Bordeaux and our takeaway is that it would be a perfect pairing with cheese or appetizers.
Our second wine was also a first for us – rosé produced from Grenache grapes. For us it was love at first sight: the 2016 Rarecat Rosé is a gorgeous pink-salmon color that shimmers with vibrancy. Both on the nose and on the palate, floral and citrus notes combine to create an aromatic and flavor powerhouse. This wine’s acidity delivers a refreshing and long finish.
A refined rose
Next we tasted two red wines, one the result of Sharon’s partnership in St. Emilion and the other a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Our first red pour was a Rarecat 2014 St. Emilion, 90% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Franc. This Bordeaux wine was elegant and sophisticated and we reflected after our first sniff and sip that we could detect the terroir of the region in the glass. It is part and parcel of Sharon’s approach – reflected in all of Rarecat’s wines – that they should respect their terroir and vintage.
An elegant St. Emilion
Oozing with terroir
Our final wine was Rarecat’s 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon produced from grapes grown in the Old Toll Vineyard in the Calistoga AVA. When we heard that this Cab was aged in 80% new French oak, we wondered whether it would be a “big Napa Cab.” It was not. This Cabernet Sauvignon’s fruit was not overpowering; there was plenty of earthiness and minerality in this wine tempering the aroma and flavor of dark fruits. We would drink this Rarecat Cab today without hesitation but also suspect that it can be cellared and enjoyed for many years to come.
Rarecat Cabernet Sauvignon
Looking at the four wines together, they all exhibit a singular approach to winemaking: make the right wine for the right place. However, there is something else at play with the Rarecat wines that starts with the wine but goes much deeper. As Sharon describes it, her goal is to make “feminine” wines. In many of our industry’s notable reviews, it is not uncommon to see a bias towards so-called masculine wines. Common descriptors include “muscular, beefy, and powerful,” and we have even seen the indubitably masculine term “ballsy” used to describe wines (particularly “big Reds”).
Rarecat’s feminine bent manifests itself in the name of the winery itself. According to Sharon, she was searching for names that were (a) not taken, and (b) representative of the power of women. Her search ultimately took her to Urban Dictionary where she encountered the word Rarecat, defined as “a female so beautiful that she is deemed a rarity.” For each of Rarecat’s wines, this is what Sharon endeavors to produce: a feminine wine so beautiful that it will be deemed a rarity.
For many in Northern California wine country, October was wicked and haunted indeed. Today, on the last day of the month, we say goodbye to October 2017 and welcome November with open arms and a spirit of optimism and hope. Last weekend we took to the car and drove about 250 miles through Napa and Sonoma to visit some of our favorite spots and immerse ourselves in this beautiful place we call home. We snapped a few pictures along the way that we thought we would share as part of our farewell to October. Many of our photographs depict Sonoma and Napa in their natural states, untouched by the recent fires. However, because it would be disrespecting the history of the past few weeks to ignore the images that we saw along the way, we captured some of those as well.
We started our drive by heading up Silverado Trail, one of the areas that was hardest hit by the fires with both winery and home destruction. Our first impression was that a casual observer might wonder if there had been any fires at all. On both sides of the famed Trail sat recently harvested vines, their green leaves turning yellow and providing a beautiful backdrop to the drive.
Along Silverado Trail
As we slowed down to look closer, though, we could see clear and powerful evidence of the fires for many miles along the ridgeline.
All of the undergrowth burned
We were surprised that the fire consumed all of the brush but left almost all of the trees standing and, in most places, did not destroy the vineyards. We have since learned that the vineyards acted as natural “fire breaks” by virtue of being green and, in some cases, recently irrigated.
Fire burned all the way down to the vineyard line
As a result of the extreme heat of the fire and potential damage to root systems, it is likely that many of these trees will not survive.
As we proceeded up the Trail, there were spots where the fire burned all the way down to the road, consuming all of the brush in its path.
Just a few feet off of Silverado Trail
As we proceeded up Silverado Trail we stopped in front of the gates at Signorello Estate which burned to the ground the first night of the fires. Just up the road from there we stopped at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, one of Napa Valley’s most famous and well-regarded wineries. Although their winery building was intact, they did have damage on the property and we were shocked to see how close the fires came to their main building.
Charred hills just behind the property
A bit farther up the road is Robert Sinskey Vineyards, the last winery at which we maintain a membership. From the parking lot we could see how dangerously close the fire came to destroying the beautiful winery building they recently completed.
Too close for comfort
Vineyards on the hill above the winery were destroyed by the fire and will need to be re-planted; fruit from these new vines will not be available for bottling for 4-6 years.
After driving much of the length of the Silverado Trail, we but over to Highway 29 and drove a stretch but saw no damage. We then cut up Oakville Grade heading west and also did not see any damage. On our way home we came down Dry Creek Road and also saw no evidence of damage. We should mention, however, that when we took the drive around, many roads were either closed or closed to non-residents, including portions of Dry Creek Road, all of Soda Canyon Road, stretches of Partrick and Redwood, and several other locations. We will plan another drive soon when these areas are safe to reenter and we can do so without disturbing the cleanup and rebuilding efforts of the people who live there.
A stretch of Dry Creek Road that was evacuated during the fires
Right before arriving home, we saw something that could be interpreted as a sign from above that things are on the mend. Right in the middle of the road was a glorious peacock.
A unicorn would have been an even better sign
Our 100 mile loop across and around Napa left us feeling exhausted so we waited two days before our 150 mile trek across Sonoma. Our plan was to drive to the Sonoma Coast, do some hiking, and then come home driving along the Russian River, all the while snapping pictures of the beautiful scenery.
Before we could get to any beautiful scenery, though, we had to drive through the Carneros region which was hard hit by the fires on the first two days. The trail of the fire which started in Napa and ended up many miles away in Sonoma could be seen carved along the hillside north of Highway 12.
Entrance to the winery (photo courtesy of firenewsfeed.com)
From the road, it appears that the fire swept through much of the Nicholson Ranch property doing damage to both vineyards and buildings; however, it appears that the winery building was not completely burned. Just across the street, the historic Stornetta’s Dairy did not fare as well – the Atlas fire completely consumed and destroyed the entire operation.
The mailbox down by the road in front of Stornetta’s Dairy
A part of the name still visible on the main building
Just rubble remains
The fire jumped the road and burned the dairy buildings on the south side of Highway 12
We were sobered by the sight of the burned remnants of Stornetta’s and continued on our way west, gradually putting scorched earth behind us, at least for the time being. We hit Highway 1 and proceeded to our favorite hiking spot, Bodega Head.
Don’t we look ready to hike?
It was a glorious day to be outside and we greedily sucked in the clean ocean air and enjoyed the majestic sites from our perch atop the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
Looking north from Bodega Head
One of the things we love the most about the hike along Bodega Head is the virtual guarantee of seeing animals that make the ocean and environs their home. Although we did not know it until we arrived, it is whale season in the Pacific Ocean and we were able to spot a family of whales cruising up and down the coast.
Is it hiding?
No, it’s waving
As we completed our 3 mile loop we saw a colony of seals and many birds soaring overhead.
Dive-bombing for food
Turkey vulture soaring above the cliffs
In England she would also be a “bird”
Last look before we jumped in the car
When we visit Bodega Head we always try to squeeze in a visit to the town of Jenner a few miles up the coast. This trip was no different and we proceeded up Highway 1 for a stop at Cafe Aquatica which sits a hundred yards from the point where the Russian River flows into the Pacific Ocean.
Cafe Aquatica in Jenner
There are few places that we know of that are better to sit for an hour or two with a cup of coffee and enjoy the sun and the view.
The view towards the ocean
The Russian River
After his courageous hike, even Hubert enjoyed himself.
When Hubert told us it was time to get moving, we jumped back in the car and headed east along River Road and enjoyed the river views and the vineyards along the way. At the 101 freeway we turned south and that’s when we were forced back to reality: a few feet off of the freeway there was evidence of the fires for several miles. We decided to exit the freeway and drive through two of the prettiest towns in Sonoma County – Glen Ellen and Kenwood – and were devastated by what we saw.
#SonomaStrong was a constant theme on our drive
Burned out cars
Burned out homes
Destruction in Glen Ellen and Kenwood is extensive and this scene was visible for quite a long way along our drive.
As we came back into Napa, we decided to take a look at the area behind our house where fires were raging Sunday night/Monday morning as the wine country fires began. These were the fires whose orange glow we could see from our backyard that caused us to pack up the car and leave for a while. About a mile behind our house (as the crow flies), this is what we saw …
Several miles of scorched hillside
Nothing left standing
I think she was black before the fires
We wonder how she survived as the fire burned in every direction
When we got home we were tired and somewhat somber but glad we made the trip. As we enter the month of Thanksgiving, we personally have much for which to be thankful. Not losing our house. Not losing any friends. The spirit of community that we see in both Napa and Sonoma.
Two of the wines in our Topochines Vino wine store are the product of one of our favorite Oregon wine makers, Wayne Bailey. We offer both his 2014 Bailey Pinot Noir and his 2014 Cuvee Pinot Noir. Here’s a bit more about Wayne and his fantastic Willamette Valley winery.
Just before Thanksgiving we made a trip to Oregon’s Willamette Valley wine region to scout out unique wines for our Topochines Vino wine store. As our “home base” for our five-day trip, we stayed at Youngberg Hill Inn, easily our favorite place to stay in all of Willamette Valley. This was not our first time staying at Youngberg Hill, but on this occasion we were privileged to be staying as guests of the owner, Wayne Bailey. In addition to views afforded by its perch nearly 700 feet above the Valley floor, the inn has exquisite rooms, ample common areas, and one of the friendliest, most competent staff we have encountered.
But we weren’t at the inn just for rest and relaxation (although we did get some of that as well); we were there to spend some time with Wayne Bailey and taste his wines. Cascading down the hill from the 9-room inn are 20 acres of Youngberg Hill’s vineyards, the majority planted to Pinot Noir with smaller blocks of Pinot Gris and Chardonnay. Over the course of our stay at Youngberg Hill Wayne spend considerable time with us, sharing a bit of his upbringing, his many careers, and his philosophy of winemaking. At heart, Wayne Bailey is a farmer, having grown up as an Iowa farm boy helping his father raise a variety of crops. After leaving the farm, Wayne started the first of 5 distinct careers, becoming a mechanical engineer and then a consultant in the beverage industry. His travels took him to France where he fell in love with the Burgundian style of Pinot Noir. He believed that his future was growing Pinot Noir grapes in a cool climate and making beautiful wines from those grapes.
In the early 2000’s, while traveling around with Oregon viticulture legend Jimi Brooks, Wayne found himself looking up at the Youngberg Hill property. “It’s a pretty nice hill,” Brooks said, which we consider quite an understatement. In 2003 Wayne and his wife Nicolette purchased the property and made a commitment that they would farm their 20-acre vineyard organically. This commitment to organic and sustainable farming, he believes, is the right thing to do as a steward of the land. More than that, though, Wayne and Nicolette live on the property with their three young daughters. “Why would I want to expose my family to chemicals?” In the past couple of years, Wayne has pushed his practices beyond organic and has instituted biodynamic farming in his vineyards.
Not surprisingly, Wayne’s non-interventionist farming practices extend into the cellar. Rather than try to manipulate his wines to meet a particular style or flavor profile, he lets his wines reflect the land and conditions where the grapes were grown. In Willamette Valley, this might mean a growing season with a deluge of rain at harvest, or many summer days with less than optimal sun. Wayne believes that his wines should reflect the particular weather and other conditions of the growing season and harvest.
From the top of the hill down towards the road, the Youngberg Hill Vineyards are separated into blocks.
All three daughters have a block named after them
Across the blocks, there are differences in elevation and soil type and Wayne has meticulously selected the right varietal (and clone) for each block. From each of the “daughter” blocks – Aspen, Natasha and Jordan – Wayne makes a separate Pinot Noir and they have distinct aroma and flavor profiles.
Every day at 4 p.m., the Youngberg Hill tasting room – which is inside the inn – closes to the public and guests who have not already tasted during normal hours have access to the tasting room for an additional hour. As we had the unusual luxury of being the only guests on the property that day, we had a personal tasting experience with Wayne, followed by dinner at one of his favorite restaurants in McMinnville. It seems like we tasted every single Youngberg Hill wine in current release, as well as a couple of library wines Wayne was nice enough to share.
Of course, we started our tasting with the white wines – Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay. We enjoyed these wines quite a bit as they fit squarely within our preferred flavor profile for white wines: aromatic on the nose and crisp on the palate. We especially enjoyed the Youngberg Hill Chardonnay, a relatively new addition to Wayne’s portfolio – he grafted Chardonnay vines in 2014. During our stay in Willamette we had more Chardonnay than any of our other trips and were enthused by the quality of the wines.
But what would a Willamette Valley tasting be without Pinot Noir! Fortunately for us, Wayne bottles five different selections of Pinot Noir, four of them from estate wines and the fifth a blend of estate Pinot noir grapes and grapes sourced from trusted vineyards in the area. We tried all five of the Youngberg Hill Pinot Noir offerings, in multiple vintages, and had a great deal of difficulty selecting a favorite. One might assume that the estate Pinot Noir would all taste the same, especially from the same vintage. This would be an incorrect assumption, however, as the pinot noir grapes are grown in different soils, at different elevations, and with different sun exposures.
All of Wayne’s wines reflect his non-interventionist approach to wine making and we enjoyed all of the Pinot Noir offerings he poured. If we had to choose (and we did have to, as we were buying wine for our Topochines Vino Store), the Bailey Pinot Noir and the Cuvee were our favorites. They are available for sale here: Topochines Wines – U.S.A.
We look forward to a long partnership with the Bailey’s and Youngberg Hill.
Q: How do you make a small fortune in the wine business?
A: You start with a large fortune and lose some of it.
A clear sign of our dubious sanity is our decision to become wine importers and online retailers, despite not staring with a large fortune. Today we are launching an online wine store at http://www.topochinesvino.com.
What would compel two (relatively) reasonable wine bloggers to abandon the comfortable world of drinking wine, visiting wineries, and writing about it, and jump into the competitive world of wine importing? As the Grateful Dead sang, “what a long strange trip it’s been.” In truth, though, the trip has been more strange than long.
If we had to identify the start of this strange trip, it would have to be the fall of 2016, which was marked by a series of encounters with wine makers across the globe. Just over a year ago, during a trip to Willamette Valley in Oregon, we met a fantastic grape grower and winemaker. In the course of several hours of conversation, we talked a lot about the challenges facing wineries. We guessed his biggest challenges would be weather; bugs; mold and mildew; or any number of other pestilences conjured up by Mother Nature. Uh-uh, our friend told us. His biggest challenge? Distribution. Given how many distributors and retail outlets there are, we figured it would be easy for a winery to get its product into the hands of clients through restaurant, retail or online channels. Apparently, though, finding reliable partners that are in it for the long term, and want to grow with the winery, is not as easy as it should be. We left Oregon with the distribution problem in the back of our minds but still not thinking about a life-changing shift to becoming importers or sellers of wine.
Next stop, Europe!
About three weeks after the Oregon trip, we embarked on a long trip through some of the oldest wine growing regions in the world. Our first stop was Italy – the magical city of Venice to be exact. At a rooftop restaurant overlooking the Grand Canal, we had dinner with a young couple who are grape growers and vintners from the wine region of Abruzzo. They shared several of their wines with us and we enjoyed them so much we asked where we could find them in the United States. They told us that they do not sell their wines in the U.S. because their small production, artisan wine making approach would not interest the “big guys.” Our next stop was Slovenia, where we tasted some truly unique and fabulous wines made from indigenous varietals and using traditional methods that go back generations. With a few exceptions, most Slovenian wines do not make it to this country either. By the time we made our third stop, in Zagreb, Croatia, a theme was starting to emerge: there are some very impressive and unique wines to which the American consumer does not have ready access. In Zagreb, we stopped at the coolest wine bar in the city, The Basement. Their proprietor, Dario Drmac, poured quite a few wines for us, some of them traditional Croatian varietals and others made from varietals that are more international. Again, we were shocked to hear that none of the wines we tasted was available in the United States. Three weeks later, after driving the entire length of Croatia and half of neighboring Bosnia & Herzegovina, it was time to go home.
As we boarded our plane, we turned to each other and said, “We have to become wine importers and sellers.” While it may sound corny (okay, it IS corny), we fell a little bit in love with the people we met, their personal stories, their love and passion for wine, and their dream to share their wines with consumers in America. In a way, we feel like we did not choose importing, it chose us.
While we had some idea of the complexity of setting up this type of business, we severely underestimated the many steps involved, the volume of paperwork, the layers of Federal and state licensing, tax rules and regulations, and the logistics of getting wine from Point A to Point B, especially when Point A is 7,000 miles and another continent away. If we had known the extent of the work required, we might not have even started, but in this case, ignorance has definitely been bliss. We took each chunk of work/activity one step at a time and that is probably what saved us from folding up our tent and throwing in the towel (to mix a couple of metaphors).
The ABC’s (and TTB’s) of Wine Importing
In order to import wine into the U.S., one must learn a new set of alphabetic acronyms: ABC, TTB, COLA, FDA, CBP, BOE and probably others we have yet to encounter. The very first and most basic requirement to be able to import wine into the U.S. from other countries is to obtain a Federal license – referred to as a Federal Basic Permit. If said importer wants to sell those wines to other wholesalers or retailers, an additional Basic Permit is required. We decided to pursue both an importer and a wholesaler permit and filed our application with the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau – the aforementioned TTB that is one of the ingredients in our alphabet soup of federal, state and local agencies. We had never heard of the TTB before; it turns out they are part of the Department of the Treasury, and they have become quite an important part of our lives this past year! After a couple of months, we were granted our Federal import and wholesale permits and proceeded to apply for our state permits. You see, the Federal permit gives you the right to bring wine into the U.S., but each state has its own requirements for importing the wine into the state.
Getting a state license required us to leave behind the TTB and embrace the elementary sounding (but in reality very complex) ABC – California’s Alcohol and Beverage Commission. This state agency regulates almost every aspect of alcohol production and sale, including licensing. To support our business plan – importing wine, selling wine wholesale to restaurants and stores, and selling wine online directly to consumers – we needed three California licenses, all of which we now possess. Probably the most amusing part of this process is that we needed to post a giant sign on the front of our house for 30 days with big block letters stating “Public Notice of Application to Sell Alcoholic Beverages.” Everyone has seen one of these signs, most commonly on the front door of a bar or restaurant seeking a liquor license. We were wondering if one of our neighbors was going to see this sign and freak out, thinking we were opening a bar or on-premises wine store in our garage. Fortunately, we live in Napa Valley and this is probably a very common sight.
So finally we had our two federal and three California licenses, and quite a few wineries that wanted to send their wines from foreign lands to us. What next? Before wines can enter the United States, the foreign winery must register with the FDA – the Food and Drug Administration. Yes, really, wine is considered a food and a foreign winery is classified as a “food storage facility.” Hey, who are we to argue, some days wine is the only fruit we consume. Once the foreign winery is registered with the FDA, the TTB (remember them?) enters the picture again. Every single wine label for every single bottle must receive the TTB’s prior approval of the front and back labels on the bottle. There are quite a few rules for what must be on the label (and what cannot be on it), and after multiple submissions and re-submissions we could give seminars on the COLA process (Certificate of Label Approval).
Okay, all foreign wineries registered with the FDA? Check. All labels approved? Check. A temperature-controlled warehouse to store the wine when it arrives? Check. So how do you get the wine to the United States? If you are thinking airfare – think again! It costs about $1,000 to ship five cases of wine. Let us save you the math – that is $17 a bottle just for the shipping. Imagine what our wine would ultimately cost if we shipped it via air. No, our goal is to make our partners’ wines affordable, and the only way to do that is via containers on giant shipping vessels. Which means we needed to find a trans-Atlantic shipping company. We secured a shipping partner and finally felt like we were all set to bring some wine to the U.S We placed an order with our Croatian and Italian partners for one pallet each – 112 total cases of wine (or 1,344 bottles). We figured if we never sold the wine to consumers, we would slowly drink it ourselves; even if our business were a total flop, we would have enough wine to last a lifetime!
We had a few hiccups along the way. Trying to ship in August was one of them: somehow, we forgot that August is a vacation month for most of Europe but literally all of Italy (our departure port is in Livorno). Our wine sat in a warehouse (air conditioned, at least!) for almost a month before the dockworkers were back in action and ready to load the wines on the container ship. Before they could, though, the port city of Livorno suffered some of the worst flooding in over a century as over 10 inches of rain fell in just two hours. When all was said and done, six people died and there was massive destruction to property in the city. Oh, and total destruction to 56 cases of our wine. All of our Croatian shipment was spared, apparently because it came in later and was stacked higher. Most of the Italian wine sat underwater for days until the waters receded. Due to the miracle of insurance, our wine was replaced at no cost to us, other than lost time.
Our Croatian shipment made the safe voyage from Livorno to New York City in mid where we encountered another alphabet acronym: CBP (Customs and Border Protection). All shipments have to clear customs and we must pay applicable taxes and duties on the wine (calculated according to alcohol percentage). Once through customs, the wine was placed on a truck and made its way across the entire continental United States, ending its journey in our Napa Valley warehouse. The Italian wine arrived just a bit later and is sitting safely in our Napa warehouse.
Now that we have this wine, what do we do with it? While we will make some wine available to restaurants and retail stores, most of the wine is being made available direct to consumers via our wine store. We spent several months researching platforms to help us sell our wines – front end, back-end web store, payment processing, inventory management, invoicing, sales tax, shipping, etc. In the end, we have built out an online wine store we are proud of: www.topochines.com. In addition to the Croatian and Italian wines, we are offering a luscious Spanish wine from Rioja; a sparkling Cremant de Bordeaux from France; a few Napa Valley wines; and a delicious red blend from Sonoma County.
All of the wines on our site are similar in that they are small-production wines from producers we know personally, and the winemaking approach is very similar: respect for the varietal and the terroir in which the grapes are grown. We will be adding wines that meet these criteria as demand from our customers grows. We just returned from a trip to Oregon wine country to see old friends and meet new ones; we bought some fantastic wines on the trip and they are now available for sale on the wine store.