So much about this post is divergent from our usual notions and stereotypes about wine. Red wine in the summer? Certainly. Do you not drink Rosé in the winter? Oh, you don’t? Well, that’s a topic for another post. Our Wine of the Week being a budget-friendly, mid-week wine? Well, this just proves that good wine doesn’t have to break the bank. But the most surprising thing for us, is that our Wine of the Week this week is a…*gasp*…Red Blend from California. (Spoiler Alert: Wine Snobbery Geekery ahead.)
Don’t misunderstand. Many of the great wines of the world are red blends. Bordeaux? Red blend. Super Tuscan? Also a red blend. Côtes du Rhône? We’ve made our point. Nevertheless, stereotypes exist for a reason. California Red Blends have a reputation of being cheap, flat, and sweet; mass produced for the masses. And many of them are. And a lot of people like them. They just aren’t a style we typically prefer. To be fair, the Firestone Red Wine 2016 is from the designated Paso Robles AVA, so it isn’t technically a “California” Red Blend.
(Side note, designations matter. If you see “California” on the label, it means the grapes came from somewhere, anywhere in the vast state. The name of a county on a label means at least 75% of the grapes must come from that county, and if the wine carries a designated AVA name, it means 85% or more of the grapes came from that AVA. Why does this matter? Some regions have better growing conditions for certain grape varieties, a suggestion that the wine will showcase the characteristics of the terrier of the region, and be an overall better wine. Another topic for another blog post. We now return you to our regularly scheduled Wine of the Week blog.)
Firestone Vineyard was the first estate winery established in Santa Barbara County. In the 1970’s, before even Napa had established worldwide acclaim, Leonard Firestone saw potential in the Santa Ynez Valley. (In case you are wondering, yes, Leonard is the son of Harvey Firestone, of Firestone Tires fame.) With 325 acres under vine, and a commitment to sustainable farming, Firestone produces an enticing portfolio of wines. Their red varieties include Bordeaux and Rhone grapes; Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, and Syrah, while their whites vines are Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and Gewürztraminer.
The Firestone Red Wine 2016 is a classic Bordeaux-style wine, composed of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. We found it at wine.com (currently on sale for $14.99.) Here’s what we thought of it:
A smooth and easy drinking red blend. Garnet color. Nose of cherry, raspberry, blackberry, and smoke. On the palate, ripe raspberries, cherry, fresh blackberry, cherry cola, tobacco, spice, and smoke. Medium body, with dry tannins and bright acidity. Medium finish.
Most wine lovers are familiar with the notion of appellations; designated wine regions identified by geography and legal protection. In the United States, appellations are known as American Viticulture Areas, or AVAs. Within an appellation or AVA, there can be sub-regions that, though perhaps not legally identified, can present climate and growing conditions which contribute to a unique terroir. One notable and well known AVA in Northern California is the Russian River Valley AVA. We recently learned that the Russian River Valley Winegrowers (RRVW) has defined six smaller sub-regions which they call Neighborhoods. How did we come by this newfound knowledge? Well, we were invited to a virtual tasting of single-vineyard wines from Gary Farrell Winery, exploring each of the Russian River Valley Neighborhoods.
The following wines were provided as media samples for review. All reviews, descriptions, and opinions are our own. We received no additional compensation.
The event featured Gary Farrell Winery winemaker Theresa Heredia, who led us through history, geography lessons, and of course, tasting seven wines from the Gary Farrell Winery portfolio; three Chardonnays and four Pinot Noirs. As Theresa explained, although the wines are from the same respective grapes, grown in the same AVA, each neighborhood produces decidedly different wines with unique characteristics.
Gary Farrell started in the wine business in the late 1970’s, originally working with local wineries. In 1982, he produced the first wine under his eponymous wine label. Since then, Gary Farrell Winery has grown in reputation and prestige and is now one of the most notable small-lot producers of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in the Russian River Valley. Though Gary Farrell sold the winery in 2004, the current owners are maintaining his legacy and standard of excellence.
Theresa Heredia started with Gary Farrell Winery in 2012. At that time, she brought with her a decade (now nearly two decades) of experience in cool-climate, small-lot Chardonnay and Pinot Noir production. Early in her career, she worked at Domaine de Montille, in Burgundy, France, where she gained an appreciation for the Burdunidan style of winemaking. Friendly and inviting, Theresa was an amazing host for our tasting.
In keeping with the Burgundian style, Theresa said that each of the wines in the tasting are terroir-driven, and aged in light-toast French oak barrels. The use of light toast oak is deliberate, since heavier toasts can mask the nuances of the wine itself. Theresa also mentioned, to our surprise, that the Russian River Valley AVA has more soil types than are found in all of France!
During a brief history lesson, Theresa shared her screen, and showed us the six Russian River Valley Neighborhoods on the RRVW website. This is an interactive site that allows you to explore each of the neighborhoods and see which characteristics define each one. Theresa mentioned that only one neighborhood, Green Valley, is a designated Sub-AVA within the Russian River Valley AVA. There are currently no plans to apply for AVA status for any of the other neighborhoods.
The seven wines we tasted, and the respective neighborhoods from which they hail, were, in order of tasting:
2017 Olivet Lane Vineyard Chardonnay – Santa Rosa Plains
2017 Martaella Vineyard Pinot Noir – Santa Rosa Plains
The virtual tasting was packed with information; much more than can comfortably fit into a blog post anyone would actually read. Though it exceeded the allotted hour, it went much too fast. Since the tasting was at 11 a.m. Pacific, we sipped and spit, and re-corked the bottles, and then enjoyed them for the rest of the week! Here are our impressions of each wine:
2017 Olivet Lane Vineyard Chardonnay
Light and crisp, yet still exhibiting light buttery, toasty notes. Golden color. Aromas of apple, pear, and citrus. On the palate, apples, pear, pineapple, and floral notes. Medium body with bright acidity – more than most Cali Chards – nicely balanced. Full, lush, mildly creamy mouthfeel leading to a crisp finish of citrus and some light toast.
2017 Ritchie Vineyard Chardonnay
A classic but restrained California Chardonnay. Golden color with fresh pineapple the first aromas on the nose, followed by citrus and butter notes. On the palate, green apple, pear, pineapple and tropical notes, as well as citrus. Soft, creamy mouthfeel balanced with medium acidity. The finish has tropical fruit and just a hint of butter.
2017 Rochioli Vineyard Chardonnay
A more classic California Chardonnay, though in Gary Farrell style, subtle and elegant. On the nose, pineapple, pear, and citrus, with a whiff of butter. Surprisingly crisp acidity on the palate, with pear, apple, lemon curd, and butter, with a light toast note in the finish.
2017 Bacigalupi Vineyard Pinot Noir
Exquisite and our favorite of the tasting. The nose opens with cherry, raspberry, and cedar, with earthy notes. On the palate, the cherry leads the charge with raspberry, violet, cedar, and mushroom supporting. Medium body and acidity, with a long finish of red fruit and black tea.
2017 Hallberg Vineyard Pinot Noir
Beautiful Pinot Noir. The nose opens with black cherry and blueberry, with some earthy notes. On the palate, lush cherry, raspberry, and blueberry fruit mingles with mushroom, earthy notes, and a general funk that I’ve come to appreciate in a well structured PN. Medium body and acidity lead to a pleasing finish of red fruit, black tea, and smoke.
2017 McDonald Mountain Vineyard Pinot Noir
Quite interesting with herbal and vegetal notes up front, including bay leaf and eucalyptus, with red fruit following. On the palate, cranberry, pomegranate, and raspberry with the bay leaf enhancing the fruit. Medium body with bright, lively acidity. Long fresh finish.
2017 Martaella Vineyard Pinot Noir
Nice, fruit driven Pinot. Aromas of cherry, raspberry, and cranberry. On the palate, these red fruit flavors continue, joined by blueberry, cedar, and bay leaf. Soft and velvety, with bright acidity and a long finish of red fruit and rose petal.
We heartily recommend any and all of these wines, and we look forward to venturing out to the Russian River Valley to explore the neighborhoods in person.
We close on a somber note. We were sad to learn this week, as we prepared this post, that earlier this month, Gary Farrell Winery oenologist, Mark Osbourne, was killed after being struck by a motorist while riding his bicycle. Even more tragically, the motorist is accused of driving under the influence. Our hearts and prayers go out to the Gary Farrell Winery family.