Anti-Establishment Wines

Davies Wakefield

davies wakefield | wine uncorked | april 2016

As a college student during the '70s the word was out “Don't trust anyone over 30.” Jack Weinberg coined that phrase as a student activist in the 1960s at UC Berkeley. He started the “Free Speech Movement” that swept the country (Jack, where are you now when we need you?). Anyway, if you have been following the current presidential race, there is a movement against establishment politicians with Trump and Sanders campaigning against the Washington establishment. I thought about how this movement affected my choice of wines and started looking at my favorite wineries to see how they fit into this meme.

But before looking at anti-establishment wines, I need to define the “establishment” and what they do that turns me off. The wine industry is a business just like any other and expenses are important. In order to keep expenses low, some wineries use oak chips or oak sawdust to impart oaky flavors to the wine instead of using oak barrels to age their wines. If you have ever been in the Central Valley of California near Modesto and seen the huge tanks that reminded you of oil refineries, you understand why they do it; the wine they produce is an industrial product like Coca-Cola or Tide. Wines that are too tannic are subjected to “micro-oxygenation” where tiny bubbles of oxygen are pulsed through the wine to prematurely age it and soften the texture. A certain wine that is focused on serving young, lithe women with the come-on of reduced alcohol uses a process called the “spinning cone column” which extracts the alcohol from the wine, producing a soulless, characterless drink. Syrupy goo called “mega-purple” which is concentrated grape syrup is used to correct color issues in lighter red wines. Gum Arabic is used to give crappy wine a silky texture because, after all, these mega-wineries can't afford to flush 50,000 gallons of flawed wine down the drain; now can they? There's more; like reverse osmosis, adding sugar, ammonium salts and powdered tannin but you get the picture. These are not the types of wine that I seek out. I want to tell you about great wines that haven't been screwed with and the people who make them.

One of my all-time favorites is the Dry Creek Winery. It was started by David Stare in 1972. I remember tasting some of his early Bordeaux style blends when I was in college in the '70s. They were delicious then and remain so today. He was the first winery to plant Sauvignon Blanc in the Dry Creek Valley, even after being told by numerous “experts” that it was too hot. That wine is to this day the perfect “gulpable” summer drink. David also invented the California Meritage which mimicked the blended wines of Bordeaux. I remember my wife and I sipping his first efforts on crisp autumn afternoons with my college roommate along with some Gorgonzola, Charcuterie and French bread back in the '70s. If you haven't tried his Meritage blend, you have missed a great wine. But his efforts to change the zeitgeist were met with plenty of skepticism and ridicule at the time. He is a true rebel.

Frogs Leap Winery in Napa was founded by John Williams in 1981. John heard about organic farming in 1988 and changed to organic farming in 1989 when he was certified. John prefers to be referred to as a farmer not a vintner. While John still runs the winery, he has also pulled in members of his family to continue the tradition. The company's website is full of tongue and cheek humor, but John has defied conventional wisdom and the establishment Napa Valley vintners his whole career. Most Napa Valley Cabernets are high alcohol fruit bombs that are over extracted, boring and frankly put me to sleep after a steak dinner featuring one of those wines. John's Cab and Zin are, as John puts it, “aligned with the natural interests of the vines themselves, it is what gives our wines bright, high-toned acid, deep earthen flavors and the restrained alcohol that promises each vintage and variety will be beautiful in its youth and will stand the test of time.” The wines are also reasonably priced compared to their more famous neighbors. If you have been drinking typical high alcohol Zins, try a Frog's Leap and experience the taste that has virtually disappeared from that type of wine over the last twenty years.

As large as Chateau St. Michelle is, it is still a family run business and it is a family that cares for quality at every level of offering. I have been buying a case of their Cabernet Sauvignon just about every year since the late 1970s and I've never been disappointed. The famed California winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff produced the first Cabernet Sauvignon in 1967. Since then the winery has received 21 Winery of the Year awards from Wine and Spirits Magazine. They have produced 17 Top 100 wine honors from Wine Spectator Magazine and have been named most admired and most respected Washington winery from Drinks International and the Puget Sound Business Journal respectively. Their Eroica Riesling collaboration with German winemaker Ernst Loosen is one of the best Rieslings produced in the United States year after year.

The D'Arenberg winery is a quirky Australian business, but its iconic, long haired winemaker Chester Osborn is putting out some great wines in every variety. The winery dates back to 1912 when Joseph Osborn traded his prized racehorses for the property. The winery was built in 1927 and today uses no fertilizers, no cultivation and no irrigation. The grapes are basket pressed and foot trodden which is the old fashioned way of crushing the grapes. My favorite wine is the Marsanne/Viognier, which pairs beautifully with shellfish of all types. D'Arenberg has the unique distinction of being in Wine and Spirits Hall of Fame as Winery of the Year and Value Brand of the Year simultaneously. So if you are looking for a great wine that hasn't been manipulated and isn't going to hurt your pocket book, look for the bottles with the iconic diagonal red stripe across the label. You won't be disappointed.

Tablas Creek is a partnership between Robert Haas and the Perrin family of Chateau de Beaucastel. Robert Haas was a longtime importer and founder of Vineyard Brands. He has represented some of the most iconic brands in the wine industry including La Vielle Ferme, Joseph Phelps, Hanzell, Sonoma Cutrer and Kistler. Haas has spoken out about the importance of organic viticulture, minimum-intervention winemaking and wines of specific site terroir. Tablas Creek was fully certified organic in 2003. The winery pays attention to minute detail in their harvest practices often making as many as four passes through the grapes to pick only the perfectly ripe grapes. The winery uses neutral French oak barrels which preserves the wines ties to their soil, climate and varietal character. The results have shown in awards like the 15 wines that achieved 90+ scores in Robert Parkers latest Wine Advocate. Try the Cote de Tablas Blanc or Patelin de Tablas Blanc; they are amazingly good.

I selected these wines because they are available in the Fox Valley and Green Bay areas, but there are others that are worth seeking out that are going against the grain like: Au Bon Climat, Calera, LIOCO, Drew Family, Thomas Fogarty, Hanzell and Mount Eden.

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