Abaluche Wine Tour with Wine Director Christina Sports

Abaluche: (adj.) The gathering of family and friends to enjoy good wine and good food; connecting with others through conversation, camaraderie and cultural experiences.

It was in the spirit of Abaluche that we gathered at Wingtip on Saturday morning. An SUV pulled up, driven by Wingtip Wine Director and Abaluche Tour Guide Christina Sports. Abaluche is an educational wine immersion experience, and after introductions with the other wine explorers, we were handed an agenda listing the restaurant and wineries that we would visit that day.

As we drove through the East Bay toward the wine country, the conversation was about work, but slowly the conversation turned to golf, and, as we passed by vineyards Christina spoke of her background as a wine maker, having worked at Hess, Robert Sinskey, and in the Rhone Valley, France as well as making Syrah under her own label.

Our first stop was Alpha Omega Winery which is located in Rutherford. We were greeted by Chris Carmichael and ushered into a private room where a long stone table was set with a beautiful selection of Riedel stemware, a different shape for each varietal that we would be tasting.

Chris began by telling us of his background and the history of Alpha Omega. We inquired about the name, Chris told us that the owner Robin Baggert and his wife Micelle were having such trouble coming up with a name that began with the letter “A” that Michelle said this would be the beginning and end of their relationship.

The first wine that we tasted was a sauvignon blanc with grapes sourced from a vineyard that we could see just outside the window. Chris explained that the clay soil which holds the moisture was not well suited for Bordeaux varietals and they focus on matching the vineyard with the correct grape to produce the best product for the winemaker to work with.

On that note, a discussion surrounding their relationship with grape growers came up. Chris explained that they have a lot of consistency by virtue of 25 year contracts with the vineyard owners. Their winemaker Jean Hoefliger is in the vineyards daily and works with the grower to produce lower yields with more flavor and Jean will even erect tents over some of the vines if he feels there is not enough leafage to protect the grapes from the sun. The growers, on the other hand, respond to the vinter’s demands with “I gave you 100-point grapes, where is my 100-point wine”? Hence, the focus is on the farming and production at Alpha Omega.

The winemaker Jean Hoefliger is Swiss born and has made wine at Chateau Lynch-Bages, Chateau Carbonnieux and Meerlust. The Sauvignon Blanc that we were tasting is usually made with the addition of a little Semillon, which is a white Bordeaux style (like at Chateau Carbonnieux). The 2012 Sauvignon Blanc that we were enjoying was 100% Sauvignon Blanc. It was unfined and rested on the lees (leftover yeast cells) which gave the body some polish.

We moved onto the un-oaked chardonnay 2012 from the Carneros district. Carneros is cooler at night and produces very good grapes for chardonnay; the cool evenings help to maintain the acidity in the grape. A stainless steel tank was used to avoid the oak and it did not go through malolactic fermentation. This helps keep the freshness of the Malic apple-like acid instead of the Lactic milk-like acid (butter). The notes of peaches, apricot, and lemon followed the crisp first sip.

The next wine was a barrel sample of chardonnay that is available for purchase as a future. Buying futures on wine follows the reverse Wimpy principal, I will gladly pay you today for a bottle of wine tomorrow. This chardonnay goes through malolactic fermentation in a new French oak barrel and is “re-oxygenated” by being transferred to a stainless steel tank where it “brightens up.” The taste showed that this wine was going to be richer and more opulent that the un-oaked chardonnay.

“Believe in blending” was the next topic Chris brought up as we moved onto the cabernets. The Proprietary Red and the cabernet sauvignon were both made up of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and petit verdot. In order to put “cabernet sauvignon” on the label to identify the wine, it must have at least 75% cabernet sauvignon in the blend. The Proprietary Red has only 70% cabernet sauvignon so it is listed as a “red wine.” (With this in mind, there are very good reds and blends available produced with just as much thought as the cabs). Scents of berries and baked fruits followed by flavors of cassis and blueberries, the reds were smooth and balanced.

Chris opened their premier wine, Era 2011. He explained that 2011 was not a good year and challenged the notion of vintage, referring back to 1997 and 1998 which was a great year followed by a not-so-great year. The not-so-great year actually aged beautifully, while the great year fell off and reached its prime early.

For Era 2011, Chris brought out a new and unique glass which had a Bordeaux style bowl on top of a tulip shaped base. The romantic lace curtain of stemware was pulled away by a story told by Chris when he was selling Italian wine to merchants in New York. One merchant told Chris he only tasted wines out of a Dixie cup, because if it tasted good in a Dixie cup it will taste good in stemware, and that if it tasted bad, good stemware will not make it better. This backed up the emphasis of Alpha Omega to focus on good farming and good production to make a good wine.

We picked up our glasses and followed Chris into the barrel room for a tasting of the upcoming cabernet sauvignon from the To Kolon vineyard and the Era blend. First he showed us a stainless steel bladder press which gently squeezes the grapes which run out into the tanks. Then we went into the barrel room which held oak barrels from different coopers. As Chris used a glass wine thief to take samples from the barrel and put them into our glasses, we asked about the different coopers or tonnelleries. Since they all use French oak, why use more than one cooper? This began a discussion about the different types of French oak, the tight grain versus looser grain, and the effect it has on flavoring the wine. A simple explanation was that fruit flavors come from the fruit, mineral and earth elements come from the soil, and the spice accents come from the barrels. The barrels are the winemaker’s spice rack. Chris told us that some coopers put on a “barrel tasting” where the same wine is put into different barrels and the samples enable you to taste the difference.

As we left to purchase some wine, Chris told us that he usually skips the barrel tasting with groups, but because Christina understood this aspect and asked about the To Kolon vineyard that moved him to bring us in. (This is a clear benefit of having a winemaker as our guide!)

Google Now indicated that we had eight minutes to arrive at our lunch destination. As we passed the front of Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch we could see the gardens they use for the restaurant. We walked into a busy, air-conditioned main dining room to check in. It was a beautiful day outside and Christina was able to score a table for six on the patio.

Christina brought in a sauvignon blanc from Alpha Omega to go with our lunch. Six glasses were placed and, once filled, we raised our glasses and said “Abaluche.” The meal was family-style. Christina had asked them for some favorite dishes and other treats. We started with steak tartare, fresh chopped beef topped with a raw egg to mix in; along with grilled peaches and ricotta cheese. Sauvignon blanc is a food wine because of the bright acidity and the mineral backbone. This complemented the two appetizers.

A server arrived with fresh baked rolls and cheddar cheese biscuits with honey butter. We had finished the wine and Christina ordered a bottle of rosé from Robert Sinskey winery, saying that it was the first project that she worked on when she joined them. The Rosé had a pretty blush to it and was crisp and dry, another great food wine which complemented the fried chicken and barbecued ribs.

We did not want to be late for our two o’clock appointment at Joseph Phelps, so we had the dessert of fresh baked cookies to-go. One of the two boxes of baked goodness did not last long after we jumped in the car.

The room at Joseph Phelps was set for the tasting with appropriate Riedel stemware and a placemat that held six glasses of wine that are used in the Insignia blend. There was a pipette and an empty glass. We were going to try our hand at blending wine and compare it to the Joseph Phelps blend.

Carly was our educator. She began with a discussion of terroir: If you take two identical twins and raise one in Alabama and one in New York City, although identical, they will dress differently, have different political views and use different phrases all based on where they were raised. In the same way, the environment shapes the grape, and when there is sufficient distinction to an area it becomes an AVA (American viticultural area). There are 16 AVAs in Napa with Joseph Phelps drawing grapes from five of them. Furthermore, there are 100 different soil orders in the world, and half of them are found in Napa soils.

We began the tasting with a glass of 2013 sauvignon blanc from St. Helena vineyards. It had a rich tropical fruit nose of juicy fruits along with honey and butterscotch. A nice acid bite and pineapple flavor. We went through the other glasses, the chardonnay from a cool vineyard in Freestone was bright. The pinot noir from the coast was earthy with mushrooms and dark fruit. The Napa cabernet sauvignon 2011 was young and smooth, with blackberry, fig, cassis, and an asparagus note in the nose.

The real fun was in the next set, where we would taste the individual varietals from the barrel, and blend them in a glass. We began with the 2010 merlot from the Oak Knoll District. It was soft and plush with a spice box nose of cinnamon and allspice. Next was the 2010 cabernet sauvignon from St. Helena, a subdued, concentrated nose like port followed by dry lingering fruit. The 2010 cabernet sauvignon from Rutherford had texture, what they call “Rutherford dust.” It was dry, rough and aggressive. The 2010 cabernet sauvignon from Stags Leap was delicious on its own, and I would have been happy to drink a glass of it. It had chocolate and cassis and made me think of a chocolate covered cherry. Christina compared it to a sea salt caramel. The 2010 cabernet sauvignon from Oak Knoll district added a savory quality, while the 2010 petit verdot brought coffee and amaro to the party.

We each took our pipettes and set about creating our own master blend. The finished product was pretty good, starting with the spice box nose from merlot and the chocolate cassis from Stags Leap. Carly opened a bottle of the 2005 Insignia and poured a comparison taste for us all. We were educated and happy as we climbed into the car to move on to Realm Cellars a few minutes away.

A visit to Realm Cellars begins in the cellar. Desi Echavarrie took us into the production room where we walked past large steel tanks. We continued through a labyrinth passage filled with oak barrels. There are spurs of tunnels to the side, and as we walk through one our guide Desi points out the pattern on the walls left by the tunnel auger. It looks like rock art patterns engraved by ancient peoples.

We walk into another spur which is dark with offset lighting, and there is a glass table set with two glasses. Desi gives us an overview of the winemaker, the product, and a bit about himself. He is a Master Sommelier, with experience in Arizona, Las Vegas, and the French Laundry. Realm comes from a phrase from one of Shakespeare’s plays, and many of the wines are named after plays or people, for example, “The Tempest,” the “Bard,” and “Falstaff.”

We were especially interested in the To Kolon and Dr. Crane vineyards. Desi said to follow his car and he would open a bottle in the vineyard and give us a tour. We piled in the car and, to avoid traffic, followed a circuitous route through St. Helena neighborhoods where he showed us the quarry next to the vineyard. We stopped at the vineyard and picked up a glass from Desi, and with wine in the glass, walked among the vines of the Dr. Crane vineyard.

When Christina was in Bordeaux at Chateau Margaux, she concluded her tasting by walking into the vineyard and tasting some of the soil. Here, with a glass of from the Dr. Crane vineyard Christina made a little paste from the red clay soil and tasted it to compare it to the wine. I followed suit and tasted the soil, which, like the different types of oak barrels, revealed something specific about the origins of the wine.

Our final stop was at Dean and DeLuca to pick up some snacks and water for the drive home. We arrived at Wingtip, separated the wine purchases and said our goodbyes.

To sum it up, we had great fun, developing a deeper understanding of each other and how wine features in our lives. On the educational side, the discussions covered terroir, stemware, farming, barrel treatment, blending, soil and the pleasure of drinking and eating with friends and family.

Abaluche!

Alpha Omega Winery
Rutherford, CA

Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch
St. Helena, CA

Joseph Phelps
St. Helena, CA

Realm Cellars
St. Helena, CA

Abaluche Wine Company
Christina Sports
Tours, education, wine

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