A little while back I was given the chance to attend a very special gathering of established winemaker luminaries and taste a whole slew of outstanding wines, courtesy of a very gracious invite by Monica Collins of All Access Napa Valley. I’ve never seen such a lineup of All-Star winemakers, nor the chance to have such access to speak with those that make or have made famous wines such as Kamen, Screaming Eagle, Scarecrow, The Prisoner, Rocca Family and L’Angevin. The event was held at the innovative ACME Fine Wines in St. Helena. Ever since opening their doors in April of ’03, co-owners and organizers of this event Karen Williams and David Stevens have consistently reinvented the wine retail, storage and event industries. Their efforts have been noticed by numerous newspapers and wine writers.
Recently one night, whilst Karen and David were (undoubtedly) sitting around a great bottle of wine at work, they brainstormed about ways to take wine tastings to a new level. They came up with a rather astounding plan, one which was obvious in retrospect, yet never before attempted and awesome in scope…instead of having a large number of yes, great wines made by great producers available to taste and having them poured by the various PR folk that help promote the wines, maybe they could do something different. Karen and David decided to have an event where wine lovers could not only taste a number of highly allocated and cult wines which they may never normally be able to drink due to high demand, but to also provide exciting access to the acclaimed winemakers who birthed these fine wines. This would be accomplished by having the winemakers pour the wines, themselves at the event! The inaugural ACME Atelier wine tasting event was born.
I attended the event that fine morning in late April with one of my usual wine partners in crime, Xandria (Twitter), of the venerable Brix Chicks. We tweeted a bit on the drive up and I got my trusty Centro ready for the day’s copious note-taking. We were very nicely taken care of by Monica once we arrived and I quickly snatched up a bottle of Pellegrino and a Reidel tasting glass to get started while we still had time left in the press portion of the tasting schedule. I had something of a set plan heading into the day. I’ve always wondered what it was like to be a consulting winemaker, particularly in the situation where you’re hired to come in and “fix” the wines and winemaking process alongside the house winemaker. It always sounded like a tricky situation to have to navigate, much less to do so and succeed with a better wine at the end of the harvest. I planned to pose this question to as many winemakers as was possible.
Xandria and I toured the facility first, in order to get our bearings. ACME is gorgeous inside and out, with dark wood highlights and contemporary brushed steel inside and has plenty of windows for great natural lighting. There are two main rooms, a gated office area and a good-sized kitchen in the back of the building. Our first winemaker host was Robbie Meyer, most recently of Peirson Meyer and L’Angevin. Robbie cut his winemaking teeth with no less than five years at Peter Michael and a few more at Lewis Cellars. Now he is co-owner and winemaker at both Peirson Meyer and L’Angevin and is consulting winemaker for a number of other wineries. Robbie exudes a very kind and approachable persona and we found it quite easy to chat with him about his wines and his new venture whereby he and his partners are merging their two wine labels mentioned above, into one exciting estate. We started with his very tasty ’07 Untitled #3 Chardonnay, which was very complex with outstanding balance and crisp tropical fruit that was caressed by the silky mouthfeel. The ’07 L’Angevin Pinot had wonderfully bright and currently fruit forward red raspberry and tarter cherry, followed by some nice mocha in the finish.
Following Robbie, Xandria and I decided head over to the opposite room and see what was jumping on that side of the tasting. We immediately were taken in by the rambunctious table of Russell Bevan wines. We were also very happy to see that digital queen Shana Ray (Twitter) has arrived and joined in the wine fun. Russell is actually a former wine writer who put down his pen in 2004 to take up a life on the other side of the stories that he used to put down on paper. The star of his set of wines was the ’08 Grey Stack Cellars Bennett Valley Sauv Blanc. It was showing great juicy tropical fruit and fruit blossoms in both the nose and on the palate, to go with its crisp acidity and pineapple finish.
I decided to break off from the crowd in order to hit up two winemakers that I was determined not to miss. The first of these winemakers was the man who brings a heck of a lot of presence, Mark Herold. Mark is an (aptly) self-described Renaissance man and one with which I can empathize, when wondering how to tackle multiple passions, particularly science and winemaking. While those two crafts might seem merged in this post-UC Davis world, in truth they can be night and day from each other, yet pull just as strongly upon the heart and mind. Indeed, as I type this I am en route to Scottsdale to conduct some training for a oncology assay that I’ve developed for a new cancer drug now starting human clinical testing, yet I’m writing about (and sipping!) some vino…never the two shall meet!
Mark started his own path through these two crafts while getting his Ph.D. in Ecology, Nutritional Biochemistry at UC Davis. While there he was persuaded to make some home wine and the passion for a more artistic craft was lit. After finishing his orals and receiving his advanced degree, he decided to try and wield his scientific expertise in the wine biz, away from the labs and field studies of his post-graduate degree. He worked for six years as Research Enologist at the landmark Joseph Phelps in Napa Valley, honing his vineyard-first winemaking acumen and moved from there to building is own label in the heart of downtown Napa, Merus Wines. He has also been consulting winemaker on a number of other highly successful and exclusive projects such as Kamen Estate, Harris Estate, Celani Family and now Kobalt.
I had a chance to chat a bit with Mark as I was tasting through his excellent selection of wines at the event. I mentioned the presence of the man, part of this is his substantial height at well over 6′, as well as his calmly confident demeanor and sharply cynical sense of humor. When I asked him my central question of the day, how does one consult for wineries that already employ a house winemaker, he said that he was not only very concerned about such projects, but that they helped define his business relationships…as in the lack thereof. He refuses any jobs whereby he would be compelled to work with another winemaker. This is in part because he doesn’t feel the need to introduce any drama or conflict into his life. But it also stems from the fact that he has already developed a deep sense of what will work to create great wines (not that his scientific sense of experimentation has ever left…he still strives to learn to better his wines) and that just may not click with another, similarly lauded and experienced winemaker.
Following the fine selections that Mark had brought for us to taste, I moved to another winemaker for whom I already held in high regard. Celia Welch Masyczek has been crafting superior wines for over 25 years. She also attained her initial college wine education at UC Davis and has worked all over the world since then, in order to soak up as much diverse winemaking experience as is possible. I first became aware of her vino-mastery when Pops and I tasted her work at the Rocca Family Vineyards tasting room in downtown Napa during our 3rd Pops & Son Wine Trip in late 2007. The balance and constrained power in those wines completely enthralled my nose and palate and I’ve been hooked on her liquid art, ever since. Celia was pouring a number of wines that day, including the youthful Cornerstone Cellars wines that I’ve now enjoyed on a couple of occasions, which was when I also bumped into the esteemed Craig Camp (Twitter) of Wine Camp Blog and now Cornerstone. I very much enjoyed the Lindstrom and Scarecrow Cabs that were open that day, but the star in my book was the ’06 Husic Stags Leap Cab. This was actually being poured by the owner himself, Frank Husic. Situated adjacent to the acclaimed Fay Vineyard, Husic Vineyard has been producing finely grained, deeply complex Cabs for a number years, as well. This one had incredible balance with great red and black fruit and char, alongside some good savory notes and with great acid.
I decided to rendezvous back with my wine blogger comrades after tasting through Celia’s wines. The building was in full swing at this point, as the public portion of the tasting had been going full swing for some time. I discovered Xandria and Shana over by another effervescent winemaker, Heidi Peterson Barrett. Married to the now immortalized Bo Barrett of Chateau Montelena (as seen in the fictionalized, but fun wine flick Bottle Shock and in the outstanding book on which it was based), Heidi is another winemaker for whom I was taken in by their rather luminescent presence. While perhaps, best known for her work as the winemaking guru behind the pinnacle of cult Napa Cabs, Screaming Eagle, it is her other work that has captured much of my attention (though that could be due to not having the means to purchase a bottle of her back vintages of $2K/bottle Screaming Eagle Cabs!). She currently consults on a number of wines and also has her own line of mainly modestly-priced, high QPR premium wines under the guise of La Sirena and the very high-end Amuse Bouche. I decided to taste one consulting wine and then go through the entire line of La Sirena wines that were on the table. The ‘05 Lamborn Howell Mountain Cab was a fine work and much in line with most of the other wines that day, lush, filled with fruit, but with plenty of acid and silky tannin to support such power. The La Sirena wines were quite a step away from that style, however. All were much more angular and strongly structured than the wines I had tasted prior to this set, with the ’05 Syrah coming out as a clear winner. It was very finely structured with some red fruit sitting atop deeper blue fruit, surrounded by some smoky, savory notes.
During the hubbub and clamoring glasses in this corner of ACME, I was able to ask my central question of Heidi. She was very considerate about all of my questions, at one point even telling me that it was perfectly OK to take up more of her time as she was interested in what I had to discuss. Heidi said that she was happy to take on consulting winemaking jobs with already established winemakers, but acknowledged that it can sometimes be a tricky endeavor. She said that she never tries to deviate from the house style, nor from the type of wine that the vineyard will offer during each vintage. She more will work towards bringing more focus to these already established wines and wineries and try to increase the quality of each winemaking step, utilizing her many years of highly successful experience, spanning over the last 30 vintages. I thanked Heidi for her time, grabbed another sip of the La Sirena Syrah and headed over to the last winemaker of my day.
Dave Phinney has really exploded on the wine scene over the last 5 or so years. His quirkily named and labeled Orin Swift wines have blown up right along with his reputation, and rightfully so. The Prisoner, his iconic Zinfandel blend has improved with every vintage and subsequent efforts have started at those already lofty heights and continued the string of fine wine, most notably seen in his Papillon blend. Both of these wines were available to taste that day, although I only was able to grab a new taste of the ’05 Papillon, of which I’ve already enjoyed at a favorite local haunt Artisan Wine Lounge, courtesy of proprietor Lena Chu. Many vignerons have noticed Dave’s success and have requested his services with their own wines. Two of these that were available that day were the ’05 Cavus Cab and the ’05 Beau Vigne Juliet Cab. These were both very unique, yet nicely balanced and varietally correct. The Cavus, in particular, had a some wonderful minerals and sea salt in its long finish.
It was time to head back to the East Bay, unfortunately and so with a very hearty thank you to Monica, David and Karen, Xandria and I grabbed some tasty nibbles from the kitchen, prepared by Panevino and a rather elegant espresso, pulled from a Nespresso machine. We then grabbed our well-earned Atelier tasting booklets and bid farewell to the stylish elegance of ACME.
Feel free to check out my full reviews of all of the phenomenal wines that we tasted that day at ACME Fine Wines. If you would like to list these wines in your own WineLog, they are tagged with “ACME2009Atelier“. If you too were at ACME that fine day, please leave me a note and tell me about the wine that was your own favorite for the day. Enjoy!