VINE CUTTINGS

News and Notes from the World of Wine




Nickel & Nickel Debuts in Napa Valley



New wineries are always cause for celebration in Napa Valley. For Nickel & Nickel's debut last July, some 1,000 guests showed up to revel late into the summer night, marking the completion of the region's newest glamorous winemaking edifice.

Located just opposite the famous Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville, Nickel & Nickel is built around a stunningly restored 1850s wine-country farmhouse that will serve as a visitor center. Behind and below the farmhouse lies 35,000 square feet of winery and caves capable of making up to 50,000 cases of wine. (Current production is only 15,000 cases.) The winery's startup costs are estimated at $25 million.

The four partners in the venture include Gil Nickel, Dirk Hampson and Larry Maguire, who are all partners in Far Niente winery a few miles to the south. Nickel, a native of Oklahoma, founded Far Niente in 1979. Hampson, who directs winemaking, and Maguire, in charge of marketing, have been with him for nearly as long.

The new project, conceived in 1997, was to have included Nickel's 25-year-old-son, Jeremy, as a partner; however, Jeremy is still finishing his college studies. The second Nickel is, instead, Gil's nephew, 32-year-old Erik Nickel, a builder who specializes in historical reconstruction. The younger Nickel took charge of building the new winery and is now its general manager, in addition to being a partner himself.

Unlike Far Niente, which specializes in blended wines, Nickel & Nickel is dedicated to making only single vineyard-designated varietal wines. Seventeen vineyards were harvested in 2002, and barrel samples from each were tasted during the opening night festivities. Cabernet Sauvignon remains their main focus, with smaller amounts of Merlot, Syrah, Zinfandel and Chardonnay also in barrels.
"For Nickel & Nickel, we are looking to tap the personality of each individual vineyard," said Hampson. "It's totally different at Far Niente, where we try to blend things to create a house style. I wear different hats at each winery."

A few days after the party, Hampson was standing at the entrance to Nickel & Nickel when an SUV full of thirsty visitors to the valley drove up. "Hey, where's Cakebread Cellars?" they yelled out their car window. Hampson pointed them in the right direction. It's unlikely, however, that Nickel & Nickel will remain a secret much longer. When 1,000 friends come to dinner, word gets out quickly.

—Jeff Morgan
 

Q&A Peter Granoff Master Sommelier and former sommelier at Square One in San Francisco, founder of virtualvineyards.com, and now a purveyor of fine wines. Is there anything he doesn't do?


Peter Granoff has packed more wine careers into his 48 years than most people do in a lifetime. Starting as a busboy at local restaurants, he rose to become sommelier at Square One, the quintessential San Francisco restaurant owned by famed chef/cookbook author Joyce Goldstein. Along the way, he became a Master Sommelier, only the 13th in the U.S. In 1994, Granoff co-founded Virtual Vineyards, the first online wine-buying site, which later became wine.com. Now, the Napa resident is gearing up for his newest venture, Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant, San Francisco's newest wine store and an anchor tenant in the Ferry Plaza project.

WE: Have you ever gotten really ticked off at a customer?
PG: More than once! This one time, at Square One in the early 1990s, a party of four men came in and asked to see the reserve wine list. One guy was clearly the ringleader. He looks at the list and asks, "Where's the Dunn Howell Mountain, the Caymus Special Selection, the Beringer Private Reserve?" Obviously all he cared about was big-name Cabernets from Napa Valley. I tried to recommend some of the more unusual things we had—a Syrah, an old-vine Zin—but he wasn't having any part of it. Finally, he looks at me and says, "Don't you have any wines of consequence?"

WE: Wow! What did you say?
PG: I said, "Well, in fact, we do, sir, but we reserve them for customers of consequence."

WE: You didn't.
PG: Actually, no. But I woke up at 3 a.m. thinking that's what I should have said.

WE: So what was the most irritating thing about being a sommelier?
PG: I guess what puts me off is all the high-falutin' pomp and circumstance. I'm also bothered by the whole "cult" wine thing. I find that completely obnoxious.

WE: What makes a great wine list? Length?
PG: With all due respect to the hoopla with award-winning wine lists, let me be blunt: It's tacky. Anybody with enough money can put together a huge wine list. To me, a creative list has maybe 50 selections, and you want it all!

WE: If I looked in your fridge, what kind of wine would I see?
PG: A lot of Sauvignon Blanc and German Riesling. I'm a big fan of acid. I also like unoaked Chablis and Sancerre.

WE: How do you assemble an inventory for a new wine shop? Do you call on old friends at wineries?
PG: Actually, they're calling us! In this economic downturn, a lot of wineries are prepared to sell for the distributor's price, below wholesale.

WE:
Okay, Master Sommelier, what's the greatest wine and food pairing you ever had?
PG: The most satisfying pairings have been the simplest. When I worked in Switzerland, I fell in love with raclette. They would toast and melt it and serve it with small potatoes and gherkins and a glass of the local white, a Chasselas. It wasn't a great wine, but the whole experience and atmosphere were great, and proof that you don't need a blockbuster wine to have a great wine experience.

—Steve Heimoff

Around the World in Six Bottles

Armchair travelers and indecisive wine lovers—here's the answer to the what-to-drink-tonight conundrum. Last month, Caravelle Wine Selections released two boxed wine collections, each containing six 750-ml bottles, called "Five Continents of Fine Wine." Both collections contain selections from France, South Africa, Chile and California (in addition, the red collection has a Shiraz from Australia, and the white set has a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc). The importer hopes that the sets, which also include tasting booklets and some wine-and-food pairing suggestions, introduce consumers to wines from all over the world…and maybe even inspire some at-home tasting groups.

The Red Collection retails for $99.99;
the White Collection is $89.99. Visit
www.caravellewines.com for more information.

Peak Wines corrals Wild Horse

Peak Wines International, the Healdsburg, California-based parent company of Geyser Peak and Canyon Road wineries, has purchased Wild Horse, the Central Coast family winery founded 17 years ago by vintner Ken Volk.

Some sort of move by Volk, who has been trying to find a financial partner for Wild Horse for several years, was expected. He called reports of a $35 million sale price "reasonably accurate," but added that much of that amount would go to pay off debt.
Volk, who considers the deal "more of a merger than an acquisition," began Wild Horse in 1986.

It quickly established its reputation as a leading Central Coast producer. The 140,000-case winery, based in the Templeton area south of Paso Robles, became a restaurant darling for its moderately priced Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

In later years, Volk added Rhône wines under the Equus label, and a series of reserve-style wines under the Cheval Sauvage label. Both lines will continue under the new ownership, although Equus's varietal lineup will be trimmed, said Peak Wines president and CEO Stephen Brauer.

Brauer suggested that he was shopping for additional mid-sized wineries to buy in the current wine industry slowdown. Both Brauer and Volk said that all of Wild Horse's employees will remain at their jobs, including Volk as chief winemaker.

—Steve Heimoff

New Chilean Winery Eyes the Winners Circle


A Santiago mogul and racehorse breeder has added wine to his stable, and the morning odds say it's no long shot.

Call it the year of the thoroughbred. First it was Funny Cide, the low-rent New York gelding who won two stages of the Triple Crown. Then Seabiscuit enjoyed a glorious summer revival on the silver screen. Now comes an equine-inspired wine from one of Chile's finest subregions: Pirque, in the Maipo Valley.

Haras de Pirque, a dozen years in the making, is the culmination of entrepreneur Eduardo Matte's dream to combine his two greatest passions: breeding thoroughbred champions and making fine wine. Located on the outskirts of Santiago, at the base of the Andes, Haras de Pirque is Chile's oldest and most reputable stud farm; after years of subtle transformation, the 1,500-acre estate now boasts more than 350 acres of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon vines. The property's centerpiece is an architecturally stunning 57,000-square-foot winery constructed in the shape of a horseshoe.

Matte bought the property in 1991. A half-dozen years later, after witnessing and tasting the successes that his neighbor Concha y Toro was having with its Pirque-raised Don Melchor and Almaviva wines, he decided to commit some of the finca's best land to grapevines and a winery. Some of the early fruit was sold to Errázuriz; a couple of years ago, a small run of estate wines was released domestically. Now Haras de Pirque's wines are, to borrow yet another racing expression, ready to be "claimed" in the United States.

With the renowned winemaker Alvaro Espinoza in charge, Haras de Pirque has released three lines of varietal wines: its Haras series consists of a 2001 Sauvignon Blanc, an '01 Chardonnay and a 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon, all priced at $12. Higher up the quality ladder is the Character series, priced at $15 and featuring the same three varietals and vintages as those in the Haras collection. At the highest level—call them Haras de Pirque's "stakes" wines—are the Elegance Chardonnay (2001; $25) and Cabernet Sauvignon (2000; $40).
All are interesting, well-made wines.

The whites are surprisingly zesty and low on oak, especially considering that they are Maipo Valley whites. The Elegance Cabernet, the top stud in the stable, is spicy yet not overbearing; it offers aromas of clove, tobacco and chocolate, and the flavors are a touch more complex than average, even for a high-end Cabernet Sauvignon.

"For us, it all started with the breeding farm," said Matte during an August launch dinner in New York. "The horseshoe winery, that was inspired by a keychain I saw in Mexico. I have no engineering or architecture in my background. So it was just something we went with, a tribute to what first drew me to this estate."

And now for the kicker: Matte recently teamed up with Italy's Piero Antinori and Antinori's head winemaker, Renzo Cotarella, to make a super Chilean red wine from the property. Espinoza said the 2001 wine, which has already been bottled, was made from Haras de Pirque's very best blocks. He said the wine will be released sometime next year, after a name has been agreed upon and labels are drawn up.

Apparently horseshoes are not only an American symbol of good fortune; they are in Chile as well.

—Michael Schachner

From Manhattan to Wine Country

Former Lutèce colleagues launch wine tasting day trips

Susan Wilber and Jean Fitzgerald are well versed in winemaking, thanks in part to their close relationship with Lutèce chef and Satur Farms owner Eberhard Muller. Their dream to educate people on the wines of Long Island's North and South Forks led them to launch the Manhattan-based East End Excursions, which specializes in day trips to some of Long Island's best wineries.

Seven properties—Satur Farms, Bedell Cellars, Lenz Winery, Castello de Borghese, Pellegrini, Paumanok Vineyards and Wölffer Estates—already participate in the program, and more are scheduled to join. East End's tour includes round-trip transportation, breakfast, two winery tours (including meetings with winemakers and premium wine tastings) and a gourmet lunch catered by James Port Country Kitchen, all for $85.

Also offered are event tours, which coincide with special winery events or festivals, and custom tours for groups of 10 to 50.

This fall, East End has special trips planned, including barrel tastings, a harvest festival at Paumanok Vineyards, and Castello di Borghese's 30th Anniversary Gala. For more information, contact East End Excursions at 212/289-3543, or www.eastendexcursions.com.

—Tara Ferdico

 

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