What Does Wine Mean to You? Mac McDonald of Vision Cellars Interview: Part Four

This the fourth part of my video interview with Mac McDonald of Vision Cellars.  In this segment, Mac McDonald answers the question that I ask every winemaker - What Does Wine Mean to You?

Please enjoy this three minute video or read the transcript underneath it. 

This is Episode #58 of Understanding Wine with Austin Beeman.

Winemaker Mac McDonald of Vision Cellars answers Austin Beeman's signature wine question. What does wine mean to you? www.austinbeeman.com

Mac McDonald:

What does wine mean to me? Wine means to me friendship, enjoyment, socialization. It means a lot to me, and the reason that I say that is because I've met so many wonderful folks through this wine business and having a glass of wine. I just think that folks who drink wine, they're very interesting individuals because you have something in common right away, you can talk to them about it. It don't matter if you don't even like the variety of wine. You may like Pinot Noir. You may like cabs. You may like Zin. Whatever it is, you got something in common. I find the reason that I say that socialization, friendship thing, over the years that I've been traveling with Miss Lil around the country doing wine events, wine tasting, I've met so many folks.


I probably have, come to visit our winery or visit our vineyard every year, probably have over 1,000 people just stop by to see me that I met from all over the United States, and I think that that felt really good that I meet these folks and give them my card and says, "Come out to visit us. We'll make you lunch or something," and they show up. That's a good feeling because I wouldn't have never met the folks. The big socialization, the big sharing of knowledge, from the knowledge that I get from folks like yourself, doing wine tasting events, and I'm even going to do a wine tasting maybe here later on today. You come in and meet these folks and they come out and see you, or when I come back here to Ohio, I go to these events. I had a big event every night I've been here. I've been here four nights, and it's somewhat like an old family reunion meeting. They come back time and time to see you, and you may not remember all of their names, but they remember who you are, and you just get to see them and you talk to them.

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I don't know what I'd do to trade that socialization off for someone else, and let's face it. I enjoy wine.


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A Chateau Musar Lebanese Wine Seminar: with Marc Hochar.

On October 24, 2017, Winemaker/Owner Marc Hochar of the iconic Lebanese winery Chateau Musar came to Toledo, Ohio.  Hochar presented, to the wine trade, the ancient culture of Lebanon's wine industry and the defining role that Chateau Musar has played in it.  It marked a historic moment between the Lebanese population in Toledo and this historic winery.

This was a collaboration between Cutting Edge Selections, Broadbent Selections, and Toledo Sister Cities International.  The presentation took place at Element 112.  The video and transcript is below.

Marc Hochar of Chateau Musar - the world famous Lebanese wine - gives a wine seminar about Chateau Musar. This Chateau Musar wine class is presented by Cutting Edge Selections, Broadbent Selections, Toledo Sister Cities International, and Understanding Wine with Austin Beeman.

Marc Hochar:

We've been making wines in Lebanon for around 5-6,000 years.

Give or take. Because we don't count ... we count in thousands, exactly. In Lebanon, I mean the history of the country obviously is old. There have been people living there and ... so the birthplace of wine is not the Middle East, it's Mesopotamia. Mesopotamia is current Iraq, Iran, Georgia, Armenia. So it's a bit more north of where we are. And that's probably 7,000 years ago. There are obviously different people with different numbers but this is roughly the ballpark within 1,000 years as you said. And then the wine made its way through the Middle East around 6,000 years ago. Our ancestors in Mount Lebanon, what is now Mount Lebanon as an area, used to produce wines. Our ancestors were the Canaanites and then eventually the Phoenicians. And we're talking roughly 4,000, 4,500 years ago to 2,500, roughly.

It's a phase which was very long, and the Phoenicians used to be extremely important for wine because they brought in wine from Mesopotamia, started producing it in good quantities and in also good quality, but most importantly, they started selling it. And the Phoenicians has boats. They used to have a trade of cedar wood across the Mediterranean. They used to sell to the pharaohs, eventually to what would become priests, etc. And they would sell initially cedar wood. They sold purple dye. Purple dye was the first dye that was actually a permanent dye, created or harvested from seashells. It's the blood of seashells that existed in the area and that allowed to create ... when you imagine a Roman wearing a purple or a dark red robe, this is the color you would get. And it's the first dye that was permanent, so you didn't have to re-dye all the time.

So they would trade that. A few would trade in the dye that was dark red. They thought, "Okay, why not trade wine? It's almost the same color." Actually, it probably led them to trade all the wines. And so wines gradually made their way westward. And so some of the vines that we have still in Lebanon and when you will taste all the white, the Chateaux Musar white, are probably wines and varieties that existed in Lebanon at the time. So when you're tasting this, you're tasting really wines that were present. Although they were probably prepared in a different way. Because conservation at the time was not easy. Avoiding oxidation, etc. So that's, let's say, 3-4,000 years ago. Fast forward a few thousand years, actually a couple thousand years, you get to 2,000 years ago.

So we're in the era where Romans used to control all of the Mediterranean. They had the ability ... they used to worship gods, different gods for different ... types of gods. And one of them was Bacchus, God of wine. And they could build temples wherever they wanted, because they had all of the Mediterranean. And they decided to build one particular temple for Bacchus, God of wine, in Baalbek. Baalbek is in the Bekaa Valley with a sister property now that I know of in Toledo, one of the sister companies is Toledo. So why did they build it there? Because of the history. 2,000 years ago, they thought, "Okay, there's already a couple of thousand years of history of wine making in the area. So if we're going to build a temple for Bacchus, it has to be there." Probably bigger than it is now. Lebanon became part of the Turkish empire, the Ottoman Empire. And wine production gradually stopped.

And this is where France, Italy, Spain, picked up. Picked up the ball and continued producing wine. So today, when we talk about old red wines, we talk about Italy, France, and Spain because of the contribution they had over the last 1,000, 1,500 years. And so where do we put Lebanon? Which category? We are not Old World. Are we New World? Would you put us in New World category? I don't think we should be in the New World category, also because of the style of our wines. The style of our wines is not New World. But also we've been producing wine for 6,000 years.

So I have a new term that we've introduced and you should remember, which is Ancient World. And so if you have to think of Lebanon and all over the region, all of Mesopotamia included, so Turkey, Armenia, Georgia, think of Ancient World. Because that is really what Lebanon is about. So we get to, let's say, 1850s where monks started producing wines in Lebanon. Usually you realize that most of the alcoholic beverages are produced by monks: wine, beer, a lot of typical things. And they are the ones who really started again the production. And then forward through a bit more history, and sorry if it's a bit long but it's really to give you the context. Because then you understand when you taste some of the wines, why we have certain choices, why we have certain varieties in our wines.

And so the Turkish empire, they were with the Germans, lost World War I. So in 1920, the French and the British decided to determine the borders of what are the current countries in the Middle East, so Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Palestine at the time, because this was Turkey in 1920. And so the British and the French determined all these borders. The French helped set up the government in France, Syria, and north. And the British took all the countries south. So the French were posted in Lebanon. And my grandfather, in the 1920s, went to France to study actually medicine, nothing to do with wine. Didn't like it. Just spent one year, and I think he drank more than he actually studied. Because he came back with an idea, which was he started a winery which was bizarre, initially to cater to the French army that was posted in Lebanon.

He became the only supplier for all the officers, across the Levant area, so all of the Middle East. And this is how Musar started. And when I spoke to my father and the time and my uncle, they tell me at the time even in Bordeaux, people were not bottling wine. They used to sell it in bottle. But my grandfather thought, "No, we're going to really set the level very high," so in terms of quality of what we produce, but also bottling. So we were probably one of the first ones to bottle, even before some of the bigger, earlier ones. To bottle and sell as a bottle. So that's the 1930s.

And then my father took over in '59. If you think of '50s and '60s, this is the time where the chemistry of wine was being discovered. People were starting to understand what is happening really in the wine. What is the fermentation. What is the initial first fermentation then the malolactic fermentation. What else do you have? And human nature is as soon as you understand something, you figure out how it works, what do you want to do? You want to change it, you want to control. This is really human nature. So there was a big shift that was starting to happen in France in particular, because this was sort of the main driver I guess, of finding new technologies to control more wine. If something was missing, they would add something. If something was too much, they would subtract.

Today, you have wines that are made with membranes. You take a wine, you would add lots of things, and then you'd decide through membrane, and then you can strip things out to get to the taste that you want. I call that makeup. And the whole approach of my father when he decided to take over was to say, "We're not going to embrace all of that new, modern technology that's coming to wine. We're going to make our wines natural." Nothing, no makeup, no filtering, natural fermentation. And organic vineyards. No fining, no additives, nothing, really nothing. Even at the beginning, there was no sulfur in our wines. Now, we add a little bit of sulfur. I mean, it's been 20 years, because we sell now everywhere in the world. And so you want to make sure the wines are going to withstand transport. Because transport affects, obviously, the wines. And so with a bit of sulfur, you avoid the deterioration of the wines. But that is the only thing that we do.

And so that approach is really what my father brought to Musar in terms of the philosophy of being, what I call, non-interventionist. And also, the approach of actually creating the blend that you will taste when you taste the Chateau Musar red. The blend of the Chateau is what we're known for is really the brainchild of my father. And now my cousin, my brother, and myself are third-generation running the business. This is the sea. It's blue, it's the Mediterranean. You have Egypt and so we are on the eastern side of the Mediterranean. You have Egypt here, Israel, Lebanon, which is actually a rectangle along the coastline, so this is the green part. Syria to our east and north, and then Turkey. So imagine the green part is Lebanon. We have a 120 miles of coastline. And on average, 30 miles wide. I repeat. 120 miles long, 30 miles wide. So it's tiny. With two mountains.

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Actually, there's one chain of mountains on the border with Syria, which is called Anti-Lebanon, Mount Anti-Lebanon, and one chain of mountains in the middle that is called Mount Lebanon. I don't know why they called it Mount Anti-Lebanon, I don't know if there was a subliminal message in there, but this is how small. This two chains of mountains go up to 10,000 feet. So fairly high. Between these two chains, so you have these two chains here, you have the Bekaa Valley. The Bekaa Valley is at 3,000 feet of altitude. So it's nestled between one chain of mountains that protects it from the sea and the humidity and another chain of mountains that protects it from the heat from the desert. So it's a microclimate very specific to the region, to that valley. I would almost call it continental as a climate.

And because we have so much latitude, you have to think of Lebanon as green, not dry. So there's no desert, no camels. It's really a different set of ... you have to imagine Lebanon as mountains, snow, skiing in the winter from Beirut, which is here, to go up to skiing which is here, 45 minutes if there's no traffic. So you wake up in the morning, you open up, there's white covered mountains, just go out skiing. This is what we used to do when I was a kid. And so this Bekaa valley has altitude which allows us really to plant and get bottled wines that are elegant.

Because if you take a line and go this way, you'll reach the top of Morocco. So we are below Sicily, below Crete, below obviously all of Italy and even below the bottom of Spain. So if you're somewhat south, you would expect with the heat, you will get heavier wines, a lot more alcohol, a lot more ripeness, and not too much elegance. But because we have altitude, it allows us to compensate for that southerness that we have.

Do you have to irrigate?

We don't irrigate. We could but we don't. Other wineries do, we don't. Mount Lebanon, from that mountain actually most of the vines are cut because at the time, it was mostly whites. But then as people started wanting reds, I believe that, and vegetables and fruits and wheat, all of that started to be planted in the Bekaa Valley because it's easier, it's flat. Otherwise in Lebanon, you have a lot of terraces, but it's a lot of work. And the reason people built all these terraces in Lebanon was that Lebanon was always invaded by anybody and everybody. And sometimes they got so comfortable that this is when they started to either integrate into the society and then stay or eventually get kicked out by somebody else. But the Mount Lebanon, because it's so steep and so high, was very difficult to conquer.

So the invaders would come to the coastline through the Bekaa Valley, but not on the mountains. And particularly Christians have always stayed in these mountains to protect themselves. Not only the Christians, but those were protecting themselves from invaders. So they had to do all these terraces just to survive because they did not plant it right. As peace started to settle, the Bekaa Valley, which is today the most viable area to plant, is where we have most of the vines now. Now again, look at my graph. So Beirut is here, the middle of the country. The winery is here on the coastline. The vineyards are in the Bekaa Valley, a three-hour truck drive. So why? Again, history. When Lebanon was created in 1920, it was a collection of different areas with different religions, areas which were Christian, areas which were Shiite, Suni, Jews, and so it was a bit of a patchwork.

And my grandfather wasn't sure that this whole thing would survive. So he had a good instinct. And he had a cousin of him who had a palace, which was a 400 year-old-palace called the Musar Palace. In Ghazir, so just over Beirut. And so he decided to start the winery there, but plant in the Beqaa Valley. So this is why today we have a three-hour truck drive. And the way we bring the grapes to the winery is in big trucks where we just put all of the grapes and we take them for a stroll in the sun at 32 degrees for three hours. So for those of you who have done a bit of wine making or oenology classes in wine making, if you go to your class of wine making in France or Italy or wherever and you tell your teacher, "I'm going to take my grapes out at 7:00, 10:00 in the morning and drive them for three hours in the sun before they reach the winery," you won't get your grades.

But this is how we do it. And it is part of history, and this is where history is important for us is that it has determined a lot of things that impact the wines. So our whole approach is natural. I don't want any makeup on our wine. So why do we use wood? We use wood initially just so that the wine gets accustomed to a bit of airing. Because once it's going to be in a bottle, there's always a bit of air that goes through the cork. So the passage in wood is like a vaccination, almost. But we don't want to add any flavor. So when we do, we use old wood. Typically, we only use actually 10% new woods every year, and over 10 years we would have changed all of our barrels. The wood that we use is from France so that is does not have the vanilla aspect of American oak. In France, you have less of this vanilla flavor that comes out.

And we don't even toast it. Because when you build your barrel, you need to burn it a bit just to bend it, bend the wood. But once you bend it, some people also then really burn the inside of the wood. So what does it do? It tends to lead to obviously more smokiness but also the extraction of the tannins of the wood are much faster. But we don't want that. So we basically do not toast it today. And so it is the least possible impact in terms of wood. Why? Because I don't want wood wine. I want wine. So when you taste the wood, what you're tasting is, it's a wine that is a bit more complex. Now, everybody taste different and it's all then a question of how it is to what you're tasting. But it's a wine that's also older. So you're not on fresh fruit anymore. You're starting to move away from fresh fruit to something. Other dried fruit probably would be the best comparison, or stewed fruit, cooked fruit.

So last weekend we were in Alys Beach in Florida and we had the group of sommeliers from around the country who came. And we did two tastings. One only whites, and one only reds. Checking time. The reds, we went from '09 to '64. The reputation of Musar was built on the ability of our wines to age. And the elegance. So we doubled decanted and tasted all the wines, actually blind, because we were going to do two tastings so to keep it interesting, I poured everything blind - 11 wines of reds. And so we did that in the morning. Tasted through the wines for two and a half hours. And then at the end, we had a bit of wine left. We went to the beach and had dinner and then came back around midnight. And then we re-tasted all the wines after 14 hours. And for me, the wines that had really opened up the most and that were showing the best after 14 hours were '64 and '72. After 14 hours.

I mean, I meet some sommeliers who tell me, "If you're going to open a vintage of '66," they don't know Musar, they tell me, "You open it five minutes before and then you pour it," and you don't decant it because after 10 minutes, according to them, all the wines will really shut down. You have an aroma of 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, the wines are no good. In Musar, it's exactly the opposite. You open and you decant and you leave it as much as you can and it will only get better. Now why does it apply to our wines? We always had Cabernet, Cinsault, and Carignan maybe different percentages, and I think at the time of my grandfather we had Petit Verdot and one more, I can't remember. But gradually my father in the '60s narrowed it down and then set the percentages and the methodology of how we made the wine.

So here, the way we make the wines is we harvest every plot of land separate and every variety separate. We keep them in cement vats for one year. Cement, why cement, because it's the most neutral container for us. It is has the least impact on taste. Then it goes through wood for one year. Again not new wood, 25% new wood, not tasted. And then we blend at the end of year two. So we have 15, 20 vats, whatever number. And then we blend them accordingly to basically what we think is a signature design. Then it goes back into cement vats for one year so that the wine settles as well. This is where also it builds up complexity. And then at the end of year three we bottle and then we leave it in our cellars for four, five years before we sell it. So we have a lot of wine.

And this is typical of Musar. If you go older, as the wine becomes more complex, it's very difficult to go back to the younger wine. Because the older wine has much more to say, much more to offer. And the younger wines appear almost simpler after an old wine. But a younger wine on its own is great. So it's just a question of comparison and how you've spoiled yourself by getting the '98 or '01 vintage on the pallet and then having to go back to something which is not as sophisticated. Whites, yeah. These two varietals probably are the ones that existed or is part of the ones that existed at the time. Because they only exist today in Lebanon. So they would not have come from anywhere else. So they are rooted. And I'll tell you to which points. When we harvest the Viognier, Vermentino and Chardonnay in August, they are 14 degrees alcohol, 13.5. Then we harvest the reds in September, 14 degrees alcohol. Then we harvest Obeideh and Merwah, these two local varieties. 12 degrees alcohol in October.

So it's their nature. They are very well adapted to the heat, they know how to deal with the heat of the sun. It's just that when they arrive that because they've been so long in the sun they are almost baked, they are almost brownish but not shriveled. Just a thick skin from tannin. They like tannin. But they only give us 12 degrees of alcohol. So the intensity that you taste is not the alcohol level. It's just the type of the grape, the fact that this is long-ripening, and they're biannual yields. So the grapes in here... so we have two local varietals that only exist in Lebanon. And so these are probably the varietals that I think existed at the time, 4,000, 5,000 years ago. Obeideh. Obeideh. is a local grape that is similar in style to Chardonnay. O-B-E-I-D-E-H.

And the other one is Merwah which we believe is the ancestor of Sauvignon. Merwah is M-E-R-W-A-H. Now you ask me a question of DNA earlier. So we haven't done any DNA analysis on Merwah, but we've done ampelography, which is the analysis of the shape of the leaves. And so we believe it's an ancestor of Sauvignon. But we haven't managed to do the DNA. Another producer lately started using Obeideh and has made the DNA analysis of Obeideh. And according to that result, there's no relative to Chardonnay. But in Lebanon, there are many variations of Obeideh. So we don't know exactly which variation is that, whether they're different or not from the ones that we have. They survive phylloxera.  These are the only varietals that we have that survive for phylloxera. And they are a bit higher in the mountains than the the Beqaa Valley. So maybe that's why ... and they're a bit further away.

So because of the distance, maybe it protected them. But today we have to replant a lot of Obeideh and Merwah because many of the vines are too old and are starting to die or are being uprooted.

How old are these vines?

The oldest we have are 100-plus, with the yields, which are tiny.

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Note:  At the time of this writing, I currently work for Cutting Edge Selections which distributes Chateau Musar in Ohio.


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Video: What Makes Sonoma Pinot Noir Special? Mac McDonald of Vision Cellars Interview: Part Three

This the third part of my video interview with Mac McDonald of Vision Cellars.  In this segment, McDonald talks about why Sonoma County is such a great place for Pinot Noir and why it is special.

Please enjoy this six minute video or read the transcript underneath it. 

This is Episode #57 of Understanding Wine with Austin Beeman.

Mac McDonald of Vision Cellars discuss the specific characteristics that make California Pinot Noir - and specifically Sonoma Pinot Noir - so special. www.austinbeeman.com

Mac McDonald:

From my mind, what makes California fruit a little bit more consistent is that we've kind of figured out what type of soil condition, what type of weather patterns that you have is the best area to grow Pinot Noir. We've found that nice cooler areas, cool at night, maybe when it's a little bit warmer during the day, you know 80s is not to high into the 100s and stuff like that. Well, its more ideal for drinking and making Pinot Noir because you don't get the over ripe fruit all the time, unless you purposely trying to do that. So I think we are a little bit more consistent and we do have a tendency to get a little bit more alcohol you see than Burgundy or Oregon. I think when you look at Northern California, I think we're pretty consistent in finding a good location to grow Pinot Noir and I think that, that's really the determining factor.

Burgundy, you know they don't get a lot of heat and in that Burgundy area. So your alcohol normally is not as high and the wine can last a lot longer. Of course, we make our wines in California so that they'll be able to be consumed a little bit earlier. Now when I get into California itself and I think about Carneros, I think about a more dense, maybe a little bit more hardier of Pinot Noir because you don't have a lot of hot, hot weather in that Carneros area. It's quite close to the water. You get over into Sonoma County where I live, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley, ideal for Pinot Noir.

Our property is maybe three quarters of a mile from the Russian River, which is nice and cool in there. When the ocean itself is about 45 miles away. It's nice and cool in that Russian River Valley, where you get up in the 80's, once in a while you get up, you know 95 or something like that, but normally it's in the 80's and at night it kind of cools down so you get more of a cherry, real ripe plum kind of a fruit from that area, not as dark as it is in Carneros. Then when you get down to Monterey County, to the Santa Lucia Highland, particularly upper part of the Santa Lucia Highland, around Solidad, in that area. I purchased fruit from the Gary's in Rosella's Vineyard and a Las Ventura's vineyard that's owned by the Wagner family, and I tell you, that's an ideal area itself for growing Pinot Noir.

You still get that little dense kind of a fruit there. The acid can be high in that area, a lot higher than it is in I say Russian River Valley, Sonoma County, or Carneros, or in Napa area and part of it is in Sonoma. The acids can be pretty high down in the Santa Lucia Highland and into Monterey County. When you get down past Santa Barbara and that area, now you're picking up a little bit more ripe of fruit, a little bit lighter fruit and you can kind of get more of what I call that candy apple kind of a bright sweet kind of a real cherry, real not wild cherry, but real bing kind of a light cherry kind of a wine. With maybe a little bit of berries and the typical raspberry flavors down there.

I don't think that, that's a problem with that, but I think we're consistent in all the areas that we're making Pinot Noir in, but finding out that the temperature in except in those areas makes a big difference in how Pinot Noir should be coming out and how the trellising of the vines and how you can actually get the exposure to the grape to the sun shine that you need, but we can't change the sun. We can change how the sun hit the fruit itself by the way we prune it or by we go out and pick the leaves off of it. So I think overall, California's learned how to farm is the bottom line.

Now Oregon, a lot of folks in Oregon they kind of maybe live there, made wine in California so they've taken a lot of the practice up there that we had. They started out in Oregon using the fruit from that area and not trying to make it a California Pinot Noir style. They started out real light. They're gonna get a lot of sun, lot of heat. So they were able to just make a wine from the area and it was so different than California and I can remember when I used to go up there and I'd taste those Pinot Noir's and I use to think, "Oh, what do these guys think they doing?" Because, I was suggested to drink in a little bit different style of Pinot Noir. But I think overall, they doing a great job. They're making their Pinot Noirs up in Oregon and parts of Washington as well now.

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Video: How (and Why) to Grow Pinot Noir. Mac McDonald of Vision Cellars Interview: Part Two

This the second part of my video interview with Mac McDonald of Vision Cellars.  In this segment, McDonald talks about the reasons he chose to pursue great Pinot Noir and the challenges of working with such a complicated and finicky grape.

The first part of the interview is here.  "From Rural Texas to Napa Valley Wine Country."

Please enjoy this six minute video or read the transcript underneath it. 

This is Episode #56 of Understanding Wine with Austin Beeman.  Direct Download Link.

Mac McDonald of Vision Cellars discusses why he chose to grow great Pinot Noir and the complex challenges that he faces.

Mac McDonald:

Pinot Noir is what we do. Folks often ask me, why do you choose or select the toughest type of grape? Well, number one, in California, Northern California, and you want to make Cabernet unless you come out of Napa Valley, folks normally think it's not that good. So I thought if I could craft a great Pinot Noir, because Burgundy is the same grape, that if I could craft a good Pinot Noir then I think I could play with the big dogs. I'm pretty competitive in everything that I do so I want it to be good, I want it to make a mark for doing what I was doing. And at the time as a winery in California called William Seylem that I thought was doing a great, great job and then I also thought Sanford down in the Santa Barbara, those are the only two great Pinot producers that I thought was really, really good and I thought if I could make a great, great Pinot Noir then I could compete. 

That's why they was selected. I had no idea all the crazy things about that grape even exists but I'm a pretty fast learner so I learned a lot about it. Well, it's a real challenging thing because if you think normally about the clones of a Pinot Noir grape, the challenge of growing the grapes, making the wines and selecting the right yeast and keeping the temperature at a certain control. To start off with, you have to really know your soil condition and really match your soil condition with your root stock. Root stock, how much water you have, the soil condition, how much you want to grow per ton, like a Sauvignon Blanc, it doesn't care, it's like a weed, you can just overload it with tons and tons of fruit. In the Chardonnay world, let's say, you have about 50, 60 plus clones some place in their different varieties, different clones. Same with the Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, you have about 50 or 60 there.

But in the Pinot world, you have about 11,000 clones. These things just mutate, you start out, for example, with a 667 or a 777 clone and you may have one side of the road, you may have this clone planted over there, the other side another different clone and they'll completely go different flavors. Then you get into the pruning process of it. You talk to different Pinot growers and they have different methods of pruning and I just like a little bit of exposure to my fruit. So it's really consistent with leaf picking, in other words, if you get more sun on the east side you may wanna leave a little bit more leaves on that. You don't get enough on the west side of the vine you may want to pull some of that off. So it's a constant juggle of trying to get the ripeness, in the evening ripeness, on the fruit itself. 

Austin Beeman: Isn't that challenging? 

Mac McDonald:

Yeah, it's pretty challenging and like I said, we all, a lot of us have different thoughts about it but I think we all come into an agreement. That's why we've been able to craft better Pinot Noir in California. It used to be, like I said, Brett William was the king of it but now you've got a lot of folks making great Pinot Noir. In fact, even here in the state of Ohio, they have a Pinot program, it's doing pretty good. I gave a big lecture at Ohio State several years ago on the crafting on Pinot Noir and I came back and tasted what some of the things that they made and they doing pretty good. But it's a real tough grape to grow. There's a whole bunch of choices of selections of yeast that you use to ferment your fruit and that makes a big difference in the end result of the flavor. 

The type of yeast you use helps determine the flavor you get on the end and then you have the other extreme of that, barrel selections is really, really critical because in my mind, a Pinot Noir should be treated like a white grape. It's a delicate thing. You can get too much wood on it or you can get too much alcohol in it. I'm not saying that if you don't like high alcohol Pinot Noir you shouldn't buy them but I'm just thinking that 13.5, 14.5, in there, is ideal alcohol level for a Pinot Noir. Now with that said, sometimes your vineyard, your fruit is just not there. Out of 25 bricks, equivalent to a 13.8, 13.9 of Pinot Noir and so you may have to let the alcohol get up a little bit higher because it's a little bit riper, so the riper it is, the higher the sugar content and the higher the sugar content is, higher the alcohol is gonna be in the finished product. 

So it's kind of an up and down thing with that grape in that sense as well.

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Video: From Rural Texas to Napa Valley Wine Country. Mac McDonald of Vision Cellars Interview: Part One

Mac McDonald of Vision Cellars is not what you would expect from someone making some of California's best Pinot Noir. 

Mac speaks with a southern drawl, wears a farmer's hat, and sports blue jean overalls in a world of California's "Wine Country Casual."  He is a boutique craftsman who makes his wine in the corporate beast that is Wagner Family Wines.  He is also African-American in an industry where diversity is in the terroir and almost never among the winemakers.

Mac McDonald is also one of my favorite winemakers.  Not only because he makes delicious Pinot Noirs - which he does - but for the perspective he brings to the industry.

Please enjoy this 5 minute video or read the transcription afterwards.  

This is Episode #55 of the Understanding Wine with Austin Beeman Podcast.  // Direct Download Link.

Winemaker of Mac McDonald (part one) of Vision Cellars interviewed by Austin Beeman. Mac McDonald discusses his path from rural Texas to being a winemaker in California.

Mac McDonald:

I am Mac McDonald. I'd like to say I'm the owner, winemaker of Vision Cellars but I'm married with Miss Lil so I just make the wine for Miss Lil. 

Well, you know, it's kind of interesting how I got into wine. I grew up 89 miles south of Dallas, Texas. I grew up way in the woods, way in the country. I consider myself as an old organic kind of a guy, growing back up in there, squirrel eatin' type of a guy. At 12 years old, there used to be a couple hunters used to come down in these woods and go hunting with my grandfather and drink my father's moonshine. So one of them used to drink burgundy and these guys would give him a hard time about drinking that burgundy wine, blah, blah, blah.

But they was drinking corn whiskey. So one day he said to me, he says, "Hey, son, would you like to have this bottle of wine?" And said yes, but 12 years old, I didn't know how to get it open but I finally dug out the cork out of it and I took a stick and shoved it off in there and I tasted it. You don't have to worry about Child Protective Service because they didn't have anything back off in the woods to do that anyway. At any rate, I tasted it and I drank a half a bottle of that wine that day. It tasted pretty good. From that point on, all I talked about was I wanted to be a winemaker. Fast forward through high school, my coach says to me, "If you wanna make wine, you need to move to California."

That's why I moved to California, from Texas to California. I grew up about 89 miles south of Dallas, Texas, around Palestine, Waco, in that area. So I get into California, we had a pretty tough time getting to know winemakers and I didn't know who they were or what they do, any of that thing. So I started hanging around up in Mendocino County, which is about 160 miles north of San Francisco. Met a guy by the name of John Parducci up there and old John wouldn't give me the time of day but that was okay because some kid coming out of Texas talking about you wanna make wine but I kept going back up there and he started talking to me, telling me stuff. But really what kicked me off into this wine business is I met a family over in Napa valley. A family called the Wagner family and I hung out with Mr. Wagner probably for 9 months and I didn't know who he was, he didn't say anything about who he was.

And one day the taster room manager came out and said, "Hey, why you always out here bothering Mr. Wagner?" And I says, "Well, what do you mean? That old guy out there?" He goes, "That ain't just some old guy, that's Mr. Wagner. He own this place." I had no idea for 9 months I'd been hanging out with the owners of Caymus Vineyard. Fast forward a little bit further, I've known the Wagner family for around 31 years. 17, 15 years or so after hanging out with him, Mr. Wagner said to me, "Son, you ought to be in the wine business." And I thought, "Well, you know, I'd like to but I don't have that kind of money." He goes, "Don't worry about it, we'll take care of ya." So 17 years ago, my wife and I, Miss Lil, we started Vision Cellars and to this day, I'm the only non family member that's allowed to make wine at Caymus.

All my wines are crafted at Caymus Vineyard in Rutherford, California. I make 'em all myself. We own some vineyards in Sonoma County, which is about 110 miles north of San Francisco, Russian River Valley. We own this little vineyard there and we do craft wine from that vineyard. That's basically how I got into the wine business.

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Four Mistakes in the Winery Tasting Room that Destroy Customer Loyalty

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There is nothing in the wine business that builds long term brand loyalty like a visit to the vineyard.  The combination of nature, luxury, hospitality, flavor, and education is warmed by the glow that only vacation can provide.  It is one of the greatest brand assets that any winery has.

Vineyard visits are additionally powerful when the visitor is a member of the trade.  A visit by a sommelier, retail manager, critic, or distributor can result in hundreds of thousands of dollars of sales spread over a lifetime.

But it is the bad experiences with a winery at the vineyard that can destroy loyalty and cost untold sales.

I've visited wineries in many different professional capacities:

  • Retail Manager buying $500,000+ per year
  • Senior Executive for Distribution Company
  • Minimum wage retail employee
  • Executive for winery
  • Wine Blogger / Influencer
  • MBA Student in Wine & Spirits

... and the vast majority of my experiences have been positive.  Sometimes, however, the experience is shockingly bad.  I left each of these wineries with a bad taste in my mouth owing nothing to the taste of the wine.

I'm not going to name names, because that isn't the point of this article.  I'm trying to be helpful.

#1 - Don't Pair Your Industry Visitor with Someone Who is Paid to Create Tasting Room Sales

I still mockingly tell the story of a Napa Valley winery that tried to sell me at "Tasting Room Retail" wines that I sold in my store.  Despite months of scheduling ahead and a promise to meet with the winemaker, I was paired with a guy who got commission on the wines that he sold out of the tasting room.  He was unable to grasp that I was here to learn about his wines, not to buy them at retail.

#2 - Don't Mock the Part of the Country in Which Your Visitor Lives.

Californians tend to believe that they live in the greatest state in the country.  Having lived in California, I know that there are many wonderful things and many horrible things about the state.  But yes, California is pretty nice and wine country is some of the best of it.  That doesn't mean that you should mock other people's homes.

I remember a winery in Sonoma County and a winemaker who couldn't stop making jokes about people from my state as ignorant hillbillies and 'people who had probably never heard of organic food.'  Every state in the USA has a full diverse compliment of people.  Smart and ignorant.  Cultured and uncultured.  Rich and poor.

That winemaker is entitled to his bigoted worldview, but I never sold his wines again.

FYI: This is the most common complaint that I hear for industry associates.  Wineries need to get their people in line on this.  It isn't okay!

#3 - Respect Your Visitor's Schedule

Those of us in the wine industry have many relationships with many wineries and limited time to visit them.  We probably have a schedule.  Please respect it.  If you are going to be late, say so.  If you need to reschedule, please let us know as quickly as possible, and don't be surprised if we can't.

Equally difficult is when the tasting is running too long.  It is incredibly frustrating have to breakaway mid-tasting to rush to the next location.  If I say that we have an hour, please shape the experience to the time available.

A little knowledge fixes this problem.  The best experiences often start with the question, "How long do we have?"

#4 - Don't Limit Your Visitor's Tasting to Only the Wines They are Familiar With.

When I'm coming to a visit a winery with which I do business, I'm coming to understand the place, the property, and the people. Tasting the wines is something of an afterthought.  I can do that back at home anytime.  So if you are hosting an Industry Visitor, don't limit them only the wines they actually work with. 

Going farther afield to taste small 'tasting room only' bottles and barrel samples is a great way to create a memorable experience for the visitor.  It also helps us understand the culture and perspective of the winery.

Strictly limiting what your industry partner can taste makes you look petty and cheap.

In Conclusion

In today's incredibly competitive wine business landscape, wineries want to make sure that their best customers - the industry professionals who promote their wine to the public - have memorable and compelling experiences at the winery. 

The four mistakes in this article should be considered "never evers" and yet they continue to happen.  Wineries that work to eliminate these mistakes will discover that they are reaping significant benefits.


 

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Can a Jackass Improve with Age? A Vertical Tasting of Martinelli's Jackass Hill Zinfandel

Jackass Hill is one of the legendary vineyards of California.  Planted in the 1890s by Giuseppe Martinelli, this is a legacy vineyard of Zinfandel.  One of the oldest in Sonoma, the vineyard is farmed without irrigation or pesticides. 

Called Jackass Hill because "it is so steep that only a jackass would farm it," the wines produced from the vineyard are some of the most sought-after Zinfandels in California.  They are extracted, high-alcohol, expensive, beasts that are in very limited supply. The wines routinely sell for over $160.  If you can find them.

This is normally not a style of wine headed for the cellar and it isn't readily apparent if they will last, improve, or decline with age.  People are buying this wine for the delicious blast of powerful fruit and pleasure of owning a scare luxury item.

So, when I was invited into a back room of the Martinelli winery to taste a vertical of Jackass Hill Zinfandel with the Martinelli family, I knew it would a special moment and a chance to taste some Sonoma Valley history.

Here my notes on the 2014, 2007, 2003, 2002, 2000, 1997, and 1996 vintages.

Here are my tasting notes of a few memorable bottles.  All the wines were of the finest provenance possible, pulled directly from the winery's cellar, and were tasted first by the winemaker to confirm that they were tasting correctly. 

Martinelli 2014 Jackass Hill Zinfandel.  "Tight and intense. Yet perceptibly soft with extreme black fruit. Flavors of charred meat and hickory smoke. Very smooth. Right now this wine is a strange mixture of alcohol burn and smooth mouthfeel.  The genre here reminded me of bourbon, even if the taste did not."  90 points.

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Martinelli 2007 Jackass Hill Zinfandel.  "Luscious with an apricot and jalapeño compote. That is an incredible thing to write in a tasting note, 'tis true, but it is also an incredible thing to taste in a red wine.  It was truly there and obviously so.  The texture is very smooth with red berry jelly with the least perceptive heat from the alcohol of any vintage of JHZ that I've ever tasted."  92 points.

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Martinelli 2003 Jackass Hill Zinfandel.  "Peaches, plums, and apricots in a slow-cooker with dashes of herbs. A crusty char from smoke and heat. Creates a dark delicious goo."  93 points.

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Martinelli 2002 Jackass Hill Zinfandel.  "The Jackass Hill terroir shows through the alcohol with strong apricot aromas and flavors. Also some stone fruit. Sexy and extreme! Incredibly big and incredibly lush. Massive but not ungraceful. Sweet stewed peppers. A finish that recalls apricots on the grill."  95 points.

Martinelli 2000 Jackass Hill Zinfandel.  "Two bottles were both off-putting and funky. Winery representatives considered them flawed. Not enough experience for me to know if this is the end of this vintage's life or if we just got unlucky."  No Rating.

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Martinelli 1997 Jackass Hill Zinfandel.  "Exotic and lush with those aromas that are created when you pour red wine into cooking tomato sauce. Sweet potato cream. Apple pie with cinnamon. Spicy tomatillos and salsa on the finish."  91 points.

Martinelli 1996 Jackass Hill Zinfandel.  "Over the hill at this point, into the funky tomato-paste thing."  83 points.

Some final thoughts on Martinelli Jackass Hill Zinfandel.

These wines are not subtle shrinking violets and if you want to age them, you need to be prepared for some wildly usual flavors.  I absolutely adored the grilled apricot flavors that hit this wine in the 8-14 year age bracket, but at the 20 year mark, I was not a fan of the stewed tomato character. 

It is unlikely that you are going to find old bottles of this on the market.  Most have likely already been consumed.  But if you spot one, and if you want a wild adventure, consider picking up one of my recommendations here.


Keep reading.  More great wine articles here...

5 Things You Need to Know About the 2015 Bordeaux Vintage. (notes from the 2018 Union des Grand Crus de Bordeaux Tasting)

Whether making wine or promoting it, nobody does it quite like Bordeaux!  Every year the Union des Grand Cru de Bordeaux sponsors a industry-only wine tasting in major markets around the world.  Some of the world's greatest winemakers travel together, pouring their wines, and introducing the world to a new vintage of Bordeaux.

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The Chicago 2018 tasting at The Drake in January was buzzing with excitement because this year, the vintage was 2015.  In rumor, this was the first truly world-class vintage since 2010 for Bordeaux and the room was thronged with the top buyers in the Midwest.  They wanted to see if this was true.  For the first time, I was lucky to be among them.

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This is the first of a few articles that I'm writing based on this tasting.  There is a lot to say.  Shall we start with a couple quick observations about the 2015 Bordeaux Vintage.

1.  2015 is truly a great vintage ... and an easy vintage to love.

In Bordeaux, great vintages are classified as Vin de Plaisir (wine of pleasure) or Vin de Garde (wine to age.)  Either style can be truly great, but they are truly different.  Vin de Plaisir vintages offer luscious fruit and youthful beauty.  Vin de Garde are firmer, more structured, and mature dramatically with time in the cellar. 

2015 is a Vin de Plaisir.  I don't think I've ever enjoyed Bordeaux in its youth as much as I did these 2015s.  Only the superlative 2009s came close.  This will be a very popular vintage for the sommeliers and restaurants of the world, who crave accessibility and often don't have the time to give the wines decades in the cellar.  I also expect great success in Asia, driving global prices upward again.

2.  Cheap Bordeaux will be amazing in 2015.

"A rising tide raises all boats" is a Bordeaux cliche.  It is also often true.  The quality of the lesser, humble wines was astounding and the quality distance between the cheapest and most expensive wines was far less than normal. 

This is a year to aggressively buy everything you can get your hands on.  You won't be disappointed.  I'll write about some recommendations in future articles.

3.  The White Bordeaux are stunning in 2015.

I started the tasting with some white Bordeaux, thinking ahead to the delicious reds that were in store for me.  Then I stopped, refocused, and realized that the wines in my glass were mind-blowing. 

White Bordeaux vintages do not always move lock-step with the quality of the red wines, but in 2015 they are show-stoppers.  Rich and flavorful with great mouthfeel and pure acidity that never overpowers. 

Most people will ignore the moderate to expensive white Bordeaux.  You shouldn't.  These are some of the best white wines in the world right now.  They are also dramatically unpriced when compared to the best white wines of Burgundy or California.  Specific recommendations to come.

4.  Focus on Pessac-Leognan and Graves in 2015.

The wines of Southern Bordeaux - the communes of Pessac-Leognan and Graves - were by far the most consistently superb of any region I tasted.  Not just because they produced the white Bordeaux that I thought were so amazing, but because the richness of the 2015 fruit, when mated to the earth and funk of these appellations, created the most complex and interesting wines of the tasting. 

Both the best white wine and the best red wine of the tasting were from these regions.  Specific recommendations in a future article. 

5.  Be a little careful with the Right Bank in 2015.

There is more than enough great wine coming from the Right Bank appellations - Saint Emilion and Pomerol - to justify this as a great year for that region.  Yet, there are also quite a few wines that really missed the mark for me, including many prestigious names. 

These wines came in overripe with inappropriate amounts of alcohol and completely lacking in acid.  It is likely that some of these wines will garner very high ratings from major critics, but I wasn't enormously happy with the category. I felt that many of these wines let the weather steal the soul of Bordeaux away from them.

I'd recommend that you try to taste 2015 Right Bank Bordeaux, before you invest heavily in them.  But don't worry, I'll have plenty to recommend in a future article.

Final Thoughts ...  for now.

My final thoughts are of a very lush, sexy, and delicious year.  The 2015 Vintage in Bordeaux is going to be loved around the world and prices will likely surge, but it will be for good reason and good taste.


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Glen Manor Vineyards 2013 Raepheus. The Most Memorable Wines of 2017

I didn't truly expect to find world-class wine in Virginia.  Good wine?  Probably.  A beautiful country and a great time visiting a friend?  Absolutely.  In a year filled with extraordinary dessert wine experience, I would not have expected that a Virginian Petit Manseng would be one of the most memorable.  But it was.

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The wine is liquid gold, done in the style of Southwest France's Jurancon.  It has been described as the 'apricots of the gods with the soul of raspberries."  One of the few dessert wines that blends the complexity of fine Sauternes with the delicate character of Eiswein.  It slides across the tongue like a sword cutting snow and then reveals absolute beauty beneath. 

Raepheus is not only the finest wine made in Virginia.  It is quite possible the best dessert wine made in the United States.

Glen Manor Vineyards is located in the Blue Ridge Mountains and the views are stunning.  More importantly, the terroir and climate of the vineyards provide a freshness and acidity that doesn't exist in most other Virginia wines.  Steep slopes and high elevations are also keys to the success.

For five generations and over 100 years, the family has owned the property.  It was not an easy life and for a long time the family operated as subsistence farmers.  In 1995, the realization came that less fertile land is ideal for vineyards.

I visited the humble tasting room.  I saw the beautiful property.  I also saw the hands and faces of the owners and winemakers. Glen Manor Vineyards is truly what many wineries pretend to be; a wine made in the vineyard.  That isn't easy, but it is kind of righteous.

What ever else the winery may be, they made the 2013 Raepheus.  One of my most memorable wines of 2017.