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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Biodynamic, Sustainable, and Organic Wine. Rebecca Work of Ampelos Cellars: The Complete Interview

Biodynamic wine?  Organic Wine?  Sustainability?  In the world of wine, these are terms of confusion for even experienced wine drinkers.  In my interview with Rebecca Work of Ampelos Cellars, I received my first coherent explanation of these terms.  I hope they help you as well.  Parts of this video were released as separate episodes of Understanding Wine with Austin Beeman and are collected here for the first time.

Transcript:

Hi, I'm Rebecca Work, and the winery is called Ampelos Cellars. It's a winery that my husband and I do all the work ourselves. It's a very small winery in the Santa Barbara/Santa Rita Hills area. We make about a total of 3,500 cases. We have a vineyard as well, 25 acres planted. Two-thirds of what we make comes from our own vineyard.

Part One:  Organic? Sustainable? Biodynamic?  What Does it all Mean?

 Many people don't really know the difference between those three practices. Basically, you actually have four farming practices. You have conventional, which is basically you spray herbicides, pesticides, artificial fertilizers, try and get the largest yields you can get out of the land. Don't necessarily pay attention to waste management, irrigation practices, any of the farming aspects. Just try and grow as much as you can possibly grow out of the soil.

Then you have organic, and organic is, you're not allowed to spray herbicides or pesticides, or use artificial fertilizers. Basically, don't spray any nasty stuff. Organic doesn't say what you must do or how you must do it. It doesn't pay attention to waste management, irrigation practices, any other farming aspects. Just don't spray that bad stuff.

You have biodynamic, and biodynamic actually came before organic, so it's been around since the early 1900s. This is not a newfangled idea. Biodynamic is you're not allowed to spray herbicides or pesticides, or use artificial fertilizers, so by default you're organic. But biodynamics says, "Here's what you must do and here's how you must do it." Biodynamic follows the earth schedule and not the farmer's schedule, so examples of that would be, we know that in a descending moon the earth takes in, and in ascending moon, the earth lets out. We irrigate on a descending moon because it takes less water. We get deeper penetrations than if we irrigated on ascending moon.

Biodynamics says, "Everything you take out of the vineyard you must bring back." All of our stems, seeds and skins come back. We compost it. We put it back in the vineyard. Biodynamics says, "You must treat everything like one holistic system." We know we have a lot of beneficial insects, so to make sure those insects don't leave our vineyard, every 10th row, it's totally natural. Nobody's allowed to walk in it. No equipment's allowed to go there, and therefore when the tractor goes up and down the other rows, the beneficial insects have a safe place to go and we don't lose them.

The thing with Biodynamics, though, is it doesn't look at waste management, employee practices, some of the other aspects of farming. Sustainability is a term everybody's using, but now there are starting to come out some certification processes. We were in the pilot of that. Sustainability breaks farming into nine areas. You have employee practices: do you have a grievance process? Social practices: do you tell you neighbors what you're doing? Don't spray at 5 in the morning. Soil management, waste management, irrigation, and you must qualify a minimum in each one of those areas. We're 100% on solar power, so we've qualified in the energy area for that. With sustainability, you can still spray herbicides and pesticides, certain ones, and use artificial fertilizers.

Part Two:  Does Biodynamic Winemaking Make the Wine Any Better?

The school is still out with biodynamics as to whether it made a difference or not. We have seen a difference in the health of our vines. Example of that is in 2008, it was the worst frost we've had in 35 years. Vineyards around us, all on rolling hills like us, all doing the same frost protection like us, all of us getting out there in the morning to turn on the sprinkler systems, lost 50 to 60% of their fruit. We didn't lose a single thing. We weren't doing anything different from them. They were not very far from us. We think the biodynamic just made our vines stronger to protect themselves against the frost.

We have seen in our vineyard where ... We have American oak trees in California. They're protected. You're not allowed to take them out, so you plant the vineyards around them. Problem is, the oak trees taking everything of the nutritional value out of the soil, so you try to plant your rows as far back. We planted it back, but the row by the oak trees just were not doing very well at all. We were about ready to take them out, and over the time of being biodynamically farmed since '05, as of last year those vines were now catching up to the rest of the vineyard, which is telling us there's enough nutrition in the soil to support the oak tree as well as our vineyard.

We think just the healthiness of the vines ... Another aspect is in that frost. We got hit in the fall at the harvest time. We got frost at the beginning and we got frost at the end. That meant many of the vineyards who still had fruit out there, the vines totally shut down and therefore were not going to develop any further than where they were. Our vines just kept on trucking, and so we were able to develop the flavors for our wines even though we had that nasty frost.

Part Three: What is So Special about Santa Barbara Wine Country?

The thing with Santa Barbara is it probably doesn't have an identity, and that's its biggest problem. You think of Napa, you think of cab. You think of Oregon, you think of Pinots. Santa Rita Hills, what do you think of? We've got cabs, we've got Rhones, we've got pinots, we've got everything across the board. I think with Santa Barbara, we are able to get tremendous hang time on our fruit. We don't start our harvest until the end of September, which is a really late time. By having that longer hang time, it allows the flavors to develop so much more. We get so much more complexity, I think, from that in our wines.

I think Santa Barbara is doing a awesome job in the pinot area from Santa Rita Hills, the Rhone areas from Happy Canyon, Foxhound. We're starting to really show beautiful sauvignon blancs that are coming out of there now. I think one of the things people don't really realize is really, Santa Barbara's not only a great place for a lot of varietals, but we're not into yet the big, commercialized, artificial kind of thingYou'll walk into many tasting rooms and meet the winemaker there, or you'll meet the owner and winemaker, like me and me husband area. Santa Barbara has a lot to offer.

Part Four:  What are your favorite wines?  Not including anything you make.

We’re, especially me, very partial to Greek wines. I know that sounds kind of odd. We've spent a lot of time in Greece. We think Greece has amazing wines that actually doesn't leave the country, and one of my most favorite ones is called Agiorghitiko. It's from Nemea. It's a wine that's so hard to explain. It's kind of like a cab but not really. It's like a cab/Syrah. It's got its own identity, and we just love Agiorghitiko. We try really hard to find that wine.

Part Five:  What Do You See Happening in the Wine Culture?

It’s no longer just something to drink that's good. It's more where we're having a lot of people coming in who want to really learn what goes behind that wine. We have a lot of people who are now interested in coming to work a day of the harvest with us. People have a real kind of desire to learn what goes on in the winery. Why do you do what you do? We're seeing this more and more, especially in the younger generation, who, A, is interested in learning as to what goes behind the wines, but B, is wanting to venture into new kinds of wines that they hadn't had before, like we make a Dornfelder. It's the one time we've made it. It's a German varietal. As far as we know, there's the one vineyard in Santa Rita Hills that has Dornfelder, and most people have never heard of it, or seen it, or tried it. People get excited when they find something unusual that they can take to a dinner party.

I think in the past, people were into the white Zinfandels and that was just something to drink, but nobody was really interested in what went on behind, and how do you make white Zin, even though ... I'm not a white Zinfandel person at all, but ...

I think they want to get rid of all of the technical terms around it, but understand what is a clone? Most people don't understand, varietals are pinot noir, Syrah, cabs, and then within each of those varietals you have clones. Most people don't have a single idea what a clone is. I always explain, it's like apples. You have Granny Smith, red delicious, the different ones, and each one of those apples have totally different flavors. The clones we have for like pinot noir are absolutely, totally different, and therefore makes it our spice cabinet to make the kind of style of wine we want to make. People love it. They come out, and then I let them taste the difference between a pinot noir clone 115 versus a 667 versus a triple-7. They can see how those different clones can make the style of wine you want to make. I think people are really wanting to be educated as to what goes into that wine.

 

 

Ridge Monte Bello: 1988, 2003, & 2012. Three Vintages of One of America's Finest Wines.

Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello is one of the commanding heights of American Wine.  Not simply because it has some of the oldest vines and an amazing view of Silicon Valley, but because the wine that proclaims the Monte Bello Vineyard is one of the finest in the country.

The Ridge Monte Bello is a Cabernet-based blend of classic Bordeaux varietals that represents the flagship of the Ridge portfolio.  The wine has a long history of stellar critical and competitive success; including the famous Judgement of Paris Tasting in 1976.   But despite the incredible success, this is a winery rarely visited since it is located in the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, not the well known regions of Napa Valley or Sonoma County.

Since living in Santa Cruz, I've had the opportunity to visit the winery a few times and taste current releases of Ridge Vineyards.  But the most recent time, I was able to taste a few older vintages.  Ridge Monte Bello is known for supreme age-worthiness and it was interesting to see this in action.

Ridge 1988 Monte Bello.  $400 Winery Retail. 

"A beautiful and perfect mature version of Monte Bello that has transformed into the kind of secondary aromas and flavors you most likely find in fine Bordeaux.

The color is an attractive medium-light red with a hint of amber at the edges. The nose is all red apple skins and the bright earthy aromas of the forrest floor in Fall. Palate is herbal with tea and rose petals, herbs, and tobacco. Fruit isn't gone, but overwhelmed by the complexity of the other elements. Finish in long (about 60 seconds) and echoes the complexity of the palate.

One of the finest "Old California" wines I've yet tasted. A revelation that shows Monte Bello to be a European wine trapped in a California label." 

97 points.

Ridge 2003 Monte Bello.  $400 Winery Retail. 

"The color was dark red. The nose was overripe with warm tones and funky stewed tomatoes. The palate was dark blueberry, chocolate, and dust. Very little acid left with a viscous texture on the tongue. A short fading finish.

A big disappointment as Ridge Monte Bello is always much better than this. Maybe and off bottle or vintage?" 

87 points.

Ridge 2012 Monte Bello.  $175 Winery Retail. 

"Very young - this is wine for the cellar. Dark spice, hints of green herbs. The nose is like walking into a Chinese herb shop. Crushed chalk. Plum skins. Texture is very smooth with deep hints of baking chocolate dusting. This is quite the thoroughbred Cabernet: Elegant, Pure, Pristine, and Powerful." 

95 points

5 Elegant Sonoma County Wines Worth Seeking Out

From the vantage point of my wine shop in Ohio, it is easy to view Sonoma County as a monolith.  It would also be easy to judge an entire region by its largest wineries.  These corporate wine behemoths present an image of boring wines and a bland region.  But that doesn't begin to tell the complete story.

I spent a month recently in Sonoma County and discovered that this is an immensely diverse region and there are dozens of fabulous small producers making compelling wines that month people don't ever taste.

Here are five worth seeking out. - From the lightest white to the heaviest red.

Jordan 2012 Chardonnay 'Russian River Valley AVA.  "Clear light yellow color. Fleshy white peach aromas. Great balanced chardonnay with a touch of of oak and a soothing lemon custard finish. Better balance, acidity, and food-friendliness when compared to most RRV Chardonnays.  90 points.  Retail $33

Lioco 2012 Chardonnay 'Hanzell Vineyard, Sonoma Valley AVA.'  "Wow, this is one of the most amazing California Chardonnay's I've ever tasted!  A pristine yellow color. Aromas of hay and fresh wild honey. Nice acidity, but a firm, tight mouthfeel that opens up to creaminess as you hold it in the mouth. Medium+ body. There is great purity here as well as richness. The finish really persists a long time, so this is a candidate for moderate aging as well.  I've rarely seen such a sophisticated and confident American Chardonnay. Kudos."  95 points. $60 OH Retail

County Line (from Radio-Coteau) 2013 Pinot Noir 'Sonoma Coast AVA.'  Light color a soft pink-purple. Wonderfully delicious with strong obvious acidity, pure raspberries, and the tiniest hint of milk chocolate. A light 'truly-burgundian' take on Pinot Noir. You can almost feel the salt water spray of the Sonoma Coast."  93 Points.  $28 OH Retail.

Medlock Ames 2011 Bell Mountain Estate 'Alexander Valley AVA.'  "Ruby red. Dusty red fruit aromas. Bright strawberries and warm bubblegum. Pleasant amounts of tannins and a persistent finish. A good warm-weather take on Bordeaux Blends."  90 Points.  $30 OH Retail.

Radio-Coteau 2012 Syrah "Las Colinas" 'Sonoma Coast AVA.' "Glowing purple color. Spicy herbs, pipe tobacco, and menthol in lush red fruits on the nose. Melted blueberry pie with subtle hints of many types of stone and smoke. Touch of "bitey" tannin on finish. This needs a bit of time, but I have to believe it will only get better."  91 Points.  $60 OH Retail.

The wines discusses here were originally tasted at Walt Churchill's Market in Maumee, Ohio.

Hourglass 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon: Blueline Estate and Classic.

One of the great things about wine is that everyone is constantly learning.  Today, I discovered an excellent, terroir-driven, Cabernet Sauvignon producer that I'd never heard of.  Hourglass Winery.  This luxury, small-production winery is located as the area where the Napa Valley "pinches" to its smallest point - hence the name.

First released in 1997, Hourglass Cabernet Sauvignon has held its own with the great "Cult Cabs" of Harlan Estate and Screaming Eagle, but this was under Pride Mountain and Paloma superstar winemaker Bob Foley.  2012 starts the winemaking reign of Anthony Biagi - formerly of Duckhorn, Plumpjack, and Cade.

I visited Hourglass Winery at their Blueline Estate Facility for classes related to The Wine and Spirits MBA program, but also got an advance taste of the new 2012 Hourglass Cabernet Sauvignons.  Here is what I thought.

Hourglass 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon 'Blueline Estate.'  "Dark red fruits and hard crushed stone. A low acid wine but with big serious minerality. A stone monster that is awkward now, but certain to mature into an austerely beautiful Napa Cabernet in 5 to 10 years."  94 points.  Approx Retail $125

Hourglass 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon Estate.  "Smooth and complex. The classic Napa Cabernet story. This is chocolate cherry with a bloody meaty red fruit character with even more milk chocolate. Very culty. Lush and classic. Probably will improve with a couple years, but very few will let it get there."  95 points.  Approx Retail $165


Hourglass Cabernets aren't cheap.  Nothing in the Napa Valley really is.  But if, however, you want a small production, high-quality, estate-bottled, and terroir focuses wine from Napa, this is a heck of a good option.