Napa Valley

Half-bottles, Restaurants, and the Meaning of Wine. Elizabeth Pressler of Elizabeth Spencer Winery: The Complete Interview

My interview with Elizabeth Pressler of Elizabeth Spencer Winery was a pleasant wine conversation with a pleasant lady who makes very good wine.  What really makes this a turning point was that I asked her "What Does Wine Mean to You?"  It was a question I had asked of Dirk Richter and would soon become a motif in later interviews as well.  Enjoy!  Parts of this video were released as separate episodes of Understanding Wine with Austin Beeman and are collected here for the first time.

Transcript:

My name's Elizabeth Pressler, and I am the Elizabeth of Elizabeth Spencer. My husband Spencer is of course the Spencer. We put our first names together to make the brand name. People often mistake the name Elizabeth Spencer as being one single person, and of course it's not. It's the unification of the two of us.

Part One:  What Does Wine Mean to You?

That's a really hard question. It's interesting, because wine is a passion of mine. Wine is my business. Wine is something that stimulates my mind and thinking, and it's a lifelong pursuit. Once you get hooked by wine, you learn about it every time you open a bottle of wine and taste, and it's a lifelong growing experience because you're always experiencing new tastes when you're interested in wines. I also love the way wines bring together the culinary arts. When you begin to love wine, you also appreciate food, and you think about how flavors go together.

Spencer and I cook at home. I love how we will come home and pour a bottle, pour from a bottle, have a glass of wine while we're making our dinner, and we talk a lot about wine.

We have a side board at home in the kitchen, a marble top table, and we have zillions of bottles open, where we're always tasting and sampling. What we'll do is we'll open a bottle of wine and watch it over the course of five to seven days to see how it changes over time, and on that side board, you'll find wines from Napa, Sonoma, France, Italy, Australia. We're always looking at what our friends and colleagues are doing around the world, because we think it's very important to know about wines from other regions.

What else does wine mean to me? I love the way it brings people together. Once you open a bottle of wine and share it with friends or family, suddenly the conversation flows. The conversation moves to interesting things. You talk about art, politics, what movies you've just seen. It just is an added enjoyment to life and to living.

Part Two: On Cooking and a Little History

Oh, gosh. I was raised by a mother who loved to grow organic gardens back in Pennsylvania, and we always had fresh corn, and tomatoes, and lettuces, and my favorite, the strawberries. I got to learn what great, good food tasted like, so that was part of my interest. I always liked cooking, and we always cooked at home as kids with my mother. When I met Spencer, we loved cooking as well, and both of us have spent much time in the restaurant business before we got into the wine industry.

I started out as a waiter, which I think is some of the best training that anybody can ever, ever have for life, because you really learn how to think on your feet, but you also get to appreciate and enjoy fine wine and fine food. I also worked in front of house as a maitre d, and I organized all of the waiters, and I seated our customers. I was even a sommelier in a restaurant, where I went from table to table and really increased wine sales, so I love restaurants, and love food and wine, and putting it all together.

Part Three:  What are the Characteristics of a Good Wine Restaurant?

A restaurant where you get an opportunity to taste wines from around the world, and I love the idea of having different size pours. For instance, I think it's great to have a two ounce pour, so you can really have a sampling or a taste of wine, and then maybe a five to six ounce pour so you can actually enjoy it with a meal, and then I like the idea of having a variety of wines that you can enjoy throughout the course of a meal.

You and I were talking earlier about the beauty of half bottles. My husband and I often like picking those off of the wine list so that we can select a wine that goes well with each course, so it would be fun to have a white wine with our first course, and then move into a red for the second. Of course, I can't forget sparkling wine. We love having champagne as a cocktail, so it's great to have a half bottle or a split of champagne to begin.

Oh, yeah. Spencer and I are committed to bottling in all different formats. This is primarily for our Cabernets. Cabernets are wines that can age very well, and classically in France, the French have always bottled in many different sizes.

When you come to our tasting room, you'll see that we have a display. Everything from the 375, which is the half bottle, to the 750, which is this normal size bottle, to 1.5, which is the magnum. We do a three liter, six liter, 12 liter, 18 liter, and recently Spencer even has done a 27 liter.

Don't ask me what that's called.

I have to read the names to know what it's called.

Behind the Scenes with Dave Miner of Miner Family Winery

I met Dave Miner by accident, as he was passing around a bottled barrel-sample of Tempranillo on the porch of an Anaheim restaurant after hours.  The wine was good.  Dark and rich.  Miner was talking wine and music with Michael Jordan (the Master Sommelier, not the basketball star) and a couple guys from Fender Guitars were improvising a soundtrack on two twelve-string guitars.  It was the kind of January evening that comes with a pleasant frequency for those of us in the wine business.

The darker side of the business would come a year later when, visiting a famous Napa Valley winery, I would be mocked by an entire tasting room staff who had nothing but derision for wine retailers and (even worse) people from "The Rust Belt."

Driving south on the Silverado Trail, I saw the sign for Miner Family Winery and pulled in.  Dave Miner was his gregarious self.  He stopped what he was doing and welcomed me in.  We spoke about the evening in Anaheim, tasted some wines, and shot some video.  A few hours later, I had produced my first wine video in wine country. 

This is Episode #6 of the Understanding Wine video podcast.  Enjoy.  Transcript is below the video.

Dave Miner:

Hi. I'm Dave Miner with Miner Family Winery. We're here at Miner in Oakville, right in the heart of Napa Valley, over on the eastern side. As you can see behind me, spring has sprung in Napa, so it's a good time to be here. We're getting ready for some bud break and you should come by and see us.

Me:

When you're in Napa Valley visiting Miner, you could visit the tasting room. That would be a great place to start, but we're going to go behind the scenes with Dave Miner. Once you get behind the building, what you notice first are the solar panels.


Dave Miner:

We started doing solar a couple years back. We started the project, and we've been on the solar panels for roughly a year and a half now. We generate our own solar power. We're 100% solar powered. All of the waste that we produce here from wine making, whether it's skins, stems, seeds, all go to compost. All of our water is recycled back into irrigation for our property here. We really try to be very conscious of our footprint and our presence here, and not leave a mess.


Me:

The same care that Miner gives to the environment, they also bring to their wine making.


Dave Miner:

We hand harvest everything that we do and then dump that directly into the hopper. We sort of hand sort, as well, as we go through. We also don't tend to harvest a lot of grapes at one time. We might do 15, 18 tons in one day and that's it, not a huge amount. It really kind of allows us to manage everything in fairly small quantities. Make sure that the quality of every little lot is premium. Essentially, the whites go right into the bladder presses down here. A whole cluster whether it's Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay. We pretty much do all of those, the whole cluster press.

Each of those bladder presses will hold about seven or eight tons of grapes. We'll drop those all in there, rotate and just gently and lightly press them over two hours. Then, the juice will go off into a tank for fermentation in the tank. Although, Chardonnay, we actually ferment in the barrel, but it goes into a tank first. We kind of cold stabilize it, chill it down a little bit, start the fermentation process, and then move it on to barrels.

The red wines would go through the de-stemmer. For the most part, about 95% of our red wines are completely de-stemmed. We do have some wines that we actually do some whole cluster fermentations with, Syrah primarily, or Tempranillo. The rest of them are all de-stemmed, and then the berries are just kind of lightly popped. Then, they go into a tank, or into a bin for fermentation. Pinot Noirs, we actually do all our fermentations in picking bins, with a lid on or off. The punch downs are all by hand, so we mix the skins up all by hand. The fermentations are all natural. Again, in the smaller quantities, it's easier to sort of control the quality of each little bit that we do.

This is essentially 20,000 square foot cave, which we dug in 1998. Took about 14 months to complete. Can probably hold about 5,000 barrels, although it's not that full. We built it a little bit larger than we probably needed, just so that we would have kind of a comfort level room to work. The great thing about the cave is that it's much more energy efficient. It's 60 degrees and about 90% humidity all year, so you lose a lot less wine to evaporation. Above ground, you can lose roughly 5%, 6% of your wine every year to evaporation. Under ground, you lose 1% or less a year. Significant savings in wine loss. Consequently, you have less labor because you don't have to top the barrels off as often. You want to keep barrels full so that the wine doesn't oxidize. The faster it evaporates, the fast you've got to top it off.

We have variety of cooperages that we buy from. We have a couple that we buy a lot from. Then, quite a few other smaller producers that we buy smaller amounts from. That's kind of an ongoing thing. We always kind of experiment with some of the different producers, different types of barrels. See if we really like them. It's a little harder to do that with Cab, because you're racking in and out of those barrels a couple times a year, whereas with Chardonnay, once it goes into the barrel, it stays there, so you can get a much better of a idea of the effect of that barrel on the wine. You can taste the same chardonnay in four different barrels and really get a sense for what that barrel adds to the mix.

This is basically one of our Cabernet lots from Stagecoach Vineyard from the '08 vintage. These will essentially get blended here in the next month or so, and then put back in the barrel as the blend. Then, bottled roughly in August of this year. This is from a block at Stagecoach that we call the bowl, which is about an 11 acre block, 10 acre block, that's basically just kind of a bowl. It's a western facing area up at Stagecoach Vineyard. Stagecoach is just east of the Oakville Appelation. It's a fairly large vineyard. It's 550 planted acres. On the north end it kind of butts up against Pritchard Hill, runs along Oakville, and goes pretty much all the way down to Atlas Peak. It's a huge vineyard, great, rocky, volcanic soil, roughly around 1,500 to 2,000 foot elevation. It's kind of an ideal vineyard for the Bordeaux varietals. Keeps the yields low. Keeps nice acidity in the wine. Gives the grapes just fantastic intensity. It's also, because it's higher up in the valley, it tends to not get as cold, and not get quite as hot. You get a nice kind of breeze effect off the the bay up there. It's kind of ideal growing conditions for a number of these grapes.

Everything we do is in really small batches, very hand crafted. Quality really is kind of the key thing for everything that we do. Balance. We like to makes wines that are very well balanced, that go with food well. Also, lack of pretension. We like to have people come here and have a good time, no matter what their experience level with wine is. We want them to feel comfortable that they can come here, have a good time, learn some things if they want to, taste good wines, and just enjoy themselves. I think those are kind of the themes here at Miner that we try to promote all the time. You'll get to taste a lot of different kinds of wines, which is unusual, and I think really good, quality examples of every varietal that we do. I think you'll have a really good time, so come visit.

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.