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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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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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.


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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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