Imbiber: Meeting 3 Local Winemakers

Raymond’s interactive Theater of Nature

It’s been a rich few weeks of winemaker dinners and luncheons. Intimate and focused, there’s nothing like hearing from and tasting with a winemaker directly. This month, we focus on three local winemakers in Napa and Sonoma, who impressed with impeccable wines or gracious (often hilarious) personalities.

Kapcsandy’s 1800’s Hungarian wine press

KAPCSANDY WINES, Yountville Kapcsandy may not be the easiest name to remember, but take note if you love complex, balanced wines. Though there is a blessedly steady (if small), trend towards lower alcohol, Old World-style wines in Napa and Sonoma in recent years, Kapcsandy – helmed by Lou, Roberta and son Louis, Jr. – has been making these types of wines since 2000.

Lou, with winemaker Rob Lawson, manages to let Napa’s terroir fully express itself in wines like his acclaimed State Lane Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, while staying close to Old World principles. As a Hungarian native, Lou’s roots manifest in his wines and intimate, rustic tasting room centered around an 1800’s wooden wine press from Hungary.

Growing Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc grapes in a small vineyard, his winery facilities are about the cleanest, most pristine I’ve seen. I tasted 13 wines, including various vintages of the same wine (for example, years 2007-2009 of Roberta’s Reserve), all mostly 13-14% ABV.

I found the 2009 Rosé (stainless steel; mainly Cab/Merlot blend with touch of Petit Verdot and Cab Franc) a unique beauty, more full and dense than many rosés yet maintaining crisp acidity. Roberta’s Reserve is a memorable wine named after his wife and an homage to the wines of Pomerol, Bordeaux. 2007 and 2008 are both understandably raved-about vintages, but I found 2009, young though it is, holds intriguing promise, drinking beautifully now with essence of cassis, blossoms, cherries, and earthy cocoa.

Amapola wines

Kapcsandy tastings are by appointment only. Fans of Merlot and Cabernet, alongside wine aficionados will find plenty to love at this small, family-run winery.

AMAPOLA CREEK by Richard Arrowood, Glen Ellen – Richard Arrowood, a Sonoma winemaker for 45 years, and his wife, Alis, are charmers. Over an intimate lunch in Wayfare Tavern’s Billiards Room, we spent hours talking and tasting wines from his young, boutique winery Amapola Creek. Amapola is the Spanish word for “poppy”, the flower that grows heavily along the creek through the Arrowood’s 100-acre estate.

This is Richard’s passion project where he can produce the kind of wines he wishes, typifying robust grapes of the Mayacamas Mountains (near the town of Sonoma). After decades of creating wines for major players like Chateau St. Jean and his own Arrowood Winery, he’s having fun going small production (the facility is designed to produce a maximum of 3000 cases annually).

With Richard & Alis Arrowood

His 2008 Zinfandel (and original 2005 Zin), though lush, shows restraint with enough tannins and acidity to keep it food-friendly (ideal with Wayfare’s medium-rare steak). The Zin ($30) benefits from a rarity: grapes are from 115 year old vines in a tiny lot at neighboring Monte Rosso Vineyards. His 2007 Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon are bold and black fruit-heavy, yet balanced with tannins and delicate spice accents (the Cab is CCOF Certified organic). He’s working on a Grenache/Syrah blend so there may be more Amapola Creek on its way.

Jean Charles Boisset

RAYMOND VINEYARDS, St. HelenaRaymond has to be seen to be believed. Although a historic Napa vineyard since 1970, known primarily for its Cabernet, it’s not the wines I want to talk about. Rather, it’s the take-over of Raymond by Boisset Family Estates, a global company with Burgundy roots.

Delightfully eccentric Jean-Charles Boisset is the spirit behind the new dawn at Raymond. Spending an afternoon with him is unforgettable. His energy is infectious while no idea is too outrageous. He’ll try anything. His unassuming humility is impressive given his effervescent, all-over-the-place persona.

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Baccarat chandelier in Crystal Room

From the moment you walk up to Raymond‘s entrance alongside interactive art exhibits on the lawn, you know something unusual is afoot. Their soon to launch Theatre of Nature will be a self-guided tour on winery grounds, with mobile apps available to learn more about terroir, how the seasons affect winemaking, or bio-dynamic farming (they are in the midst of becoming certified).

The memorably gaudy & elegant Gold Room

Enter a tasting room where things appear normal but for a mannequin wearing a velvet bikini. Journey down a stainless steel-walled hallway into The Crystal Cellar ($25 for Cabernet tastings), also lined with steel to give the effect of being inside a wine vat. Here an explosion of Baccarat crystal shimmers off of the walls, vats and giant mirrors. Vintage crystal decanters are encased along a wall with words to describe wine marked in lipstick.

Mid-century house & pool behind winery

“I love personally the word ‘sexy’… and voluptuous”, Boisset exclaims, moving on to the fashion show they plan to have on the ‘catwalk’, or rather the walkway, high up between vats. This ramp is lined with mannequins in all manner of leather and leopard. One hangs upside down from a trapeze. Boisset calls her Stephanie after Raymond’s winemaker, Stephanie Putnam.

Leopard stands guard in the Gold Room

There’s mini-wine barrels (for purchase to restaurants, bars and individuals), some of which Boisset himself has decorated with leather, handcuffs, feathers, and animal prints. He does nothing half-heartedly.

Besides the winning lawn, pool and mid-century house out back overlooking vineyards, there’s a guest house Boisset envisioned as a gold room where decadence rules (available for private parties, group tastings).

Mid-century house & pool behind winery

We were the first to taste in this newly unveiled room, and all I can say is, wow. Pimpin’ in an elegant, gaudy sort-of-way, gold and white leather couches are covered in fur throws, while a stuffed leopard stands guard in the corner. A dining table is set with black and gold plates listing the seven deadly sins (ironically, I got “gluttony”). The piece de resistance is a giant wall screen rimmed in gold (of course), playing Jackson 5 music videos.

Jackson 5 on the Gold Room screen

I can’t say there’s another wine tasting experience like it. From the Crystal Cellar to Gold Room, each setting was more unbelievable than the last. He’s currently working on a red room ( “All red… and velvet”), and releasing two bubblies (including a rosé) this summer to taste in that room.

Raymond lawn near the house will soon be the site of flashy, new lawn furniture and outdoor parties

All this talk of show naturally leaves one wondering if the wines are any good? There is honestly little comparison to the craft of the wines made by the first two small, family-run producers. Raymond is about the one-of-a-kind experience. That being said, Boisset’s wines hold its pleasures. His JCB line is playful and more balanced than many Napa wines, allowing for some acidity in No. 81 Chardonnay and No. 7 Pinot Noir. He and Putnam teamed up on JCB No. 1 Cabernet reflecting both Napa and French sensibilities.

Named as Innovator of the Year in 2008 by Wine Enthusiast Magazine and Top 50 Power Brokers in the global wine industry by Decanter in 2007, Boisset clearly leads in innovation with a passion to bring California wines to the world and to make wine hip, approachable, and, yes, sexy.