Hamilton Estates Merlot has evolved from a handful of questionable marketing decisions to an affordable, go-to item for legions of long-time Geerlings and Wade clients.
You don’t just decide to create a brand named after a call center employee without lots of forethought, no matter how fine a worker Ms. Hamilton was. Would a $10 wine with the Monkees on the label, for example, be taken seriously, excluding by the Monkees collectors?
Shouldn’t a bottling sporting a Declaration of Independence/Bill of Rights swipe be at least a little suspect? Especially when this $10 bottle bears a “reserve” moniker, attempting to ride the Glen Ellen brand school of wine marketing, implying that this wine was a better lot, carefully culled out of a much larger production, strictly because you can get away with it legally?
When my team inherited the Hamilton label, it was during the height of American Merlot Mania, so of course all Merlot response rates were quite high – Hamilton Merlot sold like it was free, as opposed to the closer-to-normal–moving Hamilton Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc. Hamilton became “the $9.99 Merlot” label - right place, right time for that decision.
Hamilton Merlot’s continued success is due to the wine over-delivering at its price point.
The real problem, as any production guy will tell you, is that to bottle the volume of domestic Merlot needed to satisfy the market at a $9.99 retail and maintain award-winning quality year-after-year is less rewarding and probably more difficult than making wines greater than the ten dollar price point. Remember, wine is first made in the vineyard!
Plus we didn’t want to fall into the dumbed-down-to-cherry-juice trap that was already starting to sour (bad pun) the world Merlot market. Though there were no illusions that we were bottling Petrus, we were careful to insure that the wine always furnished tangible value at all touch points: supple in the mouth, some heft, adequate structure for short-term bottle aging, a touch of oak to help temper the varietal’s herbaceousness, plus textbook cherry and plum fruit flavors, with a hint of black tea. We still do that.
This involves the assistance of winemakers long on integrity, willing to put their all into a project often less profitable for themselves than their own brands, in the service of our vision. And over the years, Hamilton has been a who’s who of California winemaking talent helping me: Dennis Hill, Guy Davis, Paul Moser, Steve Rued and Philp Zorn have all held the Hamilton reins in different vintages. It’s out of respect to them I refuse to put "reserve" back on the label even though it’s quite legal to do so – they don’t practice misdirection on their own projects.
Finally, the continued success of Hamilton Merlot generates resources that allow us to tackle some other, potentially more rewarding projects.
In addition to supplying you with the perfect wine package for special holiday meals, our All the Fixin’s kit [sold out!] illustrates the persuasive influence of Bordeaux on the wine world, while presenting only one bottle actually from Bordeaux.
2006 Whitehall Lane Sauvignon Blanc-Semillion
This GW exclusive was first tested in Whitehall’s Lane’s own St. Helena tasting room. We sensed an opportunity to offer clients a “more new world” style of Sauvignon Blanc from this winery, and in a refreshing move for the Valley of Egos, this project was heartily supported by the Leonardini family, vintners, with the complete cooperation of talented winemaker Dean Sylvester.
Bordeaux Sauvignon tradition starts in the vineyards and Napa Valley – synonymous with Cabernet Sauvignon -- is obviously great for Bordeaux grapes. We changed our portion of the already-existing Whitehall Lane bottle blend to 62% Sauvignon Blanc, 38% Semillon – the additional Semillon made the wine almost creamy, more textural than the 75% threshold required for single-varietal labeling. This gave us a high quality California ABC for that portion of our clients who seemed to know “buttery” Chardonnay to the exclusion of any other white wines.
Fermented 70% in stainless steel, 30% in new French oak and aged on the lees for almost two months delivered wine that’s a little more beginner friendly to the novice. (Occasionally the acidity/exuberance is too much for some and the herbal quality of the Sauvignon fruit can tend towards grassiness.) Here we brought out the more “understandable” grapefruit, melon and peach fruit flavors, with “additional” mouth feel. And because we put Dean through all of this grief, we agreed that the wine be bottled with a screwcap - no corky bottles to clients, and we retained the winery’s identity as an alternative closure pioneer. (The only thing good about a corked bottle is that it spawned the name of our comic strip, http://www.corkedthecomic.com.)
The next two items allow a rare opportunity to do a thinking person’s mature Bordeaux blend versus aged Sonoma County Merlot point/counterpoint tasting (yes, I’m a child of the original Saturday Night Live), at the identical price.
Undervalued vintage. The superb Subra family cellar, in Cenac, near St Emilion, is outside of the beaucoup more pricey region proper - think the same attraction as Lalande de Pomerol or Montagne -St Emilion - if you want quality Bordeaux that you can afford to drink, these satellite regions remain the places to shop, unless the you’re immune to this economy and can still afford them classifieds on a regular basis.
The Premieres Cotes de Bordeaux wines have evolved structurally over the past couple decades, due to the region's calcareous clay soils they can no longer be dimissed as simply fruity and lively. The region now delivers rich, lush, still fruit driven wines, yet exhibiting plenty of individuality and character, clearly not dumbed down in favor of price.
This Cinq Cotes, a 60/30/10 Cabernet Suavignon/Merlot/Cabernet Franc blend, displays aromas and flavors of plums, currants, vanilla, and toasty cedary oak. Even your least sophisticated guests will describe it as smooth, while the more food and wine savvy will appreciate the value it delivers.
2003 Mosaic Vineyards Sonoma County Merlot
Aged to drinking perfection on previous vintner Tom Fuchs and his winemaker Don Frazier’s dimes, even their romance copy at bottling read “reminiscent of a young Pomerol” and describes their greater Geyserville area as “California’s Bordeaux”. Under their more value-oriented, not always estate-grown Mosaic label, de Lorimier took individual local Merlot lots and blended them together to create a “old school California” Merlot that’s far more wine than just the sum of its parts, kind of like the Roman Mosaics in Gaul from after the conquest.
OK, I’m reaching to support my theme here, but the point is that the “Mosaic” name works. Note the smooth, velvety tannins, supporting aromas and flavors of plums, cherries, cola, cedar and black tea. Learn how this '03 Sonoma County Pomerol homage stacks up against the '02 St Emilion satellite while you’ve got the chance.
2005 Brumaia Rosso di Toscana IGT
[ITA638, sold out!]
From legendary Fattoria di Basciano vintner and winemaker Paolo Masi, who must have attended the Pouilly Fume school of cuvee naming – “bruma” meaning fog.
Always the benchmark for affordable Super Tuscans, this originally 50% Sangiovese/50% Cabernet Sauvignon blend in recent vintages is now regularly tempered with a touch of Syrah, and I look forward to the day when Paolo bottles Syrah as a stand alone varietal, as the Brumaia has taken a quantum leap in accessibility since its addition to the blend. Virtuoso winemaking – all grapes are all picked at the same time, combined, crushed, fermented, aged and finished together – no blending of components.
The Syrah knits the possibly-too-late-picked Sangiovese with the possibly-too-early-picked Cabernet. An aromatic violets and ricotta nose frames the Brumaia’s full-bodied palate of creamy blackberry and vanilla. Though a big, ripe, extracted bottle, this wine still remains silky and delicate. The Super Tuscan category is probably the most visible and successful transplant of Bordeaux varietals in Italy to date, and here Paolo has pushed the envelope to include the Rhone varietal Syrah.
I may be thinking too hard thematically, including the 2006 Holdredge Grace’s Cuvee Late Harvest Russian River Valley Pinot Gris from Sonoma County, California: To most of the wine world, Sauternes and Barsac are Botrytis Central. Truth is, this gem pushed dessert wines from the entire wine world off of the tasting tables, not just late harvest wines from Bordeaux and Alsace, the wine’s clear model.
The '06 Holdredge is a happy exception – here 2006’s extensive Botrytis in Sonoma County proved a plus, not normally the case in a region justifiably famous for dry wines. In the Vendanges Tardives tradition, the Alsatian varietal-type (and ancestor to the popular-but-less-profound Pinot Grigio) Botrytis Pinot Gris grapes held their sugars intact, while their water content was reduced dramatically. This yielded magnificent layers of melons, baked apples, baked pears, honeysuckle, white peaches, dried apricots, bananas, nuts and caramel – I may have missed a few – textural aromas and flavors. And coolness points to John and Carri Holdredge for naming this cuvee after their very sweet (and a little acidic, as the wine exhibits plenty of structure) six-year-old daughter.
For those of you that like to keep track, to sum up, our “All the Fixin’s” set includes a white Bordeaux varietal made in the Bordeaux tradition, a Pomerol satellite, a Sonoma County left bank homage, a Tuscan red that’s about one-half Bordeaux varietal and a dessert wine illustrating beneficial Botryis.