Category Archives: wine

Making wine – it’s all about science, art and love

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SG_Mike_Trujillo2Tall, fit and handsome. Silver-tinged sideburns. Relaxed, warm and friendly. Mike Trujillo is the face ofSequoia Grove Winery—and the heart behind its unique wines. He exudes the same classic aura as the Sequoia Grove (SG) wines he personally oversees. It’s nice to meet a winemaker in person—and a cool way to identify great wines.

Sequioa Grove Winery, created under the guidance of legendary Napa consultant Andre Tchelistcheff, nestles in a stand of redwoods in Napa Valley and has been creating wines since 1982 when Mike first joined the effort. Now the estate has truly flowered under his leadership as president and head winemaker.

A master winemaker in the making
Mike comes by his winemaking talent naturally. Having grown up helping his father on their 3000-acre farm in Colorado, he learned at an early age about how soil, climate, pests and critters affect living, growing plants. He first started out in college in an engineering program, so it never occurred to him he’d end up applying all his hard-earned farming knowledge to the fine art of winemaking. Now, 31 years after a fateful road trip, he’s taking Sequoia Grove estate wines to new heights.

It all started one day when Mike and some buddies were on a break from college. During a road trip to Napa Valley destiny intervened when they were asked to help out in the cellar at Sequoia Grove where they were visiting. Out in the vineyards and living the life, Mike caught the wine bug—bad and, as it turns out, permanently.

Working closely with Tchelistcheff and the owner, Mike paid close attention as they refined Sequoia Grove’s cabernets and chardonnays. Later he worked for a time on the Domaine Carneros estate. Realizing he was in the business for life, Mike enrolled at the University of California at Davis to study winemaking in that extension program. He says winemaking uses all the skills he developed both in farming and in engineering—planning and executing irrigation and designing and laying out the vineyards being among the biggest challenges.

Thinking big from the start, Mike launched his career by creating Karl Lawrence – his own brand of Cabernet wine. He was using SG facilities and building a following. Then in 2001 when the founder of SG retired and the Kopf family partners took over ownership, they recruited Mike to head the operation. His first goal was to incorporate some of the more modern approaches to winemaking. His dream was to make SG wines bigger, not in the sense of higher alcohol content but of being more expressive of their place of origin, the Rutherford Bench region of Napa Valley.

Secrets of a master winemaker
You couldn’t ask for a better location than the soil of Rutherford and its micro-climate—what time of day the sun shines on the grapes, for example, and how the ocean affects them. So Mike spent the first few years upgrading the quality of the grapes. “You’ve got to have great grapes to make great wine,” he said. He had acres replanted within a quarter mile of the winery, and he used the first new fruit from the Sequoia Grove vineyards in the Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 vintage. He also uses grapes from a few select trusted growers nearby, such as Gary Morisoli, Beckstoffer Vineyards, Healy Vineyards, Stagecoach Vineyards, and a few more. Mike said, “At Sequoia Grove, we concentrate on putting the bling in the bottle—and that starts in the vineyards.”

Then there’s the precise moment of picking. Do the grapes have that certain something? Only a well-developed instinct can tell you when they’re right, and long experience deepens and broadens your knowledge. How tightly are the grapes clinging to the vines? When you shake the vines, how many grapes fall off? What do you do when it rains all season, or when an overwhelming influx of some insect or critter attacks your vines? The best answers aren’t always the stuff you learn in school.

Next steps in the winemaking are crushing and pressing the fruit, skins and pulp, to create the must. Then fermentation, clarifying, aging and bottling. Takes a lot of experience to know when the flavor, aroma and color are perfect for your intended wine—tasting is essential at every step.

And then there’s blending. Mike drew a simple arc and talked about how it’s done (see photo). If there’s a flavor in a wine that’s too strong—represented by spikes rising above the arc—it can be fixed by blending with other wines. But when something is missing in a wine—some element falls below the curve—it’s generally too late by this stage. Those kinds of weaknesses need to have been “fixed” by getting it right from the start, from soil to grapes to must and so on.

Re-imagining chardonnay
One of Mike’s goals was to produce a unique Chardonnay. “I wanted to make a more food complementary wine,” Mike said. His aim was to create a wine that “doesn’t bombard you with butter and oak flavors before you get to the food.” Instead he describes his 2009 vintage Carneros Chardonnay as establishing a “true partnership with the gourmet food you love to eat.” With just a tiny touch of the sharpness of, for example, a sauvignon blanc, this lovely wine sits easy on the palate, gently inviting you to relax and enjoy the warm, soft, full flavor with your lobster or scallops. And since this Chardonnay comprises only 8% of their production, it’s a special find.

Making the most of Cabernet Sauvignon
Mike’s next goal was to work his magic on the grape this area of Napa is famed for—Cabernet Sauvignon. With contributions of several types of grapes from several Rutherford vineyards—Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot—Mike makes a wine that is artfully blended each year and aged to produce the flavor and approachability you’ll find in all their Cabernets.

While the Rutherford area of Napa is well-known for fine Cabernet wines like Silver Oak, SG’s signature Napa Valley Cabernet continues to make its own high mark in the world of fine wines. Their 2009 vintage was a truly beautiful wine, and they made just over 17,000 cases for worldwide distribution, so we’re talking a comparative treasure. You can get it at Chicago Cut Steakhouse and other fine Chicago restaurants (see ***list below).

A breakthrough in fine red wine
After a few years at the helm, Mike decided it was time to step way out of the box and create a wine that broke the rules. He selected the finest lots of a given vintage of Cabernet and then blended those with primarily Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Not quite enough Cabernet to be called a Cabernet (requires 75%), the new wine needed a name of its own. So Mike picked it: Cambium. The 2008 vintage is a wine that’s impossibly complex and rich. You just want to let it caress your senses long after each sip—I’ve never had a wine before that kept talking to me all the way down. Yet it pairs beautifully with the prime aged beef and sweet, rich crab meat served at Chicago Cut—and works fabulously with their Bearnaise butter sauce and lightly sautéed fresh spinach, too.

Mike works with Molly Hill, his fellow SG winemaker, each year to create these deeply flavored, complex and satisfying wines. And when he’s not tasting and tweaking—or training his daughter Sophia, age 7 (see photo) in the fine points of wine blending—Mike happily works with fellow winemakers and vintners in the area to foster the mission of the Rutherford Dust Society. Their goal is to promote only the highest quality in grapes and in wines and to strengthen people’s connection with the soil and land of Rutherford that’s so uniquely suited to these pursuits.

If you haven’t tried a really special wine in a while, you can’t go wrong with one of these Sequoia Grove beauties. And if you’re visiting Napa Valley, Mike says Sequoia Grove is a really laid back place. Don’t hesitate to stop by.
***Failing a trip to Rutherford, you can get some SG wines in the Chicago area at the fine restaurants listed below.

Chicago locations:

Hugo’s, 1024 N. Rush St.
Chicago Yacht Club, 400 E. Monroe St.
Chicago Cut Steakhouse, 300 N. Lasalle St.
Rosebud on Rush, 55 E. Superior St.
Rosebud Prime, 1 S. Dearborn St.
Levy Restaurants, 1901 W. Madison St.
Gibsons Steak House, 1028 N. Rush St.
Sunda, 110 W. Illinois St.
Shulas Steak House, 301 E. North Water St.
Socca, 3301 N. Clark St.
Signature Room, 875 N. Michigan Ave.
Capitol Grill, 633 N. St. Clair St.

Suburban locations:

Bastas, Peoria Heights
Clubhouse, Oak Brook
Gibsons Bar & Steakhouse, Des Plaines
Gibsons Bar & Steakhouse, Oak Brook
Glen Oaks Country Club, Glen Ellyn
Riverside Golf Club, Riverside
Potters Place, Naperville
Mecenat, Western Springs

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Domaine Carnernos sparkling American wines top the charts

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Eileen CraneEileen Crane’s ordinary conversation is sprinkled liberally with interesting stories and lots of facts about fine wines and the foods that go with them, including fresh oysters, double- and triple-cream cheeses, and many more culinary delights. And that’s probably because she’s a graduate of Culinary Institute of America and the President and Chief Winemaker at the Domaine Carneros estate. Domaine Carneros is the winery for which she was hand-picked by Claude Taittinger to build and lead the American home of his French Champagne Taittinger dynasty.

Eileen and her group met for lunch at a downtown Chicago restaurant known for its fabulous seafood, GT Fish & Oyster. The place’s smart, sophisticated design made a great backdrop for enjoying the latest vintages from the winery.

Sipping the Brut Vintage Cuvee 2008, Eileen tells the story of a time a few years ago when she first learned about the International Wines for Oysters Competition. Held each year at the Old Ebbitt Grill in Washington, DC. the contest seemed a perfectly natural place for her to enter that year’s Domaine Carneros Brut. Eileen wasn’t surprised when it ended up winning, hands down, over several hundred competitors from more than a dozen countries around the world.

Domaine Carneros Brut Vintage Cuvee, made using Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes, is the estate’s signature wine. It’s aged three years and is perfect to serve when it’s released but is also designed to increase in complexity as it ages. The latest 2008 vintage surprises and delights your taste buds—extraordinarily elegant and well-balanced with a long, luscious finish. It makes a fabulous sipping wine and also goes beautifully with lots of foods: fresh oysters, shellfish, fish, rich cheeses, poultry and a variety of cuisine styles. Loved drinking it with GT’s deliciously fresh oysters and their Crudos, a small collection of fish and seafood items prepared with unique flavors and sauces and served on a giant block of natural wood.

All Domaine Carneros wines are not just superbly crafted; they’re also certified organic and DC is the only California winery to achieve that distinction for all its wines. When asked about the effects of the recent drought, Eileen said California escaped drought altogether and none of their vines suffered. In fact, she said, “We need agricultural workers, so maybe the places that have no work for workers because of drought could send those folks to California.”

Sparkling wines are growing in popularity in the U.S. But in the 1700s it was a brand new thing in France. “Madame Pompadour introduced sparkling wines to the court. She turned Louis XV on to them. She is believed to have said, ‘Champagne is the only wine a woman can drink and still remain beautiful.’ You must have an advocate like that in order to get a new product introduced and accepted in the market.”

Profoundly grateful to the long-ago intervention of Madame Pompadour, guests let Eileen pour from the latest version of DC’s greatest star wine, Le Reve. French for “The Dream”, the Le Reve 2006 vintage is made from 100% Chardonnay grapes using the traditional method Champagne and then aged in the bottle, on the lees, for five and a half years. This one, the 15th vintage in their long line of fine Blanc de Blancs, is also made to age beautifully. Some of the aromas you’ll notice include buttery, yeasty brioche, white flowers, fruit and more. The palate caresses with crème brulee and toasted almond and notes of white fruit. And you’ll love the long silky finish.

Eileen explained that this vintage needed only a small amount of dosage (a traditional sugar and wine mix added to balance sparkling wines) to reach perfection. Her guests explored the taste of East vs. West coast oysters—and came out firmly divided—but voted unanimously and joyfully that Le Reve made a perfectly beautiful accompaniment.

Taittinger told her when he recruited her in 1987 that he wanted to create America’s best Blanc de Blancs. She remembers fondly when she tasted the first Le Reve vintage in a social situation. She vividly recalls feeling stunned at how beautiful it was. “Ah, so this is how it tastes!” she said to herself. After spending all those years and months babysitting the grapes, the juice, and the wine in the lab, the experience of tasting it in a social situation opened her eyes to the splendor of her creation.

In fact, that Le Reve vintage was so spectacular that owner Claude Taittinger opted to serve it at his millennium party at his hotels in Paris-an American sparkling wine!

Eileen made a point of saying that Le Reve is a special-occasion wine for her, too, not just for the buying public. She says you don’t have to drink the whole bottle at once—and recommends using a closure suitable for fine sparkling wines. You don’t need to pay a lot—try this champagne wine stopper from Crate & Barrel. She said she and her husband have sometimes toasted with a single glass of Le Reve and then, after stoppering and refrigerating the remainder, gone off to enjoy a week’s vacation. They then happily returned and enjoyed a welcome-home toast from that same bottle of Le Reve, still elegant, perfectly balanced and beautifully bubbly.

Eileen tells another cool story about how in France all the winemakers have dressing rooms designed into their wineries. She said Taittinger suggested she include these in her design for Domaine Carneros. But when she asked and was told what they were for, she insisted they be taken out of the design. Apparently, in France it is important for workers to arrive in suits to show that they are doing a professional job. She told him it doesn’t work that way in America. So they took the dressing rooms out and put in an employee break room instead.

Domaine Carneros is known for its award-winning sparkling wines, but they also use some of their grapes to create a small quantity of 100% Pinot Noir vintage. Their latest, the 2010, has aromas of cherry and pomegranate with hints of herbs like clove and sandalwood and goes fabulously with foods like beef and poultry, pork and salmon.

To go with the main courses, Eileen poured glasses of the 2010 Pinot Noir—a velvety smooth wine, perfectly balanced after being aged 10 months in oak barrels and then 8 months in the bottle. Despite less than ideal growing conditions in 2010, this vintage was carefully nurtured to deliver “expressive aromas, fresh and well-defined flavors, and a bright, balancing acidity.” I loved its beautifully blended, silky taste, and everyone agreed it worked wonderfully with some of GT Fish & Oyster’s lunch items—their delightful fish and chips, tomato-sauced mussels, fish tacos, and excellent crab cakes (see pictures).

Next Eileen next poured her guests flutes of DC’s Brut Rosé Cuvee de la Pompadour. She says she loves the wild strawberry and peachy nose of the rose and confesses to happily drinking this wine all summer. This beautifully dry, silky textured, delicate salmon-colored sparkling wine bears absolutely no resemblance to what some older folks may remember of early American rosé wines. Surprise and delight yourself with a bottle of this gem—lovely as an aperitif or paired with duck, salmon and fresh berries-and with desserts.

It went very nicely indeed with GT’s fabulous Salted Caramel Tart, served topped with an egg-shaped mound of Chantilly whipped cream-a dessert worth traveling for. A beautiful wine, eminently suitable to welcome guests or to accompany fine fare.

La Reve is less than 1% of their production. Rosé is 5%. Pinot Noir 22%. Their total production is 55,000-considered a very small winery. But Eileen says they are a very friendly winery with a big visitor center. If you’re going to the area, come in and enjoy the cheese plate with some of their wines. The place is gorgeous-literally a castle-styled mansion that’s patterned after the Taittinger chateau.

Eileen says there’s an old saying: “When you get married, the first wine that should be in your mouth should be a sparkling champagne.” I like that—and hey, you don’t have to be getting married to live by it.

Ask your favorite wine supplier to order you some, or if you’re out and about in Chicago, look for Domaine Carneros wines at the following fine restaurants:

RL Restaurant (Ralph Lauren, 115 E Chicago Ave, 3124751100

Sixteen at Trump International Hotel, 401 N Wabash Ave, 3120588800
Pops for Champagne, 601-605 N State, 3122667677
Ki Kis Bistro, 900 N Franklin St, 3123355454
III Forks, 333 E Benton Place St, 3129384303
Mon Ami Gabi, 2300 N Lincoln Park W, 7733488886
Gemini Bistro, 2075 N Lincoln, 7735252522
Mastros Restaurant, 520 N Dearborn St, 3125215100
Hugo’s, 1024 N Rush St, 3129889021
GT Fish & Oyster, 531 N Wells St, 3129293501
Gibson’s Steak House, 1028 N Rush St, 3122668999
RPM Italian, 52 W Illinois St, 3122221988

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