The MAHA Estate

Cris Cherry is on a mission. He’s offered to cook lunch today, and we’re in his electric truck headed to a couple of different businesses in Paso Robles, where we’ll procure ingredients for lunch. First stop: Etto, an Italian marketplace known for its homemade pastas and broad selection of Italian goods, owned by locals Stephanie and Brian Terrizzi. They’ve got their own Cal-Italian wine brand called Giornata. "She’s such a sharp, holistic viticulturalist," Cris tells me of Stephanie, who’s known on California’s Central Coast as an intelligent grape farmer.

Inside, he’s greeted with enthusiastic hellos from the staff and from Matt Dusi, Janell Dusi’s (J. Dusi Wines) brother and a local multi-generational grape grower. They shake hands and catch up briefly while Cris picks up some freshly made spaghetti noodles. He tells me he’ll be making us tuna poached in olive oil with pasta. 

Back inside his almost too-quiet electric truck, he puts on some music. "It Runs Through Me," by Tom Misch, featuring De La Sol. "I’m really into this guy." We make our way to Pier 46, a locally owned seafood market, where we’ll pick up the tuna. "They have a lot of wild-caught stuff, and they’re good people. And I like to support good people."

Afterward, we wind our way back up the foothills of Paso, leaving downtown behind for lush, heavily forested Peachy Canyon Road, home of the MAHA Estate, where he and his wife JoAnn reside and where they make the Villa Creek and MAHA wines. Another favorite of his comes over the stereo, Rufus du Sol. His playlist includes "a lot of 80’s dance shit, New Wave, Althouse, Thievery Corporation, Polo, and Pan. We love to see live music."

I’ve been keen to talk to him for some time now, as I’m intrigued by artists who continue to forge new pathways and refine their craft. His wines have evolved over the years, from big and extracted, to bright, balanced, and fresh. This is particularly true of his brilliant MAHA estate wines. They’re among my favorites from the United States, and his Clairette Blanche, called BAE (Before Anyone Else) is a revelation of floral and feral aromatics. Clean and balanced, yet somehow wild and unexpected. 

"Our early wines were 16% alcohol, all day long, with maybe a little bit of sugar to cover up that booze."

"Our early wines were 16% alcohol, all day long, with maybe a little bit of sugar to cover up that booze. And, out of the shoot, those wines are showy, flashy, and sexy. But that’s a short fuse. Wines like that are good until they’re not. If there’s sugar, it’s just a matter of time…it’s not if, it’s when. ‘Finesse is elusive and restraint is hard to practice.’ The thing I’m most pleased about is that the MAHA estate and Villa Creek wines are elegant. Our early wines may have been considered big and monolithic. At this point, I am striving for complexity and nuance with the wines showing their sense of place."

The Cherrys don’t just talk the talk, they walk the walk

The Cherrys have long been environmentally conscious, and their estate reflects their commitment to their core beliefs. Though many in the wine industry claim to farm sustainably, organically, or biodynamically, mostly for marketing purposes and to virtue-signal, the Cherrys don’t just talk the talk, they walk the walk. The entire MAHA estate is farmed biodynamically and organically, and they adhere to these principles closely. The property is certified by ROA (regenerative), CCOF organic and Demeter Biodynamic. JoAnn has recently been appointed to the board of directors of the CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers) organization.

They farm this way because, Cris says, "we feel it makes the best wine…a wine that is the truest expression of the site. And it absolutely ensures that anyone who works in, on, or around the property is not going to be exposed to harmful things. Just think if you could make that proposition to some of the bigger guys to farm organically: They could reduce their farming costs over time and grow better fruit, require less additives in the winery, and make better wine. At the end of the day, you’re going to make more money, and you’ll be doing the right thing."

We gossip a bit about the social scene in the wine business. He explains that his wife JoAnn isn’t always fond of attending Cris’s mostly male winemaker "sausage fest" hangouts. "A gathering of a bunch of guys sharing their most expensive bottles is not her thing. Her interests lie in wines and conversations that are a little outside that box. We like to hang out with more mixed crowds." He cites a few long-time producer friends like Justin and Heather Smith (Saxum), Tyler Russell (helming an upcoming, unnamed project), Hillary and Anthony Yount (Royal Nonesuch Farms), Matt and Maureen Trevisan (Linne Calodo), Neil and Marcie Collins (Lone Madrone), Scott and Viquel Hawley (Torrin), as producing wines he finds interesting, and as people whose company they both enjoy.

When we pull up, Cris hops out of the truck energetically. At 57, he is tall, lean, and confident, with closely shorn hair and an impish grin. Land prices in Paso Robles, as is the case in most of California, have risen dramatically in the last decade. "The opportunity we had to acquire this piece of property on the west side of Paso Robles is gone. We were so fortunate."

We’re greeted at their front door by JoAnn Cherry and a herd of dogs she’s trying to corral as we enter. Tall herself, warm and winsome, she welcomes us in. 

They met in San Diego during their first year of college. "It was love at first sight for sure," she says. But she’d just left a boyfriend at home and didn’t want to get into another relationship right away, so, after dating briefly, they parted ways but remained friends. No romance blossomed for a decade. "We were never single at the same time. I was seventeen when we first met, and we got back together when I was twenty-seven," she adds. 

The interior design of their home is not unlike the aesthetic behind their MAHA Estate wine labels. JoAnn, who is the designer behind both aesthetics, favors a minimalist approach, with a tendency towards outsider art. "I’m not much into trends," she says. A pleasant, fragrant blown-grass breeze enters through an opened window as we congregate around the island in their kitchen. He busies himself preparing lunch. 

Cris has recently returned from Chateauneuf where he was on a barrel junket with Anthony Yount, Don Burns, and a handful of other producers. "We tasted some old Pure. Had a nice visit with Anne Charlotte of Font Du Loup. But the highlight was half a day with Louis Barroul. A Grenache master, for sure, in Gigondas."

The Cherrys met Barroul in 1998, before they started making wine. At the time, they owned a popular restaurant, also called Villa Creek, on the square in downtown Paso Robles. "That was our first trip to France together," JoAnn says. This was when their son, Henri, was 2, and Camille, their daughter, was 4. "We went to Louis’ place, and he had a field of grass in his front yard as big as a soccer field, and his kids were similar in age to ours. He said his neighbors questioned his judgment because he hadn’t planted that space to vines, but he told us, ‘Our kids would have no place to play.’"

Cris grew up in the restaurant business in Colorado. After getting "sick of the snow," he moved west to attend University of San Diego. His parents followed him out to San Diego and purchased a restaurant there. "I decided to get into the family business when all of my friends were wearing suits on a sunny day like today, and I thought to myself, nah…"

The Cherrys moved to Paso Robles in 1996 and opened their restaurant two years later. The 2002 earthquake, during which the entire Paso Robles town square was cordoned off with chain link fencing, set their business back some, as did the economic downturn of 2008, just a few years later. They’d heard that Paso is "the next Napa," but that’s been slow to happen. "Napa is a brand. Tulum, where we were last year, in Riviera Maya, is a brand," he says. "Paso Robles is becoming a brand, but it’s not there yet." JoAnn adds, "Maybe when it becomes a brand, it loses its charm?"

"Paso Robles is becoming a brand, but it’s not there yet."

When they still lived in San Diego, they both got into wine. They enjoyed eating out and exploring wines at the fine dining establishments that popped up in San Diego, but those spots were fleeting. At that time, Cris says, "People weren’t eating out a lot in San Diego. They were spending their money on bikinis and running shoes." Neither of them grew up "in the wine business or on a farm or anything like that," she adds. "We had a half-acre with a garden, but winemaking was never something we thought we could get into. I always just thought, you’re born into it."

When they moved to Paso Robles, the wine business suddenly seemed doable.

Their friends Justin Smith and Matt Trevisan started making wine with some left-over James Berry Vineyard fruit while they were still cellar workers. She says, "We started helping them out. We’d grab the kids, and it’d be 11:00 o’clock at night. It was amazing. We got the bug."

Friends helped the Cherrys acquire a little local fruit, and they ordered their first barrel. "One barrel turned into seven," he says. They secured some Grenache from Denner Vineyard on the advice of Justin Smith. "All of a sudden, I had more Grenache than anybody in the area. I was an outlier." The first Villa Creek bottling was 2001. 

JoAnn and Cris have worked side by side since establishing their restaurant and later, their winery. At times, he says, "we’ve driven each other crazy." During the restaurant years, JoAnn says she was "as involved as I could be. We didn’t have any family here and I didn’t want to leave my kids with anybody. I was the pastry chef. I did the website, the menu. Cris was doing the wine-buying. I was still breastfeeding, so couldn’t really drink a lot, so I was watching him evolve in his wine knowledge and I was just getting left in the dust. I had a lot of catching up to do."

When they started making wine, she did punch-downs at night while he was working at the restaurant. "We had occasional conflicts. Creative differences, but for the most part, we vibe off each other," she tells me. "If we’re ever disagreeing about something, we eventually find out we’re on the same page. We’ll go, ‘Why are we even arguing about this?’"

She references these differences as part of their creative exploration. When their kids went off to college, she could finally work a harvest all the way through. "I came in and started asserting my opinion on how I thought certain protocols could be improved. Cris didn’t so much care for that but eventually we found our groove." JoAnn says with a chuckle. 

Some of those creative differences included their approach to blending. She was of the mind that they needed to be "more systematic about blending. We needed to take notes." She seems to have won that argument, and they now blind taste every barrel, judiciously taking detailed notes on each wine’s elevage. 

"We taste differently. We cook differently," he says. JoAnn likes recipes for inspiration, whereas Cris cooks by feel. Here, he jokingly mimics some of the more boastful winemakers, "Well, you know," he says, in an intentionally exaggerated professorial tone, impersonating them, "we blend over 7 weeks. And we taste meticulously. And 1/3 of 1% of this viognier changed the whole thing. 1/3 of 1%!" He laughs. "I think across the entire food and beverage platform there is a baffling amount of bullshit. It gets so annoying. The douche factor is something you have to navigate."

"There are no magic techno-wizard winemaking tricks."

Camille, 29, now works full-time for the family business. "It’s just the three of us in the office, JoAnn says. "During Covid, Henri was here. Henri is me. Camille is Cris," she says while Cris laughs in the background. "It was nice to have an ally when Henri was here. Now I’m outnumbered, and it can be challenging, but we are always working on improving our communication skills."

When the Cherry kids were growing up, they were always around the winery. "They know what it is to be in the family business," she says. They were "both feral children and ran around in the dirt a lot and were always out in nature. We always had a garden." Both kids, she says, are creative. They did alternative schooling, attending the local Montessori school, but Camille didn’t find her academic groove until she went to public school. She likes structure. She’s a plant lover and studied landscape architecture at Cal Poly and is the in-house landscape designer. "Henri was more adaptive when it came to academics," she continues. "He now lives in Santa Barbara, where he attended UCSB on a volleyball scholarship, works for Patagonia, and has his own small natural wine brand called Daft Punch, under which he makes pet nat and piquet. He is also a talented musician and continues to add songs to his Spotify portfolio under Julian Cherry."

Villa Creek shot to notoriety early on. "That surprised us for sure," he says. "We got a "New Wines, New Faces" article in the Wine Spectator (like any well-tuned couple, they finish each other’s sentences frequently.) "The phone started ringing off the hook," she says. "We didn’t even have a mailing list, so we started taking down all of these numbers."

They sold the restaurant in 2017 to focus exclusively on wine. He tells me that, in hindsight, they’d do things differently today. They started at very low-price points just to gain exposure to the wines. "It took us 12 years to get our wines priced to where everyone else’s were." With the MAHA Estate wines, they’ve entered the market with higher price points. Still, their BAE Clairette Blanche, even at $100.00 a bottle, over-delivers at that price point and may be a benchmark in the making. 

More recently, they’ve launched Cherry House, an entry-level selection of wines priced at about $25.00 a bottle, made from organic grapes. "I love that it’s all organic and well made at an affordable price point," JoAnn says. 

We move outside to enjoy our lunch al fresco. We’re joined by Camille, who is the Director of Customer Relations, and Oliver Mikkelsen, whom they’ve recently promoted to winemaker (Cris remains Director of Winemaking). Young, energetic, and polite, they catch up with each other briefly, discussing Camille and her husband, Kenton’s, next Dungeons and Dragons gameShe and Kenton also enjoy cosplay, attending Renaissance festivals as their schedules permit. Married late last year, they produce mead and organic honey together at the MAHA estate under the name Maddox Meadery. 

We enjoy a few Villa Creek Cellars and MAHA Estate wines with lunch. For all intents and purposes, these wines could be classified as natural, at least according to the requirements of the Natural Coast Wine Festival in Santa Barbara, which they’ll be attending in a few days. According to the festival’s website, "all wine must be farmed organically as a minimum. Whether certified or not, vineyards must be farmed without any synthetic pesticides. Certification from CCOF, Demeter Biodynamic, etc., is welcome and appreciated. All wines must be fermented natively - whether spontaneously or using a pied-de-cuve. Sparkling wines may be accepted when fermented with non-native yeast if noted in the technical information. No sterile filtration, no fining. Absolutely no additives except for SO2 with a maximum total SO2 below 70 ppm, regardless of wine style. No magic techno-wizard winemaking tricks. This includes reverse-osmosis, cryo-extraction, spinning cone filtration, etc. None of these rules are negotiable."

Occasionally, the table falls quiet. The resplendent surroundings, fresh air, and birdsong compel us to take in the nature around us. The estate vineyards blanket the hillsides above where we’re seated. "I would love to be out there more," Cris says. "It would be great to not have to work on sales or the financial equation of the business, but that has its call. I continue to learn and be inspired by lots of people that are in the vineyards all the time, here and abroad. As we now have the MAHA estate, I really don’t want to go anywhere else for fruit. It’s the most fun fruit to work with. The ferments are the soundest. The fruit is the most complex. MAHA fruit makes the best wine because the vineyard is farmed the way it’s farmed."

Article by R. H. Drexel
Photography by Svante Örnberg

See more work from Svante at svanteornberg.se by clicking here!

Playing the Long Game

A Visit with Sea Smoke

The city of Lompoc is idiosyncratic.

It’s an amalgam of worn-down strip malls, cannabis dispensaries, donut shops, nail salons, coin laundries, dry cleaners, and neighborhoods that range from tidy and quaint to dicey and neglected. The only movie theatre of note, The Lompoc Theatre, hasn’t run a movie since 1987, when it closed; despite numerous fundraising attempts, it remains shuttered. At the opposite end of town, a long-defunct Drive-In screen stands in a field of overgrown weeds. 

It’s home to the Vandenberg Space Force Base, a federal correctional institution, a diatomaceous earth mine, and the La Purisima Mission, one of the least manicured yet beautiful missions in all of California, with a working farm, extensive hiking trails, and numerous mission buildings. An urban wine trail nearby draws some attention, but the sister city to Namwon, South Korea; Cheyenne, Wyoming; Inca, Spain; Lake Placid, Florida, and Locarno, Switzerland, is an otherwise economically challenged, often over-looked agricultural and military town. 

On the outskirts, leaning into the city, is the Sta. Rita Hills winegrowing region, one of California’s most celebrated coastal appellations. It stands in stark contrast to Lompoc, with its lush, oak-dotted hilltops and vast canyon lands, alive with bobcats, roadrunners, mountain lions, coyotes, redtail hawks, and owls. The roster of producers making wine in this region reads like a Who’s Who of fine wine producers: Eleven Confessions (Sine Qua Non), The Hilt (Jonata), LaBarge, Melville, diatom, Brewer-Clifton, Donnachadh, Joy Fantastic, Tyler, Pence, Peake Ranch, Sanford & Benedict, and Sea Smoke, among others. 

The Sea Smoke Estate 

Upon entering the Sea Smoke estate, I spot a large Turkey Vulture sitting atop a fence post. The 2023 growing season has been abundant with rain, which has produced more of everything, including more for ground squirrels and gophers to eat, which means more ground squirrels and more gophers. 

As a result, there are more raptors. Eighty owl boxes throughout the estate, and raptor perches at its perimeter, help mitigate the population of ground squirrels and gophers, as do these carrion birds. 

I’m greeted by Julian Malone, Director of Vineyard Operations at Sea Smoke. He hops out of a muddy farm truck, wearing a baseball cap, T-shirt, and jeans, but grabs a jacket before too long. It’s a clear but cold day at the estate. He’s got an easy smile and old-fashioned manners. After providing formal introductions to the Great Pyrenees watch dogs circling my legs, Freckles and Samson, we hop in the truck for a tour. 

It’s a sprawling estate---1,100 acres---but only 170 of those are planted to vines. The balance of the land is a beguiling mix of organic apple orchards (the apples are sold for cider), cattle grazing land, forests, an idyllic pond, and fields of organically grown hay. We’re barely out of winter, and the vines are just now awakening. There’s some early shoot and leaf growth. 

"I’m a child of the world."

"I’m a child of the world," Malone says. "This is the longest I’ve lived anywhere. Ten years in Santa Barbara County. Seven years with Sea Smoke. This is the best farming gig I will ever have. I’m privileged to take care of such a great property." He spent time living in New Orleans and received his undergraduate degree in Agricultural Science from the University of Adelaide in Australia. 

Malone oversees a big team: ten tractor drivers, four irrigators, two shepherds, two technicians, two hundred goats, one hundred and fifty chickens, and four dogs. In addition to Samson and Freckles, Malone is now training two young Anatolian Shepherds, Rocky and Rita, whom he says are "very good at their jobs." They protect the many animals living on the estate in keeping with the guidelines of biodynamic farming.  

The cover crops below the vines are a veritable insectary, with bursts of calendula, poppies, Icelandic poppies, and Lady Phacelia, sweetening the air. "We release a bunch of beneficial insects every year," Malone says. "Green Lacewings are a generalist predator, a beneficial insect for us. They’re a Mealy Bug destroyer. Drones sprinkle them around the ranch. They’re able to cover 70 acres in about an hour. We are leaning on the idea that beneficial insects have a pollen source in their adult life. When they’re adults, they’re not predatory. They need some sort of feeding mechanism. And then, when they’re in their larval stages, they’re actively feeding on the bad bugs. The flower sources are an attractant and provide food for them in their adult stages."

"Farming organically and biodynamically, you have to be nimble, flexible, aware of your surroundings at all times because no season is the same."

As we explore the estate, Malone expertly tackles steep, loose terrain up sloped hillsides. It’s apparent he’s driven these dirt roads many times. At one point, we drive up to the estate’s highest hilltop, Rita’s Crown, just under 1000 feet in elevation. 

When we arrive at Monkey Rock, a nearly four-story high mossy boulder covered with goats, we’re greeted by Rocky the Anatolian. The goats pluck leaves from trees and climb the steep face of Monkey Rock with ease. "Goats clear the outside perimeter, which would otherwise be a favorable habitat for sharpshooters," Malone tells me as we exit the truck momentarily to pet a few goats greeting us at the fence line. The goats have dramatically reduced disease pressure at the estate through weed control. A mobile chicken run in the distance delivers chickens to different vineyard blocks. "The chickens help mitigate the population of harmful bugs, too."

"Farming organically and biodynamically, you have to be nimble, flexible, aware of your surroundings at all times because no season is the same," he continues. "This year, we started working in March. During January through March, we had 30 inches of rain. That’s new for us. Normally we’re farming in early January and hauling ass the remainder of the year. This year, we watched the weather, watched how things were growing, and in March we rolled into it."

As we climb onto the horizon, we see fields of hay blanketing the estate below. The team organically farms about 12 acres of hay to supplement their cows, whose waste is used for biodynamic preparations and to help build their compost. "We also take waste from our pond, mulch from trees that have fallen---we’re working on our recipe. We’re not there 100% yet, but in another season or two we’ll figure out that piece of the puzzle. We make our own biochar, which we incorporate into our compost."

He drives me to a series of gigantic, conical pits from which stacking lattices rise; the same shape you see at the bottom is the same shape you see at the top. They look a little like giant ice cream cones. "We do top-down burns, so they’re very hot. The fire at the top consumes the smoke that is generated below, so it’s essentially a smokeless burn, and a very clean burn. Right before it turns to ash, we harvest it, put out the fire, and set it aside." The remaining little pieces of charcoal are then feathered into the compost, soaking up all the good stuff, all the nutrients, and biological life. Acting like slow-release pellets, they help return carbon and nutrients to the estate’s soil. "We’re seeing improvements in the vineyard on an annual basis, and hopefully an improvement in the bottle year after year."

The Winery

I’m impossibly lost inside Sea Smoke’s production facility on the outskirts of Lompoc. It’s dark and cold. I pull my sweater tighter around me as I try to locate one human that might point me in the right direction.

I finally see a tall man in a baseball cap, slightly hunched over, walking towards me. Maybe he’s an HVAC guy? Surely, he’ll be able to help. I say hello and tell him I’m looking for the winemaker. 

"I’m Don," he says. That would be Don Schroeder, 43, whose been with Sea Smoke for 20 years. He started out as assistant winemaker and assumed the winemaker position in early 2008. Modest of baring and soft-spoken, he leads me to the room where we’ll taste, but before we sit down, he resolves to begin the day with a glass of sparkling wine. "Twist my lips," I tell him. I don’t need any convincing when it comes to imbibing sparkling wine at the top of the morning. 

As he brings over a couple of glasses, I mention the various rooms I’ve walked through to find him, including the barrel room, which is impeccably clean and organized. He explains that they use laser lines to line the barrels up precisely. We’re enjoying their 2016 Sea Spray Blanc de Noir. "It was disgorged in 2021," he says. "It spent a year in the barrel, three years in tirage. Ten months on the cork. It’s a five-year process."

Sea Smoke is one of those rare wineries that achieved greatness very early on. Founded in 1999 by Bob Davids, the 2001 Sea Smoke Pinot Noir, its debut vintage, quickly became a darling of the critics, with the Wine Spectator naming it one of the top 100 wines of the world. The next three consecutive vintages would repeat that distinction, with magazine covers and countless accolades to follow. However, Davids, whose Radica toy company, once the third largest toy company in the world, was later sold to Mattel, remained largely unknown in the wine world. "He said, ‘I don’t feel like I have to be in the spotlight,’" Schroeder tells me, "And I like that."

"Do one thing and do it right."

The same could be said for Schroeder, who is private and rarely attends larger wine events, save for the World of Pinot Noir, the only public wine festival at which Sea Smoke is poured. 

We next taste through a couple of vintages of the trifecta for which Sea Smoke is best known: the Southing, Ten, and Botella Pinot Noirs. Each wine is different, expressing with great transparency and purity of fruit the terroir of its provenance. Each wine is an exercise in balance, length, energy, and tension. We finish our tasting with the estate Chardonnay. His style is best described as minimal intervention, with the quality of fruit highlighted more than the human hand. As a result, the wines are site- rather than style-driven.

He credits Sea Smoke’s vice president and general manager, Victor Gallegos, with their consistency. "He’s always saying, ‘Don’t rock the boat.’ Do one thing and do it right. Every new year is an opportunity to develop a more intimate relationship with the vineyard. No amount of winemaking expertise can compare to the connection you gain working with the same vineyard year after year consistently. Over 85% of my career has been dedicated to this vineyard, and I have been fortunate to walk through the vines in the early years with Kris or bump into Billy Wathen (of Foxen fame) as he jogged around our vineyard and gave his insights." The Kris he refers to is winemaker Kris Curran, who was the first winemaker at Sea Smoke. 

The Sea Smoke team is small, and Schroeder tells me, tight-knit. "Julian, Victor, and I all have a great work relationship, and we all think alike when it comes to quality improvements. We have weekly meetings as a team to go over everything going on, and the vineyard is always a large focus. Our entire team has great synergy together, and we are all discussing potential tweaks and improvements frequently. Ultimately, it comes back to strong communication channels, which is the reason we have one main office with everyone’s desk in the same room."

"You inevitably to consider yourself a steward of a magical piece of dirt."

Pico Los Alamos

It’s late April, and I’m in Los Alamos, a small country town about forty-six miles north of Santa Barbara, distinguished for its uncommonly bustling Main Street and colorful locals. I’m at Pico Los Alamos for one of their "Know Thy Farmer" lunches, a series that pairs local organically/ biodynamically farmed wine producers with like-minded farmers for al fresco meals hosted by the purveyors. Founded by restauranteur Will Henry, the series is popular along the Central Coast, so I’ve purchased one of the last tickets available, as Sea Smoke will be featured alongside Motley Crew Ranch, first-generation farmers working in Lompoc and known for their humanely raised meats and eggs. 

I meet back up with Malone, who is there to speak about regenerative farming. Schroeder is there, seated alongside his wife. Gallant and elegant, Victor Gallegos, speaking flawless Spanish with a few table mates, sits at the head of one of the long, wooden farmhouse tables. 

Gallegos rises to greet the small, intimate gathering of diners. "We spend a lot of time and effort, at least in my family, thinking about organic fruit and fruits and vegetables, but we don’t spend quite as much time thinking about the wine we put in our body. How you farm is a reflection of your belief system."

At Sea Smoke, he says, they believe in"a concept called terroir, and it’s an overused term. For us, it means: if you believe you have an amazing piece of dirt, then everything you do should point to the wine that comes from that piece of dirt tasting like that place. Terroir encompasses soil, micro-, and meso- climates, aspects or exposure, and altitude, but importantly, and this is often overlooked, it’s the people and their energies that farm and make decisions on that piece of property that also define terroir. If you believe that, then it leads you inevitably to consider yourself a steward of that magical piece of dirt, because it’s going to be there a hell of a lot longer than we are. Our highest and best activity is to guard it for the future." The Sea Smoke estate has been farmed organically since 2005 and biodynamically since 2013. 

As lunch is served---Cornbread and Honey Butter with Motley Crew Ranch Lamb tartare, paired with the 2016 Sea Spray, to start, followed by three more courses that will be paired with the 2020 Chardonnay and the three 2020 Pinot Noirs, the lunch guests settle into a comfortable afternoon, alternative folk music playing over the speakers. Malone and his wife chat softly nearby. I get to know a couple seated across from me who are enjoying their first outing since their baby was born. We raise a glass to each other across the table while the young mother checks her phone for text updates on their newborn.

Article by R. H. Drexel
Photography by Svante Örnberg

See more work from Svante at svanteornberg.se by clicking here!


En Primeur

Photo Essay by Johan Berglund

- Château Calon Ségur
- Christian Seely, Château Pichon Baron
- Château Angélus
- Guillaume Pouthier, Château Carmes Haut-Brion
- Henri Lurton, Château Brane-Cantenac

“There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio,
than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

– William Shakespeare

- Château Canon
- Lisa Perrotti Brown at Château Lagrange
- Château Cheval Blanc
- Château Haut-Bailly
- Diana Garcia Berrouet, Le Pin
- Alfred Tesseron, Château Pontet-Canet
- Louis Mitjavile, Tertre Roteboeuf
- Château Lynch-Bages
- Olivier Berrouet, Petrus
- Edouard Moueix, Château Bélair-Monange
- Noëmie Durantou and Olivier Gautrat, Château L'Eglise-Clinet
- Château Margaux
- Château Lascombes
- Château Gruaud Larose
- Virginie Sallette, Château Gruaud Larose
- Nicolas Audebert, Château Rauzan-Ségla
- Château Troplong Mondot
- Château d'Issan
- Château Latour
- Damien Barton, Château Léoville Barton
- Pierre Graffeuille, Château Montrose
- Thomas Duroux, Château Palmer
- Daniel Cathiard, Château Smith Haut Lafitte
- Laure and Gerard de Lambert, Château Sigalas Rabaud
- Selfie at Château Lascombes

The Mermaids in the Basement

Visiting Haliotide

I started early, took my dog,
And visited the sea;
The mermaids in the basement
Came out to look at me.

-Emily Dickinson 

Atop a gently sloping hillside overlooking the small country town of Templeton, California, surrounded by orchards and a walnut grove, sits an unassuming red barn. Inside that barn lives Haliotide, one of the most exciting sparkling wine programs in the United States.

A herd of deer, startled by my car, lope through an orchard nearby, their footsteps audible as they run through thick grasses. Nicole Pope, tall, lean, and elegant of baring, is the project’s winemaker and co-founder, along with her husband, Luke. She greets me outside, and for a beat, we look out at the rural land before entering the winery. 

Haliotide is small, clean, and tidy, with a tight set of rooms providing an efficiently organized facility within which to make sparkling wine. There’s a barrel room where the base wines are aged. There’s a small room with walls adorned in their three children’s chalk artwork, where large wooden boxes store bottles undergoing tirage. Another room is lined with riddling racks, slanted bottles catching coins of white light from above. Nicole and Luke do most of the work alone year-round, with family and friends helping during disgorging, bottling, and labeling, which are all done by hand. 

Haliotide’s identity is manifested in a suite of daring, mythologically informed labels. New labels are created with each vintage. Though the paper and photos upon which they’re printed are one-dimensional, the labels have profound dimension and character. They are conceptualized and designed by artistic partners Michael Garlington and Natalia Bertotti, Nicole’s sister. In collaboration since 2013, the pair is perhaps best known for their large-scale installations, namely Photo Chapel (2013) and Confessions (2015), which they created for Burning Man, a process that concludes in their burning in the remote sands of Black Rock Desert, about 100 miles outside Reno. Their wine label work employs photography, collage, and costume, the resultant aesthetic that of dreamscapes and folktales. 

Nicole first got her start in sparkling wine production in 2007 at Domaine Carneros, where she worked as a lab intern. By the time she left in 2010, she’d worked her way up to assistant winemaker. “I just learned that I really love sparkling wine. I always had sparkling wine in the fridge. It became our favorite wine to drink. We drink it multiple times a week now. I love how delicate and bright it is. Some producers will make sparkling wines out of anything,” she says. “They’re just picking grapes early. But if you have a cooler climate with an extended growing season, you can let the grapes hang until September. In hotter climates, people are picking for sparkling wine in August. On the coolest edge of the cool climates is where you’re going to get the best quality fruit for sparkling wine, and Pinot Noir and Chardonnay thrive in those climates.”

Intentionally, all their vineyard sources are coastal. “We really want the ocean to influence our wines. Haliotide means abalone in French. We used to go abalone diving in Mendocino when the season was still open. Sparkling wine, it just has that ocean air smell. That bright freshness. We love it with oysters, sushi….”

As if on cue, Nicole’s husband, Luke, arrives with our lunch. While he’s unpacking an assortment of sashimi, nigiri, rolls, and a side of shiso leaves, the wind around us kicks up, calling into action wind chimes hanging from a nearby tree. Luke Pope, a grape farmer by day for Coastal Vineyard Services, tells me he moonlights at Haliotide. “I’m Nicole’s cellar rat. And we taste dosage trials together. I’m busiest during harvest time. Transportation of fruit. Arranging the picks. While she’s out visiting and tasting the sites, I talk to the farmers about the logistics of when and how we can get the fruit off. How much fruit can I haul on a given Saturday or Sunday? Maybe I’m the Logistics Manager, too?” “And the machine guy,” she adds.

Haliotide currently sources from the Derbyshire Vineyard in San Simeon, home of the Hearst Castle and the Bassi and Topotero Vineyards, both located just over a mile from the Pacific in the seaside town of Avila. “The entire SLO Coast AVA is very cool, but that particular spot on the SLO Coast is even colder,” she says. 

“We are not a large house, so we’re not going to be making something that tastes the same year to year. We’re going to have single vineyard, single vintage wines. We’re not blending away place and vintages.” 

The Popes were inspired by the grower champagne model and, even though they don’t own any of their own vineyard sources, work closely with growers. “The aha wine for me was a 2002 Salon, for sure,” Luke says. “And we both love Champagne Doyard.”

In 2016, during off hours, Pope made a Blancs de Blancs with chardonnay from the Stolo Vineyard in Cambria, where she was winemaker at the time. It was disgorged after four years of aging and then cellared. That 2016 Blancs de Blancs became the first Haliotide wine, which wouldn’t be released until 2021. “There was no grand plan,” she says. “We thought, ‘let’s just make one ton and, if it’s not sales worthy, we’ll keep it for ourselves, and between family and friends, we’ll be able to drink it.’ We didn’t have a mailing list, so we just put together a website quickly, and a lot of industry people signed up and bought the wine. It was a small amount. Only 40 cases, and we kept eight of those.” 

Those 40 cases sold out rapidly, and the 2017 vintage that followed sold out within two weeks. That’s when they decided to commit to future vintages and to purchasing more fruit. They moved into their winery in 2021 but have no plans for a tasting room. “I’m not comfortable schmoozing very much, and I’m not good at selling,” she says. They’ve been able to gain exposure for their brand by collaborating with brands like Saxum and the Maha Estate in Paso Robles, who, when hosting progressive wine dinners, enlist the Popes to kick off the evening with a glass of sparkling wine. 

With the 2022 vintage, they began sourcing from the Davenport Vineyard near Edna Valley. “They’re working with the Roederer Pinot Noir clone. We’d like to make Blancs de Noir from this site. It’s in barrel right now. We’ll wait to bottle it to see how it comes out. We’re still experimenting with it. I don’t mind trying new things, but it’s such a commitment to then buy the glass, put it in the bottle.” 

Even as she is enumerating the costs associated with experimentation, she quickly remembers to mention the possibility of working with a chardonnay site in the coastal Santa Cruz Mountains appellation. Though the Popes had initially committed to sourcing solely from the SLO Coast AVA, they remain open to exploring other coastal regions. 

“The owner of Coastal Vineyard Services, Kevin, has been super generous, allowing us to use his trailers. This would be a big endeavor if we had to have the entire investment for everything we need, but people have been really nice to us, and they want to see us succeed. They’ve been generous with their tools, equipment, and time. It’s an ‘us’ project, but it’s a “community project,” too. That’s the thing about Paso Robles. People here are very cooperative. It has a special feel. We all rise together.” 

Perhaps one of the most counter-intuitive business ventures, launching a wine brand requires cash flow up front, followed by herculean amounts of patience before any wine can be sold. Knowing the perils of the business, why did they forge ahead? Luke says, “I have one client who is ultra-wealthy, bought a big property. He said: talk me into doing it. I asked him if he had any passion for it. He said, ‘No, it’s a dollar and cents game.’ So I told him, ‘It’s not for you. You have to believe in what you’re doing. You must find it exciting.’ I think about that all the time. Ultimately, we have luxury products. Is this really a good use of water? Is it a good use of the resources we have? Is growing grapes responsible? Farmers all over need to think about water use. I think about the side effects of these luxury products on the environment.” Though he is conscientious, making efforts to farm responsibly and sustainably, he remains concerned. “We are causal agents of these side effects, but we try to find meaning in the joy Haliotide brings to the people who enjoy our wines.”

It’s got to be challenging living and working with the same person, day in and day out. He says, “The kids probably bring the most stress. Because it’s just constant. Basketball. Gymnastics. Tap dancing. That’s why we have a minivan now. There are so many things on my checklist I don’t get to, but that’s life now. We were working together at Stolo. She was making the wine, and I was farming. We work well together.”

As we’re finishing up lunch, Luke excuses himself. He has kids to pick up and drop off at their various destinations. I stay behind with Nicole, and we revisit the flight of wines before us. They’ve opened, sharing a signature of balance, freshness, elegance. It’s getting chilly, so we both bundle up. We raise our glasses and toast. The bubbles compel us, though the only celebration at hand appears to be this moment. “It’s been fun,” she says, casually.

Article by R. H. Drexel
Photography by Svante Örnberg

See more work from Svante at svanteornberg.se by clicking here!

The Lone Hibiscus 

The Story of Jasud

"I hear the wind blow, and I feel that it was worth being born just to hear that wind blow."

- Fernando Pessoa

It’s a bitingly cold morning in St. Helena when I meet up with winemaker and outdoorsman, Ketan Mody. We’re standing on Main Street, outside the Model Bakery, a popular local hangout. We’ll enter the bakery in a moment to grab coffee, but for now, the chilly air catches our breath, and we speak in clouds, exchanging news about our lives. 

I met Mody a decade ago, when he first launched his brand, Beta, showcasing wines from unusual non-estate vineyards Mody strongly favors. He was also preparing his own stretch of land to plant Jasud, an estate vineyard atop Napa Valley’s Diamond Mountain.

Jasud, Indian for hibiscus, is named after Mody’s grandmother. The first vintage of Jasud, the 2019, has yet to be released. Nowadays, his Beta Wines typically sell out within a 48-hour period. 

When we first met, he was 31, taut, energetic. Now, at 41 — having lost nearly 40% of his estate vineyard, home and much of his vineyard equipment to the 2020 wildfires — he’s circumspect, reserved. More resolute than before, but also more suspicious, turned inward. 

The difficulties intrinsic to maintaining an estate vineyard in a sometimes-volatile environment like the Napa Valley, with its wildfires, floods, and increasingly unprecedented heat, are not for those with a frivolous temperament. Add to that the trappings of the Napa Valley vintner lifestyle, with its endless stream of dinner parties, expensive restaurant engagements, and the accompanying effort required to keep up with appearances, and the pressure can be overwhelming.  

"The ego is very strong in the Napa Valley," Mody says, "and when you’re growing grapes and making wine, in its truest form, it’s about the disillusionment of ego. Farming in this way gives you the opportunity to get beyond the ego, and truly become a part of a piece of land, of nature."

Mody, now notoriously reclusive, maintains a small circle of trusted friends, but otherwise stays out of Napa Valley’s "cool kid clubs," which he views as a distraction. "A lot of winemakers come to the valley with the greatest intentions, but success is its own prison. Next thing you know, they’re making a lot more wine than they ever thought they needed to, just to keep up with the lifestyle."

"One doesn’t need to go down that road in Napa. If I can do it, other people can do it. You just have to stick to what you believe in. Within that path — the path I’ve chosen — you're not going to make 10,000 cases of wine. It’s about saying no more than saying yes. People say yes to everything. No is the most powerful word in the English language."

"What keeps me here is the community."

We hop into Mody’s Sprinter van and head south, down Highway 29, the sky brightening even though the cold refuses to leave. Our destination is a warehouse on the outskirts of town where Mody makes his wines contemporarily, until he’s able to build a winery at his estate. 

We talk about a rash of articles that have come out lately about how impossibly expensive the Napa Valley is to visit, and how expensive the wines are. He cites an especially high level of hospitality, customer service, food, and wine culture as responsible for the high-ticket price of visiting. "I mean, if writers want to complain about high prices, why not complain about Burgundy? And it’s expensive to visit Bordeaux, too."

"What keeps me here is the community," he continues. "I get to run into Ric Forman at the grocery store. I get to talk to Philip Togni. To have that level of mentorship present is rare. You’re not going to find that kind of wisdom and openness in a lot of places."

He cites winemakers who inspire his work and vision. "The Philip Togni’s of the world. The Lisa Tognis. The Mike Dunnes of the world. The Cory Emptings. The Cathy Corisons. The Ric Formans. The Brad Grimes. The Arnot-Roberts guys. These people have stuck by their convictions through thick and thin. The level of detail in their work, their mission not to waiver. I respect the people who integrate farming with winemaking."

As we wind our way down the valley, driving through downtown Napa, Mody points out restaurants and hotels I might want to check out. Though he’s aware of the latest, upscale spots and shares the information with customers headed to the Napa Valley, he’s perhaps most comfortable in a tent, preferably in the Alaskan tundra, which he visits frequently, chasing what he calls "little unicorn fish. I’m forever pursuing them."

He travels "pretty deep into Alaska and British Columbia chasing Steelhead. They’re the impetus for going on these adventures. It's been the way I’ve had adventures since I was eleven years old. Just getting out deep into the natural world." He frequently free dives, spear fishes and scuba dives off California’s Jenner Coast. 

A committed outdoorsman, he also spends much of his time on his project walking his vineyard atop Diamond Mountain, about halfway between St. Helena and Calistoga. He checks in on the Lion’s Mane mushrooms he has cultivated near an old Manzanita grove, or cuts stakes for vineyard rows from downed trees on the property. 

It’s a full and robust life, but none of it can be found on Instagram, or any other social media outlets for that matter. "Social media is fucking destroying us. It set out to target and prey upon our worst impulses. It’s really hard to find anyone who’s really positive these days, and it’s because it’s so easy to be negative and judgmental on the internet. That energy is everywhere now."

I wonder aloud how important it is for a wine brand to have a presence on social media and is it vital to sales? "No way," he tells me. He says of his customer base that social media is "not that important to them. That’s the beauty of what we’re trying to do here; connect with like-minded people, and we’ve been able to do that."

Mody confirms that much of his business has come from word-of-mouth, and that people have discovered his wines the way he discovers the wines of others, and new music, film and art: through friends". "If I want to hear more about a television show, or whatever, I just ask around. Somebody will tell me about it."

"I’m not interested in fucking making a twenty-dollar bottle of Pet Nat that’s served in some bar in Brooklyn."

He’s quick to add, though, that "discovering new things is not the most exciting thing for him. "It’s just not where I am at in my life. Where I’m at in my life right now is refinement. And, paying attention to the natural world around me. Wanting to have a relationship to that. I’m trying to get what I perceive to be the best I can out of a piece of ground, which has very little to do with me, and everything to do with refinement, observation, and the earth itself. It’s a meditative practice; a cutting away of everything else, so one can see what is actually there. That’s what I’m interested in." He adds, "I’m not interested in fucking making a twenty-dollar bottle of Pet Nat that’s served in some bar in Brooklyn. Not my cup of tea. I’m interested in the conversation about site, place and time. That’s the most beautiful thing about wine. I’m so grateful that I’ve found customers who want to have that conversation."

Mody wears his heart on his sleeve. It’s obvious he hasn’t had media trainings and doesn’t have a publicist on retainer. His intensity is palpable, his viewpoints unmanufactured. We talk about maintaining a very specific vision over time and the stamina that requires. "This business is hard. And, also, it’s hard to have a conviction and really hold onto it. Especially if it’s really demanding. It’s hard to hold and keep an idea for so long. You get one chance a year to do this, and life is so short. You don’t know how many chances you have. At the end of the day, what some people see as risk is not a risk for others. I can’t live another way. For us, it’s always been about what this site could be. There is no other option. As time goes on, that’s still the clearest path forward."

For us? And, who is the "us" in Mody’s hermetic world? His small team which includes his father and a handful of team members who have been with him from the beginning. "Nothing would happen without them. I'm so lucky to have them in my life. They’re family. There’s so much trust there. I wouldn't have been able to do this without them or my father. My father’s daily words of wisdom are what truly get me through the hard times. When I have a hard day, he's the guy I turn to. What a great father he is. We had become estranged, and wine brought us together."

Mody’s debut vintage of Beta Wines performed unusually well, his total production selling out within two weeks. I ask him if he has butterflies about sustaining that kind of success, especially as his estate-driven wines, Jasud, are set to debut. "You know, your first album’s your best, because you made it for yourself. And then it takes about ten albums to get back to that honesty. That truth. And you see that in the wine business. Those first few vintages when someone really does it for themselves, for the love of it, those first vintages are usually very strong. But it's easy to lose your way. In anything. Staying in love is a hard job. I've learned balance. I used to think I could do it all. I spent a decade working on that ranch (the Jasud Estate) night and day. And now, spending time practicing refinement, I'm taking more time for myself."

"You stay in love with it if being in the natural world is important to you. If that's where you find your reassurance and awe. It's about a place in nature, having a voice and having a conversation with that place. It's sitting by the brook and listening to the stream."

Mody was born in Georgia but was raised mostly in Florida. His mother is from Mississippi, his father born in India. He grew up in a traditional household and for a time his parents raised cattle and were peanut farmers, though his father later became a leading cardiologist.

He left home at the age of 16 to attend boarding school at the North Carolina School of the Arts. After not fitting in at public schools, he finally found like-minded friends at boarding school where he remained for two years. From there, he attended the Museum School for painting where he lasted for only three weeks. Having worked on a series of paintings on boats while there, he left to work for a boat shop where he apprenticed in wooden boat building. 

It was during this time that he was diagnosed with advanced Lyme Disease. "It got to a really advanced stage, where it was basically attacking my nervous system. I could no longer live by myself. I had to quit building boats. I returned to Florida where a doctor who specialized in Lyme Disease started my treatment." Every day for a year, Mody had a PICC line deliver IV Rocephin, a strong antibiotic, into his body. "It was a very, very difficult time," he says now. Though he is in remission, he remains cautious about his health. 

A few nights before my visit with Mody, my wife and I have a Beta–the 2017 Moon Mountain Chuy’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon — and I tell him that I found it needed at least half a day or so in the decanter. "I would think we did something wrong if we made a wine that tastes great right now and that you could still drink for 40 years. I don’t think things really work that way. I want to make wines that need time. That teach patience. Reflection. They’re not going to be pleasurable young. The most amazing thing has been meeting customers who want to get to really know a wine."

What does he think of the comparisons frequently made between his style of winemaking and wines made in the Napa Valley in the 1960s and 70s. "People fetishize everything," he says. "They’ll tell you all the wines from the Napa Valley in the 60s and 70s were fucking amazing. Nope. Probably only five were."

Rather than drawing comparisons between his wines and those of others, he prefers to taste benchmarks so that he can become familiar with greatness. "In Jiro Dreams of Sushi, there's a line, ‘To make delicious food you have to eat delicious food.’ If you want to make great wines, you have to drink great wines. In the last few years, I've been fortunate to do much more of that. I find great inspiration in fine wine."

It must be natural to wonder how one’s wines hold up to other wines available in the marketplace. Competition is prevalent and fierce in the Napa Valley. "That’s the hardest part," he says. "The exposure. Especially when you really care and the stakes are high. It's frightening to put your balls out on the table and give someone a hammer and then hope they don't hit it. My skin ain't that thick anymore. I don't have time to justify myself to people. And wine people are the worst. Over time I found a tiny community of friends I can trust in multiple ways. I listen to what they have to say about my wines."

"If you want to make great wines, you have to drink great wines."

Mody appears nervous as he thieves the Jasud wines out of a barrel for us to taste. The cellar is pitch black, save for a work lamp tucked away in the corner. Mody prefers a monastic, quiet, peaceful and dark atmosphere within which to taste and assess. 

His Jasud wines are profound in their purity, energy and brightness. Mody’s use of oak seems mostly textural and structural. The wines are jewel-like, precise, linear and focused. The 2021 is an exemplary wine: beautiful, soulful and balanced. Simply put, it’s delicious, thought-provoking. A rare offering. "I'm the proudest of this wine, of anything I've ever done," he says. 

When I ask Mody what the price will be, he’s stumped. His Beta Wines are line-priced at $85 a bottle, but the Jasud wines, for their labor-intensive nature, may toggle north of the $150 price point, which makes Mody uncomfortable. "It has to make some kind of sense financially, but I don’t want to gouge anyone. It’s something I think about all the time."

Following the 2020 wildfires, during which he lost 40% of the vines he had nourished from the ground up, Mody continues to replant and rebuild his estate. "I’m still climbing out of that hole. There is some trauma from that." He planted 27,000 vines in 2021 and continues, at the time of publication, to revive his estate vineyard. Not surprisingly, he doesn’t view this as a setback. "It takes 20 years to even start to understand something." He is not in a rush to learn from the land. 

The thoughtful way in which Mody has built both the Beta and Jasud projects speaks to his preference for the long game. He bought his vineyard in 2008, discovering then it would take four years just to have it permitted. He began logging the site in 2012, preparing the land for three years. I ask him if he added soil amendments, a common practice. "I didn’t amend shit. You see these overworked, over prepared soils, and they’re producing uninteresting wines. Hardships in soil build character."

He planted the first few blocks in 2015, utilizing clonal material that he personally sourced himself at To Kalon, MacDonald, Eisele, Spottswoode, Martha’s Vineyard and Diamond Creek; some of America’s most iconic vineyards. Most of the estate is planted on 4x4 spacing, with a smaller parcel planted to 3x3 spacing. The majority of Jasud has north-facing slopes, with the few south-facing slopes identifiable by their early-blooming wildflowers. Now that replanting is well underway, Mody says, "The second act is what I'm most excited about."

When he obtains a winery permit, he will build a small facility at the estate. "Then I’ll truly never have to leave." His winery will be small, and “a really beautiful place because our work is beautiful. It will be church-like, so that we're reverent upon entering. We're building it for ourselves. That will be the final piece. We’ll be all on our own, making micro choices, on our own. You build a house for who you want to be, not who you are. I've been building this ranch for the last 15 years. It feels like a calling," he says. "I want to know what this place tastes like. I've got to fucking know."

Article by R. H. Drexel
Photography by Johan Berglund

TWI’s Top 25 QPR

Collector Wines of 2022

I wasn’t going to make one of these end-of-year wine lists. Let’s face it; many are done just as a marketing resource to support wineries that support and garner a lot of their free publicity. Or it’s a critic listing all the wines they loved throughout the year and, in doing so, urging their followers to like them too. There’s nothing wrong with such lists; that’s just not us. Our aim is to put the consumer in the driving seat. We objectively judge quality across a broad range of styles and accurately describe those styles. Therefore, what I love or dislike is not the point.


I thought about what kind of end-of-year list would be helpful to our readers. What would be useful to me? That’s when the quality/price ratio list dawned on me. As wine hounds, no matter our tastes, we all love wines of quality, but equally, we all love a bargain.

Quality/price ratio (QPR) is a way of calculating value for money. There’s no universally accepted way of doing this, but I developed a formula for determining fine wine value some years ago. Although it is not an exact science, the results are usually an accurate indicator of whether I’m getting a bargain or being ripped off. 

Ultimately, you may argue that something is only worth what you’re willing to pay. Plus, given the finite nature of any given wine from a particular vintage and that the highest quality wines are often produced in smaller quantities, supply and demand is a force that skews the upper-echelon wines away from a straightforward calculation of value. In other words, most serious wine consumers would agree that if you simply divided the score by the price, the result doesn’t reflect the value of many higher quality and rarer wines compared to the mass-produced, lower quality wines. Furthermore, it stands to reason that quality-seeking collectors look for value in higher-rated wines. I, therefore, use 87 points as the lowest rating consideration and accept that the calculation will only be useful from this score up. For greater accuracy in respect of quality, I tack on bonus points to wines scoring 90-95 points and higher bonuses to those that score 96-100. 

Thus, my formula looks like this: 

(Wine Score ÷ Retail Price in $USD) + Bonus = QPR Rating

For the QPR bonus calculation, I add 0.5 bonus points to a score of 90 and then add an extra 0.5 to each score above 90 until 96 points. At 96 and above, scores receive an incremental 1-point bonus, and scores with a “+” symbol receive an extra 0.5 bonus. So, the scoring bonus looks like this:

87-89: No Bonus 

90: add 0.5 

91: add 1 

92: add 1.5 

93: add 2 

94: add 2.5 

95: add 3

96: add 4

97: add 5

98: add 6

99: add 7

100: add 8

The results can be assessed thus:

QPR 10+ = The Bargain of a lifetime

QPR 9 = Outstanding value

QPR 8 = Excellent value

QPR 7 = Very good value

QPR 6 = Good value

QPR 5 = Above average value

QPR 4 = Average value / fair market price

QPR 3 = The price is a little steep

QPR 2 = Expensive for what it is

QPR 1 = Forget it

You may have noticed that this bonus allocation assumes that 100-point wines start at “Excellent value,” regardless of price. Because this is true only up to a certain price, I filtered out 100-point wines reviewed this year on our website with an average global price on Wine-Searcher of over $400. Also, I only included new releases (mostly 2019 vintage) that were bottle (no barrel samples) and are readily available to purchase.

The resulting list of this year’s best QPR new-release collector wines was eye-opening. Italy performed well, as did, surprisingly, Bordeaux. The number one bargain for the year turned out to be a gorgeous Tuscan Sangiovese—2019 Isole e Olena Cepparello—reviewed by our Italian critic, Susan Hulme MW. Bravo to her for highlighting this beauty and awarding this excellent value wine with the highest of scores.

Happy wine hunting & Season’s Greetings! 


1. 2019 Isole e Olena Cepparello

100 points


QPR: 8.96

2. 2019 Andremily Mourvedre

100 points


QPR: 8.52

3. 2019 Château Montrose

100 points


QPR: 8.52

4. 2019 Tua Rita Redigaffi

100 points


QPR: 8.44

5. 2019 Ornellaia

100 points


QPR: 8.41

6. 2020 Aubert Chardonnay Lauren Estate

100 points


QPR: 8.4

7. 2019 Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon

100 points


QPR: 8.38

8. 2019 Saxum James Berry Vineyard Rocket Block

100 points


QPR: 8.37

9. 2019 Château Figeac

100 points


QPR: 8.34

10. 2019 Dominus

100 points


QPR: 8.30

11. 2019 Sine Qua Non Syrah Distentia 1

100 points


QPR: 8.27

12. 2019 Château Ducru-Beaucaillou

99+ points


QPR: 7.95

13. 2019 Château Smith Haut Lafitte Rouge

99 points


QPR: 7.81

14. 2019 Château Pontet-Canet

99 points


QPR: 7.72

15. 2019 Château Cos d’Estournel

99 points


QPR: 7.51

16. 2020 Aubert Chardonnay CIX Estate

99 points


QPR: 7.5

17. 2019 VHR-Vine Hill Ranch Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon

99 points


QPR: 7.35

18. 2019 Château Palmer

99 points


QPR: 7.32

19. 2019 Vieux Chateau Certan

99 points


QPR: 7.28

20. 2019 Château Pavie

99 points


QPR: 7.28

21. 2019 Château Trotanoy

99 points


QPR: 7.27

22. 2019 Fonterutoli Siepi

98 points


QPR: 7.07

23. 2019 Devil Proof Malbec Farrow Ranch

98+ points


QPR: 6.81

24. 2019 Marchesi Antinori Guado Al Tasso

98 points


QPR: 6.77

25. 2019 Marchesi Antinori Tignanello

98 points


QPR: 6.65


In 2016, Château Pontet-Canet proprietor Alfred Tesseron put down stakes in Napa Valley with the purchase of the vineyard and mansion that had been one of the homes of deceased actor Robin Williams. 

Located at an average altitude of 1,500 feet (500 meters) on Mount Veeder, the estate includes just under 20 acres of mature Cabernet Sauvignon (75%), Merlot (18%), and Cabernet Franc (7%) vines planted in 1990.

Williams used to sell the fruit to various wineries around Napa Valley, so, until 2016, there had never been a single vineyard bottling of this remarkable place. 

Tesseron named the estate and wine “Pym-Rae,” out of respect for the original name given to the vineyard by Williams (Pym and Rae are the middle names of two of his children). Currently, the wines are made at a dedicated cellar up on Howell Mountain, with plans in place to build a winery on the estate. The first vintage made by Tesseron was 2016, and the current release is 2018.

Cathiard Family Estate

The last decade has seen a number of prestigious Châteaux in Bordeaux investing in Napa Valley. In 2013, Francois Pinault, owner of Château Latour, purchased Araujo Estate in Calistoga, renaming it Eisele Vineyard. Alfred Tesseron of Pontet-Canet bought Pym-Rae in 2016, and AXA Millésimes (owner of Pichon Baron) purchased Outpost Winery in 2018. One of the latest Bordelais acquisitions was that of Florence and Daniel Cathiard, owners of Château Smith Haut Lafitte in Pessac-Léognan.

In January 2020, the Cathiards purchased the homestead and historic winery that was at one time the residence of Napa Valley winemaking forefather Louis M. Martini from the Komes family, owners of Flora Springs. The deal included around 200 acres of land, 58 of which was already planted to vine, and what had come to be known as the Flora Springs Winery. The purchase did not include the Flora Springs name, which is still operating. That suited the Cathiards just fine, though. They want to establish their name in Napa Valley: Cathiard Family Estate and Cathiard Vineyard.

Located in the foothills of the Mayacamas Range in St. Helena, I took the opportunity to visit the vineyard and winery reconstruction in February this year with the general manager and winemaker Justine Labbe. The partly sloped vineyard extends up to an altitude of 650 feet (200 meters) and includes mature vines, including a couple of blocks of free-standing old-timers that are on St. George rootstock. The Cathiards had torn down the eyesore of an outdoor tank farm, replaced by a state-of-the-art refit to the historic stone winery, including small upright and inverted conical vats. Justine is working with the dedicated cooper at Smith Haut Lafitte to adjust the toasting levels of barrels made especially for aging the wines from the Cathiard Vineyard.

The first vintage, 2020, remains in barrel and is due to be bottled in August 2022.

Given the challenges of this vintage, it will be a minimal first release, including around 700 cases of the flagship Cabernet Sauvignon, 900 cases of the next tier “Founding Fathers” label, and 1200 cases of the Cabernet Merlot blend. The Cathiards intend to develop a club membership and distribute the wines via the Place de Bordeaux. Having tasted some very impressive barrel samples of the 2020 vintage, I can confirm this is a property to watch!

Photography by Svante Örnberg
Text by Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW

See more work from Svante at svanteornberg.se by clicking here!


Frost In Pomerol

- Le Pin

It was the frost of 2021 all over again, almost to the day. After a warm, precocious beginning to spring, in the first week of April 2022, temperatures plummeted to -5 degrees Celsius (23 degrees Fahrenheit) and even as cold as -7 degrees C (19 degrees F) in some areas on April 4th. The forecast called for all-hands-on-deck throughout the evenings, as growers lit candles, monitored wind machines, gathered heat blasters, and did whatever they could to try and warm the air around the vines and stave off a repeat of last year’s devastation. Our co-founder, photojournalist Johan Berglund, was on the scene in Pomerol and Saint-Émilion to capture some of the dramatic images of sleepless nights and frantic attempts to save the 2022 vintage before it even started.

- La Fleur-Pétrus


- Lafleur
- Constance Durantou, owner of l'Église Clinet
- Julie Guinaudeau at Lafleur









- Baptiste Guinaudeau, owner of Lafleur
- Lafleur




- Petrus
- Lafleur

Photography by Johan Berglund
Text by Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW