Professional wine buyers are kind of like art curators. They choose the pieces in an exhibit and arrange them in a way that may or may not make sense, but at least evokes some type of positive response. These are skills that require an understanding of the artist or winemaker’s process, but don’t necessitate possessing artistic talent oneself.
I have respect for anyone who has the nerve to make wine, whether you are in the industry or not. Sure, there is definitely ego involved, and you can usually tell the degree by pricing (this is true of many wines). However, for a few wine pros, making wine, at least initially, is seen as a way to improve their skills as buyers and salespeople.
“In the first year, it was an extension of what I wanted to do here,” Boulevard co-wine director John Lancaster said. “For me, there was no big dream of a large, extensive project.”
In 2002, Lancaster and Boulevard’s other wine director, Robert Perkins, founded Skylark. What started out as a small, 800-case project has turned into a reputed 5,000-case business.
Known for his expertise in Burgundy, Raj Parr, the Mina Group’s wine director, started out on a quest to show that fresh, crisp wine — especially chardonnay — could be made in California.
“We don’t have to give in and make big, obnoxious wine,” Parr said.
In 2009, Parr launched Sandhi Wines.
“California has some of the best and most complex soil types,” he said. “Nothing makes me prouder than to say this wine is from California.”
I started thinking about this topic several months ago when I dined at Frances. The wine buyer, Paul Einbund, made white, rose and red wines that were being poured on tap; $1 for 1 ounce.
“We said it would be the cheapest s---, but infinitely drinkable,” he said.
Truth be told, all three are a delight. As impressive as this effort is, Einbund’s heart and soul is in Seam, a wine he makes from Calaveras County. As the name suggests, the intent of the wine is to bring people and wine together by making the best possible wine at the lowest possible price.
You might be wondering, “OK, but do these guys actually make wine that is any good?” The answer is yes. Some excite me more than others, but without question, they can go head-to-head with their competition from California.
And the big three are ...
Seam Barbera, 2008 (Calaveras County): With a little guidance from veteran winemaker Marco Cappelli, and design input from his wife, Vanessa, Einbund has made a bright, charming wine. Composed of fruit from the Indian Rock Vineyard, it has fresh black cherry, raspberry and pluot, with a touch of framboise and cardamom. Suggested retail: $20
Sandhi Chardonnay, Sta. Hills, 2010 (Santa Rita Hills): A blend of several vineyards, it is vivacious, even though it underwent complete malolactic fermentation. Golden delicious apple and white peach fruit carry the wine without overpowering it, and judicious oak treatment adds nuance. This may be Sandhi’s most modest wine, but Parr’s mission to make a crisp chardonnay has been realized. Suggested retail: $28
Skylark Syrah, Rodgers Creek Vineyard, 2008 (Sonoma Coast): Skylark makes 10 wines, four of which are from syrah, but this particular bottling is the flagship. Typical of a cooler-climate syrah, it has a mound of black pepper, bacon fat and a touch of wintergreen in the nose with a delicious core of cherry and huckleberry fruit, good tannic structure and a long, multifaceted finish. Suggested retail: $36
Pamela S. Busch is the owner of Skrewcap.com, founder of CAV Wine Bar and a Bay Area wine consultant. Please submit questions to Pamela@Skrewcap.com.