There are so many different ways of searching out & finding good wines for one’s wine program.
The most consistent source is of course wine importers. Iconic standouts, for me, include Kermit Lynch Wine Merchants (French & now Italian) & Cellars International (German wines). The list should also include the no longer existent Wine Distributor (a wholesale spin off of Draper & Esquin of San Francisco)–who introduced us to Andre Ostertag, Angelo Gaja, Laurel Glen, Qupe & Ravenswood just to name a few AND Empson USA–who introduced us to many fine Italian wines over the years, such as Silvio Jermann & Poggio Antico. There are, as one would imagine, so many more to be thankful for.
While traveling to wine country, another way is to check out the more progressive retail wine shops of the area you will be or are visiting. I can immediately tell what level the shop is playing on after scanning their shelves. If it is in fact top level wines, I then will ask the store manager or buyer what “new wine discoveries” they would recommend. Those that I don’t know, I will do further research on them. Or, I will then buy some & try them. We found such a store in Athens, Greece, for instance. Run by husband & wife (Dimitri & Sofia Athanassopoulou) I will remember this wine store forever. Their selections were fantatic & their knowledge & passion for searching out such wine treasures was so contagious. Yes, we bought several bottles & each was soul stirring.
Another way is to ask the winemaker I am visiting of others in his area which he feels are shaking the bushes. That’s how I found Enrico Esu down in the Carignano del Sulcis appellation of Sardegna (recommended by Giovanni Montisci of Mamoiada) & Pero Longo of Sartène, Corsica (recommended by Jean-Charles Abbatucci of Ajaccio). Vigneron recommending another vigneron.
Sometimes, it is about first finding a vineyard that has the potential for something extra in the finished wine. The Sanford & Benedict Vineyard is a fine example. Located in the western reaches of what is today called the Santa Rita Hills appellation, the old vines of this now iconic Chardonnay & Pinot Noir vineyard was planted back in the early 1970’s by Richard Sanford & Mike Benedict. The earliest & most memorable bottlings of this single vineyard for me included–Au Bon Climat Chardonnays (& Pinot Noirs) from the mid 80’s & on; a 1992 Babcock Pinot Noir, some Whitcraft Chardonnay–’94, ’95 & ’97 & some Chardonnay from Ojai. Each had something really interesting to say in the finished wine. This was the start. Subsequently, other wineries using Sanford & Benedict fruit which later also caught our attention included Cold Heaven (Viognier), Sandhi, Chanin, Tyler & The Hilt.
Yes, there are many ways to find interesting wines.
Here are 2 of the most unusual & unique introductions, over the years for me.
EDMEADES WINERY–early on in the 1990’s, I had not heard of this winery. My experience with wines from the Anderson Valley up to that point included Roederer Estate, some single vineyard designated Pinot Noir from Williams & Selyem & the release of the 1993 Littorai wines. There were also some encounters with Greenwood Ridge Zins, Lazy Creek, Handley, Navarro & just a few others. With the Mendocino Coast Ridge, later simply named Mendocino Ridge I had tasted & was somewhat aware of some of Jed Steele’s Zinfandels under his Steele label. But, that’s about it. Then one fateful day I received a call from Michael Hopkins, a good friend, who was the local representative for the Jackson Family wine empire. Quite candidly, the phone call blindsided me & I did not know what to expect….at all. Michael said he had 3 wines for me to try–1995 Zinfandel “Mendocino”, 1994 Zinfandel “Zeni Ranch” & the 1994 Zinfandel “Ciapusci Vineyard”. In short, I was absolutely blown away. These wines were truly not like any other I had previously had & I found each really mesmerizing. I think we both agreed, the wines were not for everyone’s palate because they were so rustic, wild & wooly (most professionals would say flawed), but they had vinosity, great texture & were deviantly spellbinding. I was hooked. The winemaker was “mountain” man–Van Williamson–who was affectionately referred to as Vanimal. I was so taken with the wines, I was on the road shortly afterwards to visit Vanimal, the vineyards he worked with & taste through his many wines. In addition to his Zinfandels, I was also quite taken with his more masculine styled, wild yeast fermented, unfiltered & unfined Chardonnay & Pinot Noir…….a masculine, explosive Gewurztraminer & a sensational Petite Sirah. These were curious, VERY idiosyncratic wines, but I really liked them. I saw Michael the other day. I thanked him again. It’s not often opportunities like this come around.
ART SPACE–The story actually really begins, when we landed in Athens, Greece. (Greece was at the top of my wife’s bucket list, so in 2017, off we went). Being this was her trip, we of course did the walking tours–all of the historic sites–some with guides, other walks just by ourselves. For whatever reason, as we headed back to our hotel after each walk, we passed by the “Vintage Food & Wine Experience”, a brightly lit, very snazzy, modern looking restaurant/wine bar. Despite being somewhat disappointed at previous wine bars in the city, we finally went in one afternoon. There, we met Effie Anastopoulou, who served us 6 Greek wines (out of the 600+ they offer by the glass via Coravin) of her choice to give us a glimpse of what Greek wines can be, from her perspective. Each were terrific. She was so upbeat, warm & very professional. We found out she had worked previously at Sigalas on Santorini & she then actually helped us get an appointment there. Once we were on Santorini, we did visit several wineries, including the 2 island winemaking superstars–Hatzidakis & Sigalas. (please check out our previous posts on Hatzidakis & Sigalas–October 2017 for more information on the visits). Because of Effie’s introduction, we had a great visit at Sigalas & our host at Sigalas then suggested we visit Gaia on the other side of the island, because they produce very good wine, in styles very different from their own. Gaia also received quite a bit of attention/press because they would submerge 500 bottles of wine in cages in the sea, 4o to 50 meters below & its ideal storage temperatures. Our tasting host was Melina, another upbeat, charming, very informative professional, who made our visit quite memorable. Her whole attitude/demeanor however changed when she discovered that Effie had sent us to Sigalas. They had apparently worked together at Sigalas previously. A fiery passion in her now became clear. She excused herself & we found out she went to ask a friend to drive us to another winery, which she later said we must go to. Her friend took us to a small, gravel parking lot & dropped us off. There was but a small sign which simply said Art Space. (Please check out our previous blog–October 2017–on Art Space). In short, it was one of the most “chicken skin”, memorable wine visits of my 40 plus years in the wine business. Owner/winemaker Antonis Agryros is truly something special & our visit was game changing! All of this because of 2 very savvy, dedicated, passionate wine professionals–Effie & Melina. I am so thankful to have met such special wine people.