November 2000

1999 Tinto – New Release

If the problems of harvest were an indicator of fine wine quality, then our new release 1999 Tinto might be the best Tinto Ever.  When the gondola (a trailer for hauling grapes) loaded with three tons of Tinto got stuck in the field on the final turn, it was not clear that the combined effort of seven tired grape pickers and one fully amortized Chevrolet pickup would be enough to get the precious cargo to the winery.  The problems were overcome and Tinto moves into its 20th vintage.  This unique red wine from an authentic 60-year-old Oakville field mix is still far and away our most popular product.  From the most sought after micro region of the Napa alley it is a delicious, complex, cellar-worthy, and utterly one-of-a-kind red wine; and at $14/bottle it is without question the best wine value in the Napa Valley.  The Tinto people do not need telling, but if you have not discovered Tinto for yourself, deprive yourself no longer.

Big Trouble Ahead – The glassy-winged sharpshooter and Pierce’s Disease

The future of viticulture in the Napa Valley and California is seriously threatened by the twin presence of Pierce’s Disease and an insect called the glassy-winged sharpshooter.  Pierce’s Disease is a bacteriological infection lethal to the grape vines, which produce the premium wines of California.  The bacteria are present in a host of plants native to North America.  Although the bacteria are harmless to the indigenous grapevines, it is lethal to the viniferous varieties, which were originally introduced from Europe and which support the premium wine industry of California.

Pierce’s Disease (“PD”) is not a new issue in Napa vineyards, but its incidence has been confined to the wet lowlands where the relatively benign blue-green sharpshooter spreads the bacterium into vineyards. Nestled into the bank of the Napa River, the Casa has struggled unceasingly with PD since vines were first planted here in 1965. Although the severity of the disease moves in cycles – some years worse than others – the annual “kill” of grapevines has not been so great as to prevent sustainable viticulture. The glassy-winged sharpshooter, it is feared, will change all that. It is a much more aggressive and successful vector for the bacteria. 

Wherever the glassy-wings have become established (for example in the southern region of the United States), viticulture has completely disappeared. Three years ago, glassy-winged sharpshooters were first acknowledged in Temecula, California. Today, the vineyards are devastated, and the growers have no plans to replant. The reason is in the fact that grapevines are a perennial plant. Annual crops can be sustainable even when a percentage of the crop is sacrificed to pests of disease each year. A grapevine, however, takes several years before it makes a crop, and many more years of production are required to pay back the development costs of a vineyard, in Napa county, are as high as $80< per acre, not including the cost of the land. Pierce’s Disease however, kills the vine before it has a chance o make even one crop. Thus, growers faced with today’s realities are concluding that to replant is pointless, until some solution is discovered – and none is in sight.

Research into a cure or vaccine for PD has been going on for decades, with nothing promising on the horizon. Of course, pesticides have been tried on the glassy-winged vector, but none have proved effective in saving viticulture. It takes only one exposure to kill the vine, and no pesticide is able to kill enough of the insects to prevent vineyard annihilation. Even 90-95% kill of the vector, which is the “best case” for pesticide “eradication,” is insufficient to enable sustainable viticulture. Although there is a growing panicky clamor for draconian aerial spraying, experts in the field believe that such a program would not help. “Nuking” the state with pesticides, they say, would create havoc on other segments of agriculture without offering anything more than a psychological benefit. Greater promise is offered by biological means of control, including a Mexican wasp that feeds on the eggs of the sharpshooters. If steps are taken to sterilize the state with pesticides – a program, which has been tried elsewhere without success – it will be impossible to establish biological controls like the Mexican wasp. Meanwhile the glassy-wings are moving north through California at a surprising rate. The insects apparently are transported mostly thought nursery plants used in ornamental landscaping. The presence of the insect has been confirmed in Sonoma and Sacramento counties. Most informed sources assume that the insect is present in Napa County, that confirmed a specimen would soon be found.

It seems likely that the ingenuity of human kind will find a solution to this problem. But with nothing of promise yet in the pipeline, few informed persons believe that widespread devastation of California viticulture can be averted in the short run. The wineries of Temecula have given up on replanting their vineyards and are looking to Santa Barbara country for the fruit to continue winery operations, but the devastation is underway in Santa Barbara country as well. China has been suggested as a source of wine grapes during the crisis. Another suggestion is to rely on indigenous North American grape varieties, which have traditionally been the domain of Manichevitz and Mogan David. It seems likely that for a period at least, the fine wines of Napa will not be what they have historically been. The good news is that it has not happened yet. It’s a good time to enjoy the wine while it lasts! Prices will never be this cheap again. Indeed, such wine may not be available for long at any price.

Quixote Returns

Quixote represents Casa Nuestra’s highest ambition – claret in the style of the great red wines of Bordeaux.  First introduced in 1994, Quixote is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon.  Like the clarets of St. Emilion (e.g. Chateau Chevalle Blanc), our Quixote is comprised mainly of Merlot and Cabernet Franc with only a small addition of Cabernet Sauvignon.  It is differentiated from most California “Meritage” wines, which are primarily Cabernet Sauvignon.  Our present offering is a vintage 1997.  It aged for 24 months in small oak barrels, and it has been in the bottle for almost a year.  Though we expect that the cellar life of this wine is in decades, it is drinking very well right now, so help yourself!  

$23 per bottle.

Meritage Explained

Wine makers have realized for centuries that the best wine is frequently a blend of ingredients, not necessarily 1005 of a single variety.  Many of the finest red wines of France, for example, are known to be blends of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot (and perhaps some others that the French haven’t told us about).  Labeling and promotion of wine by varietal content (the equivalent of ingredient labeling) is an entirely New World trend.  Historically, European wines have been identified and promoted by region and maker rather than varietal content.

 In this country, however, market value became linked to varietal content.  A bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon may sell for $100 or more, whereas Napa Gamay may struggle to bring $3.99.  To qualify for a varietal label, our rules require that the wine be comprised of at least 75% of the varietal appearing on the label.  A bottle containing 75% Cabernet Sauvignon and 25% Napa Gamay, may be labeled “Cabernet Sauvignon”.  When a wine is comprised of several ingredients no one of which comprises75%, the wine must be labeled under a “generic” name.  Generic wines have, until recently, been regarded as low-end low quality wine, like Ripple or Mountain Red.

This labeling issue has inhibited North American wine makers from doing their best for fear of losing varietal labeling and thus market value.  For example, the addition of 13% Merlot and 14% Cabernet Franc to the Cabernet Sauvignon might make the wine much better; but though the wine would be maximized, the wine could no longer be called Cabernet Sauvignon.  Its value would be reduced to the value of generic red table wine.

When we originally created Quixote – which is a blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon – there was no labeling convention to describe blended red wines of the Bordeaux family of red varietals.  In recent years, however, to answer the labeling/marketing dilemma, the term “Meritage” has emerged.

Today “Meritage” wines are common, commanding the ultra-high end of the premium wine market.  The market has begun to understand that these wines are not a “cellar blend” of leftovers but are rather the winery’s most lofty attempt.  Many of the most well known producers have released high-end generically labeled Bordeaux style wine.  Opus One is probably the best know example, but there are many.  Quixote has been joined by a lot of famous company!

Hummingbirds, Rattlesnakes and Crayfish

It is Labor Day, Sept. 3, 2000, the first day of the Casa harvest in the twenty-first century.  I have watched the darkness turn gray as I communed with my boiled eggs.  I can see headlights of the cars along the Silverado Trail, and I see some cars turning into the vineyard across the street.  “Good, the crew is arriving,” I think to myself.  “They’re a little early.”

As I walk toward the vineyard, the western blocks are in full sun; but today’s work is in the eastern block; and it is still in deep shade, and rather cold.  Walking along the fence, which separates our property from the neighbor’s, my attention is drawn to sound and motion in a peach tree on the other side of the fence.  The large tree remains covered with plastic netting to protect the fruit from birds.  The net is no longer necessary because the fruit is long past.  Caught inside the net is a hummingbird.  If he would stop beating his wings, he might be small enough to squeeze through the holes in the net, but he doesn’t seem to understand the nature of his situation, and he is beating himself against it hopelessly.  I try to explain this to him, but in his panic, he’s not paying any attention to me!  I know a way into the neighbor’s yard, so I let myself in and remove the net, releasing the bird.

The day before I encountered a large rattlesnake near the river – the first one I’ve seen all year.  He was coiled near the path, very well camouflaged in the vegetation.  Once I figured out what it was, I was startled, and then curious.  He was so still.  Was he dead?  He was a big snake, rattles two inches long and girth larger than my wrist.  I watched for several minutes, thinking he might make a move.  At last he blinked and his ribbon-like tongue darted in and out.  I went along my way, passing within a couple of feet of him, he never rattled.  I had heard reports that the rattlesnakes had adopted a survival strategy of not rattling.  I’ve even heard that snakes are being born without rattles.  It makes sense.  If I were a snake, I’d do it too.  The snake who rattles ends up dead.  This snake had learned not to rattle, and he had survived to such a size.  I was happy that he had found a way to survive, but I wish this adaptation had not been necessary.  I guess I can no longer assume that the snake will warn me off.  Too bad.

The crew has picked almost a ton, and the fruit is looking good.  We are still in the shade, but the shadow is creeping up the hill towards us.  Yesterday, Shay showed me a crayfish making his way overland from the direction of the river toward the pond, a journey of about one hundred yards.  The river is dry – something which used to happen only after several consecutive years of drought.  I wonder what will happen when drought does come?  She tells me that she and the guys are finding many of these overland travelers – a migration of crayfish.  How do they know how to find the pond?  I’ve never seen or heard of such a thing in the twenty five years I’ve lived along the river.

The sunshine has reached us, and we are peeling off our long-sleeved shirts.  The vine rows are beautiful.  I cannot imagine the ubiquitous vineyards disappearing.  It is unbelievable, pure and simple:  like hummingbirds in a net, or rattlesnakes who don’t rattle, or crayfish migrating over dry land.  I remember the words from Bob Dylan,  “…and you know something’s happening here.  But you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?

Leo and the Balloon Police

Recent visitors to the Casa will know that we are now open for business from Friday through Monday.  Also, they will have encountered the amazing Leo Zeigler.

Leo became host of our on-site sales office about one year ago, but his association with the Casa goes back to the very early days.  In the mid 80’s, Leo was the pick-up man for Winewright’s Register, Winewright’s was the pioneer of catalogues, which offered ”impossible-to-fine” wineries, at a time when new entries into the wine business were novel and eagerly welcomed.  Leo’s job was to pick up the wines, sold through the coffee table type catalogue, from the respective wineries.  Of course, he got to taste everything on his North Coast circuit.  Casa Nuestra wines, especially Tinto, were always his very favorite.  Though Winewright’s eventually disappeared, as the “wine scene” became a colossus, Leo never lost his loyalty to Casa Nuestra wines.  When Casa reopened the sales office last year, Leo prevailed on management to make a place for him on staff.  This was a very good idea.  Leo has been a huge contributor to the Casa operation, and he makes a visit to the Casa a truly entertaining and unforgettable experience.  

If you come by but do not see the familiar bouquet of balloons on the driveway, don’t assume that we are closed.  The door is open.  It’s just that the NCBP (Napa County Balloon Police) have determined that balloons require additional licensing (see next article).  Our legal staff is looking into it.  Cost of the license – after environmental review and appeals – may require going public.

Balloon License Please

In a rare personal interview, the Happy Farmer revealed that it was Casa Nuestra, which originated the practice of marking its winery entrance with balloons to signify that the winery was open, and visitors were welcome.  In the years that followed, the practice became so common that even wineries with aggressive tasting room programs and up-scale signage felt it necessary to put balloons on the highway lest the absence of balloons be misconstrued as a signal for being closed!  When asked about the new regulations licensing balloons, the HF remarked ruefully, “It was a whimsical time when wineries didn’t take themselves so seriously.  Balloons were a first for the Casa, but balloon licensing is a first of Napa County!”

Tasting Notes and Availability News

We have a new release and a few sold out selections.  The 1999 Tinto is a friendly wine, which became even friendlier with timely bottling.  The result is a wine full of spice and bright cherry flavors, and enough structure to pair with holiday ham.  There are only a few cases left of the 1999 Dry Chenin Blanc and the 1999 Reserve Chenin Blanc.  The former is crisp with wonderful aromas of peach and pineapple.  The Reserve is developing nicely in the bottle, with aromas of toasty oak and apple.  It is a nice alternative to Chardonnay.  Both Chenins come in 375 ml bottles, convenient for first courses or picnics.  The 1997 Late Harvest Johannisberg Riesling has true balance of fruit, sweetness and alcohol without being cloying.  There is always an occasion for this fat-free treat.  The 1997 Cabernet Franc is a home run with a complexity that is uncommon to this variety.  This versatile wine is a burst of berries with a long finish.  Our full-bodied 1996 Cabernet Sauvignon is underpriced for Napa Valley Cabernet, chocolate and blackberry flavors predominate.  Our final offering is the 1997 Quixote.  The blend is 60% Merlot, 31% Cabernet Franc and 9% Cabernet Sauvignon.  The wine will please a variety of palates, making it a good choice for group events.  We have configured two sampler packs - a white and a red version.  The whites are in a 6 pack, because of the limited availability.  Unfortunately we are out of stock of the Chardonnay and the Johannisberg Riesling (off-dry style).