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Live! From the Napa Wine Auction


Well, actually from two days before the Napa auction. I’ve been here since Wednesday, visiting, tasting and learning at various wineries. Besides the auction itself, the big topic of conversation is the weather. As it was in May, so it is in June: wild and unpredictable, with rain always threatening. Except instead of being cold, it’s warm. Everybody’s got their own favorite weird analogy: it’s like Hawaii, like Florida, like the Midwest. Warm and humid.

Some winemakers told me that all the wet weather will make for a big crop this year, not such good news. But I walked Mount Veeder with Janet Myers, the winemaker from Mount Veeder Winery, and she explained to me that all the rain and coolness may also cause a number of the flowering buds on the winery to not pollinate themselves, which would limit yields. Besides, the potential number of buds in any given vintage is determined by last year’s weather, so I must admit to being a little confused as to whether or not lots of Spring rain means bigger crops, smaller crops, or neither. I’ve been reporting on crop yields long enough to remember all the years when the vintage was described as “surprisingly” heavy or light, so I guess Mother Nature ultimately remains unpredictable.

Mount Veeder is an awesome place. I first visited more than 20 years ago as the guest of Marketta and Jean-Noel du Formeaux, the proprietors of Chateau Potelle. Jean-Noel was a twinkle-in-the-eye guy who called himself Jonny Christmas. Marketta, his wife, was the talented winemaker. They had some great Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel, but I don’t think there’s much of either of those varieties left on Veeder, because Cabernet brings in so much more money. The steep, winding driveway to Chateau Potelle was unpaved in those days, and so pockmarked that Jonny Christmas called the winery “Chateau Pothole.” They left some years ago, to where I don’t know. Chateau Potelle now is owned by Jackson Family Wines, but I’ve heard nothing about it for some time. Maybe Jackson is recrafting the winery before relaunching. Just a guess.

In addition to tasting at Mount Veeder, I tasted at Francisan (both wineries are owned by Constellation), at Chimney Rock (Terlato) and at Trinchero Napa Valley. Although these are all largish winery companies, their management is wise enough to let their winemakers make some ultra-small production “club” wines, also available in the tasting rooms, that are pretty much as good as anything in Napa. These small-lot wines don’t make any money, and frequently cost the winery money, but they keep club members happy, and I suspect also that the owners want to know, and show, that they can produce something that competes at the very top quality levels. There are, of course, some owners of gigantic wine companies that appear to have no interest in making great wine, even though with all their money they could. And I have to wonder, why not? If you’re selling millions of cases, why not make a thousand or two thousand cases, or even a couple hundred cases, of really top stuff? I would; but then again, Fate hasn’t given me the opportunity to make those sorts of decisions.

Ate last night at GoFish, which has some pretty good sushi, and ran into Ehren Jordan, the owner of Failla and winemaker at Turley and another winery whose name escapes me. I put Ehren in my last book, New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff, and man oh man, has he been getting some good press ever since. I remarked on this and Ehren said shyly that he’s happy about his good fortune, but also is entirely content to remain hired by Turley and to keep Failla small. Ehren, to me, represents the best of California wine, a hard-working, self-made guy who succeeded the old fashioned way. With his own sweat equity, he carved the Failla vineyard out of the remote Sonoma Coast mountains, in some of the most inaccessible territory you can find, and then he proceeded to make impeccable wines. No hype, no spin, no P.R. necessary. Sure, he plays the game like most others, pouring at public events like World of Pinot Noir and sending samples out (although I don’t know to whom, other than me. Bloggers?) But Ehren is the kind of guy who will never sell out and dilute Failla down. At least, I hope not.

I must add this: In every conversation I’ve had here, the topic of social media arose: with winemakers, with marketing managers, with winery owners. Everybody is curious, fascinated, puzzled, more than a little confused, intimidated, unsure. I told everyone that nobody, anywhere, has a handle on this thing. Everybody is jumping in, not sure where they’ll land. It feels scary, but it also feels imperative. The one thing people know is that social media will cost them some money, and they don’t see how they’ll make any by being online. Not seeing a clean ROI is tough on the finance suits. Especially in Napa Valley.

Just in: Heat wave forecast for next week. First of the season. From winter to summer, with no spring. Weird.

  1. Janet is good peeps!

    Those trying to measure social media via traditional ROI are looking in the wrong places. There are now some fairly good models available to perform those measures…

  2. Dude you have many friends in Napa Valley.

  3. Richard says:

    I know I said I wouldn’t comment again – but I promise not to call anyone a wine snob today! Just to answer your question on Chateau Potelle – it used to be one of my favorite places to visit – sadly, the owners split; “Chateau Potelle” is still selling and producing because I get emails from them – don’t know if KJ bought the name or if it is still owned by “Chateau Potelle” but the emails are from the same marketing guy I met a CP many years ago. The wife, Marketta, started her own winery “Marketta Winery and Vineyard” I recall. Also think they own a winery in the Paso area? perhaps.

  4. I know that some years ago Jean-Noel and Marketta showed me their property in Paso Robles. It was a fine looking hill on the west side, and I believe they said they were going to make Zinfandel. I’m pretty familiar with Paso and have never heard a word since from them. Maybe they’re just flying below the radar.

  5. What Janet said. Mia Klein, of Selene Wines, always says that same thing:

    Fruitfullness in the current vintage is set by the previous spring’s weather. (So this years heavy spring rains will make for a potential big crop next vintage.)

    FYI, Napa did have late spring rains in 2009 which made for this year’s crop potential.

    Everyone we talk to says it looks like a big crop year, because they see the ‘potential’ from sets on the vine. But many haven’t flowered yet, or are in the process of flowering now.

    Jim Frediani of Frediani Vineyards in Calistoga (where Selene gets Merlot and Cab Franc), called Mia last Friday to say he saw some bloom in our Merlot block.

    Once bloom is done, as Janet said, you can see what berries set in the clusters. Then would be a good time to access the ‘crop vintage’.

    Until then, we’d like ‘even’ weather, since the vines don’t like this start and stop weather, not to mention rain during bloom!

    Enjoy your time in Napa!


  6. Ehren Jordan is also the winemaker at Neyers.

  7. JonEVino says:

    Welcome back to the ‘hood, Steve

  8. Regina Lutz says:

    Interesting that you mention Marketta Fourmeaux du Sartel…I met her for the first time at a lunch recently in downtown Napa. She told me she is still making wine and is now the owner/winemaker at Marketta Winery & Vineyards. Her email is or you can reach her at 707/226-5944. I’m sure she’d love to hear from you!

    Have fun at ANV…I think the weather is supposed to clear tomorrow and be really warm by Sunday.

  9. I for one, hope it will be a small vintage. We usually have had 2 months of sun by now…and nothing. There is only so much Calvin-Benson catching up the vines can do at this point…looks like it’s going to be another 1998.
    Do yourself a favour…visit a small winery, preferably in the Coombsville area (AVA petition pending – I live there so I am partial), like Black Cat Vineyards or Farella Vineyards…how Napa should be!

  10. Failla is Ehren’s wife’s maiden name 🙂

  11. It might be an interesting question to ask what percentage of the Mount Veeder fruit actually makes it into the Mount Veeder Winery wines, I notice it has a Napa Valley Appellation on the label…

  12. John, I don’t know the answer to your question. It may be a marketing decision, not a grape sourcing one. Sometimes the marketing dept. will say “Nobody ever heard of Mount Veeder, so we have to call it Napa Valley.”

  13. John, yes. Originally they were going to call the brand Failla-Jordan (or Jordan-Failla, I can’t remember) but the Jordan winery’s lawyers convinced them otherwise.

  14. Ehren Jordan consults when asked for Neyers, but he isn’t the winemaker for them anymore. It’s been almost 2 years.

  15. Maybe Ehren will read this and clue us in.

  16. Riccardo says:

    Good read Steve. Enjoyed hanging with you on Thurs.
    We’re tipping our toe into social media. It’s easy to start, but takes quite a bit of people power to make the social aspect truly work.

  17. TomHill says:

    They did, in fact, produce wine under the Failla-Jordan label for a number of yrs. Then TomJordan claimed they were diluting the fine reputation of JordanWnry. Yeah…for sure. Ehren did the smart thing and chose not to fight Jordan MegaCorp.
    I first met Ehren down at the first Raisen’Rhones (predecessor to Hospices du Rhone) some 15+ yrs ago. He was just making wine at Turley then. Absolutely a first-rate/stand-up guy. Every offering I get from Turley & Failla he pens in a “Cheers, Ehren” on the order form.
    Alas, Ehren’s winemaking style is somewhat tainted from the early style of Turley of high-alcohol/high-extract/high-oak that HelenTurley used to garner high scores from Parker. Since she left, Ehren has reigned in the Turley style (though not the alcohol levels as much) and make the wines more expressive of their terroir. But his (outstanding) Pinots and Syrahs are pretty much the antithesis of what HelenTurley makes.

  18. TomHill says:

    What I meant to say is the “perception” of EhrenJordan’s winemaking style.
    The Turley’s are much different in style from what HelenTurley was making. And the Failla’s are rather different in style from what he does w/ the Turleys.

  19. Tom, I’d say Ehren’s wines at Failla are waaay different from the Turley wines.

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