Monday, August 19, 2013

I Now Pronounce You Stolpman and...


Stolpman Vineyard Wines I’m Using to Write About Me
Stolpman Vineyards 2012  Rosé Santa Ynez Valley $16
Stolpman Vineyards 2012 Viognier Santa Ynez Valley $22
Stolpman Vineyards 2010 L’Avion Roussanne Santa Ynez Valley $38
Stolpman Vineyards 2011 Syrah Estate Grown Santa Ynez Valley $30
Stolpman Vineyards 2011 Syrah Originals Santa Ynez Valley $38
Stolpman Vineyards 2011 Angeli Santa Ynez Valley $68
Stolpman Vineyards 2009 Sangiovese Santa Ynez Valley $36
Stolpman Vineyards 2011 La Cuadrilla Santa Ynez Valley $22

Working as a sommelier is more about handling customers and awkward restaurant situations than it is about selecting the wines for the list and successfully selling them. Assembling a couple of hundred wines from the tens of thousands available isn’t really that challenging. However, there’s a reason so many wine lists seem random—they are. Thoughtfully conceived wine lists are rare, and there are lots of reasons for that. In a restaurant that’s been around awhile but is struggling to stay open, the list is often made up of wines from suppliers to whom the restaurant doesn’t owe any money yet. I smell those lists all the time when I’m dining out. Also, these days, it’s often the case that the sommelier takes himself too seriously and sees the list as a way to educate people to his own palate, teach them the wonders of natural wines, of wines from obscure regions, or of wines made from grape varieties that score a lot of points in Scrabble. I’ve often laughed out loud at that sort of pretentious and self-glamorizing wine list. Yet the real challenge of being a sommelier is dealing with the unexpected. An M.S. exam cannot teach any of that.

Richard Thomas, the actor who’s had the “John-Boy from ‘The Waltons’” albatross around his neck forever, was a regular customer of mine. He’s knowledgeable about wine, and always ordered something good with his meal. One night, he was dining with his wife and another couple, and he ordered a bottle of red and a bottle of white for the table. It was an especially busy evening, but I opened his wines promptly, and he asked for an ice bucket for the white. I collared the brand new busboy in the service station and told him, “Will you please put the white wine in an ice bucket for table 152?”

About ten minutes later I was walking near Thomas’ table and I noticed he was waving frantically for my attention. Normally quite pleasant, he could be a handful, so I was a bit nervous. “Yes, Mr. Thomas,” I asked, “what can I do for you?”

“You can pour me some more white wine.”

“Certainly.” But the wine bottle wasn’t in the ice bucket. “Do you need another bottle?” I asked, though I couldn’t imagine they’d killed the first bottle.

And then I noticed.

“Oh no, don’t tell me…” The new busboy, taking my instruction a bit too literally, had put the bucket of ice next to table 152, picked up the expensive bottle of Chardonnay, and, quite seriously and ceremoniously, emptied the rest of the bottle into the ice. I laughed, but no one at the table seemed to think it was funny. Then I walked over to the service station and grabbed an empty wine glass. I set the glass on Thomas’ table, picked up the ice bucket, and, holding back the ice with a napkin in my hand, I poured myself a nice glass of Chardonnay. I swirled it, took a sip, and proclaimed, “It smells like peaches, a bit of pineapple, and an unemployed busboy.” Everyone laughed, and, of course, the wines were on the house that night. And John-Boy didn’t tear me a new one.

I have no idea why Stolpman Vineyards’ wines made me think of that story. Except another thing that happens to sommeliers that we have to deal with diplomatically--the customer who one day says, “You know, I just released my first wine and I’d like you to taste it.” It’s equivalent to a customer saying, “I’ve taken on dentistry as a hobby and I’d like to give you a free root canal.”

Tom Stolpman was a very regular and valued customer at Pacific Dining Car, an attorney with his name on the door at a prestigious law firm in Long Beach. The restaurant was crawling with attorneys. Really didn’t matter how often we sprayed. I had known that Tom had purchased a big hunk of land in Santa Ynez Valley and was growing grapes. He’d been selling his fruit, but it seemed he had started his own label as well. And he wanted me to try the wines, and, “if I liked them,” put them on the wine list. A customer of his stature, it didn’t matter “if I liked them,” they could taste like Paula Deen’s toilet donut and I’d buy them. Luckily, the wines were pretty good (not nearly as good as they are now). Not great, but fine. I have no idea who made those original bottlings, it was pre-Sashi Moorman (maybe Peter Stolpman can chime in here and tell me), but I agreed to serve them by-the-glass, knowing full-well Tom Stolpman’s lawyer colleagues would gladly buy them if only to give him a hard time. And so I believe I was one of the first sommeliers to buy Stolpman wines, if only to have them judged by a jury of his peers.

Peter Stolpman, Tom’s son, offered to send me a selection of Stolpman wines for my enjoyment.  (I just checked the Stolpman website and it seems Peter just got married on July 27th! Wow, congratulations, Peter! The HoseMaster wishes you and your gorgeous bride health, happiness and boundless good luck. I’m pretty sure my invitation was intercepted by the NSA.) Seems Peter reads my humble blog, likes it (one of my valued eleven readers), and is just reckless enough to take the chance I’ll write about the wines in a favorable light, though that was never part of the deal. So why not? Just looking at the Stolpman name on each bottle triggered an avalanche of memories for me. Well, in my case, maybe mudslide is a better metaphor.

The fun of writing these occasional wine reviews is in seeing and tasting a lineup of wines from a single producer, and having the luxury of sitting with each through a meal. It’s really interesting to see if there are more hits than misses in the winery’s portfolio, taste what their strengths and weaknesses are, get a sense of their house style. I think I know how hard wineries work at their wines, so I try to pay attention to each wine, and to each wine as it relates to the other wines under the same label. After tasting through all the new Stolpman Vineyards wines Peter sent me, I ended up impressed with nearly all of them.

I won’t spend a lot of time talking about the Stolpman 2012 Rosé because it’s rosé. I hate when folks overanalyze rosé. That completely destroys the fun of it. It’s like overanalyzing The 3 Stooges—they’re funny to you, or they’re not. Don’t get all Pauline Kael on me. The Stolpman Rosé, of Grenache and Sangiovese, is delicious, almost savory. With seared Ahi (remember the 3 Stooges bit with the maharajah? “Oh, Maha?” “Aha?” We imitated that a lot as kids), it was quite lovely. It has just what I want out of rosé—it’s clean and refreshing and yummy. I've had a ridiculous number of really lousy California Rosés, most of them stupidly overpriced. So if you love rosé, buy the Stolpman. It's gorgeous.

Are you like me? Do you get scared when you see Viognier on a label of California wine? I always think, “What the hell is this wine going to taste like?” Viognier has run its course as the fashionable wine of sommeliers (What is that white wine now? Grenache Blanc? Ribolla Gialla?), and, while it can be awfully pretty, it seems sort of dead in the water to me--the Natalie Wood of grapes. The Stolpman 2012 Viognier didn’t win me over. It has some nice Viognier varietal character, peach and apricot, but I found the texture rather unappealing, and the finish struck me as slightly, and unappealingly, bitter. That can be Viognier, too, but this wine seemed very disjointed to me. It’s quaffable, but I don’t think it wins Viognier any new friends.

I can still remember the first truly great Roussanne I ever tasted. It ranks as one of my wine (Oh, Maha?) Aha moments. I attended a fancy release luncheon thrown by Chateau Beaucastel for the wine trade, this must have been early ‘90’s. As we arrived for the luncheon, we were handed a glass of white wine, the first release of Beaucastel’s now legendary bottling, their Roussanne “Vieilles Vignes.” I was floored. This wasn’t just the best Roussanne I’d ever tasted, it was one of the best white wines I’d ever tasted. The Roussanne ended up being the talk of the luncheon, overshadowing the amazing Chateauneuf-du-Papes they were pouring, which is no small accomplishment. It’s been a while since I last tasted Beaucastel’s Roussanne “Vieilles Vignes,” but if you ever get the chance, it is worth going out of your way to taste it.

Now, Stolpman 2010 “L’Avion” Roussanne is, after all that, damned good. It’s about as ripe as you can get, yet it has tremendous energy. Roussanne has a tendency to flabbiness (takes one to know one), but the Stolpman, while fleshy and concentrated, never comes off that way. It’s so perfectly Roussanne, honeyed and spicy, and it has wonderful length. I always think of Marsanne as a superior variety (for no apparent reason), but the “L’Avion” is superb, and a fine example of Roussanne, of how wonderful a wine it can make if handled properly. This wine has precision and energy. How does one define “energy” in wine? To me, it’s a quality of persistence on the palate, the brightness of the fruit reappearing with every sip, the vividness of the flavors lingering long after you’ve swallowed, a feeling that the wine isn’t just laying there like a bad date. Really terrific Roussanne.

California Sangiovese may be the red Viognier. I’d hate to think that anyone forms an impression of either of those two varieties based solely on wines from California. Fine examples do exist, I’m thinking Alban Viognier and Noceto Sangiovese (and the tiny production Villa Ragazzi Sangiovese), but they are fewer and farther between than the teeth of a crack addict. The Stolpman 2009 Sangiovese would have fooled me in a blind tasting, or a bland tasting, for that matter. It certainly didn’t remind me of Sangiovese. It came off as overblown, and seemed very manipulated, like a Real Housewives reality show. I wanted to like the wine, but, while it might be a nice red wine, it didn’t ring the Sangiovese bell for me. In a weird way, it seemed like an Italian wine trying to be more like a California wine, and failing. Yeah, I know, I don’t know what that means either. In the case of this wine, I think it’s about personal preference. I suspect others will like this Sangiovese far more than I did.

The Stolpman 2011 La Cuadrilla is a wine you should buy for a number of reasons, not the least of which
And a cool label, too!
is it's delicious. Better yet, profits from the wine go to the vineyard workers at Stolpman as their year end bonus, an idea I love, and a wonderfully classy gesture on the part of the Stolpmans. The blend is Sangiovese, Syrah and a splash of Grenache, and it drinks like a cross between Cotes du Rhone and a simple Italian red quaffer, a little Sangiovese from Umbria perhaps. It has the nice dried cherry character of Sangiovese, and lots of pretty herbal notes as well, lavender and sage, almost that garrigue quality you find in the Cotes du Rhone. Very bright and very fresh, it's lighthearted wine, one you just want to sit around and drink. And for a measly $22! There's just no reason not to drink a wine like this. And, for you liberals out there, a great way to feel better about yourself!

Peter sent me three different Syrahs under the Stolpman label, and I was impressed with each of them. The wines are all from the 2011 vintage, the kind of cool vintage that makes for the most interesting Syrah from Santa Ynez Valley, I think. When I was drinking the 2011 Stolpman Syrah Estate Grown I kept thinking, “What a nice bottle of Syrah.” It has lots of flavor interest, is keenly layered, and tastes like Syrah. I wish I thought that of more bottles of Syrah I taste. I very much liked the feel of the tannins in this wine. I wish I understood more about how tannins are structured in fine wines, how the kind of fine tannins in this bottle is achieved. It adds grace to the wine, which drinks very nicely now, but certainly promises to be much better in a year or two, and then age quite nicely.

But as good and as delightful as the Estate Grown is, the Stolpman 2011 Syrah Originals is a big step up. Made from the oldest vines on the Stolpman Estate, this wine shows the wonderful effect on Syrah in such a cool vintage from such a normally warm place. There’s a freshness here to the blackberry and white pepper fruit that makes your mouth water. It’s juicy, and it enlivens your palate. Absolutely classic Syrah, one that doesn’t try too hard, has pinpoint balance, and never wanders into jamminess. If I measured success by how fast I drank the bottle, here’s the winner. It’s funny, but even after seven years absent from the sommelier game, I often ask myself the question, “Would I buy this wine for my wine list?” Which is more pathetic than relevant. But the answer is, yes, unquestionably.

Finally, and don’t I make my wine reviews an ordeal, there is the breathtaking Stolpman 2011 Angeli. This is great wine, a description I use only rarely. I, somehow, had the sense to decant it, and even as I was pouring it into the decanter I was enamored of it. It is beautifully measured, spicy with underpinnings of herbs (a bit of whole cluster fermentation, I would guess), great breadth and depth, expansive and very elegant. It just drinks like everything went right in its production, from the acidity the vintage delivered, to the richness of the fruit, the graceful use of oak, and the talent of the winemaker. But you don’t think that when you drink it. You just think, yeah, this is really good. The finish, as with any great wine, is electrifying. You could take a sip, reread this ridiculously longwinded post, and still be able to taste it. If you love Syrah, you should spring for the 2011 Angeli. It’s worth every penny. 


Unknown said...


Thanks for reviewing the wines!

Before Sashi Moorman joined the team in 2001, winemakers including Rick Longoria and Bruno D'Alfonso made small lots for our then tiny Stolpman Vineyards label.

Our winery has grown as the vineyard has matured, and now Sashi takes about 85% of the crop for our winery. As we've learned about what varietals work best on our Limestone soils in Ballard Canyon, we've shifted our focus to Syrah (about 2/3 of our total plantings), Roussanne, and Grenache.

Because there was so little planted back when Dad started, he experimented with Bordeaux Varietals and Italians. We have no more Nebbiolo, which I'm sure you would have liked about as much as our Sangiovese.

We have one small block of Viognier that is used to co-ferment with Syrah, including the 2011 Estate Syrah you liked. We also use the Viognier to blend with declassified Roussanne.

Beaucastel VV is certainly the world-wide benchmark for 100% Roussanne wines. Many of our cuttings come from those very vines sourced through Tablas Creek back in the 90s. In a location with 4-5% harvest time humidity, virtually no harvest rain (knock on wood), and high winds to blow off any mold, we think the late-ripening Roussanne gives us a very unique opportunity to make a monocepage. Throw in limestone soils to retain acidity and a full-time crew that can coddle the clusters and make multiple picking passes, and I agree with you, we have an exciting hit on our hands with L'Avion.

Market be damned, we'll continue with our "Battle for Syrah". The treasury dept approved the Ballard Canyon AVA and we are now awaiting publishing by the TTB, hopefully this will help consumers identify a place in the New World focusing on Syrah, Roussanne, and Grenache!

Thanks again,


Ron Washam, HMW said...

Hi Peter,
Rick Longoria seems like the name I remember from those early days. Thanks for providing that info.

I'm not sure anyone has a good explanation for why Syrah struggles at the consumer level. Zin has its own fan club and consumer events, crummy old Petite Sirah has a fan club and hosts an annual tasting (sorry, Jo Diaz, I just can't embrace Petite Sirah as a grape to celebrate), while Syrah is just one of the Mousketeers in the Rhone Rangers.

Is there a Syrah fan club I don't know about? Maybe you should start one, Peter. Syrah Advocates and Producers won't work, but I'm sure we can come up with a name. I'd certainly go to an all-Syrah tasting. At least it wouldn't be crowded.

Thank you for chiming in, Peter. It was a joy to be able to taste through so much of your lineup. Say Hi to your Dad for me.

Charlie Olken said...

Syrah can be a challenge in CA, but Pete and Sashi and Ballard Canyon seem to have mastered it.

One of the difficulties in doing wine reviews your way, as opposed to my way, is that superlatives are more or less equal, and yet some of these wines are so more than equal when it comes to their peers that I find myself wishing for the million-point scale here.

Unknown said...

Hosemaster, I am reminded of when Charles Barkeley announced that he might run for office in Alabama as a republican. Dan Quayle said he would be happy to ampaign for or against him...whatever would help the most.

Are you sure that your endorsement of their wines hasn t set them back ten years??

We at Uvaggio made some great nebbiolo from the Stolpman vineyards...If you think Syrah is hard to sell......Happy to share some with you some day.

One of the top guys at Delicato told me that they thought syrah was a great bet for the future...easy to pronounce and a style perfect for the way Americans eat and drink...Oops!

An English wine merchant friend thinks that behind every sale is a big argument. Pinot Noir's argument took 20 years plus to make. Cabernet made its argument in 1976 in Paris.

People just thought syrah was a natural and left it at that.

American syrah has to make its argument. Rhone Rangers and Hospices de Rhone exist but more is required.

The quality is there. I have tasted "Marcel Guigal get a day job' wines.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

These "Wine Essays" are basically just self-indulgent and not meant to "guide" folks to what wines to buy for their own enjoyment. And when I drink the wines, I certainly don't do it under any kind of controlled or objective circumstances. So why post ratings? I'll leave that to the Poodles.

When I started doing these, I just wanted to spend a few hours writing about wine rather than just write inane jokes. When some nice folks sent me wine, I liked the format of being able to talk about my experiences in the context of a winery. They're way too long, but I seem to have a nasty case of logorrhea when I talk about wine. Does Preparation H help with that?

Oh, well, there's the old, and true, show biz axiom, "It doesn't matter what they say about you as long as they talk about you, and spell your name right."

As for Uvaggio Nebbiolo, didn't he play for the San Antonio Spurs?

Thomas said...

"Oh, well, there's the old, and true, show biz axiom, 'It doesn't matter what they say about you as long as they talk about you, and spell your name right.'"

Is that supposed to apply to the failure or the success of Sirah. Syrah, Shiraz, Petit whatever???

Unknown said...

Uvaggio Nebbiolo played for the Tottenham Hotspurs.

Thomas said...


That would be "Blend Nebbiolo," no?

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Good point. Maybe Syrah's failure has to do with the inability of even the people who hate it to know how to spell it correctly. Syrah needs a better agent.

I was thinking Spurs because I always considered Nebbiolo one of the Ginobili grapes, like Cabernet and Syrah.

Oh Manu, that's a stupid joke.

Unknown said...

Hose, I was lucky enough to be at a winemaker dinner with Stolpman recently, so I really appreciate this article. I don't have a sophisticated palate like yours, but I came away remembering the Rousanne was a total, positive surprise (not a varietal I usually drink). And the L'Avion was a world class Syrah. Absolutely fantastic for it's depth and drinkability.

As a consumer and not a 'wine pro', I don't drink more Syrah only because I'm not willing to wade through the mediocre to find the high quality I can afford.

Steve Pinzon

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Hey Steve,
Oh, man, some day I'm going to have to write a piece about shit that happened at winemaker dinners I put on. Thanks for reminding me.

Roussanne is a tough variety. It seems as though getting the fruit in balance in the vineyard is difficult, which translates into weird wines in the bottle (I'm no winemaker, but I play one on TV). But the L'Avion is really good and interesting and shows that Stolpman may be on the right track there in Ballard Canyon. And, yes, the '11 Angeli is really impressive Syrah.

As to Syrah, well, there is just as much mediocre Pinot Noir and Cabernet to wade through, so I don't understand the difference. And they usually cost a lot more. Same for Zin and Petite Shirazalamadingdong. All varieties have oceans of mediocre examples. Yet, of all the best grapes, it's Syrah that has fallen to the bottom.

It reminds me of when a restaurant closes and people say, "Oh, I loved that place." Yeah, but it closed because you never went there. People say, "I like good Syrah." Yeah, but you never go there.

Unknown said...

Since we've started a discussion about why Syrah is a battle, I think we have to look at the historical perspective. The English carted Bordeuax by the boatload back to London and even today, it is the darling of the international market. A couple years ago, the current somm at Ron's beloved Pacific Dining car showed me a wine list from 1985 when the one lone Cote Rotie was listed in the Burgundy section. Yes, the modern wine market thought that Syrah's coming of age would occur 20 years ago. But I suspect this "market forecast" was driven by commercial farmers who had realized that Syrah will give a merchantable crop pretty much anywhere due to its heartiness as a vine.
This resiliency provides yet another challenge. I'm honored that Ron thinks Estate Syrah "tastes like Syrah", but I'm sure at least 6 of the other 10 readers wondered, "but what is Syrah supposed to taste like?" Down here, Andrew Murray said it best, "Syrah is the chameleon of grapes." Perhaps even more so than Garnacha v. Grenache, Shiraz and Syrah vary so much in style from Outback Shiraz to Northern Rhone Syrah.
The Australians actually 'got' this part right, and the strynized spelling of the varietal allowed them to put a stylistic stamp on their product. Mother nature; winemakers pushing the style too far for international taste; mining-driven increases in currency value; and a flood of cheap, mass produced wines all combined to end the parade.
Now with Ballard Canyon AVA coming on board with about the same planted acreage as Cote Rotie, I hope to give a new "place" for consumers to understand Syrah, hopefully at a more reasonable price point.

Unknown said...

Hosemaster, these discussions about selling syrah etc can go on forever.

Let's hear some good winemaker dinner stories.

Unknown said...

Ron, I love the blog, and being reminded of the many "meetings" at the Dining Car, as well as the great food and wines. Although Michael Bonacorsi at Spago beat you to the punch with having our wines on his list, you were one of the earliest supporters of our wines, and I will always be thankful to you (and your customers, who actually purchased the wine)!
A little historical perspective: From 1994 to 1996 Rick Longoria and Daniel Gehrs were purchasing fruit from Stolpman, and made a few barrels of Stolpman Cab Fran, Merlot, and a blend for my cellar. In 1996 and 1997 Brian Babcock did the same with a barrel of Savgiovese. In 1998 and 1999, Bruno D'Alfonso made the Sangiovese, while in 1997, Craig MacMillan became our winemaker as we produced a blend, a Reserve Cabernet Franc and a Reserve Merlot. Craig Jaffurs made a few barrels of Reserve Syrah in 1998. In 2001 Craig left and Sashi took the reins, blending the wines made by Craig and Bruno and then made the wines from 2001 onward.
BTW, I hope that some day you grow to appreciate Sangiovese--many Italophiles on the East Coast have said they think the Stolpman Estate Grown Sangiovese is the best wine made from that grape outside of Italy--I, of course, agree, but my name is on the label!

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Luckily for my crappy reputation, I didn't start as sommelier at PDC until 1987. Everyone knows Cote-Rotie is in the Loire.

Historically, of course, there simply was a lot of Bordeaux to ship to England, and a convenient port to ship it from, while there has never been that much Syrah from the Northern Rhone. Cabernet is also the luckiest grape.

I was going to say your Syrah tasted like typical California Pinot Noir, so a lot of typical Syrah character. But I thought better of it.

Most grapes vary quite a bit, not just Syrah. Do a few wine competitions and you'll find out. I do think you should spearhead the Syrah movement, Peter. You're articulate and passionate. I'm thinking Syrah Traditionalists and Diehards. Catch a nice STD! Could work. Come to our tasting, Wear a condom!

Like the time Joe Heitz told my best customer's wife to, "Shut the hell up." Yeah, I'll have to tell some soon...

Damn Bonnacorsi! Always one step ahead of the dumb guy downtown. It was a privilege to be one of the first to sell your wines, and always a pleasure to see you at PDC. You're one of the good guys.

Thanks for the clarification. Man, you had a lot of guys wandering through your place. But you sure ended up with a good guy.

It's not that I didn't like the Sangiovese, it's more that I just didn't get it. There's a difference, to me. Sangiovese is such a great grape, and one I love, but it may vary even more than Syrah, even on Peter's scale.

Thank you so much for chiming in, Tom! Making me look good!

The Sommeliere said...

Ron, your reference to Viognier reminded me of an incident when I was a somm. A big, beefy guy ordered a bottle of pricy Cab and then said, "and bring a bottle of that
'Vee-og-nyer' for the little lady."

The white wines were listed separately from the reds, so it was easy for him to pick out a white. I guess he thought that only women drank white wine...

Samantha Dugan said...

Hey Pete,
Um,that's alright I didn't wanna taste your stinky wine anyways. (I do believe you remember my meanie face, well I am shooting it your way now). That being said I wish to extend a heartfelt congratulations to you and Jessica on your recent nuptials, very happy for you both.

Ron My Love,
Never wanted to taste things as badly as when you write them for me...okay maybe it's not FOR me but a girl can dream. Lovely work and I love you so.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

I worked with a woman who, no matter how many times I corrected her, always pronounced it vee-own-a. Who names these stupid grapes anyway? Can we blame Jancis Robinson?

My Gorgeous Samantha,
At this point, I often think, "Well, this is good, but Samantha would hate it." I'm probably wrong, but in that sense, I do write some of this for you. I think you'd love their little Rose. Make someone taste you on it. And La Cuadrilla might be right up your alley too. Which is a nice place to be, I'm guessing.

I love you!

Thomas said...


You should hear what people used to call Vignoles!

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Vignoles? Isn't that what you shout at a bullfight if you're holding a glass of wine?

Or are those the little growths on my bung?

Who names these stupid grapes?

Thomas said...


In Southern Italian dialect it's called "vongool".