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Cuvaison looks at 50

October 29, 2018

Cuvaison Winery celebrates 50 years in 2019.

In 2019, Napa Valley vintner Cuvaison Winery will celebrate 50 years in the California wine industry. We’ve asked winemaker Steve Rogstad to look back – and forward – on the award-winning winery’s past, present and future.

 

I was 8 years old in 1969 and living in North Dakota. Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and the Vietnam War was on the television, like, every day. My sister and I liked a show called Dark Shadows about vampires in Maine. My brothers listened to Frank Zappa at high volume and giggled a lot.

Apparently, the 1969 vintage in Napa was stellar and I’ve even heard that the 1969 Chappellet Cabernet Sauvignon, made by eventual Cuvaison winemaker Philip Togni, was the greatest Napa wine ever made.

Cuvaison was founded in the same vintage year, and one could expect a terrific season with the opportunity to craft some beautiful wines.

There were only 20-some bonded wineries back then, no general consensus on what varieties to plant and grow and no real market of any note for the wines. Trained professionals were hard to come by so everyone was looking to the University of California-Davis and the handful of successful wineries for guidance and advice, making the industry more collegial than perhaps it is today. I experienced that to a large degree when I began in the wine industry and producers of Pinot Noir in particular were all pulling together to better their vineyards and wines.

Winemaker Steve Rogstad

Back then, Cuvaison was still in its infancy and experimental stage. We were making Napa Gamay and Grey Riesling, and trying to find our voice. That would happen with Cabernet Sauvignon in the mid-1970s, but truly with Chardonnay, and with the founding of the Cuvaison Estate Vineyard in Los Carneros in 1979.

Napa old timers have told me that you couldn’t dine in your backyard on a summer evening without a warm jacket, and perhaps that is less true today. In my own experience the seasons seem more variable then when I started making wines 25 years ago.

The cold vintages can be quite cool, and the hot ones seem warmer, with more heat spikes. I would also say that Napa is far more Cab-centric than it was back then, and Cabernet Sauvignon is a late ripening variety. Stylistically, wineries are often harvesting at higher sugar levels than in the 1960s, so there’s a longer hang-time, but with likely lower yields than were averaged back then, which would help offset the longer ripening.

What’s ahead? I am a climate-change believer and, for me, the first real difference is that the winters are warmer and the vines come out of dormancy earlier, which shifts the whole growing season forward in the calendar. This has been true the previous five vintages and would have held true this year if we hadn’t shifted into a cold spring and our first generally cool vintage since 2012.

If the Pacific starts to warm off the California coast, we will have warmer seasons on average in Napa, which will still be quite suitable for Cabernet Sauvignon, but perhaps more challenging for Burgundian varieties 50 years hence. If the sea warms it will likely be wetter as well, which creates its own impacts.

One caveat is that the engine that cools Napa in the summer is the lifting of hot air in the central valley. As these thermals increase in strength or frequency, they will pull cool air off the Pacific and across the region. The biggest offset to this are high pressure systems that build over the desert southwest, funneling hot air eastward across the state and pushing the cool marine layer back out to sea.

I would guess the seasonal swings of these two climatic features will intensify and we will have seasons that are much bumpier weather-wise, and maybe not so boring. The old joke about California was that we didn’t have vintages like those in Europe because the weather was so benign. But now it feels like more of a roller coaster ride, and knowing your vintages will be more important to wine consumers in the future.

The business of growing grapes is becoming ever more technical with shade cloths of differing colors, micro-misters and emitters, and individual sensors for vines. As technologies like robotics, drones and AI continue to gain traction, the farming will be ever more responsive to the changing environment.

In 50 years I’ll be walking on the moon with all the old dogs that passed before me, but I believe the primary wines of Napa – Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux blends – will still rule the valley.

 

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‘Something Rotten!’ is definitely not that

October 10, 2018

Shakespeare (Matthew Baker) basks in the adoration of the masses in “Something Rotten!”

You don’t need to be a Shakespeare scholar or a musical theater devotee to enjoy Something Rotten!, the first production of Overture Center for the Arts’ Broadway Across America season of traveling musicals. But being either or both does help. A lot.

The show, which takes place during the English Renaissance in the wake of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet opening night, is rich with allusions to the Bard as well as references to musical theater. The more of those references you recognize, it seemed from the audience’s response, the more fun you’re going to have. The show is hysterically funny.

Specifically, the story centers on theatrical producer Nick Bottom (Matthew Michael Janisse) and his younger brother Nigel (Richard Spitaletta), who is a poet writing in the style of Shakespeare’s sonnets. However, the pair has achieved nowhere near the fan base of Shakespeare (a hysterical Matthew Baker), who is treated like the rock star of the age. The question for the Bottom brothers is how to follow Shakespeare’s act?

Nick takes all the money he and his wife Bea (Emily Kristen Morris) have saved for a cottage in the country and hires the nephew of the visionary Nostradamus named Thomas (an equally hysterical Greg Kalafatas) – yes, Thomas Nostradamus – to look into the future and foretell what would be Shakespeare’s most famous play. The slightly skewed seer comes up with Omelet.

But Thomas also predicts that the next big trend in theater will be the musical. Armed with that information, Nick and Nigel set out to create a musical version of Omelet.

You see where this is going, right?

Despite the fact that some of the humor is sophomoric and a little crude, Something Rotten! takes off at lightening speed with jokes, musical numbers and colorful characters that make the production a first class theatrical romp.

There is mass tap dancing, kick lines and a chorus of characters dressed as dancing eggs. It’s hard to believe that something basically this dumb can also be so much fun. But Something Rotten! is just that, proving to be an evening of theater well spent.

Tasting Tuscany

September 21, 2018

The Nipozzano vineyards produce one of Tuscany’s leading chiantis.

One of the best things about visiting Italy is sampling local foods and wines. But we can’t always visit when we want.

If we find ourselves aching for an Adriatic view from Venice’s Piazza San Marco or suffering an uncontrollable urge for Umbria, we know our next best thing is to bring the food and, especially, the wine to us so that we can travel vicariously.

We decided this year when those feelings hit that it was time to taste a little Tuscany. Three wines stood out from the list of many that made it to our table.

The Frescobaldi Pomino Bianco 2016 ($30) is the equivalent of a California Chardonnay – with small amounts of Pinot Bianco – aged in stainless steel. While the debate still rages over oaked versus un-oaked Chards, this wine slips quietly and comfortably onto the scene. It floral and fruity aromas give way to a palate of tropical flavors with a hint of apricot and raspberry aftertaste. It’s overall impression is bright, light and refreshing, and that’s enough for most of us.

A chianti well worth a pour.

Frescobaldi also delivers one of the best chiantis we’ve ever had. The Nipozzano Vecchie Viti 2013 ($30), blended primarily from Sangiovese with complimentary red varietals, spent 24 months in large oak barrels prior to bottling, and the wood’s influence shows in both the wine’s refinement and fullness. Expect a nose of spice and coffee leading to a well-balanced palate of raspberries, licorice and juniper berries, along with well-managed tannins and a smooth, lingering finish.

The best of the trio by far was the 2015 Lucente ($30). The wine is built on a blend of Merlot and Sangiovese cultivated under almost ideal growing conditions. Lucente has a subtle nose of dark fruits with a touch of spice, and a palate almost silky in texture. The varietal flavors come through in a way that creates an overall flavor profile greater than the sum of its parts, yet the wine remains light and palatable, with a gentle mouthfeel and a long, lingering finish.

This was a vicarious trip well taken, and one that will lead us back to Tuscany sooner rather than later.

APT’s ‘Heartbreak House’ hits a bullseye

September 15, 2018

Actors Tracy Michelle Arnold, Jonathan Smoots and Jim DeVita breath humorous life into APT’s ‘Heartbreak House.’

American Players Theatre, the classical company that has put Spring Green, Wisconsin, on the national theatrical map, is never better than when it aligns it’s A-list performers with an ensemble piece worthy of their talent. This season, that production is George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House.

Or, if you prefer the full title, Heartbreak House: A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes. The play is Shaw’s homage to Russian playwright Anton Chekov who is, in fact, mentioned in the play’s preface along with a nod to his well-known work The Cherry Orchard.

 Even with as much as an hour of time and two full characters trimmed from director Aaron Posner’s adapted APT version, the play clocks in at just under three hours with its thorny tale of the idle rich holed up in a country manor. The narrative meanders a bit, appears at times to lack a purpose, and in the end resolves little for the quirky, colorful Hushabye family. But the work, shot through with expected Shavian wit and social commentary, has a grand time uncovering just who the characters are and aren’t.

The action follows young Ellie Dunn (Phoebe Gonzalez) and her matrimonial indecisions. As a guest in the house, she encounters patriarch Captain Shotover (Jonathan Smoots), his Bohemian daughter Hesione (Tracy Michelle Arnold), her philandering husband Hector (Jim DeVita) and Nurse Guinness (Sarah Day) who flits in and out and calls almost everyone “Ducky” at one point or another.

Enter Hesione’s uptight, straitlaced sister Lady Ariadne Utterword (Colleen Madden), Ellie’s father Mazzini Dunn (Tim Gittings) and nouveau riche industrialist Boss Mangan (John Taylor Phillips). With the exception of her father, Ellie’s matrimonial designs at one time or other include every male in the play. The expected confusion, humor and general chaos ensue, often to hilarious effect.

Kudos to scenic designer Andrew Boyce and costume designer Rachel Laritz for creating a colorful and detailed world worthy of Shaw’s musings and the actors’ performance. Even the trees behind the stage are put to good use during the play’s climax thanks to lighting designer Michael A. Peterson.

But, as mentioned, the real joy comes in watching the veteran cast members inhabit their characters both inside and out. It has been said of jazz trumpeter Miles Davis that his genius lay in his ability to “play” the space between the notes. So, too, with the APT cast. Arnold, DeVita and Madden are especially adept at telling their characters’ stories between the lines of dialogue, and some of the production’s greatest delights come in watching the gestures and facial expressions that add layers of nuance to each of their characters.

But Posner draws strong performances from his entire cast, their range limited only by Shaw’s somewhat humdrum narrative. As a rule, an APT cast easily rises to and often beyond the limits of its source material. Heartbreak House exemplifies that ability in delightful ways.

Heartbreak House runs through Oct. 5 at APT’s Hill Theatre. Details: americanplayers.org.

Elegant reds make fine grilling wines

August 1, 2018

Bonterra Vineyard’s Jeff Cichocki produces fine wines from organic grapes.

If you enjoy tenderloin with a side of asparagus — both cross-hatched with grill marks — then you may be a connoisseur of the coals, deserving of an accompanying beverage more sophisticated than just another chilled longneck.

High-quality wines that pair well with food indoors do equally well on the patio. So, consider ditching the wine coolers and White Zin and celebrating the summer season with some first-class reds.

There are many to choose from, but here are some newer releases that could turn your casual cookout into a memorable meal.

Napa Valley’s Beaulieu Vineyard offers two relatively new releases that pair well with a hearty tenderloin. The 2014 Tapestry Reserve Red Wine blends Cabernet Sauvignon (76%), Merlot (13%), Petit Verdot (5%), Malbec (4%) and Cabernet Franc (2%) for a full-bodied, well-structured wine redolent of blackberry, plum, cherry and cassis to the palate.

Tapestry’s sister wine, the 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford Napa Valley, is even more intense, offering dark fruit flavors and vanilla overtones from its 15 months in oak, which helps enhance the wine’s balanced acidity and layers of complexity.

California’s Ravage Wines – they’re the ones with an illustration of feuding knights clashing violently on the label – sets the stage for big bold and perhaps rough-edged wine to collide with your palate. But with the 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon winemaker Bryce Willingham has taken her blend of Cab (78%), Merlot (9%), Petite Syrah (5%), Zinfandel (5%) and a few other reds and created full-bodied, yet almost silky wine that caresses more than collides. Expect it to stand up to your favorite grilled meats while rewarding your palate with  lingering finish that invites another swallow.

Old World wines fit the bill just as well or better than New World ones, and Château Haut Breton Larigaudière from France’s Margaux region does a better job than many. With a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (85%), Merlot (11%) and Petit Verdot (4%), the wine pours a bright ruby red, with both a nose and palate redolent of red fruits and vanilla from its 15 months of barrel aging.

Zinfandel has always been a great grilling wine, largely for its robust flavor profile and rustic nature. Ravenswood has always been a top producer of some of the market’s better Zins, and three recently released single-vineyard wines have risen to some of our favorites.

The Ravenswood Tedeschi Zinfandel pours an inky black, with flavors of dark fruits, dark chocolate and black licorice. The Ravenswood Big River Zinfandel is juicy, jammy and everything you’d expect from a big red wine. But the Ravenswood Belloni Zinfandel adds an even greater depth of fruit along with a brambly, spicy nature you otherwise might not expect.

More and more wineries are going natural, with sustainable growth and production processes and organic fruit that captures the essence of the grapes while returning more to the land. Bonterra Organic Vineyards in California’s Mendocino County is leading this charge, and a recent spate of wines attest to winemaker Jeff Cichocki’s growing success.

Begin with the 2016 Bonterra Pinot Noir, with notes of raspberry and strawberry released as the wine hits the glass. The fruit, along with spice and vanilla from its French oak aging, give way to a pleasant mouthfeel and a lingering finish.

The 2016 Bonterra Cabernet Sauvignon benefits from the inclusion of small amounts of unidentified varietals, which add to the cherry-currant nose. Expect a well-structured palate of red fruits, toasted oak, hints of vanilla and well-structured tannins, which add to the long finish.

The 2016 Bonterra Equinox Red leans heavily on the vineyard’s Merlot grapes, its elegant structure augmented by Petit Sirah, which adds a rich, robust quality to the wine. The wine offers an intriguing blend of red and black fruits and spice for a wine that fully measures up to whatever red meat you choose to grill.

Order up! ‘Waitress’ is a hit!

July 26, 2018

 

Desi Oakley bakes up the drama in ‘Waitress.’

Broadway musicals in recent years have the tendency to feed off a standard template, and Waitress, which opened at Madison’s Overture Center this week, follows much the same recipe:

Take a plucky heroine with a menial job, a bad marriage and facing a life-changing situation. Stir in the requisite oddball casting ingredients – a ditzy plain-Jane nerd; a sassy, brassy babe with a heart of gold; a domineering, belligerent, inbred husband; and an unassuming, hesitating physician who holds the key to the heroine’s freedom. Oh, and don’t forget the surprise guardian angel!

Shake vigorously with a follow-your-dreams narrative and season well with an unusual pie-making capability that sets the heroine apart from her more ordinary friends. Serve piping hot and wait for the laughter and tears.

Waitress has all that, and more. Director Diane Paulus has chosen her top-notch cast carefully and whipped her team to a gallop from the very start of the almost three-hour (with intermission) production. The energy never flags and the laughter is only interrupted by poignant moments that advance book writer Jessie Nelson’s narrative and help us understand exactly why life for Jenna – a dynamic Desi Oakley playing the Waitress of the title – teeters so dangerously at the precipice of despair, yet is filled with so much promise for a brighter future.

The much-heralded score by singer/songwriter Sara Bareilles, who originated the role of Jenna on Broadway, is strong throughout, carrying the show’s emotions in a series of pop anthems that perfectly match the needs of the musical. There is no real Andrew Lloyd Webber-ish hummable main theme, but each musical segment stands on its own, which gives the show strength and character, thus making it more than durable for the extended run time.

The cast is uniformly excellent, with Oakley giving her character of Jenna a full range of emotions. In terms of color and quirk, the obvious standout is Jeremy Morse as Ogie, who unintentionally becomes the paramour of the nerdy Dawn (Lenne Klingaman, who has Madison family connections.) Morse’s absurd mannerisms were so outrageous, in fact, that we half-expect to see the character of Ogie pop up in other shows. There certainly are enough of them out there that need the help.

So the, ahem, ‘pies’ have it. Waitress is a surprise hit of the summer, and there never was a better reason to escape the heat and the bugs and head indoors for an evening of delicious musical theatre.

 

Boy, that Chappellet Cabernet Franc!

July 4, 2018

Chappellet produces exceptional Cabernet Franc from grapes grown on a hillside vineyard.

Several years ago a friend of ours began waxing poetic about Cabernet Franc, the relatively rare grape varietal that, along with Sauvignon Blanc, is thought to have been an unintentional parent grape for a little hybrid known as Cabernet Sauvignon. This friend has only modest experience with wine, didn’t mention any particular vineyards, and was hard-pressed to articulate the specifics of his adoration.

“Boy, that Cab Franc!” was about as specific as he got, in fact. We’d nod and smile, still puzzled by this sudden eruption of support for a wine variety that was usually difficult to find.

It’s highly unlikely that he was referring to the 2015 Chappellet Cabernet Franc ($85). However, when we tried it recently, we were surprised – thrilled, even – by the depth of flavors and layers of structure.

The winery has been one of only two Napa Valley vintners to celebrate 50 years of post-Prohibition wine production, and one of the few that is still family-owned. On the advice of legendary winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff, founders Donn and Molly Chappellet settled on Pritchard Hill in 1967, carving out 48 distinctive vineyard blocks that produce some truly exquisite wines.

Vineyard manager Dave Pirio and winemaker Phillip Corallo-Titus (shown below) have turned these blocks into a veritable playground of quality and creativity, of which the 2015 Cabernet Franc, with its blend of its namesake grape (77%), Cabernet Sauvignon (15%), Malbec (4%) and Petit Verdot (4%), is a prime example.

Aromas of blueberry, blackberry, coffee and herbs greet you from the glass, followed by a complexity of other aromas. The complex, elegantly structured wine showcases a firm, supple palate of dark fruits and darker chocolate, with hints of oak, smoke and toast from its time spent aging in French oak barrels.

But the Cabernet Franc isn’t the only example of Corallo-Titus’s exceptional handwork:

  • The 2015 Signature Cabernet Sauvignon ($65), a blend of its namesake grape (79%), Petit Verdot (14%), Merlot (4%) and Malbec (3%), is Chappellet’s flagship wine. Aromas of blackberry, cassis, anise and chocolate float from the glass, followed by a creamy palate of dark fruits, cola and clove supported by velvety tannins and a lovely mouthfeel.
  • The 2015 Napa Valley Merlot ($45), aged for 22 months in French oak barrels, is a blend of Merlot (80%), Cabernet Sauvignon (9%), Malbec (8%) and Petit Verdot (3%). The mountain-grown wine arrives with a nose of cherry, cedar and black tea, followed by a structured palate of currant, black cherry, dark chocolate and even a little graphite, all dancing in a delightfully complex combination.
  • Corallo-Titus also does wonders with whites, specifically the 2016 Napa Valley Chardonnay ($35). Produced from grapes harvested from a variety of mountain-side vineyards with a strong marine influence and aged sur lees for eight months in French oak barrels, the resulting wine arrives with a lovely tropical aroma blend of pineapple and citrus. The flavors that follow reflect the nose, adding lychee and orange zest along with a hint of melted butter which adds to the creaminess of the palate

Boy, that Cab Franc? Yes, but boy, that Chappellet.