Thursday, October 30, 2008

Twitter Taste Live #4: Jed Steele

For the first few Twitter Taste Live events, I have participated from the comfort of my home, sharing the wines with a few family members and friends. Though I have enjoyed it, I felt it was time for a bit of change. So I decided to visit Bin Ends for Twitter Taste Live #4, especially as they were having the guest wine maker, Jed Steele of Steele Wines, at their store.

At least 40-50 people showed up at Bin Ends for the tasting and John and Craig had a diverse selection of cheeses for snacks. They also set up, with the help of Chris from Saltine Studio, a large screen to show all of the Twitter posts and the video feed. Twitter was certainly quite active that night and the tasting was the #1 topic for a time. There were people from all over the world participating. It was great to sip wine and chat with all of the people at the store, including other bloggers like Dale of Drinks Are On Me.

As for the guest of honor, this is Jed Steele’s 40th year of being involved in making wine in California. Jed began working in the wine business at Stony Hill Winery in the Napa Valley in 1968. He also worked for 10 years for Edmeades, then a small independent winery in Mendocino County, as winemaker and vineyard manager. He then moved on to become the founding winemaker, general manager, and VP of Production at Kendall Jackson for the first nine vintages of that company. He eventually founded Steele and Shooting Star Wines in 1991. You can see Jed below, the very tall man in the center. He was very personable, passionate and down to earth.

The winery has a minimalist winemaking style, believing that will better highlight the aromas and the flavors of the fruit they source. The fruit they source for the Steele and Shooting Star labels is the same. They get grapes from vineyards in Washington and California. The primary difference between the two labels is that the Shooting Star wines are more appellation blends and less common varietals. They are also generally fermented in stainless or aged in oak for a short period of time so the wines are more bright and fruit forward. The Steele wines are single vineyard or specific vineyard blends that age longer in oak.

The winery produces quite an extensive and diverse portfolio of wines, though their total production is relatively low. Many of their wines are produced only in very small quantities. When I asked Jed about this, he basically stated that he enjoyed experimenting with different wines, that he preferred to produce a nice variety of wines.

One thing that impressed me was Jed's commitment to making reasonably priced wines. Even his top end wines are less than $50, and most of his wines are under $25. In Wine Spectator (3/04), Jed stated: "People expect value. It's not that I envision making wines for the masses, but I've always felt wines should be reasonably priced." His wines may be inexpensive, but they are far from "cheap." You get good value from these wines.

The wines we tasted included:

2006 Shooting Star Aligote (Washington): Aligoté may not be a grape you are familiar with as we don't see much of it in the U.S., except primarily as a blending grape. But it seems Washington is producing some now. This Aligoté was barrel fermented but they use older oak barrels. I found the wine to have a nice golden color and a bit of a floral nose. It is a crisp wine with green apple and mineral notes and a touch of tartness. An interesting wine that has some character and is worth checking out. Price is usually $15 but it is only $12 at Bin Ends.

2006 Steele Pinot Blanc (California): This wine is fermented in neutral oak barrels, to give it weight and mouthfeel. The wine is then aged for just under four months in neutral oak. The nose of this wine reminded me of some creamy Chardonnays. It had a nice gold color and the creaminess came through on my palate as well. I detected some green apple and melon flavors and it had a short finish. This is not my preferred style of wine so I did not care for it that much. Price is usually $17 but it is only $14 at Bin Ends.

I should note that an informal poll of the people at the tasting showed they were equally split in their preferences between the Aligote and Pinot Blanc.

2006 Steele Cuvee Chardonnay (California): This wine was also fermented in oak, though 20% of the barrels were new. It then remains in barrel for eight months, the lees stirred regularly, and the wine finishes malolactic fermentation. The art comes when Jed must select which lots and barrels to blended into this Cuvee. I enjoyed this Chardonnay because it was not overly oaky and the fruit flavors were allowed to dominate. It still had some creamy smoothness to it but not that huge buttery taste. If you generally dislike California Chardonnays, you should try this one and maybe it will change your mind. Price is usually $22 but it is only $16.80 at Bin Ends.

2006 Shooting Star Blue Franc (Washington): This was the stand out wine of the evening for me, for several reasons. First, it was a more unusual wine. Second, I like the story behind the wine. Third, the label is cool. Fourth, it had an incredible nose on it that I could have just sat and smelled for hours.

While visiting Austria, Jed was impressed by a wine made from the Lemberger grape, which is also known by its older name Blau Frankisch, literally “blue grape from France.” He later found Lemberger growing in Washington’s Yakima Valley and decided to make a wine from this grape. Now, to avoid any relation to Lember, the stinky cheese, he decided to refer to the grape as Blau Frankisch and call the Blue Franc. He was also able, after some wrangling, to use a French Franc note as the label. The label looks very cool.

The Blue Franc receives little or no oak aging. When I first smelled this wine, I fell in love with it. Such lush berry scents with hints of exotic spices. It seduced my nose and brought such sensory pleasure. I enjoyed the taste of the wine as well, though its nose still was more compelling. It has plenty of rich berry flavors with hints of spice, maybe a bit of cinnamon and almost anise. Very smooth and easy drinking wine and an excellent value at the price. Price is usually $15 but it is only $12 at Bin Ends.

2006 Steele Pinot Noir (Carneros): Their approach is to produce a classic “Pinot-lover’s Pinot.” After fermentation the wine is aged for nine months in a combination of French, Oregon and Hungarian barrels. This was a dark red colored wine with a nice nose of black cherry and raspberry. It was a very juicy wine, with lots of ripe berry flavors and nice touches of pepper and other spices. A decently long finish and a very smooth wine. More Californian than Burgundian in style. I very much enjoyed this Pinot and definitely would recommend it. Price is usually $23 but it is only $18.40 at Bin Ends.

2006 Steele Zinfandel (Pacini Ranch): Jed has spent 25 years crafting Zinfandel from the Pacini Vineyard so he knows the vineyard very well. This wine is aged in American oak barrels for 12 months, using 25% new barrels and 75% neutral barrels. This selection of oak allows them to maximize the fruit component while rounding out the structure of the wine. This was an absolutely delicious Zin, big, bold and spicy. Lots of flavor and complexity for the price. A real knock-out wine. Price is usually $19 but it is only $15.20 at Bin Ends.

This was another successful Twitter Taste Live event. The wines were delicious and excellent values. Jed Steele came off very well and is an easily likable person. I will be drinking more Steele wines in the future and recommend that you check them out as well, especially that Blue Franc.

Stay tuned for next month for the next Twitter Taste Live event on November 15. The Wine Bloggers Take Over and I will provide more details soon.

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