Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Liparita: Cabernet of Balance, Complexity & Value

"Don't cheat!"

That is the sage advice from Jason Fisher, the winemaker for Hoopla WinesHoopes Vineyard, and Liparita Winery. Though such advice is applicable as a general life lesson, Jason was referring to the act of winemaking. He means that wine should be made right, with minimal intervention, devoid of manipulation. Wine should express terroir, and manipulation only serves to conceal and obfuscate that sense of place.

Jason told me that one of the greatest challenges in the California wine industry is the uniformity of style, how few winemakers are willing to think outside the box. Far too much Cabernet Sauvignon tastes the same and terroir too often seems to take the backseat. Some high end California Cabernets have been chastised in the wine media for seeking high scores, creating homogeneous wines. Little can differentiate some of these $100+ wines as they taste largely the same. There should be alternatives available.

Recently, over dinner at Abe & Louie's, I met and conversed with Jason Fisher and John Healy, who is in charge of sales and marketing for those same three wineries. They are part of a three person operation, the third being the primary owner Spencer Hoopes. Besides chatting with the two of them, I had the opportunity to taste several of their wines over dinner, an excellent way to experience such wines.

Jason Fisher, pictured above, has a strong local connection as he once lived in Arlington, Massachusetts and graduated from Boston College. He has previously worked at wineries including Paradigm, Grace Family Vineyards, and Cosentino, as well as spending eight years as a flying winemaker in South Africa. I found him to be down to earth as well as knowledgeable and passionate about wine. It was an enjoyable evening, especially as I very much enjoyed the wines

Liparita Winery has a long and vibrant history, extending back to 1880 when William Keyes, a geologist, arrived in the Napa Valley and found soil which reminded him of Lipari, the largest of the Aeolian Islands, in the Tyrrhenian Sea off the north coast of Sicily. He planted a vineyard on Howell Mountain, calling it Liparita-La Jota, "Little Lipari." The wines became award winning though unfortunately the winery closed with the onset of Prohibition.

In 1987, the label was resurrected but less than ten years later encountered financial troubles and was sold, in 1996, to Kendall Jackson. Ten years after that, the brand was sold, around 2007, to Spencer Hoopes as the principal owner. Hoopes was once involved in manufacturing, but had long been a wine collector and connoisseur. He eventually bought a small vineyard, at first selling his grapes, but decided that he should try to produce his own wine. Mitch Cosentino, of Cosentino Winery, initially made wine for Hoopes and that led to the creation of the brands of Hoopes Vineyard and Hoopla Wines.

Hoopes was familiar with the old Liparita Winery and desired to bring back the label to its former glories so he purchased it in 2007. Part of that homage entailed designing a label that would reflect the original Liparita label. In 2008, they released their first two wines, from the 2006 vintage, both Cabernet Sauvignons, one from the Stags Leap district and the other from Oakville. Their intent was to produce an “ultra premium wine” but at a more reasonable price. They didn't want to be just another winery selling $100+ Cabernets.

I started the evening with the 2011 Hoopla North Coast Chardonnay ($18), which sees neither oak nor malolactic fermentation. Instead, it spends about 6-9 weeks on the sur lies and then is racked off and spends a little more time on light lees. It has an alcohol content of 13.5% and only about 700-800 cases were produced in 2011, about half the usual production. The 2012 has just been bottled and will be available soon. Jason stated that the tannins of oak interfere with the white fruit flavors in white wines, giving more of an oak taste, and they did not want any interference with the fruit flavors in this wine. The Chardonnay had a very pale golden color and the pleasant aroma offered plenty of intense fruit smells. It had a full mouthfeel, very good acidity and delicious, clean flavors of green apple and pear. It would pair well with seafood, light chicken dishes and other light dishes. Highly recommended.

The 2010 Hoopla The Mutt ($28) is a blend of 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, and 10% Petite Sirah. This is the first vintage and the exact blend will vary each year though they will always use Cabernet and Petite Sirah. They use their best grapes for their estate wines and decided to use the others for this blend, rather than sell the grapes. The Petite Sirah is from 90+ year old vines, and the older the vines, the less tannic the Petite Sirah. I would be intrigued if they bottled a 100% Petite Sirah from these old vines. The wine spends about 22 months aging in about 25% new French oak. With a dark red color, and a nice aroma of ripe fruit and spice, the wine was pleasing. It wasn't overly tannic, and possessed a nice blend of red and black fruit flavors, complemented by a spicy backbone. A good wine with a hearty dish, from a rich stew to a juicy steak. Recommended.

I tasted both of their estate wines, from Oakville and Yountville, which are locally distributed by Andes Imports. These are wines that need to breathe for a time once they are opened. They are not intended to be "pop and drink" wines. Terroir is essential to Liparita and they do not fine or filter their wines, believing that fining is not needed if the pressing is done correctly. They only produce about 5200 cases and might double that one day, though they will never expand if it would cause them to lower their quality.

The 2009 Liparita Yountville Cabernet Sauvignon ($55) is sourced from the same location as the grapes used in the Caymus Special Selection, often selling for $125+. This Liparita has an alcohol content of 14.7% and spends about 30 months in French oak, 70% new. A dark purplish color, its aroma was alluring, with notes of black cherry and dark spice. On the palate, there was a delightfully complex melange of ripe plum, black cherry, blackberry, vanilla, and dark spice with strong tannins. It was well balanced, powerful and possessed a lengthy and satisfying finish. Despite its power, it possessed its own elegance and was clearly not one of those muscular, overpowered Cabernets that are favored in some circles. I feel that this Cabernet is comparable in quality to wines offered at twice the price or more and thus it is an excellent value at this price. Highly recommended.

My favorite of the two though was the 2009 Liparita Oakville Cabernet Savignon ($55). This wine has an alcohol content of 14.9% and spends about 32 months in French oak, 65% new. It too possessed a dark purplish color with an alluring aroma, though there was more red cherry, plum and spice on the nose. Its taste was a complex and compelling blend of red and black fruits, vanilla, black pepper and spice. It was not as tannic as the Yountville, being more hedonistic and smooth, yet still possessed of a good structure. It was a wine of less power and more elegance, balanced well and possessed of a near endless finish that made you yearn for more and more. Once again, this Cabernet is as good as wines at least twice the price and is a superb value. Highly recommended.

Jason mentioned that some other wineries have encouraged them to raise their prices, yet they have resisted. I admire their winemaking philosophy, their devotion to terroir, as well as their desire to charge a more reasonable price for their excellent wines. Their wines may be new to many wine lovers but they are wines you should seek out, especially if you love high-end Cabernet but don't wish to pay $100 or more for a bottle. Don't ignore their other labels either, which also are offering delicious wines.

And as Jason Fisher advised, "Don't cheat."

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