Sunday, February 20, 2011

RagApple Lassie Vineyards.

The first stop in North Carolina’s Yadkin Valley was RagApple Lassie, a 150-year-old estate with a curious namesake. We were warmly welcomed by Lenna Hobson, wife of vineyard manager and owner Frank. Lenna took us through the fascinating story of the development of RagApple Lassie and showed us around a bit, then introduced us to Frank and the estate’s winemaker, Linda King.

Frank and Lenna Hobson

The estate was once a tobacco plantation farmed by Frank Hobson. As public opinion of tobacco soured throughout the 80s and 90s, profits declined sharply and many farmers in the area began looking for alternative crops; the Hobsons decided on grapes after witnessing the founding of a large winery nearby. Initially their idea was to grow grapes for sale but soon winemaking became the focus. In September 2002 the 9,600 square foot winery was finished, complete with a 4,000 square foot underground aging cellar and a large tasting room open to visitation. Recently voted one of the finalists for “Best New Winery in the US” by The Wine Appreciation Guild of San Francisco, this is a must-see for anyone venturing through the North Carolina wine country.

Frank and RagApple Lassie

And the curious namesake? Frank Hobson’s prize calf of his childhood. When he was a young boy Frank adopted a newborn calf on the farm and named it RagApple Lassie. The two were fast friends and went everywhere together. After winning first prize at the Yadkin County Fair RagApple Lassie went on to take first at the North Carolina State Fair (the biggest fair in the state). Many years later, when it came time to come up with a name for the winery, RagApple Lassie was immortalized in reverence to his influence in Frank’s childhood.

Grape growing at the estate is fairly easy. The land is still fertile, active farmland; nutrients are reintroduced to the soil each year by intelligent row cropping and crop rotation. The vines thus are kept disease-free and nutrient depletion is not much of a concern. So rich is the soil in organic content, in fact, that the first harvest was done after only 18 months albeit with green harvesting and bunch dropping to avoid high yields. This land challenges the idea that good wine grapes can only be grown in areas that force the vines to struggle… Frank Hobson equates the land to a spa for the grapes, insisting that the easy way of life here for vines does not inhibit serious wine production.

The Hobsons are experimenting with many different varietals as Yadkin Valley is still in the process of determining what its characteristic grapes will be. They are testing not only different varietals, but different clones and rootstocks as well. Among the varietals currently grown on 35 acres at the estate are Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Viognier, Syrah, Zinfandel, Pinot Gris, Marsanne, Semillon, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Mourvedre, and Symphony. Powdery and downy mildew can be a problem in this area, as can Pierce’s disease. For more information on soil and climate see the introduction to North Carolina’s wine regions here.

A side note: Symphony is a vinifera grape known for its Muscat-like aromatics, slow oxidation, and ageworthiness. It was developed by Harold P. Olmo at UC Davis to provide the character of a Muscat wine without the associated bitterness that frequently accompanies grapes of the Muscat family.It is a cross between Muscat of Alexandria and Grenache Gris developed on May 21, 1940 and tested in California over the next few decades. During trials in the 1970s an interesting attribute was discovered: after aging 10 years, wines made from Symphony maintained their Muscat character. According to the US patent application #301,910 filed December 21, 1981, “… persistence of the Muscat aroma and flavor is not a common event in aged table wines of varieties with Muscat character…”

Linda King

Winemaking began in earnest at RagApple Lassie about 10 years ago. Linda King has been the winemaker since 2002. With 38 vintages under her belt in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina and decades of self-training, Ms. King provides an unsurpassed level of knowledge and technical ability that shines through in RagApple Lassie’s young but promising wines. Average production is 6,500 cases, and Hungarian and French oak is used judiciously. Here are the wines we tasted with Frank, Lenna, and Linda:

2009 Pinot Gris

25% of this Pinot Gris was barrel fermented and underwent malolactic fermentation, then was blended in with 75% steel fermented wine. This gives a spicier Gris style as opposed to a fruitier Grigio style to the finished product. On the nose, this wine offered great baking spice and oak spice aromas along with candied lemons. I felt the wine could use a little softening on the palate and would benefit from a year or two in the bottle. Overall a really enjoyable wine. Great for a soft, creamy cheese like a Camembert.

2009 Viognier

Characteristic honeysuckle and sweet honey aromas. Spicy in the mouth with a rich lanolin mouthfeel. A long, cool stainless steel fermentation highlights the Rhone style captured by this wine.

2009 Kaleidoscope Gold

6 white varietals comprise this blend: Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Marsanne, Semillon, Viognier, and Traminette. There’s an interesting funkiness to this wine as well as a significant minerality, floral notes, and spice. It’s mouth-coating, with a long creamy finish of lemons and peaches. We thought it was delicious and took a bottle home!

2006 Chardonnay

Barrel fermented and aged sur lie with battonage twice a week for 3 months. This is considered the flagship wine of RagApple Lassie. And honestly, this Chardonnay could easily hold its own against many buttery, oaky California Chardonnays. Lemon cream and spice on the palate with a very long finish. Excellent!

2008 Merlot

Aged 18 months in Hungarian and French oak. Bright ruby red with purple tinges; plums, prunes, and cherries on the nose. The mouthfeel is a little lighter than I had expected based on the aromas. Quite a good effort.

2008 Cabernet Sauvignon

Also aged 18 months in the same blend of oaks as the Merlot. Great minerality and soft, plumy notes. A bright acidity gives a spark on the finish.

2008 Syrah

Made in a Rhone style, the typical white pepper and blackberry fruit shine through perfectly. Great minerality. A long toasty oak finish.

2007 Zinfandel

This was my favorite red of all. Fruit leather, cherries, and dark berries highlighted with excellent minerality. At only 12.5% (low in my opinion for a Zin!) it maintains a bit of elegance that caught my attention. I’d happily share a bottle of this Zin with any of my sommelier friends.

2008 Kaleidoscope Red

A blend of finished wines: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Mourvedre. There’s a slight residual sugar that many would appreciate (though I’m not one of them). Oozing with jammy plums and soft tannins, I could imagine this with pulled pork or a tomato based pasta sauce.

First Blush

Made with Traminette, Marsanne, Semillon, and Malbec in the style of a white Zinfandel. Spicy with notes of cola and 3% residual sugar. For those who like white Zin, this is a great replacement with much more complexity.

Rockford Red

A sweeter wine: 4% residual sugar. This Bordeaux blend can be sipped as an off-dry table wine. Its sweet candy cherries and purple fruits with a hint of cinnamon serve as a great accompaniment to anything with blue cheese or chocolate. This is not a wine I’d drink on its own, but with the appropriate food it would be delicious!

Boonville Blanc

A blend of Viognier and Traminette with 5% residual sugar. Honey and peach syrup with a weighty palate and great acidity. But here’s the incredible thing: pair it with white chocolate and coconut and the result is an amazing piña colada flavor that won me over instantly! I would encourage everyone to get ahold of this bottle…

Evening Sunset

A whopping 8% residual sugar. Symphony, Muscat, and Traminette come together in this wine to offer candied orange peel, honey, guava, and mango notes. No need to pair this with anything… just sip a glass after dinner (or actually any time…)

Hobson’s Choice

This wine has a story behind it. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina led to dry weather in Yadkin Valley. During the harvest the unripe grape bunches were left on the vines and by chance matured to 25 Brix. They were all picked as a field blend of Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Gris and fermented together. After 30 months in used barrels the wine emerged, delicious. The name “Hobson’s Choice” traces its roots to a common 16th century English phrase: George Hobson had opened a livery in London with horses and buggies; he would offer customers whichever horse and buggy he chose. This developed into a saying… “Hobsons Choice” was given to customers who had no option of selecting for themselves. Hence the name. When a vintage is particularly good, a field blend will be picked after a long hang time and fermented as Hobson’s Choice!

Though I was not a fan of every wine offered by RagApple Lassie, a few were astonishingly good. And this is after only less than a decade of winemaking and grape growing. Over the next 10 years I believe these wines will continue to develop toward a unique expression of terroir and begin to make their mark on the wine world. And I urge anyone who finds themselves within the vicinity to stop by and judge for themselves!

To set up a visit or for further information, go to RagApple Lassie’s website or email Lenna Hobson.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

An introduction to North Carolina.

current wineries in North Carolina 

North Carolina has come quite a long way since the discovery and cultivation of the infamous Scuppernong grape here in 1524. I decided to investigate this state’s AVAs a bit not just to discover the unique wines the region has to offer, but also to pay homage to what was once the largest wine producing area in the United States. Production levels dwindled post-Prohibition, but a comeback is on its way. There are now 99 wineries located throughout the state of North Carolina with the 100th currently being built. Here’s a little history of the wine industry in North Carolina:

Giovanni de Verrazano and Scuppernong grapes, courtesy of

As mentioned above, the Scuppernong grape was discovered here in 1524 in the Cape Fear River Valley. The Florentine navigator Giovanni de Verrazano named the grape after the Scuppernong River. According to him and Sir Walter Raleigh’s explorers a few years later, the land was virtually a sea of these large green Vitis rotundifolia (muscadine) grapes. In 1585 a governor described the grapes of the area to Raleigh thus: "We have discovered the main to be the goodliest soil under the cope of heaven, so abounding with sweet trees that bring rich and pleasant, grapes of such greatness, yet wild, as France, Spain, nor Italy hath no greater..."

Sidney Weller, founder of Medoc Mountain winery

In 1835 the first commercial winery was established in the state. Sidney Weller, an educator and farmer, bought 300 acres of farmland in Halifax County, North Carolina for $1.50 per acre to practice his somewhat revolutionary agricultural methods. He used crop rotation, plant propagation, and organic soil enrichment to maintain the health of his estate; he is furthermore credited with introducing the “American system” of grape cultivation. By 1840 the vineyard, then known as Medoc Mountain, was the largest in the state and led production in the entire country, hosting over 200 varietals. Its main concentration however was the omnipresent Scuppernong.

A decade later 20 wineries had developed in the state. A thriving wine industry was well underway. This was halted in the 1860s by the unfortunate timing of the Civil War. But the foresight of the brothers Garrett would prove to be the impetus for the industry’s salvation: in 1867 the brothers purchased Weller’s estate and continued its winegrowing tradition, producing still and sparkling wines. One of the brothers’ sons, Paul Garrett, soon emerged as a fantastic salesman and distributed the winery’s products far and wide along the Atlantic coast. In fact he sold more than could be produced, and bulk California wine had to be added to the precious Scuppernong to boost quantity.

By the 1890s the wine industry had regained its health and was seen as a boon for North Carolina, given the state of the economy. The wines’ fame spread attracting well educated and experienced viticulturists and winemakers who perfected production techniques. In 1900 wines from North Carolina even won a few prestigious medals at the Paris Exposition. And in 1904, Paul Garrett’s Virginia Dare wine (named for the first child born to English settlers in the colonies) earned the grand prize in the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition and became the top selling wine in the country. (A side note: sales far outweighed production of this popular wine; Garrett had to blend California bulk wine with the Scuppernong wine which was Virginia Dare’s base, and in the end there was only enough Scuppernong in a bottle to give it a hint of the character of the grape.)

Pau Garret's Norfolk, Virginia facility

It is here that Prohibition enters the scene. In 1909 a ban was placed on all alcohol in North Carolina. Paul Garrett fled to Virginia to escape the laws of Prohibition and reestablished his headquarters there, continuing to sell his famed Virginia Dare. He was forced to escape again to New York a decade later due to Prohibition sentiments in Virginia. But Virginia Dare remained the top seller in the country even post-Prohibition.

the Biltmore Estate

The repeal of Prohibition in 1933 led to a brief freedom for the remaining 13 wineries in North Carolina. A dry vote in 1947 finally killed the wine industry in the state, making the production and selling of all alcohol illegal. Vineyards continued to produce grapes and winemakers hoped that the dry initiative would be short-lived; in the 1960s Senator Carl Vitners passed a bill for funding of wine and viticulture research much to the relief of those in the wine industry. Over the next two decades more and more funding and tax incentives led wineries to try their luck once again, and the grand Biltmore Estate opened the doors of its $6.5 million winery to the public in 1985 to encourage wine tourism.

old tobacco plantations have transformed into vineyards in NC 

By 1999 the North Carolina Wine and Grape Council had been established to encourage expansion and experimentation and the Golden LEAF Foundation was teaching tobacco farmers how to transition their plantations to the more profitable vineyards the state wanted. Money was poured into tourism and festivals, with the North Carolina Wine Festival bringing 11,000 people to the wine country in 2002. And to further validate the state as an official and serious wine producer, Yadkin Valley was declared an AVA in 2003 followed by Swan Creek in 2008.

Now a bit of technical information:

deep cecil soil

Muscadine grapes are grown in the fine wine producing regions of the state still, but comprise only about 5% of the vineyards. The remaining 95% are all Vitis vinifera. Many varietals are experimentally planted as the regions are still determining which are best suited to the terrior here. Soil in Yadkin is mostly deep cecil (a bright red clay) and very nutrient-rich… this was once all tobacco land. Swan Creek, part of the Blue Ridge Mountains, has shallower loamy topsoil with gravel underneath and low organic content.

Four distinct seasons occur in these areas offering vines good growing and ripening conditions with large temperature variations between day and night. Average rainfall sits around 40 inches per year necessitating heavy copper spraying year-round. Heavy pruning and hedging must be done to keep vigor to a minimum. Other than the threat of downy and powdery mildew, Pierce’s disease and Japanese beetles cause some problems for the vines. Organic farming, unfortunately, is not much of an option here.

Varietals grown are too numerous to list at the moment. Sangiovese and Nebbiolo have not fared too well so far, but Bordeaux varietals and other Italian varietals are thriving. A few hybrids are also favored in Yadkin and Swan Creek. Look for the preferred varietals discussed in the summaries of the wineries I will visit next...

Currently North Carolina is the 7th largest wine producer in the US. Most vineyards have less than 10 years of production under their belts. Vitis vinifera is the focus everywhere but the coast, and the wine (though sometimes a little rough) is shockingly good considering the limited number of vintages thus far. Given a decade or two more, top-quality wines will be pouring out of this state and possibly preparing to challenge the Napa Valleys and Willamette Valleys of the country. But we as consumers must be open to this fairly new region… instead of encouraging bias against upcoming wine producing areas such as this, I urge those who are doubtful to try a bottle first, or even pay a visit to the charming wine country of North Carolina. You may end up happily surprised…

For a list of Yadkin Valley wineries:
For a list of wine related events in North Carolina:
For more information about visiting the wine regions of North Carolina:

Thursday, February 3, 2011

A history of Mexico's wine regions.

This post is meant only to give a brief history of winemaking in Mexico. And for those whose interest is piqued, a book introducing the wines and wine regions of Mexico, pairing them with Mexican cuisine, and offering traditional step-by-step recipes will be published later this year. I will announce the release of the book when it is available; feel free to contact me with any questions about content or availability.


Mexico has a much more extensive history of wine than most would imagine. In fact, the first Vitis vinifera grapes brought to the Americas from Europe were planted in Mexico by the Spanish in the 1500s, long before they arrived in any other country in the New World. After unsuccessful attempts by Spanish conquistadors to grow vinifera wine grapes in the tropical areas of Mexico, cuttings were planted alongside the native varietals which grew profusely in the Parras Valley in Coahuila. Soon afterward grapes were introduced to other regions such as Puebla and Zacatecas.

There is some debate over what the initial grape varietal was that first crossed the Atlantic in the early colonial era. What is known for sure was that the grape was referred to as the “common black grape” of Spain, and that it gave rise to the Mission grape of California, the Criolla (Criolla Grande) grape of Argentina, and the Pais (Criolla Chica) grape of Chile. A side note: Pais and Criolla are now known to have a common ancestor that was a crossing between Muscat of Alexandria and Mission.

Casa Madero
The planting of vinifera grapes was ordered by Hernán Cortés in the 1520s after the supply he had brought dwindled. During the next century and a half wine production in Mexico skyrocketed. Casa Madero, the first commercial winery, was established by Lorenzo Garcia in Santa Maria de las Parras (Coahuila) in 1597 and still exists today.

remains of the Santo Tomas Mission

Eventually the demand for Spanish wine imports dissipated; this resulted in a 1699 ban on wine production in the country save for Church requirements. This ban was not officially lifted until Mexico’s independence. The ban, however, did not faze the Mexican wine producers. Juan Ugarte, a Jesuit priest, was one of the many who continued making wine despite the ban. He introduced the first vines to Baja California upon his relocation in 1701 to Loreto. The vines were transported from Loreto to the Santo Tomas Mission in 1791 by the Jesuits, then to Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe del Norte Mission in Guadalupe Valley in 1843 by Dominicans.

Bodegas Santo Tomas

During the next 50 years the Reform War had a drastic effect on winemaking in Mexico. Vineyard land was seized by the state and redistributed; in 1888 the Santo Tomas Mission was revived as a commercial winery by private investors and now operates as Bodegas Santo Tomas. From this period until 1910 winemaking spread once again.

a view of Guadalupe Valley, which currently produces 90% of Mexican wines

A group of Russian immigrants (the Molokans) fled the Czar’s army and relocated to Guadalupe Valley and its surrounding areas. There they began making good quality wines, only to be stifled by the Mexican Revolution. Since the 1980s there has been a small revival of winemaking especially in Guadalupe Valley, but foreign competition and a general lack of viticultural and vinicultural knowledge make this a difficult struggle. Nevertheless some excellent small wineries have sprung up since the 1990s and some are prophesying a new Napa Valley’s birth in Guadalupe. This is definitely an area to keep an eye on during the next few decades…