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In addition to directing the San Diego International Wine Competition, Union-Tribune wine writer Robert Whitley also runs the Critics Challenge International Wine Competition, held each year in the posh and creamy confines of downtown's Westgate Hotel. The Critics Challenge is, according to its website, "the most innovative wine competition in the United States" — possibly (partly?) because its judges are drawn entirely from the world of wine writers/critics, headed up by Whitley and master of wine Mary Ewing-Mulligan.

This year, the critics awarded a gold medal to the 2004 Flying Wines Napa Valley Cabernet. But while the wine hails from Napa, the winemaker, one Marilyn Sherman, resides in Carlsbad. Sherman is hardly the first San Diego winemaker to use nonlocal fruit — Baja, anyone? — but she is surely among the first to make her wine from 500 miles away.

Sherman was an early client of Crushpad, the custom-crush/custom-winemaking facility in San Francisco that serves as a proxy for aspiring winemakers living in the rough wilds beyond wine country. "I've always been deeply interested in wine," she explains. "I was in tasting groups and on the wine boards. Founder Michael Brill posted something on the boards about their 2004 open house. I went up in August and decided to make wine two weeks later. I thought, 'This is the ground floor for this operation, but they have everything in place.'" (For one thing, they were offering fruit from "the higher-end vineyards, and that's what I wanted.")

"I knew I wanted to make Cabernet," says Sherman, "and I knew I wanted mountain fruit — it can have a little bit of a clunky, rustic quality, not totally polished. It feels a little wilder, sometimes, and it has some Asian spices that I like. So I picked Stagecoach Vineyard" — a relatively huge (500-acre) hillside planting overlooking Oakville and owned by the Krupp family. "The Krupps also make a wine from that vineyard, Veraison. It's one of the wines I looked at" when making a vineyard selection. There was enough there that she liked but also room for a winemaker's particular influence. "I thought, 'This could be different.'"

After vineyard selection, Sherman set about determining specs. She let one of Crushpad's consulting winemakers advise her about yeasts but made her own calls on questions of extraction, ripeness, and oak. "I'm making food-friendly wine. I definitely wanted under 15 percent alcohol," and something with decent acidity. In 2004, she went with used French oak — "I like to have enough for structure, but I'm not a big oak person." (In later years, however, she's warmed up to wood, aging some wine in new French oak and some in "zebra barrels" — barrels made from the staves of both new and used oak. Sherman's was 33 percent new.)

Going commercial with Flying Wine wasn't always part of the plan, but eventually, there's the question of what to do with your 125 cases once they bottle your barrel — to say nothing of the barrel after that. "By the time the '04 was in barrel, it was time to commit to the '05 vintage, and I thought, 'I want to make wine every year.'" Happily, with Crushpad, she could ease her way into the commercial world, one barrel at a time. "I made two barrels the first year, three the second, four last year. And I'm doing seven for crush this year. I think you need to make more to sell more. It's probably as easy to sell 100 cases as it is to sell 25 cases — you've got to put in all that footwork, anyway, get out there and taste people on it." (Much of the '04, she says, got snapped up by friends and friends of friends. "They got a bit of a discount, a thank-you for supporting me." Full retail was $40, a number she came up with by looking at her fellow commercial Crushpad producers, as well as more traditional commercial wines from the Stagecoach Vineyard.)

Those seven barrels of '07 won't all be Stagecoach Cab, however. In 2005, Sherman set about expanding her range, picking up a Syrah from Santa Barbara's White Hawk Vineyard ("I had tried Ojai's wine from that vineyard and was pleased") and a second Cab from the famed To-Kalon Vineyard on the Napa Valley floor. "That was partly because of the name. 'You can get To-Kalon fruit? Let's do it!' I wanted to blend it with the mountain fruit, but I didn't like them together, so we're bottling them separately. The Stagecoach is going to be bottled as is, but we added a little Petite Verdot to the To-Kalon. It stretched out the finish."

For the '04 Stagecoach, the blender of choice was Petite Syrah, a decision Sherman was on hand to approve. She notes that many of the commercial clients make the occasional visit to the Crushpad facility. "In 2005, I spent the whole month of October there, helping with crush. I've been to tastings, and I know this and I know that, but when you sit down with your own wine and start weighing things and figuring out what to do...you start learning things. I went up when it was time to bottle the '04 Cab. It was still in barrel" — still an unruly child — "and it was good. But I'm not great at tasting wine like that and knowing if it could be more. So I went up and did some blending trials." Sherman was thinking about Cabernet Franc, but Crushpad winemaker Kian Tavakoli suggested the Petite Syrah. "I said, 'This is not normal,' but he said, 'I think you'll like it.' We did it with 5 percent, 10 percent, 7 1/2 percent. I think it made the wine fabulous — it intensified the color and added this kind of a chocolate mocha thing to it." The next year, when they pulled the To-Kalon Cab out of barrel, the winemaker exclaimed, "This just explodes with coconut!" That day, Sherman learned something about what Tarasaud oak will do for a wine. (Though winemakers like Tavakoli consult and do much of the actual hands-on work, Sherman still considers herself the winemaker; she's the one making the decisions about what will happen to the wine.)

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