Saturday, March 1, 2014

Playing with the big boys on their second go-round: Syndicate and BRAND #PNV14

Two Orlando-wine-retailer-led syndicates (, The Wine Barn) enjoyed success at the recently concluded 2014 Premiere Napa Valley (PNV) Grand Tasting and Auction with the syndicate snagging lots from BRAND (5-case lot, 2012 Double Horseshoes Red Blend) and Stone the Crows (5-case lot, 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, Thomas Rivers Brown winemaker) and The Wine Barn syndicate capturing a 5-case Cabernet Franc lot produced by Oakville East. This was the second PNV event for both and BRAND. In this post I will profile BRAND, a relative newcomer whose wine was so well regarded that it ranked in the top 3.5% of participating wineries in terms of price/lot.

Deb Whitman and Ed Fitts of BRAND
Brand was founded in 2006 by Ed Fitts, previously a 40-year veteran of the packaging industry, who had bought the property on Pritchard Hill primarily for the view. He had developed a fondness for the west coast as a result of servicing many of the fast food businesses in the area. The property that he bought came with three acres of vines and, not knowing that he had bought into one of the best wine producing areas in the Valley, he thought that he would maybe do a boutique winery. Once he began to understand where he was, he decided that if he was going to be on Pritchard Hill then he would have to add value. That was the thought process that led to the realization of BRAND.

As Ed realized, Pritchard Hill, has an unsurpassed pedigree in the annals of Napa Valley winemaking. This highly regarded lieu-dit (55 miles long and 20 miles wide) is located in the Vaca Mountains between Lake Hennessey (northwest) and the Atlas Peak AVA (southeast) with the Oakville AVA on the valley floor to the west. Notable Pritchard Hill wineries include Chappellett, Continuum, Ovid, Bryant Family, and Colgin.

The areas' vineyards sit at elevations that range between 800 and 2000 feet and, as a result, they are bathed in sunshine while the valley floor is still shrouded in fog. Moderating influences on the climate include a steady breeze blowing up from the valley as well as proximity to the lake. With most of its vineyards west-facing (Colgin is the exception), the region is able to direct every last bit of the sun's rays towards ripening grapes. There is less diurnal shift on the mountain which means that the berries continue sugar production well into the evening hours.

The soils are a red clay loam of volcanic origin which is shallow, thin, and boulder-strewn. In many cases the rocks have to be dynamited to provide material for soil. The thinness of the soil allows for good drainage while its lack of depth places great stress on the vines, yielding small, thick-skinned berries which are endowed with intense flavors.

BRAND is sandwiched between Colgin to the east and Montagne to the west. The estate's 12 acres of vineyards, divided between named Upper and Lower Vineyards, are the result of 6 years of groundwork, preparation, and acquisition. Once the decision was made to become a full-fledged winery, the vines that came with the property were pulled out, as were the rocks from the adjoining land. In this manner, the Upper Vineyard was expanded from 3 acres to 8 acres (the elevation of the land was lowered by two feet as a result of the extraction of the rocks). Resting at between 1300 and 1400 feet elevation, the Upper Vineyard is planted to Cabernet Sauvignon (50% of all vines, both upper and lower), Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot. The Lower Vineyard was an opportunistic acquisition. It is 4 acres in size, sits at 1135 feet and is planted to Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. Cabernet Franc represents 28% of the estate's plantings while Petit Verdot and Malbec represent 17% and 5%, respectively.

The Vineyard Manager is Josh Clarke of Clarke Vineyards and he oversees a viticultural regime that adheres to organic principles but is not certified organic.

Winery design and operations have been the bailiwick of Philippe Melka, one of the leading consulting winemakers in the valley. Philippe has overseen the construction of a state-of-the-art winery which would be the envy of any self-respecting winemaker.

BRANDs first vintage was its 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon (mono-varietal) which was released to the market in September 2012. The grapes are harvested by hand in a single pass through the vineyard and then brought into the winery where they are de-stemmed and further selected on the sorting table. The berries are gravity-flowed into the stainless steel fermentation tanks where they are fermented with indigenous yeasts. The juice remains on the skins for up to 25 days with skin contact enhanced by pumping-over. After maceration the juice is racked over to French oak barrels (83% new) for malolactic fermentation and aging which can run between 18 and 26 months.

I tasted the BRAND PNV 14 offering initially at the Melka event in St. Helena and then again at the Garnd Tasting on the morning of the auction. The 2012 Double Horseshoe blend is 65% Cabernet Sauvignon and 35% Cabernet Franc. It was impressive. So much so that I sought to arrange a visit to the winery on the following Sunday with the GM Kelly Willard. Dr. Vino, in his recap of the event, scored the wine between 9.0 and 9.5 and described it thusly: "Inky purple in the glass, this wine smells of earthy cherry, cassis, and licorice. In the mouth juicy and darkly intense black cherry fruit is coated in muscular tannins. A nice earthy note lingers in the finish. Lush." I liked the wine but I had no idea that so many others did also; and that they were willing and ready to show their love in a major way.

As I noted in my earlier post, I arrived to the auction late from lunch and so I had no idea where Adam (Chilvers; owner of and Eric (Kunichika; Partner) were sitting. The first indication that I had that these guys were even in the running for the wine was when I received a text from Adam's wife (Gigi; who was in Orlando, by the way) that they had won the bidding for the lot. I sent Adam a congratulatory text immediately (still couldn't locate him in the room) at which point he indicated that they had also copped the Stone the Crows lot. This placed even more pressure on us -- the score was 2 - 0.

I met Adam and Eric later that evening as they were having dinner at Redd. They were tired but elated. Elated does not really describe their emotions. They were euphoric. Eric is normally inscrutable, but he was smiling broadly. He ordered me a Tuna Tartare that I did not really want to eat because I was late for dinner (But it was so good I had to hang around and demolish it.). We were meeting for brunch at Bouchon the next day and Adam indicated that the BRAND owners had invited them up to the winery the following morning as a thank you and would I like to come. Hell Yeah.

We had a wonderful brunch the following morning, an event marred only by Adam showing up in a bright red Canadian hockey Jersey (I don't know how many of you recall that Canada won the Olympic Hockey Gold.). After brunch we rode up into the hills to meet with BRAND management.

Adam Chilvers, Deb, Ed, and Eric Kunichika
We had a lengthy and fruitful session at the estate with much of the information that I have shared in the profile provided to us therein. Ed and Deb still seemed just a  bit shell-shocked by what had happened the night before. Their new venture had entered the arena with giants and had not only played, but had also bested most of the rest. Early vindication and validation of the team that had been put together and decisions that had been made. It was touching to see the manner in which Ed expressed his thankfulness to the members of the syndicate that were present on that morning and his planning for future events at which the facilities of the winery would be thrown open to them as a thank you for helping to elevate the BRAND.

This is a good fit.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

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