In June of 2014, about a month after this website was debuted, I posted something called “Winemakers In Bondage: Who Took The Fun From ProFUNdity?” For years, I’ve been dropping subtle hints to every winemaker I know about being more experimental, daring to cross some of what have traditionally been impervious boundaries in what is and is not contained in the proper description of the term “wine”.
In that post, which got a fair amount of response from winemakers telling me that wished they could push the envelope a bit and from wine-weenie fossils insisting that anything that messes with the traditions and rituals of what THEY call wine is irresponsible and quite likely to destroy wine as we know it. I expected that response because it’s the same one I’ve gotten from self-anointed wine “connoisseurs” and a couple fo wine writers: abject horror and wild-eyed alarm that any sort of ingenuity and expression atop what is grudgingly allowed in the wine trade today would “ruin wine”. I’ve argued this until I’m blue to my neckline and hairline and even those amateur wine “experts” who were willing to discuss it at all finally retreated into their one inviolable bastion of the irrefutable: “Well, they can make those wines but I will never drink ’em and I’ll tell everybody I know not to, either. They’re not real wines!”
I had almost given up on the whole idea and quit talking to winemakers about it…when two seminal, landmark bottles of wine landed on my doorstep, courtesy of my non-judgmental friends at FedEx.
The first was from Chateau Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, a company to whom I have not been overly kind, both in this bloglet and in my work as a wine buyer. I was frankly shocked to see a return address label with that name on it and opened the box with some real trepidation. Make no mistake about this: I WANT, very much, to be a cheerleader for and admirer of Ste. Michelle…I just haven’t had a lot of real reasons to do that. The first inkling that something might be trending Outward at CSM was a box I received last fall, containing three bottles of something called “Crowd-Sourced Cabernet”. This was a heavily experimental project that was based on creating a website for the wine and taking suggestions about EVERY stage of the winemaking process – from picking to bottling – from the general public. At each stage,the winemakers at supervising partner, Columbia Crest, took the suggestions, weeded out the obviously insane, and presented a tight and expansive list for voting. Whatever the crowd chose was the method employed.
The wine was a real shocker. No, it was nowhere near the absolute best Washington Cabernet I tasted in the past two years but it was rock-solid, immensely flavorful, and beautifully constructed.
Then, in the late spring of 2016, I received a box from something called “Intrinsic Wine Company“, which turned out to be another project of Columbia Crest and its brilliant master winemaker, Juan Muñoz-Oca, a devout fan of the Spanish region of Toro, which is notable for big,black, inky Tempranillo-based wines like Bodegas Numanthia and Bodegas Elias Mora, and Bodega Vetus, and the quirky practice of long-maceration. Long-maceration basically means that the grapes, which normally remain sitting in the tank with the juice for a few days to maybe a month, are left in skin contact for, in Toro, sometimes as much as three or four months. This increases the tannic content of the wine and lends it a beautiful, earthy, lanolin-scented intensity that can turn in a minute into leathery and ponderous chewiness and make the wine very difficult to drink…IF the winemaker doesn’t know what they’re doing. Muñoz-Oca had been curious for a long time and finally – since CSM, after all, has grapes to spare for pretty much anything that strikes their fancy – decided to make his own version of what I suppose we could call a “WaToro“. Intrinsic was the resulting wine and I am here to tell you that it tasted, felt, smelled, and carried an eerily similar aura to that fabled, 100 Point Bodegas Numanthia “Termanthia”, a bottle that set the international wine community on its collective ear, back in that stunning 2004 vintage. Intrinsic Cabernet was given a titanic, groundbreaking NINE MONTH maceration – 270 days on its grape skins and pulp. 100% Columbia Valley Cabernet, Intrinsic was nearly as fabulously complex as a genuine Toro, despite the fact of its being a Cabernet-based wine versus the more chameleon-like Tempranillo. The palate was dominated by a full-frontal blast of deep black fruit – led by blackberries and plums and figs – and followed by blueberries, pipe tobacco, glove leather, saline, sweet herbs, coffee, cocoa, vanilla, caramel, black currants, and that elusive hint of lanolin on the copious nose. The texture was maybe the main event; a satiny, viscous, palate-painting wash of something dead-black and even a bit like glycerine on the tongue.
Since this method had already been used in Spain (for better than a century), horrified wine-weenies had to suck it and grit their teeth, which many did…but some did not. One critic I read called this wine “a perversion of everything the French ever taught us about the true nature of wine” and dismissed Toro as “trick wine for Spanish cowboys“. I read a few other things like that but, mercifully, that sort of hide-bound nutiness submerged rather quickly. 96 Points
Then, about two months ago, Apothic Wines, of Modesto, California, went full-bore into that territory which drives calcified wine geeks crazy, and produced something called Apothic Inferno.For those hard-core wine geeks like me, who have harbored a long-standing passion for the Italian Valtellina appellation and its signature Sforsat and Inferno wines – made in the Passito style, using grapes dried on wood trays for months before crushing and pressing – it bears stating that Apothic Inferno is not that. What sets this American Inferno apart is that, as opposed to aging in new or used oak wine barrels, this was aged for 60 days in American whiskey barrels – wet American whiskey barrels. Among the so-called “wine intelligentsia”, this practice is known by the technical term “cheating” or its corollary, “Screwing up a perfectly good wine“. What it is on the palate of anyone without their tastes set in concrete is…shocking and, once your rote wine expectations are settled a bit, delicious.
Apothic Inferno is an expansive set of stunningly assumption-foiling flavors that harmonize so well that it really does take a full minute and several sips for old notions to recede enough to let you appreciate it on its own merits…which are many and emphatic. The base wine is a blend of grapes that breaks little new ground but is basically a Bordeaux-Rhone mash-up. The whiskey complements these grapes beautifully and frames the blackberries, raspberries, red currants, and cherries with vanilla and deep caramel and baking spices and fruitcake of the whiskey, a whole that adds up to more than the sum of its parts. I’m not whispering secrets out among the cornrows, here – because I told the Apothic folks this already – when I say that my one real criticism of Inferno is the weight. This treatment would have been more effective with a deeper, more full-bodied wine. Inferno is solidly medium-bodied and is, therefore, a tiny bit taken over by the whiskey and barrels. A better balance would have lifted this bottle to stratospheric altitudes in whatever emerging less clenched-sphincter world of wine that we’re flirting with, these days, but, of course, using a wine like that would have driven Inferno’s price up considerably from its stunningly reasonable $14-ish that’s the average and the ridiculous $11.87 that’s the best price showing on Google Shopping. This is a really eye-opening wine and I can tell you just how revelatory it is: I rarely, if ever, mention beverages from two companies: Anheuser Busch-AB/InBev and Gallo. Apothic is a Gallo label…and here it is in The Pour Fool. 94 Points
Wines like these are not exactly reshaping the entire world of wine but they are wonderful, iron-shod baby steps into a future in which we begin to extract the flagpoles that have been lodged up the collective posterior of American wine-weenies for over a century. This is, as my own wine mentor used to say, “just grape juice, folks!” They’re bottles of the fermented juice, extracted from the very same grapes you can buy at a well-stocked produce stand. They only become, on rare occasions, profound by virtue of exceptional skill in winemaking and exceptional aptitude at growing grapes. There is NO reason at all why that grape juice cannot be manipulated and tweaked and enhanced by thoughtful winemakers and these three mentioned are a toe in the water of what may be a very large and beautiful lake.
One shameful admission: I deliberately saved both these reviews because I want to try, at least, to create some demand for a repeat of these two grand experiments. I did NOT want to help promote a one-off dalliance and see these things simply die out. I’m not at all under the impression that this blog exerts enough influence upon the wine world at large to drive a decision to repeat these wines but I’m absolutely putting in my oar. You may well still be able to find both and, if you do and your tastes are not set in QuickCrete, get ’em and see for yourself. I think these are fine and notable wines on their own merit as beverages that you can drink and enjoy, which is really what wine, after the artifice fades away, is all about.