Finding a Niche
Volume X, Issue 14 May 18, 2006
Wineries pop up almost on a daily basis in California, and often it’s not just a variation on
a tired theme, but an exact copy of an old, boring template. Kind of reminds me of Mickey
Rooney speaking Andy Hardy-esquely to Judy Garland: “Hey, my dad has a barn—let’s do a
show!” But when that “show” is a cookiecutter Chardonnay, Cabernet, Merlot, and (perhaps for
“excitement”) a little Pinot Gris, the word that comes to mind fastest is “booooor-ring.”
Occasionally I get calls from growers who are tired of selling fruit to unappreciative wineries.
The grower says, “I can do better than they can.” Or I’ll meet a former winemaker who has been
“pastured” by a corporate decision to save cash (“We can do this cheaper: can the winemaker”).
In each scenario, the decision to “put on a play” and make wine to sell is a sound strategy only
if it has been mapped out carefully in advance. And although the financing of such a project is
crucial to its initialization, a second and most vital issue is how to set the new venture apart
from the mass of new wineries, each of which believes most fervently that it has a story to tell.
Almost never is that story very interesting, poignant, or compelling.
Early on in this game, you could argue, Jim Clendenen founded his Au Bon Climat in 1982
based on a wildly absurd theme: to make world-class Pinot Noir that would compete with
Burgundy, a laughable goal at that time two decades before Sideways, and a viticultural eon
before we knew how to grow grapes to make palatable wine from the petulant, persnickety
Pinot grape, let alone a classic. Today, the fervent and loquacious Clendenen is seen as the
ultimate visionary. I imagine that his wines have achieved more than even he once envisioned.
Carol Shelton, one of the brightest of California wine makers, left mailorder specialist
Windsor Vineyards after 19 years of making startlingly superb wines (often with less-than
startling fine fruit) to found a small winery dedicated to Zinfandel. Zinfandel was a grape
Shelton believed she could make better than others. So she makes nothing else.
Today her wines are among the best in a field that has become crowded with Zins that
don’t show a great deal of distinctiveness. Each of these two archetypical wineries combined
two crucial elements into a success story: each had a narrow focus, and the wine
makers have a passion—and a skill—for making great wine.
Precisely these attributes struck me as existing in a new project to which we
were privy last Friday night. Juliann and I had dinner with an old friend, Bruce Rector,
the erstwhile winemaker for the old Glen Ellen brand who also has worked in some
of the state’s most historic wine regions, including Napa, Livermore, Monterey, Sonoma,
and elsewhere. It’s been well over a decade since Rector left Glen Ellen following the
Benziger family’s sale of the brand. Rector has consulted for some of the most interesting
projects in the state and has developed a couple of his own.
Now he has launched a new brand that is a prototype of thinking out of the barrel.
There is nothing standard or even predictable about Bruce and Krassimira’s
Ooh and Ahh Winery, and it starts with the sense of humor that’s embedded in everything
Bruce does. Ooh and Ahh is all about the sense of fun Rector has always had,
his New Age approach, and his keen sense of the absurd....
He is a wine maker’s wine maker, and is having a blast with this new project.
Ooh and Ahh makes primarily Pinot Noir (using Sonoma Coast and Central Coast fruit),
keeping every barrel lot separate at bottling. Labels show which barrel was used.
Moreover, Bruce and Krassi, also a wine maker, are bottling the Pinots only in 1-liter bottles.
“Krassi and I found that if the wine was really good, 750 milliliters wasn’t enough
for two people,” he said. “This guarantees there will be enough.”
Moreover, rather than raise funds through a stock offering or other such scheme,
Ooh and Ahh offers 25 persons the ability to be a “Patron of Ahh” by buying at least
21 liter bottles of wine (for a cumulative price of between $500 and $1,200).
Patrons receive a membership in Ahh, invitations to “Happenings,”
and a two-night stay complete with meals at the Rector mountain ranch in Glen Ellen,
one of the most picturesque settings we’ve ever seen. A meal with the Rectors is a
memorable experience. They have a stunning and most serious kitchen, an outdoor pizza oven,
and a passion for great food. Another feature of this program is that Rector has a cellar full of
fine wine. He didn’t guarantee he’d tap into it, but his passion overflows, and I’d wager patrons
will get some treats that will make the investment in a patronage truly worthwhile....
For details on the Rectors’ new venture, log onto the winery’s web
site, www.oohandahh.com. Or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tasting notes (which are below) are for wines we tasted open last Friday from liter bottles.
To get 750-ml equivalent prices, multiply by .75.
Wine of the Week
2003 Ahh Pinot Noir, California, “Pinot du Jour” ($22/1 liter):
Great cherry and strawberry notes in an elegant, easy-to-drink
Pinot that works out to $16.50 per 750-ml bottle. This is Bruce
Rector’s blend of various secondary lots of wine from the
Sonoma Coast and Bien Nacido Vineyard that didn’t make it into
the vineyard-designated wines. For sale at the winery only.
For details, call 707-933-4404 or e-mail email@example.com.
( Dan rates wines not with points, but as exceptional or outstanding,
we achieved the highest, Exceptional status. )
2003 Ahh Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley, Bien Nacido Vineyard,
Barrel 3 of 4 ($48/1 liter): Pepper, violet and black cherry fruit; quite complex,
but needs at least two more years to develop its secondary aromas. A most classy wine.
Barrel 1 ($48) is more seductive and silky, with slightly higher alcohol (13.8%).
2003 Ahh Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, Brickhill Vineyard,
“Saddle East Block” ($52/1 liter): Clove and spice notes along with red and
black cherry. Charming now, but best in a couple of years.
The same vineyard’s Entrance Hill Block ($38) is a tad more blunt, but also superb.
Dan Berger’s Vintage Experiences
P.O. Box 5857, Santa Rosa, CA 95402
Dan Berger, Commentator
Juliann Savage, Editor & Publisher
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