HomeAbout UsWine ReviewsArchivesAdvertiseContact Us


Whitley On Wine

Wine Review Online Radio

W.R. Tish

Leslie Sbrocco

International Wine Center

The Great Wines of America

Wine Style Book

Gold Medal Wines

New York Times 'The Pour'


Critics Challenge

San Diego International


WRO Wine Blog

June 20, 2013

Living the Dream

You could make a case that James MacPhail and Jeff Gaffner are two of California's most important winemakers. There is an equally strong argument that no one beyond a tight circle of dedicated wine geeks has ever heard of either.

Yet both men, on parallel paths, are living the dream. Their dream.

MacPhail is the owner/winemaker of MacPhail Family Wines; Gaffner the owner/winemaker of Saxon Brown Wines. Gaffner launched Saxon Brown in 1997; MacPhail his winery in 2002.

Early in his career, Gaffner worked under legendary winemaker Dick Arrowood at Chateau St. Jean; MacPhail spent his formative winemaking years as lieutenant to iconic winemaker Merry Edwards.

Both men specialize in small-batch, handcrafted wines that express characteristics unique to specific vineyard sites situated in the most coveted winegrowing appellations along the California Coast.

You may not have heard of either man because their wines are made in miniscule quantities — hundreds of cases produced instead of thousands — and sold almost exclusively in wine-savvy restaurants or by wine merchants who prize individuality.

"I started with enough money to buy fruit and a few barrels," said MacPhail, remembering the early years operating out of his garage on the edge of the northern Sonoma village of Healdsburg. "I barely scraped by. But I got some good press, and my wines turned up in a few of San Francisco's top restaurants just as pinot noir started to become popular. I caught the wave."

Pinot noir is MacPhail's specialty, though he poured a stunning Gap's Crown Vineyard Chardonnay and a lovely rose the day we chatted. His arsenal of pinots is remarkably diverse, expressing the soil, climate and vintage conditions connected to each vineyard.

"I'm a non-interventionist," he explained. "I guide each wine; I don't manipulate it."

The common thread throughout all of the MacPhail wines is consistency of quality and exquisite balance. None of the MacPhail wines will overwhelm the senses with alcohol or wood. MacPhail also cherishes the earthy nuances of pinot noir, such as forest floor and mushroom, and strives to bring out those complexities.

 Bottom line, the MacPhail wines don't taste manufactured.

Gaffner takes a similar approach with a much broader repertoire of wines. Gaffner could correctly be called a pinot noir specialist (his Black Kite Pinot Noir from Mendocino's Anderson Valley is some of the finest made in California), but he is equally adept with cabernet sauvignon, syrah, zinfandel and his eclectic semillons — Cricket Creek and Bothers Cuvee.

His wines are notable not only for their quality and distinctiveness, but also their elegance and finesse. Gaffner has a knack with tannin, producing red wines that are supple and smooth without sacrificing flavor or resorting to the use of overripe grapes.

His recently released 2005 Saxon Brown Cabernet Sauvignon is a case in point.

"I call it my anti-Napa Valley cab," he said. "Many winemakers in Napa over-extract because they think that's what people like, and it grabs the big scores. Then they leave (residual) sugar in the finished wine to mask the astringency of the tannin.

"I want something more seductive, more elegant. So for the Saxon Brown Cabernet, I make it the way a pinot noir guy would make cabernet. I age it three years in Burgundy barrels, then several years in bottle before we release it. I made 300 six-packs (150 cases total), and it retails for $75 a bottle. I don't make a lot of it because it isn't easy."

While Gaffner is critical of a popular Napa Valley winemaking technique, it should be noted that he also makes a brilliant cabernet-based red Bordeaux-style blend, Stephanie, for the Hestan family of Napa. While he doesn't barrel down his Stephanie wines in Burgundy barrels, he does employ the same philosophy with respect to extraction and astringency.

"I like to get extraction early in the fementation, at lower levels of alcohol," he said. "The tannins you get at lower alcohol won't take the enamel off your teeth. When you get enough extraction, you don't need more. I stop. In California, I believe we need to learn when to stop."

You may not know MacPhail or Gaffner. Perhaps you haven't even tried their wines. But you've felt their impact nonetheless.

For it is an undeniable fact that more wine enthusiasts are showing support for wines that exhibit the style and sensibilities you will find in the wines of James MacPhail and Jeff Gaffner. They are living the dream, and lucky you get to drink it in.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 6:24 PM

June 12, 2013

Summer Sipping

 I remember a sidewalk cafe on a warm, humid summer day near the historic hotel Le Cep in Beaune, the spiritual center of France's Burgundy district.

One glance at the wine list and my heart sank — Burgundy as far as the eye could see. Under normal circumstances, the offerings of white Burgundy would have been a welcome sight. But on this occasion, with a bright sun beating down, I longed for a cold, crisp, light white wine. Or a rose. Yes, indeed, wine has its seasons, and we are entering a period that calls for gruner veltliner, sauvignon blanc, rose wines from the south of France or the Central Coast of California; or refreshing prosecco from Northern Italy when in the mood for a bubbly.

Gruner, of course, is the Austrian white that is currently in vogue. It typically exhibits bracing acidity with notes of citrus. Gruner is often consumed with steamed or grilled shellfish, but it's delicious on its own and a refreshing palate-pleaser when served well chilled on a warm day. Pfaffl, from a family estate just outside of Vienna, is first-rate and runs about $20. Perhaps the finest domestic gruner is Zocker, made in California's Edna Valley, also costing about $20.

Sauvignon blanc is grown the world over, though it seems to do best in Bordeaux and the Loire Valley regions of France, New Zealand and coastal California. Pascal Jolivet is a trusted source for Sancerre, and it runs about $25 in most parts of the country. Cloudy Bay is the most renowned of all the New Zealand sauvignons, but you will pay upward of $30 when you can find it. For value, few California sauvignons can outshine the Dry Creek Vineyard Fume Blanc at about $14.

Rose wines are difficult to recommend because production of the top wines is generally limited. I enjoy the hunt and am always on the lookout for a good rose. The Eberle winery in Paso Robles produces a delicious rose made from syrah grapes, and it costs $16. If you have a generous budget, then try Domaines Ott from the Provence region in the south of France. It should be in the $40 range.

Prosecco is perfect for summer sipping because it's lighter than Champagne and most domestic bubbly, and generally less expensive. My favorites are Adami and Bisol, each a producer well regarded for exceptional quality. You should be able to source either one for $20 or less.
Posted by Robert Whitley at 10:32 AM