Do you remember your first Vinum wine? I do. I was heartily sick of over-oaked Chardonnay and a wine merchant in Davis, CA suggested I try Chenin Blanc. It was 1999 or 2000. There was a lot of Chardonnay around. A lot. Chenin Blanc? Who had heard of such a silly idea? I think I rolled my eyes.
He handed me a bottle with a label bearing the picture of two guys hitch-hiking near Clarksburg with a sign that said "Will Work for Chenin." That was enough to get me to take the wine, and as I was checking out the guy at the store said, "They're Aggies, you know." At home, when I opened the wine on a hot, hot Davis day capable of searing the flesh inside your nose (UC Davis alums will instantly know just what I mean), I thought I was in nirvana. Leave it to two Aggies to come up with the perfect summer wine. It was cool, crisp, and refreshing. I was sold on Chenin, sold on Vinum, and became a life-long fan. I was not alone. Friends started boasting that they were members of the "ABC" club (Anything But Chardonnay) after tasting their first Vinum Chenin Blanc, too.
I give UC Davis alums Richard Bruno and Chris Condos a lot of credit in the transformation of the American palate. (photo of Chris, Jack the dog, and Richard courtesy of Vinum Cellars). Since the first 1998 bottling of Vinum CNW (Chard-No-Way) Chenin Blanc, they were leaders in showing US drinkers that they didn't need to drink oaky wines all the time. The two decided to start Vinum Cellars based on friendship and their mutual love of not only chenin blanc, but other once obscure varietals. Their first bottle of Mourvedre, for instance, also dates back to 1998, along with their first bottle of Cabernet Franc. We take these varietals a bit for granted now, but in the late 1990s--they were revolutionary.
Today Richard and Chris work with family growers from Clarksburg to Santa Barbara, and from El Dorado County to Napa to make their fun and affordable line of wines, following in the footsteps of the negociants of Europe. They buy fruit from specific growers, overseeing the production themselves, and then marketing the resulting wines under the Vinum Cellars label. Ken Wilson (pictured at right with his beloved and famous dog, Tanker from the PETS Petite Sirah label, courtesy of Vinum Cellars), is one of those growers, and his family have been raising grapes in Clarksburg since the 1920s and have been growing wine grapes since 1971 when they planted their first 15 acres of Zinfandel grapes. Just 15 minutes from downtown Sacramento, today Wilson Vineyards grows over eight varietals for Vinum and other winemakers in California.
Vinum Cellars make what I call "go-to wines"--those essential wines that no matter the vintage or the varietal turn out to be great purchases. Spanning the spectrum of price points from barely over $10 to $30, there is a bottle for every purse, and every occasion. Here are a few highlights from their current releases that I particularly recommend for their great taste and great value:
2006 Vinum Cellars Chenin Blanc CNW (Chard-No-Way). ($11) From the Wilson vineyards in Clarksburg comes this
2004 Vinum Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon "Slow Lane" ($27). This is an excellent value in a Napa Valley cabernet.
2005 Vinum Cellars Petite Sirah PETS
2005 Vinum Cellars Viognier VIO ($25). Made from fruit from San Benito County on the Central Coast, this excellent
2004 Vinum Cellars Red Dirt Red ($30). This Rhone-style blend was made from grapes sourced in the Sierra Foothills of El Dorado County.
2004 Vinum Cellars Cabernet Franc "The Scrapper."
So if you find yourself in a wine store with no familiar bottles in sight and you spot one of the Vinum labels, pick it up without hesitation and know that you're in for a treat. But why wait until you're desperate? Try a Vinum bottling soon by clicking on one of the highlighted wines above. You'll be taken in some cases to Vinum's online store, and in some cases to a list of merchants in the US who stock their wines. Even if you aren't a member of the ABC club, there's a Vinum wine for you.