Friday, March 30, 2007

Winery Watch: Ballentine Vineyards

This is the first in a series of posts highlighting California family wineries. You might not be familiar with them--yet--but they produce wines that speak with the voices of this state's people, places, and history. They are worth seeking out. These posts will be longer than most posts on the blog, but I hope you will find them perfect for leisurely weekend reading and internet browsing. Have fun!

This old Chenin Blanc vine from the Napa Valley represents the essence of Ballentine Vineyards. (photo courtesy of Ballentine Vineyards) With roots that extend back into the history of California winemaking, and a philosophy that embraces the best modern methods within a family-run operation, the Ballentine Vineyards team is producing some simply excellent wines as I discovered recently at the Family Winemakers of California tasting in Pasadena. Van and Betty Ballentine, along with wine-maker Bruce Devlin, presented a lineup of wines where every sip was better than the last. They said Napa Valley to me, and exhibited textbook varietal characteristics along with fabulous terroir.

The Ballentine story begins in 1884, when Betty Ballentine's grandfather, Libero Pocai, arrived in the US from Lucca, Italy. In San Francisco, Libero met and married Maria Cristofani and the two left the city following the devastating 1906 earthquake. He purchased 60 acres in the upper Napa Valley near Calistoga--about as close to viticultural heaven as you can get. The Pocais planted Zinfandel, Gamay, Charbono, Merlot, and Petite Sirah vines and started the 115th bonded winery in the state of California. This historic ranch was Betty's home, and the Pocai vineyards continue to produce the bulk of Merlot grapes used by Ballentine.

Around the same time as Libero and Maria Pocai moved to the Napa Valley, John Ballentine came to the US from Ireland. It was 1910, and John Ballentine lived in San Francisco for a decade before heading for the Napa Valley. In 1922, John purchased the original Sutter Home Winery which had become derelict due to Prohibition and renamed it Deer Park. Then, he waited. He was ready in 1933, when Prohibition was lifted, to bottle his first vintage. Cabernets, Zinfandels, and Rieslings all came from the Deer Park vines until, in 1959, Deer Park stopped making its own wines and began selling grapes to other makers such as Ravenswood, Rombauer, and Caymus. These were tough times for the wine industry, and many small family operations closed their doors.

Thankfully for us, after years of selling their grapes to others, Betty and Van Ballentine decided to revive the Ballentine brand. They built their own winery behind their farmhouse in 1995, and recently opened a tasting room that is open for visitors. Once they got things up and running they hired UC Davis graduate Bruce Devlin, a San Jose native with wine-making experience gleaned in Germany, South Africa, and Australia, to be their winemaker. In 1999 he joined the Ballentine crew, and was given the freedom to follow the grapes and his own inspiration in making wines. Check out The Cork Board's "5 Questions" interview with Devlin that was posted just this week to learn more.

Even with all that history, the Ballentines are still trying new things and developing new wines. Ballentine just released their first Cabernet Sauvignon from the Maple Lane Vineyard ($60) and if you are looking for a very, very special bottle of red for a gift or a family meal, this would be an excellent choice. (photo of Van Ballentine amid the cab vines at Maple Lane, courtesy of Ballentine Vineyards). It has amazing complexity, with intricate aromas of black cherry and fresh ground pepper. These notes follow through on the palate, along with an entire herb garden and spice cabinet of additional flavors, including vanilla, licorice, and mint. Get it while you can, and stash it away for the holidays. I think it is going to become a coveted and highly collectible wine.

Here are some of my other top picks along with brief impressions of the wines I tasted recently. You can click on the wine's name and be whisked straight to the Ballentine site to read more, and order some for delivery.

2006 Ballentine Chenin Blanc Old Vines ($15). A brisk and ref
reshing chenin blanc made from grapes grown in the historic Pocai family vineyards, with good acidity combined with aromas and flavors of pear and minerals. Perfect for spring and summer sipping on the porch, or with some fried chicken or bbq. Excellent QPR.

2002 Ballentine Zinfandel Old Vines ($18). What a beautiful color on this wine! Aromas of black and blue berries, with flavors of cranberry and cracked black pepper. Pizza, pasta, or grilled meats would be great with it. Excellent QPR.

2002 Ballentine Merlot Estate Grown ($22). Another find from Ballentine, which has received very favorable press reviews, this is a fantastic merlot with yummy black and red fruit aromas and flavors accented by warm notes of currant, spice, and pepper. Excellent QPR.

2002 Ballentine Zinfandel Reserve Block 9 ($27). This outstanding zin had complex aromas of flowers, black fruits, and spice which are also present in the flavors. Serious bang for the buck, with lots of complexity. I would buy this in a heart-beat. It's that good (and I'm not alone in thinking so. If you are a reader of wine mags you may have seen the positive reviews of this wine). Very good QPR.

2004 Ballentine Petite Sirah Field Blend ($35). Just 100 cases were produced of this outstanding blend of Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, Syrah, and Carignane--all grown in the same vineyard. Intense blackberry flavors and aromas in a silky package, this wine would be a great match with a wide variety of foods. I really liked this wine, with its intriguing mixture of blockbuster fruit and elegant mouthfeel. Good QPR.

2002 Ballentine Integrity ($32). A very good, soft merlot blend with abundant aromas and flavors of blackberries, black cherries, vanilla, and herbs. Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc. I can't think of any food that would fail to pair well with this wine. Very food friendly. Good QPR.

These Ballentine bottlings represent the kind of wine we should be drinking.

They are such good value, and produced with such care. At a time when Napa wine prices are reaching stratospheric price levels, it is amazing to see how the Ballentines are able to make such seriously good wine at these prices. Their wines are readily available in LA, can be had directly from the vineyard, and I'm guessing you can find them at a wine store near you. If not, then march up to the counter and suggest that the buyer starts stocking these wonderfully affordable Napa wines.

Spread the word. Drink their wine. And if you are a fan of Ballentine wines, leave a comment and let us know which one is your favorite.

Next week: Four Vines Winery


Unknown said...

Great post Debs, very fun and entertaining. I'm a fan of Ballentine as well. Looking forward to reading more California family wineries posts ; ).

Anonymous said...

Great post. I've been a fan for quite a while and have met most of their team.

If you haven't yet, you must try the Zinfandel Port. Just delicious.

Unknown said...

Yes Joel, we know you're popular and cool. Yes you know most of their team, no need to rub it in all of our faces...

Dr. Debs said...

Hi guys! No fighting! Not even good friends get to fight in my comments area! I met some of their their team, too. I sure hope that makes me cool :). Thanks for the positive feedback, and I will definitely put the Zin Port on my list to try. Love ports, so that should be a treat.

Sonadora said...

Looking forward to seeing more articles in this series Dr.Debs!

winedeb said...

Nice info ! Am going up north in a month or so and taking in everyone's suggestions on wine. It is hard sometimes to find some new wines in Key West. I am not in a wine club as the wine gets toasted on it's way here. So my trips to the mainland are a real treat! thanks!

Dr. Debs said...

Thanks, Sonadora. And Deb, I love those kind of wine shopping trips, where you stock up with mixed case boxes of wines that look interesting or you've been looking for, and you go home, unpack them, and feel RICH for weeks. Then, of course, you just want more wine! And I understand the cooked wine thing. Here in CA, wine can cook just getting from the store to your house some days!

Anonymous said...

lol...just got back to reading these. I guess Ryan is referring to a similar comment I left elsewhere. Just want to convey that the guys (and gals) at Ballentine are really good people. I'm really happy to see others picking up on their wine...

Dr. Debs said...

Hey Joel. Just wanted everyone reading to know the two of you actually ARE friends so the joshing was all in fun. And I was personally so delighted to fall into the "cool" bracket by extension. Hardly ever happens to us geeks!