Friday, April 27, 2007

Winery Watch: Vinum Cellars

Here's the latest in my Friday posts highlighting California family wineries. You might not be familiar with all of 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! To read previous posts in the series, click here.

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 very good chenin blanc, with a nice balance between bright citrus and soft melon flavors and aromas. A slightly silky texture makes this wine distinctive and elegant. Excellent QPR.

2004 Vinum Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon "Slow Lane" ($27). This is an excellent value in a Napa Valley cabernet. Warm aromas and flavors of cocoa and cassis are dusted with cinnamon, and these flavors develop throughout the long, juicy finish. Pull out the steaks, fire up the bbq. Excellent QPR.

2005 Vinum Cellars Petite Sirah PETS Wilson Vineyards ($14). The wine with Tanker on the label, this is another great Clarksburg wine from Ken Wilson's fruit that's slightly rustic in style, with brushy and herbal aromas and flavors, accompanied by red currant fruit. I'd be tempted to see how this wine would be in the fall, when it has a chance to settle down a bit since it's still pretty young. But if you can't wait, you're still in for a brawny red treat. A portion of the proceeds benefits the San Francisco SPCA. Very good QPR.

2005 Vinum Cellars Viognier VIO ($25). Made from fruit from San Benito County on the Central Coast, this excellent viognier has pronounced floral aromas or honeysuckle and jasmine and the taste of honeydew melons. It is perfumed and juicy, the perfect summer sipper. Very good QPR.

2006 Vinum Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon It's Okay! ($11). A rich rose, made of 100% cab grapes from Napa. Yes, a rose made with expensive cabernet grapes. It is dry, made in the Tavel style of France, with beautiful raspberry aromas and flavors, touched with a strawberry note. This is not your parents blush wine. Try it with bbq chicken, or some seared tuna. Very good QPR.

2004 Vinum Cellars Red Dirt Red ($30). This Rhone-style blend was made from grapes sourced in the Sierra Foothills of El Dorado County. In Chris and Richard's hands the classic combination of syrah, grenache and mourvedre yields a wine where rich red fruits combine with floral aromas of roses and violets to produce something really interesting and complex. Good QPR.

2004 Vinum Cellars Cabernet Franc "The Scrapper." ($30) A scrappy wine made with El Dorado fruit and an unapologetic attitude. Red currant aromas and flavors are held in check with a solid grip of tannins and a green freshness that would make this perfect for London broil marinated with balsamic vinegar and lots of rosemary. I think this will also settle down a bit and lose some of its tannins over the summer, so if you have a few bottles you might want to set some aside for beef stew in the fall. Good QPR.

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.


Orion Slayer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Orion Slayer said...

I first read about Vinum Cellars in Wine Waves - - when Jerry Hall review the Chard-No-Way. I bought a bottle and enjoyed it.

I'll have to pick up a bottle of the Petite Sirah. I've seen the bottle before and been put off by the dog on the label. I've got to remember, I'm drinking the wine not the label. I'm still looking for a wine bottle with a football on the label!

Do you know if Vinum Cellars is still giving a portion of the proceeds from the Petite Sirah to their local Animal Shelter (San Francisco SPCA)?

I especially like that the grapes for these wines come from my "backyard." I'll have to visit Wilson Vineyards (along with Boger Winery) in Clarksburg soon. Living in Sacramento puts me smack dab in the middle of great wine country all within an hour's drive!

Anonymous said...

Mmmm, I love the PETS and such a good price. Will have to give more Vinum a go, esp. with your glowing recs.

Dr. Debs said...

Hi Orionslayer. Vinum still donates a portion of its proceeds for PETS to local animal shelters, though which is their "local" may vary from year to year. I wish I had the brains to go to Clarksburg when I lived in Davis. Can't believe I never went there. Check out the link to Wilson Vineyards for more information. And Farley, try the whites. They're good, too.

Unknown said...

Hi all. We do indeed still donate a portion of our profits on PETS and our Rose -- 1% of Gross Sales (not profit) go to the San Francisco SPCA (the West Coast's oldest no-kill shelter) and the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Research Foundation, respectively. We have donated over $25,000 in the past five years, so thanks to all our fans out there! Thanks also for the kind comments and the nice write-up; we really appreciate it. Best wishes and Cheers,
Caleb Taft
Sales Manager
Vinum Cellars

Dr. Debs said...

Hi Caleb! Thanks for stopping by and clarifying things. 2 worthy causes--that's twice the reason to by PETS!

Anonymous said...

I just purchased a bottle of Vinum Viognier 06, and absolutely love it. Sweet and fruity. Delish!