In the California Vineyards: A quick stop at Alpha Omega

I’m finally getting around to blogging about the wineries I visited in California, last fall, after the Wine Bloggers Conference. Maybe I needed to let all that wine tasting and winery visiting steep for a while. Or maybe I just got very busy when I returned from California and never got around to it. Or maybe I’m just a procrastinator, I don’t know.

Anyway, the first winery I’ll tell you about is one I hadn’t originally plan to visit, but am glad I did after all: Alpha Omega. If I went, I have to say that it’s not because of the… ahem… modest name or because Michel Rolland is a consulting winemaker there.

I’d heard about Alpha Omega because Jean Hoefliger, the Swiss-American winemaker working at this ambitious Napa winery, is the brother of a very good friend of mine. So as I planned to head towards Napa, a couple of days after the Wine Bloggers Conference, in late October, it suddenly dawned on me that I should go and meet him, and see what all the fuss was about at the winery he joined after stints at Château Lynch-Bages and Château Carbonnieux, in Bordeaux, as well as Meerlust in South Africa, and then five years as winemaker at Newton Vineyard.

We met late afternoon, at the brand new tasting room set beside a pond, just back from Highway 29 in Rutherford, a little south of Beaulieu Vineyards – and a little further South from the exceedingly busy and popular Rutherford Grill. Behind the tasting room and winery, workers were busily sorting grapes that would soon be transferred in the oak fermenters that Jean favors for cold macerations where he looks to extract smooth tannins and loads of substance, before fermentation begins.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before heading to the tanks and fermenters, we sat on the patio and drank a bit of the AO sauvignon blanc, which Jean said he aimed to make mid-way between a white Bordeaux and a New Zealand sauvignon blanc. And that’s what he got out of it: just a bit of grassy aromas, over rather elegant, neat fruit aromas. As we tasted the wine, we talked about how he had come to Alpha Omega, which was just starting to come into its own, rising from what had previously been Quail Ridge. Jean was getting restless at Newton, where a change of management had taken place, and Peter Newton actually pointed him to the owners of AO. And clearly, the winemaker does not regret his change of venue one bit.

Talking to him, you can sense that he feels truly at home, and that he’s very happy with the means that are offered to him to make the wines that he wants to make. He should be: a quick tour of the winery shows state-of-the-art equipment and just about anything a winemaker needs to get everything he can out of the grapes.

And though Jean Hoefliger clearly will use the tools of modern winemaking to get the most out of his grapes, he insists that he does count on nature as well. For him, the essential part of winemaking is getting good grapes out of the vineyards, first and foremost. And even in the winery, nature should be able to follow its course, he says: he is a firm believer in natural fermentations, which he believes are key to expressing a wine’s full potential. He told me how he saw many winemakers fret when fermentations would slow down in the winter, and how they’d try to heat the wine and restart the process: in his case, he lets the wines rest, and has consistently seen fermentations start again in the spring, following the rhythm of nature.

As we ran through the tanks and sampled 07s and 08s, I was generally impressed by the clean flavors and aromas that emerged from the wines. Lots of substance, but also lots of personality. The petit verdot, both the thick, macerating juice from a small fermenter and a fermented sample from a stainless steel tank, showed particularly well. Jean says it’s his favorite variety, and that he is looking to make some single-varietal bottlings of this relatively rare grape.

One interesting thing I found in the red juices we tasted straight from the oak containers where they were macerating on the skins, was the way the untoasted wood blended in with the fruit flavors, to produce a very intense, velvety set of aromas that made me think of a freshly-made compote. Very distinctive and convincing, and something I was to find in the finished wines that we also tasted before I left.

Jean generously gave me two bottles to bring back home, and I enjoyed tasting them greatly as well, even without his enthusiastic explanations, given at an almost breathless pace as we briskly walked through the installations. Being from 2005 vintage, the wines were not fully made under his supervision, and he is certainly looking forward to getting “his” vintages out over the coming years, and fully showing what the winery is all about.

I guess I’ll just have to go back for another visit…

Here are my tasting notes:

Chardonnay Napa Valley 2005

Open and oaky, with lightly toasted and spicy notes over well-defined citrus aromas. A nice level of acidity gives the ripe fruit a lift, over significant but well-integrated oak. 

Proprietary Red Wine Napa Valley 2005

This Bordeaux blend of mostly cabernet sauvignon with merlot and petit verdot shows striking aromas of fresh grapes and prune preserves, with a lovely dose of spiciness. The wood is very present, but so smooth and well-integrated – according to Jean, that would be because of the barrel-maceration. The texture, almost like a compote, is luscious and smooth, but with a decent amount of freshness. The tannins are fine and smooth. The wine feels concentrated and well-defined, but not overextracted or pushed beyond its limits.

For both wines, my stylistic preferences would have gone to a little more acidity and slightly lower alcohol (they clock in at 14.5% for the chardonnay, 14.9% for the red) that might allow the distinctive vineyard character to shine through a bit more. But again, there was no heaviness to these two wines, and they show such a true sense of identity and personality that I could find no real reason to complain.

Peter Brook, one of the greatest theater directors of the 20th Century, wrote that everything is possible, in the theater, but that you can’t just do anything. You need a clear set of ideas, precisely executed, to produce successful work. Jean Hoefliger certainly has that, and I hope I get the chance to follow his work over the coming years.

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