The Winos’ Winemakers series: a handful of reds from Black Sheep Finds

By Jesse on November 10, 2008

Even the most net-savvy Wino can occasionally be nonplussed by the converging realms of online wine sales and objective wine blogging. Is this a review, or a sales pitch? Where does the commentary end and the commerce begin? Does the Jets fan yelling at me from inside my computer want me to learn about wine, or just buy his wine?

Several of the hybrid sites, however, offer rewarding experiences, whether browsing, buying, or just learning — and the most LA-centric that we’ve discovered is Domaine547.com. Run by Angeleno Jill Bernheimer, the site boasts a friendly and informative blog, a lively forum, and a store stocked with eclectic and well-priced bottles. Best of all, Jill offers free shipping within Los Angeles!

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The only way Jill might’ve aspired to be more Wino-rific is if she convinced a couple of her winemakers to come in and talk to the group. It was in inspired fashion, then, that she recently introduced the Winos to winemakers Peter Hunken and Amy Christine of Black Sheep Finds, a small label specializing in unique and affordable wines from around the globe.

Jill describes Domaine547 as “a small internet retail store,” but we haven’t encountered very many retail sites offering this amount of additional content. The blog itself runs the gamut from practical (“BYO restaurants in Los Angeles“) to conversational (“automated wine tasting: love it or hate it?“) to downright delightful (“Kyle McLachlan makes wine?“). “Domaine547 is the type of website I wish I’d encountered when I was learning about wine,” she said. “It’s a very soft-sell oriented store — a place for me to combine a blog, a learning site, with an opportunity for people to actually experience the wine.”

The first wine we experienced that night was the 2006 Hocus Pocus Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley). “Oregon is subject to a lot more rain than we are,” explained Peter. “They have consistently tough vintages. The anomaly is when you have a big warm vintage.” Andrew got Peach on the nose, and Sasha got cranberry. Emily picked up some “wet forest,” and I got some gamey/bacon action. Jessica said it smelled like someone “lit some peat moss on fire,” and Sasha gave the nod to some “smoked gorgonzola.”

The palate was brightly acidic, offering “bittersweet” chocolate, according to Jason, along with what Jessica pegged as “fresh cedar wood chips.” Several new Winos were in attendance; newbie Joe picked up some “orange liqueur,” which Jill thought actually tasted more like lime. Andrew and Jessica both appreciated the acidity; Noah complimented its persistence on the long finish.

To what motivation can Black Sheep Finds trace its origins? “It was just our little love project,” said Amy — who also works as a sommelier, distributor and wine blogger. Peter, whose other winemaking credits include Stolpman, Piedrasassi and Holus Bolus, explained the philosophy behind the Black Sheep Finds lineup: “we wanted to bridge the gap between boutique wines and value wines.” Obviously, that’s a broad mandate; I asked him if he and Amy aspired to any particular overarching style. “The house style,” he said, “is to make a wine that’s very drinkable. Don’t blast it with oak, don’t let it lose its character.”

Next up was the 2006 Dalla Pancia (Chianti), Amy and Peter’s lone international wine; although winemaking duties are performed in surrogate by a friend of theirs, the pair traveled to Italy in May of 2007 to taste the components and come up with an ideal blend. On the nose, Andrew picked up clove and “Dove soap,” while Jason got nutmeg and black pepper. Newbie Tanya got hints of walnuts and paprika, Newsha got bark, and Jessica cited blackberry.

Dalla Pancia means “of the belly,” and the Winos were eager to put this fragrant little number into theirs. The palate was light bodied, featuring dusty tannins; Jason got black pepper notes, and Jessica said it tasted like she “peppered some leather and ate it.” Joe said he enjoyed the strong acid elements. “Sangiovese is known for its bracing acidity,” said Peter, “and the ’06 was a classic vintage in Chianti.” The finish offered an extension of the tannins along with some refreshing sour cherry notes.

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Andrew’s attentive, even when eating dinner; serious winemakers call for serious journalism; the official lineup

Third in the tasting order was the 2005 Genuine Risk Cabernet Sauvignon (Santa Ynez), featuring 12% Merlot from Happy Canyon. This wasn’t quite like any Cab we’d ever smelled before: the nose burst forth with huge red berries, blueberry notes, and raspberry jam. Andrew claimed to smell some “hospital,” and Noah betrayed his Virginia plantation roots by picking up a hint of tobacco. Sasha added to the debate by claiming some “rye and/or pumpernickel notes.” A beguiling nose indeed, and a persuasive argument for segueing into the tasting portion.

The palate weighed in on the full side, offering a dark, sticky mix of flavors. I picked up some chocolate brownie, and this seemed to me as much a textural experience as a flavor observation. Allison got “molten lava cake,” and Tanya continued the theme by offering “bittersweet chocolate, especially on the finish.” I picked up a bit of heat throughout, but this mellowed into clean spice notes on the finish. Sasha loved it, and Jessica called it a “taste party” — her “green pepper” note, however, was met with universal disagreement. What everyone did agree on, though, was that this chewy chocolate-bomb was a far cry from your typical Napa expression of the grape, albeit a delightful one.

101_4754.JPGThe “cork debate” has worked its way into the Black Sheep Finds managerial dynamic. “I tried to get the Hocus Pocus in screwcaps, and Peter said absolutely not,” explained Amy. Why the closure-ism on Peter’s part? “I like cork,” he said, “not just because of the romance of it, but because it’s all-natural and recyclable.” Screwcaps, theoretically, are recyclable too, but they’re certainly not as renewable as a substance that grows on trees. Plus, Amy was quick to point out the twistaphobia that still persists in society. “People have no problem with screwcaps on New Zealand or Australian wines,” she said. “But on American bottles, I feel like consumers still prefer bottles with corks.”

Our next entry was the flagship BSF wine, the 2006 Hocus Pocus Syrah (Santa Barbara County). Jessica kicked things off by confessing that she thought it smelled a bit like Riesling; Peter wasn’t surprised, though, as the wine includes a dose of Viognier for aromatics. Allison got pecan pie, Tanya picked up a hint of honey, and Andrew got butterscotch. Jason and I observed black pepper, while Noah praised the loamy character.

Upon tasting the palate, Joe found it a bit tight, and thought it could’ve used some decanting. Jessica disagreed, lauding the “leathery and earthy” notes. Jason appreciated the delicately spicy elements, as did Andrew, who also picked up some cola. Joe noted that the wine offered “a little more refined character” than “your typical California Syrah.” I agreed — there was none of the violent barrage of black pepper that sometimes plagues the varietal. Jessica and Andrew both called it “great,” and Sasha noted that “these are all Sasha-friendly reds.”

Two points struck me as we tasted through the Black Sheep Finds lineup. First of all, there were no whites to be found. “There’s a lot of affordable white wine out there already,” explained Peter. “There’s no real reason to do it.” My other observation concerned their decision to make wine in several different parts of the world: how does a winemaker attempt to create brand identification when the offerings are so diverse? “I find that people identify much more strongly with Amy and Peter than they do with Black Sheep Finds,” said Jill. “And they identify more with the individual labels than they do with Black Sheep Finds.” Besides, Amy pointed out, the diversity of their lineup is part of the appeal. “Who wants to sit around and drink wine from the same region all the time?”

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Jason likes what he tastes; Jessica takes a healthy pour; a bottle wrapped in an enigma…

Our final bottle was Jill’s own private label, the 2005 The Great Whatsit Syrah (Santa Ynez Valley), which she purchased in “shiners” (already bottled) from Stolpman. “They had a tasting room wine which had been bottled but couldn’t be sold,” explained Peter, “due to legal issues with the name.” Their loss was Jill’s gain, as the nose immediately offered up some engaging elements on the first sniff. Tanya picked up mint notes, while I detected some fresh-cut parsley. Jessica got raspberry and blueberry, and Sasha offered up “sweet mozzarella.” Andrew observed chocolate brownie notes, but thought the nose was running a little hot. Jill agreed that the wine would benefit from a couple hours open to let the alcohol breeze off.

The palate was all ready to go, however — I got some huge extracted berry action right off the bat. Noah got asphalt, and Jessica called it “nectary” and a little viscous. I began to pick up some blueberry syrup character, and Jason said it reminded him of a Zinfandel. Andrew thought the alcohol was a bit high on the finish, but Amy felt that the fruit supported the alcohol handily. For me, the finish offered up a healthy dose of black licorice, and I appreciated the wine’s formidable presence; clearly, we’d tasted these in the right order.

What impressed us about the Black Sheep Finds crew was that they clearly aspire to create the very type of wines that appeal so strongly to the Young Wino palate. “When people buy a Black Sheep Finds wine, our goal is for that wine to over-deliver,” said Peter. “With our wines, you’ll never feel ripped off.” He senses a shift in consumer interest towards value-oriented, small-production labels. “Ten years ago, people going out to restaurants didn’t want to drink a good by-the-glass wine for $12, they wanted Opus One.” But as wine buyers get younger and younger still, smaller producers have the opportunity to cater to an ever-growing demand for interesting, inexpensive bottles.

“We open a bottle five or six times a week,” Peter said. “Who can do that for $40, $50 a bottle?” Amy agreed. “I don’t buy clothes, I don’t buy shoes… we spend our money on drinking good wine.” Spoken like a true Wino. (Come to think of it, I haven’t bought a new pair of shoes since 2005… the same year I started the group. Go figure.)

And speaking of spending money on drinking good wine, all of the bottles reviewed above are available on the Domaine547 website:

2006 Hocus Pocus Pinot Noir ($24)
2006 Dalla Pancia Chianti ($22)
2005 Genuine Risk Cabernet Sauvignon ($21)
2006 Hocus Pocus Syrah ($18)
2005 The Great Whatsit Syrah ($20)

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Cheese time; Newsha and Jessica pontificate; Jill and the winemakers attempt to address a slew of hard-hitting questions

The Young Winos of LA: edutoxicating Los Angeles since 2005

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