Today’s post is about wine and women, friendship and family. The wines are chardonnay and pinot noir from Cambria Vineyards and Winery and WindRacer. The women include Barbara Banke, chairwoman and proprietor of Jackson Family Wines (image at right); her daughters, Katie and Julia Jackson; winemakers Denise Shurtleff and Elizabeth Grant-Douglas; and Banke’s longtime friend and business partner, Peggy Furth. Together, they carry on the legacy of Barbara Banke’s husband and Katie and Julia’s father, Jess Jackson (1930-2011), who founded what was known as Kendall-Jackson in 1982. Through fairly aggressive marketing and acquisitions and different manifestations of the company and its name, Kendall-Jackson eventually became Jackson Family Wines.
One of Jess Jackson’s purchases, occurring in 1986, was about 700 acres of the Tepusquet vineyard in Santa Barbara County’s Santa Maria Valley. The estate was the site of a Mexican land grant in 1838. Vines were planted here in 1970 and ’71 by the Lucas brothers, who sold to Jackson and Banke after financial reverses. In 1989, Jackson built a large winery at Tepusquet and named it Cambria. The vineyard, as in most of the rest of Santa Maria Valley, was planted primarily to chardonnay and pinot noir. The wines were issued as “Katherine’s Vineyard” for chardonnay and “Julia’s Vineyard” for pinot noir, though for the current releases reviewed below those designations became the catch-all “Benchbreak.” Katie and Julia Jackson are described on the winery’s website as “family spokespersons.” Winemaker is Denise Shurtleff.
WindRacer is a chardonnay-and-pinot-noir-only brand born of an on-going discussion between Barbara Banke and her friend Peggy Furth about the merits of those grape varieties in Anderson Valley and Russian River Valley, Banke championing Anderson Valley, Furth advocating for Russian River Valley. Furth is a partner with Banke in WholeVine Products, a company that produces grapeseed oil, gluten-free cookies and grapeseed and skin flours; she is former co-proprietor of Chalk Hill Vineyards. While the conventional view might be that Anderson Valley (in Mendocino County) is cooler, so the wines will be more focused on structure, and Russian River Valley is warmer, so the wines will be riper and richer, I found these chardonnays and pinot noir wines to be more complicated, with more wealth of detail and dimension, than that assessment would dictate. Winemaker is Elizabeth Grant-Douglas, who also makes excellent pinot noir at Maggy Hawk, another Anderson Valley pinot noir producer contained within Jackson Family Wine’s Spire Collection of top-flight labels.
These wines were samples for review. Image of Barbara Banke from jacksonfamilywines.com..
The Cambria “Benchbreak” Chardonnay 2014, Santa Maria Valley, derives from 15 vineyard blocks cultivated individually. The wine aged six and a half months in 76 percent French oak, 14 percent new barrels; we are not told but I assume the balance aged in stainless steel. The color is pale gold; pert aromas of green apple and spiced pear offer freshness and immediate appeal, while a few moments in the glass bring in deeper notes of pineapple and peach; a clean, earthly line runs through it. The wine is quite dry, riven by bright acidity and a scintillating limestone element, while delivering juicy citrus and stone-fruit flavors, with a bare hint at the tropical; the oak influence remains on the periphery, subtle but persistent. 14.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2019 or 2020. Very Good+. About $22.
The Cambria “Benchbreak” Pinot Noir 2013, Santa Maria Valley, aged eight months in French oak, 27 percent new barrels. The color is transparent medium ruby shading to a nearly invisible rim; this is an incredibly attractive pinot noir that opens with notes of black cherry, cranberry and rhubarb, cloves, sandalwood and potpourri, tied off with a tinge of violets; a few moments in the glass add hints of loam, pomegranate and sauteed mushrooms. The lovely texture drapes the palate with satiny grace, while a finger of acidity stirs in the depths; it’s a sleek, suave and delicious wine burnished by a backwash of bristly tannins, smoke and graphite. 13.5 percent alcohol. Now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $25.
The WindRacer Chardonnay 2012, Anderson Valley, aged 14 months in French oak, 26 percent new barrels. It offers a pale straw-gold hue and quickly noticeable aromas of pineapple and grapefruit, quince, talc and lilac, with a slender hint of mango. It’s a very dry chardonnay, enlivened by lip-smacking acidity and limestone-chalk minerality and altogether a wine of beautiful shape, presence and tone. It’s pretty dense on the palate, with a slightly powdery texture that remains crisp and clean and fresh. The oak lends nuance and layering, coming out more prominently on the finish. 13.8 percent alcohol. Production was 513 cases. Drink now through 2019 to 2022. Excellent. About $40.
So, is the WindRacer Chardonnay 2012, Russian River Valley, a mirror of its Anderson Valley cousin, a simulacrum or its opposite? The color is pale gold, and the aromas of jasmine and mango open to more incisive elements of pineapple and baked grapefruit; the wine is a touch creamy, with notes of baked pear, roasted lemon and lemon balm. Still, I was pleased with the decisive acidity and limestone minerality that characterize this chardonnay’s structure and keep it from being too rich and lush; in fact, you detect the oak a bit more in this wine than in the previous chardonnay, particularly (but not dominantly) from mid-palate back through the shimmering, slightly sinewy finish. 14.6 percent alcohol. Production was 1,015 cases. Drink now through 2019 to 2022. Very Good+. About $40.
Give the WindRacer Pinot Noir 2012, Anderson Valley, a few minutes in the glass and it becomes extravagantly floral, displaying winsome notes of rose petals, lilac and lavender. Before that panoply — with its transparent medium ruby hue shading to a pale, delicate rim — the wine offers aromas of smoky black cherries and raspberries, permeated by cloves and pomegranate, sassafras and loam. The texture is dense, passionately satiny, intense and talc-like yet deeply imbued with elements of briers and brambles, graphite-tinged tannin and straight-arrow acidity; there’s a sense of interior rigor and energy that brings ultimate balance to the package. The finish is quite dry, layered with flint, dried blueberries and something dark, rooty and tea-like. 14.5 percent alcohol. The wine aged 15 months in French oak, 20 percent new barrels. Drink now through 2020 to ’22. Production was 1,007 cases. A marvel of nuance and expressiveness. Exceptional. About $50.
And as to that wine’s Russian River Valley counterpart? While the WindRacer Pinot Noir 2012, Russian River Valley, is, as expected, bolder, denser and more exotic than its Anderson Valley stablemate, it’s also even more rigorous, with a healthy dose of dust and graphite, a woodsy, loamy pinot noir that’s supple and satiny and fairly surprising in its mineral-laden tannins. The wine practically smells velvety — the color is dark ruby with a glowing magenta rim — and it delivers seductive notes of smoky black cherry and raspberry with a touch of plum and hints of cloves and sandalwood, lavender and violets and an interesting bit of almond skin. The wine aged 15 months in French oak, 28 percent new barrels; you feel a dollop of that oak through the penetrating, vibrant finish. 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 1,527 cases. Drink now through 2020 to ’22. Excellent. About $50.