A Week of Ballentine

So I’ve said before that wine blogs are a great source of discovering smaller wine producers that remain largely overlooked by the large magazines that, quite frankly, don’t have the bandwidth to deal with all vintages and varietals from all wineries. If you’re a publisher of a wine blog, however, you are part of a wine blog-based army of tasters going out and tasting wines from all sorts of producers and, more often than not, finding gems that have never been written about.

So now I’m going to put forth one that is a bit of an unknown quantity. Ballentine Vineyards – a small producer established in 1993 on 100 acres in St. Helena that produces less than 10,000 cases a year of Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Zinfandel, Syrah, Chenin Blanc, and a Cab Franc/Merlot blend called Bg Integrity. When I say small, I mean small. They employ about 7 people and one day the sales/pr/spokesperson/jack-of-all-trades Mesha Provo contacted me to tell me about their newly released Chenin Blanc. After speaking to her I asked why she was small and why they haven’t scaled up the operation. Her response was that Van and Betty Ballentine have a simple philosophy of “we like it small so we want it to stay that way.” While I can’t speak for their consistency of great wine making, I will say that the Kelly and I did a Ballentine Week and made notes each night of a different wine and we were pretty impressed overall.

Ballentine’s first vintage was in 1933, right after the end of prohibition. It was at a different vineyard than the current incarnation of Ballentine. It was at his father’s original winery, Deer Park estate (which now has a road in Napa Valley named after it – Deer Park. Van, then a young boy, was actually involved in the making of that first vintage. His father’s original winery closed in 1959, but Van owned another vineyard site, which was purchased in 1949, at the base of Howell Mountain on Crystal Springs Road. To date, Van has worked more than 60 vintages in Napa Valley. His family winery and vineyards have always been the core of his working life.

Betty and Van met as children, were both from Napa Valley, and were both winery kids. They have been happily married for over 50 years. Van and Betty spent many years selling their grapes to other wineries including Cabernet Sauvignon to Caymus, Cabernet Franc to Rombauer, Zinfandel to

Rosenblum, Ravenswood and Mondavi. In 1992 they started having their grapes custom crushed for small production. Today their production is less than 10,000 cases of Zinfandel, Syrah, Merlot and with a future release of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah and Cabernet Franc.

My encouter with them was through this blog. Mesha contacted me after reading through the blog and told me about their Chenin Blanc. Interesting, I thought, because Chenin Blanc is mostly known for the Loire Valley appellations and, as Tom at FERMENTATIONS points out in his story about the winery (nice work Mesha), its long been supplanted by its more profitable cousin Cabernet Sauvignon in CA. This definitely seemed intriguing.

Mesha did provide Kelly and I with some wine for us to sample and here’s what we found:

2004 Old Vines Chenin Blanc, Estate Grown
As it turns out, we were pretty excited about this wine actually. It was a clear, bright, straw yellow color with a citrus and flower aroma that evoked images of a late spring picnic lunch. Really very aromatic. The citrus aromas carry into a honey-grapefruit taste as you sip the wine. A surprising well structured wine with very balanced taste and not overwhelmingly acidic and with good body. You also pick up a vanilla taste in there as you drink it down. The wine finishes off with a long, crisp apple finish. This is a very notable wine and we fully intend to stock up on it as Spring and Summer roll around. This wine is an ideal warm weather, outdoor lunch type of drink. At about $10 a bottle this is quite a find.

2000 Old Vines Syrah, Napa Valley Estate Grown
One of the first things that strike you about this wine is its very deep purple color that is relentless throughout the glass. The aroma is a sort of a mixure of cherry, blackberry, and licorice. We decided to pair this wine with my aunt Vivi’s secret steak recipe (yes, this site’s namesake) since we thought this would be a fairly robust wine. That turned out to be the exact right choice. The wine itself has a solid licorice and blackberry flavor with a medium length leather finish. This went well with the steak, which has a combination of spices that niether overwhelmed the wine or vice versa. The wine was slightly acidic and so we decanted the wine for about an hour and tasted again. Once decanted the wine did open up nicely and the acidity definitely subsided. The licorice taste from earlier gave way to more fruity, black cherry flavors with more of a pepper finish. Definitely a full bodied wine with alot of character. A fairly solid Syrah that was enjoyable and went well with the grilled steak

2003 Zinfandel, Pocai Vineyard Block 11, Napa Valley, Estate Grown
It was a toss up between this Zin and the Chenin Blanc as to which would be our pick of the litter. The wine has a deep purple/ruby red color with a cocoa, raspberry and vanilla nose. The initial taste was a little tart, but that is again solved by decanting for a while. Its a very full bodied, complex wine with many flavors. The most notable we the cinnamon, cherry, and raspberry – really pleasure. Then this wine finishes you off with a good but slightly disappointingly short pepper finish. Then again, I think I was disappointed with the finish because I didn’t want the experience to end. Yeah, I guess I sorta got into this one. Nice job Van! (or should I say Bruce Devlin – the wine maker).

2000 Bg Integrity, Napa Valley, Estate Grown
Down from that high the last night (in fact, LAST night) we can to the 2000 Bg Integrity. I don’t know if the other wines had set a pretty high bar so I built up my expectations or what but this signature blend (52% Merlot, 48% Cabernet Franc) fell a little short for me (Kelly wasn’t tasting last night). The color was a nice purple and the nose had an interesting earthy-wood sort of smell. Sort of a New England woodland a few hours after the rain. Not “damp” as in corked but a more subtle woodsy smell. A moderately thin bodied wine with tobacco and a hint of cherry flavor that gives way to a medium toast and pepper finish. I wasn’t a huge fan of this wine but then again Ballentine bills this as their “acknowledgement to Bordeaux, specifically the right bank” which isn’t my favorite to begin with so this wine may have been behind the 8-ball for the get-go with me. Now had the gone for the left bank I might be singing a whole different tune…(thats a weak attempt at humor…)

Overall, Ballentine has a pretty solid line-up of wines. The Chenin Blanc for $10 is a no brainer for my collection and for that type of pricing and that quality wine we highly recommend at least giving the Chenin a try if you can get it shipped to you.

This week we definitely took some time out to Enjoy the Wine Life!

Author: Joel Vincent

Growth Hacker and wine lover

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