I first encountered the wines of Spencer Roloson at the Rhone Rangers tasting last March. At the time, I had their 2002 Viognier and thought it was one of the better interpretations of that varietal amidst a mostly lackluster showing. Their brightly colored labels with sans-serif type caught my eye at the time, and I recognized them at the Family winemakers tasting this fall, and spent some time tasting through their lineup and chatting with winemaker and co-owner Sam Spencer.
Sam is one half of the ownership team of Spencer Roloson and the other half is Wendy Roloson. Sam brings the winemaking and winegrowing expertise to the table, while Wendy brings the brand management and marketing to bear. Together they have created a textbook perfect boutique wine label which shows lots of promise.
Sam has been in the wine industry for a long time. He started his wine career as an apprentice wine steward in Auckland New Zealand at a restaurant called SPQR. At the time he knew nothing about wine, but in the process of working at the restaurant he got an opportunity to spend about 10 days working and learning at Cloudy Bay. “When I was there, it just clicked,” he says. That was the moment he knew he wanted to be involved in the making of wine. Returning to the states, he was fortunate enough to know the owners of Green and Red Vineyards, where he proceeded to work as a cellar rat for a couple of years until his friend and mentor Jay Heminway told him to set his sights farther and wider, and pushed him out of the nest. From there, Spencer moved on to open Hayes and Vine, one of San Francisco’s most well known wine bars, and then to a career as vintner and vineyard manager in various international locales as far flung Argentina, Chile, and Spain.
For his latest projects, though, he’s staying close to home and focusing on what he calls “extremist” vineyard sites. These fringe growing regions might be charitably called “up and coming” and they are one of the reasons I was initially drawn to Spencer Roloson. You don’t see to many people in Napa trying to make serious wines from appellations like Clear Lake and Lodi. A couple of these wines come from Sam’s personal vineyard development projects, La Herradura vineyard in the Conn Valley and Madder Lake Vineyard in Clear Lake, to the north of Mount St. Helena.
Sam says that he’s not consciously trying to seek out fringe areas like Lake County, but when he started looking for vineyard sites that met specific criteria for him, the pickings were few and far between in Napa and Sonoma (not to mention extremely expensive). He has just been opportunistic. When he stumbled on what he considered a perfect vineyard site on a day trip to Madder Lake with a friend, he just grabbed it.
“I wanted something in extremis. This was a natural amphitheater bowl cut into a steep hillside of volcanic and plutonic rock, with thirty degree slopes. When I saw it, I knew that it was the right place intuitively. It’s turning out to be a really special spot.”
Sam seems to bring a lot of things to bear on his consideration of wine and winemaking: An intense focus on and knowledge of the geology of his vineyard sites based on his time spent working in mountain vineyards in South America; a strong sense of the type of wines he wants to make based on abiding love of wines from the Rhone and Ribera del Duero ; and a dedication to growing of the grapes. “I really believe that farming is the most important thing we do. A lot of winemakers will say ‘the wine is made in the vineyard’ but they don’t walk the walk. My boots are a testament to what kind of winemaker I am. I’m in the vineyards and up and down the hillsides all the time,” he says.
I asked him about his winemaking philosophy. He said, “When I’m making wine I’m using a classical reference. I’m always referring back to Cote-Rotie, Condrieu, Ribera del Duero. I want to reflect the spirit of those wines, but through a California lens. I want to give you a classically formed and considered wine that reflects both the roots of the wine ” sometimes even the specific place in Europe where we cut the buds for the vine ” as well as my own interpretation of the vineyard site. My wines should have the depth and complexity of those older sites, but also something lush and voluptuous that reflects this climate.”
If his wines are designed to reflect the climate, his packaging and brand are designed to reflect the times. Wendy Roloson has worked with Sam to craft a specific brand image for the wine. Their mutual interest in artists like Mondrian and Rothko as well as a desire to have their bottles stand out on the shelves drove them to create a modern, stylized, brightly colored look for their wines. Spencer says, “We were trying to get people to reach out for the wine because it appealed to their taste. We were trying to get away from labels that looked like a lawyer’s business card and get people more emotionally involved with the wine. Ideally, once people have grabbed the bottle, I want people to sense that both the wine and the packaging are intimately thought out. We’re not just about pretty packaging, but why shouldn’t a great wine have a cool label?”
Why not, indeed?
Spencer’s aspirations for the moment seem to be focused on maturing their vineyard sites and notching up production a little as long as it remains only estate fruit. They have plans for more plantings in Lake County, as well as more plantings in the Conn Valley in conjunction with Copain, who currently buys their Syrah grapes. “I can’t see us doing much more than ten thousand [cases],” he says. Future plans also include the addition of a Zinfandel to their lineup which is currently focused on Rhone varietals (Syrah, Viognier, a blend) and a Tempranillo.
These wines are all very good, some of them bordering on excellent. More importantly perhaps, they all seemed like they are trying to be something individual — they have personality. While a few of them are still not quite as dynamic as they could be, you will definitely enjoy some or all of them, and their successors will most certainly be stars. Spencer Roloson is one to keep your eye on.
2003 Sueno Vineyard Viognier, Lodi
A light yellow gold in the glass this wine has a tropical nose of bananas and golden delicious apples. In the mouth it has a slight spritz to it and primary flavors of honey and apples that taper to a finish slightly marred by the heat of alcohol. 750 cases produced. The 02 was a better wine in my opinion. Score: 7.5/8. Cost: $26
2002 Palaterra Red Blend
This wine, an equal blend of old vine Carignane, Syrah, and old vine Valdigue, is a medium ruby in the glass and has a floral nose that possesses a mix of cassis, lavender, and black tea aromas. In the mouth, the cassis flavors continue on the palate with tea and tobacco woven in with very pleasing tannins that taper to a decent finish. Very satisfying. 1780 cases produced. Score: 8.5/9. Cost:$16
2002 Madder Lake Vineyard Tempranillo, Clear Lake
The dark color of blood, this wine had a heady nose of chocolate, vanilla, cloves, and geranium that promised great things. In the mouth it was lively, with a good acidity and flavors of wet earth, saddle leather, and a hint of red fruit. What started nice on the tip of the tongue, however, ended up being a little flat in the mid-palate, leaving me feeling that it misses the opportunity to be fabulous. I suspected this was due to young vines and Spencer confirmed that ’02 is the first harvest, and that the 03 and 04 in the barrel are more complex and dynamic. 216 cases produced. Score: 8.5. Cost:$25
2002 La Herradura Vineyard Syrah, Napa
A deep, nearly opaque garnet color, this wine has got some serious stuffing, starting immediately with a mysterious and exotic nose of black cherry, wet dog, and a slight piney scent. In the mouth it is all plums, cassis and minerals, with thick tannins that lift in the finish to notes of violet. Over the course of 24 hours this wine opened considerably and nearly transformed, becoming more elegant and more cassis dominated. This wine is a bit wound up tight right now, but I think it will age extremely well. 624 cases produced. Score: 8.5/9. Cost:$35
Other wines from Roloson that I have scores for but no detailed tasting notes:
2002 Spencer Roloson Ben Lomond Mountain Chardonnay. Score: 8.5. Price: $28
2002 Spencer Roloson Viognier. Score: 8.5/9. Price: $28
You can purchase these wines from various retailers around the Bay Area (who also have internet presences)like K&L, ACME Fine Wines, Backroom Wines, William Cross, and others. I believe there are also a few retailers in other states. If you’re interested in finding a specific retailer in your area, give the winery a call at: 1-866-PUNCHED.