Making and selling a wine these days means managing a brand. Regardless of the quality of the wine, there are those who embrace this fully, and dive headlong into the mechanics of making an emotional connection between product and consumer, and then there are those who participate almost reluctantly, eschewing any thinking about the personality of their product beyond what they want the label to look like. Neither is the “right” way to go — many have been successful taking either path — but wineries in my experience seem to infrequently walk the middle ground; they are either marketers or they are not.
Make no mistake about it, Richard de los Reyes is a marketing man. A press release for his recently established Row Eleven Wine Company describes his venture as “the state’s first super premium consumer oriented wine company.” I don’t know what that means exactly, but perhaps in part it means that Reyes is jettisoning the normal structure of vineyard + estate + brand = winery and moving towards a winery where the only thing that the various wines have in common is the winemaker. Row Eleven, at the moment, is not a single winery or brand, but four at once, and if de los Reyes and his partners Bradley Miller, Craig Boggs and Donna Wilcox are successful, potentially many more as well.
While it is not uncommon for some smaller wineries to have a separately branded second label, it’s quite unusual to have a winery start with four separate brands in mind. Of course, it’s also somewhat unusual to find a winery in its first year making a Pinot Gris from Oregon, a couple of Napa Cabernets, Pinot Noir from the Central Coast, and Syrah from Mendocino. But that’s precisely what Row Eleven has released in its inaugural vintage.
Richard de Los Reyes, or Ricardo D. as he is more often known, has been in the wine business since he entered Cal State Fresno as a transfer student in oenology and viticulture thirty years ago. Upon graduation he began work first in a winery lab, then as winemaker, and was quickly hired as the manager for Noble Vineyards. Mentored by Augustin Huneeus after Noble was acquired by the Quintessa founder, de los Reyes worked for several different wineries throughout the state, including Beringer, in various capacities ranging from vineyard scout to hands-on winemaker. Most recently he spent the last 17 years of his career as a partner in the firm JW Ciatti, the largest bulk wine brokerage in the US (the folks you would go to if you wanted, say, 52,385 gallons of Chenin Blanc from Mendoza). His three decades in the business, and in particular his tenure as the only oenologist at JW Ciatti, have given de los Reyes a lot of experience, which are chiefly manifest in the ability to make lots of different kinds of wines, and an intimate familiarity with an obscenely large number of vineyard sites and their products on the west coast of the U.S.
These two qualities converged in the premise and naming of his company. Row Eleven refers to the specific row of the Bien Nacido vineyard which de los Reyes contracted to make his first Pinot Noir under the new label, and this specificity of fruit selection is a core focus of the new venture, whose tagline reads “For thirty years we searched the best rows for you.” While that might be more marketing than fact, Reyes has certainly tasted a lot more individual lots of wine wine than most people in the business, and if there are likely a few people who can claim to have a sense of which parts of California’s most famous vineyards make the best wine, de los Reyes is certainly a candidate.
Marketing aside, what we all care about is the contents of the bottle, and de los Reyes clearly knows what he’s doing when it comes to making wine, especially as evidenced by his flagship Pinot Noir offering from the Santa Maria Valley. The company crushed its first grapes in 2001 and released its first wines in 2005, and if everything goes well, will have a winery facility of its own in Santa Barbara sometime soon.
Full disclosure: I received these wines as press samples.
2003 Civello Pinot Gris, Rogue Valley, Oregon
Light straw colored in the glass this wine has a juicy nose of golden delicious apples mixed with aromas of minerality. In the mouth it is silky and smooth, but lacking a little acidity that would make it brighter in the mouth. Its primary flavors are of honey and baked apples, and though it is fermented dry, the aromatics give it a sweetness that is pleasant. Not profound but likely a crowd pleaser. Fermented and aged in steel, from vineyards at 1,500 foot elevation in Southwest Oregon. 2600 cases produced. This wine’s claim to fame is its appearance on Will & Grace. Score: 8/8.5. Cost: $13. Where to buy?
2002 Row Eleven Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley
Medium ruby in the glass this wine has an alluring nose of cranberry, raspberry, and rhubarb aromas, mixed with a very Burgundian soy sauce note. On the tongue the wine has a lovely mouthfeel and a nice balance with flavors of cranberry, pomegranate, dried herbs, and a rich, almost creamy umami note that leans towards worcestershire sauce. The wine finishes well, with good length and with elements of black tea. Aged in French oak for 13 months. 1084 cases produced. Score: 9/9.5. Cost: $26. Where to buy?
2002 Row Eleven Pinot Noir, California (San Luis Obispo / Mendocino)
Medium ruby in color with some fading towards cinnabar at the edges, this wine has a very sweet nose dominated by fruit aromas of cranberry and strawberry that lean towards floral in their high tones. In the mouth the wine has excellent body and is satin in texture with primary flavors of rhubarb, pomegranate and tart plums supported by slightly green tannins that push towards a finish that bares the trace of alcoholic heat. Aged in French oak for 13 months. 1300 cases produced. Score: 8.5. Cost: $24. Where to buy?
2002 RDLR Syrah, Mendocino
Dark inky purple in the glass as good syrah should be, this wine smells of blackberries and blueberry syrup and leather. In the mouth it is thick with rough, tacky tannins and primary flavors of blackberry and black cherry and a leathery earthiness as the wine finishes with less weight and substance than its flavors and aromatics might suggest. Only 15% of the wine aged in oak for 24 months. 2800 cases produced. Score: 8. Cost: $19. Where to buy?
2002 Stratton Lummis Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa
A medium ruby color, this wine has a classic cherry, tobacco with some interesting violet notes on the nose combined with aromas of freshly opened cola. In the mouth it is well balanced, though slightly thin, with pleasant fruit flavors of cherry and plum mixed with tobacco. The wine has persistent but not unpleasant tannins that are reasonably well integrated and will likely mellow nicely over the next few years. The finish is modest. Aged in French oak for 24 months. 3200 cases produced. Score: 8.5/9. Cost: $31. Where to buy?