By Celia Strong
This week I hope you are ready to learn about a pair of wines, red and a white, from the same winery, sort of like a brother and a sister. It’s not just the French who can anthropomorphize in their discussions about their wines — we can too. (Apparently, we can use big words, as well.) But, let’s get to our wines from the Shooting Star label and their lessons.
We travel to California this week, to Mendocino and Lake counties. For our loyal readers, some of this may sound familiar because we have discussed this week’s winery once before and the famous owner and winemaker, too. We will look at each county first and, then, each wine with its owner.
Using the theory that ladies go first, we start with the white wine. (Oops, more anthropomorphizing.) It comes from Mendocino County. Actually, more accurately, it comes from grapes grown in Mendocino County. Mendocino is one of the most northern of California wine regions, a part of the much larger North Coast AVA. There are 10 AVAs in this county, all with a wide range of specific soil and climate characteristics. Because of this range, also, they grow a wide variety of grapes here, many of them organically grown.
Mendocino, the name, comes from the name “Mendoza,” specifically from a Spanish explorer with that last name who explored the coast of California in the 16th century, and a Spanish viceroy, the explorer’s cousin, who was the first viceroy of New Spain.
The first vineyards in Mendocino were established in the 1850s, sort of second choices for men who did not find wealth and prosperity in the great California Gold Rush. Most of them were small wineries and did not survive Prohibition. In 1931, Parducci Wines was founded — the first commercial winery in Mendocino and the only one up to the 1960s. In 1968, Fetzer was founded and it grew to become the county’s largest winery and a leader in sustainable farming and organic wine production. Fetzer is the reason that nearly 25 percent of the vineyards in Mendocino are certified as organic farms, more than any other county in California. The harvests in Mendocino account for about 2 percent of the total in California.
Lake County, like Mendocino, is located north of Napa County, in the northwest corner of the North Coast AVA. Clear Lake, for which the county is named, is the largest inland water body in California. There are five AVAs within this county and Cabernet Sauvignon is the most widely planted variety; merlot is a distant second. Clear Lake has a moderating influence on the climate of the vineyards around it, cooling with moisture heavy air. Actually, this is one of the coolest climates in the state.
Despite the dominance of Cabernet here, many other varieties are also grown. Compared to many other California wine regions, Lake County is still more rural with small towns and family ranches. It is a great destination for hiking, mountain biking, fishing, rock climbing and white-water rafting. The Lake County Winegrape Commission was formed in 1992 to promote the grapes, wines and winery of this area. And our winery for this week is right there with them.
And that is our segue to Steele Wines and Jed Steele. Jed is over 6 and a half feet tall, but a softy at heart. His wine career in California started with making wine in 1968 at Stony Hill Winery in Napa. By 1979, he was at Edmeades in Anderson Valley in Mendocino County. Through all his experiences he continued to learn and improve his winemaking skills.
In 1983, Jess Jackson (founder and owner of Kendall-Jackson) was looking for the best winemaker he could find to make KJ into a national brand. Jed’s talent with Chardonnay, and other grapes, moved Kendall-Jackson production from 9,000 cases to one million cases. The year they hit a million cases, 1991, Jed and Jess parted company — with lawsuits and counter-lawsuits. The most interesting part of the trial concerned KJ’s claim that they owned the “secret process” that made their Chardonnay the biggest selling wine in the country. The secret was Jed’s skill at blending different batches of Chard grapes and adding bits of other varieties to get the exact flavors he wanted. KJ won the rights to the “secret process,” but Jed’s skills moved on with him.
The first wine with the new Steele Wines label was produced in 1991 and released in 1993 to rave reviews. Since then more vineyards have been added to their list, more grapes, more wines, more accolades, and a second label called Shooting Star. Jed’s middle name is Tecumseh, after the Native American chief. The legend of Tecumseh said he was always very lucky because he was born under a meteor of shooting stars.
So, now we have our two wines — The Shooting Star Chardonnay and the Shooting Star Syrah. The grapes for the Chardonnay come from two Mendocino vineyards — DuPratt and Lolonis, both farmed sustainably. The DuPratt grapes bring richness and balance and the Lolonis grapes add citrus and melon flavors. The blended wine is fermented in older barrels, aged for eight months. The bottled wine has citrus and mineral characteristics with hints of peach flavors and bright acidity. The talent is not just in mixing good flavors together, but textures and complexities also.
The Shooting Star Syrah is a pet project for Jed; he loves Syrah wines. There are five different vineyards planted with Syrah from Lake County, all planted because Jed pushed for them. These grapes are hand-picked and quickly delivered to the winery. Fermentation lasts about seven days but, then, the skins remain for another 10 days for more flavors and textures. Eight months of barrel aging, in French and American oak, follows. The wine has dark fruit flavors (blackberries), bright plums, soft tannins and good balance. The perfect meal with this wine? For Jed, it’s a Kobe beef burger topped with jalapeños and garlic fries. Yum!
Despite all the vineyards that Jed and his winery either own or have contracts with for their grapes, none of these wines are made in huge quantities. That’s possibly one of the reasons Jed became unhappy at Kendall-Jackson. Too big means much less of a connection with the land and the grapes. There are only about 4,000 cases of the Shooting Star Chardonnay made each year. And only 2,000 cases of its brother, the Syrah.
So, let’s welcome the new kids into our glasses and enjoy them. I, for one, am already growing my jalapeños right out in my front yard. I’ll drink a glass of Shooting Star Chard first. Then, have a burger and jalapeños with some Shooting Star Syrah, probably more than one glass. It’s not good to like one child better than the other, but those jalapeños win! Both wines are $10.99 so no running out. Enjoy.