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GOTTA LOVE 'EM

(October 4, 2003) Behrens & Hitchcock came out of nowhere, broke all the rules and bangthey're a cult. But success hasn't spoiled this lean, mean team. As you'll see, they're still putting grapes before ego.

   I interviewed Les Behrens and Joe Bob Hitchcock on September 4, 2003 -- at the site of their new winery on top of Spring Mountain, overlooking Napa Valley.  You may want to read this interview in several sittings, so I've broken it up into bite-sized sections. You can read it all the way through or hop to the parts that catch your interest. Click on any heading below to jump to that section:

Things are never boring at Behrens & Hitchcock. Click here to start your photo tour.

Part 1. Introducing Les Behrens

Part 2. "We're not about shy" (barrel-tasting the 2002s)

Part 3. Now Joe Bob Hitchcock wanders in

Part 4. Starting from absolute zero

Part 5. "Partnerships are tough, but we seemed to get along..."

Part 6. "Those five cases changed our lives"

Part 7. "Robert Parker is going to make you a star"

Part 8. Getting great grapes

Part 9. Raising money the B&H way

Part 10. Keeping prices fair

Part 11. "Buddha's keeping an eye on things"

Part 1. Introducing Les Behrens

     "Can't talk too long," says Les Behrens. "Cement truck's coming. Why don't we go in and barrel-taste?"

     Already I'm warming to this guy. Wine first, no hype, no time for it. He's totally consumed with his craft and you can't help catching the passion.

     We're standing way high on Spring Mountain, near the Napa County line. You might say we've risen above the Napa Valley razzle-dazzle. Down below are the lavish wine temples. Up here, you've got Philip Togni, Paloma, Pride Mountain -- great stuff, no puff.

     But wait a minute. They've got twenty acres here and ZERO vines. Why the heck not?

     "We might," says Les, "if we thought we could improve our wines by doing that. But we're already getting fantastic fruit from great vineyards. Could I grow better stuff?"

     Plainly these guys don't mind breaking the rules. We'll revisit this subject often.

     But first a little comic relief...

Enter Le Chien Lunatique...

     A little white Jack Russell terrier trots over to check me out. "That's Lucy," Les informs me.

     "Can I take her picture?"

     "You can try."

     He's got a point. Like everyone else I'll meet up here, she's a perpetual motion machine.

     Finally, Les calls out "Lucy!" She stops, rolls over and waggles her legs.

     I'm in love. "What a girl," I gush.

     Les nods, "We've named a wine for her. Chien Lunatique."

     Now that I've got my camera out, I ask Les to pose for his own picture.

     "Smile," I say. "I don't smile," says Les.

     He manages a smile anyhow. Unconventional? Yes, but very engaging. This is a recurring theme at Behrens & Hitchcock.

     At some point, Les also introduces me to his wife, Lisa Drinkward, and Mark Poremski, the newest member of the Behrens & Hitchcock winemaking family. They promptly go off and do stuff that I'm sure is important, but I never get a chance to ask about it, because I'm already scribbling notes as fast as I can.

As we walk toward the barrel room,
I sneak in a few quick questions...

APJ: So which vineyards are you getting fruit from?

LB: Quite a few. There's one called Alder Springs, way up in Mendocino. I mean really far up. Well north of Anderson Valley. We get Syrah and Merlot from them.

     Then there are two vineyards in Calistoga. The Eric Stevens Vineyard will be giving us fruit, but we haven't made any wine from it yet. And Kenefick Ranch...

APJ: I've tasted your Kenefick cuvees. Very distinctive. Where's the vineyard?

LB: You know where Bart Araujo's [Eisele] vineyard is? It's across the street from there.

APJ: Really? But your wines taste nothing like Araujo. What clones is Kenefick planted to?

LB: Let's see. Clone 7, clone 4 and clone 337 -- that's the hot clone these days. Our Kenefick wines also have higher percentages of Merlot and Petit Verdot than Bart Araujo's wines.

APJ: Maybe the Petit Verdot accounts for the blueberry flavors?

LB: Could be. I like Petit Verdot. We made a Petit Verdot in 2000. It was actually about 75% Petit Verdot and the rest was Merlot.

The secret of success in 2000

APJ: Let's talk a little more about 2000. I've tasted a bunch of watery 2000 Cabs, but I loved your 2000 Ode to Picasso. It's one of the few Napa Valley 2000s I bought in quantity. What was your secret?

LB: Well for one thing, we were very, very selective. We sold off about 27 barrels of wine that didn't make our final cut.

     Plus, we did a lot of cross-blending. We combined wines from Calistoga, Rutherford, Carneros, Yountville, St. Helena and so on. One might have a great palate presence, another might have a nice finish, and so on. Put all the pieces together and you've got a complete wine.

     Finally, we've decided that quality is more important than flavor consistency. Big wineries bend over backwards to make sure their wines taste the same from vintage to vintage. But we don't set out to make a wine that tastes like last year -- we just want each vintage to be the best it can possibly be.

APJ: How would you characterize 2002?

LB: I'd say it was a year with some extreme highs, and also some middle-of-the-road wines. We'll be selling off the medium stuff.
     I'll tell you, though... I'm very hard and critical on our wines. And a few months ago, I was pretty depressed about the 2002s. Just didn't think they were showing much. But now I'm tasting them and it seems to me they've turned a corner. Now I'm thinking, WOW.

     Amen to that, Les. After tasting a few of your 2002s, I'm thinking WOW too...

Part 2. "We're not about shy"

     Les pulls out his thief and we start tasting some of the highlights.

     First up is the ***+2002 Alder Springs Syrah, singing in three-part harmony this morning. Aromas of violets erupt from the glass. The palate's mostly about raspberries, with shades of strawberry-rhubarb pie. The finish is long and soaks your senses. This is not your normal Syrah -- it's got the flavor profile of great Pinot Noir. Only the concentration and density might lead you to guess the grape.

     I'm trying to keep a stone face, but can't. "Oooh," I say, "Nothing shy about this one."

     "We're not about shy," comments Les.

     This comment could also apply to the ***+2002 Hommage to Erna Shein.

     It's 40% Merlot, plus about 30% Cabernet Franc and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon. And not to put too fine a point on it -- this is pedal to the metal FRUIT. Lots of it. Many different kinds. Blueberries to the max, plus any other berry you like. "Yeow!" I say. "Where does this stuff come from?"

     "Well," says Les, "there's Madrona Ranch, David Abreu's vineyard..."

     "You're getting grapes from David Abreu?"

     "Yes," Les replies, very matter-of-factly. "Also, there's fruit here from Thorvilos Vineyard [jointly owned by David Abreu and Ric Forman]. It's sort of at the base of Howell Mountain, not far from Herb Lamb Vineyard [the original grape source for Colgin].

    "It's phenomenal. How much will there be?"

    "Maybe 250 cases," says Les.

    Ah well.

     We move onto a cuve yet to be named. They're thinking of calling it ***+Rudy's Cuve, after one of the Behrens sons. It's roughly equal parts Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Entirely different from the Erna Shein, this is more like Bordeaux on steroids. Blackberries and other dark fruit, plus a trace of herb and anise. Yum.

     "What kind of oak are you using here?" I ask. "I've heard that you use some American oak, but I haven't sensed any so far."

     "It's all French," Les answers, "except for the Petite Sirah. That gets a little American oak."

Finally, we sample Lucy's wine...

     ***+2002 Chien Lunatique is Napa Valley Syrah. Here again, we've got a totally different wine than the 2002 Alder Springs Syrah. It's much more like classic Syrah, but huge -- swarming with blueberries and blackberries, plus lesser notes of dark chocolate and earth. The texture is wonderfully thick and velvety.

     "What's the vineyard source for this wine?" I wonder.

     "Yountville," says Les.

     "Not the Page-Nord Vineyard?"

     "Yes, in fact," says Les. "It's our first year with them."

     (What a small world Napa Valley is. The Page family used to run my favorite Bed-and-Breakfast, and we'll actually be picnicking with them a few days from now.)

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