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Patrick Campbell

I wish there were more wine producers with Patrick Campbell's attitude. Proprietor of California's Laurel Glen Vineyards, he not only makes great wine, but actually insists on selling it at a fair price – which means, by today's standards, a great price.

      He now makes and markets five different brands of red wine, at prices from about $7 to $41. From the least expensive up, they're Reds, Terra Rosa, Quintana, Counterpoint and Laurel Glen. I can't think of any current releases I wouldn't recommend and I can't think of another producer with a comparable lineup.

     I first wrote about Patrick and Laurel Glen after a visit to the vineyard in 1995. Later on, I added another couple of articles. You can read them in order or hop to any that interest you:

A Walk in Laurel Glen (September, 1995)

18 Jugs of Laurel Glen (Notes from a Vertical Tasting; May, 1997)

Mixxin' with Patrick (February, 1998)

A WALK IN LAUREL GLEN. (September 8, 1995) Some producers name their wines after themselves. Others like to conjure up images of French Chateaus or Italian Villas. For Patrick Campbell, the vineyard seems to have been the first thing that popped into his mind — and also the second, the third, the last and just about everything in-between.

     I have always liked to think about Laurel Glen Vineyard when I drink the wine. It's not a grandiose name, but it's very pleasant — suggesting something sunny and sylvan, tucked away back in the mountains. Last week, Phylis and I had the pleasure of seeing it for real, walking through it and chomping on ripening grapes alongside Patrick himself.

     This is not the kind of location that you stumble upon by accident. Patrick's directions mentioned many twists and turns and forks in the road, but the predominant direction is UP.

     There are other vineyards on the way up the mountain, but I knew when we had finally reached Laurel Glen by the remarkably even exposure of the terrain and the look of the vines themselves — healthy, immaculately trellised and pruned, every tiny berry getting plenty of sun. In fact, it was kind of spooky when I looked at a vineyard right alongside his and asked how old the spindly, droopy, unhappy-looking vines were in this neighboring plot. It turns out they were planted the same year as his.

     We spent about 90% of our visit out in the vineyard, discussing and looking at rootstock trials, experiments in spacing and trellising theories.

     As folks who have spoken with Patrick know, he speaks his mind plainly on many issues. But when it comes to viticulture, you sense there are also many things that he's never going to make up his mind about entirely. And I think this indecision — this stubborn unwillingness to draw easy conclusions — has something to do with the excellence of his wines.

     He has few doubts that he gets a big boost from the altitude, soil and climate of Laurel Glen. It's so high up that it misses the "fog effect" which influences so many Sonoma and Napa vineyards. During growing season, the nights often aren't as cold as they are lower down, and the days aren't as hot. Most of the vines are planted in porous volcanic soil with excellent natural drainage. And duffer that I am, even I could immediately see how the exposure of his slopes helps to even out the temperatures during hours of sunshine. Patrick guesses that this might have something to do with the famously supple tannins in his wines. It could be that the grape skins don't need to grow as thick as they would if they had to ward off greater extremes of heat and cold. (He repeats, "It could be. Maybe not, but it could be.")

     "Did you think about all of this before you settled here?" I asked. "It was a little easier than that," he said. "The land was for sale and I could afford it."

     Assuredly Patrick is not a man to sit back and simply enjoy the blessings of his terroir. We were constantly walking by experimental areas where he's testing the performance of various rootstocks. Phylloxera hasn't worked its way up the mountain yet. But when it's time for the AXR-rooted vines to go, the replacements will, it is hoped, already be tested, planted and bearing good fruit.

     As we talked about vine spacing, I could sense that he wasn't just explaining — but constantly questioning himself all over again and thinking out loud. The wheels never seem to stop turning.

     He has sections of vineyard planted in all manner of spacing schemes from California's traditional 6' by 12' to meter-by-meter. The last would be problematical, to say the least, on some of Laurel Glen's dizzier hillside plantings. Even a Bordeaux-style tractor would be in danger of overturning. But still he wants to find out if it gives better quality fruit.

     It would be hard, he admits. But if you're already doing all the easier stuff right, further improvements are bound to be increasingly hard. "The further up you go on the quality curve, the steeper it gets," he says.

     We stopped in a block of 3' x 6' plantings. "I'm reasonably happy with this spacing right now. It seems to feel right." He looked at it, looked at us and smiled. "That's pretty good criterion, isn't it? There's a lot of intuition in this — you end up doing what feels right."

     Finally we wandered into the winery itself and the lab. The whole thing had been torn apart for painting and it wasn't all back together. I feel safe, however, in calling it Spartan. His heart is manifestly out in the vineyard.

     I did find out here that Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon is made in open fermenters, with no pumping over, just punching down of the cap when necessary. Doubtless this also has something to do with the suppleness of the richly concentrated Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignons.

     We passed the barrels. This is one stop I love to make when visiting a winery, because it gives you the most vivid sense of the size of annual production. The size here felt pretty small.

     Then we saw a special piece of equipment that he plainly feels is important. I don't remember the technical name for it, but it's basically a mobile destemmer-crusher. It travels alongside the pickers at harvest. The grapes go in at the moment they leave the vine. They never get banged around or overheated and the must stays cool. Nifty!

     It was 6 o'clock and the end of a long day for Patrick — he had flown in from out of state hours earlier. We didn't have time to barrel-taste, but this is one time I didn't mind. The quality is so consistent, and the 90s vintages in particular so progressively rich, I'll take his word for now about 1994.

     As we said our good-byes, he went over to his own wine collection to pick out a bottle for his dinner — then reached down and selected a 1984 Laurel Glen for my own . (After some reflection, I decided to save it, so I could share it with my parents over dinner.)

     One final observation, highly personal. I hope I don't embarrass Patrick if I say here that Phylis couldn't get over his eyes. Steel grey, gunfighter eyes. Not unfriendly, but a little unnerving at first.

     Laurel Glen is pretty darned close to the top of the mountain, but I'm fairly convinced that Patrick Campbell is never going to stop climbing.

18 JUGS OF LAUREL GLEN. (The first-ever complete vertical tasting with the winemaker, May 9, 1997). A tasty dinner, a swell bunch of folks, a penthouse view of Central Park – and 18 jugs of Laurel Glen. Who could ask for anything more?

     Just the tasting notes, I guess. So here they are.

     Let me start by thanking hosts Don and Melissa Rice for putting together the ultimate vertical of one of my favorite wines. Thanks to them, we merrily sniffed and slurped through every vintage of Laurel Glen, from 1994 all the way back to the never-released, experimental 1978 and 1979, with a couple of other goodies thrown in for fun.

     This may have been the first time ever that anyone tasted the whole shebang. Winemaker Patrick Campbell was guest of honor and even he hadn't done it before.

     It was a fascinating tour. In some ways it was the California story in a nutshell – early promise, some missteps, a sudden jump forward in the mid-eighties, and a string of brilliant vintages in the ‘90s.

     But I was also struck by the differences. Not only was each vintage highly individual, but Laurel Glen itself is different than most other Sonoma and Napa Cabs. Both the flavors themselves and the way they come on – elegant on the attack, then clobbering you on the finish. And the tannins too . . . they just behave differently.

     Here's what I mean . . .

    1978. This was the first of two vintages Patrick made for private consumption before he had his commercial license. The grapes came from a special block of vines that consistently seem to produce something special. Located near the present-day winery, closely spaced, with a northeastern exposure, these were also the source of two reserve bottlings in the ‘90s (see notes on the ‘90 reserve below).
    MY NOTES. Deep ruby-blue. Young-looking. I mean, really. Very grapey aromas, youngest-smelling of the flight. Intense attack, pungent acidity. Raw. Very fruity. What's going on? Patrick remarks that there's something unusual about this wine amnd invites us to guess. Maybe some Syrah in the blend, I ask? Nope. Okay, what?
    WINEMAKER COMMENTS: "It never went through malolactic."
    Well, that accounts for the rawness. But you know, it's still a nice wine. The fruit is delicious, even though it seems to be in trapped in amber.
    *1979. Second of the two "home-made" vines from the winery block.
    MY NOTES. Again, this is a very young-looking wine. Deep ruby, with no amber. Cassis and herb aromas. Less grapey, less harsh on the finish. More pedigreed,. Develops well in the glass. Now this wine tastes like Laurel Glen! Not as polished as the 1982, but possibly the best in the flight.
    1981. This was the first commercial release. Unfortunately, the bottle was slightly cork-tainted. Some at the tasting said they couldn't detect any TCA, but fellow attendee Robin Garr and I noted it independently. While I can't comment, therefore, on the overall quality, this wine seemed lighter than the two previous, showing the familiar cassis, herb and gamy flavors.
    WINEMAKER COMMENTS. The wine was acidified too much. "Unfortunately, I took a short course at Davis about then."
    MY NOTES. Some amber at the rim. More herbal, gamier nose than any previous. Hints of cedar, and leather in addition to the cassis and herb. A sweaty note that blows off. There's some discussion about brettanomyces at my end of the table. Patrick nods. Could be. But if there's brett, it's not out in force and not at all unpleasant. Overall, a very attractive, complex wine that has developed some lovely bottle-bouquet.
         This is the first wine tonight showing something like the full spectrum of Laurel Glen flavors. Some call the flavor Bordelaise, but I think it's something different – in some ways it's like Bordeaux and in some ways it's like other California Cabs, but it combines the two in a way that's different. Anyhow, it's ready to drink now. Wouldn't hold any longer.
    WINEMAKER COMMENTS. He says he was still making wine by the numbers and that this wine was over-manipulated. "About all we didn't do was filter it much."
    1983. The dog of the evening.
    MY NOTES. Deep ruby, some amber at the rim. Oldest looking wine of the tasting. Also the thinnest on the palate. Slightly musty aftertaste that's not from TCA. Overall, weakest wine so far. Decent finish, though. Then, as oxygen hits it, a rubbery taste develops that's probably again from the added acid. Age has not been kind to this wine.
    WINEMAKER COMMENTS. "The vintage from hell. If I ever had a vintage like this again, I'm not even sure I'd put the grapes in Terra Rosa."
    MY NOTES. Deep ruby-blue and more youthful-looking than any wine since the ‘79. Nice aromas that are similar to the ‘82 with less leather and no sweat. Tertiary flavors again. Delicious cassis finish. A well-balanced, complex wine, but frankly it seems less good than my prior experience with this vintage.
    WINEMAKER COMMENTS. "We made a very pretty wine this year. Very even, very ripe. But it's not going to get much better with age." Patrick also comments that he's had better bottles of this vintage.
    MY NOTES. I took one whiff and my head snapped back. Wrote down, "great leap forward!" Much, much darker than the ‘83 and ‘84. Intense cassis aromas. Bright attack that seems typical of more than a few 1985 California cabs. Concentrated flavors on the palate. You can taste the familiar components but they haven't yet fanned out. Laurel Glen hits the Big Time here. This wine could still use some cellar-time.
    WINEMAKER COMMENTS. "It was perfect year. Not too hot, not too cold, with a long hang-time. And we normally get a little more hang-time than other vineyards. Our vines bud a week earlier and we pick a few weeks later."
         Some discussion about fermentation procedures ensues. Patrick is a big believer in punching down rather than pumping over, because the juice isn't forced through a piston-chamber. I agree with that philosophy, but in any case, it's hard to argue with his results this year.
    MY NOTES. Darkest wine of the flight. More closed aromatically than the 1985. But when I take a sip, this wine seems to me to be lower in acid, riper, smoother, denser and deeper. Long finish. When we vote on best wine of the flight, most prefer the 1985. But this is my favorite. A real thoroughbred. It will probably need a little longer than the 1985 to show its best. Also, more than any other wine tonight, this Laurel Glen vintage reminds me of Bordeaux. I'd love to place it in a blind flight of 1986 Bordeaux.
    WINEMAKER COMMENTS. "Second cousin to the 1985. Generally I prefer it but tonight I like ‘85 better."
    INTERLUDE: 1985/86 COUNTERPOINT. This was the first that Patrick experimented with a second label.
    MY NOTES. Healthy ruby color, but noticeably lighter than the ‘85 and ‘86 Laurel Glens. Also more translucent, more herbal, greener and more acidic. Not bad, but harsher and less ripe than its big brothers. This particular bottling of Counterpoint is not in their league, but it's also undoubtedly a factor in why the ‘85 and ‘86 Laurel Glens are so outstanding.
    WINEMAKER COMMENTS. "Counterpoint is a true second wine. No particular block is devoted to Counterpoint ahead of time. We taste the barrel lots blind and assemble the Counterpoint blend based on those tastings. We'll devote anything from 20% to 80% of the vintage to this wine. Our financial goal is only to break even."
    This helps to explain why Counterpoint has been one of my favorite wines under $20 during the ‘90s. The 1994 in particular is a spectacular bargain in today's market. [Update: So are the 1995 and 1996!]
    MY NOTES. Very dark. Markedly different from the ‘85 and ‘86. Very sweet aromas of cassis and burnt sugar. Very good concentration but not quite up to the ‘85 or ‘86. Overall a very tasty wine.
    WINEMAKER COMMENTS. "Super ripe. Some like this style but I never liked it much."
    MY NOTES. Healthy deep red. Slightly hazy. Relatively subdued aromas of sweet cassis. A little grainy on the palate. Thinnest of the flight but still a lively, healthy wine that tastes excellent. Terrific effort for the vintage.
    WINEMAKER COMMENTS. "The other vintage from hell. The Counterpoint program really clicked in with the ‘88 and ‘89. It made all the difference."
    MY NOTES. Darker than the 1988 and aromatically richer. More herbal, with more leather and earth than any other wine in this flight. Again, some conversation ensues about brett. Could be, but this is another excellent wine for the vintage. A lot of California wineries would have been proud to have made a wine this good in 1990.
    **1/2 1990.
    MY NOTES. Darkest wine of the flight. Most complex bouquet yet. Tobacco and cassis, with a fabulous mineral flavor on the finish. Beautiful complexity, concentration, length. Has everything. Best yet!
    INTERLUDE: ***1990 LAUREL GLEN RESERVE. Only two reserve bottlings have ever been released by Laurel Glen, this one and another from 1993.
    MY NOTES. Black. Sublime violet aromas. Intense fruit on the palate. Noticeably tannic though not astringent. Very long. Many layers. Reminds me a little of 1990 Leoville Las Cases. I poured some more of this one after the tasting to enjoy with dessert.
    WINEMAKER COMMENTS. "I don't generally believe in reserve bottlings. Laurel Glen is my best wine, just like Mouton is Mouton-Rothschild's best wine. Sometimes, though, there's a lot that tastes really different and that's what happened this year. It came from the same black as 1978 and 1979. We don't make much -- just 300 magnums. It's only released to friends and people on our list."
    MY NOTES. Surprisingly light. Very grapey, undeveloped nose. Thin and cooked-tasting. Bad bottle? Had another that was marginally better. Still disappointing.
    MY NOTES. Darkest wine of the evening? Tough to say, because the next two are fairly opaque as well. Relatively subdued aromas at first that expand, sending off waves of chocolate, cassis and mineral. Oak quickly recedes to the background. A brooding giant! Ju-ust amazing. The finish goes on forever. WINE OF THE EVENING.
    WINEMAKER COMMENTS. I commented out loud that the tannins were noticeable but supple -- they seemed a lot lower, for example, than those in a Dunn Cab. Patrick replied that the tannins actually were very, very high . . . higher than Dunn usually gets. Interesting, because the wine is very enjoyable even at this stage.
    MY NOTES. Opaque again. Very sweet cassis fruit, perhaps the most seductive wine of the ‘90s. Still fairly undeveloped aromatics. Though it's not quite on the level of the ‘94 and ‘92, this is an outstanding wine by any measure, with decades ahead of it.
    Yes, it's black too. Seems a little more alcoholic than the 1992, with more chocolate. An incredible hulk. Like a barrel sample. Give it five years. Very tough deciding between this, the ‘92 and the ‘90 Reserve for wine of the evening. Gotta find more of it!
    WINEMAKER COMMENTS. Patrick also commented that he liked this and the ‘92 best. But when I asked about the ‘96, his face lit up and he smiled broadly. Is the best yet to come?

     The group broke up at about 10:45pm. I had a long trip home via subway, Amtrak and automobile. But when I finally hit the pillow at 2:30 this morning, I was still smiling and still tasting the ‘92.

MIXXIN' WITH PATRICK. (Dinner, February 23, 1998) Late on a Monday afternoon, Phylis and I stormed into Patrick Campbell's Santa Rosa office. Hold it right there, we're the work police -- and you've had enough, sir. Shut off that computer!

     And what do you know. He did.

   Better yet, he grabbed two bottles of Laurel Glen. We headed off to Mixx, to check on their health over dinner. Both, I am happy to say, are doing wonderfully.

***LAUREL GLEN 1990 presents you with a big corsage of violets, smacks you in the palate with cassis and leaves you with a big, happy grin as it finishes. A classic that's better every time I taste it.

**LAUREL GLEN 1991 was back in form. Much better than the bottle we had at a vertical tasting last year. Different personality than the 1990 – a meatier, wilder wine – but also superb with dinner.

     We talked about his doings in South America, the new source of his Terra Rosa Cabs. He loves it. "Suddenly, you've got twice as many vintages in your life."

     What's the wine scene down there? "Exciting. Energizing. They've got lots to learn and great things can happen. Like California in the 1970s."

     How does he like his ‘97s from Chile and Argentina? "Just bottled the 1997 today." Excellent vintage. Thinks they're going to be very fine.

     What about 1997 in California? Ummm. Different story. Big vintage, but a tough one. Uneven ripeness to contend with. The drums are already beating -- and the colors are going to be dark -- but let's see how these wines develop. "Maybe it was different down in the valleys, but weather in the mountains was a problem."

     Other topics included wine pricing. Why isn't he charging more? "It's my wine and I'll charge what I like." Fine with me, as long as I can find it!

     We got more philosophical over dessert. Talked about the future for producers in California. As big firms snatch up vineyards, folks without captive sources are going to find it increasingly tough. Has he ever thought of buying more acreage? "Sure. All the time. But I'm not sure I want to put that kind of pressure on my family."

     As always, Patrick Campbell doesn't like easy answers. That's what makes it fun to talk with him.

     To get on the Laurel Glen mailing list, write to Laurel Glen, Box 548, Glen Ellen, CA 95442 or call 707-526-3914.

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