WARM, SPRINGLIKE weather returned to California last week and a couple of new wine brands sprouted out along with a winery takeover. . . .
Dennis Johns, the talented winemaker at St. Clement in Napa Valley, has a new line of Howell Mountain wines under his White Cottage label. . . .
These are not massive, ultrarich or super tannic reds, a la Dunn or La Jota, but rather supple and harmonious renditions, as Johns has learned that the most important thing about wine is not how long it ages but rather that it bring immediate pleasure. . . .
The lineup, all estate-grown from 1994, includes Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sangiovese and "Zingiovese," a blend of Zin and Sangiovese first suggested by yours truly some years ago in an April Fools column. . . .
JOHNS AND HIS WIFE, Adele, are St. Helena natives who've saved every spare penny the past two decades to finance their dream come true. . . .
"We never went on vacation once," laughs Dennis, 46, when asked how he and Adele put together this deal to buy 63 acres and plant 22 acres to vines. . . .
Planting and owning his own vineyard has taught Johns an important lesson about paying closer attention to the vines and growing seasons and he attributes improvements in all his wines to that. . . .
He's also learned that you can make wines that are "big and pretty.". . .
The Cabernet ($35), my favorite, is complex, with deep currant, berry, tar and spicy notes, finishing with smooth, polished tannins. . . .
The Merlot ($30) is good, not as sophisticated (for me) as the Cabernet, and marked by herb, sage, tea and cherry notes. . . .
THE ZINGIOVESE ($22) is mostly Zin (66 percent) and shows off the classic pepper and spicy associated with that grape, while the Sangiovese ($30) is smooth with a core of smoky cherry and berry flavors. . . .
Production will remain small, with just a few hundred cases, in part because of the demands of making wines for two wineries, but also because each of the White Cottage labels is truly hand-torn and hand-labeled by the Johns and their two teen-age daughters. . . .
"Because of that we're never going to make too much wine because it's too hard to tear the paper and label every bottle ourselves," says Dennis Johns. . . .
To order the wines or obtain more information, call White Cottage at 707-963-4391 and ask for Dennis or Adele. . . .
JOHN AND TRACEY Skupny, another St. Helena couple, also dreamed of one day owning their own winery and for starters they're rolling out a new brand, Lang & Reed Wine Co., which focuses on two different styles of Cabernet Franc. . . .
John Skupny has been working in the wine business for two decades, starting in the restaurant trade and then holding marketing positions for the late Vintage Wine Merchants (Chateau St. Jean, Parducci and Chateau Montelena), Caymus Vineyards, Clos Du Val and most recently Niebaum-Coppola Estate, where he served as general manager from 1992 through 1996. . . .
"Owning your own wine brand is always something that's in the back of your mind when you're working for someone else," says John, who last year served as president of the Napa Valley Vintner's Association. . . .
The Skupnys made their first wine in 1993, buying Oakville-grown grapes, but skipped the next two vintages because of busy schedules. They made wine again in 1996. . . .
THE DESIRE TO TAME Cabernet Franc comes both from their interest in that grape and the lack of interest in Franc by other wineries. . . .
"Three of the wineries I'd worked atNiebaum Coppola, Caymus and Clos Du Valall used Cabernet Franc and it was an important component to their wines, but only Coppola made it into a wine," says John. . . .
With Lang & Reed, two styles are in the works, a supple, ready-to-drink Chinon style that's soft and less tannic ($16) and a more structured wine that's built to age ($22). . . .
"We're trying to make [Cabernet Franc] more like Pinot Noir than Cabernet and we're trying to avoid the shortcomings of Cabernet Franc, which can have a low fruit level." . . .
FOR WINEMAKING COACHES, Skupny is relying on John Kongsgaard, former winemaker at Newton and now with Luna, and Tony Soter, the owner of Etude Wines and a highly regarded advisor. . . .
You can contact Lang & Reed Wine Co. at 707-963-3758, or write P.O. Box 662, St. Helena, Calif. 94574
LAST BUT NOT LEAST, Kenwood Vineyards has reorganized, with Korbel's owner Gary Heck buying a 50 percent interest in this popular Sonoma Valley winery, including the buyout of one of the founding partners Marty Lee. . .
The strategy is to keep Kenwood moving in the same direction, as the winery continues to build on its strengths, mainly Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon, particularly the Artist Series bottling. . . .
WINEMAKER MIKE LEE is making progress, too, with Merlot and a series of vineyard-designated Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs and Zinfandels. . . .
For fun, try a bottle of the 1992 Artist Series Cab (92, $45) alongside a first-growth Bordeaux and taste them blindyou might be surprised by just how Bordeaux-ish the Artist Series is. . . .
I also liked the new Reserve Sauvignon Blanc ($12), a rich, elegant wine with fig, citrus and melon flavors that's a terrific but at that prices. . . .
Also of note is the winery's first California appellation Reserve Chardonnay ($18), a blend of Sonoma Valley and Santa Maria Valley (Bien Nacido), which gives the wine a tropical fruit edge and a smooth, creamy texture. . . .
WITH HECK'S ARRIVAL comes the news that Kenwood is buying the old Valley of the Moon winery and brand along with 63 acres of vines, all that for roughly $2 million. . . .
Valley of the Moon dates to 1851, making it one of California's oldest wineries, and Kenwood plans to gut the old winery and in essence build a new winery within, beginning immediately. . . .
Valley of the Moon once sold 100,000 cases a year of mostly jug-style wines, but the new regime will focus on Zinfandel, Syrah and other Rhone-style and Italian-style reds so as not to compete with Kenwood. . . .
Spring does seem to bring newness all the way around. . . .
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