Besides tasting many amazing wines, what I have enjoyed most about blogging is how much I have learned about wine and the winemaking process. The power of the vine to wine process is very seductive. Even as a novice, I am beginning to understand the passion that drives winemakers. This week my education included things like botrytis, semillion and Sauternes. And to top that all off I tasted some of the best dessert wine and met a wonderful winemaker who was happy to share his story.
Jeff Sowells’ history started in California’s Central Valley. Kickstarting his love for winemaking, right out of high school, he was hired by a company that handled bulk wines, brandy and grape concentrate for juice. In 1978, Jeff found his way to Napa Valley and worked for Buena Vista Winery in nearby Sonoma Valley. By 1982 he was working in Silverado Vineyards’ cellar and taking wine making courses. It was a call from renowned winemaker Walter Schug asking for Jeff’s assistance with his Storybook and Costello projects, that boosted his confidence and jumpstarted his career! He soon became a consulting winemaker for many of the small winemaking operations that were popping up in Napa Valley. He purchased an old mail truck, installed a mobile lab and headed up and down the Valley helping the industry newcomers!
In 1986 while helping out Macaulay Vineyard, the season’s late rains became the catalyst for what winemakers call “noble rot”. Botrytis Cinerea, the botanical name for noble rot, is a benevolent fungus that infests grapes when the conditions are moist and the grapes are ripe. It is truly the catalyst in creating the greatest dessert wines in the world. But if the weather stays wet, it can then turn to “grey rot” and destroy the grapes! Oh, the fickle acts of nature! Instead of losing all of the sauvignon blanc grapes, Jeff was inspired to try his hand at creating a late harvest dessert wine. Following the French Sauternes style of winemaking, Jeff also bought botrytisized semillion grapes and Jeff’s passion for sweet wine began!
His story takes a bit of a sad turn when in 1988 Macaulay Vineyard’s owner, Ann Watson, was killed in a car accident. Jeff purchased the dessert wine from her estate and Topaz Late Harvest Wine began. Topaz is the perfect name for Jeff’s creation – it is his birth stone and the rich, gorgeous color of the wine. Thanks to good reviews and a good rating from Wine Spectator his 400 cases of Topaz quickly sold out. And since Botrytis is created by Mother Nature, Jeff was convinced that this vintage would be a one-time thing. But before he knew it the early rains in ’89 provided another opportunity for him to do it again. This harvest earned him a double gold rating in the S.F. Competition in 1991. This happened time and time again and before he knew it he had been making dessert wines for 25 years. In 2007 Jeff harvested the grapes, fermented and aged the wine in oak barrels and bottled his final vintage in 2009.
But don’t be sad! Jeff still offers a wonderful library of his late harvest dessert wine vintages dating from 1989 through 2004. And here is the really fun part about the experience. I got to head over to Jeff’s home in North Napa, hang out at his dining table, sip his delicious dessert wine and listen to his story! And the good news is that all of the dessert wines are vegan. What I enjoyed the most about the wines was the difference between the vintages. The 2004 which contains more semillion is fruit forward with hints of pear, melon and fennel. The 2005 which contains more Sauvignon Blanc is bright and tastes of ginger and pineapple all while being sweet and approachable. He even shared a taste or two of his 1989 vintage with me! This is a lovely experience so different from a typical tasting room experience. It is something you should make the time to do while in Napa. I know I am glad that I did! Jeff’s wines have been enjoyed at the White House by several of our Presidents, featured at The Four Seasons and The Ritz Carlton and are available locally at Aubergue du Soleil, Celadon, Redd and French Laundry and more. And you can always order his wines through his website!
Jeff Sowells and Topaz Wines can be reached at 707.252.2468 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Give him a call, enjoy some tasting and fall in love with his award-winning dessert wine! And as always…eat, drink and be vegan!