Here’s a good philosophy to go by in life: never underestimate Minnesota.
After all, Minnesota is the birthplace of The Replacements, Bob Zimmerman (a.k.a. Dylan) and Prince Rogers Nelson—and home to Bob Mould and the band that was Hüsker Dü—all giants of music in the 20th century. Minnesota is also the location of the original Best Buy store—talk about making a contribution to modern culture. Okay, so she’s fictional, but you gotta love that Mary Richards, on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, was a Minnesotan. And so was every character in Fargo.
Point is, Minnesota is a bigger part of our lives than we’ll ever realize. If it seems paradoxical that a winery based in the second coldest state in the Midwest is making some of California’s best Pinot Noirs right now, just remember that this is a state capable of accomplishing outlandish things, like electing a WWE wrestler as its governor as well as a Saturday Night Live comic as a state senator.
SPELL ESTATE’s owners/proprietors, general manager and winemaker are all from Minnesota. Operations are run out of Minneapolis. Currently, Spell makes a total of five different Pinots, four made from single vineyards located in Sonoma County and Mendocino County, and one AVA blend called “Nichole’s Blend.” The winery works with vineyards that, hitherto, are not famous—there’s no Gap’s Crown or Hirsch Vineyard Pinot Noir in their lineup. But, the wines this young and under-the-radar winery makes working with under-the-radar California vineyards are on par with the wines made by famous wineries working with famous California vineyards. That’s no exaggeration. Remember, never underestimate Minnesota.
A WATERSHED 2015 VINTAGE
“I was freaked out with the ‘15s, to be honest,” says Spell winemaker Andrew Berge about the harvest and production of the current 2015 vintage wines, released in Spring 2017. That’s an extraordinarily candid statement from a brilliant winemaker who has just made his most brilliant complete lineup for the winery. Having tasted and reviewed every Spell Estate Pinot Noir in the 2013, 2014 and 2015 vintages, it’s easy for this publication to put forward the belief that the 2015 vintage is a watershed for the winery. Based on the phenomenally impressive quality of the wines of 2015 (including a terrific Chardonnay), Spell Estate makes a dramatic shift from being an under-the-radar winery to squarely being one that belongs in the spotlight.
One must remind oneself that the overwhelming popularity and desirability of California Pinot Noir is a relatively new thing. It’s hard to imagine now that this wine varietal was, in essence, the ignored stepsister who wasn’t invited to the Ball until, pretty much out of nowhere, it became “the next big thing” in California wine in the mid-2000s. The highfalutin concept of making, and marketing, vineyard-driven and terroir-driven Pinot Noir is only something taking hold right now—and Spell joins the forefront of those wineries that are defining, at this moment, what California Pinot Noir truly means. The original birthplace of Pinot Noir, the Burgundy wine region of France, has had centuries—think about that, centuries!—to go through this process and define what “Burgundian” truly means. But, let’s face it, there’s more people drinking wine than ever in the course of human history, and you can bet that, to at least 90% of modern wine drinkers, describing a Pinot Noir as “Burgundian” doesn’t mean jack. In large part, Burgundy wine has priced itself out of relevance—the best Pinot Noirs from Burgundy are so hyper-expensive few people in the world can experience them and most consumers, at best, feel intimidated and, at worst, feel alienated. This opening offers a giant opportunity for California vintners to show the rest of the world just how approachable yet refined a world-class California Pinot Noir can be—and the team at Spell is making the most of this defining moment.
Spell Estate currently works with four California vineyards that belong in the upper echelon of vineyards that grow great Pinot Noir grapes: 1) Terra De Promissio (Petaluma, Sonoma Coast), 2) Umino (Russian River Valley), 3) Weir (Yorkville Highlands, Mendocino) and 4) Alder Springs (northern Mendocino). The wines of the 2015 vintage put a definitive emphasis-point on the fact that the winery is capable of making some of California’s best Pinot Noirs. Fruit quality is simply amazing. There’s an intensity of flavor yet finesse and balance, while varietal character is preserved and vineyard characteristics shine—the hallmark of exacting science combined with an artist’s instincts.
Andrew continues describing the challenging aspects of the 2015 vintage:
ANDREW BERGE: The ‘15s freaked me out because of the ripeness in the vineyard. We had a really, really long bloom cycle. There was a lot of uneven ripeness. We had a lot of poor pollination—pollination determines berry size because of the number of seeds that are formed. Theoretically, a perfect pollination gets you 4 seeds. Usually you only get 3. In ‘15 we almost had zero. Without these precursors—the chemical markers aren’t there to tell the vines to do the next thing. So, we had all this fruit, and I didn’t know what was potentially going to be missing from it, besides the seeds … One of the picks came in nine days earlier than I’ve ever picked that vineyard before, and the brix was at 28 and pH was 3.2. Stable, but from a consumer standpoint, not what everyone wants. You’ve got high acid and high alcohol and high tannin wine, you got some weird stuff going on. So, I made some adjustments, through fermentation. It had to be more instinctual. I couldn’t make good judgments based solely on science and chemistry. That’s tough for someone with an engineering background like myself. The numbers aren’t going to tell me what I need to do. I just have to go full-on gut, instinctual with this …
THE CORKSCREWER REPORT: Relying on instinct is artistically more freeing …
AB: For sure, but it was a total gamble. For me, it was a lot of unknowns, a lot of uncertainty. I had never been here before.
TCR: Tasting through the prior vintage, the 2014s, it has that feel of … you knew exactly what you’re doing, you knew what you wanted and got it.
AB: It came in the way it was supposed to. ’14 was classic, pure. The hallmark of that vintage is pure balance, how pretty the wines are. How seamless they are.
TCR: ’15 has a freewheeling quality.
AB: The ’15s are definitely more flamboyant … I got lucky with my instincts, and it worked out.
How did this come about? That a little Minnesota winery that could, like in the tale of the Little Engine That Could, would succeed in hauling itself over a mountain of intense competition in California Pinot Noir wine production? “Little winemakers like myself are trying to find these 1-10 acre vineyards that we can buy 4 or 5 tons from,” says Andrew Berge. As winemaker for Spell Estate, there’s a high level of experimentation and figuring it out as you go along, considering how young the winery is, established only as of 2006.
THE CORKSCREWER REPORT: How do you go about finding the vineyards you want to work with?
ANDREW BERGE: Networking, knocking on doors, answering ads, getting introduced to people. Most of these vineyards we work with were planted in the mid-90s—at the end of the dot.com era—that’s when they started planting out there. The land is owned by people who made careers in other industries and then bought a house in the area. They’re not farming it but bringing in a vineyard management company who is managing a thousand acres of property. We go to these management companies and say, “Here’s what we’re looking for, what do you have available?”
TCR: And then, how do you decide which ones have the quality you’re looking for?
AB: It’s always a one-year experiment, for sure. You never know. You’ve got to go out there, see the process, taste the fruit, ferment it, barrel age it. Sometimes it might take a couple of years. We put fruit from a new vineyard into our Nichole’s Blend. From there, we decide if we’re going to vineyard designate. What doesn’t get classified into single-vineyard bottlings goes into the Nichole’s.
TCR: What’s your overall philosophy?
AB: Stylistically what we’re trying to do is produce wines that walk a fine line between approachability when they’re young but also have ageability. A lot of that has to do with my personal preference, and also working with Bill and Tiki Spell and where their palate is … I think that most people these days don’t age their wines, in general—Pinot, specifically, no more than five years, especially California Pinots. And so, it’s a real balance.
TCR: Let’s talk a bit about your market and where you’re headed.
AB: Our General Manager, Allisun, is based out of Minneapolis, which is actually where I’m from. The owners, Bill and Tiki, still reside there—that’s the biggest market for us right now. Minneapolis is one of those underserved wine markets. Our whole focus will largely remain direct-to-consumer, and restaurants and stores. We’re growing organically and slowly—we have a presence in Wyoming, Omaha, Arizona, New York and California, but Minneapolis will always be the largest market. The max we would want to produce in a year is 4,000 cases—we don’t want to get any bigger than that. One day, potentially we’d have our own facility or tasting room. Maybe we’ll expand to making single-vineyard Chardonnays.
TCR: Was Pinot always your thing from the start?
AB: I loved aromatic white wines. I always figured I would end up in Oregon. When I was at UC Davis, where I got my Masters in Agricultural Engineering, I would walk the vineyards for two years, tasting fruit, and just developed a passion for wine that way. Growing up in Minnesota, I had no experience with vineyards. My dad was into wine. But he was never into the, you know, First Growths. I never had exposure to those. I knew I wanted to work outside. I liked working with my hands. I was into the sciences. When I was in high school, I was looking at schools and careers, and wine hit all my buttons—I liked travel, I liked food. And it seemed like the places where wine was made were pretty desirable places to live. So, it was more of a lifestyle choice.
TCR: How did you end up at Spell Estate?
AB: I was winemaker at Chasseur, in Sebastopol. I knew the previous winemaker at Spell. He was also from Minnesota. He was moving on, and he introduced me to the Spells.
TCR: It’s got to be quite a challenge, focusing primarily on a single grape.
AB: My goal is to make Pinot Noirs that are really easy to tell apart. We’re not making five or six wine varieties to appeal to different palates—we’re making different Pinots. From different vineyards that have different flavors, different characteristics. We’ve been fortunate to have some really nice vintages strung together. It’s constant learning. My background was to be an engineer, so it’s the constant of trying to improve, understanding what’s going on, how do you change that, to fill the void of some sort. Every year I’m tweaking a little bit. Trying to make the wines better, achieve better balance.
TCR: What do you do when you want to get away from it all?
AB: I definitely need a recharge, for sure, at the end of harvest. The mountains give me serenity. There’s a book called Inspiration, it talks about how all the new tech firms—the culture and society that they’ve developed—really stems from 3M, a Minnesota company. How they encouraged all their engineers to take free time and interact with other spectrums of the business to spur inspiration. 3M is known for creating some of the most inspired items out there—scotch tape, velcro, Post-Its—stuff we use on a daily basis. I find my inspiration in traveling and going up to the mountains and being up there by myself. That’s how I recharge. It gives me time to think about different stuff. Connect the dots between problems I’m trying to solve. Especially in challenging vintages like ’15. I love those difficult vintages. The ones that hit it are once-in-a-lifetime kind of wines.
Founders and Proprietors: Bill and Tiki Spell
General Manager: Allisun Groat
Winemaker: Andrew Berge
Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota
SPRING 2017 RELEASES
*Note, as of this article’s publication date, the 2015 Terra de Promissio and Umino Pinot Noirs are already sold out. See our barrel sample reviews, above, for ratings on these wines.
Russian River Valley | $38 | 93 pts
From an unfiltered straw-gold haze in the glass—to the bright citrus on the nose, as well as pie crust and honeysuckle—to a quiet touch of oak and orange marmalade on the palate—and ending on a very clean and bright finish, this is great artisanal Chardonnay. The fortitude of fruit-forwardness and elegance of structure are classic bearings of fine Russian River Valley Chardonnay, while the sense of balance achieved and delightful freshness is the art of the winemaker. Aesthetically, there’s very discriminating restraint on show here, and that adds a high level of class to a very approachable wine. Drink now or age for a decade, it’s all good.
Rosé, Vin Gris of Pinot Noir 2016
Sonoma County | $23 | 90 pts
Baby pink in the glass, the color of this rosé may mislead you into thinking this is a lightweight. But no, this is a surprisingly hearty pink wine, with weight on the mid-palate and texture round and supple. Cute to look at, but no pushover. Solidly structured, with fresh acidity cleansing the palate, the attractive, young red fruit flavor of the wine is restrained, coquettishly quiet. With proceeding sips from the glass, the sharp, bright bouquet of young raspberry, pomegranate, peach and pink roses reminds you this baby knows how to have fun too.
Weir Vineyard Pinot Noir 2015
Yorkville Highlands, Mendocino County | $50 | 94 pts
Always the prettiest wine out of the Spell lineup. In 2015 this Pinot exhibits more robust fruit than usual—as if it were tired of just being the “pretty one” and is now stepping out and showing its flamboyant side, the wine being effulgent in ripe strawberry and cherry flavors and a note of allspice. Tannins are mild and sweet, and texture is broad and silky on the palate—with almost a weightlessness to the body. And when notes of tea leaf and anise emerge, the wine strikes a note of exoticism. Best Weir yet. Give it a few years, and you’ll see that this Pinot holds up to a cru Burgundy. In plain language, that makes this Pinot a steal.
Alder Springs Vineyard Pinot Noir 2015
Mendocino | $50 | 95 pts
A brambly nose of wild black & blue fruit and wildflowers tells you immediately you’re in for a Pinot of lovely rustic personality. The fruit quality is so fresh, it’s like tasting fruit off the vine—and the acidity of dark cherries on the finish so refreshing on the palate. The wine has a large personality, largely chewy and concentrated, with a note of blueberry prominent. Powdery tannins add a dose of masculinity to what is otherwise a voluptuous wine. The voluptuousness is not a Mae West brashness but more Marilyn Monroe curves and roundness. Overall, a vivid beauty—a Pinot Noir painted in primary colors.
Nichole’s Blend Pinot Noir 2015
Sonoma County | $41 | 90 pts
Bold but balanced, rich and rather intense, the powerful red fruit flavor gallops forward with the energy of a wild horse on the loose (14.4% ABV, fyi). Formidable tannins give the wine complexity, and, beneath it all, there’s a steady note of black Assam tea with spices. Deliciously bright strawberries and raspberries, however, win out at the end of the day—but not before one has discovered, in the glass, a California Pinot blend of unique character.