Behind the Wine Awards

The Ledson 2010 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc won “BEST OF CLASS” and “DOUBLE GOLD” and the 2007 Knight’s Valley Cabernet Sauvignon won “DOUBLE GOLD” at the 2012 American Fine Wine Competition.

Monty and Sara Preiser, co-founders of the competition (along with certified sommelier Shari Gherman), came to the winery last week to personally present me with medals for our two big wins! I’ve entered a lot of wines in competitions over the years and have won a lot of awards, but this is the first time anyone delivered them in person! We also spent about an hour tasting new releases and futures. It was great!

It was interesting to discover more about the competition. It’s unique, because it’s by invitation only.

Monty explained how it works. “I taste wine throughout the year and make notations of the wines I want to invite to the competition. I invite about 80% of the wineries, and Shari the other 20%. So you’re competing against other wines that have already been judged and deemed good enough to get gold, in our opinion.”

Four-member panels of judges are pulled together from an impressive mix of industry wine educators, wine writers, restaurateurs, and sommeliers. All the wines are tasted blind. They’re poured in private, and glasses are numbered to correspond with numbered wine bottles, which are kept in a secret staging area.

To receive any medal, three out of the four judges have to vote the same. That 75% requirement is another thing that sets this competition apart. To get a Double Gold, the vote has to be unanimous. The “Best of Class” is a competition among wines that were awarded Double Golds. To win “Best of Class,” one wine must get the majority of votes.

We re-tasted the Sauvignon Blanc at a recent Friday Morning Tasting Panel, after learning it had won “Best of Class.”  All fifteen of us were smiling from ear to ear. We didn’t want to pour this one out, even if it was 9 a.m.  I could drink it with breakfast, lunch and dinner. . .

The Knights Valley Cab, which comes from Bellisimo Ranch, lives up to its place of origin. Bellisimo translates as “most beautiful,” and this wine truly is. It’s majestic and powerful, with tons of blackberry and hints of chocolate, and a long, lingering elegant finish. Most beautiful!

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Chapter Four- Preparing to Fly

The boys get a workout at 4 am.

I talked to a pigeon expert. He said if I decide to keep him I should get a little coup and put it out on my deck. He also suggests that I feed him at exactly the same time every day, and rattle the can when I feed him so he connects the noise with meal time. He said not to feed him prior to letting him out so he will come back to eat. And to keep him outside for about three weeks or so, until he gets used to the environment on the porch, and then he should come back to his cage when he gets hungry.

He will take off flying if I let him out, and may be gone for an hour or so, but he should come back – or he may try to find his way home.

This guy also said that hawks are terrible predators with these birds, and it’s likely a hawk chased him and got him off of a familiar path. I haven’t had a lot of luck with people, trying to get him home. I can tell he wants to go home or maybe just wants to fly outside. He flies all around the house and stops at windows, looking outside, slowly flapping his wings.

Now he gets up every morning at 4:00 am with me, Jimmy (our Cockatiel) and Pistol (our McNab Shepherd puppy). They all get along just fine, playing and eating while I work at my desk. He’s an awesome bird and someone wants him back!

A Man and His Cat

The other day I was in downtown Santa Rosa for a meeting. Walking down the street, I see this homeless guy sitting on the sidewalk with his backpack and a cat. The cat was about the size of Pistol, my five-monthold McNab Shepherd. This cat acted like a dog, too. I said, “That’s a pretty cool cat, kind of like a dog.”

 “Yep.” He tossed what looked like a ball made of old string and the cat fetched it.

“I got him in New York,” he told me. “There were five homeless kittens, living in a barn, and I took the one I thought might be the best companion. We traveled all summer across the United States.”

“It’s curious to me,” I said, “because I see people sitting here every day, a lot of them trying to panhandle off people. But you seem different.”

He said, “I just want to see the world.  Just me, my best friend and my backpack.” He was dirty from sleeping on the side of the road. They were both dirty.

“Man, that’s got to be tough,” I said. “How do you support yourself?”

He told me that he picks up little odd jobs along the way. “Do you have any work? I’m headed over to the coast where I have a few days worth of work and will travel north from there.”

I’m not sure why, but I reached into my pocket and pulled out a bill. “Here’s a hundred bucks to help you in your travels.” 

He looked shocked. “You don’t really want to give me a hundred dollars, do you?”

“Frankly,” I said, “I wish I could do what you’re doing! But I have a whole bunch of people that I’m responsible for. Take the money.”

Just then his cat jumped up on his shoulders- I swear he was hugging him.

I had to smile. I told him, “Now, your karma is going to be determined by how you spend that money. I don’t know you. I don’t know what you do. But spend it in the right places and it’ll keep coming. Not necessarily for free, but it will keep coming.”

When I was a young man on the Ranch I used to reach out and try to help a lot of the workers my dad brought in from all over the world. Some would listen, make some changes to improve, and thank me for the help. Some would keep making the same old mistakes. It used to really frustrate me.

My Dad always said, “Son, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. Just keep doing what makes you feel good in your heart.”

Chapter Two: A Positive Turn for the Kid

The other day Lyle called and told me he’d had an argument with his grandmother and slammed the door as he stormed out of the house. When his mom came home he started complaining to her, and she said, “Let’s go for a ride so we can talk.”  

He said, “I wanted to just scream at her, but then I remembered some of the things you’ve told me. Like, ‘Before you say or doing anything ask yourself what will be the worst outcome from my actions, and if you’re not 100% happy with it, then don’t say it or do it.’ I decided I didn’t want to have a fight with her as that would just create even more problems and that is not what I needed. By being calm I was able to understand where she was coming from and things worked out ok.”

While we were having coffee recently, Lyle told me he used to get up in the morning and jog. He said that kept his mind on something positive and gave him a goal to improve on. I looked down and saw that his shoes were not the kind of shoes you could run in.  I thought  to myself, I’d like to buy him a pair of shoes to get him back running, but figured I better give it a little more time to see how he responds to the advice I have given him.

If I continue to see progress, I will help him get a pair of running shoes through the Ledson Harmony Foundation to see if he can get back to a daily exercise program. That will keep him moving in a more upbeat and focused direction.

I figure there must be a reason why I met him. There’s something positive in this kid, and I hope I can help bring it out.

As my father used to say, “I know there’s a pony in there somewhere.”

Friday Morning Tasting Panel

Each Friday morning, on the third story of The Castle, 15 places are set on a long dining table with wine glasses, napkins, crackers, and carafes of water.

When I first started making wine for the family in 1993, my goal was to produce a portfolio of wines from Northern California with the diversity to satisfy every palate and everyone’s pocket book. As you might imagine, it’s no small feat.  

We produce about 80 different wines every year, from more than 20 varietals, sourced from 20 appellations throughout Northern California.

I decided I needed a tasting panel, so I assembled “The Friday Morning Tasting Panel” to help me routinely evaluate and re-evaluate each wine.  Because as we all know in the wine world, every bottle is forever evolving.

My father always said two minds are better than one, so I figured that would apply to palates as well. I assembled 15 of my best palates who have an incredible passion for wine and love their jobs.  It doesn’t get any better than this!

First, I had to set parameters and give the panel tools to work with. I developed a spreadsheet for note-taking and an intricate grading system.  We were ready!

“The Panel” is made up of longtime Ledson employees including assistant winemakers, managers, sommeliers, and tasting room staff. Every Friday, without fail, we taste five or six wines. We rely on our experienced palates, knowledge of the wines, and the vineyards of origin. We each mark scores and make notes on our spreadsheets. Then we go around the table and everyone weighs in on each wine.

Sometimes we share wine stories. It’s a serious business, but it is so much fun and so rewarding to taste how our hard work has paid off in the bottle. It’s such an amazing feeling for me to look up at my staff as they taste a wine and see big smiles on their faces. I love my job.

As a wine matures in the bottle, it should get better and better with time. It’s not a perfect science, that’s for sure. We get together every Friday because we want to know how each wine is developing at all times and be able to suggest the best wine for each customer’s palate.

We receive phone calls daily asking for recommendations. We ship our club monthly and have literally thousands of people walk through our door every year. Our customers depend on us to bring them those impeccable wines every time. We pride ourselves on the fact that we have so many different wines to choose from. There isn’t a day that goes by that we don’t hear someone say, “We have tasted an incredible wine at every tasting room we’ve visited today, however, all your wines are incredible.” Music to our ears!

Two Impeccable, Romantic Wines

Everyone can’t wait ‘til Friday rolls around and especially here at the winery, because Friday is our tasting day! Every tasting is a new experience and that’s why it’s so much fun. Last Friday we tasted two impeccable wines. First, our 2008 Knights Valley Bellisimo, named after Amy and my dear friend Louise Bellisimo. The wine and the ladies are “most beautiful,” which as you may know is what “belissimo” means in Italian.

We also tasted our 2008 Knights Valley Ti Amo. You will just love this wine! Remember, Ti Amo means “I love you” in Italian. There’s nothing better than sitting down with my most beautiful wife, taking that first sip of Ti Amo, looking into her eyes, and saying “I love you.” It always brings a huge smile to her face, no matter how many times I’ve done it.

Here are our tasting notes.

2008 Knights Valley Bellisimo  (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot)

This wine is seamless. On the nose we picked up aromas of candied chocolate. On the palate, we imagined chocolate covered cherries, with some overtones of pie crust and a hint of nutmeg. A very concentrated wine, yet with a silky finish that left a soft, toasty and slight vanilla finish. Soft, yet firm tannins tell me that this wine’s going to last for a long time.

2008 Knights Valley Ti Amo (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot)

The panel is in agreement: This wine is “ridiculously good.”  An ocean of blackberry fruit and chocolate on the nose leads to an explosion of cocoa and cherry, followed by a hint of espresso bean.  Great mouthfeel is saturated with mocha and sweet oak. On the finish, an undertone of chocolate lingers playfully on the palate. We thought this wine was impeccable, so we tasted it again. Yep, it’s impeccable.

Chapter Three: This Pigeon isn’t Going to Jail

From the band on his foot, I tracked down the person who originally raised him. She didn’t have any idea who he might belong to, but said she’d check it out. I called her again when I didn’t hear back, and this time she said, “You know, two months ago I sold a bird like that, and a red one, too, in Redwood Valley.”

She ended up calling the people but it turns out they still have their birds. Then she said, “If you want to just bring it here, I can sell him.” When I asked her how many pigeons she has, she said “more than 500.” I asked how she keeps them all, and she said in these little boxes about 18 inches tall and 12 inches wide.

That would be like being in jail!

Especially, with this bird, you can just tell that he wants to fly. When he wants to get out of the cage, he goes to the side and starts pecking to tell me he wants out. When I open the door, he goes to the window and sits there, softly flapping his wings.