2005 Orlando Cepeda Zinfandel “Baby Bull”: A Bottle Etched with Admiration

I’ve been a baseball fan since I was a kid, and have been a BIG Giants fan. I had the good fortune of producing a wine with Orlando Cepeda “Baby Bull” to raise funds for the Ledson Harmony Foundation for Children. All funds from the sale of every bottle of this wine goes directly to the foundation. With my ongoing faith that the Giants would soon return to a World Series, I held back some cases of this wine for such an occasion!

I gave away my series dugout seats to one of my valued employees for the first game of the series. As much as I would have liked to go to the game myself, I was finishing up harvest, have a new baby, and my wife was tempting me to stay home with a fabulous meal of butternut squash soup, mushroom, veal & spinach raviolis, and tri-tip as a finale.

And to top it off, I opened a very special bottle of 2005 Orlando Cepeda Zinfandel “Baby Bull.” As I was sipping away, the Giants fittingly won the game, 8-3 over the Detroit Tigers.

Throughout the evening, I was thinking a lot about our American baseball hero, Orlando Cepeda, and how he stepped up to the plate to collaborate with the Ledson Harmony Foundation. We produced this wine to support the Foundation, which strives to make a difference in the future of America, our children.

It was a great day when Orlando came to Ledson Winery for the release of this Zinfandel, signing baseballs and commemorative bottles of wine. Later that evening, we honored him with an intimate dinner among friends and family. Not only is Orlando a Hall of Fame recipient, he is a dedicated humanitarian who has donated hundreds of hours of his personal time to various charitable causes.

The “Baby Bull” wine is a soft yet mature delicate Zin. It reminds me of Orlando’s hands- reputed to be some of the softest ever in baseball. More than that, it’s a keepsake bottle for every Giants fan to proudly display. And these etched bottles will make great Christmas presents to those Giants fans out there!

In addition to the hours of pleasure “Baby Bull” #30 gave me watching him on the baseball field over the years, I’m grateful beyond words to Orlando for giving his time and lending his name to this wine that is helping to change the lives of so many children. It’s all about the kids.

And Go Giants!

‘Old Vine’ Zinfandel

I love old vines. The older, the better. When I was growing up and working with my dad, he always made me aware of the age of particular vineyards. I think he was especially proud of those that had been in the ground for 50 years or more.

I have grown to believe that old vines carry memories of all the fruit they’ve born over the years, right in the DNA. When I walk through the vineyards, I can almost hear the whispers of vintages gone by. The vines have developed powerful personalities that translate into unique wines with complexity, depth, heart and soul.

I just tasted two such wines from Russian River Valley (RRV) that are beautifully woven, powerful and intense.

The 2009 RRV ‘Old Vine’ Zinfandel ‘Amy’s Vineyard’ is special to me on many levels. The vineyard is where Amy and I shared our very first kiss. I wrote a blog about that incredible experience, if you missed it.

It’s a little vineyard; the vines were planted by a dear friend of mine, Ernie Bacigalupi, and his father, when Ernie was just a teenager. The vines are close to seventy years old.

This is a classic RRV Zin, brilliant in its complexity and depth. On the nose, discover splendid black raspberries, a hint of cocoa and pie flavors. You could almost stop there and be satisfied, but by all means, don’t! The palate offers up mom’s best berry pie along with an intriguing touch of smoke. The finish transcends into an explosion of overly ripe cherries. Amy and I like to pair it with tri-tip or a nice grilled filet. For us, opening this bottle is a romantic adventure every single time.

The 2009 RRV ‘Century Vine’ Zinfandel Reserve comes from a vineyard right next door to ‘Amy’s Vineyard.’ It was planted by a friend of my father’s, Henry Montafi. Dad said the vines were planted around the turn of the century!

This dazzling Zin has great focus and presence. Aromas of rich lush blackberries and pie crust draw you into the powerful experience. With an incredible mouth feel and textural elegance, you may conjure up images of blackberry cobbler on a summer afternoon. A long, lingering finish of more fruit and pie crust – this is what Zinfandel is all about. It’s a treat for all the senses.

2008 Sonoma County Cepage: A Beautiful Blend from the Vine

When I heard that the 2012 World Wine Championships awarded our 2008 Cepage a Gold Medal and 91 Points, I just had to break a bottle out of my cellar. Not that I really needed a reason! The judges called it “A bold and zesty table wine,” and after an amazing dinner with my wife and Cepage, I totally agree. I’m so happy with this wine.

Last week Amy and I savored the Cepage with duck confit and a side of slow braised red cabbage with crisp bacon and apples. The nutty flavor of the duck, along with the ridiculously delicious cabbage, enhanced the luscious black fruit and chocolate in the wine. One of the most memorable pairings I’ve had in a long time!  Having said that, this wine will complement a variety of sumptuous dishes – it’s perfect to experiment with.

This beautiful blend is from some of our best vineyards in Sonoma County and is made up of the five Bordeaux varieties – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petite Verdot.

And what a perfect wine for fall! This one is an elegant and dynamic beauty, beginning with blueberry, blackberry and a hint of vanilla on the nose. The palate is complex and rich, with incredible flavors of cassis, dried blackberry, bittersweet chocolate and a touch of soft leather. The finish is mouth-filling and lingers on and on, so you can savor the lovely layers of black fruit and chocolate until you’re ready to embark on that next sip.

If you come up with another mouthwatering pairing for this wine, please share! We’re always looking for new adventures in the Ledson kitchen!

New Additions to our Winemaking Team!

You’re only as good as the people you surround yourself with. I think of my employees as family, and when it comes to the winemaking team, there has to be a real passion and energy among us. On that note, I’m thrilled to introduce you to our newest members of the Ledson winemaking team!

David Ramey (left) and Andrew Bilenkij (right) join Winemaker Steve Ledson.

David Ramey, known around the world as one of the top winemakers in the industry, has joined the Ledson family as consulting winemaker. Ramey is widely known as one of the prominent pioneers who helped bring California wines to the forefront of the international wine world.

I’ve been friends with David for a long time, and I’ve always admired and been inspired by his innovative winemaking style. In February of 2012, Robert Parker said, “David Ramey is one of the few California winemakers who think in terms of structure, not just flavor, something that sets him apart from many of his peers.” Amen!

I’m a big believer that every time you do something, you should do it better. My dad always said, “Two minds are better than one!” So David and I put our heads together and went on the search for one of the best winemakers in the world.

We did a lot of research and poured over 150 resumes. One name really stood out: Andrew Belenkij.

Formerly winemaker at Cumulus Wines in South Wales, Australia, Andrew trained under one of the most acclaimed winemakers in the world, Philip Shaw, winner of the coveted “Winemaker of the Year” at the London International Wine and Spirits Competition in both 1986 and 2000. Andrew added to his expertise by working at some of the most prestigious wineries in France.

As we continue to add vineyards and source the best fruit, I always think of another one of my dad’s sayings. “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.” That saying always comes to mind when I’m thinking about vineyards and grapes. You just can’t cut corners! For the last five years, I’ve been working with the highly esteemed viticulturist, Dr. Daniel Roberts. Roberts has consulted all over the world and has planted vineyards for some very well known wineries. His experience is unparalleled, and his addition to the Ledson team has done nothing but improve all of our vineyard operations!

Combined with our continued growing and sourcing of the best grapes available, I expect even greater wines to come out of our cellar. And that is saying a lot, considering the numerous awards we’ve been receiving on our recent and current releases. I’m always striving to improve!

The Loss of Another Great Man and Dear Friend

I have known Stanley Denner pretty much all my life. My father went to high school with Stanley and his brother Russ back in the 30s. They stayed close friends, and because of their relationship, I was around Stanley a lot. Especially in the summers – so I have a lot of great memories.

When I was a young boy, I used to run the hay baler on the Denner Ranch. I had a very strong work ethic instilled in me, to the point where it was hard for me to stop work at the end of the day or even take 30 minutes for lunch.

Over the years on the Denner Ranch, when my Dad and I stopped for lunch, we would sit under the big oak tree close to the creek. It had tremendous shade and a cool breeze came off the water. Dad and I used to swim in that creek almost every day to cool off during the summer. Dad knew how to make a day’s worth of work fun.

Those were some great times in my life, sitting under the oak tree with my father and looking back over a morning’s worth of hay baling. My dad was always so positive and inspiring around the work I did. I remember practically inhaling my lunch so I could get back to the baler. Dad always believed in taking at least a half hour nap after lunch; he did so every day of his life.

From early on, Stanley Denner had a great impact on my work ethic. Even before I started running the tractor, I was getting comfortable with it!

I had started running the baler when I was about five years old, moving it from one shock of hay to the next shock of hay, so Dad wouldn’t have to keep getting on and off the tractor. Once I got to be about 9 years old, I couldn’t wait for Dad to finish his post-lunch nap, so I’d jump back on the baler.

Because I was so young, Stanley Denner worried about me running the baler when my dad was asleep. He would drive by right after his own lunch and check to make sure I was ok. And that everything was going according to Hoyle.

(By the way, that phrase, “according to Hoyle,” is one that has fallen by the wayside, sadly. It basically means “playing by the rules” or “things are going as they should.”)

As much as I hated to stop work, I looked forward to Stanley’s daily visit. He was also a very inspiring man and always gave me great praise, not only for the amount of work I’d gotten done, but for the quality of it as well.

I was touched that he worried about me. And I think he may have appreciated my work ethic.

One time I was baling on Stanley’s ranch and the tractor broke down. Dad wasn’t around, and as it always seemed to happen, Stanley showed up at just the right time. We worked on the tractor for a while and we couldn’t get it up and running. Stanley told me to sit tight; he’d go get one of his tractors.

He came back with this big old green John Deere tractor, bigger than anything I’d ever operated. I remember it seemed so tall to me, as I was still a young boy at the time, and it sounded so different from my old familiar tractor. I was pretty nervous, but once I made a few passes around the field I was ok. Stanley stayed and watched until he saw I was going to be fine.

As the years went by and I got older, maybe 12, my father would leave me to run the hay baler all by myself, while he ran the mower or rake on another ranch. But I was never worried about it, because I knew I could always count on Stanley if I needed anything.

It was about that time that I started noticing the girls. I can still see Stanley’s daughter Kathy riding her horse across the beautiful fields all around my hay bales. I guess you could say I had a crush on Kathy. Every time Stanley came by I would ask him where Kathy was, and he’d get a big grin on his face. One time he said, “Do you want me to ask her to stop by?” I remember I was so embarrassed, my face must have turned the color of a tomato, and I said, “No, that’s ok.”

Over the years, Stanley and I remained close; that story would come up from time to time and we always had a good laugh. In fact, I stopped by to see him a week or so before he passed, and I asked him how Kathy was doing. That got a big smile out of him and we both chuckled.

Stanley was a tall, handsome and powerful man. Very firm, but kind. He had huge hands and a grip you couldn’t believe. Not too many men had the work ethic of Stanley Denner. To watch him load the truck of hay was pretty impressive.

When my wife Amy and I were married just three years ago, Stanley and Alma attended our wedding.  My wife and I commented on how young and healthy Stanley looked at that time.  My wife said, “He’s a very handsome man for his age; I hope you hold up that well.”  I said, “I hope so, too.”

When I saw Stanley a few weeks ago, he was sitting in his chair and looked like he would have a hard time even getting up, so I figured he would be very weak. But when he shook my hand with that familiar smile, I was quite surprised that he still had that powerful grip.

Stanley and his family worked hard for more than a hundred years farming their ranch through some very hard times, and because of Stanley and his brother Russ’ work ethic, they have been able to keep their ranch while so many families couldn’t. The Denners originally had a 100-head dairy cattle business, along with hay and vegetables. Today they also grow wine grapes and produce about 350 tons of Chardonnay!

It is men like Stanley Denner that made this country the great country it was. Losing Stanley Denner, a man as honest as the day is long, with an integrity no one would question, a man who stood tall and proud and respected his neighbors, who had the common sense to figure anything out, is a huge loss. And it’s a loss not only to his family, but to everyone he touched.

Over the last 10 years or more I have been honored to host the Santa Rosa High School class reunion at our winery for the classes 1930 thru 1938.

Stanley, I believe, attended them all except this last one. I always hate to look out over the crowd and see that one of my friends is not there, and that was the case this year when I looked for Stanley.  During those reunions I got to share a lot of great moments with Stanley and his classmates. I loved nothing more than sitting there chatting it up with Stanley, reminiscing back on all those great times growing up in Sonoma County and all the things I did as a kid on the Denner Ranch. I was able to relive a lot of great memories talking to Stanley over the years, and I wouldn’t trade those chats for all the tea in China.

I am honored to be able to say that Stanley Denner was a friend of mine and I feel very strongly that I will meet up with him again someday.

Lyle: A Good Chapter

Lyle has come a long way in the last eight months! For those of you who haven’t followed his story through my previous blogs, he was on a “not so great path” when we met.

Photo by Robbi Pengelly
Courtesy of Sonoma Index-Tribune

Today, he works at our winery five days a week, and my General Manager Cat Kaiser can’t say enough good things about him. “Lyle’s my ‘go to guy’,” Cat told me the other day. “He’s gone from part time to full time and he’s really showing a dedication to the business. When we’re short staffed, he’ll come in at the last minute.  He’s fast, he’s funny, and he always has a positive attitude. When he’s done with a project he immediately asks what he can do next. He’s happy!”

Lyle does multiple jobs. He keeps the Gourmet Marketplace stocked, the cellar stocked, sets up private tastings, greets guests at the front desk, and does pretty much anything else you ask him to do. And he’s learning the business from the ground up, which is the way to start building a foundation for success.

Cat’s comments made me feel incredible. When I come to The Castle and Lyle is there, he always greets me with a big smile, loads of personality and a big hug. There’s nothing better in life than the feeling you get when you witness another person’s life growing more and more fulfilling.

As the days come upon us, Lyle and I have a lot more things to work on. But right now, in this time and space, he’s on his way to becoming a productive and content human being.

Play and Work, Work and Play: What’s the Difference?

It really comes down to how you perceive what you’re doing. If there’s one thing I learned from my father – it’s to enjoy every minute of your life. And if you truly enjoy what you’re doing, there is no distinction between work and play. A dear friend of mine, Bill Benner, shared this quote which pretty much sums it up for me. It’s a perfect philosophy for “Living Life to its Fullest.”