El Molino: One of Napa’s best-kept secrets

el molino logoWhen penning a story about El Molino winery, it is difficult to determine where to begin: There’s its history as one of the first wineries in the Napa Valley, dating to 1871. There’s the historic label, a version of the original, depicting the Bale Grist Mill (“El Molino”), which is located next door to the winery. There’s the naturally beautiful Lily Berlin, who began learning to make wine at the tender age of nine. There’s Lily’s husband Jon, the ruggedly handsome South African surfer-turned-winemaker with perpetual stubble and a knee-weakening accent. And there’s the titillating tale of how Lily and Jon annually jump into the steel tanks in nothing but their underwear to help press the Pinot Noir grapes during the first week of fermentation.

But no, even given all that marvelous fodder for a good opening paragraph, this story must begin by discussing the provenance of the grapes from which the unique El Molino Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines are made.


Map of Rutherford AVA

If you know the Napa Valley, you know that the intersection of Highway 29 and Rutherford Cross Road is Ground Zero for Cabernet grapes. Some of the best-known and most historic vineyards in the valley are found in this neighborhood, including BV (Beaulieu Vineyards) and Inglenook. The warm climate and ideal soil conditions in this part of the valley are perfect for making world-class Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s the last place anyone would ever think of growing Pinot Noir.

Well, almost anyone.

Lily’s parents, Reg and Marie Oliver, purchased the winery, which is located in St. Helena, from the estate of Reg’s late Aunt Nancy Haven in 1978. They packed up the family and moved from New York City to the property in 1981, at which time Reg started making wine while they remodeled the winery. In 1987, the Olivers and some investor friends purchased the 68-acre Star Vineyard, on the south side of the Rutherford Cross Road, which was planted to about 55% Cabernet and 45% Chardonnay vines. Ignoring warnings to the contrary, Reg replanted six acres of vines with Pinot Noir. Despite the fact that BV’s Andre Tchelistcheff had made award-winning Pinot from a nearby plot of land in the 1940’s, it was now generally assumed that this area was far too warm to grow these finicky grapes. According to the Rutherford AVA website, these are now the only Pinot Noir grapes planted in Rutherford.

Most (but not all) Napa Valley Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs are made from grapes grown in the Carneros region. Located in the southern-most part of the valley, adjacent to the San Francisco Bay, the Carneros region sees much cooler temperatures owing to the daily fog that arrives early and departs late in the summer months, compared to up-valley AVAs (growing regions). Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes thrive in these cooler temperatures, and growers generally prefer the lower sugars and higher acidity created by these conditions.

IMG_7057When I first heard about these cool-climate wines made from grapes grown in the Rutherford dust, I had to search them out. One night I encountered half-bottles of both wines on the menu at a Yountville restaurant, and ordered them. They were delicious, and so different from most Napa Chards and Pinots. To me, they were a cross between Burgundian-styled wines (more earth, minerals and acidity) and California-styled wines (bolder, fruitier, riper, oakier.) The Pinot, for example, gives wonderful cherry expressions on the nose and palate, but not in an overwhelming “Luden’s Wild Cherry Cough Drop” kind of way. The fruit is balanced with nuanced earth and minerality to create a soft mouth feel with nice complexity and round tannins. Likewise, the Chardonnay is a wonderful mix of acid and fruit, without being over-oaked or buttery. I was immediately determined to learn more, and soon arranged a tour and tasting at the winery.


As I said, rustic.

Compared to the many Napa wineries that have been built with amassed fortunes by wealthy tech entrepreneurs, El Molino is spectacularly rustic. As we pulled up the driveway I half expected Laura Ingalls Wilder to greet us. The small, wooded plot of land features oak and madrone trees, manzanita bushes, a chicken coop, the family residence, a small winery building, and evidence of tiny inhabitants—the Berlins’ three young children.

Jon welcomed my group of eight at the parking area and began explaining the winery’s history to us. A moment later he briefly introduced us to Lily, who was busy shipping bottles to awaiting customers. As the winery’s only two employees, Jon and Lily do all the winemaking, sales and marketing for El Molino, while also raising their kids–a challenging task to be sure.


The Pinot processing porch

Jon first took us to a small covered area on the side of a hill where the Pinot grapes are processed during harvest. He explained that whole berry clusters are dumped in the steel vats and only natural yeast is used for fermentation. This is the point where Jon explained that he and Lily strip down and enter the vats three times a day during the first week of fermentation to gently press the grape clusters with their feet in order to extract the juice, and also to break the crusty cap which forms as the sugar turns to alcohol. After the first week they resort to more standard methods of punch-downs with normal winemaking tools.


Tunnel from Pinot cave to residence

When fermentation is complete, the contents of the vats are put into a basket press and then flow via gravity to mostly new French oak barrels waiting in the small cave below. The juice stays on the lees (“sur lie”) for 11 months before being racked and blended and spending 7 more months back in barrel. Once bottled, the wine spends another full year aging before being released. Production ranges from only 600-900 cases of Pinot, depending on the particular harvest year.


The winery building and Chardonnay cellar

Leaving the Pinot production area, we walked to the newer winery building, which is where the Chardonnay is made and stored. Unlike the Pinot, the Chardonnay uses more conventional production processes—no punch downs in their underwear—including the addition of commercial yeasts. Unlike many California Chards, the El Molino wine does not go through malolactic fermentation, which means the wine does not take on the “buttery” characteristic so often found in similar wines. And by only using 50% new French oak for aging, along with 50% once-used barrels, the resulting wine has a more Burgundian feel while still showing full fruit development. As with the Pinot, only 600-900 cases of Chardonnay are made per year, meaning that El Molino is one of the smallest wineries in the valley in terms of overall production.

el molino teamIn a valley full of prominent female winemakers, Lily Berlin flies under the radar a bit, but her pedigree is solid. Born in Manhattan, Lily moved with her family to St. Helena in 1981 and was soon learning the art of winemaking from her father. When the college years arrived, Lily went south to Pepperdine for a Liberal Arts degree. Then, seeking a taste of city life, she returned to New York City to work for Sherry Lehmann Wine & Spirits before eventually returning to the quietude and sanity of the Napa Valley and the family business. When she and Jon are not making wine or tending to winery business, Lily volunteers for Canine Companions for Independence (www.CCI.org) where she helps breed and train service dogs.

While young Lily was learning to make wine in California, young Jon was learning to surf in South Africa, where he eventually opened a surfboard manufacturing business that struggled to stay afloat. Having long been attracted by wine’s siren call, he followed some opportunities in the famed Stellenbosch region of South Africa and soon found himself making wine at Flagstone. Searching for more wine experience, he took a harvest position at Flowers Vineyard and Winery on the Sonoma Coast of California while it was winter back at home. He hopped between hemispheres for a few years making wines in South Africa, California, New Zealand and Australia. On one of those California trips he met Lily, and decided to put down permanent roots in the Napa Valley, where he took a position as winemaker at Viader. When Lily’s father passed away just prior to harvest in 2005, Jon joined Lily to keep El Molino going.

el molino chardel molino pinotSince my original visit I have been back to El Molino several times as I enjoy taking visitors to my “best-kept secret” winery here in the Napa Valley. Jon and Lily are two of the most sincere and grounded wine people around these parts, and their wines are, in my opinion, outstanding. The Chardonnay, at $60 a bottle, is in a league with Kistler and Flowers, to name but two. And the Pinot at $70 is on par with many higher-priced selections from Russian River, the Santa Lucia Highlands, and even Burgundy itself.

Next time you visit the Napa Valley, make a note to schedule a visit at El Molino. They don’t accept many visitors, because it’s just the two of them, but Jon and Lily would be happy to welcome you if they are available.


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Announcing a unique wine club just for my friends!

One of the benefits of living in wine country and occasionally writing about wine is that I meet a lot of great people, some of whom own wineries or make wine. I also get to sample some unique wines at a wide variety of prices.

Ever since we moved to Napa, I have received weekly requests from friends all over the country asking which wineries to visit, or any great new finds I have run across. Also, every time I discover a new wine, I think of people I know who would enjoy it. Yet many of these wines are not distributed widely, if at all, and not every winery I learn about even allows visitors, so often times I am not able to connect friends to these interesting wines.

So I have come up with a unique idea that will allow me to share my discoveries with you (and with your friends, if you so desire.) I am starting a special wine club for my wine-drinking friends that will combine my love of writing with my growing knowledge-base of interesting wines. There is no cost to join, and no obligation to ever buy. Here’s how it would work:

Each month, I will work with one of my winemaker/owner friends to put together an offer for you. I envision the offers would cost anywhere from $100-200 per shipment, maybe with an occasional higher offer if I find something truly special. Each offering will consist of 2-4 bottles of wine from that month’s featured winery. When I present the offering, I will send you a full write-up about the winery, owner and/or winemaker, discussing how I know them and what makes their wines unique. Of course I will also send info on the wines included in the offer. At that point, you can decide if you want to purchase the offer or not. If you do wish to purchase, just let me know. I will tell you how to proceed and the winery will handle the fulfillment. If you do not wish to buy, you do nothing.

Every few weeks I will feature a different winery, with a full write-up penned by me. Each time, you get to choose if you want it or not. Like I said, there is never an obligation to buy. If you do purchase, and you like the wines you have received, you are welcome to order more wine directly from the winery. At that point my involvement is done.

I will not receive any money from these transactions, either from you (the buyers) or from the wineries.  I am not doing this to make money.

Why would I bother with this? As I said above, I am blessed to meet so many wonderful people in wine country who make interesting or great wines. And I enjoy responding to my friends who ask for recommendations. By doing this, I get to use my writing skills to create compelling stories that introduce you to the wines I enjoy and the people who make them. And by doing so, I will help my friends in the wine business find new customers who will enjoy their wines. That is an expensive and time-consuming process for wineries, so any help I can give them is welcomed.

To recap:

  • There is no cost to join this wine club, nor any obligation to buy
  • All I need is your email address, which I will keep to myself*
  • If you wish to purchase a particular offer, I will put you in contact with the winery.
  • I am not selling any wine; all orders will be shipped and billed by the wineries
  • I am not making money from these transactions
  • Many different wine varieties and prices will be featured

* If you purchase an offer, then your email address will be given to that particular winery, but will not be shared with any other wineries.

I have already spoken with a number of winery owners who think this is a great idea and are anxious to participate, so I have confidence this can work. All I need now is for you to send me an email at KvanB@aol.com and say “Hey Kort, please add me to your wine club!” and we will be off and running.

Thanks for reading. I look forward to sharing some great stories and wine with you!


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National Geographic: No More Juice in The Camera

logoI was saddened to learn of layoffs this week at The National Geographic Society as Rupert Murdoch’s takeover went into effect. Although staffers had been promised that no changes in direction would take place, a number of the magazine’s most senior and award-winning writers and photographers have been terminated, and cuts have taken place at the National Geographic (cable) Channel as well. About 9% of the Society’s 2000 employees have been pink-slipped in all departments, and buyout offers are in place for others.

To be honest, I have not subscribed to NatGeo for a very long time; a subscription was given to me as a gift when I was young, and I continued it for a number of years. But even though I was not a regular reader, I had always held the magazine, and more recently the cable channel, in the highest regard, due to their superb photography, thorough and educational writing, and stellar production values. In a world where anyone with a camera phone and a PC can call herself a “photo-journalist,” NatGeo set the bar, and they set it very high.

My attachment to National Geographic became more personal in about 1990 (the exact year escapes me) when I hired award-winning NatGeo photographer Dewitt Jones to be the keynote speaker at my company’s annual retreat, held in Las Vegas that particular year. These outings were equal parts fun and business, and always included an outside speaker to help us expand our creative horizons (our company was an advertising agency). I believe I paid more to hire Mr. Jones than I paid for the entire rest of the trip, but the investment was well worth the cost.


From Dewitt’s website; he has since turned the presentation into a short film.

His presentation was titled “Is there juice in your camera?” Dewitt told us of a chance encounter he had with a 5-year-old boy who held a toy camera that was actually a juice box. When the boy squeezed the camera, he could take a sip of juice. Although cobwebs now cloud my memory of his entire presentation, Jones worked this analogy into a story of looking beyond the obvious visual answer and finding a more dramatic and creative way to achieve a desired result. In our case, the subject was creative problem solving, but the analogy worked well for many facets of life where one’s passion can be harnessed to do powerful things. Naturally, Jones incorporated amazing photographs (and the stories behind them) into this presentation, often showing the first few shots he would take of a scene and then the final, published “wow moment.”

It was compelling stuff, and my team was motivated. After his presentation, I split everyone into small groups, handed them a disposable camera (hey, it was 1990!) and a list of photo subjects and sent them off with “juice” to go take the most creative shots they could get from a list I provided. They had the afternoon to complete the list and then turn in the photos to be developed. The next day we retrieved the photos and teams presented their efforts to much laughter and amusement, and prizes were awarded.

In August of 2014 we held an agency reunion dinner, and it was heartwarming to hear team members recall this particular guest speaker and their memories of the event some 24 years later.

The point of the walk down memory lane is to explain why the cuts at National Geographic had such an emotional impact on me. I am a journalist at heart, and it has been painful to witness the demise of professional writing as technology has accelerated. What passes as “journalism” or “news” these days is pathetic. As newspapers and magazines have become supplanted as sources of information, so many good writers have lost not only their ability to make a living, but the opportunity to inform, educate and inspire us. They have been replaced by freelancers who work for pennies to craft crap that fills online pages that deliver ads to the masses. It appalls me to think that people work all day at Buzzfeed to create lists of “ten things you should or shouldn’t do” that become “content” on websites that millions of people click on just so the host website can deliver ten ads to unsuspecting readers.

I could go on with the rant but my complaints are nothing new. It saddens me to see one of the last bastions of editorial and photographic excellence lose so much of the juice that made it special.



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How Uber Ratings Work for Passengers and Drivers

uberPeople who have hailed an Uber car at least once know that they must rate their driver on a scale of 1-5 stars at the end of the ride, or before they are allowed to order a subsequent ride. Drivers, conversely, must rate the passenger before being allowed to accept the next ride request. This system, built into the Uber passenger and driver apps, ensures that ratings are collected on each and every Uber ride.

After more than 300 trips as an Uber driver, I have come to realize that most passengers have little or no idea how those ratings work and what they mean in terms of the quality of service that riders receive.

Most passengers understand that drivers rate them, but a passenger usually does not know what his or her cumulative rating is. The only ways to find out are to email Uber and ask, or the passenger may ask a driver to tell them. Most of my guests tell me that they have no idea what their rating is, and a few ask me to look it up. I have not yet had reason to say no, because all of my riders have had ratings above 4.0, as far as I know. (I do not always look.)

Ideally, passengers who follow the basic code of Uber conduct (enter the correct pick-up location in the app, be ready to go when the driver arrives, don’t eat or drink in the car, be polite, don’t leave junk behind, and don’t throw up in the car) receive a rating of 5. If any of those items are not followed, chances are great the driver will knock the rating down by a point or more.

A single low score won’t hurt a rider’s overall rating much, but multiple low scores can give a rider a below average rating. What does this mean for the rider? First let me explain how the system works:

When a driver receives a pick-up request, he has 15 seconds to accept it before the ride is offered to another driver. In those 15 seconds, drivers have to quickly assess whether they want to accept the ride or not (drivers are required to accept 80% of the rides they are offered.) The only information drivers receive in that short period of time is the passenger’s location. Drivers are NOT told where the rider wants to go, much to most peoples’ surprise, until the passenger is in the car and the “Start Trip” button is pressed. A driver may reject a request if the pick-up location is far away (I sometimes decline requests to pick up in Sonoma, 40 minutes away, because I may only get a 5 minute ride out of it).

If a driver accepts the ride request in those 15 seconds, then he is told the passenger’s name, and can see their rating.

If the driver looks at the phone and sees that “Joe” has a low rating, the driver will sometimes immediately cancel the ride through the app and not continue to the pick-up location. No reason is given to the passenger; Joe just receives a message that the driver has canceled the ride, and Joe must start over. Joe has no idea that he has been rejected due to his low rating.

To date, I have yet to decline a ride solely based on a rider’s rating. However, I have given low scores to riders who eat or drink in my car, are not at the location they entered on the app, or were rude (either to me or, in one case, to his wife.)

Now, what about driver ratings?

What almost no passengers seem to know is that drivers must maintain an average rating of 4.6 stars or they get booted out of the system and are required to take a remediation class from Uber. Yes, you read that right—4.6. Seems like a very high bar, doesn’t it? Now of course, a driver’s rating is based on at least a hundred rides, so a few low scores are not going to adversely affect any particular driver. But I have talked to many passengers who have no idea that this threshold exists. And many of these passengers rate drivers like my old Silicon Valley employers did: namely, most drivers get a 3 rating if they show up and do their job as expected. A few get 4’s if they do something really remarkable. And maybe 1% get 5’s if they go way above and beyond.

In Uber’s way of thinking, if a driver does everything just as expected, the rider should award him with a 5 rating, not a 3. This can complicate life for a driver if too many passengers use the corporate way of grading. Having learned the hard way early on, many drivers, including myself, do everything we can to exceed our passengers’ Uber expectations. In my case, I jump out and open doors for my riders both at pick-up and drop-off (if safe), and ask the passengers if they have a particular type of music they would like to hear from my Sirius radio. I often carry bottled water in the warmer months and will offer it to passengers on a longer ride. I keep my car clean, dress well, and offer pleasant conversation and Napa Valley insights if appropriate.

In the long run, the rating system helps assure passengers they will get a decent driver and car. If your driver is late, surly, has a dirty car, plays the music too loud, gets lost or takes a longer route than necessary, then by all means rate him low. If enough passengers do that, a rider won’t be around too long. But just remember, the driver will rate you also. So do your best to be a passenger deserving of a high score.uber

If your Uber ride goes off just as expected, even if it’s nothing flashy, don’t hesitate to give the driver 5 stars. It’s the same reason I give 5 stars to almost all my passengers, even if they aren’t the most personable people I have ever met.

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Harvest 2015: Chaos on the Crush Pad

New empty barrels sit beside lasy tear's full barrels at White Rock Vineyards.

New empty barrels sit beside last year’s full barrels at White Rock Vineyards.

Traditionally, September and October are when the Napa Valley grape harvest is in full swing. The Valley comes alive during that time; the roads choked with trucks hauling tons of grapes in those ubiquitous white bins. The air is ripe with the smell of fermenting grapes, and wine club members fill the hotels and restaurants as they gather to attend one of the countless winery release parties and harvest events. It’s a heady time, to be sure, for both locals and visitors. But this year, the tourists who arrive from mid-September on may find they missed the party.

Harvest has come early this year. Way early.

Thanks to Mother Nature, the normal harvest schedules have been accelerated by about a month. While some pundits and newspaper reporters have attributed this to the ongoing drought, others, including winemaker Cathy Corison, argue that is not exactly the case. While California is indeed in the throes of a four-year drought, the Napa Valley actually received plenty of rain last winter, although in just a few concentrated storms. The true problem was that the month of January was rain-free and warmer than usual, which meant the vines started growing earlier than normal. Since bud break happened a month early, it makes perfect sense that harvest has to also happen a month earlier than expected. It wasn’t just a lack of rainfall, per se.

A typical harvest season starts quietly in August. During that month, sparkling wine grapes are harvested by the few wineries that make bubbles. Meanwhile, at all the other wineries, workers spend the month bottling the previous vintage’s wines and shipping them off to storage. Then they spend many hours cleaning and prepping the newly-emptied barrels and tanks for re-use when the grapes are harvested in September. New barrels (“new oak”) are also delivered during August, and also have to be prepped to receive juice. Come September, most of the cooler grape types (Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and others) start coming in to the winery. Most Cabernet grapes will normally hang until October. So there is a nice, easy controlled rhythm in the valley from August through October.

But this year is different. And for some wineries, this accelerated timetable has created some chaotic conditions on the crush pad.

The early harvest saw sparkling grapes being processed as early as July 22nd, the earliest date on record. The wineries that normally harvest in early September began to realize that things would be happening earlier than usual, and that presented timing challenges. Rather than bottling a month before harvest, this year’s accelerated schedule meant that wineries would be bottling, cleaning and harvesting almost simultaneously.

A visit to White Rock Vineyards in Napa last week revealed that they were bottling last year’s wines, cleaning out the old barrels, accepting a new shipment of barrels and processing some early Chardonnay fruit on the same day. Over in Sonoma and up in Santa Rosa, respectively, Patz & Hall and Pisoni wineries were alternating days of bottling and cleaning with days of processing newly-picked grapes. For wineries with small staffs, this can create even more stress and longer hours than usual during the time-sensitive harvest period.

While some Cabernet grapes are coming off the vines now, most will be harvested in September, assuming the weather stays cooperative. Yields will be lower than in the past three years, owing to cool growing conditions early in the season which resulted in uneven flowering and fruit set. Due to this, most vineyards dropped a lot of fruit early to allow the remaining clusters to ripen fully. Also, after the last three vintages which yielded more tonnage than normal, many vintners have chosen to not over-tax their vines for a fourth straight year and will be happy with a smaller but nicely-concentrated crop.

So while the Napa Valley is busy with activity now, one can expect things to really be in full swing in early September when the Cabernet grapes start rolling in. The silver lining to all this may be, for this year anyway, that the vintners will be able to relax and enjoy the harvest parties with their wine club members in October.




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