Exploring an Utter Mystery in the Yadkin Valley

From the first moment that I saw the name of the winery, “Cellar 4201,” on the North Carolina map, I was intrigued. The name reminded me, strangely, of the vaults from Fallout, and I half-expected to come across some sort of bomb-shelteresque hole in the ground a la Vault 101:

Fallout Vault 101 Door

Instead, you’re greeted by an elegant wooden door surrounded by sub-tropical plants and set in a cottage-like tasting room that seems yanked directly from Italy’s Piedmont countryside:

Cellar 4201 Entrance

Words cannot convey how intrigued I was by this winery simply because of the name. Mysterious, entirely non-descriptive, and surrounded geographically by quirky names like Divine Llama and Rag Apple Lassie and old standbys like Shelton Vineyards and Flint Hill, Cellar 4201 provoked every curious bone I had in my body (206 I believe is the current scientific count). Looking at the pictures from their website only made me even more intrigued.

Oh, and by the way, that pour they put in the montage on the home page? That’s actually about the pour you get if you pay for a glass of wine. All their wines are only $5 by the glass, and you get to keep the glass as a souvenir every single glass you buy. They, uh, they take care of their customers.

The owner, Greg, was out straightening up the patio when we arrived; he gave us a friendly welcoming, and we started conversing. He gave us a rundown of the history of the vineyard, about how he and his wife, Donna, developed their passion for wine through traveling and decided to bring their favorite varietals from France and Italy to North Carolina. While they’ve been growing the grapes since 2003, their tasting room has only been open for a year. They took plenty of time to ensure their wines were top quality before they invited the public in. He also explained the name and the label; rather than gussy up the winery’s name, they wanted to quite simply describe what they were, a wine cellar located at 4201 Apperson Road. All their labels feature an arrowhead, an homage to Donna’s Cherokee heritage. The vibrant orange that runs through their label, their logo, and the flora on-site stems from Donna’s affinity for that color.

The expansive lawn of Cellar 4201 (yes that's a cornhole set out there)

While we talked, Greg began to pour a tasting for us. He described the intent behind each wine, each vintage, explaining why things tasted the way they did. Far from a hands-off owner, Greg planted himself firmly in the winemaking, though he defers to the knowledge of Sean McRitchie, a second-generation winemaker from McRitchie Winery and Ciderworks, whom he recruited to lead the process.

Halfway through the tasting, Greg had to leave to attend to his other business, but his tasting room partner and best friend Aaron continued the customer service. With a sleeveless shirt, tribal bicep tattoo, and a deep tan, Aaron struck me more as a rugged, outdoorsy type than a tasting room attendant, but he quickly demonstrated his passion for and knowledge of Cellar 4201′s wares as he poured the last wines. Aaron described how, after a long friendship spanning decades (“We’ve never had cross words for each other,” he proudly told us), Greg recruited him to help follow his dream and create the vineyard. They attended classes together, conducted blind tastings, and otherwise educated themselves on the varieties they planted. Now, they harvest the grapes, make the wine, and pour the wines together as a seamless duo.

Gotta stop before I write too much again. How about the wines? None are over $15, and all are absolutely fantastic. Small lots are maintained from 5 total acres of vines, and their wines are 100% estate-grown, meaning all the wine gets plenty of attention throughout the process.

Cellar 4201 is a winery after my girlfriend’s heart. She’s a big red drinker, lover of Bordeaux, and very particular about her white wines. Completely flying in the face of the typical North Carolinian palate, Cellar 4201 offers only two whites (neither of them sweet), and the rest of their wines are classic left-bank Bordeaux reds and an Italian red and off-dry Rosé, both single varietal Sangiovese.

09 Stainless Steel Chardonnay – Offers a bright nose of citrus, primarily pineapple, with a surprisingly full flavor of citrus and tropical notes and a very light perceived sweetness balanced by a superb, soft acidity. Finish is medium-long and tastes like lemons. 7/10

06 Barrel-aged Chardonnay - Spent 9 months in older French and American oak, imparting a very light oak on the nose and flavor. Tropical notes still come through on the nose, and the flavor introduces a slightly buttery characteristic as well as tropical and spices. The wine has a beautiful mouth-soaking texture, incredibly smooth and firm. 7/10

Cellar 4201 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon

Cellar 4201 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon

NV Sangiovese – A quick note about the non-vintageness of this wine, straight from Greg: in 2007, frost killed almost all of their Sangiovese, leaving them with just 100 gallons after winemaking. Rather than bottle this as is, Greg decided to barrel-age the whole lot for an additional year, 2 years total, blending it with the 2008 Sangiovese after it had aged for a year.

The result is, in my opinion, the best wine they currently offer. A deep reddish-purple color like the skin of a black cherry, offering a light pepper and smoke that gives way to a rich black cherry flavor. The oak provides an incredibly nuanced, velvety texture while hardly encroaching on the pure flavor of the grapes. The tannins are chalky and delicate, offering a surprisingly smooth red wine that was perfect for sipping out in the sun. 8/10

Also, why Sangiovese? From the about us section: “After traveling to Italy, Donna developed a passion for Sangiovese. While admitting it is difficult to grow, it is currently our signature wine.” Simple.

2006 Merlot - With a nose of brisk cherry and black pepper, the Merlot hardly exhibits the 10 months it spent in French oak. It has a great structure, perhaps a bit lighter than a typical Merlot, but the flavors and texture are simply delightful. 7/10

2006 Reserve Merlot - With their Merlot, they split the vintage, oaking one twice as long as the other. Thus, the Reserve Merlot has all the characteristics of its purer brother, but with a palpable, pleasant oak characteristic. The flavor is fuller, darker, with cherries and pepper just bursting onto the palate. The texture is fuller as well, coating the mouth very nicely. Both styles are equally delicious and affordable, so choosing a Merlot is as simple as figuring out how full you prefer your reds to be. 7/10

2006 Cabernet Sauvignon - Very smoky nose. Complex flavor of dark fruits, tobacco, and wood with a smoky finish. Beautiful full flavor and texture. 10 months in French oak softened it without masking the flavor. 7/10

2006 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon - With a fuller dark fruit flavor, light oak on the nose and palate, remnants of the smoky and woody character of its lighter brother, and a raisin quality on the finish, the 2006 Reserve Cabernet takes 20 months in French oak in stride. Great texture on this one. 7/10

2006 Sweet Native - The one concession Cellar 4201 has made to the sweet-drinking crowd, the Sweet Native is an off-dry Rosé from 100% Sangiovese with 3% sugar. The flavor is an array of citrus and red fruits, with a pleasantly crisp acidity and a decidedly non-syrupy texture. As Mr. Drink Pink, I approve. 7/10

This post accompanied by a bottle of the Cellar 4201 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. I made it almost 4 days without opening it.

Hunting for Red Wine Bargains at Trader Joe’s

The Back Story:

So, even though I’ve recently been exploring the over $30 fare in wines, I felt like revisiting an experiment I conducted weeks ago. I went bargain hunting for wine, trying to spend less than $60 for 10 bottles of wine. This was all too easy, of course, with Trader Joe’s in town. Though they carry some fare up to and over $20, by and large their focus is on the sub $10 market. They’ve got several brands in the $4 to $6 range, roughly the price per bottle of a boxed wine.

While the cost of manufacturing a bottle of wine can vary greatly, if we assume they’re at least breaking even on the wine they’re selling, then they’re probably quickening or cheapening the wine-making process, not getting the most out of their grapes. This means they’re more at the mercy of the quality of the grapes themselves, so the quality will vary more from region to region and from year to year. No salvaging wine through reverse-osmosis, no cherry-picking (or grape-picking, I guess) the best fruit, no limiting yields.

The moral of the story? If you find a bargain wine you like, make sure you try it every year before you invest heavily in the next vintage. On the slate for today? 2007 Il Valore Sangiovese and 2009 La Finca Malbec.

The Results:

2007 Il Valore Sangiovese, from the Puglia region in Italy

The appearance of the wine is a very dark purplish-red, barely translucent. Appears fairly viscous.

The nose of the wine is very fruity, ripe red-fruits, with slight floral notes. It’s rather spicy, and the alcohol comes through a little hot at 12.5%.

The mouth feel of the wine is nothing special. It’s rather smooth, rather light-bodied, a little lacking in tannins and acidity but not terribly weak. Honestly, for $4, I’m satisfied if it has any character at all.

The flavor of the wine is rather soft, subdued. It’s red fruit forward, primarily cherries, with an herbal, peppery finish that’s shorter than average but not a complete disappointment. The sweetness of the wine comes through more than I would have liked, but with the simple flavor it’s not really an issue.

6/10

2009 La Finca Malbec, from the Uco Valley in Argentina

Finca La Celia has (thankfully) much more than just this wine

The appearance of this wine is a deep-purple with a reddish tinge at the edge of the glass. The depth of red increases greatly directly in the light.

The nose of the wine is unimpressive, to say the least. There’s a slight aroma of blackberry and vanilla, but by and large, even away from the glass, all I could get from this wine was an overwhelming scent of alcohol, much higher than you would expect at 13% alc.

The mouth feel of the wine is probably the best part. It’s very smooth and doesn’t feel too heavy compared to its lighter flavor.

The flavor of the wine was an utter disappointment. The nose portends the weak flavor, which has notes of red fruit and pepper but mostly just tastes of alcohol. The wine is a little harsh due to an imbalance in acidity, tannins, and alcohol, all of which are, sadly, too high for this wine’s meager flavor. You’ll taste more of the imbalanced aspects of this wine jousting than you will the wine itself.

2/10

For the Casual Drinker:

These guys are on two ends of the bargain medium-bodied red quality spectrum: the Sangiovese is a smooth drinker with great flavor and many pairing possibilities. You’d do well to pair it with tomato and cheese fare such as ravioli or pizza, so long as the sauce isn’t too spicy. The red fruit flavors are a definite crowd-pleaser, and the balance of the wine ensures that even the more experienced wine drinkers won’t have much to complain about. The Malbec, with its harsh flavor and heavy alcohol presence, is best left alone entirely. There’s little you can do to salvage this wine.

The Conclusion:

The Il Valore Sangiovese is a fantastic bargain wine at $4, and it would be worth pretty much any price under $10. It’s far too simple to warrant a higher score than 6/10, though. The La Finca Malbec, however, just doesn’t cut it, and I’d be hard-pressed, even at only $4, to award it higher than a 2/10. I’d be interested to try another vintage to see if perhaps the Uco Valley simply had an overly wet year during this wine’s production, as from what I gather, Finca La Celia usually has much better output than this wine. For 2009, though, I can only recommend leaving it on the shelf.

Spin the Wheel: Indie Music Wine Pairings

The cool thing about wine is that the experience pairs well with not only food, but with any number of activities. You can sip a fine, complex wine while listening to an orchestral serenade, a light, fruit-forward dessert wine during a comedy, or a jug of Two-Buck Chuck during a tailgate (though I hope you at least use a glass). One guy I know likes to pair Chardonnay with his hunting trips. Whatever you’re into, I’m positive there’s a wine out there that’s perfectly suited to it. Because one of my passions is music, specifically independent music, I put a lot of thought into pairing different wines with music. I figured today I would share a couple of my musings on the subject with the randomizer on my music player as an inspiration.

Hercules & Love Affair – Blind

Hercules & Love Affair is a remarkable band that has taken musical anachronism in a different direction. While most independent bands that look to the past for their inspiration usually settle on emulating the new wave style of music pioneered by Devo, Duran Duran, The Cure, and all the other awesome bands that get mocked in pop culture nowadays, Hercules & Love Affair look to ignite a disco revival. Their music wraps European-style modern electronica and male/female vocals around the four-on-the-floor funk beats of classic disco, making them one of the few bands left that can call themselves “unique” and not sound like they’re in denial.

To match this unusual band, I’m looking for an unusual wine that might not be characteristic of its varietal. To match the flamboyance of an electronic disco artist without going with a traditionally sweet or exotic varietal, I think I’d have to go with a Vouvray. Made from Chenin Blanc, which usually produces drier, very aggressive and fruity white wines in its traditional environments, produces incredibly complex and harmonious wines when allowed to fully ripen in warm seasons in cooler climates. When Vouvray has a good growing season (which is happening more and more often due to global warming), the wines develop additional notes, a floral, honeyed character and a crisp sweetness that, well, is a reason why these wines are becoming a quick favorite of mine. The wine ages very well, too, which reflects the classic music influences of Hercules & Love Affair. Let’s face it, Vouvray is a very active wine, both in its high acidity and complex flavors, and like disco, it just makes you wanna dance, whether you want to admit it or not!

Bishop Allen – Calendar

A carefree band that revels in its minimal instrumentation, Bishop Allen has long been one of my favorite bands. I discovered them while I lived in Lynchburg, VA, not knowing that they were at the same time stationed in Lynchburg as a temporary reprieve from life in New York City. They have an honest affection for folk music, surprising complexity in their instrumentation, and a positive outlook that tempers even the most somber of subject matter. Justin Rice, the lead singer and guitarist, is a perpetually awkward 20-something, and in fact plays the lead as a perpetually awkward 20-something in Mutual Appreciation, one of my favorite movies. He chronicles this attitude, though, with maturity and a good sense of humor.

What to pair with Bishop Allen? I want a young wine that’s fresh and fruity, fairly light-bodied, but with a mature enough structure to be taken seriously. I’m leaning towards a New World Sangiovese. These tend to be brighter, less bitter, and more floral than the traditional Italian style, yet still retaining the red wine’s inherent acidity and tannic character. After the initial burst of playful red fruits, there’s potential for darker fruits, spices, even tobacco, the hallmarks of richer red wines. Once you get past the youthful enthusiasm of Bishop Allen, you’ll realize that, in their upbeat way, they like to tackle some pretty heavy topics.

Any music enthusiasts out there? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject. This was a lot of fun, and I definitely plan on doing this again. I might even make it a weekly feature.

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