Vinum Cellars

By Sunny Brown on May 1, 2008

Category: Winery of the Month

Like a lot of things in life, we often tend to take wine for granted. We assume that there will always be lots of great wine at many different price points from the four corners of the globe. It is very easy to get passé about the thousands of bottles lining the shelves of our local inebri-ist. That one has an animal on the front. Cool. This wine hails from the snow-capped peak of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Right on. But sometimes we forget how hard it is to make great wine that doesn't cost an arm and a leg. Sometimes we lose sight of the fact that there is a mountain of boring wine out there that has about as much individuality as a Snickers bar.

But every once in a while we find a wine that makes us want to stop and smell the rose-scented Viognier. Every once in a while we find a winery that is doing things the right way, as opposed to the easy way. And it makes us want to know that winery. We want to know their wines. We want to know their story, and why they chose to do what they do, and what the hell is up with them making such great wine and selling it for such an affordable price. Vinum Cellars is one such winery.

Vinum is the great American success story. A couple of guys by the names of Chris Condos and Richard Bruno became friends while in college. They each went their separate ways after graduation in search of gainful employment, but the dream, the dream man! The dream was always alive. A few years later they got together and came up with a plan to make the best Chenin Blanc ever in the state of California. They maxed out all their credit cards, purchased the best fruit that they could find, and made a wine called Pointe Blanc. Twelve years later Vinum Cellars produces nine wines from nine different varietals and creates some of the best wine in California not named Chardonnay or Merlot.

Never content to take the easy route, Chris and Richard could have continued with their day jobs instead of rolling the dice with Vinum. Chris was the lead enologist for Pine Ridge Winery. Richard the master distiller at Bonny Doon Vineyards. But it seems the desire to make great wine, and more specifically great Chenin Blanc, was in their blood. Chris is a third generation wine dude- his grandfathers made wine and his father sells wine, so the industry seemed a very natural fit. Richard spent years in the restaurant industry honing his palate and his love for esoteric goodies such as the fabled Chenin Blancs from the Loire Valley in France. Put the two of them in a room together at UC Davis and the rest as they say is history.

Today Chris and Richard share the winemaking duties and produce a multitude of fine wines from grape varieties that many US wine drinkers have a hard time wrapping their minds around: Petite Sirah, Cabernet Franc, Viognier and of course Chenin Blanc. The underlying current through this river of deliciousness is that the wines are consistently affordable and undeniably great. The big sellers in the Vinum line are all priced at around $12 per bottle. You can barely get that much gas nowadays for $12!

Vinum is also committed to finding the best fruit sources they can from small grape growers that value quality and sustainability above profit and margin. They often are located outside of the more heralded spots of Napa, Sonoma and Carneros, but in the end their soil, weather conditions and hard work are what sets their sites apart from the rest.

One other source of quality that is getting harder and harder to find nowadays is the barrel program at Vinum. Only French Oak barrels are used in the winery as a means to age the wines. French oak was already ridiculously expensive before the U. S. Dollar took a nose dive against the Euro, so you can imagine what they cost now! The white wines are barrel fermented slowly and aged sur lie in small barrels to add complexity and richness to the wines. The reds are given judicious oak treatments in an effort to accentuate the wines, not kill them with coconut and vanilla flavors.

I was lucky enough to spend the day with Richard recently. Our topics of conversation ranged from Vinum's past to their very bright future. Sometimes it is best for the author to get out of the way of the inspiration, so in that spirit here is a little Q & A with Richard Bruno, winemaker at Vinum Cellars: How do you decide which growers to work with?

Richard Bruno We have always looked for the best quality growers in every appellation based on reputation, varietal mix (do they grow the appropriate varietals in their region?) and, yes they MUST be good, honest and trustworthy. These are qualities that show in the quality of the grapes believe it or not.

WG Vinum has been committed since the get-go to Chenin, Cab Franc, Petite Sirah and a host of other grapes that are considered to be "obscure" by CA standards. Why not just grow the usual suspects that have the track record for an easy sale?

RB We make wines that we like to drink; period. I do not buy Merlot or Chardonnay when I go out as I find them too often boring and there is a sea of beautiful and interesting wines from all over the world: Austrian Blaufrankish, Argentinian Malbec, Chilean Carmenere, Grüner Veltliner, German Rieslings, Vouvray, Spanish wines, oh don't get me started. Why would you drink Chardonnay? Because most people are preprogrammed by societal gradient. We are sheep by nature.

WG What was the original intent with Pointe Blanc?

RB We wanted to make the best white wine utilizing the best Chenin Blanc from California: POINT BLANK... well, as it was going to be a white wine, we decided to name it POINTE BLANC. In an attempt to make an old-world style Loire inspired Chenin, we felt the need to look at both Roussanne and Viognier to give a sense of old world terrior; something difficult to find expressed in any Californian appellation, in my opinion. We learned several years later that another winery had the trade mark (Pointe Blanc), so we changed the name of the blend to it's current White Elephant... I think the new name is more appropriate on many levels.

WG What were you and Chris drinking when you decided to go into business together?

RB Peet's coffee…we love Peet's coffee. We assembled two independent lists of our desired grape varietals. Each of us produced a list of 9-10 grape varietals. When we compared them, they were identical sans two varietals the other had forgotten to write down. If you are curious, the list included all the varieties we work with (9), but there are two that were listed that as yet we have never produced: Barbera and Malbec.

WG Why French oak?

RB We believe that the French oak flavor profile is most appropriate and appealing to the varietals and old world style of wine that we make. We believe in seasoning our wines with oak and not killing them with too much new oak; therefore, most of our wines use a selection of 2, 3 and 4 year old barrels. We like our wines balanced, harmonious and food friendly.

WG What advice would you give to aspiring winemakers who are just starting from scratch?

RB Do what you love and work your ass off. Don't expect the business to pay you for at least 7 years. No bank will give you money until you don't need it, but I only recommend maxing out credit cards like we did if you are so mentally committed to what you are doing that failure is not an option. Have one financial partner and one winemaker, but both should learn how and be required to sell.

WG Anything you would have done differently in hindsight?

RB Not make and market a varietal Roussanne. The wine was good, but wow, it flowed like concrete. One vintage only in 2001.

As for the wines, in addition to their unique nature on the CA wine scene, they just taste good. And they are affordable. And they are from a couple of guys who have followed their dream. And they... oh, what's not to like?

The 2006 Chard No Way Chenin Blanc is a delightful summertime white, with all the honeysuckle and peach blossom you would expect on the nose of a good Chenin Blanc, but also a fine and crisp palate that accentuates the wildflower honey, almond oil and fresh ginger notes. A great value and as the name suggests, why drink boring Chardonnay when you can have this baby instead?

Another charming wine was the 2006 VIO Viognier which hails from the Vista Verde Vineyard in San Benito County just to the east of a town named appropriately Aromas. Bright, fragrant and very expressive, the nose practically jumped out of the glass with elegant rose and cherry blossom notes, along with a little quince and tropical fruits. The palate was dry and delicious, with elements of white peach, tangerines, tree fruit and a little spicy note on the finish. Weight, richness and complexity, all on a dry and balanced frame. Very nice.

The 2005 Vinum White Elephant is a blend of primarily Chenin Blanc with Roussanne and Viognier added to the mix. Just what exactly is this wine anyway? It is at once dry, fruit forward, complex, yet easy to love. A haunting perfume mixes the best elements of white flowers, lime zest and pears along with a little exotic spice. The palate is rich yet lively on the tongue, with a harmonious blend of peaches, lemon oil and a slatey mix of minerals on the finish. If you are looking for another run of the mill wine with no character or personality, this isn't your wine. But if you want something that has spice, nuance and flavor, look no further.

As we are just heading into the summertime months, a wine to look for is the 2006 It's OK Rosé made from dry-farmed Cabernet Sauvignon from the Frediani Vineyard in Calistoga. Fruity and fresh, with notes of raspberry, orange blossom and strawberries on the nose, followed by a palate that is refreshingly dry and crisp. Black cherry and golden raspberry flavors seem to jump out of the glass.

One of the most popular wines in the Vinum line is the 2006 PETS Petite Sirah. For years a dog named Tanker graced the label for this affordable yet lovable wine. Tanker was the family friend of grape grower Ken Wilson, and a portion of the proceeds from this wine are donated to the Tanker Memorial Fund at the San Francisco SPCA. Chewy and rich, yet balanced and nuanced. the '06 PETS is yet another home run in the Petite Sirah category. Too many Petite Sirah's come off as either fruity yet thin or beefy yet tannic as hell, while the PETS manages to capture the fruit and fragrance up front and the richness and body on the back end without knocking your teeth out with tannins. Always a great bargain!

My favorite wine in the line-up was the 2005 The Scrapper Cabernet Franc. It won't be hard to find this wine as there is a black and white super-imposed image of Jack Dempsey as the label. 22 months in French Oak have given this wine a personality all its own. The nose is perfumed and deep, with hints of lavender, black fruits and espresso roast. The palate is big, broad and expansive, with ripe black fruits, a little rich topsoil nuance and a blend of spices that range from roasted herb to a little tobacco and tea leaf. Very well balanced, yet big enough to take on all comers.

And what does the future hold for Vinum Cellars? "We will release a new luxury Cabernet Sauvignon from a new vineyard for us in the 2006 vintage," says Richard. "We haven't named it yet, but we are really looking forward to it; the wine really kicks ass."

So there you have it- just a couple of guys who wanted to make wine their own way. They dropped the conventional ideas and married themselves to the thought that if they started with great fruit and gave it a gentle touch in the winery, who cares that the wines come from grapes that we may not be as familiar with- they still taste great!

But this was no surprise to Richard. When I asked him if he always knew that Vinum was going to be a great success his answer was: "Yes. Absolutely."