Lookout Ridge: Cult Wines for Charity

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Cult wineries are a perfectly American phenomenon. In a celebrity loving culture, it is much easier to venerate a super star winemaker than it is to appreciate the subtlety of a place and the long and bumpy road of tradition. Cult wineries are the direct result of the cult of personality that pervades American culture. It becomes the celebrity winemaker as the star rather than the wine itself (witness the parallel explosion of celebrity chefs).

Cult Philanthropy?

Lookout Ridge flips cult wines on their head by leveraging the phenomenon to raise funds for charity. For each bottle of Lookout Ridge wine sold, the winery donates a wheelchair to someone in need, often in a developing country. Some may criticize philanthropy as a direct extension of the bourgeois cult of the celebrity, but the roots of philanthropy are deeper and more nuanced than this attitude gives credit for. In my opinion it is certainly a noble goal to spread charity across the world, and the personal connection (owner Gordon Holmes’ wife has multiple sclerosis) gives the effort a direct humanity.

The Philosophy and The Lineup

The winery was founded in 1988 and is situated on top of the iconic Mayacamas Mountains, which separate the Sonoma and Napa Valleys. Gordon’s vision for the winery not only encompassed a charitable vision, but also sought to celebrate the differences in winemaking style and personality of each of the winemakers involved. While so far some of the fruit comes from winemaker’s donating their own, the ultimate goal is to have each winemaker use the same fruit from the same vineyard land owned by Lookout Ridge and have it be only the differences in winemaking that produce the distinctions between the wines.

And speaking of celebrities, Gordon’s goal for the winery was noble enough that he has so far signed up some of California’s most famous winemakers, including: Richard Arrowood, Cathy Corison, Marco DiGiulio, Andy Erickson, Greg La Follette, Aaron Pott, Drew Neiman, and Gerhard Reisacher. For those not in the know, these winmakers represent some of California’s greatest estates, such as Chateau St. Jean, Staglin, Corison, Lokoya, Harlan, Screaming Eagle, Flowers, Quintessa, Kongsgaard, and Arietta. Basically, Lookout Ridge is a cult wine orgy.

Cult Drinking

It helps in raising funds for charity and charging very high prices that the wines themselves are phenomenal, and for the most part this is true of Lookout Ridge. It has been a very long time since I have tasted such an amazing range of wines from California, most of which are at the very top range of quality. It’s nice when there is substance behind the ‘cult’.

I started with Greg La Follette’s (formerly of Flowers) 2006 Pinot Noir, which is amongst the most impressive Pinot Noirs I’ve tasted from the New World. It had impressively suave aromatics and was very very long and svelte. The elegance and purity of the fruit in this wine is rare to come by outside of Burgundy and I think it has been handled with care. The stamp of the winemaker is secondary here to the basic expressivity of the fruit. Excellent to Excellent+.

I also tasted Greg La Follete’s 2007 Pinot Noir, which had darker cola and dark cherry aromas. It was not quite as open as the previous vintage at this point, but was ultimately a very sexy wine. Excellent.

Marco DiGiulio’s (formerly Flowers and Pezzi King) 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon had an aromatic elegance that you rarely find these days with Napa Cabernet. It had that classic cult cab textural silkyness, but it still finished with a decent tannic bite that will soften nicely with age. Again, the quality of the fruit here is extremely high. Excellent.

I found Gerhard Reisacher’s (formerly Clos du Val, currently Delectus) 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon to be surprisingly different from the previous wine. It had far more graphite and almost tasted like St. Julien. The wine’s mid-palate was open and seriously complex, but the wine never lost its focus and finished with a precise elegance. Excellent to Excellent+.

Cathy Corison (Corison Winery and formerly of Staglin) has always been a standout in Napa Valley for me. She has never fallen into the trap of over ripe fruit and maximum extraction, instead appreciating that aromatics more than weight make a wine compelling. Her 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon (using grapes from her brilliant Kronos vineyard) offered greatly sweet and dense blackberry and was far subtler than the other Cabs in the line up. This is more of a thinking person’s wine and, while it needs time, it will ultimately open into something massively complex. Excellent to Excellent+

Andy Erickson (of Harlan and Screaming Eagle) is arguably in the top 5 most famous winemakers in California. His name has such pull that buyers often ask Lookout Ridge if they can buy only his wine (which they cannot do since these wines are sold as a group). The 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon was exactly what I expected, however. That is to say, it was delicious, but made in a more forward and obvious style than the other wines on offer. It is extremely texturally smooth with cooler fruits and chocolate undertones. Right now there is serious oak showing in the wine and though I do think it will integrate, oakaphobes need not apply. A delicious wine, but somehow less exciting than the others I tasted. Excellent.

The final wine of the flight – Marco DiGiulio’s 2005 Syrah – had a great varietal nose – meaty and peppery with a good dose of blackberry and blackcurrant. This is impressive syrah that is more like a new world meets old world St. Joseph than the extracted gloppy fruit-alcohol bomb syrah that has become so common in California. This has good rich texture and is very tasty, but I do not think it is in the same league as the previous wines. Very Good+.

These wines are brought in by Wine Syndicate and are available for $675 for 3; $1350 for 6; and $2700 for 12

Serious Wines With a Dash of Humility

These are serious wines. Though the aura of cult wines pushes the prices into the stratosphere, I actually find these wines to be very reasonably priced for their calibre. Additionally, all of the cash you drop for these sorts of things isn’t just going into a star winemaker’s and owner’s pocket. Instead, a good chunk is going to buy someone in need a wheelchair. Given the predominant trend in cult winemaking towards elitism and branding, I think that Lookout Ridge is doing something far more noble and far more interesting. And yes, the wines are superb.

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