Swirl 'n' Spit
Tasting Room of the Week
August Briggs Winery
By Heather Irwin
Lowdown: Several years ago, Wine Spectator magazine called August Briggs a winemaker to watch. That was, if you could find him. Like many roving wine consultants, Briggs was turning out some impressive wines for larger estates but his own label, founded in 1995, has always been a limited-production affair, housed in leased space from larger facilities. Winning high praise for his moonlighted Zinfandels and Chardonnays, Briggs finally gave up the nomadic life and recently opened the only working winery within the Calistoga city limits.
Vibe: Perched at the northern end of the Silverado trail, Brigg's big white barn is an eclectic combination of rural charm and modern simplicity. The whitewashed building houses both the barrel room and an intimate tasting room often staffed by Briggs' wife and mother. A huge skylight showers the tasting room with diffused natural light, and the new paint smell of the facility mingles with the older, darker scent of wine aging gracefully. The family operation is refreshingly small, but the wine is more sophisticated than most mom-and-pop wineries, winning high marks and gushing praise from those who sell and drink it. Briggs buys his grapes from a handful of carefully selected vineyards throughout Napa and Sonoma, with an annual case production of only about 4,000 to 5,000.
Mouth value: After a full day of winetasting in 90 degree heat, the cool, creamy Russian River Chardonnay ($28) was a welcome respite. Briggs is a master of Chardonnay, and the 2001 has intense pear aromas and apple flavors. Malolactic fermentation gives it a bit of creaminess, but this wine isn't heavy with butter and oak, instead retaining its fruit characteristics. The 2001 Syrah is juicy with dark berry flavors and has a long, lingering finish, while the 2001 Napa Valley Sauvignon Cabernet is a big, flamboyant wine that leaves you on your knees. Briggs' wines are high in alcohol, generally, making for some zesty, high-powered experiences that pair well with big foods.
Don't Miss: Briggs releases his 2002 Zinfandel this weekend (Saturday-Sunday, May 1-2) with an open house featuring food, music and wine, noon to 5pm.
Five-second snob: Mal-o-what-tic? Chances are that with just about every pour, you'll be told whether or not the wine was made with a malolactic process. Should you care? With red wines, the process is pretty much a given and may occur naturally (sometime even in the bottle), but with California Chardonnays, whether or not a wine is malolactic can have a very different effect on the final taste of the wine. The process of converting the tart malic acid of grapes into a softer, creamier malic acid is done by introducing a special yeast culture into the unfinished wine. But the process is tricky. The wine must be monitored closely to make sure that the yeasts don't get out of control and give the final wine a funky, off-smell. The process also "matures" a wine, mellowing it and giving it a more aged feel. But it can also destroy some of the natural fruitiness and crispness, which is why some Chardonnay producers forgo the process altogether.
Spot: August Briggs Wines, 333 Silverado Trail. Open Thursday through Sunday, from 11:30am to 4:30pm. No tasting fee. 707942.5854.
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From the April 28-May 4, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.