...and don't forget to email your questions or comments!
Click here to EMAIL!

A Passion for Pleasure

Interview and tasting with Dennis Johns of White Cottage Ranch

(March 25, 1999) "IT'S NOT ILLEGAL for serious wine to be refreshing," says Dennis Johns. "It's not illegal for it to be drinkable, either."

     Heck, who could argue with that? But believe me, the man's a revolutionary.

     Owner of Napa Valley's White Cottage Ranch, he's making some wonderfully seductive wines with the fruit from his Howell Mountain vineyard. More about the wines later.

     But first, let's talk about why they taste so good. The reasons may upset some old school wine geeks, but I suspect Dennis Johns won't mind that one bit.

a&djohns.jpg (17652 bytes)
NICE FOLKS who happen to make terrific wine. Here are Adele and Dennis Johns on a chilly Howell Mountain morning in March.

     From the moment you meet him, you know he's way different from most Napa Valley wine people. For one thing, he cringes at the very idea of cult wines. He says with some heat that he wants his wines to be drunk and enjoyed, not collected -- and he isn't thrilled at the prospect of his wines being hyped on the Internet.

     Sure, other people may talk the same talk. But with Dennis, this isn't just attitude. It cuts to the very heart of his whole approach to wine.

     For example...

     Many winemakers today are talking about "tannin management." They're seeking to make ageable wines that can also be drunk young. This in itself bothers some wine-lovers I know, who feel that great wines should never be touched before spending years in a cellar.

     Well guys, watch out for Dennis Johns. He's going to give you a coronary.

     Here's a man who not only believes that great wines should drink well on release. He says this is exactly when they ought to be drunk.

     "The ten most important things about wine," he declares, "are fruit, fruit, fruit, fruit, fruit, fruit, fruit, fruit, fruit and fruit. You shouldn't have to have a Ph.D. in enology for a wine to impress you.

     "What's the matter with pleasure? Isn't that it's why we drink wine?"

     What about ageability? "Why do you age a wine?" he counters. "To make the texture supple -- so you can enjoy the flavors locked up inside.

     "But what happens to the fruit when you have to wait ten years to get at it?

     "Take the best wines you ever had. There was something delicious about them the day they were pressed. The moment they were picked. What I'm doing is bottling fresh fruit so you can enjoy it out of season."

     Want to argue with that position? Go ahead, you'll have plenty of company. But I for one can't argue with his results. Like...

     **1998 White Cottage Ranch Sangiovese and Zinfandel (from barrel). This is the blend that will become the wine Dennis calls Ezivese (pronounced "EE-zee-vay-zee"). And wow, is it easy to like! Deep, deep ruby with beautiful cherry and bramble flavors. Like biting down on the richest, ripe berry and feeling it burst in your mouth.

     Dennis comments, "Sangiovese is a real chameleon. It works its way into a blend really easily. But getting the grapes just right is even tougher than when you're growing Zin. You can have big problems with uneven ripeness. I might have to harvest the same Sangiovese vines six different times to get truly ripe fruit."

     How important is ripeness? "It's everything! It's what makes a wine delicious. But 95% of the wines you've drunk and the grapes you've eaten weren't ripe."

     So how do you know when the grapes are ripe? "Tasting's the only way. And don't just taste the grapes. Chew the seeds. When a grape is really ripe, even the seeds aren't as astringent."

     Next he offers up a taste of *1998 Saviez Vineyard Zinfandel (from barrel). This is a wine that Dennis is making for a client, from Calistoga grapes. The wine has a lovely fragrance to it and yields pure raspberry flavors on the palate. Really makes me hungry, too. I comment on this and Dennis nods.

     "That's the way wine should be. Wine should refresh and stimulate your palate. A true food wine should literally make your mouth water." (By the way, on the subject of food, Dennis and Adele Johns also gave me some of the best tips I've ever received for wine-friendly dining in Napa Valley.)

     Now we taste the **1998 White Cottage Ranch Howell Mountain Merlot (from barrel). For anyone with a nose, this stuff will be irresistible. Violet and chocolate aromas shoot out of the glass. It's medium-thick on the palate, with more chocolate, loads of cherries and a raspberry-tinged finish.

     Then he performs a magic trick -- adding just a bit of his **1998 White Cottage Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon to the Merlot in my glass. "Taste what happens to the finish," he says. Yowie! It really expands. "Runs on like the Energizer bunny, doesn't it?" Yes, it does.

     "Blending is one of the few good things that a winemaker can contribute. Great wines are grown. But it really helps to season a wine with just a touch of the right other varieties."

     "Take Sangiovese. I like to season it with just a little bit of Cabernet and Merlot. That's what it needs. You know you've got it right when the wine is perfectly spherical and has no seams."

     As if to demonstrate, he opens a bottle of the soon-to-be-released *1996 White Cottage Ranch Sangiovese. Powerful chocolate-cherry aromas. Rich, lush cherries on the palate. Yes, it's perfectly round. And yes, it does make you salivate. You can't help it.

     More please? He obliges with the **1996 White Cottage Ranch Ezivese. Juicy berries with plenty of spice. Lingers long. The blend this year is about 1/3 Zin and 2/3 Sangiovese, with traces of Cab and Merlot.

     And finally, the sensational **+1996 White Cottage Ranch Merlot. Oh my! Again the raspberry juice. The chocolate. The length. Can't bear to spit it out. Could this be even better than their 1995 Merlot?

     So, Dennis, what's the secret? Beyond growing ripe grapes and blending -- what else are you doing different?


     "I'm fermenting 20 degrees cooler than I was taught. And I pump over as many times a day as I possibly can.

     "With fruit like this, to air is divine. I want it to get lots of aeration. I even splash it through a rough screen to aerate the harshness out.

     "I use mostly French oak barrels with some Hungarian oak -- I like the phenolics in the Hungarian oak. Some of the barrels are new, but I have a 3-year rotation program.

     "And the wine is only in wood for one year. Why put this fruit in barrels for so long that you get mouth-drying wood tannins?

     "All you get from 80 to 90 degree fermentations and 2-year aging in new wood is a lot of tannin and a promise that in 10 years the wine will be delicious."

     "I want a wine that is wet, not dry.

     "I want it to be a pleasure to drink.

     "I'm not making wine for trophy hunters and I don't want them on my mailing list. I want my customers to keep buying my wines when economic times aren't as good as they are now.

     "I just want my customers to come back and say, 'your wine makes us feel better.'"

   What can I say in response to all this but -- keep doing what you're doing, Dennis Johns. I may not agree with absolutely everything you say...but your wines surely do make me feel better.

NOTE: To get on the White Cottage Ranch mailing list, call 707-963-4391. No hoarders or speculators, please! There's little enough to go around for those of us who want to drink it.

Top of page    Return to interviews contents page



     Tasting Notes     Articles
Main Contents     Under $16     Search     Blog