Sunday, May 31, 2009

Herman Story Winemaker Russell From has Dinner at Our Home

Last week on a whim Russell From of Herman Story stopped by for dinner at our home with a few friends of ours and a lot of wine. Before I get into the wine details, tasting notes and commentary from the dinner, a few background details of Russell and Herman Story are necessary.

Russell From is the winemaker and director of all operations at Herman Story, a Southern California winery now based just a little further north in Paso Robles, California. Before Paso Robles, Herman Story shared space with other up and coming winemakers in an industrial space north of Santa Barbara.

Russell crafts delicious and complex Rhone varietal wines. In fact some say his Larner Vineyard Grenache is one of the best American versions of this mildly fickle grape mostly unknown outside the wine geek scene. A fact I tend to agree with. Later I will get into more detail on the grapes and their old world origins. Many of you have probably had Grenache; you probably just did not know it.

In addition to excellent Grenache, Herman Story crafts world class Syrah, the most popular of the Rhone grapes; Rhone white grape varietals Viognier and Roussanne, as well as the dark and mysterious Mourvedre to blend into the reds on rare occasion. The grapes that Russell uses come from some of the premier vineyards in all of California for Rhone Varietals, White Hawk Vineyard being one of the best for Syrah and Larner Vineyard for Grenache and Viognier.

Hotels Suck, My Blackberry Pays Off

This dinner came together on a whim as I was on vacation in the Cayman Islands with Lisa but had to watch work email on my Blackberry a few times a day. If not for my Blackberry I would not have seen Russell’s email about his East Coast trip. Luckily I did and saw Russell’s latest mailing list update that he was doing an east coast trip (finally dude!). After doing quite of few of these trips in other parts of the country, Russell had found he had developed a distaste for hotels. Something I can imagine gets old when you are living out of a suitcase, meeting tens of people a day to sell and taste your wines and train them on Herman Story wines and how the wines are made and should be served to customers. So in exchange for a couch, or spare bedroom in our case, and some dinner, Russell would provide Herman Story wines for a small group of friends. I think the email arrived in my phone as I was checking on a work issue. I dropped everything and wrote back to Russell that we would like to participate. A little while later we put a date in the books and Lisa and I went back to the beach and scuba diving.

The day of the dinner Russell picked me up in downtown Manhattan after work so I could navigate him through the Holland Tunnel and to our home on the other side of the Hudson River in Hoboken, NJ. The wines had already arrived earlier that day. We stuck the Viognier in the fridge and opened the reds around 1pm or so to start to breathe. Lisa had prepared in short time her excellent rack of lamb and smashed potatoes with truffle oil, while I whipped up some braised broccolini. Excellent cheeses, finger foods and salad were generously provided by our guests.

The Herman Story Wine Lineup:

White Hawk Vineyard Viognier, 2007

“On the Road” Grenache, 2007

“Nuts and Bolts” Syrah, 2007

White Hawk Vineyard Syrah, 2007

Larner Vineyard Grenache, 2005

White Hawk Vineyard Syrah, 2005

Russell spoke to our guests about life on the road and at home as a winemaker. There were plenty of funny and interesting stories of travels and winemaking abroad with friends he has made through Herman Story and other wine projects that he is involved with (Barrel 27 being one of them). Of course I talked his ear off about the wine geek matters, but not too much…I hope.

The first wine was the White Hawk Vineyard Viognier, 2007. Aromas of white flowers, spice, peaches and creamy oak jumped from the glass. Big and viscous, the wine coated and filled the palate with stone fruits such as peaches, some spiciness and crème brulee – some textbook Viognier notes. The wine was crisp and dry on the finish as it was fermented 100% and picked at a high brix. This was finished quite soon but I was able to grab a second sip before it was all gone.

Next up was the 2007 “On the Road” Grenache. This was a big favorite of the group and also a wine finished very quickly. My notes are a little light on this one as I was not able to get too much more after the first pour. Medium to dark red in color, the aromas were juicy red and black fruits, a touch of licorice and baking spices. The palate was rich and concentrated, yet elegant and light on its feet. The palate had more of the aromas, but specifically, and this may sound weird, but late summer (ripe) grilled strawberries. “On the Road” walked a fine line balancing the berry fruits, spice, oak and acidity.

With the third wine we cracked in the Syrah wines. The 2007 “Nuts and Bolts” Syrah was a concept that originated in the 2006 vintage. Instead of making a few single vineyard Syrah, Russell combined the best Syrah barrels to make one larger effort that achieved better results than when unblended and on their own in barrel. Ergo the name “Nuts and Bolts”! A dark purple core with red edges, this wine was progressively showing better through the night beating its chest. Meaty and peppery notes mingled with blackberry and some oak. The palate was brooding with meaty, peppery and blackberry flavors with some secondary notes of chocolate and oak integrating finely with the primary flavors.

The second Syrah and our fourth wine was one of my favorites and one I look forward to purchasing; this was the 2007 White Hawk Syrah. The 2007 White Hawk Syrah is ready for the long haul. The color was a deep and inviting dark purple and red. The complex aromas kept changing from ripe crushed black berry jam, rib roast meat, white pepper, cassis spice, a dash of cocoa and a dollop of oak. Wow that was a lot! The palate was tight and complex. Young and massively complex, the black berry fruit flavors mixed with some chocolate, licorice, spice, and oak. This much complexity is a hint of more to come as this beauty ages gracefully.

So for the two Syrah wines I kind of developed an analogy to the Godfather films while writing this blog, probably stemming from our Coppola conversations. The exuberant Nuts and Bolts reminded me of Sonny Corleone, while the White Hawk was the Michael Corleone of the family; younger, smarter, more complex and harder to figure out.

The last two wines were a testament to Russell’s skills and the quality of fruit that he and nature craft into delicious wines. The 2005 Larner Vineyard Grenache and the 2005 White Hawk Syrah were stellar, complex wines starting to enter into the mature stage of their lives with secondary aromas and flavors that you only get from a wine that has been laid down a few years to mellow and age gracefully. Both wines displayed elegantly perfumed aromas, with the Grenache leaning towards red fruits and baking spices; while the Syrah leaned more towards earthy, elegant black and red fruits and the hallmark white pepper. On the palate they were even more complex than the 2007 versions. There were some similar flavors that were more subtle due to some age. The new secondary aromas due to some age gave the 2005 wines further dimension and depth. The 2005 wines are not available for sale from the winery and thus were a real treat to be able to experience them side by side with their younger siblings to see how the infant 2007s will mature. I kept going back to the aromas that were hauntingly elegant and beautiful to take in as they wafted up from my twirling wine glass.

Dinner was excellent and the wines paired perfectly with the lamb and chicken. We talked more about what its like to be a righteous wine dude and everyone shared stories of themselves and their goings. Being hard working New Yorkers going through the toughest time this city has seen in quite some time we all had a few war stories in addition to talk of our families and friends.

What is this Grenache you speak of?

Now, some of you at this point might be saying “What is Grenache? I know what Syrah is…that’s the same grape as Shiraz!” Well if you have ever had a Chateauneuf du Pape (CdP), Vaqueras, or even a Cote du Rhone, you have had a good amount of Grenache. It is the main grape in most of these wines and 100% in a Vaqueras. France is of course complicated and the rules are never exactly the same within the confines of the rules. In CdP winemakers are allowed to blend 13 different grapes in any amount to create and label a wine CdP. Though these days most wineries make Grenache the primary grape in excess of 50% and the rest is usually just Syrah and some Mourvedre. These French names are also the names of regions in Southern France near the Southern section of the Rhone River that streams down from high up in the Alps. In Spain the grape is known as Garnacha and has had great success in recent years in the Priorat region, just off the Mediterranean coast in the eastern part of the country. Grenache is not that widely grown in the USA, but that is changing and more plantings have been made or are underway. Grenache until recently probably had been planted on the wrong rootstock, the wrong soil, the wrong climate or all of the above. It gets very hot in the Southern Rhone region, with cool nights from the Mediterranean maritime climate, similar to how the Pacific cools the very hot Southern California regions in and near Santa Barbara.

One last interesting fact is that CdP means “Castle of the New Popes” as the papacy was moved here in the town of Avignon for about 70 years in the 14th century. The Popes were known to be avid wine drinkers and did much to promote the “Vin du Pape” from Avignon which later became known as Chateauneuf du Pape.

Thank you Russell and thank you to our guests for being able to come together and generously contribute to a wonderful event!




  1. I had a Herman Story Syrah once, it was excellent! Very cool that you got to meet the man behind the wine.

  2. I do agree that Herman Story produces some excellent juice, I'm a big fan of the Grenache which is one of the best examples of the varietal that I've found so far from California. The winemaker himself, has always seemed like an interesting guy when I've met him and B27 offers an interesting tasting experience when you're in Paso.

    BTW, nice to read an article about a Paso winery and not have someone complaining about alcohol levels in the wine. Despite the fact that his Grenache is very well balanced (Paso is HOT) it always seems to be a topic of conversation, unnecessarily.


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