The release this week of new vintages of Kali Hart and Sleepy Hollow Vineyard Chardonnay and Pinot, marks five years since E&J Gallo bought Talbott Vineyards with the aim of broadening the regional diversity of its burgeoning premium portfolio. Instead of parachuting in a Napa hotshot, Gallo made the wise move of giving David Coventry the chief winemaker job – a man who had made wine in Monterey County for over 20 years and has his very own way of doing things. David Kermode met up with him and Gallo’s Edouard Baijot MW to hear how Talbott’s cool climate style wines offer on-trade and off-trade a real point of difference.
“This gives us an opportunity to show the elegance and full potential of the cool climate regions of California,” says Gallo’s head of fine wine for EMEA, Edouard Baijot MW.
If you arrive unannounced at Talbott Vineyards and see a man with his ear to a barrel, that’ll be David Coventry, tuning in to his malolactic fermentation.
The chief winemaker at this iconic property, a waft away from the Pacific Ocean, Coventry has the chilled air of someone who likes to roll up his sleeves and get stuck in, quite a contrast to some of the smart-suited ‘wine directors’ you might encounter at the top estates a little further north.
Monterey born and bred, Coventry’s easy California charm belies the fact that a lot rides on him. Now starting his fifth vintage, he stepped into seriously big shoes, taking on the mantle from the man whose name still adorns the bottle, Robb Talbott, who founded the brand almost 40 years ago with his father. Robert Talbott Senior ran a business selling luxury menswear, falling in love with Burgundy on visits to buy silk for the production of ties, dreaming of life after apparel, he longed to create similar wines of elegance and finesse back home, inspiring his son to attempt just that.
They chose Monterey County, starting with the small Diamond T vineyard in the Carmel Valley, expanding just over a decade later to acquire vines in the Santa Lucia Highlands, the first ‘bench’ inland of the Pacific. Boasting more than 200 hectares planted exclusively to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the east-northeast-facing Sleepy Hollow Vineyard was designated as one of California’s “Grand Crus” by Wine Enthusiast for its world class wines of distinction.
When E&J Gallo purchased Talbott, five years ago, to broaden the regional diversity of its burgeoning premium portfolio, observers expected the company to import a Napa hotshot to take the reins, but Gallo opted for local nous instead, choosing Coventry for his experience – two decades of making wine in Monterey County – and also his friendship with the Talbott family.
Describing himself as “a custodian” of the Talbott name, much of his focus has been on clonal selection, “for the right clone, in the right place,” hence some significant replanting, with the help of Gallo’s investment. “The true power of what can be achieved here is being seen with the new clones.” On the use of oak, he tells me “wines are not over-oaked, they are just under-wined.” His mission is “to create intense, balanced wines that engage the senses and really please the palate”.
When he’s not listening to his wines “pushing on the barrel”, Coventry is working with Gallo’s fine wine team plotting the next moves to build the global reputation of the Talbott name, the Sleepy Hollow vineyard and the wider Santa Lucia Highlands AVA.
The arrival of four of the Talbott wines – Chardonnay and Pinot Noir under the respective Kali Hart and Sleepy Hollow labels – at the global crossroads of the UK market presents a new opportunity. Launched with Heineken and Molson Coors for the trade (with Majestic and Wine Rack as UK retail partners), Master of Wine Edouard Baijot, EMEA Head of Fine Wine for E&J Gallo, believes the cool climate profile of the wines offers a real point of difference “as you don’t have much of this (from California) in the UK and EMEA markets. The wines are a bit more restrained and will work well with what people like to drink in Europe.”
As anyone who has been tempted to take a dip from the beach at Carmel will have discovered, the water delivers an icy chill that’s somewhere between thrilling and a heart attack. The wines of the Santa Lucia Highlands owe their distinctive profile to the Pacific breezes, the freshening effect accentuated by the deep, underwater ‘Grand Canyon’ of Monterey Bay. After some morning sunshine, the vines at Sleepy Hollow spend much of the day bathed in a fine Pacific mist, resulting in a long, cool growing season, with concentration and freshness in the wines.
“This gives us an opportunity to show the elegance and full potential of the cool climate regions of California,” says Baijot, who plans a ‘by the glass’ focus for the keenly-priced Kali Hart duo, with the Sleepy Hollow wines directed at fine dining. “You have the vineyards, the dedicated winery and you have wines with a strong sense of place,” he says.
From a broad portfolio, it is clear that the Talbott wines have a special place in Baijot’s affections: “I am French guy from Champagne, so an appreciation of acidity is in my DNA. These are the wines that I prefer. I love the balance, the elegance, the acidity. The style is never overblown, you feel the place and the touch from the winemaker.”
Tasting the Talbott wines
Talbott ‘Kali Hart’ Chardonnay 2015 (RRP £24.99), Honeysuckle, ripe peach and yellow grapefruit combine in a wine that reminded me of a sophisticated version of the Wrigley’s ‘Juicy Fruit’ flavours. There’s brightness, real fruit intensity and a pleasing doughy note at the end, presenting a really attractive option ‘by the glass’.
Talbott ‘Kali Hart’ Pinot Noir 2017 (RRP £24.99), fresh, cheery cherry and raspberry notes abound. Approachable, with dialled back oak and a pleasing flinty, minty note on the mid palate.
Talbott ‘Sleepy Hollow Vineyard’ Chardonnay 2016 (RRP £35.99), freshly cut lemon, jasmine, raw almonds and toasted brioche, leading into rich layers of intense fruit, beautifully balanced with crunchy citrus acidity and cinnamon spice. Rich, yet vibrant, and long. A serious food wine.
Talbott ‘Sleepy Hollow Vineyard’ Pinot Noir 2016 (RRP £35.99), opulent, black cherry, plum and blackberry, a smoky note, with bright acidity and smooth, silky tannins delivering a real sense of finesse.
Kali Hart wines are available mid-June from Majestic, Sleepy Hollow from Wine Rack