Thursday night’s Feliz Noche Cellars dinner with winemaker, Felipe Hernandez, at Toscana will showcase exceptional wines, crafted by the same hands that carefully tended each grape with which they were made.
Señor Hernandez’ journey to winemaker began in 1972, when he walked from Jalisco to the US as a boy of 16. He had heard help was needed planting vineyards in Santa Ynez, and explained with a wry smile, “I was hungry, and like a bird, I flew to where the food was.”
Since his days as a field worker, he has become one of the Central Coast's most sought after vineyard managers and grape growing consultants. Known in the community as Don Felipe, a term of reverence bestowed by those who know his work, he holds the distinction of being the only Mexican vineyard manager in the area to have become a winemaker. Feliz Noche (Happy Night) wines reflect his deep understanding and love of soil and vine.
When I asked how he learned the art of winemaking, Don Felipe said casually, “A French guy named Ramon taught me to make wine when I worked at Zaca Mesa. He came for one month two years in a row.” But that's not the whole story. Don Felipe learned a great deal as assistant winemaker to Ken Brown, Zaca Mesa’s first vintner, and credits winemakers for whom he managed vineyards as mentors. He said, “I wanted to use the skills I had developed with Ramon and by watching the winemakers I worked with. I wanted to make even better wine than I saw around me.”
When the Zaca Mesa property was split up eighteen years ago, part was sold to Peter Koehler, who grew grapes, but did not make wine. Don Felipe was living on the Koehler side of the property and became an employee. One day Koehler asked him, "What should we do with that barn we're not using." Don Felipe’s immediate answer was to turn it into a winery, which he did. For his effort, he was given 10% ownership, and began making his own wine there in 2001. He continues his day job as vineyard manager for Koehler and Oak Savanna, and makes wine to satisfy his soul.
Feliz Noche's portfolio includes two whites: riesling and chardonnay, but Don Felipe’s real love is for red wines. He makes cabernet sauvignon, grenache, pinot noir and syrah. A recent addition to the lineup, Mi Pasión (My Passion), is an unlikely and delicious blend of equal parts cabernet sauvignon, grenache, sangiovese, syrah and tempranillo. When asked what possessed him to put these grapes together, he said while chuckling at himself, “It just came to my mind. Maybe I should have called it Mi Locura (my craziness)." Let's hope he's crazy more often, because the wine shows uncommon complexity and finesse.
Felice Noce wines are gaining well-deserved notoriety. Wine Enthusiast rated the syrah 92 points. The cabernet sauvignon holds its own next to the best. Don Felipe confided with pride, "Three years ago they (wine colleagues) did a blind tasting, all cabs, and somebody brought one from Bordeaux, nine hundred bucks a bottle. There were a lot of wines from Napa, Screaming Eagle, you name it. Fifteen out of sixteen people thought my cabernet was the $900.00 Bordeaux." Rightly so. His cab is elegant and restrained, with captivating herbal and earth notes.
Reserve with Toscana to taste Felice Noche and to dine with Don Felipe Thursday, May 22. You're guaranteed a happy night.
Toscana 11633 San Vicente Boulevard Los Angeles, CA 90049. (310) 820-2448