Shakespeare asked, “What’s in a name?” For Steven Kent Mirassou, proprietor of Steven Kent Winery, the answer might be everything and nothing. As “America’s oldest winemaking family,” the Mirassou name has been associated with wine for a long time – over 150 years, in fact.
Originally from France, the Mirassou family owes its U.S. start to Pierre Pellier who sailed from the port of La Rochelle, France, making his way to California along with not only his bride, Henrietta, but his grape cuttings. Marrying next door neighbor and vintner Pierre Mirassou, Mr. Pellier’s daughter (also Henrietta) kicked off a family dynasty that has lasted for six generations.
But, today, the Mirassou name and family’s initial legacy is safely in the hands of another big family name in wine – Gallo. Thus, as a cousin of the current generation, Steven Kent Mirassou has had to find other names on which to build his family’s new winemaking heritage – that of Kent and La Rochelle.
Steven initially eschewed his family’s vinous history, preferring to make his way on the East Coast, first in Washington, D.C. at George Washington University and then later in New York where he studied at NYU with notable faculty such as Denis Donoghue and Harold Bloom.
But, several years later, Steven and his bride June returned to the West Coast, first joining his father at his Ivan Tamas label and then eventually establishing the Steven Kent Winery in 1996. His goal was to produce world class Cabernet Sauvignon in the Livermore Valley, a region initially pioneered in the 1880s, with a history of growing the Bordeaux varieties. You might say that he was seeking to build a new Western wine canon.
In 2005, nearly 10 years after getting Steven Kent Winery off the ground in the Livermore Valley, Steven purchased the La Rochelle brand from his cousins. Named for the port city from which Pierre Pelier first sailed to America, La Rochelle focuses on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, from his cousins. Grapes for these wines are sourced from top vineyards throughout California such as Garys’ Sleepy Hollow and Tondre.
Today, he manages both the Steven Kent Winery and La Rochelle brands and also partners with the Ghielmetti family to source grapes from their Ghielmetti Vineyard, focused on Bordeaux varieties. A third brand, Lineage, produces a single wine made from the five classic Bordeaux varieties, intended to be an icon wine and priced accordingly.
Tasting through a selection of Steven Kent Winery and La Rochelle wines, the quality is evident. I served them to a group of friends during an impromptu wine class a few weeks ago and they could instantly recognize that these were extremely well-made wines.
Most telling was their reaction to the La Rochelle Dutton Ranch Morelli Lane Chardonnay 2011 from California’s Russian River Valley ($65.00). At least half of the guests were reluctant to try this wine, after I had explained that it was an oaked Chardonnay.
But, as the others shared their tasting experience, the others overcame their resistance and pronounced that maybe they liked Chardonnay after all. The difference from many of the other Chardonnays they had drunk in the past was the well-integrated use of oak – not simply an overlay of oak flavor -- along with its beautiful acidity, ripe apple and hint of butter.
By way of comparison, I opened up an inexpensive ($10.00), high volume production oaked Chardonnay and invited them to taste the two side by side (only after they had already evaluated the first wine). This latter wine was okay, but the oak flavor was much more prominent and there was considerable residual sugar on the palate. This style may appeal to some, but I think that these mass market wines are responsible for some of the Chardonnay backlash among those who protest to dislike the variety.
The Steven Kent Winery “Lola” Sauvignon Blanc 2013 ($24.00) displays its warmer climate origin from the Ghielmetti Vineyard in the Livermore Valley with aromas and flavors of melon, citrus and peach. But, despite its riper fruit, the acidity hasn’t been compromised, keeping the wine beautifully balanced.
The La Rochelle Dutton Ranch Pinot Noir 2010, Russian River Valley ($48.00) presented notes of cherries, herbs, and a slight bit of earth on the nose, while the medium-bodied palate offered fresh acidity and brighter cherry flavors.
The Steven Kent Winery Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Livermore Valley, CA ($48.00) provided lovely structure and intense red and black fruit.
Similarly, we were quite impressed with the Steven Kent Winery Cabernet Franc Ghielmetti Vineyard, Livermore Valley, CA ($50.00) small-lot offering with its pronounced nose of black currant, dried herbs, oak and overall elegance. The “small-lot offering” designation stems from the fact that of a larger lot, six of the finest barrels were singled out to create this wine.
While I don’t think that you necessarily have to spend a lot of money to find good wine, these wines clearly show that when you do make a wise investment, your palate will be richly rewarded.