Afternoon with Spot & Stretch at Lancaster Estate

Last month, when we were in Sonoma, we connected with friends of ours, Spot and Stretch, who live there.  We’d struck up a friendship with them years earlier, when we happened to be at the J Winery tasting room at the same time. I started chatting with the nice woman to my right. I love talking to total strangers. Especially nice ones. And even more especially, nice ones who love wine. After we were knee-deep in conversation, our respective partners caught eyes and realized they knew one another through work. From that point on, we kept in touch.

Spot and Stretch have lived in Healdsburg for a dozen years and know the wine community inside and out. They are the perfect tour guides and hosts— knowledgable, down-to-earth, and fun. We’re pretty sure if the Travel Channel finds out about them, they’ll soon have their own show: Adventures with Spot & Stretch | An Insider’s Romp Through Wine Country. We told them they could command high prices for hosting groups and taking them to all the best wineries, treating them to great wines and inside scoop. “No,” they said, “we just do this because we love it.” You can understand, I’m sure, why we love them.

Lancaster Estate EntranceThey had invited us to join them for a private tasting at Lancaster Estate Winery in the Alexander Valley. Focusing on Bordeaux-style Cabernet blends, Lancaster’s wines “have always been beautifully balanced and consistent across the board, elegant representations of the Bordeaux varietals,” Spot said. Giddy with anticipation, we joined Spot and Stretch at Lancaster’s gorgeous hillside estate on a sunny, warm afternoon. Knowing that temperatures at home in Minnesota were poised to plunge below zero at any moment made the sunshine all the sweeter.

Lancaster Tasting RoomAfter a ride around the property, seeing the vineyard blocks where they grow all five of the classic Bordeaux varietals— Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot— we retreated to Lancaster’s wine cave, nestled deep in the charmingly designated No Name Hill. Their wine library, just inside the front door of the cave, is lined floor to ceiling with their vintages, which sport a different shade of purple for each vintage year. A dramatic light fixture hangs over the tasting table with elegance oozing through the warmly lit room.

We proceeded to sample three of their four wines: the 2011 Samanatha’s Sauvignon Blanc, the 2009 Sophia’s Hillside Cuvée (predominantly Cab blended with a touch of Merlot and sometimes Cab Franc), and the 2007 and 2008 vintages of the Estate Cabernet (also predominantly Cab, but with each of the other varietals they grow blended to varying degrees depending on what each year’s harvest brings). Their fourth wine, Nicole’s Proprietary Red, is a blend of the very best barrels of each vintage year and, understandably, was sold out and not available to sample.

Starting with the Sauvignon Blanc, we learned that the Lancaster wines received their names from the women in the family of the founding proprietors, Ted and Nicole Simpkins. Twin daughters Samantha and Sophia provided the monikers for the Sauvignon Blanc and the red Cuvée, respectively, while mom Nicole is the namesake for the highly regarded Proprietary Red Blend.

The Sauvignon Blanc— part aged in stainless barrels and part in oak— had a lovely crispness, but was balanced with supple pear and honeysuckle flavors. The fruit forward Sophia’s Cuvée was equally lovely, a dusty dark blend of 95% Cabernet and 5% Merlot for 2009, with intense berry flavors and a long, mocha finish.

The 2007 and 2008 Estate Cabs were both full-bodied and well balanced wines but with different nuances in their respective flavor profiles, due to the difference in the blends and the harvest years. The 2007 is 80% Cabernet, 9% Malbec, 9% Merlot, 1% Cab Franc and 1% Petit Verdot. Very muscular, with dense blackberry flavors, pronounced tannins and dark chocolate on the finish, our group dubbed this a macho wine. The 2008, conversely, was the more feminine counterpart. Blended from 92% Cabernet, 4% Malbec, 1% Cab Franc and 1% Petit Verdot, it was a softer, slightly more supple variation.

Thoroughly impressed with everything we tasted, we were amazed to learn that Lancaster’s youthful winemaker, Jesse Katz, is not even out of his 20’s yet. But, clearly, he knows how to do things right. We were also impressed to learn that highly regarded winemaking veteran, David Ramey, who produces wines under his own label as well as consults with other wineries, has been involved Lancaster’s winemaking for the last decade.

We lingered quite a while before leaving. It’s just not easy to tear yourself away from such gorgeous surroundings, with such warm and friendly staff, such darned good wines and the company of friends.

So this week, we toast to striking up conversations with strangers in tasting rooms, to our wonderful hosts who treated us to such a lovely afternoon, and to all of you for reading and joining the fun with us vicariously.  Cheers!

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