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The Chain Gang

Big House makes an affordable and enjoyable line up of wines.

By Jan Walsh

Photo by Jason Wallis

The Big House winery in Soledad, Monterey County, is a mere “ankle iron’s toss” from the Soledad State Correctional Facility, thus the name.

I recently had the pleasure of having dinner with the “Warden” of Big House Wines, winemaker Georgetta Dane at Café Dupont, while tasting through their line up of wines. This fashionable diva looks more like a celebrity than a winemaker. Yet Dane is a serious winemaker who views winemaking as a two-part process: natural transformation of fermentation and blending aromas and flavors to produce wines that are unique. 

A native Romanian, Dane received her masters degree in Food Science from Romania’s prestigious Galati University. Here she was a student of the more eclectic varieties such as Tempranillo, Valdiguie, Counoisé, Ruche, and Primitivo. Later experience came at a winery in Romania before she became an immigrant of the United States. Here she worked at Kendall Jackson before becoming winemaker at Big House.

Dane has a keen sense of smell and uses this gift to her advantage, much as a perfume maker would do. When she became winemaker—at the end of the June 2006 harvest—she was thrilled to have 42 varietals. “I was like a kid in a candy store,” she laughs. “I put grapes of each varietal in a different glass. One glass had aromas of chocolate, another cassis. They were all different.” To blend the wines she breaks down the nuances of each varietal’s aromas and carefully considers how they will compliment each other.

Dana and I paired her whites with our appetizers—The Bird Man Pinot Grigio 2008  ($14.99 retail) and Big House White 2008 ($9.99) a mix of non-traditional grapes. Then we worked our way through the reds over dinner: Big House Red 2007 ($9.99) a blend of many varieties; The Line Up ($14.99) a blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre; The Prodigal Son ($14.99) Petite Sirah; The Slammer 2006 ($14.99) Syrah; the newest member of the gang—The Cardinal Zin 2006 ($19.99).

My verdict is that these wines are good quality at a reasonable price. If I were forced to pick out a white or a red among the line up as my last glass, it would be a hung jury between The Bird Man and The Slammer. The Birdman’s grapefruit notes and a nice acidity make this thirst quenching white a wine worthy of escaping to the porch to drink. The Slammer is a well-structured and deeply concentrated wine, offering notes of blackberry and dark chocolate. Drink now or lock it in the cellar for a few years.

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