“Mirassou” is one of the more enduring, romantic and passionate names in California wine history. It represents six generations of grape-growing and winemaking, dating to 1854, when Pierre Pellier settled in Santa Clara Valley with a clutch of vine cuttings from his native France.
In 1881, his oldest daughter, Henrietta, married a neighboring vintner, Pierre Huste Mirassou, who joined his father-in-law in tending vines and making wines, a business that finally evolved into the Mirassou brand of wines in 1966. Up to then, grapes grown and wines made by Mirassous were sold to other wineries. The Mirassous developed a reputation as maverick innovators by developing vineyards in uncertain territory (Monterey County) and by adopting uncertain viticultural practices (mechanical harvesting).
In 2002, E&J Gallo Winery bought the Mirassou holdings, including the brand.
Today, just one Mirassou remains in the business with a brand of his own – three brands, actually, though none bears the family name. Steven Kent Mirassou continues a legacy of nerve, adaptability and determination.
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In that spirit, Mirassou this fall summoned a few wine writers to the San Francisco restaurant Jardiniere, where he performed the wine-trade equivalent of a high-wire act without a net. He’d assembled six wines for a blind tasting. We were told only that the six were based on cabernet sauvignon, had been made somewhere in the Northern Hemisphere, were from the vintage of 2009, and that one had been made by Mirassou.
Going in we had a pretty good hunch that the Mirassou was his Bordeaux-inspired blend under the label Lineage – his hope of a statement wine to show that the underappreciated Livermore Valley is as capable as Napa Valley of producing dear cabernet-based proprietary blends.
By the time the dust settled, he’d made his point. His Steven Kent Winery 2009 Livermore Valley Lineage ($165) turned out to be my favorite wine in the lineup. It had California stamped all over it in its expansive, youthful, sunny and persistent black-cherry fruit. The oak was generous, toasty and sweet, but not so intrusive that it interfered with the lushness of the fruit. Tannins were supportive without being grinding, and the finish was refreshingly snappy.
To judge by the remarks of other tasters, Lineage appeared to place second to the overall favorite, the 2009 Napa Valley Opus One ($230). I liked the Opus One for its freshness, vitality and structure, which struck me as more European than the only Bordeaux entry in the lineup, the 2009 Chateau Cos Labory from Saint-Estephe ($50), whose tight fruit was shot through with threads of herbalness, chocolate and cola. Still, Lineage outshone Opus One by its complexity, accessibility and vibrating acidity.
Less impressive to me, but not without their fans, were the graceful yet reserved Joseph Phelps Vineyards 2009 Napa Valley Insignia ($160), the hard and curiously leafy 2009 Napa Valley Harlan Estate ($775), and the lean and sleek but blunt 2009 Napa Valley Continuum ($160).
Mirassou, who joined the tasting but didn’t know how the wines were lined up, seemed relieved if not downright pleased by the results. “It was the only one to show fruit, frankly,” he remarked of Lineage after it was revealed. “It had real life to it.”
In the wake of comments by some tasters that the Lineage had tasted “candied” and suggestive of cassis liqueur, Mirassou concurred, attributing the sweetness to the single clone of cabernet sauvignon and the kind of French barrels he used in 2009. He’s stopped using those barrels, and for his newly released 2010 version of Lineage he used three clones of cabernet sauvignon.
That vintage, with all three previous vintages of Lineage, was poured during lunch. The 2010 Lineage ($145) is a worthy successor to the 2009, delivering bright and loquacious fruit with more elegance and verve. Mirassou attributes the boost in energy to his use of more cabernet franc. While the 2009 had just 2 percent cabernet franc, the 2010 has 16 percent. “Cabernet franc brings vitality and acidity to the wine. I love what it does to blends,” Mirassou says.
“Since the 1990s, Livermore has been an overlooked appellation,” he says. Though vines long have been cultivated in Livermore Valley, and the area early in its viticultural development was recognized for the quality of its cabernet sauvignon, plantings in the modern era have been to other varieties that didn’t show the area at its best, he believes.
“We’re trying to write a new story, that Livermore can produce world-class cabernet-based wine,” Mirassou says. “It’s a great place to grow cabernet sauvignon and other Bordeaux varieties. Today’s tasting showed that. Nature gave us this bounty, and winemakers have to be ballsy enough to take advantage of that.”
And despite the creep of urbanization into Livermore Valley, he isn’t looking fretfully over his shoulder. Since 1987 Alameda County has developed and refined the South Livermore Valley Area Plan to strike a balance between safeguarding the region’s agricultural heritage and accommodating urban development.
The effort has allowed Mirassou to team up with the home-building Ghielmetti family to create Lineage and Mirassou’s two other brands, Steven Kent and La Rochelle. In 2001, the Ghielmettis had begun to plant 64 acres to 11 clones of various Bordeaux varieties. Mirassou began to draw most of his grapes from Ghielmetti Vineyard in 2005.
Until 1996, Mirassou had been ambivalent about joining the California wine trade in which he’d been reared. When he left for college three decades ago he told his father, Steve Mirassou, that city life is what he wanted and there was no way he’d return to farming.
Gradually, however, he drifted back into the wine business, marketing wines his father was making. The two soon collaborated on a small project that ultimately lead to the first Lineage with the vintage of 2007.
Steve Mirassou, who left the family winery in 1984, lived for years in Baja California Sur but has relocated to Napa Valley. There, said his son, he’s scouting for vineyard acreage. “We’ve never worked with fruit from Napa Valley,” says Steven Kent Mirassou, hinting at a possible extension of the Lineage lineup. If that materializes, the question to be answered at the next Lineage blind tasting well may be whether Napa Valley measures up to the standard set by Livermore Valley.
STEVEN KENT WINERY
The tasting room at 5443 Tesla Road, Livermore, is open noon-4:30 p.m. daily.
Reservations are required for a $50 tasting that pairs all four Lineage vintages with cheeses, (925) 243-6442, www.stevenkent.com.