Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: Cosentino Winery’s founder has moved on to pureCru

Mitch Cosentino has been an intense presence in the Northern California wine trade for four decades.
Mitch Cosentino has been an intense presence in the Northern California wine trade for four decades.

Cosentino Winery stands along the west side of Highway 29 in Napa Valley, just north of Yountville, next to the restaurant Mustards Grill. To provide Napa Valley visitors with either their first or last taste, few wineries are better placed, and on any given day scores of wine enthusiasts stop and stroll into Cosentino Winery.

One who doesn’t is the man who built the place and established the winery’s reputation for forthright varietal wines and harmonious blends, Mitch Cosentino.

He drives right past, reminding himself that he’s a member of a small and select community of other winemakers whose eponymous family wineries have been acquired by corporations: Mondavi, Martini, Mirassou, Parducci and so on.

“I am only one of many,” Cosentino says. “The key is I am still making wine, and I have my own winery elsewhere. That is important to me as I get to do what I want to do and not conform to any corporate direction.”

For four decades, Cosentino has been a wiry and intense presence in the north state wine trade. He’d earned a degree in broadcast communications at California State University, Sacramento, in 1974, but shelved his hopes to be a sports announcer when he realized he’d have to start his career in South Dakota.

In 1977, he went into wine sales with Stanislaus Distributing Co. of Modesto, quickly learned the trade, caught the winemaking bug and in 1980 founded Cosentino Wine Co. and his initial brand Crystal Valley Cellars in a corner of Turner Family Winery of Woodbridge outside Lodi. From the start, he was recognized for his daring, finesse and astute marketing, making, among other wines, a sparkling blanc de noir called Robin’s Glow and a well-received chardonnay with grapes grown in Sacramento County.

In 1986, he broadened his goals, bought the 4 1/2 acres next to Mustards Grill and commenced to design and build Cosentino Winery, which he opened in 1990. His wines won praise and popularity for their authority and balance, and growth accelerated, prompting him to bring in partners and relinquish managerial responsibility, though he continued as winemaker.

More winemaking facilities, vineyards and tasting rooms were established, production rose to 70,000 cases annually, and the winery went public, but debts mounted and sales staggered, particularly during the most recent recession. Operations were dialed back; then bankruptcy was declared. “Too much money was spent too fast,” Cosentino says.

In November 2010, the winery closed. Vintage Wine Estates subsequently bought Cosentino Winery, adding it to a growing portfolio whose other high-profile players include Swanson Vineyards, Clos Pegase and B.R. Cohn. Cosentino initially stayed as consulting winemaker, but three years ago he left the winery that bears his name and hasn’t returned.

In the meantime, however, he got the backing of three individual fellow wine enthusiasts from the Central Valley and established a new brand, pureCru. He makes the wines at Spelletich Family Wine Co., at the southern reaches of Napa, and maintains a tasting room in downtown Napa.

With pureCru, Cosentino continues to make the kinds of wines responsible for his standing in the trade – bold, taut, well-proportioned. Whether varietal or blend, they customarily carry proprietary names, a practice that Cosentino adopted early on. He’d called a blend from the 1980 vintage The Poet, which, with the 1986 version, became the nation’s first formally designated Meritage wine, meaning it was a wine based on the traditional grape varieties of Bordeaux. The Poet, with several other proprietary wines he introduced, such as The Novelist, continue to be made by Cosentino Winery, and he now can’t use their names.

But Cosentino the winemaker never has lacked for imagination in blending or in naming his wines. Today’s pureCru lineup, for example, includes Purety, a blend of semillon and sauvignon blanc, the recently released 2014 of which is broadly and deeply floral, tropical and spicy ($25). Purety is Cosentino’s attempt to emulate the stature and complexity of Bordeaux’s Haut Brion Blanc, and if a vintage doesn’t give him the grapes to measure up to that standard, he doesn’t make it. He skipped entirely releases of Purety from the 2011 and 2013 harvests.

Similarly, he makes his signature M. Coz Napa Valley, a Bordeaux-inspired blend based on cabernet sauvignon, only with vintages that yield the power and seamlessness that he wants in the wine. “I only do it in years when we know it will be one of the best wines in the world,” Cosentino says. He’s made the wine since 1988, and says it’s won more awards than any other Meritage. The newly released 2010 M. Coz is tightly wound in its youth, but has the strength, structure and complexity to unwind with uncommon elegance and endurance through the coming decade ($125).

When Cosentino talks of his winemaking style, he often mentions his benchmark goals – prominent and distinctive aromas, notes of spice, consistency, authority, balance and mouthfeel, the latter of which amounts in large part to soft, well-integrated tannins from the three years during which he customarily ages his red wines in oak barrels.

While he continues to make vivid varietal wines, such as the pureCru 2015 California Rosato di Sangio ($20), a brilliant, fruity and tangy dry rose made with sangiovese, he is foremost a believer that the most eloquent and composed wines come from blending. “Blending allows you to develop a more complete wine, and over time you learn how to blend to consistency,” Cosentino says.

He comes up with his blends in a manner more intuitive than scientific. At least three times a year he tastes developing wines in scores of barrels, recording their characteristics to memory rather than tablet. “No two barrels are the same. Each barrel has its own existence. I remember most of them. I have a pretty good barrel memory,” Cosentino says.

The resulting blends almost invariably are notable for their individuality, versatility and coherence. The pureCru 2011 Napa Valley CFM is a sumptuous, spicy and sharp blend of cabernet franc and merlot ($50); the pureCru 2010 Napa Valley Sangio Vetta is a frank yet friendly blend of mostly sangiovese shot through with cabernet franc and merlot ($28); and the pureCru 2010 Napa Valley pureCoz Red is both earthy and juicy, its ample fruit, broad build and refreshing acidity making it an exceptionally accommodating and versatile dining companion ($65). “This is the wine that started the whole company,” Consentino says of the blend, which is cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot and sangiovese.

While Consentino wishes he still could use his own name on his wines, he doesn’t dwell on the past. He’s happy with his current arrangement and happy to see that Cosentino Winery again is back in business. “I am proud of what I built there, and I would rather see the name there than as a hollow brand with no home,” Consentino says.

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.

If you go

PureCru’s tasting room, 1463 First St., Napa, in a courtyard with Oenotri, is open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sundays.