What To Drink Now: Steven Kent Winery

On a recent trip to California I had a chance to spend a day in Livermore visiting Steven Kent Winery. Surrounded by vines covered at the time with red and gold grape leaves and free range chickens Steven Kent Winery and Vineyards spans 70 acres throughout the beautiful Livermore wine country. One of the hottest areas in California, both literally and figuratively, Livermore takes a visitor to the casual atmosphere of what wine country should be, with a breezy air, relaxed tasting rooms, a complete lack of pretension, and a warm welcome from wineries like Steven Kent.

Started in the late 1990’s by Steven Mirassou, of the iconic Mirassou family who has been making wine in California for 160 years.  This is his tribute both to his father and family, as well as his statement that great Cabernet Sauvignon can be made in Livermore.  And without a doubt, he is proving this.  I had a chance to visit with Steven for about 3 hours on the day of my visit, quite generous for the wine maker, but as we talked and tasted more and more stories emerged on how he got into the business, the passion he holds and what has made him a success so far.

Steven Mirassou

Originally Steven didn’t think he was going to follow in the family footsteps. He had moved away from his California roots to the east coast to study literature, earning a BA from George Washington University and a MA from NYU.  Eventually the desire to be close to family pulled him back to California and into business with his father.  A self taught winemaker, Steven Mirassou is a great student, taking guidance from the experience his father, Steve Mirassou, has gained from his 50+ years in the business. Steve Mirassou was one of the original founders of Mirassou with his cousins in 1966, leaving prior to its sale to Gallo to eventually start Ivan Tamas winery with its base in Livermore.  When Steven returned from New York in the early 1990’s he went to work for dad as Sales Manager for Ivan Tamas, and began to understand how special Livermore was, especially for growing Bordeaux varietals.

Livermore has hot California days, quite similar to the summer days of Napa’s St. Helena, but also benefits from cool coastal breezes sweeping in from the San Francisco Bay.  The combination creates an ideal balance perfectly suited for hearty Cabernet Sauvignon.  Add in a variety of micro climates and soils, including dense clay soil similar to that found in Bordeaux, and you have a recipe for greatness.

Home Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon grapes

In 1996 Steven began planting the Home Ranch Vineyard, a 5.6 acre vineyard in the heart of Livermore’s winery row, with Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovesse (a nod to his heritage) and the next year added Barbara.  He would later add the Ghielmetti Vineyard, a 64 acre vineyard planted to all five Bordeaux varietals of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Cabernet Franc, as well as a variety of different clones of Cabernet Sauvignon.  Steven Kent may be the first winery I have visited that bottles not only their individual varietals used in the final blend of their signatures wines, but also bottles the individual clones, really allowing a taster to identify the exact type of wine they love.  Fascinating.

A steward of the land, Steven Kent isn’t an organic winery, but they do see the gift they have in the land and believe in treating that gift with respect both for the overall flavor of the wine, and for the people who work with and around the winery.  There is about a 300 foot distance from vine to tasting, the sustainable practices they employ ensure the best overall experience will be had by all who come in contact with the wine from start to finish.

In 2005, after several vintages of successfully producing wine under the Steven Kent label for several years, Steven began La Rochelle, a Pinot Noir focused winery sourcing grapes from throughout California and Oregon with winemaker Tom Stutz in control.  Tom was the former winemaker for Mirassou Vineyards with a special love for Pinot Noir.  Utlizing his knowledge and talent, including a keen eye for locating high quality, single vineyard Pinot Noir lots, La Rochelle is fast becoming a highly regarded Pinot Noir house producing wine from beloved vineyards like Gary’s Vineyard, Rosella’s, Paraiso, Donum Estate and Tondre (the next great vineyard for Santa Lucia Highlands according to Steven), each growing a mix of Dijon and Pommard Pinot Noir clones.  Again, several of these are individually bottled by clone, by vineyard allowing the taster to fully understand the nuances of the grape and how the terroir will influence that.  My palate preference was the Dijon clone 115 from La Cruz vineyard on the Sonoma Coast, my sister preferred the 667.  Only a few hundred bottles of the individual clone wines are produced, as each will be blended together to produce the single vineyard wines.  Recently La Rochelle has also started producing in single vineyard Chardonnay wines with equal success.

Tasting through the Steven Kent Cabernet Sauvignon it is easy to understand why making this varietal from this land is such a passion for Steven, it is delicious.  A wine “that he wants to drink,” as Steven notes, the 2008 Home Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon is both easy to drink and approachable, with layers of red fruit and spice notes.  Fresh, subtle and balanced, inviting you to drink and enjoy now, but also shows signs of being able to age, continuing to soften over the next few years.

The 2008 Steven Kent Cabernet Sauvignon blends the best Cabernet grapes from all of Steven’s vineyards, with each lot of wine made separately, aged for 24 months in 70% new oak barrels, then blended together about 6 months prior to release.  Complex and graceful, fully embodying the beauty and personality of a quality Cabernet Sauvignon with a good ability to age.  Chocolate, cherry, licorice and cedar fill the palate leading to a long, silky finish.

in 2010 Steven introduced his Lineage, his signature wine that he hopes the winery will become known for and will compete on the level of any great Napa Cab or Bordeaux blend.  Though he realized he had created something special prior to the producing of Lineage, by creating a fantastic winery in Livermore, he was starting to stray away from his original vision for what he wanted to do in Livermore – create a single, great statement wine that would be a symbol of his family’s commitment to the grape.  2007 was the first release, earning high acclaim from the awards circuits.

I tried the 2008, blending all five Bordeaux varietals of Cabernet Sauvignon (clones 30, 191, and 4), Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Merlot from hand-harvested vines from the Ghielmetti Vineyard. Balanced and elegant, bold and complex, yet not overpowering.  Spice aromas of cinnamon and licorice rise from the glass wrapped around black cherry and plum notes with hints of toasted caramel and mocha.  Though the wine will age beautifully for several years, it was smooth and silky now after decanting and allowing it to breath for a few hours prior to tasting.