Sun Winefest's Wine Review: What To Buy & Try

Emma Jane-Doody Stetson

The annual Mohegan SunWineFest caters to a variety of interests. Restaurants, artisans, winemakers, and distributors unite in the sprawling Convention Center to deliver an epic weekend.  However, wine lies at its heart; it is a “wine” fest after all!  I enjoyed all of event’s facets, but as CTbites' wine correspondent, I paid careful attention to the hundreds of bottles presented.  I researched the offerings ahead of time, questioned the representatives, and- of course- tasted the bounties to bring you a full report on which wines reign supreme.

Check out my full report on: The Rise of Sauvignon Blancs, Is Oak a Joke?, Hail a Cab, Pleasing Pinots, Behold the Blend as well as a few other wine and spirit highlights. 

The Rise of Sauvignon Blancs

In my overview of the WineFest, I mentioned how impressed I was by the Sauvignon Blancs emerging on the market.  In the past, I have dismissed Sauvignon Blanc.  I found the grassy profile and medium weight made them indistinctive.  However, a few of the bottles I tried this year are indelibly etched in my mind.  They were memorable, elegant, and perhaps the best the weekend had to offer.

Casey Flat Ranch Estate “CFR” Sauvignon Blanc

Despite the presence of big houses like Barefoot and Michael David, the wines of Casey Flat Ranch truly stole the show.  The 6,000 acre vineyard lies above the Capay Valley, which borders Napa on the East.  And it literally is a ranch!  It is home to longhorn cattle and emphasizes the integrity of the land.  It runs from solar power and boasts its own reservoirs.  The representative, Brenda Bullington, won me over immediately with her cowgirl attire, bubbly enthusiasm, and infectious smile.

All of the grapes in Estate Sauvignon Blanc and wines from the “CFR” line herald from the estate itself and come from the high-growing elevation region within the Capay Valley Appellation.  The Sauvignon Blanc is truly a masterpiece, achieving perfect balance in all regards.  It is medium-bodied, hovering between creamy and effervescent.  It gloriously weaves notes of grass and fruit.

“This is the quintiessential Sauvignon Blanc,” Bullington declared.

Not only is it quintiessential- it is remarkable.

“I can’t believe this is Sauvignon Blanc!  I had to go back and check the label,” declared a pleased taster.  “It has so much character!”

The Estate wines cost about $30.  For those looking for something more cost efficient, Casey Ranch offers entry level wines as well.  Their Open Range, or “OR” wines have grapes that are carefully selected from areas throughout California and blended by the talented winemaker. 

“The Ritual,” Sauvignon Blanc, 2011

The Casablanca Valley in Chile is gradually gaining acclaim for its beautiful wines.  Winemaker Agustín Huneeus chose the Casablanca valley when he recognized that the influences of the Pacific Ocean and loamy soils mirror the Sonoma Coast of California.

“The Ritual” embodies this cool, balanced climate.  It had a grassy, herbaceous silhouette interlaced with subtle notes of green fruit.

“Ritual was created as an elegant, yet approachable interpretation of Sauvignon Blanc,” Huneeus has said. “Only the finest estate-grown fruit from vineyard blocks known for producing intense fruit flavors and higher acidity are chosen for this wine.” 

Is Oak a Joke?

In my perusal of Mohegan Sun’s Grand Ballroom, I also noticed another trend: unoaked or slightly oaked Chardonnays were everywhere.  When I asked one distributor about the trend, she shrugged and responded, “It’s what the market wants.  We’ve moved away from structured Chards.”  As a result, the room burst with light-bodied Chardonnays hinging on their fruits.  The weighty, buttery Chardonnays were overthrown by barely there bottles.  My favorite of the new regime was the Migration Russian River Valley Chardonnay by Duckhorn.  It contains some oak, but it’s hardly evident.  

“It’s integrated oak, restrained in style,” explained John Carey, Northeast Sales Manager.  The slight presence gave the wine a touch of body and structure, but left room for the flavors of the grapes to take center stage.   The wine tasted “white,” defined by pale fruits, flowers, and stone.  It felt light and balanced.

“This is right to the middle point of Chardonnay,” said Carey.  I agreed with him- this refreshing Chardonnay would please any palate.

You can find Migration at Leary’s Liquor in Darien, Super Cellars in Avon, Charles Fine Wine, in Glastonbury, Cordial Shoppe in Old Saybrook, Nutmeg Wine & Spirits in Woodbury, and other locations.

At the same time, a handful of creamier Chardonnays will restore hope for those looking for a buttery, creamy vino.  The most beautiful rendering comes from Frank Family Vineyards.   I lovingly refer to the Frank Family as the “Disney executives gone rogue.”  Rich Frank served as Chairman of Walt Disney and achieved widespread success in the entertainment business before leaving the Hollywood Hills for the hills of Napa.  He hired acclaimed winemaker Todd Graff and now makes beautiful, high-end wines.  The Chardonnay’s oaky profile pays tribute to the creamy California Chards of yore.  1/3 of the grapes are fermented in new oak while the remaining 2/3 are done in first and second use oak.  They describe the taste as “fruit forward and balanced, delivering scents of pear, apple, butterscotch and pineapple, laced with delicate floral notes of honeysuckle.”  This bottle retails for around $35/bottle.  Glen Liquors and Leary’s, both in Darien, currently carry it.

Isabel Mondavi provides another delightful option for the oaky Chardonnay lover.  Isabel Mondavi wines started when fourth generation winemaker Rob Mondavi Jr. made "just a few cases for mom," but went on to gain a larger following.  Though not as oaky as the Frank Family vino, this bottle has a touch of it that gives it a full body and rich flavor.

“The Isabel Mondavi Chardonnay is an ideal complement to a variety of dishes thanks to its lively acidity, layered fruit and impeccable balance,” they say. “Pair with white meats, baked fish, and cheeses made from cow or goat milk.”

Isabel Mondavi is available in many retail stores across CT including: Liquor Super Store in Wolcott, Valley Discount in Ansonia, M&R Package in South Windsor, Cordial Shoppe in Old Saybrook, and Litchfield Hills Wine Market in Litchfield.

Hail a Cab

Cabernet Sauvignon has long been a beloved varietal and this year’s Winfest did not disappoint.  Frank Family Vineyards produced the most “classically” beautiful Cabernet at the event.  Heralding from California, it contains all of the structure and flavors one desired in a high-end Californian Cab.  The texture is silky smooth, the juicy fruits are the perfect balance of red and black, and the round tannins make it sing.  It’s no wonder that Food and Wine Magazine just featured it in its February issue.

I lovingly refer to the Frank Family as the “Disney executives gone rogue.” They made their fortunes in the Hollywood Hills as prominent players in the Disney empire… but found their calling in  the hills of Napa.  They hired esteemed Californian winemaker Todd Graff to bring their vision to life.

Frank Family Cabernet costs around $55-60.  You can find it at Glen Liquors in Darien, Turnpike Wines in Fairfield, WagonWheel in Stamford, and other locations.

Of course, not all of the Cabernet Sauvignons embraced tradition.  One trend I noted is that Syrah is being used more and more as a blending grape in coveted Cabernets.  In states like California, only 75% of the wine needs to be Cabernet Sauvignon to be labeled as such and the remaining portion can be other varietals.  Syrah, unpopular on its own in recent years, proves the perfect compliment to the robust Cabernet.

Signorello carries several Cabernets that fall under this category.  My favorite goes by the name of “Fuse” Cabernet Sauvingon.  It is 85% Cabernet and 15% Syrah.  The name plays homage to the powerful blend.  “The Fusion of Cabernet + Syrah Creating One Strong Union,” boasts the bottle.

“The Syrah gives it additional depth,” says Michael Brehart, National Sales Manager.  “The wine is rich and full.”  All of the grapes herald from Napa, contributing to its quality.  I love a big, earthy Cabernets exuding dark fruit.  This one perfectly pleased my palate.

Fuse is available at Southend Wine & Spirits in Cheshire, Mo’s in Fairfield, Grapes in Norwalk, Cost Less Wine & Liquor in Stamford, and other locations.

Another favorite, the Tortoise Creek Cabernet Sauvignon, falls on the opposite side of spectrum.  While the Fuse proves aggressive and forward, the Tortoise is more refined in style.  It was crafted like this intentionally.  The Massers, a husband and wife team from England, wanted to create a line of wines ideal for food pairings.

“This is a food wine: softer, leaner, not overoaked, and with bright fruit,” explained the representative from Winebow, who carries the wines.  “All boast the characteristics of the grape, but are on the leaner side.”

I found the bottle exquisite.  Though light in body, it exuded the flavors of Cabernet like pepper, earth, smoke, black cherry, and ripe fruit.  The wine maintained structure despite the leaner body.  Flavor filled the finish, but it did not overpower.  At just $10, Tortoise Creek offers people the chance to experience an elegant bottle at an accessible price point.

Pleasing Pinots

In the movie Sideways, wine lover Miles tries to explain the allure of Pinot Noir: "It's a hard grape to grow…. It's thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It's, you know, it's not a survivor like cabernet…. No, pinot needs constant care and attention.  And only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand pinot's potential can then coax it into its fullest expression."

I respect the winemakers who grapple with Pinot Noir and appreciate its popularity.  However, I usually steer away from it simply because it is not my style.  I prefer big, earthy wines.  I choose pepper, smoke, and spice over ripe fruit and florals.

But this year- something happened.  I started to fall in love with Pinot Noirs.  The Pinots with barely there bodies and juicy fruit flavors still abounded, but in their midst stood Pinot Noirs rife with dark, earthy profiles.  They still had the traditional notes of Pinot Noirs, but their heavier bodies, hints of smoke, and spicy finishes left me in awe.

Though the SunWineFest has come and gone, I am still dreaming of the Fess Parker “Santa Rita” Pinot Noir. Born in the late 1980s, I had no idea who Fess Parker and required some education in terms I would understand.

“Fess Parker played Daniel Boone and Davy Crocket,” the representative told me.  “He was what Hannah Montana is to Disney.”

In the slew of celebrities and actors turned winemakers, it’s easy to dismiss a bottle made by a personality.  But the Fess Parker wines are made with quality in mind.  The last 5-6 years saw extensive growth when they hired Clara Fox, a respected winemaker, to oversee the production.  Their Parker Station Pinot Noir has earned a cult following and the Ashley Wines have received 93 and 94 points from the Wine Advocate.

The Santa Rita Pinot Noir heralds from an AVA in Santa Barbera.  As I soon as I smelled it, touches of smoke wafted up to my nose.  The subtle smoke continued on the palate, intermingling with ripe red fruit, a hint of spice, and earth.  Wine Advocate counts it among its favorites, saying “The 2011 Pinot Noir Santa Rita Hills dishes out impressive typicity and class with its red fruit, flower garden and spice aromatics, medium body and light, silky texture. Delicious and easy-drinking, it will dish out loads of pleasure….”

Despite the vast number of choices, I couldn’t help but return for a final sip of this wine before leaving the Winefest for the weekend.

Behold the Blend

And, of course, there were many pleasing bottles that did not contain one main varietal.  Many wineries enjoy integrating several grapes so that they compliment one another.  My favorite blends of the weekend included:

Primus, 2011, Chile

This Chilean blend contains many exciting grapes in one place; It is comprised of 30% Carmenere, 30% Syrah, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Cabernet Franc, 5% Malbec, and 5% Petit Verdot.  It had a medium body and notes of smoke, spice, and ripe red fruit.

“The Carmenere gives it a touch of green pepper,” says Richard Ramaya, sales representative from the distributor Slocum & Sons.  I attribute the earthy finish at the end to the Cabernet Franc.  That final note truly makes the wine.

Château Lanessan, Bordeaux, 2002

This vino comes from the commune of Cussac-Fort-Médoc in the Haut Médoc appellation area of France.  And you’re reading correctly… it’s from 2002!  Older bottles can lead to a lighter wallet, but this bottle retails for around $30.

Edward Brown, representative of Master Brands which carries the wine in its portfolio, explains that they spend a great deal of time searching for bottles with age that they can offer at more accessible prices.  Older French Wines don’t have to be reserved for the elite.

“We’re really lucky!” he admits.

Brown describes the Bordeaux as having “a hint of vanilla, toasted cinnamon, black cherry, and cassis.”  I agree with him and also noted the incredibly long finish in the back of my mouth.  Even though it drank beautifully that day, Brown believes it can even age another 10 years.

For purchasing information and additional details on the wine, visit:  

Beyond wine…

If straight wine isn’t your thing, the Mohegan Sun had plenty of spirits, cocktails, and mixes on hand!  My favorite was the Amarula, “the spirit of Africa.”  It’s best described as a hybrid of smoothie and coffee.  It’s an alternative to creamy liqueurs- think Bailey’s- minus the actual cream.  Instead, the texture comes from the marula fruit, which grows on trees across Africa.

Why the elephant on the label?  It turns out that marula makes elephants drunk when it goes through double fermentation in their stomachs!  So if you see a dazed elephant stumbling around, they might have had been enjoying some Amarula!

Amarula is available at Fairway Wine and Spirits in Stamford, Val's Putnam Wine and Liquors in Greenwich, Harry's Wine and Spirits in Fairfield, and Wine Port of Darien in Darien.