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A Bridge Wine for the Fall

It always comes down to this. Each and every fall, as summer fades away, and the promise of winter and the upcoming ski season loom in the distance, there are always those in between days that mark the transition of the seasons, and serve as a stark reminder that summer has come and gone. You know the days I'm referring to - the forty, fifty, and sixty degree days that are sunny and beautiful, but have a chill in the air that no amount of standing in the sunshine can warm away. I love the many traditions of fall - watching the leaves change, and waiting for the first snowfall - but the wine lover in me is always a little saddened at this time of year, because the cool air marks the end of a favorite summer tradition: afternoon picnics with rosé. I don't like saying goodbye to rosé, and I always keep a few bottles around in case of an Indian Summer day, or to pair with lighter dishes in the winter. I also don't believe that the arrival of cool weather means that you have to say goodbye to rosés and white wines entirely. While I was wine shopping the other day, I was looking at an intriguing new Chardonnay, when a woman approached me and smiled. "Oh, I'm done with those for the year," she announced. "I love Chardonnay in the summer, but once summer goes away, I'm strictly a red wine girl."

While I'm an advocate for allowing one's food and the seasons to dictate one's choice of wine, I could never bring myself to swear off white wine or rosé for half the year. "What about winter nights with lobster, or crab legs?" I wondered. Still, I had to agree with the sentiment behind the woman's statement. There is something quite warming and comforting about a glass of red wine when it's cold out. However, on those aforementioned "in between" days, there are times when a glass of red isn't exactly what the palate is looking for, but the chill in the air is enough to steer you away from a rosé or white wine.

For the longest time, I had no wine to recommend for an "in-between" day. Then, earlier this fall, while at a release tasting for Peju wines, hosted by Burlington Wine Shop, I stumbled across what is quite possibly the perfect bridge wine for the fall. Peju is a family owned winery in the Rutherford sub-AVA of California's Napa Valley. On the night of the tasting, I had a chance to try their Sauvignon Blanc, their Merlot, and their Cabernet Sauvignon. I was impressed with all the wines. The Merlot and the Cabernet Sauvignon were classic examples of the Rutherford terroir, and the Sauvignon Blanc was absolutely phenomenal, with crisp notes of citrus fruit, and pronounced flavors of lemon and tangerine. Yet, of all the Peju wines, the one that left me most intrigued at the close of the evening was a new offering, released under a different label: Tess.

Tess is a newly released brand that is an offshoot of Peju, now owned by sisters, Ariana and Lisa Peju. Described as a "red and white blend," the description on the Tess website lists its composition as a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Zinfandel, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc. The wine presents a light ruby color, akin to a Pinot Noir, and at first glance, the unsuspecting drinker might have no clue that white grapes were a part of this wine's makeup. Yet, the wine's red color belies the presence of white wine in the blend. The aromas of Chardonnay are quite pronounced on the nose, and intermingle with its red fruit aromas. On the palate, bright acidity and red fruit flavors of raspberry and cranberry make for an easy drinking wine that bridges the gap between white wines and rosés, and fuller bodied reds.

When I first tasted Tess, I was confused, as the concept of a winery creating a red wine, and touting the product as a "red and white blend" was somewhat foreign to me. The concept of blending red and white grapes is not all together new, but I could think of only one instance where red and white grapes were fermented to produce a red wine. In the northern Rhône appellation of Côte-Rôtie, vintners are allowed to blend small amounts of Viognier with Syrah, which imparts a floral character to the wine. This practice has been adopted in other Syrah/Shiraz producing regions, such as Australia and California. Yet, none of these regions label the final product as a "red and white blend." Viognier, while a noble grape in its own right, assumes a support role when blended with Syrah, and no one would claim that a Côte-Rôtie, or a wine made in the style of a Côte-Rôtie was a "red and white blend."

As I continued my initial tasting of Tess, my mind wandered between a thorough appreciation of my new discovery, and a curiosity about what could have inspired the creation of this wine. "Could it have been an attempt at a blended rosé?" I wondered. Most rosés are made entirely from red grapes, either by shortening the maceration period, or by bleeding off lightly colored juice early in the fermentation of red wines, in a process known as the saignée method. However, a few are made by blending still red and white wines, and this process is especially common in the production of rosé champagne, where still red and white wines are blended prior to secondary fermentation. 

I left the Peju Release Tasting having ordered a few bottles of Tess, but I was still pondering the origin of what I was sure would be one of my favorite wines for the fall as I drove home. I did some preliminary research on the Tess website, and explored the Peju website to see if I could find any additional information on the wine. I saw that Peju also produced a red and white blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, Chardonnay and French Colombard, called Provence. "Maybe Tess was a re-branding effort," I thought. Nonetheless, aside from the discovery of Provence, and some back-label marketing speak, the website did little to answer my question about what had inspired this unique wine.

In an effort to answer my question, I reached out to the winery with a series of questions. Marketing Manager Dan Gaffey was quick to get back to me, and he provided a unique back story for this decidedly new creation. The information section on the Tess website mentioned that "the blend was first crafted at our kitchen table in 1988, under the tutelage of our parents," but I was curious as to how the decision to blend red wine and white wine was arrived at in the first place. Dan informed me that this reference referred back to Peju's early days, when Ariana and Lisa's father, Tony Peju, was both the owner and winemaker. "In 1988, when Mr. Peju was the winemaker and the original tasting room was the garage," Dan wrote to me, "Tony would often work on different blends well into the night around the family’s kitchen table.  During that time it was not uncommon for his daughters Lisa and Ariana to observe their father and even take part in his blending sessions. Now that the second generation has taken on day to day operations at the winery, Lisa and Ariana launched Tess as a standalone wine of their own, inspired many years ago by those late night blending sessions with their dad."

Dan could not provide any further information on where the idea to blend red and white grapes had come from, except to say that it was the product of those late night experimentation sessions. When I asked if there was any inspiration for Tess drawn from Côte-Rôtie, or the concept of a blended rosé, Dan informed me that there was no tangible connection to either. "There's no co-fermentation," was Dan's response. "The white wine components are actually 2011 vintage, and were stainless steel fermented whites, and the reds are all 2010 vintage, and are barrel fermented." 

Likewise, my hypothesis about a connection to blended rosés was also debunked. "The final blend does have some saignée Zinfandel as a component," Dan wrote to me, before going on to describe the Peju sisters' mission to create a new style of wine. "Working with our winemaker Sara Fowler, Lisa and Ariana set out to develop a delicious new wine that would have broad appeal to wine consumers. It was through the discovery process in the cellar that they arrived at what would become Tess." 

Although I was disappointed that my theories about the wine's origins were incorrect, I still found myself more than satisfied with the answer. As someone who enjoys a close relationship with my family, I appreciated the Peju sisters' tribute to their father, while the wine historian in me appreciated the fact that Tess had been developed as a result of the family's own creativity and innovative spirit. At its roots, all wine is the product of trial and error. European wine producing countries experimented for years to determine what grapes were best suited to each region's unique microclimates. A stuck fermentation during Bob Trinchero's attempts to produce a rosé of Zinfandel resulted in the creation of White Zinfandel. While the merits of one of those experiments might be more commonly praised by serious wine drinkers than others, there is no denying that both have provided wine consumers of all kinds tremendous amounts of enjoyment. Why couldn't an experiment at the Peju family's kitchen table do the same?

Dan went on to tell me that in his experience, consumers were reacting very positively to the wine, mostly because of the novelty associated with it. Dan stated that Ariana and Lisa had launched the wine to fulfill what they determined was an "unmet consumer need." He went on to say that the winery had recently enjoyed "several opportunities ... to pour at high profile events," and that tasters at those events had "raved about Tess." Dan explained that because Tess was produced in "such a new style," he found that guests often asked about it and were eager to taste. "Customers always want to try something new!" Dan wrote.

While I could certainly identify with the desire to try something new, I was surprised to hear that the majority of the consumers asking to taste Tess, also shared that mindset. It has been my experience that most consumers often need a little persuasion to try new wines. I wondered if Peju's customers might be more familiar and accepting of the concept of a red and white blend like Tess, due to experience with Peju's Provence. Yet, when I asked about the connection between the two, Dan very explicitly stated that there was no connection between the two wines. "While both wines are blends," Dan acknowledged, "they have different varietal components and taste quite differently. They are both made in the same cellar by the same winemaker, and both are sourced from estate-grown grapes, but otherwise there was a conscious decision to make Tess a very different wine than Provence."

Having not had the opportunity to try Provence, I had to take Dan's word on the different characters of the two wines.  However, in looking at the varietal composition of Provence (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, Chardonnay and French Colombard) in comparison to Tess (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Zinfandel, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc), I had to think that he was probably right. Curiously though, Dan mentioned that Peju was not featuring Tess in the winery's tasting room, and that sales of the wine were currently limited to retail stores. He stated that the winery would be launching a Tess webstore on November 1st, at which time the wine would be available for purchase online.

I didn't get a chance to ask Dan about the decision to keep Tess out of the Peju tasting room, but I imagined that it likely revolved around an effort to establish Tess as a separate brand. Still, I could only hope that visitors to the Peju tasting room were able to easily locate this fantastic bridge wine in local wineshops. While the label suggests that it be served chilled, in my experiences with Tess, I found that adjusting the serving temperature can alter the character of the wine. I wouldn't suggest serving the wine at temperatures above 60 degrees, but I did notice that cooler serving temperatures amplified the elements of the white wines in the blend, while serving the wine at warmer temperatures brought out plush red fruit flavors, and a rounder mouthfeel.

This past weekend, I was fully convinced of Tess' versatility as a bridge wine when I went on a day hike with friends to Sterling Pond. Located at the top of Sterling Mountain, at Smuggler's Notch, the pond sits at 3,000 feet above sea level, and is Vermont's highest elevation pond. When my friends and I left the Burlington area, the weather was beautiful, with temperatures in the mid-50's, and plenty of sunshine. While it was a little too cold for rosé, my excitement was undiminished, as it was one of those "in-between" days - perfect for a wine like Tess. I brought a bottle, planning to enjoy it with cheese and crackers by the pond, in what I imagined would likely be the last Saturday picnic of the year. I didn't chill the wine before the hike, as I figured that I could give the wine a gentle chill in the cool waters of the pond. However, my decision not to chill the wine turned out to be fortuitous, because despite the warm temperatures in the Burlington area, as we hiked up the mile-long trail towards Sterling Pond, the temperatures dropped, and our gorgeous fall "in-between" day quickly turned to winter. 

Drinking Tess at Sterling PondSnow had fallen on the mountain the night before, and as we made our ascent up the trail, my friends and I were shocked to find ice covering the rocks on the trail, and a light dusting of snow coating the bed of fallen leaves on the forest floor. At the top of the mountain, the land surrounding the pond resembled an Artic tundra. Although I was brimming with excitement that ski season might come early, the wintry conditions made the hike slippery and difficult, and we were all excited to warm up with a glass of wine and some cheese. As I poured glasses of wine for our group, we were all pleased at how well the wine showed. For a few of my friends, it was their first experience with Tess. "This is delicious, really good for a $20 bottle of wine," my friend Henry said. "You can get a hint of the white wine in the blend, but I really love how the soft fruits pair with the cheeses. It also has nice flavors of cranberry in it."

My girlfriend, who has enjoyed the wine with me a few times before, was also singing the praises of the wine. "Is it me, or would this be a really good wine to bring to Thanksgiving?" she asked.

I hastily concurred, and a slow smile spread over my face, as I hadn't thought of the possibility of Tess as a Thanksgiving wine. Yet, with its light bodied character, and soft red fruit flavors, it would pair easily with most items on a Thanksgiving table, particularly the turkey. As we stood by the pond, and sipped our wine, the cool temperatures imparted the chill that I'd neglected to give it. It was completely unintentional, but the lack of an initial chill and the cool weather combined to let us experience the wine at a broad range of temperatures, and it was delicious in all of them. I found myself thinking that this was a wine that would appeal to just about anyone in my family, red wine lover or white wine lover. Of course, I would never limit myself to one wine, but Tess' ability to show well at a variety of temperatures made it all the more appealing to me, and convinced me that what I had originally thought of as a bridge wine for "in-between" days, was also a perfect bridge wine for the Thanksgiving table.


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