Once upon a time, in quaint wine villages throughout Europe, it was only natural that villagers consumed the local wine.
It was common for a family to stroll down to the neighborhood winery and stock up for a week or more by filling jugs and other containers with wine directly from a cask or tank. Modern conveniences, such as grocery stores or wine shops with bottled wines displayed in neat stacks, were few and far between in many rural wine regions of the world.
Much has changed since that was the reality for many living and working in wine country, but some traditions die hard. In fact, sometimes they are reborn in the most unlikely venues.
Meet Lowell Jooste of LJ Crafted Wines, an urban winery located in the La Jolla community of San Diego. Jooste and his family are originally from South Africa, where they made highly acclaimed wines for more than 20 years. After moving to San Diego in 2012, the urge to remain in the wine business proved too much for Jooste to resist.
He was inspired to develop a unique urban winery concept that serves up premium Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley wines from the barrel. The wines are custom-made at Lail Vineyards in Yountville, California, and the finished wines are shipped in barrels to LJ.
Customers, who are mostly locals who live in the beach community and have signed up for the LJ Crafted Wines wine club, can either sit and sip in the bright and airy wine bar or have a growler filled to take home. The growler, made of glass and sealed with a reusable cap, is an invention of San Diego's vibrant craft beer industry that Jooste neatly adapted.
The integrity of the wine in the barrel is maintained through a proprietary device Jooste calls the "Wine Steward," for which there is a patent pending. The Wine Steward extracts wine from the barrel without permitting air to get in, which would oxidize and likely spoil the remaining wine.
"When I was in the wine business in South Africa, so much time was spent on packaging, when my interest was in the wine," Jooste noted.
LJ Crafted Wines had been open nearly a year now, and Jooste says that he sells most of the wine to customers who fill their growler and take the wine home. I tasted a number of the LJ wines on a recent visit -- rose, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, pinot noir and a stunning petit verdot -- and found the quality to be very high.
Jooste says his wine club is nearly full, which means he's selling most of the wines LJ produces. The community seems to have embraced LJ's barrel-to-bottle concept. And why wouldn't it? At another time and in another place, going to the local winery for a jug of wine was simply what you did.
Wines are rated on a 100-point scale. Wines are chosen for review because they represent outstanding quality or value, and the scores are simply a measure of this reviewer's enthusiasm for the recommended wine.
Gascon 2015 Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina ($15) -- After all these years, Argentina continues to amaze with stunning wines that beat the pants off everyone in the value-wine market. This Gascon Malbec is remarkably complex for such an inexpensive red wine, offering layers of cassis, blackberry and blueberry wrapped in sweet oak spice. The tannins, soft and supple, are seductive in their own right. Rating: 90.
Campo Viejo Brut Reserva Cava, Spain ($13) -- If you're in the market for an inexpensive bubbly that's both tasty and loads of fun, Campo Viejo's Brut Reserva Cava delivers plenty of crunchy apple character. Rating: 87.
Renato Ratti 2012 Barolo 'Marcenasco,' Piedmont, Italy ($50) -- Now going on five years old, Renato Ratti's Barolo Marcenasco is beginning to soften and approach prime drinkability. Showing a floral nose and black cherry on the palate, this tarry beauty has only now come into its own. It should hold easily for another 12 to 15 years, given the excellent color and depth of fruit, not to mention the abundant tannins. Rating: 95.
Cadaretta 2013 Syrah, Columbia Valley ($35) -- Smooth and supple on the palate, with a huge burst of blueberry fruit and wood smoke, this syrah should be the example for others to follow. It shows elegance, depth, weight, layered complexity and a subtle spice note on the finish that simply says, "Syrah -- the real deal." Rating: 94.
Sonoma-Cutrer 2014 Pinot Noir, Owsley Vineyard 'Single Block,' Russian River Valley ($46) -- There is a tendency to put Sonoma-Cutrer in the chardonnay box, where it has historically excelled. Yet this iconic Russian River Valley winery also has a long and distinguished track record with pinot noir. The 2014 "Single Block" Pinot from Owsley vineyard is a unique style for the Russian River, exhibiting a floral note of violet and cherry liqueur, and firm tannins that should soften over the next year or so. It finishes with excellent persistence and a subtle earthy/forest floor nuance that makes it extremely attractive as a mate for wild mushrooms and richly sauced game dishes. Rating: 92.
Adelsheim 2014 Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley ($32) -- The beauty of a Willamette Valley Pinot Noir when it's right is its seemingly effortless weight and depth. This basic vintage from Adelsheim is the perfect example. Showing rich ripe cherry fruit, it is dense and mouth-filling with a meaty aspect that will serve it well when paired with grilled meats and winter stews. Rating: 89.