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Ten years after Kris Mullins moved to the Outer Banks, a period of time that saw him going from waiting tables to owning restaurants, he had an epiphany. “There’s gotta be more to things than this,” he thought. Through his restaurants, he’d gotten the wine bug; he packed it all in, sold the restaurants, and moved to the Napa Valley, where for seven years he worked with wineries.
Two years ago he came back to this area to look after a family member and met Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s Michael Babin. A self-described “restaurant-winery groupie,” Mullins admired NRG and wanted to talk shop. Despite “really feeling the pull of California,” Mullins ended up signing on as NRG’s director of marketing.
He’s also, while the company tries to fill the position, its default wine director.
Today Ted Plemons and Sherman Thacher, of Paso Robles, Calif.’s Cass Vineyard & Winery and Thacher Winery, respectively, are visiting Planet Wine, NRG’s wine shop next to the Evening Star Cafe in Del Ray, to show off some grape juice. They’re accompanied by Al McCosh, the owner and manager of Nice Legs, a wine distributor in Sterling, Va., that specializes in boutique wineries and what McCosh calls “extreme winemaking.”
Extreme winemaking is characterized by “ultra low production” and is “hands-off, out on the edge” stuff, says McCosh. Production is generally natural. These wines, McCosh says, are “overdelivered” at their price point—-you get a lot more than what you pay for.
I’ve never met extreme winemakers before, and I remarked to Thacher that it must have been difficult bungee-jumping into the vineyards. He says it was easier than leaping out of a helicopter to get down to Planet Wine today.
First up is a Cass 2008 Rousanne, a white that “never saw oak,” Plemons says. “Little bit of weight to it,” says Mullins. “Mouth-coating.” It is buttery and delicious, and I hate to spit it out.
Cass uses “100 percent estate fruit,” says Plemons. He’s made 292 cases of the Rousanne; most of his wines are under 500 cases. “I like that,” says Mullins.
Next comes a 2006 grenache, on which Plemons was “not going to take any chances on bottle shock.” He also pours a 2006 Rockin’ One, a blende of grenache, cab sauv, and petite sirah. “Steps it up a couple of notches,” Plemons says. “Good delineation of fruit,” says Mullins.
“We’re blenders,” says Plemons. “We want to complete the mouth.” His ’06 cab follows a gold-star ’05 that’s all sold out. “Let’s see how the ’06 is doing, guys,” he says. Mullins says he likes it, that it’s not a “jammy, obnoxious alcohol bomb.” “You can have it with food,” says McCosh.
Plemons says he makes “Big wines with velvet gloves.” His 2006 petite sirah, Mullins says, is “not one of those rip-the-enamel-off-your-teeth wines.”
“The quality’s certainly there,” he says. McCosh is happy.
Moving on to Thacher’s wines, Mullins notices that there’s a line-drawing of a grasshopper on the label. That’s on his family’s crest, Thacher explains. The Thachers in England thatched huts, apparently. Plemons is the builder here, though; he built Thacher’s winery. He says the two are “brother wineries,” even though they’re on different sides of Paso Robles.
Thacher made 1800 cases last year. First up is his 2005 zinfandel. “Do you get the clove?” Plemons asks me. I don’t, actually, because I can’t smell very well, but the wine is delicious, spicy and smooth. “This is our bestselling zin,” says McCosh. Thacher went to UC Davis, where he didn’t study enology but had a buddy who studied fermentation and became a brewer. The two bought one ton of zinfandel one year, 3 tons the next… That business eventually fizzled but he started his own winery in 2004. He was a peripatetic winemaker for a few years, renting out space in other wineries. Now he’s got his own place and says it’s still a thrill to see his name on the label. Next we have a syrah from Monterey County, which grows overlooking the San Lucia Highlands.
“It’s a nice wine. It’s got some real density to it,” says Mullins. It’s also at a good price. “I like your whole plan,” says Plemons, about the NRG’s policy not to mark up wine as much as most restaurants. “You can’t bank percentages,” says Mullins. “Why would you wanna have a stale wine list?” Wines from Daily Planet show up at Tallulah, and customers at Evening Star can have any wine from Planet Wine for $10 over retail.
Plemons brings up a couple wines he’s been cooling, a 2008 viognier (“not gummy,” says Mullins, who hates “fruit salad in a glass”). Talk is exchanged about malolactic fermentation. “I like these wines, and think your price is right on the money,” says Mullins.
After the winemakers leave, Mullins introduces me to Evening Star’s executive chef, William Artley. Artley’s been doing something called “Farm Table” at Planet Wine two to three times per week. He cooks a five course meal for up to 14 people at the long table in the middle of the shop. “It’s awesome for me,” says Artley. He can buy produce from farmers who don’t sell in quantities big enough for Evening Star. He and I talked a lot more, but that’s another post. Mullins has to leave, and I have to go home to retrieve my camera, which I stupidly forgot.