By The Wine Guys, Tom Marquardt and Patrick Darr
George Hamel III would not be the managing director of his family’s successful winemaking business had it not been for his father’s decision to leave Florida to pursue a dream.
“I was in 5th grade and decided to play with our computer,” he remembered. “Dad left his resignation letter on the screen. Yeah, I was in 5th grade but I could still read. I yelled for mom.”
Being uprooted from friends at that age could be traumatic, but it worked out pretty good for the now 37-year-old. He went on to earn an MBA degree and eventually made his way back to Hamel Family Wines where he works beside his younger brother, John, who serves as winemaker.
Hamel Family Wines isn’t just another hobby winemaker. Located in the Moon Mountain District in Sonoma Valley, its four vineyards produce some of the most desired cabernet sauvignon in the valley with prices ranging from $48 to $225. These are the kind of collector wines more common in Napa Valley, which is just across a mountain range from the family ranch.
Sonoma County is often overlooked for cabernet sauvignon even though the grape variety is the second most planted red grape. Alexander Valley may get all the attention in Sonoma, but Moon Mountain is gaining steam. It is home to the historic, 250-acre Monte Bello vineyard, owned by Gallo, that supplies grapes to Arrowood, Sbragia Family Wines, Hansel and other producers.
George Hamel Jr. retired from a private equity firm and moved the family to California’s Bay Area in 1996. In 2006 they bought a house in Kenwood in Sonoma County to escape the hassle of San Francisco. The property came with an acre of cabernet sauvignon vine, but more were added. Their first vintage was less than 300 cases. Today, the operation produces about 8,500 cases with a goal to stop at about 10,000 cases. That’s small in the California market, but George Hamel III said it’s manageable.
Until now a vast majority of the wines were sold directly to consumers through its club website. But as production increased and a desire to become more recognized, the family decided to open distribution channels to several states.
All of the wines – 60 percent are cabernet sauvignon or red blends – are made from estate-grown grapes. The vineyards are organic and biodynamically certified. Hamel said dry farming forces the vines to dig deep for valuable nutrients. Wines made in Moon Mountain are known for their acidity, something often lacking in over-wrought Napa Valley cabernet sauvignons.
George III credits his brother, John, with the rising quality of the wine. He said John is obsessed to make the best wine possible from the Moon Mountain soils. He changes consultants every five years just to learn from a variety of experts.
He also has introduced concrete tanks, a practice that is centuries old but gaining popularity in modern winemaking, to the fermentation and aging process. Proponents feel it keeps the wine fresh and preserves structure. George said it’s all about balancing oak, stainless steel and concrete to achieve better structure, soft tannins and more minerality.
The success of this process was born out in the two Hamel wine we tasted. The 2018 Isthmus – a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc and petit verdot – burst with blackberry, cassis and graphite aromas. The mineral notes threaded its way through a broad palate of black fruit and juicy tannins. Thirty-one percent of the fermentation was in concrete tanks; aging was 17 months in concrete. The freshness of the fruit was remarkable.
The same held true for the unblended 2017 Nuns Canyon Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. Although concrete was not used in the aging process, 65 percent of the fermentation was in concrete. Likewise, the fruit was fresh and the structured was well defined. This wine will age for more than a decade.
Although many of the vineyards are on the valley floor, the 114-acre Nuns Canyon Vineyard rises 1,400 feet up a hillside.
Hamel Family Wines also makes a zinfandel and two sauvignon blancs, one in a California style and the other, blended with semillon, in a Bordeaux style.
Chalk Hill Estate Red 2017 ($70). Even with some additional bottle age, this blend of cabernet sauvignon, malbec and petit verdot is big. Sporting a heady alcohol of 15.6 percent, it packs a wallop on the palate with firm tannins, good acidity and dark fruit flavors. Generous blackberry aromas with a hint of tobacco.
Priest Ranch Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 ($50). This is actually a good value among Napa Valley’s usually expensive flock of wines. Using estate grapes from 24 blocks, the producer has created a multi-dimensional, complex wine. Full-bodied, balance, loaded with dark fruit flavors and a touch of tobacco leaf.
Zenato Alanera Rosso Veronese 2018 ($15). This wine made from Italy’s native corvina grape is an incredible value. Medium body and fruity like a beaujolais, it is an easy drink to serve as an aperitif or to accompany pasta, burgers and other such fare. Big cherry flavors.
Zenato San Benedetto Luguna 2020 ($16). From Northern Italy, this fabulous white wine has citrus aromas and stone fruit flavors. Good acidity makes it a perfect aperitif or a wine to go with poultry and fish.
La Valentina Montlpulciano d’Abruzzo DOC 2018 ($15). Violet aromas are followed by strawberry and cherry flavors. Medium body.
Ancient Peaks Chardonnay Paso Robles Santa Margarita Ranch 2020 ($20). A big mouth-coating, fruit-driven chardonnay from Paso Robles. Lucious pear, melon and pineapple fruit notes dominate with (thankfully) no discernable oak. A hint of spice creates some interest without intruding on the bountiful fruit.