Mandolin Wine, Affordable Luxury

I have friends that are completely without pretense. You know the type. Nothing seems to get in the way of a free-flowing good time. Conversations come easy and linger only as long as they are interesting. With them, laughter isn’t punctuation to sentences, but full exchanges of dialog. These friends deserve a good bottle of wine, but don’t expect me to break out the $100 bottles. In fact they prefer the less expensive wine so we can drink more of it.

Luckily there are many quality, affordable wines on the market to share with friends like these. I was recently introduced to a perfect example of this, Mandolin, a California winery. The wine makers at Mandolin have the motto of creating “affordable luxury.” How is that possible? I spoke with Brent Shortridge, co-founder of Mandolin to find out how they produce good juice at a great price.

Brent had been in the wine business in Napa since 1984 before he met winemaker, Philip Zorn, over lunch in 1999. The two hit it off right away, sort of the same way you and I make friends without pretense. They had similar palettes and a passion for lunch. Right then and there, they crafted biz plan to sell wine as a négociant. They started off buying finished wine and taking it to market under the Waterstone Winery brand. They discovered that this was a good model to bring quality wine to market more efficiently to keep affordable prices.

Brent and Philip gained traction and realized to continue their success they had to develop consistency in their wine and lock down the sourcing of the grapes. They evolved to actual wine producers in a virtual winery set-up, leasing winery space, barrels and equipment. Mandolin was launched in Monterey, where in grape production was exploding in the coastal climate and land prices hadn’t gotten out of control like they had in Napa and Sonoma. These conditions, and the lack of the ball and chain of owning a winery and vineyards, make it possible for Mandolin to make affordable wine that appeals to people with a sophisticated palate.

Through long-time relationships with various vineyards, they were able to strike long-term contracts on specific lots of grapes. The contracts allow them to set the brix and acid levels to in a certain range at harvest, allows them access to vineyards year round and lets them work closely to manage crop yield. That level of control over the same source of grapes year after year allows for consistency and quality.

The Central Coast AVA has micro-climates and terroir that are well suited for a variety of noble grapes. Mandolin selects its grapes from the areas that are most suited for growing. The Santa Lucia Highlands is well suited for Burgundian varietals like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, as well as Riesling with it east facing benchland that gives it cool evenings, good afternoon sun and fog in the morning. Syrah grows well in the Arroyo Seco AVA, dominated by an old river bed with plentiful rock and gravel. It holds the heat even as the fog rolls in in the evening.

Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot sometimes doesn’t get the heat and sun to fully ripen in Monterey. However, Bordeaux varieties grow well in Hames Valley, which became an approved AVA in 1994. The warm air in the extended valley along with loamy shale soil allows for full ripeness to produce the rich wines for which California is known.

Once they source the grapes, they don’t take any short cuts in the cellar Mandolin ages the wine for 14 months in one and two year French oak. The result is smooth, balanced wine that food friendly and isn’t over oaked.

Here is a look at two of the wines.

2009 Cabernet Sauvignon Central Coast

Mandolin Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon
Look Brick red at the edges to deep garnet at the depths. The Mandolin Cab has good clarity and viscosity.
Smell It fills the snout with bushels of black currant, black tea and spicy cherry tobacco.
Taste This doesn’t taste like an inexpensive wine. It has nice structure and balance of fruit, acid and grip. Black cherry and cola blend with pepper and understated oak at the front followed by a long, mildly tannic finish.
Price $12


2009 Syrah Central Coast

Look The ’09 Syrah is vibrant blood red and amethyst like a passionately artistic mood ring.
Smell It smells of lively rhubarb pie and blueberries served at a summer picnic.
Taste The approach is saline blood fresh from the hunt playfully splashed on a Pillsbury blueberry fruit pie. The soft, tart fruitiness pairs well with white pepper a tannic clutch and mild acidity for a lush, pleasant wine.
Price $10


Brent recommends trying the Cabernet with a bone-in rib-eye with plenty of marbling is ideal. The tannins work well with the rich fats. He also likes it with a roasted chicken from the supermarket goes well. For Brent, the best way to enjoy Mandolin wines is with friends. He likes to get away from the dining table and enjoy a glass of wine outside in the mountains or on a boat.

I completely agree with him. These are wines won’t intimidate you and are perfect for those relaxed times with friends without pretense.

Mandolin Wines are sold in more than half the states including Texas, as well as several countries worldwide. Ask for it at your favorite wine shop or order it online.

Mandolin provided samples of both wines for review.

What are you drinking?

Yes there is kick-ass wine made in Oregon: Rockblock Syrah

I mentioned to a friend of mine that I was going review a Syrah from Oregon and he was bemused. “I never think of good wine coming from Oregon. I didn’t even know they made wine in Oregon.” I was a little stunned, taken aback. I thought, don’t worry, he’s just Canadian. (Save your hate mail Canadians. I’m just joking and I love your country even if you have crazy bad Olympic closing ceremonies. I mean what was with that inflatable Rocky and Bullwinkle?) Then it hit me, Oregon wines are to wine what Portlandia is to TV sitcoms.  Brilliant maybe, but only insiders know about it.

I assume that everyone appreciates the splendor of Oregon wine like I do. After all, there are no finer Pinot Noirs made on this Earth. But I get Portlandia. I worked at a winery in Oregon. I guess the wines are a better kept secret than I realized outside of the wine geek world. I feel it’s my duty to proselytize.

Oregon is known for its cool, rainy climate which is perfect for growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. There are also regions where the sun burns hotter, such as the Columbia and Rogue Valleys. The Del Rio Vineyard in the Rogue Valley Appellation in Southern Oregon grows thicker skinned grapes like Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. They make their own wines and also sell grapes to other fine wineries.

In 1999  Ken and Grace Evenstad, owners of esteemed winery Domaine Serene, decided to make small production, single vineyard wines from three vineyards in two appellations outside of the Willamette Valley. What happens when you put quality fruit in the hands of a skilled wine maker? I stumbled across a pile of 2005 Rockblock Syrah Del Rio Vineyard bottles at the local wine shop and had to bring home an armload. I’m glad I did. I’ve had Del Rio Vineyard wines made by other wineries, and I’ve had buckets of Domaine Serene, so I knew I was in for a treat.

Here’s what it’s like.   

Look Rockblock dresses a glass with deep eggplant and ruby glints in the light revealing sparkling clarity.  
Smell It introduces itself with an Australian accent, the thrill of alcohol springing forth and opening to fig, raspberry and roses.  
Taste Then it reveals a French heritage with cassis, black cherry cola and dark chocolate flavors tempered with smoked cedar in a long finish.
Price $20


I’ll put Rockblock Syrah into my regular rotation to drink with lamb or beer and to drink on its own. It’s approachable like an Aussie Shiraz, but more refined like a French Cotes du Rhone. Don’t take my word for it, try an Oregon Syrah. I purchased this wine at Specs Wine & Spirits.

What are you drinking?