On this episode of “Next Round,” host Zach Geballe chats with Cassandra Felix, brand director of Brendel Wines. Felix details her journey from the hospitality industry into wine production. Then, Felix gives an historical account of the origins of Brendel Wines.
Brendel Wines honors its legacy by producing wine from the Grignolino grape — the grape originally planted by the estate’s founder. Felix discusses how the grape ties into the winery’s past, and how it is used at the winery today. Further, Felix lists the lineup at Brendel Wines, which includes a Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chorus Cuvée Blanc. Finally, Felix discusses the current vibe in Napa Valley as newly vaccinated visitors return.
Or Check out the Conversation Here
Zach Geballe: From Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe. And this is a “VinePair Podcast” “Next Round” conversation. We’re bringing you these episodes in between our regular podcasts so we can explore a broader range of issues and stories in the drinks world. And today, I am thrilled to be speaking with Cassandra Felix, brand director at Brendel Wines in Napa Valley. Cassandra, how are you?
Cassandra Felix: I am doing fantastic, Zach. How are you?
Z: I’m doing very well. Disclosure to the audience: Cassandra and I were on the Washington Wine Road Trip together in 2016. That is when we met. So nice to reconnect.
C: It’s so great to reconnect. Thanks for getting in touch. I’m so happy to talk to you today.
Z: Yeah. So when we met, you were wine director at a restaurant in Florida, and now you’re working for a winery in Napa Valley. Take us through your wine journey and how you got into wine and how you ended up at Brendel.
C: Absolutely. It’s been a really interesting and wild ride. I first got into wine at the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, where I started off as a server and eventually moved my way up into managing the wine program at Flagler’s Steakhouse, which is one of our five-star, five-diamond restaurants at the property. It was really cool. I was able to take a 16-week wine course that the hotel offered for its employees, and I took it multiple times because the first time, I sat for it I actually wasn’t old enough to drink yet.
Z: Oh, wow.
C: Yeah, so I smelled wines for 16 weeks and took it the following year so that I could taste them. Then, one summer, I asked if I could just help put bottles of wine away since it’s typically a slower season for us in Palm Beach there. I guess I did a good job, because they offered me the opportunity to sit for the intro and then the certification soon after. Then, I became an assistant sommelier at HMF, then at Flagler’s Steakhouse. With 2020 bringing a lot of change and unexpected twists and turns, I took advantage of the restaurant shutting down to fulfill a longtime dream of mine to work a harvest in Napa Valley, and I haven’t left. I was able to work a harvest at a cool winery called Buccella in South Napa Valley. I also worked at the Robert Sinskey Vineyards for a little while. Eventually, I was really fortunate to be blessed with this opportunity to manage Brendel. It’s been quite the journey, and I’m really excited about the next chapter.
Z: Yeah, so I want to get into Brendel, the idea behind it, and how you got connected. First, what has it been like moving from the restaurant side to the winemaking/production side? I know that you’re not alone certainly, in the last however many years, but a lot of our listeners who worked in restaurants had to, because of the pandemic, find other opportunities. So what’s that been like for you?
C: It’s been really great, honestly. It’s been really illuminating and fascinating. I think as a sommelier, at times, you can see the world of wine through one specific lens. Typically, just out of a book and interacting with guests, and if you’re fortunate, you get to travel to expand your knowledge. Now, in production, it took a bit of the romance out of it, but I mean that in the best way possible, where you really see the progression and the hard work that goes into each and every bottle of wine. It’s not necessarily the story about the brand, but the people behind the wine that really make it special. It’s been so incredible to see, especially here in Napa, the diversity of wine styles that are able to be produced here in specific markets. When you think of Napa Valley, you are really thinking about Chardonnay and Cabernet, and also those specific styles being very ripe and lush, or very heavy and oaked. Specifically, over the past few months, being here has shown me that there’s a lot of diversity in the plantings that are available here and definitely a lot more than what typically meets the eye in Napa.
Z: Let’s talk about that a little bit because my understanding is that is a big part of the whole idea behind Brendel. Let’s start with how the winery or the brand was founded and what the idea behind it is.
C: Absolutely. When the Lawrence family purchased Heitz Wine Cellars in 2018 along with Carlton McCoy, who is our managing partner, they did a lot of research into the history behind the estate, and they came across a gentleman named Leon Brendel, who is the namesake of the brand. Very little is known about Leon Brendel, except that he was born in Alsace, France, and he studied distillation and enology in Switzerland. He soon became a winemaker at Casa Madero in Mexico and then eventually, in the late 1940s, found his way to Napa and planted a small vineyard of Grignolino, and he named it the Only One Vineyard. In 1961, he sold that vineyard to Joe Heitz with the caveat that a portion must also always be planted to Grignolino. Up until the creation of Brendel in 2019, the Heitz family was very consistent with that and kept their promise. With Brendel, we’re able to maintain and preserve history, but in a really fresh and exciting way. We are definitely making the wines in the post-Prohibition style, similar to the era of Joe Heitz and Leon Brendel, so very approachable. We definitely keep them in the fresh and lighter-bodied style and never use any new oak. We really want this wine to attract, or at least showcase, the diversity of the wine styles that can be produced here in Napa Valley. We’re calling the brand the “new Napa,” but honestly, we’re just bringing the past into the present. Since we were able to control everything that goes into the bottle, from owning our own vineyard and owning our production facilities, we’re able to offer organic and biodynamic-farmed wines at a really incredible price point.
Z: Well, you gave me a lot of things in there that I want to get into more detail in. The Heitz Grignolino wine that you mentioned was one of the wines that when I first tried it was an aha moment that you described as being a little contrary to people’s typical perceptions of Napa Valley. I know that there were people who were a little bit unsure when the Lawrence family bought Heitz, whether or not that style of wine would stick around. It seems like it very much is and is very much central to the whole concept. For those people who aren’t all that familiar with it, can you describe the Grignolino, what it’s like, and why it’s so different from what people’s perception of Napa is?
C: Yeah, of course. Grignolino is indigenous to Piedmont. It’s very similar to grape varietals that might be more familiar from that region such as Dolcetto or Barbera, except that it’s slightly less tannic. It definitely leans more on the vibrant, tart, red fruit side of the spectrum. As a rosé, it’s extremely aromatic. It can be very bone dry, but pretty elegant. With the frizzante style that we’re producing it in with Brendel, it really preserves that freshness and vibrancy. It’s absolutely crushable, very drinkable, and enjoyable.
Z: Very cool. In that vein, what are some of the other either wines or varieties that are available currently under the Brendel label?
C: As I mentioned, all of our wines are fashioned after the post-Prohibition style of winemaking. Back in those days, it was pretty rare to encounter a mono-varietal wine. Typically, wines were heritage field blends made from cuttings brought back from settlers’ homelands. We are able to preserve those nontraditional varieties such as Touriga Nacional, Tinta Madeira, and Tinta Cão. We also have a unique white blend called the Chorus Cuvée Blanc that showcases Malvasia Bianca and Fernão Pires. It’s pretty incredible the freshness, vibrancy, and elegance that can be presented in these wines. Even though those grape varietals don’t typically seem to have a place in the general landscape of Napa Valley, with Brendel, we’re able to preserve that.
Z: Are these older-vine vineyards or these newer plantings? How does that figure in?
C: Yes, they were originally planted in 1961 with Joe Heitz. However, they’ve been replanted, I believe, in the early 2000s.
Z: OK, maybe let’s start with this, too. You mentioned that the wines are not mono-varietal and in particular, they are field blends. Now, some of our listeners are going to be familiar with what that concept means, but can you explain what makes a field blend different than, say, the blend that someone might be familiar with that’s all done in the winery?
C: Typically, a field blend would mean that different varietals are planted side-by-side, and harvested and fermented together. This can contribute a bit less control and a bit more complexity and creativity in the final product. We still harvest and ferment each of the nontraditional varietals in our blends separately. However, historically speaking, that’s what a heritage field blend would be.
Z: OK. So in line with that, you also mentioned that one of the other things that you’re able to do because of the established nature of these vineyards is to offer these wines at a price point that in Napa — which obviously is America’s most premium wine region — doesn’t necessarily break the bank. So what are we talking about for the wines? Whether it’s at a restaurant or for home consumption, how do these fit into people’s drinking habits?
C: We really want Brendel to be a gateway to Napa Valley for a new wine drinker, but also beef up the cellar of a consistent Napa Valley wine drinker. We believe that wine should be accessible to everyone — and not only just any wine, but great wine that’s farmed organically and biodynamically, made by incredible winemakers. Brendel is a perfect wine for a weeknight, or it’s still special and handcrafted and well-made enough to be a gift. A lot of times, wine can be extremely daunting or unapproachable for a newer consumer. Everything about Brendel is about approachability and for it to be enjoyed and shared.
Z: Very cool. I know that you guys are in the process of opening a wine bar or tasting bar in downtown Napa. Can you tell me a little about that?
C: Yes. We are so excited to be opening our tasting room in downtown Napa this summer. Downtown is so electric, and it’s emerging from the shutdown with new energy and enthusiasm as people are starting to return to the Valley. The location is fantastic. It’s centered around the downtown district, surrounded by shops and other wine bars, tasting rooms, and restaurants. Our tasting room will fall in line with the philosophy of the brand and make wine approachable and fun. We really want it to be a place where people can come to learn but also kick back and relax with some great wine in their glass. Education was a great cornerstone in my wine journey, and it’s become a passion, obviously. I am currently studying for the MS and getting to share wine with a larger audience and pay it forward is really a cool opportunity that we’ll be able to fulfill with our tasting room, too.
Z: Very cool. And it is opening this summer, right?
C: Yes, at the end of the summer.
Z: OK, very cool. Maybe this is something you could talk about, maybe not. But with what’s currently available from Brendel, are there plans to add additional wines? Or does it seem, for the time being, that it’s going to be the same lineup?
C: We are actually allowing Brendel to be a creative outlet for all of the winemakers of our estates. We have so much freedom to continue to grow and evolve with the brand. The Grignolino will always be a staple in the brand because it’s so tied to the history and the cornerstone of the brand. However, we will continue to work with possibly bottling single varieties of the nontraditional wines that I had mentioned. We will always use organic and biodynamically farmed grapes. It’s also a huge tenet of the brand. But this can become a real playground for all of the amazing winemakers that we have in our portfolio.
Z: Very cool. OK, I want to ask some questions for people. I know you’re relatively new to Napa, but I’m just curious because this has been something that we’ve heard from a lot of listeners. What is it like in Napa right now? Are people returning to visit? Obviously, we’re now at this period where a lot of people are vaccinated. More are getting that way, and things are reopening. I know you don’t have a previous year of experience to compare it to in terms of working there, but what is the vibe like in Napa right now?
*C: Yes, as I mentioned, people are really ready to come out on the opposite side of this pandemic. I think there has been a very strong effort to roll out the vaccine here, and we are really starting to see — especially in the downtown area where our tasting room is going to be located — I definitely have noticed that people are starting to return to the valley with a lot of excitement.
Z: Very cool. Have you gotten a chance to do some visiting of other wineries and getting to explore other things? Obviously, you’re busy, and as you mentioned, you are studying for the MS exam. But I would imagine that one of the benefits of living in Napa is getting to visit other wineries.
C: Yeah, so I recently got to visit Mayacamas, which was amazing. Outside of that, I haven’t done too much. But again, I did come to Napa right in the middle of the pandemic to work the harvest and then definitely stayed busy since then. I am excited to continue to venture out and explore. There is such a vibrant spirit here that is really hard to explain. Although Napa is world renowned as a fantastic wine-growing region, it’s a land full of farmers and real people that are eager to connect and tell the story of this phenomenal place. It’s a really great community to be a part of.
Z: Excellent. I imagine that you will find, if you haven’t already, a lot of resources to help you in your own personal journey towards becoming a Master Sommelier. Have you been able to connect with other people who are aspirants in that regard or just people who are already masters? What is the community like there?
C: Yes, so I was really fortunate to have incredible mentors back at the Breakers Hotel with Virginia Phillip and Juan Gomez. They definitely ingrained that spirit of paying it forward. That’s also something that I neglected to mention about the brand. We will be utilizing Brendel as an opportunity to partner with the Roots Fund Foundation, which is a nonprofit organization committed to elevating people of color in the wine industry. I’m really excited about doing that. As far as connecting with other sommeliers here, Eric Elliott, who is the estate director of Heitz Cellars, is also sitting for his MS. He’ll be sitting in July, and then George Lobjanidze is the estate director for Burgess Cellars, who is also studying for his MS and is sitting in July. They’ve been really consistent with their studying, whereas I got distracted from moving across the country. But they’ve definitely been encouraging and great sports as far as keeping me on my toes with my studying as well. I’m expanding my reach as far as reaching out to other sommeliers and looking to join a tasting group here soon.
Z: Very cool. Before we wrap things up, Cassandra, is there anything else about Brendel that you believe we didn’t touch on or that you want to make sure that people are aware of?
C: Yes. I think we covered most of it, but I just want to encourage everyone to check out our website and join our mailing list. Also, follow us on social media @BrendelWines. We are really excited about this brand. I’m so thrilled to be able to work for such an incredible project and showcase the incredible things that are happening here in Napa Valley. I’m really thrilled to imagine what can come next for this brand, and it would be great to have everybody be a part of it. And please just check us out on our website.
Z: Excellent, and we will include that information in the show notes. Well, it has been great hearing from you. I’m very excited to see your own personal journey and, of course, what’s going on with Brendel. Thank you so much for sharing with us.
C: Thank you so much, Zach. It was a pleasure.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love the show as much as we love making it, then please give us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. “VinePair” is produced and recorded in New York City and in Seattle, Wash., by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for making all this possible and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.