Winemaker Robert Pepi -- Bob to his friends -- said something so remarkable that it was several seconds before I realized I was staring at his face. Pepi casually mentioned that he was starting his 51st harvest this year. What? That would make him north of 70 years old, and if that were true, I wanted to get my hands on his secret anti-aging diet. Reading the confusion on my face, he quickly solved the mystery. In addition to making wines for clients in California and Colorado, as well as his own project in Napa Valley, he is also the consulting winemaker for Valentin Bianchi, one of the oldest wineries in Argentina, where the harvests take place in the spring. So, for almost two decades, Pepi has been trotting between South and North America, picking grapes and making wines twice a year.
It all began in the mid-1960s, when his dad bought a vineyard in the Oakville district in Napa Valley. By 1980, Pepi and his dad set up a winery and started making Robert Pepi wines. Soon, Pepi's wines were receiving high praise and great scores. Success attracts attention. In 1994, Pepi's family sold the winery and the Robert Pepi label to Kendall-Jackson, which became the foundation for K-J's famous, ultra-high-end brand Cardinale. Without the family winery as his anchor, Pepi was now free to indulge his ultimate passion -- wine consulting.
Today, Pepi is one busy winemaker. In addition to his duties at Bodegas Valentin Bianchi in Mendoza, Pepi has been hard at work at his own label, Eponymous (a creative tribute to the family name) since 2000. His wines consistently receive high marks from trade publications and in international wine competitions. During a recent visit to Washington, I had the pleasure of catching up with Pepi and tasting some of his delicious wares from his extensive portfolio. Retail prices are approximate.
One of the qualities I look for in a rose is bright fruit and abundant acidity. The 2012 Eponymous Rose ($20) from Sonoma, Calif., possesses both in abundance. Made exclusively from merlot, the deep rose color belies the fact that the wine had virtually no skin contact. The perfumed bouquet of red fruit features a floral pop of violet on the nose. The wine is round and full, yet at the same time light and bright in the mouth, with lovely flavors of strawberry, red plum and red currant. Crisp acidity and a hint of orange clove add balance and a touch of sophistication on the finish. Best served slightly chilled. QPR 10
Two Angels is one of several wine consulting projects that Pepi is involved with. The grapes for the 2008 Two Angels Petite Sirah ($25) come from Shannon Ridge Vineyards in High Valley, Calif., where they are grown at an elevation of 2,300 feet on 45-degree slopes. The fruit is hand-harvested over a three-week period. This effort results in a remarkably smooth-bodied wine with flavors of black boysenberry, blackberry and dark plum. The smoky finish features notes of roasted meat and black licorice, supported by fine tannins. QPR 8.5
The 2009 Eponymous Syrah ($35) from Napa Valley, Calif., is one of those wines that should have a rack of lamb riding shotgun. This big, bold red sports scents of earthy black fruit, black olives and roasted meats on the nose, and flavors of blackberry, black plum and tobacco linger on the palate for long stretches of time. A hint of cherry syrup sneaks in on the generous finish. QPR 9.5
Cabernet franc is usually thought of as just a blending grape, but in the hands of Pepi, it becomes something that is delicious on its own. According to Pepi, the secret to making a good cab franc is it has to be grown in great soil, like the 2009 Eponymous Cabernet Franc ($45) from the McAllister Vineyard in Sonoma, Calif. Made from just more than one acre of mountain-grown fruit, the wine has excellent penetration of black cherry, blueberry and dried spices on the medium-bodied frame. The fine tannins are in harmony with the acidity, which accounts for the wonderfully balanced finish. QPR 9
QPR is a rating system that compares the quality a wine delivers relative to the price. A QPR of 10 is considered an excellent value.