Vending Machine: Napa Wine With New Orleans Flair

Posted by | Posted in Wine Reviews | Posted on 11-19-2013

On a recent trip to New Orleans, I spent an afternoon at the Wine Institute of New Orleans (a.ka. WINO… Clever, huh?) This wine bar, located in the Warehouse District, boasts 120 wines “on tap.” You buy a card, add money and hook yourself up with three different sized pours. The wine is dispensed from bottles through a series of pump-shelves that line the walls of the bar. It’s a thoroughly awesome idea, and I can’t understand why this kind of set-up isn’t represented in every major city.

Anyway, I was sipping on a deliciously funky 1998 Chateau Musar ($5 bucks for a small taste, worth every penny), when the tasting room attendant told me a winery was about to kick off a tasting in the back room. I grabbed my notebook and a glass and checked it out.

Neil Gernon doing his thing. That 2010 Horror Show (right) is creepy as hell. Used with permission.

Neil Gernon doing his thing. That 2010 Horror Show (right) is creepy as hell. Used with permission from Vending Machine.

I’d never heard of Vending Machine Winery before, but the names of the wines and their funky label art caught my attention quickly. Vending Machine is the dream-come-true project of husband-wife duo Neil Gernon and Monica Bourgeois, both wine reps for Neat Wines in Metairie, La. Neil and Monica share an intense passion for all things wine and New Orleans. As they poured their wines, I got the sense they’d be just as comfortable on stage in the Quarter, rocking out in a psychobilly-punk band. Neil sported a T-shirt, jeans and a slick, greaser-style hairdo while Monica stood out with her steely-purple hair and vintage get-up.

Neil knows his shit, and I had a blast picking his brain about old-vine Carignan, the awesomeness of Petit Verdot and the refreshing character of the 2011 Napa wines. To be completely honest, it was cool to meet a wine nerd who drops as many — if not more — f-bombs than myself.

When looking back at the beginnings of Vending Machine, Neil recalls a wine-fueled NOLA night with Australian winemaker Justin Lane some seven years ago. “There was a cover band playing all Misfits songs, but with a surfer guitar feel,” Neil explained. “Anyway, we were talking about how we both loved zombie movies. We got into how if there was a zombie outbreak in a vineyard, how would that affect the soil and fruit. We both thought it would be a cool thing to make that wine.” Justin went on to make a wine called Night of the Living Red. “I thought, wow,” Neil said. “That is pretty cool. I wish I would have done that.”

One New Year’s Eve, Neil and Monica got together with their friends from Napa, Christopher and Sarah Vandendriessche, to saber some Champagne and celebrate. Christopher, who has studied in Bordeaux and Burgundy and makes wine for White Rock, agreed to craft the wine for this new outfit. They chose Vending Machine as the name because, well, you can get almost anything out of a vending machine. Christopher originally expressed some reservations about Neil’s wacky blending ideas, but after a few vintages the team seems to have found its stride.

The Vending Machine crew focuses mostly on blends, although they make a Chardonnay and a 100% Cab. Neil said he respects the winemakers of Bordeaux and the Southern Rhone who mix together varying amounts of grapes, adding a little of this, a little of that, to craft a vintage-specific blend. But Neil has a different theory about blending: throw the same amount of each grape variety into a wine and, “let ‘em all battle it out.”

It seems to be working. In short, the wines I tasted were damn good. And, perhaps more noteworthy, each wine has its own voice, but they all share a similar aesthetic. Another thing: hats off to Vending for their marketing efforts. The wine names are catchy and the label art is some of the best I’ve seen in a long time.

I tasted four wines and wrote up some thoughts. These wines all run about $30, although finding them available for purchase online isn’t easy.  Check out my notes below the fold.

2011 Vending Machine Winery Chardonnay “Loula’s Revenge” – California, Napa Valley
A good amount of flowers on the nose, with apricot and yellow apple setting the foundation. Creamy and rich (this Chardonnay goes through 100% maloactic fermentation), but the wine keeps a zesty feel because of the acid. Apricot and green apple blend well with notes of hazelnut and toffee. A moderate, balanced, easy-drinking Chardonnay that sees 20% new oak and holds it well. (87 points)

2012 Vending Machine Winery “Squawking Parrot” – California, Napa Valley
A blend of 50% Carignan (from 100+ year-old vines) and 50% Petite Sirah. Lots of pepper and deep blueberry on the nose. The palate shows firm tannins and a creamy, velvety texture. Blueberry jam and earth from the Petite mixes with pepper, bacon and charcoal from the Carignan, and the combination is a lot of fun. Seems like this wine could use a good decant or a year sideways to open up, but I found it to be a unique and tasty Napa red. Neil said the wine’s moniker is meant to poke fun at the exorbitant prices fetched by Screaming Eagle. I love it. (88 points)

ds_front_lores_jk1o2012 Vending Machine Winery “Double Shotgun” – California, Napa Valley
I friggin’ love this wine. A blend of 50% Petit Verdot and 50% Cabernet Franc, it shows earth, tobacco, dark plums and bell pepper on the nose. Full on the palate, with fine tannins and a creamy mouthfeel. Acid keeps it fresh. Fleshy plum fruit plays with black and green pepper, tobacco, sage and charcoal flavors. Seamless texture and impressive balance with a long finish. Neil told me he calls this wine Double Shotgun because Cab Franc and Petite Verdot, being the less respected Bordeaux varieties, wouldn’t be able to afford to live in the French Quarter. Instead, if the grapes were NOLA folk, they’d have to split a double shotgun house. If you’re looking for something a little different, an off-the-beaten-path kind of Napa red, try to find this wine. Reasonably priced considering the high quality of the juice. (91 points)

2011 Vending Machine Winery “Horror Show” – California, Napa Valley
A bit of funk and portobello mushroom mixes in with the cranberry and red plum aromas. The palate is tangy and fleshy, with some grit to the tannins. Bright red fruit blends with loads of pepper, earth and rich soil. Equal parts Souzao, Montepulciano and Tannat. (Have you ever tasted such an off-beat blend of Portugal, Italy and France before? I sure haven’t.) I’d love to see how this wine does in two or three years. Made in Napa, but a lot of the fruit comes from Lodi. The name pays homage to the dark, chaotic fun of the film Clockwork Orange. The website describes Horror Show this way: “The plot is three strangers from different backgrounds locked together in a small enclosed space, each guilty of forbidden pleasure. The introduction is not a handshake or friendly hug, but more aggressive.” (88 points)

Perhaps the only problem with this outfit is that the wines are hard to find. Vending Machine is represented well in New Orleans, in retail shops and restaurants, and they have a presence in Baton Rouge. They have some distribution in New York, Philly and a couple other areas, but they don’t make much wine anyway, so finding a bottle won’t be easy. That said: if you’re ever eating and drinking your way through this amazing city, give Vending Machine wines a shot. (It’s sort of like drinking local, right?) 

If you’ve tasted any of their wines, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Laissez les bon temps rouler!

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