Burly Wine, founded with their first vintage in 2004 by Hank McCrorie and his Sonoma County born and raised wife Bernice. Hank had a long career at Pzifer – starting relatively low in the company and retiring as the Executive Vice President of sales after some 40 years. Hank who along with his wife have long enjoyed California Cabernet Sauvignon and northern California’s wine country, purchased a retirement home in the hillsides of the Napa Valley. Many brand owners new to the business these days name their wine after themselves – not so with Burly. There is actually quite a unique story behind the name.
Hank grew up North Carolina where he was the captain of his college football team at Lenoir–Rhyne University (LRU for short) in Hickory. This private Lutheran University was founded by four Lutheran pastors and was called Lenoir College in its early days – named for Walter Lenoir (a local lawyer and judge who donated the property for the campus in his will). The name of the college was eventually changed to reflect the important contributions of Daniel E. Rhyne, a prominent businessman and donor to the college who in 1928 donated $150,000 to the campus.
During his collegiate career from 1956 through 1960, Hank helped take his team to the National Championship in 1959 and ranked number one among small colleges. He only lost three regular season games during his college career. His nickname at the time was “Burly Bear” (the school mascot is a bear) – little did his college teammates know that more than 40 years later, Hank would still carry the name with him and partially use it as the name for his winery. During his college days he won an award which honors athletes who place the team over themselves in competition.
Hank and Bernice donated a significant portion of the cost to build a 33,500 square-foot athletic center (with an upper and a lower level) at Lenoir-Rhyne. This center opened in 2002 and is named in their honor (McCrorie Fitness Center). Conveniently it is located next to a number of outdoor sports playing fields.
The athletic center with the adjoining Shuford Gymnasium also houses the university’s Sports Hall of Fame presented in display cases covering the sides of several walls; walking in from the main entrance, Hank’s plaque is found all the way to the back of the exhibit – as one of plaques on the bottom of the display case. He graduated from Lenoir-Rhyne University in 1960 and was inducted into their sports hall of fame in 1994.
Downtown Hickory (population of around 40,000) is conveniently located only a few minutes’ drive from Lenoir-Rhyne University. The downtown area is rather small and easily walkable – attractions in town and the neighboring vicinity include the Hickory Museum of Art, Lake Hickory (a man-made reservoir on the Catawba River) with its 100+ miles of shoreline and related outdoor water focused activities including being a top fishing destination, and about a 20-minute drive from downtown – Hart Square Village, the country’s largest collection of log cabins from the 1800s.
Hickory and vicinity have produced a number of notable athletes over the years including former San Francisco Giants pitching star, Madison Bumgarner.
We met with winemaker Massimo Monticello for our tasting (he has been Burly’s winemaker since their inaugural vintage). Massimo is spirited, enthusiastic and extremely passionate about the hands-on part of wine making. Once on the fast track to be a doctor, his family roots called out and he changed career paths eventually earning his masters in winemaking from UC Davis. Along with making his own wine, he also consults for a number of select fairly small producers. He often works with great Napa vineyard sources, and he uses a soccer analogy in regard to his winemaking, “the goalie is out of the cage and it’s his job to tap it in.”
Burly initially focused on producing a 100% varietal grown Cabernet Sauvignon, however in recent years they also produce a Chardonnay, sourced from Carneros and a Sauvignon Blanc. Their Cabernet Sauvignon comes from a 9.5-acre vineyard called the Simpkins Ranch in the Coombsville district just east of the town of Napa. This vineyard site dates back to 1886 and is family owned by the long time Napa family, the Simpkins (Cliff and Joan Simpkins). Hank and Bernice lease the grapes on this property. Vineyard neighbors are excellent, including Maritas Vineyard and Covert Estate and some tiny ‘backyard’ vineyards, one of which we helped pick one year.
Coombsville is characterized as a moderate to cooler growing climate compared to up valley due to its proximity to the flat region and entry to the nearby San Pablo Bay with its cooling morning and afternoon breezes and often fog influence. The region is generally composed of short rolling hills with a diversity of microclimates even within this small region. It tends to be slightly warmer in Vineyards that are located towards the edge of the southern part of the Vaca Mountain Range tend to be slightly warmer areas then the rest of Coombsville. However, Coombsville tends to be cooler than many of the up-valley vineyards and as a result the Cabernet Sauvignon fruit often hangs a bit longer before it is harvested. This isn’t a bad thing as it only adds to the complexity of the wine.
Simpkins Ranch Vineyard is managed by long time vineyard manager Mike Wolf. Mike was born in New York City and grew up just outside of the city. Viticulture was not a part of his formative years – he graduated with a history degree at Alfred University. He first moved to California in 1972 – to Mendocino County as a farm worker helping manage pears, prunes and grapes. Eventually he oversaw vineyard operations at Juliana Ranch in Pope Valley (one of Napa’s larger vineyard sites) and in 1994 took a job managing 500 acres for Beckstoffer Vineyards. He branched out on his own in 1997 and formed Michael Wolf Vineyard Services. One of his early clients was Vine Hill Ranch.
Today Mike oversees approximately 500 acres in the Napa Valley and has managed or is managing vineyards for BOND, Harlan Estate, Lewis Cellars, Meteor Vineyards, Scarecrow, and Vineyard 29. And he has also worked with some of the top winemakers in the valley including Celia Welch, Philippe Melka, Bob Levy and Andy Erickson.
In 2015, Mike was awarded Grower of the Year by the Napa Grape Growers Association.
The 2005 Burly Cabernet Sauvignon received 20 months in French oak and then another year in bottle before released. The nose is well layered with notes of vanilla and toffee along with raspberry. The palate is juicy rich and concentrated. This is not a robust overly tannic wine in its youth and never well be, although with good structure and acidity it will age well. The mouth feel is soft and smooth with just a hint of vanilla, a forest floor earthiness and lots of black fruit. Delicate but structured tannins anchor the extended finish. This is a beautiful wine showing extremely well at the time of our tasting. For a premium wine, the 2005 is available at a rather reasonable price point.
We also had the chance to sample the 2006 vintage from tank. While still very young, this wine already has a well-developed bouquet with lots of intriguing fruit on the palate.
Look for their easy to identify image of the massive “burly” tree on the label – a nod to oak trees that both Hank and Bernice grew up with at their childhood homes located at opposite ends of the country.
Burly has limited distribution in more than 20 states including North Carolina although they can ship direct to consumer into most states. One can also order wine through becoming a mailing list member. Total production is usually around 2,000 cases annually. For more information, visit: www.burlywine.com
NOTE: this review has been identified as needing an update including tasting notes for current release wines.
Simpkins Vineyard, Coombsville