MOG Blog

The Spiciest Wines You Have Ever Tasted

Few winemakers have ever heard as many “no’s”  from the TTB as Rob and Kat McDonald did when applying for label approval.

The McDonalds: Can we state the grape variety?   TTB: No

The McDonalds: Can we state the AVA?   TTB: No

Why was it so hard to get label approval for the new St. Mayhem brand? It’s a simple answer, really. They kept hearing “no” because grapes were not the only flavor ingredients in their new line of $25 wines.

Rob and Kat have been in the wine business for more than 25 years. An Aussie by birth, he and Kat founded Old Bridge Cellars in 1990 to bring boutique Australian wines like d’Arenberg and Leeuwin Estate to the U.S. She worked for Wine Spectator in San Francisco back in the day.

The McDonalds have made their home in Napa for many years now. After Rob sold Old Bridge Cellars and the couple survived a life-threatening car crash they concentrated on Art+Farm Wines and their new California wine brands: The Girls in the Vineyard, The Messenger and Circadia, specializing in doing the unexpected.

St. Mayhem is the least expected of all – a line of high quality wines made from North Coast grapes with the spiciest flavor profiles you have likely ever tasted. That’s the clue to why they had such a hard time with the TTB: St. Mayhem’s products are literally spicy wines, since Rob chucked habanero and jalapeno peppers, ginger root, and Costa Rica coffee beans into the three newly released wines. Whether or not these are indeed wines at all was the TTB’s reservation, and will certainly be the subject of debate when word gets out about them.

TTB regulations classify St. Mayhem wines as flavored table wine, and in that classification the producer cannot reveal the grape varieties, vintage or AVA.

St. Mayhem is Rob’s special project and he’s been pursuing it doggedly since at least the harvest of 2012 when I watched him punch down four MacroBins full of fermenting red grapes, stirring in the peppers and other ingredients for one of many trials.

Now three wines are on the market, labeled as:
White Wine Aged on Habanero and Jalapeno Peppers
White Wine Aged on Peach and Ginger
Red Wine Aged on Coffee and Jalapeno Peppers

After tasting them I think the white wine with peach and ginger could be the easiest for “regular wine” drinkers to enjoy. It’s made with Chardonnay from Napa Valley and Clarksburg, Calif., then finished with natural peach flavor and ground, dried ginger root. Rob says he tried several ways to use fresh peaches as a straight addition but they wouldn’t give up their flavors to the wine. Peach is not far from the varietal flavor of Chardonnay and the ginger remains a subtle spicy element in what is a rather soft, full-bodied and round-textured wine.

Rob made the red St. Mayhem with a 2013 Mendocino Merlot base wine flavored with sliced peppers and Costa Rican coffee as prepared by local Napa coffee company Ritual Roasters. It smelled like an old-school Cabernet Sauvignon, extreme version, having black olive and bell pepper notes, while the coffee flavor comes on in the mid-palate and swells on the finish. This will seem far out if you are expecting an authentic Merlot instead of some Mayhem, but it’s certainly eye-opening, or should I say taste-bud-opening, to drink.

However, the product most likely to succeed in creating a new category of spicy wine is the white that was aged on peppers. It used 2014 Lake County Sauvignon Blanc as the base, then a few weeks before bottling Rob added the jalapenos and habaneros to the tank. The wine smells like snap peas and lemons and yes, jalapenos, and has a definitely spicy, mildly fiery flavor along with all the crisp, fresh citrus stuff many people like in a Sauvignon Blanc.

This wine, for me, validated the idea that grape wine with added culinary ingredients can open new dimensions of enjoyment. It’s familiar but amped up and different, too. Rob said, “St. Mayhem is a combination of what you’d expect and what you wouldn’t expect,” and that captures it well.

The Sauvignon Blanc tasted like it would be fun to drink with spicy ethnic cooking, seafood and who knows what else. Rob said he has a few restaurant placements already for the wines, including the Hog Island Oyster Bar at the Oxbow Market in Napa for this white. The peachy, gingery Chardonnay has been ordered by Burma Love restaurant in San Francisco, where lots of the dishes include ginger. Stone Brewing of Escondido, Calif., is taking the red, he said.

The first bottling included 200 cases of each of the three wines, and 10 kegs of each, since Art+Farm is already established with on-premise accounts for by-the-glass pours.

How to label these new wines was a challenge for the McDonalds, but the real challenge will be to gain acceptance from consumers and the wine trade. Are these spicy wines a good thing for the wine industry? Please use the comment function and let us know what you think.

Posted on 07.22.2015 - 09:08:31 PST
This is not wine. This is aromatized drink. Like vermouth.

Posted on 07.31.2015 - 10:06:22 PST
There are some wines from New Mexico are infused with pepper flavors. Also, The Wine Group has experimented with this, selling an offering called 'Cabanero' direct to HEB.

Obviously not for everyone, but credit to the McDonalds for following through on their 'brand promise' for St Mayhem. For every 5 people who hate the idea, you will probably find one who will actively seek out the wine. As a marketer and seller of wines, I'd rather have that than have 6 people tell me that the wine is 'nice.'

Posted on 07.23.2015 - 09:30:28 PST
I'm curious as to how 'guest' defines wine and their rational for claiming this is not wine.
Rob McDonald