Berger on wine: J. McClelland Cellars offers Napa reds at a bargain


If you’ve been paying attention to wine for the past 60 or so years, a new brand now appearing on many store shelves might catch your eye and raise at least one brow.

And if you had the least doubt, yes, J. McClelland Cellars is a recent development that pays homage to a man whose career in the wine industry spans six decades, going back to the 1950s, and who remains actively involved in this new venture bearing his name, one many older wine lovers may know.

John McClelland was vice president of sales for Almaden Vineyards more than four decades ago (he was at Almaden for 25 years), when that iconic brand was making 13 million cases of wine per year and was one of the largest wineries in the world.

He subsequently joined Geyser Peak Winery in Geyserville, when its then-new winemaker Daryl Groom created such excitement for that brand that production in the early 1990s exploded.

McClelland also has been chairman of the Wine Institute in San Francisco and became one of the best-known California wine executives for decades; hardly a public event existed without his presence.

“John is simply one of the great historians of our industry, and I just love listening to him hour after hour,” said Anthony Scotto, whom McClelland mentored and who is the creator of the new J. McClelland brand.

”I just love history, especially the history of our industry,” said McClelland, 83, over lunch.

It’s no wonder that Scotto appreciates McClelland, since his own family started in the wine business in 1883 in Italy and he is himself the head of the fifth generation in his family to make wine.

Scotto is sole owner of Scotto Cellars, which is based in Lodi but uses fruit from all over the state. It produces some of the best value wines in California and uses some 40 different labels.

A good friend says of the main brand, “Scotto is the largest winery no one ever heard of,” and he noted that its primary calling card is value wine.

One popular Scotto wine is called Rare Red, which is produced in large quantities and carries a suggested retail of $8, but almost never is that expensive.

To create a new brand dedicated to an iconic figure in the wine industry requires a higher quality image, Scotto knew, so he decided to call upon McClelland’s connections with Napa growers as well as longtime brilliant winemaker Mitch Cosentino, who was hired to be the winemaker for this project five years ago.

To be sure, the grapes would not have to be trucked far, Scotto leased a facility in Napa Valley and in 2012 began making high caliber wines under the J. McClelland label.

Most of the wines for this project come from high-quality growers in the prestigious Oak Knoll District, which has produced some of the Napa Valley’s finest red wines.

Since McClelland has always been sensitive to pricing that puts wine out of the reach of ordinary folks, price was a major factor. As a result, the McClelland wines are priced significantly lower than most other Napa Valley wines.

An example is the recent release of an excellent 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon priced at $40.

It is one of the least expensive Napa cabernets on the shelf and is extremely well-made with wonderful structure. It has the opportunity to age for several more years in the cellar.

I also liked a 2012 Merlot ($30), also from Oak Knoll. Both wines exhibited splendid character and balance.

The new J. McClelland brand is still relatively new, so distribution isn’t as broad as Scotto would prefer, but the company has recently opened a joint tasting and sales room with Cosentino’s Pure Cru wines and Jean Edwards Wines on First Street in Napa.

Wines of the Week: 2015 Bread & Butter Chardonnay, California ($15) and 2015 Bread & Butter Pinot Noir, California ($15): These two brother and sister wines are excellent for such low prices. The chardonnay has a fascinating aroma of ginger and mint with a trace of citrus tea; there is good chardonnay flavor and excellent structure.

The pinot noir might actually be even better, since few priced this low have any varietal character. Here, there is ample fruit and proper acidity so the wine can go with food. A few wine shops are discounting these two wines, making them absurd values.

Sonoma County resident Dan Berger publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 am.