The Warden: Georgetta Dane blends at the Big House.


Snooth was happy to be able to host The Big House Wine Company's winemaker, Georgetta Dane, while she was making the rounds here in New York last week.

Georgetta, originally from Romania and trained in food sciences as well as oenology, happened to fall into the wine business in her home country but is certainly making a name for herself while defining the style at Big House wines.
Some of you might associate the Big House label with the irrepressible Randall Graham who founded the brand. For some two years now it's has been functioning independently of Mr. Grahams Empire with the desire to continue to provide complex and interesting wines at affordable prices. One way of keeping the value proposition in balance is to avoid competing for the big money wines, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in particular.

In their place Georgetta and Big House wines rely on a vast palette of grapes, 42(!) in total. By drawing on the nuances from each grape, Georgetta builds wines of quality and consistency, a difficult challenge indeed.

While speaking with Georgetta, we were able to review her winemaking philosophy, which she compares to a perfumer.  Each varietal wine at Big House is vinified separately, with the exception of the Big House Pink which is produced via the saignée method, bleeding some pink juice from many vats of fermenting red wines to alter the juice to solids ratio in those reds, adding some oomph to the reds and providing a complex base for the wonderful “Pink” they produce.

Once each wine has finished fermenting Georgetta begins the intricate task of creating the final blend that will become either the Big House White or the Big House Red. In the case of the red there may be over 20 varieties in that final blend. The base is always a big, bold wine full of dark fruits. To that base Georgetta adds a middle drawn from “Italian varieties” that are valued for their “ insane fruit that brings harsh tannins but they disappear into the base.” The final layer of the wine consists of the top notes contributed by perfumed and spicy varieties, perhaps even a floral white to add some lift to the nose.

The process is repeated for the white in much the same manner yielding wines that are full yet deliver a remarkable amount of complexity and even finesse at their price points.

There are two tiers of wines produced by the Big House Wine Company, located in Soledad California with vineyards that surround the Soledad State penitentiary, hence the name. The original Big House wines: White, Pink and Red, represent the “lower tier” while the more distinctive offering: The Birdman, The Lineup, The Slammer, and The Prodigal Son, are the “upper tier”. In addition the Big House Wine Company also represents the Cardinal Zin brand which was sold by Randall Graham along with the big house wines.

While these wines offer great value and are lovely on their own and with food I am hopeful that Georgetta might some day have a free hand with some of the varietals she currently works with. I look forward to trying her, Charbono, Tempranillo and Teroldego!

2008 Big House White
This is surprisingly aromatic with a base of apricot fruit topped with very floral notes that recall viognier and a bright lemon drop tone that is complimented by bay leaf, herb, and powdered sugar notes. Medium full in the mouth with enough acidity to balance the touch of sweetness here. A bit simple in the mouth, it's pretty front loaded but does return some nice floral character on the moderately long finish. 84pts.

2008 The Birdman Pinot Grigio

A nice note of almond milk greats the nose followed by a grassy, dandelion note that is more wildflower than green grass. In the mouth there is almost a hint of minerally tannin here with decent acids supporting a round but well balanced mouth feel with nice kiwi fruit and a minty top note that leads to a clean, spicy finish of decent length. 86pts

Big House Pink 2008
Still a touch tanky on the nose with some floral notes and lightly jammy strawberry fruit that picks up a bit of nuanced spice, tea, sandlewood and juniper berry. In the mouth this is bright and juicy with a lean, crisp feel that partners well with the slightly earthy, tarry spice tones. Not a fruit bomb but with fresh strawberry and a hint of peach. 87pts

Big House Red 2006
A touch grassy at first but then gaining a bit more of an earthy edge that evolves into a dried floral tone. Fairly nice wild red berry fruit on the nose with a core of grapy and lightly gamy tones. The bright acids in the mouth help to support nice sour berry flavors and the modest, if slightly angular, tannins add volume in the mouth with a salty, mineral tang on the back end that leads to a surprisingly long finish. A very solid table wine with character. 86pts

The Lineup 2006

A Grenache/Syrah/Mourvedre blend
Very perfumey nose with subtle gamy undertones supporting blue fruits and a snappy Syrah element with a a nice hint of sisal and dried flowers. Nicely balanced in the mouth with a fresh lively feel and intense juicy red berry fruits with hints of spices, cigar box, leather and black pepper adding nice complexity to the black plum fruit on the finish. 86pts

The Slammer Syrah 2006
Another nicely perfumed nose with pepper, tar, wood spice violets and maple bacon all adding depth to the blackberry fruits. Bright and crisp in the mouth with a touch of woodspice brownie up front followed by sweet, but not sugary, red fruits that have a nice vegetal/violet top note that gains intensity but is not off-putting since it offers nice contrast to the fruit. A nice balance of flavors though this does finish a touch short. 87pts

The Prodigal Son Petit Sirah 2006
This smells nicely earthy with a slight edge of char right out of the bottle. Big black grape skin and blueberry fruit are edged with hints of petrol, powdered sugar and bay leaf. This is round and fleshy with plenty of acid to help support the red cherry fruit and nice sandpapery tannins that add a hint of astringency to the mouthwatering mid-palate.  With that blueberry dichotomy of sweet and sour this remains lively in the mouth with good length and volume and a nice finish with a touch of asphalt and hint of woody mintiness reinforcing the slightly rustic quality of the wine. 88pts

Cardinal Zin 2006
A touch stewy on the nose with slow to open notes of macerated cherry with hints of cocoa, pipe tobacco, coconut and eucalyptus. Supple in the mouth with good acids and slightly chewy tannins that are well integrated in the dark wild plum fruits. The back end shows a bit more spicy and wood tones with a touch of woody astringency that adds to the red currant fruit tones on the final. A well rounded and well behaved Zin. 86pts

Gregory Dal Piaz

Community Manager


Mentioned in this article


  • Snooth User: dmcker
    Hand of Snooth
    125836 6,198

    Am curious if there's a story behind the naming of these wines, besides the convenient fact that they're from Soledad, site of a famous state Prison (even Johnny Cash had a few things to say about the place…). Without knowing any meaningful story, it seems like a particularly cynical marketing gimmick. Regardless of the wine in the bottles, I am put off by an attempt to trivialize and otherwise make commonplace the serious social issues of inflation in US prisons and their populace. Or do they aim to ensure a growing market from the growing number of ex-inmates? Easy to imagine other tasteless approaches to naming regarding social issues, if this one is successful… ;-(

    Soledad is close to some excellent wine in Pinnacles (Chalone), and more-than-decent wine in other parts of Monterey County. Too bad they were afraid to go forward based on the merits of their wine alone, and had to grab attention through this unfortunate approach to naming….

    Is that Ralph Steadman's work on the Cardinal Zin label?

    Aug 06, 2009 at 6:33 AM

  • yummywine

    I was tickled to see Big House featured today! I have not ventured far from Red but look forward to trying the Slammer! Thanks Greg!

    Aug 06, 2009 at 7:51 AM

  • The original Cardinal Zin label was done by Ralph Steadman. The newly updated label is by Monte Gifford (who also illustrated the upper tier Big House labels).

    Aug 18, 2009 at 4:26 AM

  • Snooth User: mstair42
    273906 20

    Really enjoyed the Lineup, great bottle of wine for less than $6.00!

    Nov 04, 2009 at 1:25 PM

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