SUNBOX eleven: First Time Winemakers’ Bright Debut

Two weeks ago I was invited to a wine tasting hosted by a couple who were featuring the first wine from SUNBOX eleven Winery, a wine label they created. Intrigued by the concept (you don’t find too many winemakers in South Florida), and interested in seeing how their wine tasted, my husband and I went to Sunny Fraser and David Gordon’s home.

After a round of sparkling wine it was time for the main event: the tasting of “The Maverick,” a white wine that’s a blend of Rhone varietals Marsanne and Roussanne. We took a sip and immediately my husband and I turned to each other and said, “wow, this is really good!” It’s delicate and refined with the taste of honeysuckle and nice minerality. It has a rich, velvety mouth feel.

I was so impressed by the Maverick and barrel samples of other wines that I wanted to learn more about Sunny and David. Within minutes of speaking with them, I could tell their enthusiasm for food, wine and entertaining is evident in everything they do. It led them to create the concept of Performance Dining: David’s culinary skills and Sunny’s creativity are combined for a memorable food and wine pairing dinner prepared in the host’s home and inspired by the guests’ personalities and experiences.

David, who goes by the alias Chef Superdave, has always loved entertaining but didn’t always know he wanted to be a chef. After trying out different courses of study at a few different universities, David eventually realized his true calling and completed his culinary education at Johnson & Wales University. David says he fell in love with wine at 15, when his father took him for his first wine dinner. Since then David estimates he’s tried more than 15,000 wines.

Sunny has a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology from the University of Florida and a Dual Masters of Science in Mental Health Counseling and Marriage Family Counseling. She has worked as a licensed mental health counselor, a professional guardian and most recently, as an investment banker at a small boutique bank in Miami. As a way to get to know clients better Sunny invited them to her home for elaborate meals created by David. Rave reviews and demands for David’s food led Sunny to leave corporate America to focus full time on Performance Dining.

“It’s like having a live cooking show in your home,” said Sunny. “It’s educational and fun, and you get to taste it at the end.” David and Sunny like to challenge the palates and minds of their guests. Sample menus, available to peruse on their website, include truffles, lobster, duck and other delectable ingredients that can be found in Miami’s best restaurants.

After years of pairing wine with food, David decided to make his own wine to share with friends and Performance Dining guests. With the help of the internet he found Crushpad, a custom winemaking facility in San Francisco. It helped with every step of the winemaking process: from sourcing the grapes, to selecting barrels, to bottling and selling the wine. Working with Crushpad’s winemakers, Sunny and David launched SUNBOX eleven Winery – with the concept of making small production, superior quality wines that focus on the purity of the grape.

“When we design our wines we want it to be about who we are, to represent us,” said David. “We want the best grapes that are available, we want to work with the best co-winemakers, we want to work with the best facilities, we want the best barrel. We want to make the best wine we can. I think we’re even surprised about what we thought we would do in our first year of production.”

To ensure a high quality product, Sunny and David go out to California every 6 to 8 weeks and also monitor the status of their wine online: with web cameras that show the barrel and bottling rooms, and detailed charts on the wine’s sugar and alcohol levels. “We use the science to help us make the artistic decisions,” said David.

The name of Sunny and David’s first wine was coined during the first meeting with their winemaker. “He said you guys are really maverick in your concept of how you make wine,” said David, who had just recently written he was “feeling maverick” on his Facebook profile.

The name took on a different meaning for the pair earlier this year, when Sunny’s father unexpectedly passed away. “He was truly a maverick,” said David. “He’s a man with that rebel spirit but yet fit into society. He was always a leader, always a pusher for new ideas.”

“My father and I were so close and he was so supportive of this business,” said Sunny. “We realized we’re not the mavericks, he is. We named it after him because he was a person who was never afraid to take risks. It became more about him than us.”

The 2007 Maverick, SUNBOX eleven’s only blend, was blended in the barrel and aged for one year. One new oak barrel and one once used barrel were used. It’s not just my husband and I who are fans of the white wine – the Maverick has been praised by red wine and beer drinkers, as well as those who aren’t familiar with the two grapes. Said David, “it’s very hard to find Marsanne and Roussanne on their own; it’s even harder to find a Marsanne and Roussanne blend. I think we’ve found 8 or 9 of them in the United States and we have yet to taste one that’s at the level of what we did.”

The name of SUNBOX eleven’s second wine also came from that first meeting with their winemaker. Sunny recalls him saying she must be David’s muse – which is what David often called Sunny. The 2007 Muse is a Petit Sirah from Mendocino that will be released in Fall 2009. It’s a special wine for David – it’s always been his favorite kind. He and Sunny tasted Petit Sirahs from 1968 to 2004 to determine what they wanted to get out of their own and came up with a two word concept: smoked blueberries. To get the right aromas and flavors, David and Sunny are aging the wine in 3 different barrels and will blend them together for the final product. I had the chance to try a barrel sample and it shows great potential to be a delicious wine when it’s released.

SUNBOX eleven is releasing a pair of creatively named wines in early December: the “Naughty” and the “Nice.” I tried barrel samples of the two and really enjoyed them. The Naughty, a red wine, is made from Zinfandel grown in the Napa Valley. It’s peppery and jammy with flavors of black cherry. The Nice, a white wine that’s made from Viognier grown in the Russian River Valley, is really nice. It’s lush and velvety with delicious flavors of peach and honeysuckle. David and Sunny describe it as a “representation of freshly cut apples drizzled with the lush nuance of lavender honey.” Is your mouth watering yet?

I’m primarily a red wine drinker. Since I drink fewer white wines, I feel the whites that I really enjoy stand out in my memory. The Maverick and the Nice stand out as some of the best white wines I’ve tried.

Thematic and clever names are important to Sunny and David, who know people often pick a wine based on its label. The two just crushed their first Pinot Noir, called “The Salesman.” They’re working on a red wine for Valentine’s Day and a rosé wine to benefit breast cancer research. David and Sunny would both love to make Champagne, though they say the process of making it with grapes from Champagne would be much more complex.

Whatever grapes David and Sunny are crafting into wine, their mission is the same: to share their knowledge and love with other people who appreciate the magic of the grape.

Said David, “the basis for everything we do is other people. We definitely have the passion but without other people it doesn’t make any sense.”

SUNBOX eleven’s wines range from around $30 to $65. For more information on the wine and Performance Dining visit