Tuesday, July 31, 2007

And Now For Something Completely Different


2004 Chateau Angelus, St-Emilion, France ($125)

Published by
BAS
at July 14, 2007 1 Comment

This is a review from Chateau Petrogasm, my new favorite wine review site. I have to agree with the single anonymous reader who, upon seeing this review, courageously commented: "That's strangely accurate." It really is. But it's also wonderfully thought provoking. Do they mean the tannins hit you like an anvil? That there are iron notes? That it has smooth edges, and some rough edges, too? What does it all mean?

"Wine is art, drinking it should be too!" Or so Andrew Stuart and Benjamin Saltzman, the founding residents of this imaginary chateau, contend. By reviewing a wine through an image, they provide a wine review blog that speaks to people of all languages, that is entirely subjective, and that engages the reader. Stuart, Saltzman, and the four other chateau "residents" also underscore that wine exists in a place that words can't always reach, and that in trying to capture a wine in words we wine reviewers sometimes miss the mark. Whether a picture of white wisteria to accompany a Zind Humbrecht gewurztraminer, conveying the essence of a California syrah with a fat-bellied puppy, or suggesting a black and white graphic is the perfect expression of a 1996 Champagne, this is a wine blog that challenges and delights.

Visiting Chateau Petrogasm has become my preferred morning brain exercise. It beats Sudoku, no question. It gets the old synapses firing better than caffeine. And it's the only wine review site that can put forward a reasonable claim that philosophers from Plato to Wittgenstein (were they still living) would vote for it in the American Wine Blog Awards.

Go. Now. Visit. Have fun. Laugh. Think. It will do you good.

Monday, July 30, 2007

GaryV: from the Big Time to the Small Screen


Set your Tivos, your alarm clocks, and your VCRs. Wine Library TV's Gary Vaynerchuk will be on Late Night with Conan O'Brien on Wednesday, August 1. Gary and Conan will share the stage with Ann Curry and Seth Rogen. If you've not seen Gary, play his recent episode on entry level French burgundies by hitting the button below. Trust me, it's worth it--but don't stick celery up your nose! OK, don't know where the embedded viddler has gone, but click here to watch the video or on the static image above if you are so inclined!

As the story about Gary's star turn on CalWineries points out, one of the reasons Gary is having such a huge impact on the wine world is because of the passion that his fans have for his Wine Library TV format and for the the information he shares with them. Gary is most definitely a Guy Without a Tie in the all-too-often stuffy world of wine, even if he is called a "wine critic" in the Conan O'Brien press release. I think it's safe to say "wine critic" will have an entirely new connotation after Gary's appearance.

Check local listings for showtimes, and once again hats off to Gary. First Time, now TV. Gary, you're bringing non-mainstream wine coverage into the spotlight. I predict a Food Network contract is being drawn up for your consideration at this moment. In my opinion, you are ready for your closeup.

Indian Food and Wine Find

The challenges of pairing pizza and wine are exceeded only by the challenges associated with pairing Indian food with wine. Most people just have beer. For me, though, it has to be vino.

Usually, my go-to wines are riesling and gewurztraminer. They have enough of a sweet impression to handle the heat of the food without amplifying it with tannins, and their aromatic profiles also stand up to all of those spices that waft out of the pots. But I was surprised to discover a Rhone-style white blend could be an equally good partner for Indian food.

The 2003 Treana Mer Soleil is a white blend made with the Rhone varietals viognier and marsanne and it was superb with Indian food ($14.99, Costco; available elsewhere for between $20 and $30). The prelude to the wine was rich and sweet honey and apricot aromas laced with lemon blossom. At this point, I was ready to dive into the wine! Sipping it, my first impression was of satin, as the marsanne gave it a full, heavy feeling in your mouth. Despite the wine's first impressions, it is actually a dry wine with flavors of golden delicious apples and pink grapefruit dipped in honey. Good acidity made for a well structured wine that was refreshing and fresh.There is the merest suggestion of botrytis in the long and luscious finish, although my research did not indicate that botrytis was really present in the wine. Very good QPR.

We had this superb wine with Maya Kaimal's Black Pepper Chicken Curry, which originally appeared in her second cookbook, Savoring the Spice Coast of India and was reprinted in an article in Food and Wine Magazine. We had it with some steamed basmati rice, and I pulled out some leftover corn on the cob to use in a recipe from Sunset magazine for spicy corn and mustard seeds. The curry has coconut milk in it, so the heaviness of the wine and he creaminess of the curry's sauce were well-matched. And the balance of sweetness and acidity in the wine was just right for the rich spiciness of the dishes.

This is the second Rhone white that I thought would pair well with Indian food (the other was a Kris Curran Grenache Blanc). So if you've never been drawn to riesling and gewurztraminer, but want wine that goes with curry, don't be afraid to try another aromatic white. You may make an Indian food and wine find, too.

Friday, July 27, 2007

2007: the Summer of Roses

1967 was the Summer of Love, when Hippie counterculture was born in the streets of San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district. Now, forty years later (ouch!) baby boomers and their younger friends can enjoy the Summer of Roses.

Rose wines are everywhere. In newspaper and magazine columns, piled high in end-cap displays, and on the internet, you can't move without coming into contact with another rose recommendation. Since December I've tasted nearly two dozen roses, and written up reviews here on the site of quite a few. My peak of consumption was in April with Catavino's Virtual Tasting of roses. They've come from the US, France, Spain, and Argentina and have been made of pinot noir, cabernet, grenache, and malbec. Eric Asimov may be the only holdout who is still not wowed by the prospects before him, even though Dr. Vino launched an impressive defense on the pink stuff's behalf.

The 2006 Cameron Hughes Lot 37 Campo de Borja Rose of Garnacha may be the best bottle of rose I've had all summer ($7.99, Costco; $10 from Cameron Hughes). This wine is not a salmon-colored, delicate Tavel-style rose--much as I love them, too. Instead, the deep, rich color of the wine is your first indication that this is a rose wine that most red wine lovers will find appealing. Floral aromas mix with whiffs of pretty raspberry and strawberry. The first taste you get is pure strawberry essence, with a note of watermelon on the finish. There are indeed some streaks of stony minerality running through it, but the overwhelming impression is round, rich, and dry. Made from 100% grenache, it is the perfect BBQ wine and represents excellent QPR.

Grenache, as I mentioned in a previous post, is superb with food grilled on the bbq, and this wine was no exception. I paired it with a recipe that caught my eye in the New York Times for cashew chicken. You make a paste with jalapenos, cashews, herbs, and spices and then smear it over the chicken (I used drumsticks) before popping them on the grill for 20-30 minutes. The wine's crisp berry flavors were the perfect foil for the green spiciness of the jalapeno and the buttery cashews paired nicely with the round, full-bodied feeling of this rose.

As with all Cameron Hughes wines, we don't know who grew the grapes, but we do know that they came from the relatively young Campo de Borja DO. I've bought quite a few Cameron Hughes wines recently, and I've yet to have a single one that has disappointed me or failed to represent excellent QPR. So use his "lot locator" on the website to see if your local Costco stocks this (and other) Cameron Hughes wines, or order some directly. There are two more months of hot weather before us. Get yourself some drums(ticks), a tambourine, and a tie-die shirt and celebrate. If you're going to San Francisco, both the San Jose and Novato Costcos have CH Lot 37, so pick it up on the way in to the city. It's the summer of roses. Cameron Hughes is making it easy for us to really enjoy it.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Vineyards and Sky at Copia

Beginning this Friday a new exhibition of paintings will be on display at Napa Valley's Copia, the American center for wine, food and the arts. Ira Yeager, a long-time resident of the area and one of this country's most prominent modern artists, has drawn together a selection of his works that explore the arresting beauty of the vineyards and sky that he knows so well.

Entitled "Vinetum and Caelum," the works in Yeager's show capture the shifting colors and textures of the vineyard environment. These are not microscopic depictions of grape vines and leaves but bold statements about how the Napa Valley imprints itself on your senses and remains part of your memory long after you've visited the area. Looking at one of Yeager's canvases (such as the one to the right, courtesy of Copia and Ira Yeager) I can feel the warm summer air, and smell the distinctive blend of soil, lavender, grape must, and old barrels that I always associate with Napa. A writer tries to convey the spirit of a place with words, and a winemaker tries to convey it through fermented grape juice. Ira Yeager's preferred medium is paint--and he succeeds in using it to get to the very essence of Napa.

What I find exceptional about Ira's work is the way that each are infused with such feeling and power. This is true whether the painting in question is of a 17th-century wine merchant (as in his label for Heidi Barrett's 2004 Amuse Bouche), a Greek landscape, a Native American profile, a humble barnyard chicken, or a vineyard under autumn skies. Part historian and part alchemist, when Ira paints he manages to transform pigments and canvas into something that lives and breathes.

Ira Yeager is a lively contributor to Napa Valley culture, and has served as the host and featured artist of the popular Napa Valley Mustard Festival. A permanent exhibition of his work is displayed on the walls of Swanson Vineyards' elegant tasting salon. As his friends know, Ira loves fine food and wine, and a dinner party at his house is always something special--marked by good conversation, delicious food, laughter, and generous hospitality. His expansive and creative personality fills every piece that he paints and every moment that he experiences in life provides inspiration for his work. I encourage you to put this exhibition on your list of things to do if you are in Napa between July 27, 2007 and October 21, 2007. A catalogue, with an introductory essay by Peter Selz, will be available if you'd like to take some of Ira's work home with you so that it can transport you back to Napa whenever you need to return.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Seashells by the Seashore

Summer by the sea can make even the most die-hard red meat eater turn to creatures that swim and crawl on the ocean floor when it comes time to have dinner. I'm no exception to the rule. Just smelling the salt air makes me want shrimp, scallops, lobster (not that there's much of that on the Sonoma coast), and crab.

If you've got a seafood dinner in your future, you may want to look for a bottle of the very good QPR 2005 Teruzzi & Puthod Terre di Tufi ($16.99, domaine547). This wine contains a subtle and intriguing blend of chardonnay, malvasia, vernaccia, and vermentino which produces a soft, medium-boded white just perfect for the delicate flavors of shellfish. While it does see a short time in barriques (4-5 months), there is no pronounced oakiness to get between you and your food. I liked the aromas of apple and hay that introduced me to the wine, and then the lean mineral and lemon-inflected flavors that followed. Seafood can be rich, but heavy wines completely overwhelm them. This wine is round without being heavy, fresh without being tart, and the blend of grapes works very well together. At 13% alc/vol, it is also a wine that can be enjoyed down to the last drops in the glass.

We had this wine with an absolutely fantastic dish of seared scallops and lemon orzo. The buttery scallops fit perfectly with the round, fresh flavor profile of the wine. The orzo--cooked in broth and lemon juice to infuse the pasta with flavor while making a clinging sauce--helped to pick out and emphasize the lemon notes in the wine.

Teruzzi & Puthod is located in the beautiful Tuscan hilltop town of San Gimignano, and the grapes from this wine came from area vineyards. We may be more familiar with Tuscan reds in this country, but this wine will definitely make me seek out the region's white wines as well.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The 5 Best Wine Blogs

In the Fall 2007 25th Anniversary Special Edition of Wine & Spirits magazine, the blogosphere's own Tyler Colman selected the "5 Best Wine Blogs" that you're probably not reading.

What a surprise and an honor to be included on his list! My copy of the magazine seems to be coming by pony express to the remote Sonoma Coast, so in case you are wondering who else is on the list here are some links. You will, however, want to read all about Tyler's reasoning behind his selections and to do that you need to go out and buy the magazine if you're not already a subscriber. He also included an amusing yet extremely accurate rundown of why (and why not) to blog.

So here are the 5 Best Wine Blogs, in alpha order:

Brooklyn Guy's Food and Wine Blog
Good Wine Under $20
PinotBlogger
Tasting Room
Wine Terroirs

Congratulations to all of those highlighted in the article! Click on over, sign up for their blog feeds (if you're not signed up already!), and get to know some new wine writers in order to gain fresh perspectives on the world of wine.

Coming on the heels of the wine and technology conference in Napa, and Tom Wark's survey results at Fermentation, the coverage of the blogosphere by one of this country's best known and respected wine publications confirms the important place occupied by the internet in the wine market as well as the important role that bloggers can play in supporting and sustaining wine culture in this country and beyond. That Wine & Spirits chose one of the blogosphere's best and brightest to write the piece is equally important, in my mind. It shows that they recognize the blogosphere as its own area of expertise, with its own set of practices and customs. Who better to write about blogs than a blogger?

Many thanks to all my subscribers, my regular readers, and my new visitors for surfing over here to check out GWU$20. Thanks to all of you, I'm having a fantastic time drinking wine and writing about it, and I look forward to many more years of the same. Tonight, I'll be raising a glass to all the wine bloggers and our wine blog readers. Salut.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Another Pizza Wine: Negroamaro

I adore pizza. Takeout, home-made, eat in a restaurant-- anything but frozen, although I have been known to weaken and chuck an American Flatbread pizza into the oven in moments of desperation, and they're pretty good, too.

As any wine-lover knows, contrary to legend and rumour, finding a good wine to go with pizza can be a bit of a challenge. Tangy sauce, lots of cheese, and a multitude of possible toppings complicate the issue. I don't like super-jammy wines with my pizza, since they seem to clash with the acidity of the tomato sauce, but a green cabernet isn't quite the thing, either. Sangiovese is my usual default option, but they can be expensive since Chianti is such a well known wine region. So when you find a good red wine to go with your pizza--heaven. That's why I'm always on the lookout for new varietals that might yield plausible wines for pizza and don't cost a fortune.

My recent varietal discovery is negroamaro. Native to southern Italy, negroamaro produces dark red wines that are known for their earthiness and rusticity. (Curious about rusticity? See the conversation about "rustic wine" over at Dr. Vino). I prefer a slightly rustic, spicy wine with my pie to a jammy, fruity wine so when I saw the 2002 La Corte Negroamaro from Puglia in a box of bin ends at an independent grocery store up here on the coast for $15.99, I grabbed it. Turns out the price was a steal. If you want to get some of this wine, Adel's in San Francisco has it, but you will pay close to $30. For the price I paid, this was an excellent QPR red pizza wine. It was a deep purpley-red in color, with aromas of black tea leaves, tobacco, and plum. Flavors of plum filled your mouth from the first sips, then there were notes of herbs and toast and the tannic grip and flavor of tea to carry you through to the herbal-tobacco finish. I found that this wine was surprisingly complex and sophisticated for a varietal known for making rustic wines. And it was smooth and easy to drink too, without being jammy.

It was excellent with a homemade pizza made by my dad, that was loaded with pepperoni, mushrooms, and onions. The wine brought out the herbs in the sauce, the tobacco and tea notes paired well with the earthiness of the mushrooms and onions, and the smoothness was an excellent companion to the gooey mozzarella cheese.

As this was my first bottle of wine made with negroamaro I'm not sure if it was typical, but it sure was good. I'd be interested to hear from Italian wine fans about their experiences with the grape. This is a varietal I'm going to keep my eye out for in the stores and continue to explore in the coming months--if I can find some more wines to try.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Best Value Pinots

Pinot Noir is a wine that people feel passionate about. And it's not all because of Sideways. These silky, elegant reds are so easy to pair with food, and so flavorful, that it's hard to imagine not being drawn to them. I was certainly drawn to the 2005 Eric Kent Stiling Vineyard Pinot Noir (pictured left). So much so that I immediately joined the wine club!

Regular readers of the blog will know that I recently attended Pinot Days in San Francisco. There I was able to taste a wide range of superb pinot noirs from all around the world. The pinot noirs I tasted ranged from $18 to nearly $60. As I mentioned in my Pinot Days Post Mortem, I therefore fear that the day of the high-quality under $20 pinot noir are over.

There are many reasons for this. Pinot Noir is fashionable, so that drives the price. But let's put that aside. Pinot Noir is a picky, fickle grape. It demands a lot of time and attention. The very best are cultivated in cool climate areas with difficult growing conditions and tricky harvests. These areas are also remote, with all kind of zoning and development restrictions. And to make distinctive pinot noirs--the kind that I'm recommending here--growers often use low-yielding vines. Scarcity + fashion = expensive. Doesn't matter if its houses, clothes, or cars. It's going to cost you.

But all is not lost. The good news is that there are excellent--and I do mean excellent--pinot noirs that cost between $18 and $40. Based on my tastings at Pinot Days and at the Family Winemakers Event in Pasadena in March, I drew together an alphabetized list of the best value pinot noirs that I tasted. In doing so I found a handful of producers that I felt made good pinots across the pricing spectrum. If you investigate them, you will find they also produce smaller-production, more expensive wines than those here. They are also excellent. But what impressed me was that I found minor differences in flavor and quality between their higher- and lower-priced bottlings. That's why I think these wines deliver so much bang for the buck: they are being made by skilled winemakers, using some of the best fruit out there.

Because of the length of the list, I've kept the notes brief, and hotlinked each wine to Wine-Searcher where you can look to see which merchants sell the wine you're looking for. The price range indicates the prices that I found on Wine-Searcher, not the suggested retail price at the winery.

2005 Ancien Pinot Noir Mink, Carneros ($34-$38) Raspberry all the way--aromas, flavors, finish. Sweet fruit, nice acidity. Very good QPR.

2005 Ancien Pinot Noir Fiddlestix, Santa Rita Hills ($36) Floral and fruity aromas give way to flavors of black raspberry, violet, and cream. My favorite wine from this maker at the tasting. Excellent QPR.

2005 Anne Amie Cuvee A, Willamette Valley ($18-$25) Fine entry-level pinot with black raspberry and toast aromas and flavors. Sour cherry note on finish adds interest. Very good QPR.

2005 Dutton-Goldfield Pinot Noir Dutton Ranch, Russian River Valley ($26-$32) Silky wine with blackberry, black cherry, and raspberry flavors. Floral aromas add a nice approachability to the wine. Very good QPR.

2005 Eric Kent Wine Cellars Pinot Noir Stiling, Russian River Valley. ($33-$45) Best pinot noir of the entire tasting. Absolutely outstanding in every way. Meaty with luscious berries and lovely acidity. Loads of creamy blackberry fruit and spice give it complexity. This wine is sold out at the vineyard, so I've included notes for EK wines that are not yet released. If you want them, get on the mailing list now! I could find only one merchant currently stocking it. Run if you live in LA. Excellent QPR.

2006 Eric Kent Wine Cellars Pinot Noir Stiling, Russian River Valley (NYR) Barrel sample. Black cherry, great creaminess, nice acidity. It's another extraordinary wine. No price yet, so no QPR, but this was almost as good now as its older sister from the 2005 vintage.

2006 Eric Kent Wine Cellars Pinot Noir Windsor Oaks, Russian River Valley (NYR) Barrel sample. Gorgeous acidity, but the wine is still so young it is hard to gauge what it will become. Ripe cherry, flowers--has lots of potential.

2004 Fort Ross Pinot Noir Fort Ross Vineyard ($29-$45) I liked this wine, which had real complexity in a restrained package. Black cherry and raspberry aromas, with a gorgeous note of rose petals. Smooth texture, and the aromas are echoed on the palate. Excellent QPR.

2003 Fort Ross Vineyard Pinot Noir Symposium, Sonoma Coast ($27-$32) Pinotage is added to the pinot noir in this bottling. Black cherry flavors and aromas predominate with some cedar notes. Excellent QPR.

2004 Hamel Pinot Noir Campbell Ranch, Sonoma Coast ($25) Earth and truffles with cherry and black raspberry flavors. Drinking well now, but I'd wait another 9-18 months before opening. Excellent QPR. (The 2005 is just as good, but I didn't find any online sources for the wine).

2005 Handley Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley ($18-$30) Abundant cherry, raspberry, and blackberry fruits in a cascade of flavors that are accented with a very intriguing caramel note. Very nicely done, and distinctive. Best value of the tasting. Excellent QPR. If you can get this for $18, it's a steal. Do it.

2005 J Vineyards and Winery Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley ($23-$35) Easy drinking pinot noir with raspberry, blackberry, grilled meat, and spice aromas/flavors. (88 pts.)

2005 Lost Canyon Pinot Noir Saralee's Vineyard, Russian River Valley ($35) Elegant smoke, cherry, black raspberry, and herb aromas and flowers. Lushest and roundest of the Lost Canyon 05 pinots I tasted. Excellent QPR.

2005 Lost Canyon Pinot Noir Las Brisas Vineyard, Carneros ($35) Spiciest of the Lost Canyon 05s I tasted. Spice, smoke, and bright red raspberry and sour cherry fruit. Very nice. Excellent QPR.

2004 Red Head Ranch Pinot Noir ($28). A silky, elegant, and balanced wine. Cherries, with notes of mushroom, earth, roast coffee and cocoa to keep the wine interesting. Excellent QPR.

2005 Row Eleven Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley ($28-$31) Nice value on this very good pinot noir. Rich black cherry and smoke flavors and aromas. Very good QPR.

2005 Row Eleven Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley ($36)
Very nicely done. Bright cherry aromas and flavors, with added notes of roses and violets on the nose. Subtle smoke and char notes. Nice balance. Very good QPR.

To close, I wanted to remind everybody that the whole idea behind Good Wine Under $20 is that good wine doesn't have to be prohibitively expensive. But for those of us who love pinot noir, the rising prices (and the rising quality) are going to put a crimp in budgets. So how will I strategize to make sure there is money to buy one of these beauties occasionally? By drinking a wide variety of high quality, good value wines from around the world--and pocketing the savings to buy pinot. If you drink well and sensibly all the time, you can make the odd splurge purchase. For me that means budgeting my wine dollars in such a way to take advantage of all the great values coming out of California, Spain, and France so that I can afford my beloved pinot. And when I find a good pinot under $20, I will certainly tell you! And if you've found one, let us know in the comments section below.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Picture This: Personalized Wine Bottles

If you're looking for a special gift to celebrate a birthday, anniversary, wedding, or other momentous occasion, look no further. Picture My Wine will generate a customized wine label, complete with the uploaded photo of your choice. I've looked at other personalized wine bottle offerings before and either the wine was terrible, the labels were cheesy, or you had to order a case. Not so with Picture My Wine.

Picture My Wine offers a selection of wines from either the Healdsburg Wine Company or Brutocao's cost-conscious Bliss bottlings. For me, the Bliss Merlot (winner of a double-gold medal from the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition) is a no-brainer at $15 and you don't have to order a case or a 1/2 case to get your personalized bottle. Even single bottle orders are filled, making them great gifts for someone special. But imagine giving someone with a new house six bottles of "house wine" in personalized bottles? Pretty nice gift.

I had a little trouble getting the interface to work for the merlot label with the images on my computer. But I did generate a snazzy, classy label using a medieval image and the "Vertical Black" Label option. Most folks use personal photos, because they're buying for birthdays, weddings, or anniversaries, but nearly any image will do. (make sure you're using an image properly and not infringing on copyright, ok?)

All it takes is a nice image and a little forethought to get your wine in time. Orders ship three days after they are placed, and it takes a further 3-7 days to receive the wine depending on where you live and whether you pay for express shipping.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Living the Wine Information Revolution

This week there has been a flurry of stories both on blogs and in print media that emphasize the growing importance of consumer reviews and wine blogs in getting out the message to consumers about their wine options. (Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People)

First, Tom Wark's must-read blog, Fermentation, reported some poll results that asked readers if they had ever bought a bottle of wine because of something read on a blog (68% say yes), and that a whopping 85% of the respondents felt that wine blogs were as trustworthy as any other media. When the full poll results are released, I suspect that they will contain even more startling and encouraging news for wine producers, marketers, and bloggers.

Then, the news started coming out of the big wine and technology symposium in Napa. The Santa Rosa Press Democrat reported that speakers including Wine Library TV's Gary Vaynerchuk and Max Kalehoff of Buzzmetrics, told wine executives that if they were not embracing the power of technology, then they were going to lose out. Big time. WineBusiness.com's Rachel Nichols emphasized that CGM (Consumer Generated Media, i.e. wine blogs like this one and all those Wine 2.0 sites) are becoming a considerable force in shaping consumer decisions. This morning, Tom Wark voiced skepticism regarding the ability of all the burgeoning Wine 2.0 sites that are trying to harness the power of CGM to survive and make money in the future.

For me, the issue of whether or not a start-up company can make money collecting CGM is somewhat beside the point--though I understand that its an issue for the start-ups! Like most bloggers, I'm not trying to make money at this. Like most bloggers, I started this lark because I thought it would be an organized and efficient way to share my wine finds with friends and family. I never suspected so many other folks would subscribe, read daily, and comment on what they had read thus vastly improving the quality and scope of what I can offer as a single wine consumer in a world of wine consumers. Like most bloggers, I am now hooked on the genre because I get so many great tips from other consumers just like me.

Blogging has brought changes to my wine life. I now get the occasional press pass to a trade tasting, and the occasional bottle of wine gets sent to me for review consideration. I accept these perks if I feel I can use them to get more wine reviews to readers. I also get lots of requests for advertising on the site--all of which I refuse. We're all inundated with advertising, so I can't see how that would improve the GWU$20 experience for anyone. And I seek out wine merchants and wine sites that share wine CGM with me. Just today I posted a review of a wine that I bought from WineQ because of the customer reviews. It was just as good as I expected it to be.

Wine bloggers and the people like you who read and comment on them (CGM) are in the vanguard of a wine information revolution. Here's the proof. I did a Google search for Four Vines, an up-and-coming Paso Robles vineyard that produces great zinfandel and other wines. In the ten top results, I found the vineyard's own site, a Paso Robles wine site, some wine clubs, the Wine Spectator, and 3 CGM sites (Jerry Hall's WineWaves, Good Wine Under $20, and Cork'd). In the Press Democrat story hotlinked above, Kalehoff said that this kind of CGM content power is evident for nearly every wine you search for on the internet. Try looking for some of your favorite wines. Do they turn up CGM information in the top 10 results? That means a lot in terms of marketing power, which in turn means a lot to producers in terms of sales.

We are living in a wine information revolution. You and I are fueling it. How cool is that? Vive la revolution!

Wine-Drinking Horses and Crab Cakes

I pulled this wine out of the wine-rack last week for two reasons.

First, I can't resist a wine-drinking horse.

Second, the flavor descriptors over at Wine Q were right up my alley, and suggested that this wine would be fruity without being tart. In other words, it was just the kind of wine to have with crab cakes like those perfected by John Potter of Brim to the Dregs. These are our new house crab cake (though they are scrupulously referred to as "John Potter's Crabcakes" by my entire family on two coasts), which I described and then was expected to produce to a hungry mob one warm, sunny day.

This wine was perfect with them. The 2005 RustRidge Sauvignon Blanc ($17.99, Wine Q) is a very good QPR wine. The winery was out to make a Bordeaux-style sauvignon blanc. In the Bordeaux, sauvignon blanc is often blended with semillon to produce a richer, rounder wine. Here, the sauvignon blanc (80%) was blended with chardonnay (20%). It resulted in a wine that has creamy apple, grapefruit, and light pineapple flavors. The chardonnay does indeed impart a roundness to the wine, and mellows its acidity. This is not a tangy, grassy New Zealand style sauvignon blanc. Nevertheless, the wine finishes with a zesty flourish that is mouthwatering and keeps you coming back for more. If you've been drinking a lot of cheaper, quaffable sauvignon blancs--and there's nothing wrong with that!--you'll find that this wine has a great deal more complexity to go along with the higher price tag.

I've got another RustRidge wine from WineQ that is waiting for my return to southern California. If you've not done so already, swing over there and see what they have on offer to put into your Netflix-style wine queue. Their flavor-tags (don't know the exact technical term for them, but that's mine!) make it so easy to find wine that agrees with your palate. And they specialize in bringing you wine from smaller, boutique wineries. What's not to love? (the wine-drinking horses are an extra bonus)

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Wine and Your Own Back Yard

This is the Sea Ranch airport, a tiny airstrip on the northern Sonoma coast. When I'm not in LA, I walk around this airport at least once a day with the dogs, or to get my morning coffee from the Two Fish Baking Company, and thought I knew the place pretty well. I know where the poison oak grows, where the deer are likely to jump out at you from behind a stand of coffee-berry trees, and where not to stand on the rare occasions that someone either takes off or lands.

Imagine my surprise when I was prepping for Pinot Days a few weeks ago and heard a discussion of this airport. I was listening to some older podcasts on my iPod and there was the voice of Vanessa Wong of Peay Vineyards explaining its importance during an episode of GrapeRadio that focused on Pinot clones. She explained how the depression at the airport helped to suck cool sea air from the Pacific Ocean and funnel it right up the Annapolis Road to Peay Vineyard grapes. This is what gives Peay Vineyards the right combination of warm days and cool nights to ripen the chardonnay, pinot noir, and syrah varietals that go into their complex and compelling wines. If you look closely at the photo, you will see that the airport is foggy, but that right beyond the airport there are blue skies. That's the ridge, where the Peay Vineyards are located.

Vanessa Wong's remarks were a real eye opener for me. I live in a house without a vineyard in sight. But geography and microclimate are tricky things. For all you know, your housing development is contributing to some far-off vineyard. Do we ever really know how our own back yard is shaping wine all around us? Take the time to find out about vineyards in your area and talk to local growers about the geography and microclimates surrounding where you live. You might just be surprised.

Watching the fog roll in, roll out, roll up to the ridge but not over it--this is one of the major spectator sports at The Sea Ranch. It dictates when you go for your walks, take your swim, drive to town to buy wine, and if you go to the bluff to watch the sunset. Next month, it will determine whether or not we see the Perseid Meteor showers.Now I have a new reason to watch the fog. More important, I will have a new reason to be grateful for it. Every time I round the airport and pull up the collar of my jacket against the chilled, foggy air, I will say a quiet word of thanks as I send it on its way up the road to the Peay Vineyards grapes and into my next bottle of pinot noir.

Monday, July 16, 2007

WBW #36: Getting Naked with LennDevours

More news from WBW HQ on Long Island: Lenn Thompson of LennDevours is hosting the third anniversary edition of Wine Blogging Wednesday.

He wants us all to get naked. With chardonnay.

By August 8th, drink an unoaked, unwooded, naked, or steel-fermented chardonnay at any price point, from any region, and post your review or send it in to Lenn for inclusion in the wrap-up. I like this style of wine, and have enjoyed a 2005 Four Vines Naked Chardonnay that was just spectacular, so have fun searching out a bottling. It may require some bottle turning to make sure that the wine in question has seen no oak, so take some care in the store.

But there's more. Lenn also announced the new Wine Blogging Wednesday official site, and that the leadership team for WBW has grown to include Tim Elliott of Winecast, Andrew Barrow of Spittoon, and Tyler Coleman of Dr. Vino. And, there will be a new logo contest announced shortly. So it looks like WBW is off to an impressive 4th year start.

WBW #35 Wrap-Up: More than 50 Spanish Wine Reviews

Michelle and Kevin, our hosts for Wine Blogging Wednesday #35, have posted the roundup of notes and reviews over on their site, My Wine Education.

Be sure to click over there for links to more than 50 tasting notes on budget-friendly Spanish wines. 41 bloggers participated, including 7 or 8 new ones, and many bloggers tasted more than one wine, so there's no excuse not to try a Spanish wine if you haven't already. And Michelle and Kevin broke the list down into whites and reds (along with a few "all mixed up" reviews to cover the folks who had more than one kind of wine).

Enjoy, and I'll be sure to let you know when WBW #36 (Happy 3rd Birthday, Wine Blogging Wednesday!) is announced.

Argentinian Rose

I've been drinking a lot of roses this summer, starting back in April with Catavino's virtual rose tasting. I haven't had a rose from Argentina, however, so I recently searched around for one, and found this delicious example (behind a very stylish label) at one of my favorite wine stores.

The 2006 Bodega Terza Malbec Rose Volta was a really delicious wine ($10.95, Chronicle Wine Cellar; available from other merchants for around $15). It had a striking deep rose color, as the picture shows. Made from 100% Malbec, which is known for its rich plum flavors and tannins, in a rose wine such as this the tannins were softer and the fruit was raspberry rather than plum. Aromas of berries and rose petals lifted from the glass as you took your first sip, and then there were floral, raspberry, and strawberry notes in the flavors. The wine had an interesting, silky texture that gave it a rich, full mouthfeel but the wine finished dry nevertheless. Excellent QPR at this price, as has been the case with many of the roses I've had this summer.

Rose wines are such versatile food wines, I almost hate suggesting a pairing as they go with almost anything. But we had it with a sun-dried tomato crusted chicken dish that involved a bread crumb and sun dried tomato mixture that was applied to pounded chicken breasts dredged in flour, then egg, then the crumbs, then pan fried. A zingy sauce was served with it, and I'd combine it with some simple orzo or fettucine tossed with the sauce and some steamed broccoli to complete the meal. This was a delicious companion to the wine, and the dish picked out the berry notes in the wine very well.

After years and years of avoiding all rose wines because they were being made in a sweet, white zinfandel style, I'm so happy that roses are becoming popular again here in the US and shedding their negative image. With great wines like this, that are so versatile and affordable, it's easy to see why. And our friends at domaine547 are making roses even more affordable this week with a sale on their scrumptious roses, so if you haven't seen what all the fuss is about with these "new roses," why not check out their offerings and try one for yourself?

Friday, July 13, 2007

Rock, Paper, Scissors

I've had my eye out for Roshambo wines ever since I starting reading Sonadora's blog, Wannabe Wino. She's a big fan of Roshambo wines, and her enthusiasm for the label was infectious. I looked high and low and finally found a Roshambo wine to try in a small independent grocery store here on the coast in Anchor Bay.

It's fortuitous that at a time when everyone is talking about inexpensive chardonnay, the 2004 Roshambo Rock, Paper, Scissors Chardonnay ($10 direct from winery; available from other merchants for between $12 and $16) was so good. Add it to your list, if you can't get your hands on Mr. Shaw's wine. One thing, though: if you serve this wine too cold, it's not a good thing. You will smell and taste almost nothing but something like wet stones. Once it warms up to proper serving temp, however, you will be rewarded with aromas and flavors of apples, hay, and a rich touch of creme brulee. I think this wine saw some oak, but it was very lightly done if it did (I couldn't find out anything about the making of this wine on the website or at any other site). Here any oak gives the wine richness, not woodiness. Excellent QPR for a wine that was very well done if not terribly complex. And believe me, for bargain chardonnay, you could do a LOT worse.

With your wine, how about a fabulous summer salad, like this chicken and bulgur salad? It was zesty and creamy with a citrus dressing, the toasted taste of bulgur wheat, and chunks of rich avocado. It's a great main-dish salad for this time of year, since it takes almost no time to cook and if you have leftover chicken nothing to cook at all (well, you have to boil water).

Enjoy the weekend!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

$2 Chuck, State Fairs, and More From the High Blood Pressure Department

As of today, it's official. There's a new best chardonnay in the state of California.

In case you've been vacationing in Tierra del Fuego and not heard, the 2005 Charles Shaw California Chardonnay ($2 Chuck to most of us) won best of the varietal at the California State Fair recently and those results will be announced today. The result was leaked a few weeks ago, in case you think you've already heard this.

Mr. Shaw's wine came up the winner against 350 competitors from all price ranges in a blind tasting competition of chardonnays. Since that time, print media and the blogosphere have been busy working overtime on the meager details that accompanied the leaked story. (*ps. I do realize there is no Charles Shaw, but I thought I'd try to treat it as if there were for effect. Sorry if this has confused anybody). Alder Yarrow worked himself into an uncharacteristic lather about it over at Vinography, Jeff Stai at Twisted Oak's El Bloggo Torcido provided a lucid counterblast (along with a run-down of relative postings), and the story even made NPR. Brand-new blogger Jim Gordon over at Wine Enthusaists's UnReserved points out that the large volume of wine made under this label is bound to make my $2 Chuck different from his $2 Chuck. Others are attributing the win to the triumph of the "people's palate" and "Charles Shaw" (Fred Franzia) is chalking it up to the high quality of his wine.

I personally do not like Mr. Shaw's chardonnay. Despite this, and though I am a huge fan of Vinography and all that Alder Yarrow has done to increase wine knowledge in this country, I cannot agree with him that because of this award all state fair medals are worthless indications of a wine's merits. I cannot speak for all state fairs, but the California State Fair wine competition is a tightly run ship. Joe Drinker and Wanda Winelover can't just walk off the street and start judging wine at the California State Fair.

How do I know this? I know because ten years ago I couldn't get passing marks on the test given at the advanced seminar in wine tasting at UC Davis taught by John Buechsenstein (former winemaker at Fife and one of the founders of Sauvignon Republic) that since 1998 has helped to certify state fair judges. I was pretty new to wine, but it's not an easy test to pass. Maybe I should retake the test now that I've had some more experience, but ten years ago it was completely overwhelming even though I'd successfully completed the preliminary coursework and beginner tasting seminars.

Here are a few other things to know about the California State Fair judging.

1. Contrary to popular opinion, the State Fair doesn't break down wines by price categories. That's the SF Chronicle competition, folks, not the Fair. So Mr. Shaw's wine was not in fact tasted against chardonnays under $5, but against all chardonnays entered.

2. All Fair wines are tasted blind. In coded glasses. There isn't a bottle shape or screwcap thread in sight to influence the tasters. Not all critics taste wine blind, FYI. Wine & Spirits does, and so does Wine Spectator, Steve Tanzer at International Wine Cellar, and Wine Enthusiast. Wine Advocate does not, at least not across the board. Nor, in the normal course of things, do I.

3. All Fair wines are given a numeric score based on a 100-point scale that is agreed upon in advance and is loosely based on the UC Davis 20-point scale. To get a double gold (like $2 Chuck 2005 Chard) you have to get 98-100 point scores. Then, the gold and double gold wines are tasted again to pick the best of the varietal.

4. The Fair accepts submissions from wineries for judging. This does not necessarily imply bias, a bad pool of wines for consideration, or an inside job. As far as I can make out, nearly every wine publication, blog, and critic accepts wine that is sent to her or him from wineries for review. They also buy wine. The only holdout on this issue may well be Jerry Hall over at Winewaves. (note: I reviewed the tasting guidelines for the 5 major wine mags in the US, and gleaned what I could about tasting policies and press samples from the top 30 wine blogs on alawine.com. If I am in error about this, please do let me know and I will make a correction here in the body of the post. )

5. You have to QUALIFY as a wine judge and it is not an easy business. The qualification exam was designed by professors at UC Davis. You can either take the test, or take the UC Davis seminar in Advanced Tasting and then take the test for an additional fee. The seminar and exam are only offered once a year, and if you pass you get put in the pool of potential judges. This year's seminar is on July 28, if you are interested. It costs $325 (lunch and wine included), lasts from 9-4, and getting the test graded and submitted to the Fair is an extra $50.

6. The identity of Fair wine judges is not a secret, as some in the comments section on Vinography imply. The list of 2006 wine judges included winemakers, masters of wine, professors of enology, wine writers, and other wine professionals as well as qualified (see #5) tasters. The list of 2007 wine judges has yet to be published, but when it is, I will hotlink it here.

So here's the bottom line.

Palates vary enormously. In 2005, the winner of the best chard over $30 at the SF Chronicle wine competition was a 2002 Grgich Hills that Wine Spectator rated 76 points. Enough said.

Everything you read about wine should just be one factor in your decision to purchase a bottle.

ALL competitions and wine ratings are subject to being monkeyed around with, and (more likely) are subject to completely groundless charges of fraud and deception. For those of us old enough to do so, remember the hysteria surrounding the 1976 Judgment of Paris?

ALL judges, critics, and bloggers have varied degrees of competence. Some are hacks. But I don't think we should tar and feather an entire segment of wine critics based on that. If so, there would be no wine blogs--that's for sure.

As a consumer, find judges and critics you trust whose palate seems to coincide with yours and follow their recommendations. If you like the 2005 Charles Shaw Chardonnay, chances are you will like the other California State Fair judges' picks for this varietal. And if you don't like $2 Chuck? Look somewhere else.

I write this with full knowledge that nothing I say here will convince state fair skeptics, or serve as a cautionary tale to those who are already racing out the door with their car keys to buy Mr. Shaw's wine. Drive safely.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Wine Blogging Wednesday #35: Spanish Value Wines

Welcome to the 35th Wine Blogging Wednesday, the monthly virtual tasting event started nearly 3 years ago by Lenn Thompson of Lenndevours and still going strong under the guidance of Michelle and Kevin of My Wine Education, today's hosts. Their theme for July was Spanish value wines, and they asked us to try to find a bottling under $10.

The wine I found was made by Bodegas Castano, located in the Yecla DO, south of the city of Madrid. They have a comprehensive website, complete with a soundtrack and flash. If you want something a bit more narrative, check out the bodegas' profile over at the Wine Doctor. The family that operates Bodegas Castano, one of the largest vineyards in the appellation, have been making wine for generations. In the 1980s they rebuilt their winery, and have been making high-quality, budget-friendly wines ever since making full use of their old vines such as the ones that produced the grapes for this bottling.

The 2003 Bodegas Castano Yecla Solanera ($9.95, Costco; available from many merchants for between $10 and $19) is a big, bold wine made with 75% monastrell (or mourvedre, as it is known elsewhere). The monastrell is blended with cabernet sauvignon and a touch of grenache. At present, the wine is taking about 45 minutes to fully open up. Once it does, abundant cherry aromas emerge along with a bit of black tea and herbs. The aromas are more effusive than the flavors, which are a bit muted with cherries and mineral notes. This is a tannic wine, and can make the sides of your tongue pucker, but they soften with food and with decanting. I found that this wine wasn't fully integrated yet--its alcohol, aromas, flavors, and tannins didn't quite hang together into a harmonious package. Still, once we'd let it sit for a while it was an easy drinker with good QPR. If you've got a bottle of this wine, I'd put it aside until the winter and see how it's doing then, or remember to decant the wine before you drink it.

This big, bold wine needed some hearty food to go with it and help tame the tannins. We had it with rib-eye steaks grilled outside, and some baked potatoes with sour cream and chives. These were a perfect partner with the wine, and I would recommend something similarly meaty if you have a bottle.

Thanks to Michelle and Kevin for their great theme. I'll have the roundup posted once they manage to draw together all the contributions from what I imagine will be a popular event. And, as always, I'll see you here next month for WBW#36, the theme of which is still TBA.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Good Wine Under $75, or Is It Possible to Have Wine at a Restaurant without Having a Heart Attack?

I am catching up with all kinds of things, and one of them is my wine reading. I just checked out Lettie Teague's column in the July 2007 Food and Wine Magazine, which was enough to make me reach for the bloodpressure cuff. (image from Menumasters.net)

She was writing about the wine markups on your average wine list. These are typically--and for me, shockingly--2 to 3 times wholesale. That's some markup. If a wine costs $10 wholesale, and $15 retail in the wine shop, then in a restaurant you can expect to see it for $25-$30. And when I see a bottle of wine on a wine list for $25 that's actually worth drinking I am so grateful I'm often on the brink of proposing to the waiter. This seldom happens these days, so no need to worry about the waitstaff! Here's another little secret, however, to make you even more frustrated: restaurants sometimes purchase the wines for LESS than wholesale. Yes, less.

We're told this is absolutely necessary for restaurants to make their profit margin. I wonder. I really do. And I worry. Mostly, I worry about the winemakers. Because if restaurants think they're paying high rent, have you ever seen the monthly payments on a vineyard?

I worry, too, about what these wine markups are doing to the growth of "everyday wine culture" in this country. One of the best ways for folks to get to know different wines is to buy a bottle in a restaurant, decide they love it, and look for it later. That's how I first tasted both Twisted Oak and Anglim wines--at the Firefly Bistro in South Pasadena where their wine is actually priced reasonably! In most restaurants, it's become so prohibitive to buy wine that I usually don't even read the wine list except for the selections sold by the glass. I know this is the least economically sound strategy, but I would rather buy one vastly overpriced glass of wine rather than five.

I'm not sure there's much we can do about this, but if you know of a restaurant with a sensible wine markup and/or a good corkage policy, give them a shout-out in the comments section. For those of you in LA, Colorado Wine Company keeps a low/no corkage interactive Google map. And the aforementioned Firefly Bistro has an unusual and eclectic list with low markups, and great winemaker's dinners like the upcoming event on July 18. Here's to all the restaurant owners out there who make it possible for wine and food to be consumed at the same meal without requiring their diners take out second (or in LA, third) mortgages.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Drinking Local: Navarro Gewurztraminer

Given my temporary hiatus away from LA, it seems appropriate to take advantage of local wines that are often hard to find in my usual shops. So don't be too surprised to see more Sonoma and Mendocino wine reviews over the next few months.

My most recent find came from the small town of Philo (population 473) up in Mendocino, where Navarro Vineyards are located. I'm not going to say too much about the winery here, because I'll be traveling up there in August to do a Winery Watch report. But because this is such a perfect summer wine, I'm going to get a little bit ahead of myself and post a review of a fabulous gewurztraminer made by Navarro now. (picture of the hilly areas around Navarro's vineyards, courtesy of Mendo Wine Tours).

The 2005 Navarro Gewurztraminer Cuvee Traditional ($14 from Navarro) is a superb example of this relatively underplanted varietal. Made in the dry style, it has lovely aromas of apples, honeysuckle and a touch of lemon blossom. It's like tasting the Mendocino countryside! These aromas develop into flavors dominated by apple, accented with white pepper. This was a wine with lots of complexity and appeal, at a very attractive price. And I loved the spicy, peppery edge that can so often be missing in domestic gewurztraminer. Excellent QPR, as is true with most Navarro wines. This is a producer to watch out for, since their wines almost always represent excellent quality and value.

Gewurztraminer, like dry riesling, can be an excellent food wine.We had this with some soy-marinated shrimp that we threaded onto skewers and popped on the grill, some steamed jasmine rice, and a vegetable stir-fry. The wine really went well with the mix of flavors, and it drew out the spicy notes in the stir-fry and the shrimp.

Navarro Vineyards wins high praise from Dan Berger in the Wine Report 2007, where the Vineyard is featured as one of the greatest California producers, producing some of the greatest wines, the best bargains, and the most exciting or unusual wines. They sell direct to consumers through their online wine shop, so if you can't wait until next month for the report, have a browse around their shop now. You'll be staggered at the variety and the wallet-friendly prices. And if you have a Navarro favorite, leave a note in the comments below.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Winery Watch: Fort Ross Vineyard

An ongoing series of Friday posts highlighting California family wineries. You might not be familiar with all of these vineyards and winemakers--yet--but they produce wines that speak with the voices of this state's people, places, and history. They are worth seeking out. These posts will be longer than most posts on the blog, but I hope you will find them perfect for leisurely weekend reading and internet browsing. To read previous posts in the series, click here.

Perched above the Pacific Ocean, on a beautiful but treacherous stretch of coastline, is a vineyard that has spectacular views and produces equally spectacular wines. Here you will find Fort Ross Vineyard, overlooking the historic Fort Ross encampment of the Russia-America Company which was established in 1812. As Linda and Lester Schwartz point out, this is the true Sonoma Coast. (picture of the view from Fort Ross Vineyard in spring courtesy of Fort Ross Vineyard)

The Sonoma Coast above Jenner is not for the faint of heart, or those who get car-sick. There is a pioneering mentality among the residents, since it is an hour and a half to the nearest city of any size (Santa Rosa) up a winding road that is a hazard even without the occasional cow you find lazing in the center of Highway 1 and the Winnebagos inching their way around the curves. For those of us who love this part of the world, all the hazards are worth it. Where else do you see such views? And where else, I'm starting to wonder, can you make such wonderful wine?

The Schwartzes began their wine-making journey at Fort Ross in 1994, nearly two centuries after we believe that the first grape vines in Sonoma County were planted near Fort Ross, from rootstock brought into the area from Peru in 1817. The Schwartzes come from South Africa, and moved to California in 1976. They fell in love with the Fort Ross site in 1988, when they built their house and began to explore their property. Lester's background in geology no doubt came in handy as he walked the rocky ridges and came to know the terrain and the soil. The Schwartzes began to think about grapes, and experimented with various rootstocks for years. They came to realize that pinot and chardonnay thrived. Linda began taking courses in viticulture and found she had a deft hand with a backhoe. They cleared the site, planted, put in a pond, installed drip irrigation and Fort Ross Vineyard was born. They couldn't resist infusing their South African wine heritage into the varietal choices they made, planting the relatively rare (in the US) varietal of pinotage which they sourced from South African bud wood. That, too, thrived.

Fort Ross is a cool climate vineyard spread over 28 vineyard blocks all less than 1 mile from the ocean. Here, the grapes are exposed to warm sunny days and cool nights that are often foggy (you can see a little bit of coastal fog clinging to the hills in the background of this picture). The Schwartzes, along with their primary winemaker Ed Kurtzman, believe that the climatic particulars of the site, along with the marine soils in the area, will distinguish the wines from this part of the Sonoma Coast--so much so that there is a Fort Ross-Seaview AVA in the works to carve out a smaller designation from the larger Sonoma Coast AVA. (photo courtesy of Fort Ross Vineyard)

Here are my impressions of the Fort Ross wines I tasted this spring. They were also at Pinot Days last week, and their table was mobbed so I'm giving you fair warning: the word is out about Fort Ross wines. Get your hands on these wines when and if you can. These wines are not cheap, but the wines are well worth the price. As I mentioned in my Pinot Days Post Mortem, the day of the good under $20 pinot may be at an end. Alder Yarrow sadly agrees. If you love pinot you may want to economize on another varietal, to help your wine budget cope. The important thing is to spend your pinot dollars wisely, and Fort Ross wines allow you to do just that.

Prices indicated here are the suggested retail prices at the winery; as always the price you pay may be higher or lower at your local merchant. Clicking on a wine's name takes you either to a list of merchants who stock the wine, including Fort Ross's online store. Fort Ross Vineyard has no wine club yet, but you can contact them to be notified when the wine club is up and running which may be a prudent move if you like their wines as much as I do.

2006 Fort Ross Pinot Noir Rose ($16) This beautifully perfumed dry rose has abundant raspberry fruit and a delicious mineral streak. Excellent QPR.

2003 Fort Ross Pinotage Fort Ross Vineyard ($32). Made from 100% pinotage grapes, it has rich and luscious wild blackberry fruit aromas and flavors. The flavors develop into a long finish with complex layers of coffee, earth, cocoa, and dark chocolate. Seek this one out--its a winner, and a relatively rare varietal here in the US. Excellent QPR.

2003 Fort Ross Pinot Noir Symposium ($32). 4% of pinotage grapes are added to the pinot noir in this blended bottling. Lush black cherry flavors and aromas predominate, accompanied by rich cedar notes and some earthiness. Easy drinking red. Excellent QPR.

2004 Fort Ross Pinot Noir Fort Ross Vineyard ($39). I really liked this wine, which had great complexity in a restrained package. This is my kind of pinot noir. Black cherry and raspberry aromas were joined with a gorgeous note of rose petals. The wine had a smooth, silky texture, and the aromas were echoed in the flavors. Very Good QPR.

2003 Fort Ross Pinot Noir Reserve Fort Ross Vineyard ($49). This pinot noir is far richer and jammier, with raspberry, cola, and rose aromas and flavors. The finish picks up an interesting black tea note. Good QPR.

2003 Fort Ross Chardonnay ($32) A very well done chardonnay, with aromas of pear and peach. You'll find the same characteristics in the flavors, along with a streak of minerality. Good QPR.

Fort Ross was settled by pioneers twice: once in 1812, and once again in 1988 when the Schwartzes decided to take a bit of Sonoma Coast ridgeline within spitting distance of the ocean and started growing grapes on it. That pioneering spirit has paid off in this marvelous, distinctive wine. Tasting a Fort Ross pinot noir transports me to the Sonoma Coast even when I'm not there. I think it will do the same for you, too.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition (or a Poor QPR Zin)

Now that it's summer, our grill has been fired up and we are in full BBQ mode. One of the wines that goes well with spicy, tomatoey BBQ is zinfandel. We opened a bottle of zin to go with some superb pulled chicken sandwiches. Boneless chicken thighs were given a spicy rubdown and then grilled before being shredded and immersed in a tangy, molasses-enriched homemade sauce and piled on a roll. With coleslaw and some bread and butter pickles on the side, it was the essence of summer eating.

With our pulled chicken sandwiches we had a Bonny Doon Zinfandel made back in the day when Grahm was still doing wacky labels and hadn't gone all biodynamic on us. How could you resist this label? It made me think of Monty Python and I could just picture it sitting on a casual summer dinner table. The 2004 Bonny Doon Cardinal Zin ($16.99, Trader Joe's; available from many merchants for between $12 and $24) was a dark ruby color when it was poured. There were aromas of pepper and berry, but these were a bit muted for a zinfandel. Loads of berry flavors--blackberry, blueberry--and low levels of spiciness were accompanied by a distinctive peppery edge. At a relatively low 14% alc./vol., this was not as plush and velvety as many zinfandels are these days, but it lacked the spiciness of the best zinfandels. While the wine was certainly drinkable and had some moderate zinfandel characteristics, its relatively high price point might make you feel that you've paid to much for this wine once you've brought it home from the store. There are other zins out there that deliver more for far less money, so I'm calling this one a poor QPR wine. If you can get it for $12-$14, you may find this is good QPR, however.

I feel like I've been a bit jinxed lately, stuck in the poor QPR department as I go through a bunch of wines bought on impulse because I liked the label, or had never tried the producer, or was trying out a new varietal. It's all ok by me, because that's how you learn about wine and your own palate. But I'll be glad when I break this streak of bad wine luck!

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Happy Independence Day

And now, some thoughts from our founders:

"Wine makes daily living easier, less hurried, with fewer tensions and more tolerance."--Ben Franklin

"No nation is drunken where wine is cheap, and none sober where the dearness of wine substitutes ardent spirits as the common beverage." --Thomas Jefferson

"My manner of living is plain, a glass of wine and a bit of mutton are always ready, and such as will be content to partake of that are always welcome." --
George Washington

"Clear. Sheribiah Town went from here Bound for Boston. I have been to Coln Howards. he made me a prest of a Casse bottle of wine. " Diary of midwife Martha Ballard, June 11, 1788.

"Mrs. Madison was a remarkably fine woman. She was beloved by every body in Washington, white and colored. Whenever soldiers marched by, during the war, she always sent out and invited them in to take wine and refreshments, giving them liberally of the best in the house. Madeira wine was better in those days than now, and more freely drank." --Paul Jennings, former slave of James and Dolly Madison

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Pinot Days Post Mortem

Sunday I attended the 3rd Annual Pinot Days festival in San Francisco. It was a beautiful day, and I arrived early for the two hour trade tasting which was a relatively tranquil experience. For the first hour it was wonderful to slowly go from booth to booth, talking to wine makers and tasting wines in a leisurely fashion. As they got ready to open the doors to the public at 1 pm things got progressively more and more crowded and by 1:15 I was OUT OF THERE.

So here are a few observations of my Pinot Days experience. I felt like I learned a lot about regional pinot differences, about some of the stylistic choices that the folks who craft wine are making these days, and have bad news about pinot noir under $20, I'm afraid.

1. Excellent pinot noir under $20 is a rare, nearly extinct species. That's the bad news. The good news is there is very, very good stuff to be had between $30 and $40. For the cost-conscious drinker out there, this leaves you with a few options. You can either give up pinot noir (which I don't recommend), or decide to splurge every now and again on a bottle that's between $30 and $40. Drink a few more varietals that are easy to find for under $15 and you've earned yourself the more expensive bottle. Eric Kent's Russian River Valley Pinots, for instance, are simply out of this world for between $30 and $40. I tasted some 2006 barrel samples that will have me signing up for their pre-release wine club, since I'm already a big fan of the chardonnay and the syrah.

2. Something wonderful is happening with pinot noir on the Sonoma Coast. I'm not just saying this because it's where I happen to be at the moment. Tasting the Peay Vineyards, Hamel, and Fort Ross wines side-by-side was exciting and revealed that the Sonoma Coast wines seem to have distinctive notes of earth and mineral along with sour cherry and a silky texture. The cool growing climate, with its marine influences, makes for winning wines. I find them complex and appealing, and this is an AVA to get to know better if you have been a fan of Oregon pinots and would like to try something new, or if you would like to venture forth from Russian River pinots.

3. Pinot Noir growers and makers are passionate about what they do. To talk to a winemaker like Peter Rosback of Sineann, Kent Humphrey of Eric Kent, or Bob Riskin of Lost Canyon about their winemaking philosophy and how they carefully craft their pinots is like taking a master seminar. Pinot growers and pinot noir winemakers seem to have a special vocation, and are able to weave together tales of soil, geography, hang time, weather, and fermentation until you can almost see the grapes growing and the juice flowing into the vats. Pinot noir and a strong sense of place go hand in hand, and only add to the mystery and the seductiveness of this grape varietal.

I'll have some proper tasting notes and winery profiles in the weeks to come, but if you have a chance to go to the upcoming Pinot Days event in Chicago you certainly should. It's a great event, and a great way to experience a dazzling array of pinot noir wines.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Surf's Up--the Wine

Penguins. They're everywhere this summer. On the big screen. Even on wine bottles.

The folks at Little Penguin sent me a press sample bottle of this summer's special release wine, a blend of Chardonnay and Riesling that is designed to be a simple summer white. If you needed a clue about its contents, the surfing penguin on the label has pretty much captured its essence. It's all about relatively mindless summer fun--and there's nothing wrong with that.

The 2006 Little Penguin "Summer White" ($7.99; between $6.50 and $8.5o from many merchants) is made of an unorthodox blend of chardonnay and riesling. I honestly couldn't figure out what they were going for here, but when I opened it I think I understood: this is the white wine answer to shiraz-viognier. The chardonnay provides the body, Granny Smith apple aromas and flavors, and a vanillin tinge. The riesling provides flowery aromatics and a softness that lightens up the heavier chardonnay texture. If you like simple chardonnays, this wine is priced right and is not loaded down with artificial tasting oak. It is also fairly true to the varietal characteristics of both wines that went into it, so I give it good QPR.

The Little Penguin Summer White is a wine that tastes mostly of chardonnay--with a summery whiff of flowers that helps the wine go down smoothly and easily. This is not a wine to ponder. It is a wine to take to a picnic, to have with crab cakes under an umbrella by the beach, or pop open with some simple grilled chicken. Oddly enough, to do so you will need a corkscrew since this was bottled with a synthetic cork rather than a more sensible screwcap. Too bad, because the folks at Little Penguin missed a perfect opportunity to match form, function, and message there.