Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Color Me Syrah

I don't know what it is about Syrah, but when I drink it I see colors.

Syrah blends from France and Shiraz from Australia make me see red. Cool-climate Syrahs make me see blue. And sometimes, I find a Syrah that makes me want to put on the Rolling Stones' Paint It Black.

The 2005 Kendric Syrah falls into the final category. I received this bottle as a sample from WineQ, but you can put it in your own Q and enjoy it for just $17.99. At this price, the wine certainly qualifies as an excellent QPR option if you like your Syrahs bold and showy, but moody and complex as well. Sound like any musicians you know?

The wine was true garnet in color, like my grandmother's garnet ring, and it turned a bit purplish towards the rims. (My grandmother was a flapper--she would have loved the Stones). When I pulled the cork and poured the first glass, I was bowled over by spicy aromas and a bit of plum and cherry fruit. As the wine opened up you could also smell black tar. The flavors reminded me of macerated plums that had been sitting on a warm countertop all day, and there were also spicy flavors of allspice, clove, and nutmeg. The spices turned more herbal and lively as the wine rolled over your tongue, and I thought I tasted sage and eucalyptus. The long, silky aftertaste picks up a stony note and wraps around and picks up the tarry smell that you get on first sniff. The overall impression of this wine is black rather than blue or red, and its richness and acidity are in perfect balance. We had it with a delicious vegetable chili and garlic rice, and the wine neither overwhelmed nor was overwhelmed by the strong flavors of the dish. Instead the sweet fruit and the spices matched the tomatoes, vegetables, and chili flavors note by note.

One thing to know about this wine: it's sold without a foil capsule, so don't be alarmed when your wine shows up with a visible cork. Once upon a time they bottled wine with a lead capsule to protect the cork from rats and insects. This is happily not necessary today, and Kendric owner and winemaker Stewart Johnson writes on his webpage: PLEASE BE ADVISED THAT ALL MY 2005 WINES, AND ALL FUTURE VINTAGES, ARE BOTTLED WITHOUT A FOIL CAPSULE WHICH I REGARD AS POINTLESS, WASTEFUL AND ANNOYING. Since I wrote about sustainability yesterday, I will point out that your decision to drink Kendric Syrah not only makes sound fiscal sense, it will also save one foil capsule from ending up in the trash, or using up precious energy being recycled.

Leave your foil-cutter in the drawer, put on Mick and the boys, and order yourself some Kendric Syrah. The winery is sold out, but as far as I know WineQ still has some in stock.


Tuesday, July 29, 2008

A Glimpse Into the Future of Wine at Taste3

Wondering what the future of wine might look like?

I recently applied for and received a fellowship to attend Taste3, the annual meeting at Copia sponsored by Robert Mondavi Winery that celebrates food, wine, and the arts. This year's conference was bittersweet for many in attendance, since it was the first conference to take place after the passing of Robert Mondavi just a few months ago. I listened to presentations by people who are shaping the future of wine right now, and wanted to share my reaction to their presentations while they were still fresh in my mind. I'm sure I'll be returning to many of these topics in greater depth in upcoming months. (photo of Barry Schuler and audience members after his presentation in the Copia Auditorium at Taste3)

I've categorized the wine message of Taste3 into four themes: tradition, sustainability, science, and activism. Not surprisingly, these were also the take-home points for the food and art portions of the program as well.

Tradition: There is a real interest in preserving traditional ways of growing and producing food and wine, which is not surprising. It's also something I applaud wholeheartedly -- I am a historian, after all, and I hate it when the past is forgotten. I am profoundly grateful for people like Serge Hochar of Château Musar (pictured to the right) who play a key role in preserving and maintaining wine traditions that might otherwise, through neglect and ignorance, fall by the wayside and be forgotten. Drinking old vintages of Château Musar from 1970 and 1975, and listening to Mr. Hochar talking about emptying a bottle of wine while bombs fell all around his house in Lebanon just a few years ago brings home the lengths to which people will sometimes go to preserve what they value and love. Hochar views his wine as a miracle, and the direct descendant of Biblical miracles, which is why he was not at all surprised the next morning when he went out of his house and saw that it was one of the few that wasn't damaged by the fighting--the wine had miraculously saved him.

Science: What is surprising to me is that wine traditions are so often seen as antithetical to science. This viewpoint is framed by a false nostalgia for a viticultural past that never was. Winemakers, grape growers, and merchants have always been profoundly interested in "science" (or what constituted it at the time). By setting up a "winner takes all" situation where we must choose between science and tradition, I wonder if we are dooming ourselves to even more trouble.To really move forward we are going to have to sort out the vexed relationship between tradition and science--not just when it comes to wine, but food as well. I found myself with a strange case of intellectual whiplash after being both attracted and repulsed by Barry Schuler's discussion of wine and genomics. (image from Schuler was one of the people who told us that the internet would change our lives and he was right. Now he's telling us that mapping Pinot Noir's genome is going to change our lives, too. He's got a good track record in the predictions department, but I wonder if these changes will be for the better. He likened the mapping of the genome to the monolith moment in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and suggested that mastering the blueprints of living organisms was the next step in humanoid evolution. Schuler argued that no one wanted to produce what he called "Frankenoir," but that we can and will be able to improve vinifera stock, make them more disease resistant, design varieties for higher yields, expand their climate windows, and modify them to produce better flavors and aromas. Hmm. If that's not Frankenoir, I'd like to know what would qualify. His most provocative statement came near the end, when he stated his belief that mapping grape genomes will enable us to scientifically isolate and characterize "terroir" which he feels is lying there in grape gene adaptations, just waiting to be sequenced.

Sustainability: Barry Schuler introduced the issue of climate change and grape growing in his talk about the Pinot Noir genome, and that conversation continued in presentations by UC Davis professor Roger Boulton and Southern Oregon University professor Greg Jones. In a nutshell, climate change foregrounds the problem of sustainability in grape growing and wine making. Growing grapes and making wine, as Jones reminded the audience, are intimately connected to climate and are influenced by climate variability. As this map made with Jones's data shows, with temperatures continuing to rise throughout the world, grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese, and Zinfandel will continue to be grown because they like warmer temperatures. (map from Riesling and Cabernet Franc (both of which have thrive in a wide variety of climate ranges) may grow in popularity as once beloved grapes fall out of cultivation (this was my conclusion, not his). But wineries are going to have to think about how to sustain their production at a time when climate and water are raising difficult issues. Boulton's presentation on sustainable wineries pointed out the huge amounts of water wineries use in tasks you and I aren't even thinking about like washing equipment. He also highlighted the enormous carbon footprint left by making glass wine bottles. When we think "sustainable" we may think using organic growing methods but we had better start factoring glass and water into the equation as well. The time for packaging alternatives, systematic water reclamation, and the use of alternative energy sources in wine production is NOW.

Activism: Which brings us to you, and me, and the choices we make (or refuse to make) when choosing wine to put on our tables. After seeing artist Chris Jordan's provocative and inspiring work that puts our single, individual decision to take a paper bag at the grocery store or a plastic cup on an airplane and multiplies into a more global perspective, I came to the realization that none of us has to do a giant thing to make a difference. When it comes to preserving tradition, or figuring out where we stand on science, or promoting sustainability, all we have to do is a small thing. We just have to do it consistently. Some of us will find that our one little decision will go on to change hundreds of lives. This is what Bruce Gutlove discovered when he left Napa to consult for a few days at the Coco Farm and Winery in Japan, which was started in the late 1960s to give mentally challenged youth and adults a chance to work on a collaborative project and lead productive lives at a time when their only alternative was a state-run institution with bars on the window. Gutlove departed from Napa in 1989. He's still in Japan, he's still at Coco Farm, and he's still working with his students to make wine now served at official state functions in the building pictured above. The importance of individual decisions was driven home by Benjamin Wallace, known to most people as the author of The Billionaire's Vinegar and the GQ story where he tracked down "the very best" in everything including cars, toilets, and wine. Both of those stories, in his retelling of them at Taste3, served as cautionary tales for what happens when we mindlessly assume that the most expensive thing on the shelf is actually worth it, and that we must have it to prove our own importance. Bottom line: it's usually not worth it. If you're spending $30K per night on a hotel room, perhaps you could find something more productive to do with that money such as donating it to Coco Farm and Winery?

I left Taste3 fired up and inspired to learn more about how people in the past had grappled with sustainability issues, make a difference in the growing crisis of climate change through small changes in my daily wine life, and address (rather than avoid) my fears about genetically modified grapes. And I left with a renewed commitment not to waste money needlessly on things that don't really matter when there is so much wrong with the world that really does matter. The future belongs to us and to our children. And everything we do and don't do now shapes that future--and that includes the wine we buy and drink. That was the take-home message of Taste3.

Monday, July 28, 2008

New Math Cava: 1 + 1 = 3

I normally like wines where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Here, the name says it all. The NV U Mes U Fan Tres (1 + 1 =3) Cava Brut combines good taste and good value in a sparkling wine that is perfect for sticking in a tub of ice and pouring during brunch or at your next picnic or barbecue.

The NV 1 + 1 = 3 Cava Brut was good QPR. ($13.99, on special at Weimax; you should be able to find it near you for between $11 and $20) The wine had a very tiny bubble or bead, which made it very lively in the glass and in your mouth. There were so many small bubbles the overall impression was intensely fizzy, but the bubbles were not at all harsh or raspy. There were slight aromas of lemon pith and almond, and these aromas grew and developed in the flavors which were also dominated by citrus. I noticed the taste of lemon, but also grapefruit peel. There was a nutty aftertaste, as well. This wine hints at great complexity, but the flavors and aromas never develop to their full potential. However, this example of a Cava was very, very dry so if you sometimes find Spanish sparklers too fruity, you will probably really enjoy this wine.

Cava is one of the world's most versatile wines, and it's great with more than just brunch and picnics. We had it with a fast Indian curry that used shrimp and coconut milk. The recipe uses lime, which picked up the citrus notes in the wine and the bubbles and acidity was refreshing with the herbs used in the recipe. The Cava also handled the coconut milk well, and kept the food's flavors lively. At this point in the summer you may be looking for a break from the grill and I'd highly recommend this meal for a quick after-work supper that won't have you standing over a hot stove and is perfect for carrying out to the deck--with a bottle of chilled Cava--and eating al fresco.


Friday, July 25, 2008

Wine Finders and Keepers: Adegga

A number of new wine finder and cellar management programs have been unveiled that help consumers find wines that they might like, assist them in locating retailers who stock the wine, and then keep track of the wine you have and what you thought of it when you tasted it. I'll be reviewing some of these sites in the upcoming weeks. If you have suggestions for sites I should take a look at, please let me know in the comments below. (image by Mike "Dakinewavamo" Kline)

Maybe you have a relatively small stash of wine and are thinking of keeping track of it. Maybe you have been keeping tasting notes on slips of paper and you would like to have a more permanent record. Maybe you like reading wine blogs like Catavino and you'd like a way to link up your favorite blogs with the wines that you buy. If any of these possible scenarios describe you, then you might want to check out Adegga.

Adegga is self-described as a "Social Wine Discovery" site. The goal is to help you find wine you might like based on what others are drinking, rating, and writing about. The discovery process revolves around "watchlists" of people, wine producers, wines, wine shops, and blogs that you enjoy. Once you've put a person, place, or thing on your watchlist, your homepage automatically notifies you about new purchases, posts, and offers related to your wine interests. The site is colorful and intuitive, with a smart use of graphics to help you navigate. Nearly everything you click on brings up a new screen with new features, and its very easy to figure out the basics of how to work the site. If you click on the screenshot here, for example, you will get a sense of the many different kinds of information--blog posts, ratings, and more--that come up for each wine.

Adegga is a free site, and signing up for it only takes a few minutes. At the present time, the majority of data entered into Adegga is related to Spanish and Portuguese wine, so if you typically drink American wines you may find yourself entering a lot of information. Fewer than 100 wines on the site are from the US but every time someone else joins the site and starts entering their information the database will grow and develop. And it only takes about 2 minutes to enter wine information with a combination of typing and pull-down menus. (this is a good activity to do in front of summer reruns)

As with any of the online cellar/wine finder tools, there are small glitches and things that you wish worked a different way. Because I'm a variety hound, for instance, I wish I didn't have to go to a second screen and enter grapes for a wine after entering all the other information. Right now it's not possible for me to link a wine that I want to buy with a store in my area that might carry it, which would be nice. And sometimes the autofill function can trip you up and enter a wine name that you never intended. But these are pretty minor tics in an otherwise smooth program, and I've found Adegga quite responsive when I've made a mistake entering a wine and need something fixed.

There are sites out there with more data and with more users, but this site is the one that has the most integrated approach to the question of "how do I find the name of a good wine that I might like?" The Adegga team (
André Ribeirinho, André Cid, Emidio Santos, and Bruno Pedro) should be congratulated for thinking how all the pieces of the social media puzzle might fit together in the service of locating a good bottle. Perhaps their success is related to the fact that they are active participants in this brave new world, and keep a blog as well as a presence on Twitter. If you are twittering like mad, have a Facebook account, and enjoy text messaging I think you'll like Adegga, so head over there and check out the site's features. There's no "one site fits all" cellar management program on the internet. You need to figure out what's important to you. Once you do, you will be able to find a program that fits you to a tee--and it just might be Adegga.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A Round of Applause for Dan Berger

Do you know the name Dan Berger? If you are an ordinary wine drinker, you should memorize it. In a world full of inflated scores and hype, he is always impressively level-headed about wine. Whether its writing for Appellation America, the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, his own Vintage Experiences, or covering California wine for Tom Stevenson's annual Wine Report, Dan can be relied upon to notice wines less traveled, less expensive, and less manipulated. I knew I approved of his taste in wine when he said Navarro Vineyards Edelzwicker--one of the great wine bargains at around $12--was one of the most exciting wines made in California. (photo of Dan Berger from Vintage Experiences)

His most recent article in the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat had me applauding, because in it he voiced something in print that I have long suspected in private: that where a wine comes from, the grape it's made with, and the price they're charging for it influences those blasted "objective" scores. Making wine in Temecula? Good luck getting a score above 85 from the mags. Making wine from Chasselas or Colombard? It's south of 86 for you, too. He mentioned two specific domestic wines that I've had made with each grape (the Berthoud Chasselas Dore and the McNab Ridge Colombard) that are excellent and I would concur with that assessment. Even better? Even in my expensive coastal grocery store where everything comes by covered wagon up and down CA-1 they're less than $15. But if your wine is inexpensive like these bottles it's even worse--that can't be any good, people conclude, or they'd sell it for more.

Go read Dan's article and keep your eye out for his writing. He's out there pitching for good, everyday wine that doesn't cost a fortune and is high quality and interesting. And in this time of economic downturns, market panics, and penny-pinching it's nice to have someone quietly pointing out that you don't have to mortgage your house to drink great wine.

Abruzzo Mistaken Wine Identity, Case #2: Montepulciano

As I said before, Abruzzo wines can be victims of mistaken identity. Last time it was a grape and a cheese--this time it's a grape and a wine-growing region. In the Montepulciano region of Tuscany people make wine from the Sangiovese grape that earns the designation "Vino Nobile de Montepulciano." In Abruzzo, they use the Montepulciano grape to make a red wine that is deep, dark, and delicious. It's often a bargain, too, and it's very easy to find in most areas of the country.

Despite the large number of highly affordable Montepulcianos out in the market, my local grocery store here on the coast had only one example of the grape, and it was pretty expensive. The wine was made by Nicodemi, and comes from the relatively new DOCG (Vino a Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita): Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Colline Teramane. Carved out of the larger Montepulciano d'Abruzzo DOC, this new designation is set aside for wines from selected fruit grown in a particular region that is thought to produce superior grapes.

While most Montepulciano d'Abruzzo is rustic pizza and trattoria wine, the wine that I had was an elegant bottling that could go on the table for a special dinner. The 2004 Nicodemi Montepulciano Notari had a dark, intense plummy color that is very characteristic of the grape. ($25.64 in the local grocery; you can get it online from Empire Wines for just under $30) There were pure aromas of blackberry and I also smelled nectarines, which is not something that I expect from the average red wine. There were some herbal nuances as well, which became more focused when I sipped it and turned into eucalyptus. That eucalyptus taste was paired with rich blackberry and fig fruit flavors. The wine felt very smooth and silky in your mouth, and the herbal finish was juicy and pleasant and reminded me a little bit of black tea. I liked this wine a lot, and it showed me that there is a lot more to Montepulciano than you see in the lower price bottlings. Though it was a good QPR wine because of its abundant varietal character, I think I'll be sticking to the more affordable, rustic versions of the wine that I can have with my Friday night pizza.

Oh, I forgot to tell you what we we ate with the wine. I made a pollo all'Abruzzese, which is the Abruzzo version of Chicken Cacciatore. I loved the recipe, which involved browning some chicken, throwing in some aromatic onion, garlic, bay leaf, parsley, and red pepper flakes, and then topping it all off with tomatoes, basil, and freshly roasted yellow peppers. I was scrumptious with the wine, and the texture of the dish--with its silky tomatoes, peppers, and olive oil--really emphasized the elegance and silkiness of the wine. Because of all the herbal notes in the wine, there was no clash with the tomatoes, either.

I've had three wines from Abruzzo this month, and the word that I will associate with all of them is "richness." Whether a white, a red, or a rose, the wines had an intensity of flavor and an opulence that will keep me asking "what's new from Abruzzo?" when I go to the wine store.


Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Wine Blogging Wednesday News

There's news on the Wine Blogging Wednesday front. The summary for WBW #47 has been posted, and the theme for WBW #48 has been announced.

First, Erin and Michelle from the blog Grape Juice did a simply stupendous roundup of all the wines tasted in Wine Blogging Wednesday #47. The Sesame Street-inspired theme was "brought to you by the letter S" and it brought out all the silliness and creativity of the wine blogging community. Head over there for a sense of what transpired. Sammy the Snake is smiling somewhere at the event's success.

Second, Lenn Thompson from Lenndevours is hosting his own 4th anniversary edition of Wine Blogging Wednesday in August. The theme is "back to your roots" and Lenn is asking us to pick a wine from our early days and drink it again. On August 13, review the wine on your blog, send Lenn an email, and consider yourself a participant in Wine Blogging Wednesday before it enters its fifth year. If you want full details, check out Lenn's post here.

Do they still make Bartles and Jaymes wine coolers?

Monday, July 21, 2008

Checking up on Bonny Doon's Journey into Biodynamics

I've written before on the site about Randall Grahm's efforts to take the sprawling and eclectic wine enterprise that is Bonny Doon and turn it into a much smaller and focused operation devoted to biodynamic farming and exploring the potential of far fewer grape varieties. In my tastes of the results so far, this transformation has led to some very interesting and pleasant white wines. The reds are still a work in progress in my opinion, but the white wines are distinctive, fun, and out of the ordinary.

The latest Bonny Doon wine that I tried was the 2007 Bonny Doon Vineyard Albariño, a very tasty wine that was made using biodynamic protocols. ($17.00 in a wine club shipment; expect to pay $18-$22 through merchants near you. It's also available for $20 through the Bonny Doon website). The pale straw-colored wine had strong and unmistakable aromas of honeysuckle when you first unscrewed the cap. We have a Meyer lemon tree in the back yard, and the flavors reminded me of the slightly richer and sweeter flavors of those lemons with a bit of sea salt adding a note of interest. As you sipped the wine, it left a slightly bitter and intense flavor of grapefruit oil which made your mouth water for more. I liked this wines intensity and its trueness to the variety--in a supercharged, Californian way. Even though it was very good, I can only give it a good QPR designation because of the price. There are a lot of very good Spanish wines made with this grape that are less expensive. Still, if you like zesty, intense Albariños this is well worth checking out.

This Albariño would be excellent with fish or chicken tacos/fajitas, or with a Spanish dish like paella. We tried it with both of those options, and I was hard pressed to pick a winner. In the case of the chicken fajitas we had, the lime that was squeezed on the meat and vegetables paired very nicely with the Meyer lemon and grapefruit notes in the wine. With the paella, which we made with chicken, rosemary, shrimp, artichokes, sausage, and peas, the wine was flexible enough to pair with the many textures and flavors of the dish. And its freshness handled the rich saffron flavors of paella just beautifully. If you'd like to try to make a somewhat less time-intensive version of the famous Spanish rice dish, you can check out this recipe, but DO NOT follow the final cooking instructions--they don't work and you will have uncooked rice 45 minute after the dish is supposed to be done. Instead, follow the recipe up until you bring the pan of goodies to a boil after adding the stock. Then let it simmer, uncovered and without stirring, for 7 minutes. It will still be soupy at this point. Transfer the pan into an oven preheated to 400 or 425 degrees, being sure to cover the handle with foil if it's plastic. Cook it there for a further 15 minutes. You can sprinkle some more stock over the pan if the mixture seems too dry (check 5-7 minutes after you first put the pan in the oven.) Remove the pan, cover it with foil, and let it stand on the counter for 10 minutes. Uncover the pan and let stand for another 5 minutes. Even if you don't have a traditional paella pan, this method yields good results and you should get some of the coveted crustiness and caramelization on the bottom of the rice.

I'd be interested to hear what those of you who are drinking more recent vintages of Bonny Doon think about Grahm's efforts so far. And if you're drinking new vintages of the Pacific Rim or "Big House" wines, I'd love to know how those are faring too, since they are no longer made by Grahm.


Saturday, July 19, 2008

Today on Serious Grape: A Loaf of Bread, a Jug of Wine

I'm in the Napa Valley for a few days, visiting wineries and sampling wines and participating in the 2008 Robert Mondavi Taste3 conference at Copia. There I should hear prognostications from some of the leading lights in food and wine regarding where they think we're heading in the future in terms of sustainability, food culture, and of course good taste. (picture of the Taste3 conference between sessions, taken this morning)

Please accept my apologies for slow responses to comments this week and for the lack of a proper post here today. I'll have a lot to say in the upcoming weeks about what I'm learning here, both about food and wine and about the flavors and textures of the Napa Valley.

But there is a post waiting for you today over on Serious Grape, my column on Serious Eats. In a follow up to last week's post on Fino Sherry, I'm taking a closer look at how Sherry is made. Turns out, it has a lot in common with sourdough bread. If you're curious about the connections between a loaf of bread and a jug of Sherry, head over there and check it out.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

An Italian Rosé--Perfect for Summer

I probably shouldn't admit this in polite, wine-loving society but my records indicate that this is the first Italian rosé I've ever had that didn't have bubbles in it. I'm not sure how it happened, but you need to take this whole post with a grain of salt because I'm going to give you pronouncements in it that are based on my first experience with this kind of wine.

If this is Italian rosé, it's certainly not like rosé that I've had from France, and it even makes Spanish rosé seem pale in comparison. This was more like drinking a very light Gamay from the Beaujolais--which was unexpected, but turned out to be kind of fun in the food and wine department.

The 2007 Torre dei Beati Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Cerasuolo was a rich, throaty, and full-bodied rosé wine. ($16, Biondivino; available elsewhere for between $12 and $19) Made with the Montepulciano grape, it was a very dark rose in color, and had a slight bit spritz when it was first opened up. The spritziness disappeared, and there were pronounced strawberry-rhubarb aromas and some wet stone. The strawberry-rhubarb aromas turned to pure raspberry flavors as you sipped it, and there was a surprisingly long, juicy aftertaste that I don't often get with rosé wines. The overall impression was dry, despite all that fruitiness. The wine costs more than many rosés in the market, but it was delicious and did have the deep color and richness (albeit in rosé form) of the Montepulciano grape. I consider it a good QPR wine because is retained so much varietal character, and I think you would too so long as you weren't expecting a salmon-colored Tavel to go with your salad.

Instead, think of robust fare, like grilled sausages or try it with our dish that night: pasta amatriciana. I did some reading about pasta amatriciana, and it turns out that even though the dish is associated with Rome, it originated in Abruzzo where the grapes for this wine were grown. For those of you who haven't had it before, you make a spicy sauce with garlic and/0r onions, white wine, tomatoes, hot red peppers, and guanciale or pancetta and it's traditionally served on the hollow spaghetti strands known as bucatini. I couldn't get pancetta for love nor money on the Mendonoma coast (and guanciale? no to that, as well), so I used center cut bacon which I know isn't authentic but it was delicious. If you'd like to try the recipe, you can use Vic's recipe that he modified from Marcella Hazan. The rosé's chilly fruitiness was terrific with the red pepper, and the raspberry flavors didn't overwhelm or clash with the tomatoes but were a nice counterpoint to the smoked meat.

I discovered this rosé searching for wines from Abruzzo to sample this month. I'm hoping the regions I have yet to drink my way through have some more rosés in store for me. If you've got a favorite Italian rosé let me know, because I really would like to have some more before summer is over.


Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A Contradictory Mourvèdre Coco Chanel Would Have Loved

Coco Chanel, the legendary French couturier, is reputed to have said "my inner contradictions fascinate me." I think contradictions are a beautiful thing, both in people and in wine. Contradictions in a wine keep your brain cells firing while you're tasting as you try to figure out if you really taste leather and roses at the same time and, if you do, do you like that?

Mourvèdre is a grape that would make Coco Chanel proud. It has dusty and sweet flavors, flower notes, earthy notes--you name it, you can find it in Mourvèdre. It can be hard to find a 100% Mourvèdre, because it's most commonly used in blends with Grenache and Syrah. I happen to love Mourvèdre when it's bottled on its own, however, because all of its seemingly contradictory flavors and aromas can produce wines that please your intellect as well as your palate.

Lately I had the chance to try a 2006 Telmo Rodríguez A1 Muvedre from Spain's Alicante region. ($9.95, Chronicle Wine Cellar; available elsewhere for $10 to $17) This was an excellent QPR example of all of the glorious contradictions of which Mourvèdre is capable. It had Mourvèdre's characteristic deep yet bright garnet color and aromas of blackberry and marshmallow when the bottle first opened. These aromas gave the wine an initial, sweet impression, but the flavors were much leaner than the aromas suggested. While my mouth was set for a fruitbomb, instead I got black fruits, a touch of tar, and a slightly green and stemmy note in the aftertaste followed quickly by catch of rose petals in the back of the throat. The wine felt very satiny as you sipped it, but afterwards the dusty tannins made your mouth feel a bit dry.

Because of the drying tannins, this wine was much better with food than it was without it, and I wanted to find a recipe to try with it that would be just as full of contradictions as the wine. I located a new take on a classic Spanish soup from the Rioja region that used sweet potatoes and linguica instead of the traditional potatoes and chorizo. It was a little sweet, a little salty, a little spicy, and just delicious. The recipe calls for linguica, but I had chorizo on hand and substituted that for the linguica with good results. It was particularly good at pulling out the wine's fruity and satiny features, while the smoky notes of the sausage and the tarry note in the wine were good partners.

I loved this wine, but it will not be to everyone's taste. I am a fan of Telmo Rodriguez's wines in part because he makes such a wide variety of bottlings, from luscious fruity treats to wines like this one that are full of surprises. Even better, as this 2005 article by Food & Wine's Lettie Teague explains, Rodriguez is not ashamed to make value wines. So even if you don't give his Mourvèdre a try, keep on the lookout for the name.


Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Wine Shopping in San Francisco, Italian Style

I'm warning you right now that you may feel a little shlubby if you wander into the chic wine store Biondivino in San Francisco's Russian Hill neighborhod wearing worn-out yoga pants and a sweatshirt. I was wearing one of my more presentable vacation-type outfits, which is not saying much admittedly, and I still felt underdressed. Biondivino is staffed by young, good looking, and hip people who can climb ladders and pull wine off of vertical displays gracefully. This does not precisely describe me, so I kept pulling at my shirt tails and hoping that no one noticed that I was solely responsible for raising the average age of people in the store by about a decade. (photo of the store's owner, Ceri, doing the death defying ladder crawl at Biondivino, courtesy of Yelp!)

The reason to go to Biondivino is not to feel dumpy or old, however. The reason to go is this: they have an astonishing range of affordable Italian wines for sale. What's more, handy little bright orange tags on the bottles indicate (even if the bottles are way up there and you are way down on the floor) that the wine is under $20.

Because of the layout, the store is not a browsing kind of store. It's not that browsing is prohibited--they were happy to let me stroll around--it's just that you can't just pick up and put down bottles on your own and read the back of labels given that some of them are accessible only by the aforementioned ladder. Instead, you are dependent upon the sales staff to help you out, which might frustrate you if you are used to anonymity in the wine shop. The good news on this front is that the staff knows what they're talking about. I waltzed in and started asking for Sardinian reds and roses from Abruzzo, and (!) a white wine from Basilicata and there was nothing that the store didn't have and the staff knew where it all was, too. At Biondivino they arrange the wines from the north of Italy to the south on vertical shelves, so as long as you (or they) know the geography you can head for more or less the right part of the display. I kept insisting that maybe the Pecorino I reviewed yesterday was actually from Le Marche, and they just shook their heads, smiled, and said firmly that it really was from Abruzzo. (Once I got the bottle in my hands and checked the back label I had to admit they were right.)

You can find a regional list of their offerings here and see for yourself what an excellent assortment of Italian bottles they have. I can't get the search function to work on their website, so you have to browse this list for a sense of what the store carries. They are happy to special order wine for you, and the day I visited the shop a special party was being arranged for some customers--so it's definitely a full-service wine store. They even do private tasting events for 10-15 people at their big, central table. If you are in San Francisco and looking for a fun idea for a birthday, anniversary, or even a "just for the hell of it" event, this might be a good option for you.

Biondivino is located at 1415 Green Street at the intersection of Green and Polk--aka the food and wine danger zone. If you're out and about in the Russian Hill neighborhood one day, stop in and see what Ceri's got in stock. I would have no hesitation in contacting her with any Italian wine questions you might have, and inquire about whether she can ship to you if you aren't in the area. I saw wines in that small store that I have not seen anywhere else, and I've not had a bad bottle yet from the small stash I purchased.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Abruzzo Mistaken Wine Identity, Case #1: Pecorino

As I mentioned in my first post about wines from the Abruzzo region, some of them have a bit of an identity problem. Some of the grapes used are masquerading as wines--or even cheese--from other parts of Italy. In the Abruzzo, no doubt they will tell you that it's the Tuscans and Romans who are stealing from the Abruzzese. Take today's wine from Abruzzo: Pecorino. Type it into The Oracle (i.e. Wikipedia) and all you will get is the Roman cheese. You have to specify "Pecorino Grape" to get it to cough up some viticultural information. And if you are looking for information on the grape, I'd skip the 1-line Wikipedia entry entirely and head to this article at Wine Library Terroir.

If you head to that article, you will discover that the variety was thought to be extinct until it was found growing wild in Le Marche, that sheep liked to snack on it which may be why it's named Pecorino, and that it's now grown mostly in Le Marche and Abruzzo.

This was my first Pecorino, but I can assure you right now that it won't be my last. It was made by Cantina Tolla, an Italian wine cooperative founded more than 40 years ago that now has 1200 partner growers and makers involved in producing a wide range of wines.

The 2007 Cantina Tollo Pecorino was clear straw yellow in color with a slightly greenish tinge that made it very summery in appearance. ($18, Bion Divino; unfortunately, I haven't been able to find it online elsewhere) Fresh aromas of Crenshaw melons and white nectarines continued the summer appearance of the wine into the aromas, and these elements were echoed in the juicy flavors of melon, peach, and nectarine. The wine picked up a briney, saline note in the aftertaste that really carried the wine over from very good into excellent QPR territory. The wine had all the medium-body and fresh citrus flavors that I was led to expect given the varietal characteristics, but that little saline kick at the end made it the latest example of a charming yet surprising Italian whites.

We had our Pecorino with a cheesy pasta dish made not with Pecorino but with goat's cheese dreamed up by Mario Batali: orecchiette with hazelnuts and goat cheese. It combines those little ear-shaped pasta with olive oil, goat cheese, parsley, a pinch of red pepper flakes, some toasted hazelnuts, and some toasted breadcrumbs in a dish that is so fast, so comforting, and so easy that it should be in everyone's repertoire for "what's for dinner" emergencies. Basically, it's like the best mac and cheese you've ever had, and for 20 minutes I considered becoming vegetarian and eating this every day. The salty goat cheese and that saline note in the wine were divine together, and the hazelnuts and breadcrumbs picked up a little bit of a nutty note in the wine that I hadn't noticed before. The fresh melon and summer fruit flavors cut through the richness of the cheese and the wine's medium body kept it from being overwhelmed by the pasta or tasting too sharp in the mouth.

I'm sounding like a broken record, I know, but in January I was not prepared for the delicious diversity of Italian white wines that I've encountered so far this year. I've just had my 7th Italian white and I know that they are in my wine cellar to stay--even if I have to get rid of some Italian reds to make room for them.


Sunday, July 13, 2008

Through the Looking Glass: Seeing Online Wine Culture from the Other Side

When I'm with people in the wine business, I'm usually the one on the outside looking in. I try to get a glimpse of the people, places, and hard work that it takes to make a great bottle of wine, then I get online and share that information with you.

On Friday, I had the privilege of participating in Inertia's annual Direct Symposium for their clients in the wine business. The theme was "Innovations for Today's Wine Marketplace" and it fits into Inertia's REthink Initiative to help people imagine new ways to sell and market their wine to you and me. For the conference, Inertia gathered together some of us who are active in the wine web scene to talk about how social media (Twitter, blogs, Facebook, etc.) can be a useful tool for wineries who want to forge closer relationships with their customers. Gary Vaynerchuk was one of the speakers, as was Joel Vincent of the Open Wine Consortium. In the audience were several other blogging and wine friends, like El Jefe of Twisted Oak, Patrick from Iridesse Wines, and Kaz from Wine Biz Radio. I spoke on a panel on wine blogging chaired by Tom Wark of Fermentation which featured Mike Duffy of the Winery Website Report and publicity and marketing specialist Julie Ann Kodmur.

I found myself on the other side of the looking glass this time, listening to questions from smart people in the wine world who are trying to figure out what to do about and how to understand this flourishing online wine culture in which you (by virtue of reading this blog) are participating. Here are a few impressions of what happened, and how I think it might effect how you learn about and buy wine in the future.

People in the wine business know that online wine culture is important. This can't be said enough, because I think there is still a pretty widespread belief that people in the wine business ignore, don't care about, and diminish the importance of online wine culture. I saw no evidence of this on Friday. On the contrary, wine bloggers were included in the category of journalists, people wanted to know how to spread information to customers without spamming people, and there was a great deal of curiosity about how to deal with online comments and criticism with sensitivity and respect.

Online wine culture is really no harder to figure out or more time consuming than email. There was a lot of justifiable concern about how much time it might take to get your bearings in the online wine world and participate in it. I had an a-ha moment when I realized that's exactly how I once felt about email. Now, I can't really imagine not having email, but at first I couldn't figure out how time spent on email was ever going to be productive. Sure, you have to manage your online time carefully so that it doesn't suck all your energy but this is no different from managing the other tasks in your day--and it might free up time you are spending on similar activities elsewhere. In general, I find I waste as much time in a day as I did before--I just waste it in more places, i.e. walking the halls, talking on the phone, hanging out at the copy machine, and on Twitter. And if Twitter saves you from the donuts in the breakroom, it is a good thing!

We are in a major shift from points to personality in the wine world. Foodies made this shift long, long ago as individual chefs and critics emerged as leading personalities in the food world--helped along by magazines and television. In my opinion, that is happening in wine, too, and this time it's being fueled by social media. The shift from points to personalities is gradual, but I do believe that it is real. I think the clearest example of the shift can be found in the popularity of Gary Vaynerchuk's Wine Library TV and the many people who follow him throughout his day on Twitter and other social media sites. But, we should all beware of imitation: there is only one authentic Gary. The message that I heard loud and clear from Gary and from Joel Vincent on Friday was this: be yourself and be honest. Don't try to be like Gary, don't try to be like Robert Parker, don't try to make your wine something it isn't. Do you make a simple quaffer? Say so. Don't market it as a complex monster. Do you absolutely adore Italian white wines? Shout it from the rooftops and make no bones about being biased, biased, biased. Social media is uniquely and precisely suited to letting you be you, so whether you are a consumer or producer you should let your personal preferences and quirks show--rough edges and all--whether you're commenting on a blog, writing a blog, or letting people know about you and your wine.

All of these developments are going to make the world of wine more interesting for consumers and producers. If you are a winery owner or maker and you're reading this and wondering how to get started in social media, you can always contact the folks at Inertia or take a look at Mike Duffy's great tips shared on his blog. And if you're a consumer, let your favorite wineries know that you care about personality more than points and you want to know more about them and how they make the wine you love. Whether you are a producer or a consumer, stepping through to the other side of the looking glass is always fun, and we all need a change of perspective every know and again. Twitter, blogs, Facebook, the Open Wine Consortium--all of these social media sites can help you to get that fresh perspective, every single day.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Telling the Truth About Sherry

Is it hot and humid where you are? Temperatures in northern California have been over 100 degrees in many places, and all across the country folks are complaining about the heat. (photograph "hot hot sun" by masaaidh)

If this sounds like you, you need to go out and get yourself a bottle of Fino Sherry. This may sound wrong, wrong, wrong if "sherry" conjures up great aunt Alice's stuffy front room, crocheted doilies, and tiny glasses of amber liquid served at room temperature that were cringingly sweet. But I'm telling you the truth: Sherry is the best wine you aren't drinking in a heat wave.

There are a few rules if you are interested in putting my veracity to the test. First, you need to go to a store that carries and sells a lot of Sherry. If it has dust on the bottle, you don't want it. You also need to buy a bottle from Spain. Sherry comes from Spain, in much the same way that Champagne comes from France. Other places make make wine with Palomino grapes, but it's just not Sherry. Finally, it needs to be dry and it needs to be pale--this means looking for labels that say Fino, Pale Dry, or go for Manzanilla. (the glass to the far left in this picture has Fino sherry in it, fyi) I've had a few bottles of Sherry here in the US, and the one I go back to over and over again because it's indecently affordable and widely available is Osborne Pale Dry Fino. It also is bottled with a screwcap in a process that keeps it tasting fresh as long as possible. This will cost you somewhere between $7 and $17 a bottle depending on where you are, and where you buy it. I bought my bottles for $11.99 at Weimax just outside San Francisco.

When you get your bottle home, put it in the coldest part of your fridge. Wait until it's very, very cold. Then put two small wine glasses in the freezer. Not thimbles--proper small wine glasses like the ones in the pictures above. My first glass of Fino was served to me in frosted glasses in Bilbao, Spain, so you want to trust me on this detail: frosted glasses keep the sherry cold and that's a good thing.

While you're waiting 5-10 minutes for the glasses to frost up, scrounge the cabinets and fridge for some cured meat (chorizo? salami? pepperoni?), some cheese (Manchego? Parmigiano? goat cheese?) some olives, and some nuts. Good potato chips are also an option. Put whatever you find on a plate--congratulations, you have just made tapas--take your frosty glasses out of the freezer, and pour some of your Fino into the glass.

It should be very, very pale. If it isn't, your bottle wasn't that fresh and you can either drink it anyway or take it back to the store and ask for something that's arrived in the store sometime this year. As you drink it, your body temperature will feel like it went down 10 degrees and you will swear that you have filled your lungs with ocean air. You will be struck by the slight brininess of the Fino (especially if eating olives), or its nuttiness (especially if eating a handful of nuts or some cheese). And you will be amazed at the way the spicy meat of your choice is perfect with the cold, cold wine.

This is the truth nobody tells you about sherry. And when people do tell you these truths, you probably weren't listening. This may sound like a "me, too" post and that I'm jumping on a moving bandwagon since Eric Asimov posted about the attractions of Sherry on Wednesday in the New York Times, but I'm going to post it anyway. There can't be too many people talking this stuff up.

Curious about the small print? I'm trying out a new way of linking to a social networking site for wine called Adegga. It automatically picks up this AVIN number and links it to a data entry for the wine, and to the contents of individual cellars and tasting notes. I'll be writing a story about it soon, but until then expect to see tiny alpha-numeric lines at the bottom of wine review posts.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Wine Blogging Wednesday #47: This Wine Brought to You By the Letter "S"

This month's Wine Blogging Wednesday, Lenn Thompson's online tasting event, is inspired by Sesame Street, Sammy the Snake, and all other good things that start with the letter "S." Our hosts, Erin and Michelle from Grape Juice, wanted to see what we would come up with if left to our own devices with only a consonant to guide us.

My choice was the 200-

cenic Root Growers
picerack Vineyards "Punchdown"
Syrah from the
onoma Coast.

How's that for sticking to the theme!

First, a little bit about Scenic Root Growers. You may not link all their wines together, but Scenic Root are the people who bring you Pey-Marin and Pey-Lucia Pinot Noirs, Texbook Cabernet Sauvignon, Mount Tamalpais Merlot, and Pey-Marin Riesling. The folks behind these labels are Susan and Jonathan Pey, who are proponents of natural and sustainable growing practices. They are also helping to keep alive the tradition of wine-making and grape-growing in Marin County (you may know Marin County as the northern end of the Golden Gate Bridge), which began back in the early 19th century.

For this bottling, Susan and Jonathan did things a little differently from what you might expect to see in a California Syrah. First, they obtained cool climate, Sonoma Coast fruit. Then, they used neutral French oak barrels for fermentation and to age the wines which means there is little to no oak influence on the wine. Finally, a little bit (4%) Grenache was added to the juice to compliment the existing fruit flavors and textures.

The result was an excellent QPR discovery. ($20.89 in our local coastal grocery store; expect to find it for $19-$40 at a retailer near you) The 2006 Scenic Root Growers Spicerack Vineyards "Punchdown" Syrah reminded me of the northern Rhone's red wines, especially those from the area around Cornas, with its blue-black fruit profile and spicy touches of pepper. It was inky purple color, which hinted at the aromas of plums, blueberries, and smoke that were to come. The flavors opened up into blueberries, plum, huckleberries and finished with a touch of bacon fat.

Because of its cool blue fruit, this Syrah will be very easy to pair with a wide range of dishes from mac and cheese to chili and hamburgers. We had it one night with leftover chicken chili and it was excellent, but it really shone with some barbecued ribs. The meatiness of the pork picked up that bacon fat taste in the finish, and the pepper was very nice with the spices that were used.

Thanks to Erin and Michelle for such a fun theme. It led me to a wine that I may not have bought otherwise--and am I glad I did. I don't have lots of room in my cellar for multiple bottles of the same wine, since I'm always hunting for something new to taste and write about here on the blog. This is one of the few bottles I've had in the past few years that I knew I wanted to have again--and again. Somehow, somewhere, I need to find some room for a few more bottles!

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Exploring the Wines of Abruzzo

Between the Apennine Mountains and the Adriatic coastline, on the calf of Italy's boot, lies the region known as the Abruzzo. Like many regions in Italy, Abruzzo is a study in contrasts between oceanside resorts and high mountain passes, abandoned medieval villages and modern hydroelectric plants. The local wildlife includes Swiss ski bunnies and much more formidable bears, wolves, and other vanishing species that find refuge in the Parco Nazionale d'Abruzzo. (photo of the village of Colleedimezzo by kruder396)

Abruzzo is a place where the mass- production of wine is giving way to a more careful, smaller approach to grape farming that is more reflective of the region's agricultural past, and part of a general swing in the south of Italy towards wines that can be more competitive on the international market. One of the Abruzzo's problems is that their great red grape, Montepulciano, shares a name with a place in Italy that makes pretty good wine, too. But consumer awareness is gradually catching up with the region. After decades of being associated mostly with Trebbiano d'Abruzzo (you may know is at Ugni Blanc), it is now possible to find rich roses made from Montepulciano d'Abruzzo that are labeled "Cerasuolo"and full-bodied reds made from the same grape that are suitable for some time in the cellar. (picture of the Torre Medicea near S. Stefano di Sessanio by kruder396)

This month I'll be exploring the red, white, and rose wines of Abruzzo to learn more about the region and how it is changing. I'm looking forward to tasting a Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, of course, made by a well-known maker that retails for slightly more than $20--but everybody tells me it's well worth the splurge. I've also purchased a "Cerasuolo," and a white wine that isn't made from Trebbiano grapes, but from another grape with an identity crisis: Pecorino. (picture "Vigna" by Antonio Dell'Elce)

Along the way I'll be pairing the wine with some Italian foods that will bring a smile to your face this summer. The Abruzzo is known for its liberal use of chili peppers, and for its grilled pork and lamb. It's also home to DeCecco pasta, so there will be at least one pasta dish made with the native noodles. (Red Camp, by Giuseppe Andrea)

I'm eager to hear about your experiences with the wines of Abruzzo. Have you only had a cheap Montepulciano d'Abruzzo with your pizza on a Friday night? What about your luck with Trebbiano? And for those of you who know the wines better than I, which producers do you look out for in the stores?

Monday, July 07, 2008

Chardonnay: Toothpicks Not Included

Everybody has at least one story about their joys and sorrows drinking chardonnay. Some remember when they tasted it and were enchanted by the buttered apple flavors. Some remember when they tasted it and felt like they had just had a bottle of toothpicks. Some even remember the moment that they had had just one bottle too many of overoaked chardonnay and became card carrying members of the ABC Club--the group dedicated to drinking Anything But Chardonnay.

No grape deserves to be written off, no matter what shenanigans winemakers get up to sometimes. There are good and even great Chardonnays, as any fan of white Burgundy will tell you. And while there are fans of unoaked Chardonnay (I'm one of them), there are still many, many drinkers who will confess to liking a buttery chardonnay on occasion (I'm one of them, too). It's a pleasure, therefore, to be able to recommend a very good QPR US Chardonnay that's made with a bit of restraint, is still creamy, but does not have that fakey, toothpicky woodenness to it that I just loathe. And it's affordable, too.

The 2006 Bennett Family Chardonnay The Reserve has a suggested retail price of $15.99. (I received my bottle as a sample, and you can find it at a retailer for between $13 and $20.) The wine is made from Russian River Valley grapes, and is fermented in French oak barrels. There, the wine does undergo malolactic fermentation to smooth out the acidity and is left on its lees for eight more weeks before being lightly filtered and put in its bottles. This method produces a pleasant, summery Chardonnay that is straw in color and has aromas of lemon, golden delicious apple, and a touch of vanillin oak. Flavors of apple and sour cream turn a bit more buttery after you've swallowed a bit of the wine. The final alcohol is 13.9% alc/vol, which is higher than Burgundian Chardonnay, but lower than many of this wine's US counterparts.

I find chicken an ideal partner for Chardonnay, and this wine went beautifully with Nigella Lawson's butterflied chicken with lemon and rosemary and her oven-roasted crispy potatoes. This is the most often-requested meal in my repertoire among friends coming to dinner and it is a dream to make for weekend parties, even in the summer, provided you can eat outside since it requires the oven. The lemon, rosemary, and olive-oil marinated chicken is laid out flat after some wielding of the poultry shears and cooks in 35 minutes or so (ps. it can hold in the oven semi-indefinitely at 300 degrees if you linger over cocktails). The recipe accentuated the lemony aromas in the wine, and the tender, moist chicken paired nicely with its buttery texture. I always substitute olive oil for the goose fat in Nigella's potatoes, and they turn out perfectly every time as long as you follow the recipe exactly in every other particular. The brown, caramelized outside of the potatoes was fantastic with the apple and cream notes in the wine, as was the potatoes' creamy insides.

If you are looking for a nicely made, well-balanced, and delicious white wine for creamy Chardonnay lovers and don't want to pay through the nose for it, the 2006 Bennett Chardonnay is the wine for you. Happily, if you want toothpicks you'll have to bring some of your own.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Wines for Summer Barbecues

Today I posted a seasonal "wine survival guide" to summer barbecues in my Serious Grapes column on Serious Eats. (cover of Nick Sanchez's Walkout Diary from the blog China-Burma-India)

With the barbecue season kicking into high gear, you may have had your fill of zinfandel and chardonnay. Or, you've already been to so many barbecues that you've completely depleted your local stores' stock of these wines . If so, I've got some suggestions for other wines to try with everything grilled. I've even included an easy way to remember my recommendations, but you'll have to click over there to read all about it.

Drive safe, have a happy Independence Day holiday weekend, and I'll see you back here on Monday bright and early.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Wine Book Club #4: Tasting Pleasure by Jancis Robinson

We'll be Tasting Pleasure during the dog days of summer thanks to the leader of the 4th edition of the Wine Book Club, Farley of Behind the Vines.

Tasting Pleasure: Confessions of a Wine Lover ($18; used copies available for under $2!) is a classic wine book written by one of the most illustrious wine writers in the world, Jancis Robinson. Known for her direct, witty writing style, Robinson talks about her career in the wine biz as it evolved from contributing writer to international wine expert. I'm hoping that some of the bloggers from the US wine biz join in this month and tell us how the inner workings of the UK wine biz differ from those on this side of the pond. And the book will also offer insights into the experiences of women and wine writing (as well as the wine world more generally).

When our attention wanes and our good intentions start falling by the wayside, we'll be reminded to pick up Tasting Pleasure when Michelle from My Wine Education "spins the bottle" and reviews Natalie MacLean's Red, White, and Drunk All Over. This is one of the more recent wine books written by a woman, and MacLean is open about following in Jancis Robinson's footsteps. The two books offer an interesting compare/contrast exercise in writing style and substance.

A surprising number of wine lovers and bloggers confess to never having read this book, and if you are one of them I hope that you will consider joining us for WBC #4. We only had three participants in June, and I'm hoping that we have at least four this time around. If you are a blogger, please publicize this event on your site and consider joining in. And if you are one of those widely-read folks who has read this book before, your reminiscences will be welcome, too--and you can leave encouraging comments below. Please post your "book report" on the due date of Tuesday, August 26. For more details, please see Farley's post, or visit our club pages on Shelfari or Facebook.

Coming in the September/October "back to school" edition of the WBC: a book that's hot off the presses that's written by a wine blogger. Stay tuned for details.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Sauvignon Blanc--With All the Bells and Whistles

Sauvignon Blanc can be a bit of a one note samba sometimes. Don't get me wrong--even simple Sauvignon Blancs are pleasing, especially in summer when their crisp, citrusy fruit feels like it lowers your body temperature 5 degrees with every sip.

But a Sauvignon Blanc with all the bells and whistles can remind you just how terrific this variety is, and how much it's capable of delivering in terms of taste when it's in good hands.

I recently tried a 2007 Raymond Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc Reserve that was sent to me as a sample. It's from Napa, and even though I often find it difficult to find good wines under $20 from that area. With a suggested retail price of just $15, this wine definitely qualifies as an excellent QPR find.

The Raymonds have been producing wine under their own label since 1971, but their roots in the Napa Valley go deep into the past. Roy Raymond Sr. came to Napa in 1933 and married Mary Jane Beringer in 1936. Roy then took an active role in the running of Beringer Winery, which survived Prohibition by making communion wine and was busy trying to rebuild following repeal. Roy and his two sons, Roy Jr. and Walter, continued to work for Beringer until the winery was sold in 1971. Then they struck out on their own, and the family now makes several lines of wine including a series of reserve wines, a series of small lot wines, limited edition wines (including a late harvest Sauvignon Blanc that looks fantastic), and the "R Collection" of budget-friendly wines.

The 2007 Raymond Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc Reserve that I tasted was a delicious and distinctive wine. The fruit sees no oak and is fermented and aged in stainless steel. The Sauvignon Blanc juice is blended with 5% Semillon, which gives the wine beautiful body while retaining its crisp flavors and textures. Pale straw in color, the wine had succulent aromas of pear, lime, and hints of freshly mown grass as it opened up. As you sipped it, zesty flavors of citrus rounded out into juicy melon and then softened further into pear. There was a mouthwatering aftertaste that kept you coming back for more.

We had the wine with some simply grilled halibut and vegetables, and it was lovely with the buttery fish. The crispness of the wine cut through its fleshy richness without being tart or assertive. And with the vegetables that nice grassy note in the aromas became even more interesting, shading towards tarragon and thyme.

This is truly one of the more memorable and complex Sauvignon Blancs I've had for under $20. If you've been drinking a lot of tangy, grassy Sauvignon Blancs from down under, I highly recommend you remind your palate that Sauvignon Blanc has some other flavors up its sleeve. It's a new release, so don't get discouraged if it's not yet at a retail store near you--just keep your eyes peeled and buy several bottles when you see it. This one will be on my list of Thanksgiving suggestions come November, and you'll want to have enough to drink now and still have some left over come turkey time.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Headlines from Pinot Days 2008

I attended the 2008 Pinot Days in San Francisco again this year, and what follows are some impressions and musings on what I heard, saw, and tasted. Just so you know, I make no attempt at any trade tasting to drink everything in the room. Instead, I have a plan of who I want to talk to and what I want to taste. So there may be other people who attended and drank different wines that will disagree with me--but that's part of what makes wine fun, yes?

Reply Heard Most Often After Saying "Hi": "We don't have anything under $20."

Only in California moment: The massage station, where they were giving out back rubs.

Wildest Thing Seen at Pinot Days: The WinePod, a home wine-making machine pictured to the left with full video-support beamed in over the internet. It's the R2D2 for wine lovers. If you and your loved ones have $4400 to spare, you can have one of your very own.

Naughtiest T-shirt: "I want to put my Pinot in your mouth." (name withheld to protect the not-so-innocent)

The 2006 Vintage: it's all about the spice, based on the wines that I tasted. Clove, cinnamon, nutmeg--a spice box full of rich flavors greeted you in most glasses of wine. Accompanied by a firm core of acidity, I think this is a vintage that will (on the whole) age well, and in time some of those intensely spicy notes may soften. If you like Pinots that are approachable and easy to drink when young, with buckets of raspberry and earthy flavors, this may not be the vintage for you--I'd buy carefully. If spice is your thing, the standouts for me were the 2006 Londer Estate Grown Anderson Valley ($16-$40) with it distinctive flavors of clove, allspice, mushroom, and cherry; the 2006 Copain Kiser En Bas which ($56) was a bit tight now but had terrific spiciness and a slightly caramel aftertaste that worked very nicely with the black cherry fruit; and the 2006 Alma Rosa La Encantada ($49) with lots of cherry and baking spices and a clove finish, along with touches of rose petal.

What was missing: perfume. A lot of the wines were closed down and tight, and when I finally swirled a glass and got that floral and fruity smell I associate with the wine, accompanied by mushroom, forest, and earth aromas, it hit me right between the eyes. Melville's Pinot Noirs were a treat in the aroma and flavor departments, as were the wines from Londer Vineyards, Row Eleven, Sarah's Vineyards from the Santa Cruz Mountains, Anglim, and Eric Kent. The most stunning aromas came from the 2005 Fort Ross Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast ($35-$50), which had gardens of flowers, herbs, and cherry blossoms accompanied by touches of cedar and a core of raspberry and cherry fruit--and that was before you sipped any of it.

Favorite producers who continued to please: My favorite Pinot Noirs these days continue to be made by Fort Ross and Eric Kent. Fort Ross just released its 2005 Pinot Noirs, while Eric Kent brought along bottles of the 2006s and barrel samples of the 2007s.

Fort Ross's 2005 Sonoma Coast bottling had arresting aromas and velvety flavors of blackberry, raspberry, and earth. This is one elegant, refined, and captivating wine. The 2005 Reserve is still wound tight, and has more spicy notes with the berry fruit. This one will take some time to really settle down and show its full potential.

The 2006 Eric Kent Pinot Noirs I tasted last year in barrel samples lived up to their early promise. The 2006 Eric Kent Stiling Vineyard ($37-$53) had beautiful cherry blossom aromas, bright cherry fruit, and a lavender and herbal lift just when you least expect it. The 2006 Eric Kent Windsor Oaks ($37-$47) had soft, seductive red fruits and a black tea note in the aftertaste that made the wine deepen and darken. And there's more great wine to come with the 2007 vintage, with the Windsor Oaks barrel sample showing bright strawberry and cherry fruit with a caramelized edge to them. The 2007 Stiling Vineyard barrel sample was just exploding with raspberry fruit, and had more acidity than the Windsor Oaks and notes of earth and bitter chocolate. Eric Kent has a new Pinot Noir for 2007 from the Cleary Vineyards, which will please traditionalists with the earth, mushroom, and Asian spice flavors and cherry fruit and a bit of licorice for good measure. The 2007s will be spending another 6 months in the barrel before bottling, so it will be fascinating to track how they continue to evolve.

Impressive newer producers: I found three producers at this years tasting that I will be buying from in the upcoming months. They all have relatively small production, so if you are interested in their wine, I'd contact them directly.

The first is Scenic Root Winegrowers, headed up by Susan and Jonathan Pey who have made a variety of wines from different appellations under seemingly distinct labels since 1999. Their 2006 Pinot Noirs were quite impressive. The 2006 Pey-Marin "Trois Filles" ($42) was made with organic grapes and had aromas and flavors of chocolate, raspberry, and white flowers. The wine had a beautiful satiny mouthfeel, and was very elegant. The 2006 Pey-Lucia "Frisquet" ($39) had sweet raspberry top-notes in the aromas and flavors, which got darker and richer as you held it in your mouth. This wine had great acidity, too, and I suspect it will only get better with time.

Lutea Wine Cellars, headed up by winemaker Suzanne Hagins, are made with organic and/or biodynamic fruit and a restrained use of oak. Her wines are fascinating and well-made Pinots that can be enjoyed by all your senses--including your brain. I loved the stone and mineral notes and the bright raspberry fruit in the 2006 Pinot Noir Carneros ($35), and the satiny blackberry fruit in the 2006 Pinot Noir Russian River Valley ($35) had a charming lift of lavender and mint. How good are they? I've already signed up for their wine club.

Paul Mathew Vineyards makes wines under the leadership of Mat Gustafson. I was leaving the event when I met up with some of the folks from Vinquire, and they said their new favorites at the tasting were Lutea (see above) and Paul Mathew. Thanks for the tip! You are going to be hearing a lot about their wines in the upcoming months, I am sure, because they are well-priced and very flavorful. The 2006 Paul Mathew Sonoma Coast ($30) had high-toned cherry and raspberry fruit aromas and flavors. The 2006 Paul Mathew Russian River Valley ($32) had shyer strawberry aromas and flavors, and nice earthy and mushroom notes. The 2006 Paul Mathew Ruxton Vineyard ($35) had interesting spicebox and raspberry aromas and a light and lean flavor profile of cherry fruit with a spicy aftertaste. The 2006 TnT Vineyard ($35) had explosive aromas and flavors of cherries, spice, clove, and herbs.

Good Pinot under $20: there aren't that many of them, but I'd look for the 2006 Londer Anderson Valley described above, or the 2006 Row Eleven Vinas 3 ($18-$20) which has a sweet, juicy cherry aroma and a bit of earthiness added to the cherries in the flavors. This is not as complicated as many of the higher-priced wines, but it is a terrific, well-made, everyday Pinot Noir.

I'll be returning in more detail to these (and more) Pinot Noirs in upcoming posts, but I wanted to get out the highlights straight away so you can start placing orders, signing up for mailing lists, and doing what you need to do to keep yourself in good red wine for next year.