Monday, June 30, 2008

Anderson Valley Fire Update

The sun wasn't orange today at 7 am, which was the first sign I had that things may be improving on the weather/fire front in Mendocino County and the Anderson Valley. When I took my walk, the sky was blue and the purple marine layer was sitting out on the horizon.

Yesterday I talked to people from several Anderson Valley wineries, including Londer and Handley. They said that so far everybody is ok in and around their immediate area. The tasting rooms are open, and though the air is likely to be smokey through Thursday the situation in the Anderson Valley is improving. Boonville, at the southeastern edge of the valley close to Highway 101 is a bit congested with firetrucks and there was a road closure last night related to fighting the Mountain View Road fire, but that situation has eased as of noon today.

At present the Mendocino fires are 38% contained, and the number of fires burning currently is down to 123. A red flag warning for the county, which was posted for fear there would be more dry lightning strikes, was recently lifted. The 100% containment of the large Walker fire in Lake County has freed up firefighters for Mendocino County. That extra manpower, combined with the colder temperatures and higher humidity, is making the difference.

If you are traveling to any vineyards in the area over the next few days, it's best to call ahead and make sure that all is ok before heading out. Fingers crossed that the situation will continue to improve over the next few days. Thanks to everybody for their messages, and their good wishes.

Cannonau: Proving "Rustic Wine" Isn't a Bad Thing

I'm wrapping up my month of Sardinian wines today with a wine that exemplifies the wine description "rustic."

What is a rustic wine? It's a topic of debate, and some people use it as a put-down to describe wines they find simple, unsophisticated, and lacking in the fruitiness that might make a wine "quaffable" (that's a subject for another day). Like my esteemed colleague Tyler Colman of Dr. Vino, however, I think it's a good thing. In a post made way back in February 2007, he entered into a spirited discussion with some readers about the definition of a rustic wine. Dr. Vino described rustic wines as "off-the-beaten-path varieties or regions that maybe have some quirks or rough edges but also have a certain undeniable charm, particularly in the face of a pasteurized, homogenized wine in an “international” style."

This definition certainly fits the Sardinian red wine that I tried. I was made from Cannonau grapes--which is what Grenache is called on the island of Sardinia. Turns out there is a bit of controversy these days about the origins of Cannonau. We used to say the Spanish brought it to Sardinia, but now experts wonder if it isn't indigenous to Sardinia ,and the Spanish took it back with them after they invaded the island in the 13th century. Whatever you call it, Cannonau from Sardinia has retained the idiosyncratic rusticity that can make you feel that you are drinking wine from a different age. Craig Camp had a Cannonau a few weeks ago, and likened it to an old-fashioned Chateauneuf du Pape from the Rhone.

The 2003 Santa Maria La Palma Le Bombarde was one of those wines that reminded you that rusticity is something that you happen upon all too infrequently these days when drinking wine. ($18, Bion Divino) Upon first sip, it smalled and tasted like iron--overwhelmingly so--with some gamey notes that made me think I had made a serious mistake with this wine. I left it alone in the glass for 15 or so, then sipped it and the iron tang had gone, replaced by flavors of meat and leather. Another 15 minutes and the meat and leather had melded with a strong, cherry liqueur flavor. In the end it was very much like an older Chateauneuf du Pape, with all the rusticity and funkiness left in and none of its opulence of plushness. This wine had great varietal typicity, but it may not appeal to New World Grenache fans. Good QPR for a wine that has oodles of character, but may cost more than you want to spend on a wine with lots of rough edges.

Like most rustic wines, the Cannonau was much better with food than without. Our favorite pairing was with a BLT and some sweet potato fries. The sandwiches were made on some toasted sourdough made by our friends at the Twofish Baking Company, and the sourdough tang was perfect with the any remaining iron notes. The smokey bacon was terrific with the meat and leather tastes, and the tomato and the cherry flavors sparked off each other without clashing.

Listening to Lynne Rossetto Kasper's The Splendid Table podcast for June 21, I discovered a new reason to love this rustic wine: Dan Buettner discovered that is has 3 times the antioxidants of any other grape on earth. It's one reason why Sardinians (who love their Cannonau) are one of the five groups highlighted in his book Blue Zones, which studied communities with exceptionally long-lived members to learn about life habits that could contribute to health and wellness.

Sardinian Cannonau will be one of the reds that stands out from my Italian regional tour. Like one of the centenarian Sardinian sheep-herders interviewed in Dan Buettner's book, it proves that rusticity is not such a bad thing, after all.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Wine Lover's Break Room--for Techies Only

Ever wonder where wine bloggers go when they aren't blogging? Many of them work for a living (!), but since they are creatures who live partially online, they often take their coffee breaks in a virtual break room on Twitter, the micro-blogging platform that lets you chat to friends in 140 characters or less. (image from animationrollercoaster)

Increasingly, however, Twitter has been a problem. You show up in the break room and you can't get on because the servers are overloaded, you can't check messages because the servers are overloaded, you can't snoop on old conversations because the servers are overloaded. You get the picture.

Frustrated with the slowdowns, stoppages, and inflexibility of Twitter, Catavino (with some help from Twisted Oak's El Jefe) started an exodus to another micro-blogging platform called Pownce. This service lets you upload videos, texts, pictures, and messages. Problem is, fewer people are on Pownce, and even though it works consistently, it's slower.

I was bored and fidgety yesterday, and found two tools for micro-bloggers that you may want to check out if you are into this world of techie procrastination. The first is Summize. This site pops up with a simple search window, and you can enter the username of any of your friends, or your own username, to take a look at past conversations and posts on Twitter. You can even create a feed in your reader for a particular search term like "@YOURUSERNAME" which will update your feed whenever someone replies to you on Twitter.

The second is HelloTxt. This is a micro-blogging platform that enables you to post an update once to multiple services (such as Twitter, Pownce, and Facebook, among many others). You can also monitor your friends' updates to Twitter and Facebook. They are working on Pownce but it isn't fully functional yet so you will still have to go over to Pownce and follow conversations and replies if you are active there.

If you spend inordinate amounts of your time online like we do, and feel like hanging out in the "break room" with a lot of wine bloggers, head over to twitter, Pownce, or wherever you like to hang out online and search for us. We're easy to find! Just search on our blog name, our blogging handle (like drdebs), or even an email. Send a friend request, and you'll be in for a wild ride (especially on Fridays when we all seem to go collectively and individually bonkers). Wine recommendations, recipe tips, baby updates, networking, ideas for collaboration, whining, weather updates--everything that happens in your break room at work happens in these virtual rooms, too. You can even complain about your real job, if you feel like it.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Vendredi du Vin #15: champagne (mais pas de Champagne)

Bonjour et bienvenue. Aujourd'hui, je suis en train d'écrire très mauvais français pour participer à Vendredis du Vin #15, la réponse française à Wine Blogging Wednesday.

Le thème du mois est Nul n’est champagne en son pays, et il nous a été demandé à déguster un vin mousseux hors de France. Pour moi, le choix est évident: Je voudrais boire un vin de Californie, en particulier de la proximité Anderson Valley.

J'ai bu une bouteille de NV Roederer Estate Brut, un vin que les Américains buveur décrivent souvent comme le plus «français» d'origine nationale vin mousseux. Le vin est pâle avec beaucoup de mousse et de petites bulles. Arômes de brioche et de citron. Saveurs de pommes, pain grillé, et de noix. Il s'agit en général un excellent vin pour le prix, le vin coûte environ 20 $.

Merci à Remy pour l'organisation de l'événement, de Nicolas Ritoux pour accueillir ce thème du mois, et à toutes les personnes parlant français partout dans le monde pour leur patience avec mes pauvres tentatives de communiquer en français.

To all English-speaking GWU$20 readers: I made a feeble effort to participate today in Vendredis du Vin, the Francophone virtual tasting event organized by Remy Charest of the blog The Wine Case. The theme for the month was to drink a sparkling wine that wasn't from Champagne.

For my submission I drank a sparkler that is often described as the most "French" domestic NV sparkler: the NV Roederer Estate Brut. As always, this was an excellent wine for the price, and can be found in most markets for around $20. It was pale straw in color, with abundant frothy mousse and a fine bead or bubble. There were aromas of rich brioche and lemon, and flavors of apples, toast, and nuts. Excellent QPR.

Vendredis du Vin is a great event, and if you have even a smattering of bad French like me, you should give it a try and check out their website. You can get there by clicking on the logo at the top of the page.

See you soon--and I'll be writing in English again, I promise.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Warning: These Wines May Change Your Mind About Pinot Grigio

When Pinot Grigios are good they are very good--but when they are bad, they are horrible.

Overproduced Italian Pinot Grigio flooded into the US market some years back, and much of it was thin and tart. If you chilled it to near freezing and served it on a hot day in place of lemonade no one made much fuss, and soon people who didn't like Chardonnay could find Pinot Grigio on restaurant and bar menus and started ordering it by the glass. More overproduced Pinot Grigio came pouring in to meet the new demand. At cocktail parties, women were offered Pinot Grigio as soon as they entered the door, as if our genetic makeup demanded we receive a glass of the stuff a day or we'd shrivel up and die. Today, the poor grape has joined Merlot and Chardonnay as Varieties Most Likely to Be Dissed in polite wine society. Had Miles of Sideways been a woman, the most famous wine line in movie history may well have been "I am NOT drinking any f&#*ing Pinot Grigio!"

Pinot Grigio--or Pinot Gris as it is called in places outside Italy--is a grape that is capable of making a wide stylistic range of wines. In Alsace, the grape produces wines that have body, intense floral and honeyed notes, and citrus. In Italy, the grape makes wines that are light bodied and acidic, often with a touch of spritziness. Here in the US, Pinot Grigios/Pinot Gris range from the full and melony to the bright and citrusy. And I'm here to tell you that these wines can be excellent.

I've got a pair of very good QPR Pinot Grigios to recommend that should warm the heart and quench the thirst of even skeptical wine lovers who have avoided this grape for the past 10 years.

The first is the very good QPR 2007 Altanuta Pinot Grigio. I received this as a sample, but you should be able to find it near you for between $9 and $15. What I liked most about this wine was that it was well-made and wasn't trying to be something else. As a result, what you got was a tasty, straightforward Pinot Grigio at a very attractive price point. Light aromas of lemon, flowers, and stone accompanied the characteristically pale straw color of this Italian wine. The flavors were citrusy and smooth, with no bitterness or tartness. This was a great summer wine, with a refreshing, light body--and it tastes like an Italian Pinot Grigio should taste with a light, but not watery, freshness. It is a natural partner for shrimp or clams--we had it with linguine alla vongole and the clean citrus flavors were lovely with the briny clams and the sharp garlic, providing a contrast of flavors and textures.

The second is the 2006 Esca Pinot Grigio from the Russian River Valley ($17.99, WineQ). This was one intense wine, with aromas of lemon oil, lemon peel, and a mineral nuance that I simply couldn't place. One of my fellow bloggers, MonkuWino at One Wine Per Week, described this wine as "steely" and that corresponded to what I was smelling in my glass. The flavors are fresh and zesty, full of lemons that turned slightly bitter on the finish. I enjoyed this very good QPR wine immensely, in large part because of those in-your-face lemon oil aromas, and it is one of the better domestic Pinot Grigios I've had. We had it with a pasta dish that was sauced with chicken, spinach, mushrooms, a bit of cream, and orange zest and this really brought out the intense, concentrated aromas and flavors of the wine.

Whether you prefer your Pinot Grigios light and refreshing or steely and intense, there are good choices out there in the market that don't cost a fortune and are a far cry from the anemic wines being poured by the glass in some restaurants. Give one a try and remind yourself that Pinot Grigio--like Merlot--isn't all bad.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Fire Report: Mendocino, Anderson Valley, Lake County

We woke up once again to a thick, orange haze and the smell of smoke in the air. It is our 2nd day of air quality warnings. And we're not even in the fire zone--we're in the evacuation zone.

For those of you who haven't heard, lightning strikes over the weekend set off more than 100 fires in the region, and they spread due to intensely dry conditions and stiff winds. More than 19000 acres have been burned in Mendocino County, and another 9000 have been burned in Lake County. And there are more fires (842 at last count) throughout northern California, as this map shows:

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Here in my part of the world, the northern Sonoma coast where it touches Mendocino County, volunteer fire crews and California Department of Forestry firefighters have been working to battle the blazes in nearby residential, agricultural, and viticultural areas.

If you are a wine lover and have ever had a wine by Handley, Esterlina, Claudia Springs, Husch, Roederer, Pacific Echo, Londer, Navarro, Standish, or Greenwood Ridge--please think good thoughts for these families and businesses since they are within 3 miles of the 1400 acre/5% contained Navarro fire.

View Larger Map

Wherever you are, consider supporting your local firefighters and their efforts today. It only takes a strike of lightning to make you realize how much depends on them and their professionalism in a time of crisis.

Those of you interested in following the story can keep track of recent developments via the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, which is providing excellent coverage.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Wine Book Club #3: To Cork Or Not to Cork?

4 billion dollars. That's what's at stake financially in the wine biz when it comes to getting consumers to make up their minds about what stopper they want in their wine bottle. But as George Taber explains in his new book, To Cork or Not to Cork? Tradition, Romance, Science, and the Battle for the WineBottle ($26, Scribner) there's more than just money at stake, too. If you are a dedicated oenophile and enjoy having esoteric wine subjects presented in a humorous, accessible way by a gifted writer you will like this book. My hat is off to anyone who can convey detailed, often scientific information with flair and enthusiasm. It's not a book for the casual wine drinker, but if you are a wine enthusiast this is a book you will want on your shelf.

Taber's book was selected by Lenn Thompson of Lenndevours for the 3rd edition of the Wine Book Club, the every-other-month meeting of bloggers and readers to discuss a recent or classic book on wine. What I learned from Lenn's pick is just how serious the business of closures is in the wine industry.

In the story so far, big industry money and scientific research supporting the use of alternatives to natural cork have been on a collision course with the tastes and prejudices of the average wine consumer, who is resistant to change. The pop of the cork, the way it rolls around on the table, the little design--even sniffing the darn thing--all play a part in a person's sensory enjoyment of wine. Complicating the matter further is tradition, the increasing pursuit of all things natural, and the need to impress friends and relatives by not serving wine in a bottle that only requires a flick of the wrist to open it.

Taber does more than you might expect is humanly possible to make the tension between the needs of the wine, the winemakers, and the consumers interesting. He delves into the annals of history, and tells you about the first man who saw the cells in cork (Robert Hooke). Taber recounts the story of Randall Grahm's cork "funeral." Periodic "Message in a Bottle" breaks between chapters describe particular incidents with wine closures that will bring a smile of recognition to most wine lovers' faces. And there is even a villain in the piece, in the form of TCA (trichloroanisole) which occurs naturally in cork and can impart a musty, wet-cardboard smell and taste to wine for those who are sensitive to it.

No one wants to drink wine that smells like their basement after a flood--so why do so many people resist alternative closures? If you're like me, Stelvin (screwtop) closures are much less of an issue than ersatz plastic corks, which no one seems to like. There are alternatives to natural cork, Stelvin closures, and synthetic corks: elegant and expensive glass stoppers, which Taber explains have a long history; and the stoppers made with cork granules and a binding agent, which are increasingly popular. With both the glass and the amalgamated closures you get the characteristic "pop" of pleasure in opening a wine bottle, but not the threat of TCA contamination.

In pursuit of my own semi-scientific findings on the subject of TCA taint, the good folks at Oenéo Closures sent me a little test kit of untreated cork granules, steam-cleaned cork granules, and cork granules that have been decontaminated with a proprietary process called DIAM that is a little like what happens to coffee beans when they are decaffeinated. I followed their instructions, added distilled water to the cork granules, and let them sit for 18 hours. I then decanted the liquid into wine glasses. I could definitely smell the classic wet, moldy cardboard aroma in the untreated mixture, and smelled nothing but water in the other two samples. Definitely a good sign, and it would give me some confidence to know that an expensive bottle of wine had one of these corks in it before I splurged and bought it. The corks made from the super-cleaned granules are in a lot of US wine bottles these days, including Cosentino, Copain, Robert Pecota, and Hannah Nicole. Even French makers are using them for their still and sparkling wine, including Louis Jadot, Hugel, Billecart-Salmon and Taittinger.

After reading Taber's book I'm convinced that the tide is turning--and for good reason--against a mindless opposition to screwtops and other alternatives to plain old cork. But I'm not sure that I agree with Taber that a "packaging revolution is on the horizon and rapidly rushing forward." His book provided ample evidence of just how ingrained our wine habits are, and how little we as consumers like to have someone rock our wine world.

In July and August we'll be reading a title selected by Farley from Behind the Vines, so stay tuned next week for her announcement of the title and why she chose the book. We'll be posting reviews the last Tuesday in August, so you should have lots of time to join in and read along if you are interested. As always, you can stay up to date with what's we're reading in the Wine Book Club by checking out our pages on Shelfari or Facebook. Thanks again to Lenn for hosting WBC #3.

Serious Grape Debuts on Serious Eats

If you are a foodie, you've probably heard of (if not visited and bookmarked) Serious Eats, the award-winning food blog anchored by Ed Levine, Adam Kuban, and a dozen other intrepid souls with contributions from the likes of Mario Batali, Dorie Greenspan, Gina de Palma, and Edible East End's Brian Halweil.

Serious Eats also highlights the work of a number of bloggers, including Paul Clarke of the Cocktail Chronicles, Melissa Hall of the Southern Foodways Alliance, Nick Kindelsperger from The Paupered Chef, Ree who blogs at The Pioneer Woman, and Emily Stone from Chocolate in Context.

As of today the list of contributors includes me, too.

I'll still be here at GWU$20 4-5 days a week, 52 weeks of the year. But every other week or so I'll also have a post over at Serious Eats in a new column called Serious Grape that I'll be sharing with Dr. Vino, Tyler Colman. I'll stick a link here guiding you over there in case you want to check it out. While you are out and about, do check out some of the other great writing and recipes. There's also an active forum if you've been looking for a place to discuss food and wine related issues.

My first post is about wine snobs, and a recent article that generated quite a buzz in the wine blogging world about wine criticism and reviews. Based on this article, my dad is an avowed wine snob--and that's just not so! See what you think, write a comment, respond with your own post and enter the discussion if you feel so moved. Thanks for clicking over to the story, and see you back here when you're done reading.

Monday, June 23, 2008

It's Time to Take Rosé Seriously

Rosé wines are the black sheep of the wine world, the relatives that no upstanding grape wants to talk about, and it’s all because of White Zinfandel. White Zin was pumped out of Napa and other parts of California in boxes, barrels, jugs, and regular old wine bottles in the 1970s and 1980s in such massive quantities that it became ubiquitous at suburban progressive dinners, barbecues, and (sad to say) formal events. It gave rosés a very bad name.

It’s time to get over it.

Today’s rosé wines are not at all like the White Zinfandel of the past. They are great wines, and they deserve to be taken seriously.

All over the globe winemakers are putting aside their qualms and taking quality red grapes (like Grenache, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Tempranillo, and even Pinot Noir) and vinifying them with minimal skin contact to end up with a wine that combines crispness, roundness, and bright fruit.

The latest rosé that I've had that is worth serious consideration for your dining table is the very good QPR 2006 Jeriko Estates Rosé.($12.99, WineQ). This was a round and full wine, with aromas of juicy strawberries and clean, crisp wet stone. While some rosés can have a strong note of watermelon candy or Jolly Ranchers, this one did not have any melon in the aromas or flavors. Instead, your tongue tingled with the flavor of those tiny strawberries you are sometimes lucky enough to find growing wild. Made with 100% organic Syrah and Grenache grapes, this wine has 14.1% alc/vol, so it is not a wimpy or small wine by any stretch of the imagination.

Rosés go with all kind of summer foods--including hot dogs and our chosen rosé pairing, buffalo chicken wings. They deserve a place on your summer table, chilled but not ice cold, or you won't be able to appreciate their full and flavorful personalities. Today's rosés are definitely not your mother's White Zinfandel, so if you haven't tried a rosé lately, it's time.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

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

Erin and Michelle at the Canadian wine blog Grape Juice have come up with a perfect theme for the height of summer. With a nod and a wink back to childhood's Sesame Street, they want you to drink a wine "Brought to you by the letter 'S'."

I never could resist Grover when he got bossy.

If you think this theme is baggy and bit vague, that was intentional. As they explained at Good Grape, "We want to see what you come up with when you’re given near limitless options. The word beginning with “S” must be directly related to your bottle of wine (think region, appellation, producer, varietal, style, winemaker, etc) but that’s the only rule."

So if you are feeling a bit frazzled, just go to the store and pick up some Syrah, a wine from South America, or a yummy bottle of something from a maker like Sineann. Feeling revved up by the summer? Go for a trifecta, with the name, variety, and region all coming in under the "S" guidelines. Just grab some grape juice and a PB&J and have some classic summertime fun.

Erin and Michelle would like your entries on July 9, 2008, and full instructions on how to post/email/and otherwise submit your entries are explained in their announcement post. If you haven't checked out the roundup from WBW #46 on Rhone whites, it's right here at GWU$20, and you can get their via the express lane by clicking here.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Lillet--It's How They Spell "Cocktails" in Bordeaux

I don't drink cocktails most months of the year, since I prefer to start the evening off with a tiny taste of wine while I'm making dinner. In summer, however, all that changes. The evenings are so long that there is often a lag between when I want a little sip of something and when the kitchen is cool enough to turn on the stove. There are friends and family stopping by, the deck is so inviting, and suddenly cocktails seem just the thing.

If you want a classy (and classic) cocktail and don't want to abandon your wine habits entirely, go to the store and get yourself a bottle of Lillet, the aperitif from Bordeaux that has been made since 1887. Raymond and Paul de Lillet started blending Bordeaux white wines with fruit steeped in Brandy and a touch of everybody's favorite tonic, quinine. Today, Lillet is still made from 85% Bordeaux (both white wines and, since 1990, red wines), and 15% fruit-steeped Brandy and other liqueurs.

I received a bottle of both the red and white versions as samples, but a bottle of Lillet will set you back between $11 and $24 depending on where you buy it. Once you've got it home, you will want to chill your Lillet--whether white or red--a good, long time in the fridge. When you take the bottle out, pour some into a red wine or Bordeaux glass that has some cracked ice in it (if you want it to stay nice and cold) and then garnish it with a strip of orange or lemon zest, or (what I like) an orange or lemon slice. Have both? Stick them both in and you won't be disappointed. The folks from Lillet suggest placing the orange and lemon slices directly on top of the ice before you put the wine in to help keep the diluted ice cubes from weakening the flavor of the wine. I prefer to keep pouring small glasses, but the other method works well if you want to stop serving and keep drinking cool Lillet.

Once you pour your Lillet in the glass, here's what you can expect. The classic Lillet Blanc is golden in color, with aromas of orange blossom, lemon, and beeswax. The flavors turn a bit bitter--tending towards Seville orange, herbs, and tart Meyer lemon--but this is what makes the drinks so very refreshing. As for the Lillet Rouge, its fruity raspberry and red currant flavors are lifted by a nicely herbal note and are rounded out with a warm vanilla aftertaste. I suppose if I had to choose, I would prefer the Lillet Blanc but I'm glad I don't have to because both of them are a wonderful change of pace.

One of the best things about Lillet is that, once opened, the wine keeps for up to 10 days in the fridge without losing its flavor. So you don't need a house party for an excuse to try this wine-based aperitif. Open up a bottle, cut yourself a strip of orange zest or a slice of lemon, put your feet up on your chaise lounge and relax into the full deliciousness of the summer.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

An Opulent White Wine From Sardinia

I've never had a wine made from Nuragas grapes before, so before I cut the foil on my bottle of 2006 Argiolas S'Elegas Nuragas di Cagliari, I did a little research. ($14.99 in a local market; available from $10-$16 on the east coast, and from $14-$16 on the west coast)

I kept reading about the delicate, acidic, and light wines made with this grape. Imagine my surprise when I opened it up and was bowled over by opulent aromas of honey, peach, mango. This was no lean, seaside white to quaff with linguine alla vongole at a simple trattoria. Instead, it reminded me of an Italian diva at a luxurious resort--it was fleshy, sunny, and just a bit over the top.

Wine has been made on Sardinia from the Nuragas grape for millennia. Because the vines are very productive and grow almost anywhere, the grapes were over-produced and the juice was often thin and devoid of character. This has been changing lately as winemakers on the island have cut back on yields. This may be the result of just such a program, since Antonio Argiolas (the 97-year-old patriarch who started the vineyards back in 1918) was a leading proponent of careful viticultural reform and modernization.

The 2006 Argiolas S'Elegas was opulent and fat with aromas of honey, peach, apricot, and ripe mango. As you sipped it, all you saw was the color orange as you ticked off the ripe peach, apricot, and mango flavors. The wine had a ripe fruit aftertaste, but was a little short in the acidity department. Good QPR, especially for lovers of bigger whites like Semillon, Marsanne, and Viognier.

Because of the wine's lush fruit flavors and low acidity, this wine would be best with something spicy, like shrimp or chicken curry. We had it with shrimp scampi, and the buttery qualities of the dish amplified the fatness of the wine--which was a bit overwhelming to the taste buds.

If you are interested in this Sardinian wine, you may want to read some other bloggers' thoughts on it. Benito's Wine Reviews sampled a 2003 version of the wine this past winter, for example. Have you ever had a wine made from the Nuragas grape? If so, was it rich and lush like this one, or lean and lemony? I'm curious to know if this bottling is characteristic of the grape, or not.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Dry Creek Valley's Wines Are Pretty Damn Good, Actually

The Wine Spectator's James Laube, in a recent blog post on Dry Creek Valley's wines, argued that California's Dry Creek valley suffered from not having a "signature grape, nor wine, nor even winery." While singling out a few"richly flavored" wines for their "power" and "opulence," he concluded that "there are many dull and ordinary wines being made and poured and sold in tasting rooms here." Dry Creek Valley's wines should be better, Mr. Laube asserted, and urged the adoption of "higher quality standards," something that raised a few eyebrows from those who left comments, as well as some of the region's growers and vintners. (view of vineyards from Preston of Dry Creek)

To all those who believe that what Dry Creek Valley needs is homogenization and branding so that it can be the Napa of the North, I say "NO!" I think what makes Dry Creek Valley wines marvelous and exciting is precisely the fact that that the people who make wine there have avoided becoming the latest EuroDisney of American viticultural regions and resisted following the latest wine trends. I've heard first generation Napa growers tell tales of how they ripped up acres of old European varieties (including Cabernet Sauvignon) when "White Zinfandel" was the valley's signature grape. I'm not sure that represented progress. And many of us have grown tired of the big, bold reds that have become California's calling card in the world of wine. Driving down one of the valley's roads, stopping in at low-key tasting room and buying some reasonably priced wine, and seeing the Winegrower's of Dry Creek Valley placards posted in front of a vineyard makes me grateful that there are few Greek temples, vast Falcon-Crest type estates, and crowded highways such as you can easily find down the road a bit.

I prefer the route that winemakers at places like Quivira, Preston, David Coffaro, and others have taken. They've focused on high quality standards, and on implementing organic and biodynamic viticulture. They've focused on planting interesting varieties from Portugal and Italy--just like the original California vineyard owners--and kept old Zinfandel vines in the ground where they belonged. This approach has brought welcome diversity and excitement to what has often threatened to become a monolithic Californian wine scene dominated by Cabernet and Chardonnay.

While I was wondering what on earth James Laube was thinking, I opened a bottle of 2005 Preston of Dry Creek Old Vines/Old Clones Zinfandel ($19.95, Chronicle Wine Cellar; available through online merchants for between $25 and $28) Dull and ordinary? I don't think so. It was amazing, and combined a full-bodied taste with restraint. The wine is made from three pre-Prohibition Zinfandel clones (originally planted in 1910) that they are preserving, as well as grapes planted in 1940, 1985, and 1995. Though it was a little alcoholic in its aromas when the cork was first pulled, the alcohol (relatively modest for a California Zin at 14.3%) blew off quickly leaving fresh plum and berry. Its beautiful, dark eggplant color hinted at the warm blackberry and cool huckleberry flavors to come. The wine's silky texture played a nice counterpoint to the dark chocolate and roast coffee notes that were also present. This wine has the lovely peppery finish that is all to rare in Zinfandels these days, and made me want to sign up immediately for Dover Canyon's "Pepper Rebellion." With all that going on, how could you not love this wine, the region where it was made, and the organic grapes that went into it?

Dry Creek Valley's wines are pretty damn good, at least the ones that I've tasted. I'm going to go back as soon as possible and drive down a sun-drenched road, taste a few new releases, talk to some winemakers, and enjoy the quality and the pride of a region that may not announce itself with trumpets, parades, and fanfare but certainly delivers in terms of taste.

Here's to more peppery Zins and more business as usual in Dry Creek Valley. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Cabernet Sauvignon That's Made for Summer

Some people like big, oaky, fruity Cabernet Sauvignon. Except under the right conditions (winter, a fire, full moon, grilled steak, nowhere to drive) I'm not one of them. I tend to like my Cabernets a bit more herbal, a bit lighter on their feet, and with an impression of glycerine if I can get it.

Glycerine (or glycerol) is one of those Advanced Wine Tasting Terms that sounds like complete hooey and which scientists have decided is present in such minute quantities that most people can't actually taste it. What it is is a natural bi-product of fermentation that is syrupy and provides a note of sweetness in a wine. I associate it with smoothness and a sense of satiny body that is not plush and furry on the tongue.

Where I find most glycerine is in aged Cabernet Sauvignon, especially those from the Old World. Finding it in a young Cab, from the New World, has become like searching for a needle in a haystack. Under $20? Well, that's even harder.

Enter the 2004 Sapid Dorcich Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Central Coast ($18.99, WineQ). This was a smooth and rich cabernet, with 13.9% alc/vol and an old world taste. The wine is made from Central Coast fruit, and is blended from 90% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Merlot. Fresh aromas of herbs, green bell pepper, and plums are crisp and inviting. The palate if very plummy, with flavors of berry as well and a nice herbal lift to the flavors in the aftertaste that keeps the wine from seeming even the tiniest bit heavy. The wine had a nice balance between fruit and acidity, and a generous, smooth texture. Yep, my favorite glycerine sensation is in this wine, and it made me happy to find it in a domestic Cabernet Sauvignon for such an affordable price. Very Good QPR.

The best thing about this Cabernet Sauvignon is that you don't have to wait until the winter to drink it. Because it is lighter and fresher than many New World bottlings, you can keep it on hand for summer BBQs and serve it with everything from burgers to pulled pork without worrying it is going to overwhelm the food or leave you with a crashing headache after July heat meets up with high alcohol levels. We had it with some grilled Filet Mignon, a salad, and some baked potatoes. As you would suspect, the plummy and herbal notes of the wine were stunning with the beef and the vegetables--but it was that nice glycerine note that picked up the soft texture of the meat just beautifully.

"Sapid" literally means pleasing. I thought it was an apt name for a charming and delicious domestic red that I would certainly buy again and keep on hand.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

All We Are Saying Is Give White Rhones a Chance: WBW #46 Roundup

It was great fun to be the host for the 46th edition of Wine Blogging Wednesday, Lenndevours popular (and still growing) online tasting event. We had 43 bloggers from around the world participate this month, and they tasted a wide range of wines from all over the world, too. The overall reaction was overwhelmingly positive. Most tasted viogniers or blends of several Rhone white varieties, and Marsanne and Roussanne were well-represented as well. A few brave souls gravitated towards the more rarified varieties of picpoul, grenache blanc, and ugni blanc. Though there were a few unhappy tasters out there, the vast majority felt that their wines were tasty, good value, and perfect for summer drinking.

I've made two different visual images to give you an overview of who tasted wine and wrote about it for WBW #46, and what those tasters discovered about Rhone whites. The first is a simple map, with map-points for locations and a scrollable list of contributors at the bottom. You can click on any blog/blogger's name and find out which point belongs to them, or click on any map-point and it will give you the name of the blogger associated with it. Please use the scroll buttons in the upper left corner to navigate across the globe.

The second is a wine review format I developed and experimented with a while back called the TagCloud Review. This will give you an overall sense of what our field of tasters experienced when they drank their wine. The larger and bolder type is associated with the most frequent adjectives our 43 tasters associated with the look, smell, and taste of the wine. As you will see, the tasting notes were remarkably consistent, and many tasters emphasized the apple, mineral, and floral aspects of the wine they sampled. Our tasters also noted the prevalence of citrus notes (including lemon, lime and grapefruit). With 42 tasters and almost twice that number of wines, it would be a long and daunting business to give a mini-review of each tasting note, so I hope that the following "TagCloud Review" will help convince you to give Rhones a chance.

created at

What follows is a rundown of all the tasters and their entries. Please click on any of the highlighted blue links to read their full, informative posts.

First, kudos to those brave souls who tasted Rhone whites from two different regions. Sometimes the "old world" wines were more "new world" in style than many of the tasters expected, and vice versa. They include:

Bloviatrix, who tasted a 2006 Roger Perrin Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc from France and a 2006 Black Chook Viognier-Marsanne-Roussanne blend from Australia.

ExcelWines, who compared the 2006 Venta d'Aubert Viognier from Aragon and the Clay Station Viognier from the US.

Fork and Bottle, where Jack and Joanne tasted their way through a 2001 Eric Texier Condrieu Janrode from France and a 2004 Porter Creek Timberline Ranch Viognier from the United States.

Joe's Wine Blog, who tasted a 2006 Chateau des Charmes St. David's Bench Viognier from Canada, and a 2004 Chateau La Nerthe Chauteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc from France.

McDuff's Food and Wine Trail, where David tasted the 2006 Domaine Louis Cheze Ro-Ree Marsanne-Roussanne blend and the 2004 Edmunds St. John "Tablas Creek Vineyards" Roussanne from the United States.

My Wine Information, who tasted a 2005 Yering Station Marsanne-Viognier-Roussanne blend from Australia, and a 2003 Paul Jaboulet Aines Mule Blanche Crozes-Hermitage blend of Marsanne and Roussanne.

The Vinquire Blog
, who tasted their way through 6 Rhone whites including 3 from France (a 2006 La Vieille Ferme white blend, a 2007 Chateau l'Ermitage white blend, and a 2005 Sainte Croix Viognier) and 3 from the US (a 2006 McManis Viognier, a 2006 Gregory Graham Viognier, and a 2006 Cline Marsanne-Roussanne blend).

And the Wine Peeps, who had a 2005 Cougar Crest Viognier from the US and a 2005 E. Guigal Cotes du Rhone Blanc from France.

Special Mention also goes to our first time Wine Blogging Wednesday participants:

The Corkscrew Slummers, who had a Peltier Station Viognier.

2 Days Per Bottle, who drank a 2004 Garretson "Limoi Cior" Roussanne over two days and catalogued how the wine changed.

Pour Favor, who scored a 2006 Chateau Saint-Cosme white blend from the Cotes du Rhone.

Wine Blogging Wednesday #46 also had several "group participation" projects of various sorts:

First, we had the two tasters at Smells Like Grape who gave us their different takes on two French white Rhone blends: the 2006 Parallele 45 and he 2005 E. Guigal Cotes du Rhone blend.

Second, we had the father-daughter team of Erika and Adam Strum, who tasted the 2006 Truchard Roussanne from the Carneros appellation, and shared their reactions on Erika's Strumerika blog.

Third, we had live blogging from the London living room of Londonelicious, where seven French white Rhone wines were put to the test--you have to read the whole post to find which bottles were emptied first.

And fourth, we had the Young Winos of LA who creatively "recycled" some bottles acquired under cover of darkness following the Rhone Rangers tasting, including a rose, some reds, and two whites: the 2007 Minassian Young "White Rhinoceros" blend and the 2006 Ethan "Paradise Road" Viognier. It is good to know that they saved at least a few Rhone varieties from being added to a landfill.

We had two tasters with near misses: the Wine Negress, who tasted a 2006 J. L. Chave Mon Coeur, a red Rhone wine, alas; and Good Grape, who tried to drink an Argentinian Viognier, but gave up the attempt and drew a cartoon instead!

Our remaining tasters and their wines, organized by region, were:


EatingLeeds, 2007 Familia Zuccardi, S. Julia Viognier, Mendoza

Vinomadic, 2001 Conalbi-Grenberg Ugni Blanc, Mendoza


WinoSapien, 2007 Tahblik Marsanne, Central Victoria

1 Tim. 5:23, 2006 Cave St. Pierre Preference, Cotes du Rhone

1 Wine Dude, 2006 Domaine Louse Cheze Ro-Ree, St. Joseph

Anything Wine, 2006 Ferraton Samorens, Cotes du Rhone

At First Glass, 2006 Caves des Papes Blanc, Cotes du Rhone

Cheap Wine Ratings
, 2006 Le Jade Picpoul, Cotes de Languedoc
2006 Hugues Beaulieu Picpoul, Cotes de Languedoc

Cooking Chat, 2006 Verget du Sud Marsanne/Roussanne, Pays de Vacluse

Corkdork, 2006 Guilem Durand Domaine La Bastide Roussanne,

Drinks Are On Me, 2005 E. Guigal Blanc, Cotes du Rhone

Food and Wine Blog, 2003 Tardieu-Laurent Vieilles Vignes, Chateauneuf-du-Pape

The Wine Case, 1999 Chateau Grillet Viognier
Jean-Luc Colombo Les Gravieres, Croze-Hermitage
2005 La Redonne, Cotes du Rhone

Wine Lover's Journal, 2005 Domaine Philippe Plantevin, Cotes du Rhone

South Africa:

Spittoon, 2007 Origin Fair Trade Viognier, West Cape

United States:
1 Wine Per Week, 2006 Twisted Oak Viognier, Calaveras County

Behind the Vines, 2007 Rosenblum "Kathy's Cuvee" Viognier
2006 Rosenblum Fess Parker Vineyard Roussanne, Santa Barbara
2006 Rosenblum Preston Vineyards Marsanne, Dry Creek Valley

Domaine547, 2005 Qupe Bien Nacido Roussanne, Santa Maria Valley

, 2007 Martha Clara Vineyards Viognier, North Fork LI

My Wine Education, 2006 Becker Viognier, Texas

Passionate Foodie, 2006 Curran Grenache Blanc, Santa Ynez

Through the Walla Walla Grape Vine, 2007 Sweet Valley Wines Viognier, Columbia Valley

Wannabe Wino
, 2006 Hannah Nicole Viognier, Contra Costa County

Wine Biz Radio, 2006 Red Car Boxcar White, California

Wine for Newbies
, 2005 Twisted Oak %@#$!, Calaveras County

If I somehow missed your post, please let me know so I can rectify the situation by leaving a comment below. Thanks to everyone who participated this month, since I know it is a busy time of year. When I know the theme and host for next month's event, I'll be sure to pass that news on to you.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Vintage Champagne for Friday the 13th

I don't drink much vintage Champagne. Let's face it--until this year when I decided to get to know growers' champagne I didn't drink much Champagne at all, and even now it's a treat that gets poured into a flute only occasionally.

So when I saw a bottle of 1998 Jean-Noël Haton Champagne Brut peeking out from behind a $6 bottle of Spanish Macabeo at my beloved Chronicle Wine Cellar, I had to take it home with me. The fact that it was $19.95 only made it that much sweeter, and I felt very smug after Gus (one of the owners) said rather mournfully that he hadn't known there was still a bottle left.

It's been hard to find out very much about this branch of the Haton family and their winemaking. I know from one online source that Octave Haton founded the company in the town of Damery in 1928, and it is his great-grandson, Jean-Noel, who now runs the business and tends the family's 13 hectares. The area is known for its Pinot Noir, and only Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier are used in the wine.

What did I think? I loved the chubby, Taittinger-style bottle that was much wider at the bottom than it was at the top. I was then struck by the deep gold color, which is not typical of NV Champagnes that I've tried. The color suggested age to me, just the way antique lace gets a shade or two darker over time. The mousse or foam on the top of the poured glass dissipated quickly, and there was an active, but not abundant, bead or bubble. This was not one of those wines where zillions of bubbles tickled your nose. What did tickle your nose were aromas of bread, yeast, and chalky stone. The flavors that followed were bready and intense, with toasted notes and a crisp aftertaste.

This was an excellent QPR Champagne--and I suspect I would have felt that way even if the wine had cost about twice as much. Sadly, I've not been able to find any more of it online, so unless you've got a bottle in the cellar you're going to have to take my word for it. However, D&M Wines in San Francisco stocks two other Haton Champagnes that are under $40, and Chicago Lake Liquors has the Brut NV (under $25) and the Rose NV (under $35) if you are willing to purchase a whole case.

Not a standard NV bubbly, by any stretch of the imagination, but a wine that seemed like something that Flappers would have sipped during wild parties in the 1920s, when the Haton's family business was started. If this is vintage Champagne--I love it.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Welcome to Wine Blogging Wednesday #46: Rhone Whites

Welcome to Wine Blogging Wednesday #46, the monthly online tasting event started nearly four years ago by Lenn Thompson of Lenndevours. This month, I'm your host and for the theme I wanted to pick something summery, that wouldn't be hard for people to find, and would bring some under-appreciated grape varieties into the spotlight.

The varieties that I think best exemplify summer are white varieties associated with the Rhone: Bourboulenc, Clairette Blanc, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Muscat Blanc a Petits Grains, Picardin, Picpoul, Roussanne, Ugni Blanc, and Viognier. These white grapes are grown all over the world, and produce wines that are rich in orchard and tropical fruit flavors, or have a bracing acidity that cools you down when its warm outsides. The wines made from these grapes are surprisingly versatile, and pair with a wide range of foods depending on how the fruit is treated during fermentation and aging. For this WBW you could drink any white Rhone variety or combination of varieties, from any region in the world, at any price point.

I decided to compare and contrast two wines: one made in the Rhone from a blend of Clairette and Grenache Blanc; and another made in Paso Robles, solely from Roussanne. The French white was aged in stainless steel; the Paso Robles white was kissed with some oak.

The first wine was the excellent QPR 2006 Ferraton Père & Fils Côtes du Rhône Samorëns ($12.99, domaine 547). The wine was made from organically and biodynamically produced Grenache Blanc and Clairette grapes grown in Tain l'Hermitage. Samuel Ferraton and Chapoutier have been in partnership on the property for the past decade, which has brought new resources and attention to the Ferraton operation. When I opened this bottle of wine, it smelled just like summer with aromas of pear, almond, and a bit of flower as the wine warmed up. The pale gold color was equally summery, and the flavors were redolent of summery orchard fruits like pear and peach. Because it was aged in stainless steel the wine retained a fresh intensity that would make it very appealing on a warm June or July day. An interesting nutty almond aftertaste added complexity to the wine. It had a nice round feeling in the mouth, and was a textbook example of a blend of these two varieties--for a terrific price.

The second wine I tasted was another excellent QPR pick: the 2004 Tablas Creek Roussanne ($22.95, Chronicle Wine Cellar; available online for between $19 and $28) I've tasted this wine twice in the last year or so. In the spring of 2007, it was all about the fruit. Now, a little more than one year later, it was a more complex and interesting drinking experience. This wine was true, deep gold in color and the richness of the color hinted at the richness to come. There were shy aromas of pear and minerals, and as the wine opened up there were delicious flavors of pear, melon, and mineral with a touch of beeswax in the finish. The overall impressions of the wine were soft and round, and there was no hint of alcohol or sense of heat despite its full body and heavy feel in the mouth. There was also just a hint of oak in the aftertaste, since 50% of the juice had been fermented in small French oak barrels. This was a big wine with a lot of complexity for the price.

Both of these wines were quite food friendly, and would lend themselves to a wide range of dishes from spicy curries and stirfries to rich scallop, lobster, and shrimp preparations. We had the Ferraton with a Peruvian Fried Rice--one of the world's earliest fusion dishes created by Chinese railroad workers in South America. Few wines could complement a dish that combined rice, ginger, soy sauce, shrimp, and chorizo, but the Ferraton did the job beautifully. The soft and round qualities of the wine were terrific with the shrimp, and the fresh pear and peachy flavors were a nice counterpoint to the ginger. As for the Roussanne, I always feel that this variety is made for scallops--and that's what we had it with. The rich, buttery texture and sweet flavors of the scallops partnered perfectly with the Roussanne's full-bodied melon and beeswax qualities. It doesn't matter how you fix the scallops, they will be perfect with Roussanne. Try a classic Coquilles St. Jacques, or Eric Ripert's innovative pan-fried scallops on a mound of orzo mixed with tomatoes, ginger, and lemon grass.

Summer is often associated with the crispness of Sauvignon Blanc, but Rhone whites are equally wonderful for drinking during the long, hazy, and lazy summer days and nights to come. Thanks to everyone who participated in this month's event, and be sure to drop me a note or leave a tasting note or a link in the comments if you'd like me to include you in the roundup this weekend. I'm really looking forward to reading what you all have to say about these wonderful whites.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Spirit of the Vine: First Impressions of Spain

At the end of May, I had an opportunity to visit Spain for the very first time and spend time in the wineries associated with the Osborne family. The Osbornes have been involved in the wine trade in Spain since the 18th century, and today their properties extend from Rioja in the north to Andalusia in the south. In one blissful, action-packed week I had a chance to see and savor some of the best that Spain has to offer.

I fell totally in love with the country, the people, the food, and the wine, as this sampling of pictures shows.

I've traveled to a lot of different places, and lived in a few European cities for months and even years. But I never felt homesick for a place after only spending 5 days there--until now.

So what was it about Spain that hooked me? First and foremost it was the spirit of the land and the people. The word that I associate most with Spain now that I've been there is "genuine" and that forthright genuineness came through in every chilled glass of Fino sherry, every slice of Spanish jamon or ham, and every conversation with a winemaker or a vineyard manager that I had during my brief stay.

I know that last year was the "Spain" year and this year is "Italy" year, but over the next several months I want to share my new passion for Spanish sherry with you, and give you detailed tasting notes from my side-by-side tasting of several rare Osborne sherries. They may well be the best value holiday wines you are likely to find anywhere, and I'll tell you why later this fall. I was amazed during my trip by the range of flavors that you can find in Tempranillo. I had the opportunity to talk to a legendary winemaker, Maria Martinez-Sierra about her passion for this grape and how she makes superb wines from Tempranillo grown in the Rioja Alta region. I watched a master cooper make wine barrels, and saw the traditional being passed down to a new generation of craftsmen. Near Toledo, I also saw first-hand how cutting-edge science is being used to help manage a vineyard so vast that there were grapes as far as the eye could see. In Malpica de Tajo, the Osborne family is growing international varieties as well as Spanish favorites like Tempranillo. They are also experimenting with other Spanish and Mediterranean grapes to determine which do best in the region, gathering data on the life cycle of each grapevine and cluster of fruit.

I took hundreds of pictures while in Spain, but to give you an overview of what I saw I put together this slideshow of some of the most memorable images from my week. You'll be seeing some of these pictures again in upcoming posts, and depending on your browser you may have to click over to Flickr and watch the show over there. Until then, I hope this virtual sight-seeing tour whets your appetite for more on Spanish wine and food.

Monday, June 09, 2008

A Reading Meme: I've Been Tagged!

Nancy, a reader and fellow wine-blogger who also blogs about books at her blog Vellum, tagged me for a book meme (one of those blogging equivalents of a pyramid scheme without any money).

The rules were these:

Pick up the nearest book.
Turn to page 123.
Find the fifth sentence.
Post the next three sentences.
Tag five people with this game, and acknowledge the person who tagged you.

Nancy thought I might be reading a wine book, but the book closest to me was Neal Stephenson's mammoth tome, Quicksilver, a historical novel about the Scientific Revolution. It's part of a trilogy, and I've been trying to get through it for years. This summer, I have vowed to stop trying and actually DO IT.

Here's a taste of the book, following the instructions above:

"The ass taught me nothing," Hooke said. "Anyone who is not a half-wit can learn all there is to know of painting, by standing in front of paintings and looking at them. What was the use, then, of being an apprentice?"

On the facing page from this exchange is a very reduced picture of Robert Hooke's famous drawing of a flea, which he saw under a microscope. It was the blockbuster-equivalent of Indiana Jones or Independence Day for his 17th-century audience, a frightening alien creature that looked like it could wiggle right off the page and create havoc in downtown London--which of course, it already was.

I don't have much else to report about this book, as of yet, but it's now my duty to tag five other people, so I'm picking some wine bloggers who I know are avid readers, as well as some members of the Shelfari Wine Book Club. They are: Richard, a Passionate Foodie; Deb, from Deb's Key West Wine and Gardening Blog; Our Girl, from As the Vineyard Grows; Jill B. from Domaine547; and Monkuwino from One Wine Per Week. Who knows, maybe one of them will even be reading a book about wine!