Monday, March 24, 2008

This is another article I began before my blog was created. As before, I’m including dates for the actual tasting since the chronology would otherwise be hopelessly confused.

November 2007

Late last fall I had the pleasure of touring wineries in the Alexander Valley viticultural region, long one of my favorites. Many years ago, before Alexander Valley Vineyard’s Sin Zin became popular, I’d sampled this Zinfandel, intrigued by the decadent illustration that harkened back to Bacchus’ early wine drinking days. Since the price then was so attractive – no, I won’t make you envious by indicating how low – I bought six cases, glutton that I am.

Luckily I had a large wine cellar so I was able to enjoy the last bottle even more than the first. By that time, Alexander Valley Vineyard had attracted a lot of attention, as had many other vineyards that dotted Alexander Valley road (Hwy 128), and prices were not as attractive. The price of fame, sigh!

That memory firmly entrenched; I gladly accepted Melanie Dougherty’s invitation to taste some of the valley’s best wines. Melanie is the publicist for some of the local wine producers. I’d met her previously for a tasting of Murphy-Goode wines at the Inn of the Anasazi. (See my blog, A Tasting at the Inn.) The locus of this tasting was to be Stonestreet Winery.

Stonestreet Alexander Mountain Estate is located near the entrance to Alexander Valley where the long sweeping curve of Alexander Valley road straightens out and presents the rolling terrain and gentle curves of the main part of the valley. The winery entrance is one of the longest in Sonoma, tree-lined and now showing the golden colors of fall. A painter’s light pierced each grape leaf, illuminating the delicate tracery of vein and stem. Up ahead we came upon the low-slung winery spread against the foothills some distance from the road.

We were greeted by Melanie and Graham Weerts, the wine master for Stonestreet. Graham traveled a long way to become Stonestreet’s wine maker; South Africa, to be exact. Tall, slim, and fit he presents a dynamic figure. His approach to wine making is also dynamic, as became obvious after talking at length with him.

He is a firm believer that terroir is significant, and only the grapes best served by a unique slope, elevation, soil, and weather pattern should be grown, not what suits the latest fads and market demands. This philosophy is more in keeping with Old World wine styles, but also embracing the modern techniques in wine making that assure higher quality and more consistent product year after year. All the wines he poured bear out this philosophy.

At the tasting table a number of white and red wine glasses were arrayed, ending in a very large wine glass that could have doubled as a flower vase. Later I would learn why. We tasted two whites and four reds, and all of them were impressive. The two I’ll focus on are the 2005 Red Point Chardonnay and Christopher’s Cabernet Sauvignon. These wines come from the Mayacamas mountain chain that separates Alexander Valley from the Pacific.

The Mayacamas name most likely came from the Wappo Indians. The range was created from the lava flow of an exploding volcano. Not to worry, this was a long, long, time ago. The rocky soil, enriched by the volcanic ash, stresses the grapes, yielding smaller, intensely-flavored fruit, which are evident in both these wines.

The 2005 Red Point Chardonnay is 100% estate grown using the subtle caress of French oak to permit the wonderful fruit flavors to be revealed. A good food wine, retaining good acidity and bright fruit flavors with good balance. Robert Parker rated it 92 points and I’d have to agree.

By the time we came to the last red, a single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, grown at 2400 feet, I had gotten more and more excited by the reds. Now we were primed to sample Graham’s signature red. There is only one negative I can think of for Christopher’s Cab, it makes the ones that preceded it pale in comparison. It definitely needed room to breathe, hence the very large glass, which barely contained the nose. Big as the nose was, the taste was bigger with flavors of lush ripe fruit, blackberries, cassis, spice notes and a whole lot more. It’s the kind of wine Opus One only aspires to, and flavors like Silver Oak used to bring to the table. Boy, I miss those days.

Did I keep my affection for this wine a secret? Check them out at Highly recommended.

My next stop, also suggested by Melanie was Field Stone Winery. It had been many years since I had last tasted wines there, so I was eager for an update. When I got there I met Scott Sabbadini, the assistant winemaker. Scott very graciously took me through a barrel-tasting of a Syrah that they were testing in four different cooperages. These included American, Hungarian, Rumanian, and Polish oak barrels. Not too surprisingly each one tasted like a different wine. Selecting the right type of oak, deciding on the best toasting level, and even the assembly design all influence the final product, not to mention how long to let the wine age in oak. Getting an opportunity to taste the theory and see how different the results could be suggests how daunting the wine maker’s task once the grapes are in.

Of course, so much theory makes me thirsty, so next I went into the tasting room. I’ve always had affection for their reds and found particular favor in their 2005 Alexander Valley Sangiovese. Saucy strawberry notes were complimented by black cherry and plum. I can’t wait to pair this one with food.

Field Stone winery, is currently updating their website, but be patient, it’s worth the wait. Salut!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

A Tasting At the Inn

This is the first of a number of articles begun late last year before I had created a blog and dated so my readers won't be confused, hopefully. My thanks to David and Melanie for their patience while I got my act together.

September, 2007

Late last September, I received an invitation to do a wine tasting of Murphy-Goode wines at the Inn of the Anasazi in Santa Fe. For those of you not familiar with this restaurant, or who the Anasazi were (yes, they are definitely in the past tense), read on. The Anasazi were an ancient tribe living in four corners region of New Mexico. They either moved or died out in the 12th century, but left many artifacts of their civilization, including elaborate cave dwellings.

The Inn of the Anasazi is a beautiful upscale hotel and restaurant that meticulously re-created some of their art and mystique. Artisans are definitely at work in the restaurant, and it’s one of the most acclaimed in a city that takes pride in its restaurants.

Since I almost never pass up a chance to go to Santa Fe, ditto the Inn, this was impossible to turn down. I was met there by David Ready, Jr., the winemaker, and Melanie Dougherty, the publicist for Murphy-Goode and many other quality wineries. As I suspected, neither the food nor the wine disappointed.

David Ready, Jr. is the son of Dave Ready, one of the Murphy-Goode founders that include Tim Murphy and Dale Goode. This is definitely a family-run business, and shows the care and love they’ve put into the winery. Producing around 140,000 cases, this is not a small operation by any means. They also have enough estate grapes to produce outstanding single-vintage wines, which always begin with good fruit.

Four wines were served, an elegant Chardonnay, light on the French oak, 25% stainless fermented. A Chardonnay done in the French style must start with good grapes if it isn’t going to be tricked up with heavy oak.

This was followed by a well-balanced Cabernet Sauvignon called Sarah’s Block, a classic Alexander Valley Cab with black raspberry fruit. Lastly, two very good but different Zinfandels. Both went quite well with my buffalo burger, laced with crisp-seared bacon and gorgonzola to stand up to the Zins. The Liar’s Dice Zinfandel has rich blackberry with peppery notes, and lots of taste without being a fruit bomb. Snake Eyes Zinfandel was a well structured and balanced wine with good fruit and depth.

All through the meal I enjoyed the animated conversation and David’s passion for his wines. Well, that’s as it should be; good wine does require passion. That and patience and attention to detail often result in good to great wines. During the conversation, the talk turned to the impact of oak on wine. David mentioned working with a wood (stave) maker of American oak in Minnesota that can craft it to provide the characteristics of French oak using computers to adjust how they bake and/or add ingredients to the curing process.

Beginning in the mid-1990’s, American oak has seen a renaissance in cooperage. Some coopers suggest this comes from the use of French barrel-making techniques, bending and toasting over a fire, for example. One of the factors that make French and American oak barrels different is the way barrels are assembled. In France, staves are hand-split or use a hydraulic wedge. The lower leakage rate of American oak allows the staves to be sawn, saving considerably on labor costs and waste.

Recently, I began putting more focus on oak and how it influences a wine’s taste portfolio. Many vintners bludgeon their Chardonnay with oak until oak and splinters seem to predominate. Choosing French oak, blending a portion of the fruit in stainless, not going the 100% maloactic fermentation route, and working with grapes that bring out the fruit flavors all went into making the Murphy-Goode Chardonnay a much better wine and better food wine. Check them out. Website: