Thursday, December 17, 2009

Wine Fundamentals: Training the Nose

Just so no one is confused, we are not training the nose for an Olympic event. Rather, it’s a process of refining the sense of smell to identify the many aromas present in a wine’s nose or bouquet. The tried and not-always-true method of perception is to keep drinking wine and taking notes on what is perceived in the glass. This is only moderately successful. Consider if you define a scent as licorice, which is really cloves, and continue to misinterpret that scent with no checks on accuracy, you lock in the wrong indicator.

Communicating the Elements in a Bouquet
Another possibility is to check the wine label, hopefully, after you’ve made your notes or determination of the bouquet’s constituents. That requires the wine label notes be accurate, it also requires us to share the same palate with the writer. Both are compromises on accuracy. Reading the notes before sniffing can unduly influence what you then pick up in the bouquet. Yes, I’ve tried all these methods in the past.

What is needed is a standard reference that can be used to accurately identify each scent in a wine bouquet. Alternately, you could take a wine course to become a sommelier, but most people don’t have the time for that. Some scents, of course, are fairly obvious. The initial reaction we get on the bouquet, or the strongest, is often the main aroma element in a wine. It is the interplay of subtler aromas that require a precise catalog of reference scents. It also requires a standard naming convention so these elements are communicated to others.

The Wine Aroma Wheel
The wine aroma wheel, developed by Prof. Ann Noble of U.C. Davis and her class, was created to standardize scent designators to aid in communication. The wheel and its variants, work from the idea of defining scents by category and sub-category, represented by concentric circles on the wheel. Pie slices or quadrants then define a group of scents, represented by different colors. The innermost circle defines the category, such as fruity, herbaceous, or floral. The next circle further defines the category, such as fruity, which breaks down into dried fruit, berry, tropical fruit, etc. The outermost circle divides these even further, so that berry now sub-divides into red raspberry, red currant, strawberry, etc. Moving from the general to the specific is a logical way to approach, what at first may seem like an impossible task.

When checking a wine’s bouquet, the first impression on our nose is usually the strongest, because over time the scent moves to the background due to fatigue and adaptation. An example here might help. Recall going into a room with an unpleasant odor, and later not being aware of it, while someone else coming into the room later will say, “Yuch, what’s that smell?” We adapted to the smell, and fatigue of our scent sensors have dialed down the intensity. Those sensors are called the olfactory epithelium. Yeah, I’m sure you wanted to know that. In other words, the quicker we can identify a scent, the better before that initial impression fades away.

Wine Scent Kits
Another approach is to buy a scent kit, with concentrated aromas enclosed in capped jars. Mine has forty scents including subtle ones like truffles and amber. I suspect some wine writers use the term truffles because most people have never eaten one or have any idea what the scent is like. I’ve been sniffing the one in my kit and I’m still not sure. For the most part, however, using these kits makes it possible to memorize specific scents over time and apply that knowledge when detecting them in a wine’s bouquet.

It’s also possible to create your own wine scent kit. If you click on the wine aroma wheel URL above, it will link to the web portal that includes a description of how to use the wheel, or get cool aroma wheel t-shirts so you’re never without this helpful guide. Yeah, right.

There is also a link to download the user guide, which is free. Within the two page tri-fold booklet downloaded is specific information on how to create your own scent kit for white, red, and sparkling wines. Since my professional kit costs hundreds of dollars, this is an inexpensive way to be introduced to the wonderful world of wine scents. You may even be able to pick up that elusive scent of truffles. Salut!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Vine & Wine Dines

If that headline has you puzzled, it was done purposely. The MRG (Middle Rio Grande) chapter of the Vine & Wine Society held a wine dinner recently that celebrated New Mexico wines and wine makers. A number of organizations hold wine dinners for fund raisers or a thank you to members for their volunteer work. Few can do it with the style and enthusiasm of those in the wine industry. The Vine & Wine Society proved that once again.

The dinner was held in late November and featured the wines of Casa Rondéna. Since I’m also a society member, it only took me a millisecond to decide to RSVP. Casa Rondéna is one of the premier wineries in New Mexico, and John Calvin the owner also has the most beautiful premises for a winery in the state. The dinner was held in the Hyatt Tamaya Resort in Bernalillo at the Corn Maiden restaurant. If the wines served hadn’t enticed me, the venue sure would.

The appetizers included some outstanding cheeses before we sat down to dinner, and each course was well prepared, particularly the veal chop for the main course. The only problem was the wines were slightly out of synch with each course. The 2008 Viognier would have gone perfectly with the cheeses, but they were just a memory on my tongue by the time this wine showed up. That did not deter the enjoyment of each wine John had brought, however.

The 2005 Founder’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon was big and rich enough to stand up to the best Napa Cabs. Even better, John lined up the 2006 Clarion blend of Temperanillo and Syrah with a dash of Cab, another favorite of mine, and his 2006 Meritage blend that wins converts all the time. Three very good reds for the main course presented an embarrassment of riches, but I managed to bear up. The dessert was topped off with the 2006 Animante, a ruby port made with the Cabernet Sauvignon grape rather than the ubiquitous Zinfandel of most California ports. Perhaps now you can see why I attended.

In case you aren’t familiar with the Vine & Wine Society, we provide support for both grape growers and wine makers. The annual NM State Fair wine competition is sponsored and judged by us. We are all wine lovers and enjoy the company of others who work with the grape and the vine, and a wine dinner is a great way to have that all come together. We seize any opportunity that includes sharing food and wine and the expertise that makes those possible. Please check out the link above for more information on our organization.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Gelfand Vineyards: A Paso Robles Treasure

In California, the Paso Robles area of the Central Coast has held a special charm for me for over two decades. During that time the number of wineries has multiplied faster than a cabal of Corrales rabbits. The village of Corrales where I live has a population of rabbits so numerous; driving there can take on the frenetic nature of dodge cars at an amusement park. Each year I return to Paso I discover a new favorite winery, and this year was no exception. Gelfand Vineyards was a recommendation of friend and fellow cyclist Ken McKenzie.

Ken had been sending some of my articles to Len Gelfand, who in turn suggested I stop by the winery on my next visit. Since I needed to check on my property in the nearby village of Cambria, the Thanksgiving weekend seemed appropriate. The back roads route to Gelfand executes several right turns on a road that continually changes names and then glides along on a narrow serpentine canter through fields and vineyards. The final patch climbs a single lane you pray you alone occupy.

Len met us at the rustic tasting room where we exchanged greetings. After a moment’s confusion over which McKenzie had recommended him and with my business card as a memory jogger, he made us feel right at home. Len also looks right at home here among his vines and wines, but came here after a career in insurance. That helped provide the funds, but the expertise came from fellow boutique wine makers and his determined research into enology. He has the cherubic countenance of a fit Bacchus, friendly and passionate about his wines. We quickly discovered why.

Before I do describe the wine, a caveat; Gelfand wines are not sold in stores, but are made primarily for their wine club members. Tasting is by appointment, and the limited production means the only guarantee of obtaining wine before it sells out is to join the club. After tasting the wines, my wife and I joined. Just about the swiftest wine decision I ever made.

Gelfand works with four wine grapes; Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petite Sirah, and Zinfandel. Single grape varietals and blends comprise the wine list. One of the most popular blends is their SFR red blend. When Len was pouring this wine at an event, an elderly couple asked him what the initials stood for. He pondered what to substitute for Sh- - Faced Red, its real designation, but before long the name slipped out and everyone was asking for this big, bold red wine.

Wine club members can also participate in the Annual Blending Party where SFR and their version of a Meritage wine, Ménage a Bunch, are concocted. The last three years participants braved 109 degree heat, but still kept coming back. Len showed us the setup where club members assist with the bottling as well. Think about how many wineries command that sort of loyalty.

Besides single-grape varietals of the four principal grapes and the two blends mentioned above, Gelfand also makes Cabyrah, a Cab/Syrah blend, Petit Cab a blend of Cab/Petit Sirah, and Lajur a select blend of their best grapes. Their Syrah Rosé is a dry rosé version that should attract red wine drinkers. They also do two Cabernet Sauvignon-based ports. One of which is called Sophie, named right after the birth of their grandchild. Our bottle of Sophie was cradled in my wife, Barbara’s arms until it could be sleepily laid to rest in our car.

All the wines are big, mouth-filling, and loaded with fruit. Many also rate a perfect 100 HDI, that’s Hammond’s Drinkability Index. These are the kinds of wine that invite you to sit back as one sip leads to another, and then one glass leads to another. Just make sure you’re at home before one bottle leads to another. Salud!

Monday, November 30, 2009

Bold Foods and Bold Wines

Recently Jane Butel, the queen of Southwestern cuisine, and me launched a new blog talk radio program called; Bold Foods and Bold Wines. The format entails Jane discussing foods and dinner menus while I pair wines with each course she covers. Jane includes food tips on preparation and economical ideas for keeping costs down. I cover wine care and handling tips, wine bargains, and wines that deliver without busting anyone’s budget.

She recently created a birthday dinner for my wife and we thought it’d be cool to cover it on one of our Wednesday afternoon shows. That was followed on Friday, November 20 by the dinner she put on, paired with my wine selections. Theory and practice within days of each other! Yes, it was a great success.

When presented with a dinner menu, particularly one with a cornucopia of flavors, I usually consider which wines go best with each course. However, not everyone can afford to offer a different wine with each course, not to mention the number of glasses needed. And we definitely don’t want to mention how many crystal glasses need to be washed and dried by hand.

Therefore, I consider the commonalities of the wines and try to find two or three that would go well with all the courses. For the preparation of the courses below you’ll need to pick up one of Jane’s cookbooks, such as Hotter Than Hell. Yes that is a cookbook title, not a new horror novel. Under each course Jane selected, I discuss what wines will go well with that course.

Keep in mind, many wines can pair with a dish, but for matches made in heaven (and we’re talking food and wine here) some wines work better than others. Here are some things to consider:
• What are the dominant flavors?
• What type of wines do you like? A perfect pairing with wine you don’t like can be a problem, although well-paired, it may surprise you and become a new favorite.
• Stick with food-friendly wines for a more successful pairing, less alcohol, less oak with whites, good acidity, and balance in the wine.

Barbara’s Southwestern Birthday Dinner

Guacamole with Tostados
Freshly made Guacamole pairs well with crisp white wines and sparklers with a fine mousse. The mousse comes from fine bubbles created using Method Champenoise and one of best domestic practitioners of this art is Gruet in New Mexico. The mouth feel is luscious and rich, and the tart apple notes of the Gruet Brut and Blancs de Noirs sparkling wines awaken the flavors of avocado and tomato. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Alsace Pinot Blanc, and French-style Chardonnay all work here as well.

Chipotle Cheddar with assorted crackers and Salted Mixed Nuts
Salty dishes often call for red wine, and cheddars, particularly sharp cheddars do as well. Tannic dry reds work well here including Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo, Merlot, and Petite Sirah. If this is an appetizer, however, start with the more modest Sangiovese or even a medium-bodied Zinfandel or Primitivo wine. Primitivo is the Italian clone of the Croatian grape that was also the parent of our Zinfandel grape, as DNA tests confirmed.

Roast Loin of Pork with a chorizo-pinon stuffing and Jalapeño Glaze
Pork is one of the most versatile meats because it will take on the flavors of whatever sauces and spices you prepare with it. The spices here need a sturdy white with good acidity and a bit of sweetness, but a red wine would go better. Spanish Rioja made with Temperanillo, and wines of northern Spain that use the Garnacha grape, which are now more popular, pair well. As a bonus, these are often well-priced for their quality. The French name for Garnacha is Grenache, a key Cotes du Rhone grape along with Mourvèdre and Syrah. Mourvèdre also makes vibrant fruit-forward wines.

A big Sangiovese, such as a Chianti Reserva, or Brunello de Montalcino also pair, but these can be pricey. A domestic Barbera would work better than the subtler Piedmont, Italy versions and also keep the cost down. A Luna Rossa Barbera, Temperanillo, or Sangiovese are good choices in New Mexico, and well-priced.

Tequila Teased Sweet Potatoes
This is another challenging pairing, trust Jane to not make it easy for me. I’ve been teased by tequila, too, but with results not as good as this dish. Complement with sweeter wines, Muscat or German-styled Riesling, contrast with a lighter-bodied Sangiovese or Beaujolais. Sparkling wines also work here.

Winter Salad with Honey Lemon Dressing
So is a winter salad one you serve in winter or with seasonal fixings? In any case, it is best to avoid too much vinegar unless you use balsamic as this can clash with many wines. Complement this salad with fruity, acidic whites, but a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc may be too acidic for some palates. A dry honeyed Muscat would also work well here.

Birthday Cake with Apple Spice
How you do like this, Jane even puts spice in the dessert! Depending on the frosting, a late harvest Riesling, or a Muscat Canelli will complement the cake. If you have any of the sparkling wine left, it should go here as well.

Consolidating the Wines
Now that we have a list of wines, how do we pair down – pun intended - to two or three choices? First we have some clear red and white wine choices, so at least one of each would be best. A Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling or sparkling wine would handle the widest range of choices, but if you favor Chardonnay, make sure it’s more in the French style. A Spanish or Italian dry red, Sangiovese or Garnacha will handle the cheese and pork. A third wine for the dessert is also practical. Many dessert wines are in half-bottles so there’s less chance of waste. Waste? That might be at your house, but not mine. Salut!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Back to Basics: Holiday Wines and Food

Now that the taste of mini-Snickers and gummy bears no longer invade our palates, it’s time to think about holiday wine and food pairings. As the title suggests, this is about applying basic pairing rules to your holiday feasts. Just remember, rules can be broken, but have a valid reason. Some examples of shaky reasoning follow.

I like the label: Fine, but make the bottle part of your table decoration if the flavors are at odds with the meal.

I always drink this wine: Why not put a little adventure in your meal and try something different? Alternately, find out what foods go best with your wine and plan the meal around that.

My guest brought it: This is a tough one if you don’t want to offend. Tactful: “This will go great with a meal I’m planning for Saturday.” Alternately, serve it with appetizers if it will clash with dinner. Tactless: “Have you no food sense, this will clash horribly with the smoked ham!”

First some basic basics: Food friendly wines work best. These will be lower in alcohol, not over-oaked, particularly whites, have good acidity, and not be overly dry or tannic. If your favorite wine is a big red wine with enough oak to produce splinters, enough tannin to require re-hydration, and enough alcohol to put great aunt Mildred to sleep in her chair, you might want to save it for the cheese plate.

Traditional holiday fare, such as turkey and ham will be hard to match with heavy, tannic reds. A lighter red, such as Pinot Noir or Beaujolais will work much better. Save the bigger reds for steaks and heavier grilled meats. Beef Wellington, an English holiday treat, will pair wonderfully with Cabernet Sauvignon. If the meat is smoked, however, more red wine choices open up. A dry rosé will also work well here.

What are the overall flavors of your dinner? If they tend to include yams mottled with marshmallows, cranberry sauce, and a candied ham, you’ll do better with a white wine with good acidity, fruit-forward, less oak, and off-dry or slightly sweet. Riesling and Gewürztraminer will work well here, German, Alsace, or domestic depending on your preference. Turkey with root vegetables and fewer sweet sides will also work with Viognier, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Gris white wines. Chardonnay should be more in the French style with subtle oak and good fruit that does not require 100% malolactic fermentation. Milagro Vineyards & Winery make an excellent Chardonnay that meets this criteria.

If the turkey is smoked, or has a spicy stuffing or sides, try Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Barbera, Nebbiolo and other Spanish and Italian wines. These wines were made to pair with local cuisines which offer flavors similar to southwest cuisine. Many New Mexico wines feature these grapes including Luna Rossa, which specializes in Italian varietals that pair well with spicy offerings. It is a basic rule that wines often go well with a local cuisine if it has a defined one. California cuisine, on the other hand, is not well defined. My experience with it suggests that it’s whatever you’re eating in California.

The easiest choice is a sparkling wine, as many of these can go with everything but chocolate cake. In New Mexico that’s almost a no-brainer as Gruet is also a best buy. Gruet Brut will harmonize better than Gruet Demi Sec which is an off-dry sparkler. Gruet Blanc de Noirs, which also uses the Pinot Noir grape, works with many holiday meals. Sparkling Rosé is another good choice, but make sure it is a true rosé, such as Gruet makes, and not pink champagne, which can be overly sweet. Too much sweetness will clash with most palates, at the other end of the spectrum from a too-dry wine.

If you go to a wine store and ask what wines should go with your dinner and they reply with “whatever you like” realize that this is not an answer. Otherwise, why were you asking in the first place? A good wine shop should at least have ideas and suggestions for you to consider.

Another possibility is the Shotgun approach. This doesn’t require the use of firearms, but buying a mix of wines and discovering which ones go best with the meal. You can even make a game of it, asking your guests to vote for their favorite pairing. You’ll learn more about your palate, food pairing, and what your guests like or don’t like.

What about dessert? At this point your guests will be so overloaded with food and wine they probably won’t care what you serve, but here are a few more rules, just in case. Fruit-based desserts will work with sparklers and white dessert wines. Muscat wines, such as the Corrales Winery Muscat Canelli, are wonderful here. Chocolate and butter cream-based desserts are best with big red wines, Port or sweet Sherries. If that big Cab is still waiting for a pairing partner to dance with, that chocolate cake is perfect. Salut!

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Trick or Treat: The Witch Creek Winery

As I’m writing this on Halloween, it seemed apropos to cover the Witch Creek Winery in Carlsbad, California. The winery and tasting room are located on Highway 1/101, which changes names in just about every coastal town you come to in southern California. I thought I’d be tricked into another tourist-trap winery, but instead discovered a real treat.

My apprehension dissolved with a plop, much like the dough boy in The Ghostbusters, when I saw the list of wines they offered. Three full pages of varietals and blends, which change frequently, Rich Koziell said when I enquired. Really? I took a peek behind me at the operation. Standard bottler, modest sized crusher, how do they do this, I wondered.

Rich is the owner/VP of Witch Creek, and, luckily for me, was on hand to talk about his winery. He introduced me to some of the people that keep it humming, including Ryan Baker. Ryan is billed as the associate wine maker, and I found him to be an enthusiastic member of the Witch Creek team – and very opinionated when it comes to types of oak, and which ones worked best for various varietals.

One thing is for sure, you won’t be bored with the same old choices found in many other California wineries. I really needed a scorecard to keep track of all the different and delightful wines they offered for tasting on the day before Halloween. Maybe I should drive past today, just to make sure it hasn’t disappeared.

The playful names of some of the blends suggest non-elitist wine lovers are at work here, such as the 2008 Château Neuf Du Cat, a classic Rhone blend that sports a don’t-mess-with-me black cat on the label. The 2007 Zinzilla is an equilateral triangle blend of Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Petite Sirah, that I had to grab for tonight’s eerie dinner.

The wines have character and wonderful flavors of the grape, and no bludgeoning from the American and European oak barrels used for ageing. Witch Creek Winery sources their grapes from numerous locations including the Valle de Guadalupe just over the border in Mexico, Clarksburg, the Central Coast, and as far north as Lodi.

The Sangiovese-Brunello, which uses the Brunello clone of the Sangiovese grape, was very authentic. Old world flavors of tobacco and spice wrapped around a new world interpretation with rich cherry made this one a delight. Perhaps that’s why the Tuscany lawyers complained to Rich about using their name on his wine. He patiently pointed out that it nowhere stated Brunello de Montalcino so what was the problem? Yeah, with lawyers, there’s always a problem, isn’t there?

The 2007 Due Pastore blend of Montepulciano and Sangiovese grapes suggests some of the uniqueness of their wines, as does the 2007 Mourvedre, a principal Rhone varietal that requires some skilled handling to stand alone. This one stands out with a more complex nose and palate that others I‘ve tried recently. At $22 and $23 per bottle, respectively, you aren’t paying a premium for Witch Creek’s magic, either.

The 2006 Reserve Merlot, a gold medal winner at the SF Chronicle Wine Competition, uses Guadalupe fruit. The rich cinnamon nose backed by black pepper was enticing, and the palate rewarded me with red berries and earthy spices. At $30, this is a no brainer for Merlot lovers. In fact, that would be true of all the wines I sampled. Prices that would keep me coming back for more, knowing I’d be in for a few surprises along the way. Witch Creek Winery: no tricked out wines, only treats.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Bartholomew Park Winery

Here is a winery that provides beautiful scenery and organic grapes, with entertaining and informative wine pourers behind the counter. It is the wines; however, that make Bartholomew Park a must stop. Nestled in the Mayacamas Mountains of Sonoma, just east of the town of Sonoma, the vineyards behind the elegant chateau are organic-certified. In the past the land supported a nudist colony with celebrants stretched out naked under the sun, but now only the grapes have that opportunity. I did look in vain for before and after images of the site.

The special attention given to the land and the artisan wine making of small production wines should command high prices, but Bartholomew Park has somehow managed to keep the cost within reason. Good news, as the wines are well-crafted, complex, balanced, but still very approachable. Approachable is a fancy way of saying, anyone would enjoy these wines. Besides the estate vineyards surrounding the chateau, two other Sonoma vineyards lie at 700 feet, which is above the fog line, and contribute good fruit for the Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot-based wines.

The 2008 Bartholomew Park Sauvignon Blanc is an excellent food wine with good acidity and fruit-forward flavors of citrus and tropical fruit. The 2006 Bartholomew Park Syrah spreads black cherry and blueberry across the palate with a meaty enticing mouthfeel. The 2006 Bartholomew Park Zinfandel has flavors that harkens back to the days of my early explorations of Sonoma Zins. This vineyard, founded by Agoston Haraszthy in the late 1850s, has a substantial pedigree, being one of the first sites at which the Zinfandel grape was planted. As it happens, class still tells.

The 2005 Desnudos Vineyard Merlot is a combination of two blocks of grapes that provide a complex lush wine with silky tannins, dark fruit, and dark chocolate. At $32 I’d rate this one a best buy, along with the 2005 Kasper Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon at $40. The Cab comes on strong with blackberry and other dark fruit, and notes of espresso with a dollop of cocoa. Gee, I must have been really hungry when I wrote that description.

The limited production of these quality wines means you’ll have to go online to order them, but you will love what the brown truck delivers to your door. Salud!

Friday, October 16, 2009

How Does Climate Change Affect Grape Growing?

Yesterday was Blog Action Day for Climate, so I thought I’d add some much needed information on the impact of warmer weather on wine making to the debate. And there is much debate over this issue, even if the media is slow to recognize it.

Obviously changes in climate are of prime interest to wine makers and grape growers. The shifting of temperatures can have some impact on the growing cycle and even the choice of grape varieties best suited to these changes. Since there has actually been a gradual cooling over the past several years, no immediate changes need to be made, but what about long range plans?

We do have one historical example to draw upon, and that is found in the Medieval Warm Period (MWP) from approximately 900 AD to 1300 AD. The MWP was warmer than our warmest years in the late 20th century, so it provides a good basis of comparison. During that warming period grape growing and wine making was common in England, along with a longer growing season in France. The added warmth was also increasing the amount of rainfall. There was more rainfall in the Middle East including North Africa than can be observed now.

In fact, during this period the great cathedrals were being built, commerce and trade flourished, and fewer people died from extreme cold conditions, which historically are harder on humans than warmer periods. The enrichment of CO2 from the warmer weather would also benefit plants, crops, and vines. The higher concentration of CO2 is a result of warmer temperatures gradually heating the oceans which release more CO2 as a result.

Although the general circulation models (GCM) used in climate studies had predicted warmer temperatures, the observable record from weather balloons and satellite data suggests otherwise, casting doubt on the reliability of computer-generated projections. While there is much dispute over the amount of warming, what causes it, and how much warming we might see, the prospects for wine making and grape growing in the foreseeable future appear to be bright.

Friday, September 25, 2009

California Wining and Dining

September 16, 2009

My latest California trip combined meeting old friends with sharing good food and wine. Since I also do restaurant reviews for the Albuquerque Arts magazine, my comments will include where I dined. As it happens, I have much good news to report. The following travelogue is a moveable feast that began with lunch, followed by a trek to two wineries just outside the town of Sonoma, and ended at dinner in Point Reyes on a fog-shrouded evening.

The day started with a trip to the town of Sonoma, which lies at the foot of two mountain ranges above San Pablo Bay. The town has charm to spare, with a number of tasting rooms and restaurants. The plaza, a wide expanse of lush green grass and trees in the heart of town, showed up easily in the arterial view of MapQuest. Although I have been led astray at times by this popular application, this time it was dead on. The plaza was to be our meeting spot.

When my wife and I arrived our friends, Ernie and Shirley Levasseur, talked us around the plaza to their location by cell phone. When we rounded the corner there was Shirley with phone to ear waving us over. Remember how challenging this was before cell phones? We also met Stan Schuler and Mila Caceres who own the bed & breakfast where we’d spend the night.

Ernie, a retired Army colonel, had recently reunited with his buddy, Stan. They had last been together in Viet Nam, and that’s a long time ago. We had lunch at The Girl & the Fig, just off the plaza. Yes, you read that name right. Who could resist dining there? The backyard patio was perfect. Our group had a cozy, vine-canopied area all to ourselves where good wines, wine flights, and excellent food pairings soon covered the table.

I had the Viognier wine flight paired with a selection of cheeses and meats. Since I’d focus on red wines later, I didn’t want to overload my palate at lunch. The wines were from France, Chile, and California, and each was a unique interpretation of this increasingly popular grape. The setting was perfect, the conversation free-flowing, and the food and wine luscious.

Departing from the restaurant, we followed the white sign posts with faded black lettering guiding us to a long winding country road that terminated at the Buena Vista winery entrance. A huge stump of a Live Oak tree arrested my attention before entering the cool interior. This is one of the oldest wineries in California, established in 1857. The tasting notes on this winery can be found here.

Our next stop was only a few miles away on another country road that climbed a rounded ridge to a beautiful chateau that fronted what was once a nudist retreat. Now the only thing lying naked in the sun is the grapes. The Bartholomew Park Winery is a boutique winery with excellent hand-crafted wines that will be covered in as future post.

After the wine tasting we took back roads to Point Reyes in Marin County. The Point Reyes National Seashore is one of the most picturesque on the California coast. Nearly cleaved from the mainland by Tomales Bay to the north and Olema creek to the south, Point Reyes forms an elongated triangle with the longest side clinging to the coast, and the southern end curving over Drakes Bay, while the shortest side forms a foot with outstretched toe testing the waters of the Pacific. Drakes Bay was named after Sir Francis Drake, privateer to some, pirate to others.

The national seashore encloses marshes, bird sanctuaries, sandy beaches, verdant grasslands, and wave-splashed rocky cliffs and ledges. We refreshed at One Mesa, Stan and Mila’s B & B in the One Mesa cottage, which was beautifully appointed with a skylight over the king-size bed, a porch overlooking the garden, deep-set tub, and full coffee self-service. The scents of flowers and eucalyptus and ocean-scented breezes made this cottage hard to leave the next morning.

We had dinner at Nick’s Cove on Tamales Bay. Great views and our own glass-enclosed alcove where quiet conversation was possible helped make this a fabulous dining experience. I had brought a bottle of a Buena Vista Pinot Noir from our earlier tasting, but found a complete wine list that I read with relish. Considering that this is a Pat Kuleto-owned restaurant, I shouldn’t have been surprised. I previously wrote about his wine here.

I began with Oysters “Nick- erfeller” with tarragon, butter, spinach, and breadcrumbs. Unlike the bacon that can overpower the Rockefeller version, this one allowed me to savor the fresh-caught oysters right from Tomales Bay. The Scottish Salmon and the Pinot didn’t quite match, but the 22 oz. Ribeye alla Fiorentina that would pair required a heavier commitment than I could muster. Next time I’ll use their wine list.

The last drive back around the bay in the gathering dusk was one of contentment after the many culinary pleasures of the day. It’s just a good thing I don’t do this every day. I’d never be able to get back on the bike. Salud!

Buena Vista: Good Views, Good Wine

September 16, 2009

The entrance to Buena Vista is preceded by the huge stump of a Live Oak that must have been awesome in its prime. Bleached almost white from the unsheltered sun, it stands as rooted to the spot as the winery itself. Buena Vista was founded in 1857 by Agoston Haraszthy. Now there’s a name that falls trippingly from the tongue. It is California’s oldest premium winery and still one of the best for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Their vineyards near San Pablo Bay in the Carneros region yield high quality fruit for these wines. The terroir permits a long growing season which combined with the stressing of the vines produce smaller, more intense grapes for making great wines. Buena Vista established these large blocks of vines in 1969, one of the first wineries to recognize the potential of what is now one of the best wine producing regions for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. They also have smaller blocks of Merlot and Syrah that benefit from the longer growing season.

Joe Trude, the knowledgeable counterman, was gracious even though I had neglected to call ahead that the Southwestern Wine Guy was coming. I’d been remiss in alerting the winery, but Joe was unstinting in the welcome we received. This always bodes well when visiting a tasting room.

The tasting included Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, representing their Carneros series and a new series featuring limited-production, clone specific wines also from Carneros. The 2006 Ramal Vineyard Chardonnay – Dijon clone definitely displayed the flavors of its native origins in Burgundy. There are actually a number of Dijon clones, numbers 75, 76, 95, 96 at my last count, which have been used in California and also with great success in Oregon where the shorter growing season produced harder, acidic wines before Dijon cuttings were tried.

This wine had the same wonderful minerality of their French cousins, or is that siblings? I never can tell about grape relationships. The Carneros terroir also contributed to the elegance of this selection. The tasting notes were interesting to read if a bit overwrought, which is often the case. The notes mentioned a bouquet that included subtle matchstick. So would that be like a match that doesn’t ignite when struck?

The 2005 Ramal Vineyard Pinot Noir, which uses the Clone-5 Pommard, was so good I bought a bottle to go. Earthy red and dark fruit and wondrously soft palate and long finish made this one irresistible. The notes mentioned that this one was ripe and explosive. I guess that means no subtle matchstick. I put the Pinot to the test later when we had dinner at Nick’s Cove on Tamales Bay, Point Reyes. I’ll have more to say about that in another blog.

The last wine I tried was a selection from the Atlas Peak Elevation Club. The club is entrée to some of the best Napa Cabs around. The one my eye locked on was the 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain. Even the copious wine notes could not do justice to this Cab. In my less knowledgeable wine life, I only thought of Howell Mountain as a good bicycle climb. But it is also where some of the best cult wines originate.

I gave Joe my most pleading look as I asked for a taste. “I knew you’d do that,” he said. What, he knows my mind better than me? Hmm, good guy to have around. Do visit them when you’re next in Sonoma, or check out the excellent website if you can’t wait that long. Salut!

Lookout Ridge Winery Looks Out for Kids

Tuesday, September 15

This article comes from the Wine/Winery-of-the-Month feature section of my newsletter, but I thought the story important enough to redo here. If you don’t currently get my newsletter, and don’t want to miss the next one, click here to enter my website.

I’m not sure what most took my breath away, the views from Lookout Ridge, the wines crafted by cult winemakers, or the Wine for Wheels program instituted by the founder, Gordon Holmes. Well, this time it wasn’t the wine as much as the wheelchair program that grabbed my attention. Gordon began it years ago after his wife was diagnosed with MS and confined to a wheelchair. Together, this story and these wines make Lookout Ridge my winery of the month.

I know a little about the feeling of helplessness when a loved one contracts a major disease and the intense desire to do something, anything, to expunge that feeling. Gordon has brought joy – and mobility -- to many people that might have otherwise been confined to bed. I’ll relate just one story that touched me greatly.

Constrained by the Bolivian government to bring in only one wheelchair, Gordon came to a hospital where fifty children were housed who had lost or amputated limbs. The decision on which child was most worthy was heartbreaking. The child that was awarded the wheelchair was asked what he would do first. “I want to go outside,” he said. Without mobility, outside was as remote to these children as it was to a prisoner in jail. Yup, that one got to me, too.

To build his business, Gordon took a different tack on wine production – he invited cult winemakers to craft wines from his quality grapes, and then marketed them as winemaker-labeled wines. You have probably heard of vineyard labeled wines, but how about winemaker labeled wines? Exactly.

The Greg La Follette 2006 Pinot Noir we tasted was rich, earthy, and more Burgundian than Californian, with spice and leather and dark fruit. After savoring this wine Gordon said, “Would you like some more?” I said, “Was that in the form of a question?” I slid my glass over for a refill.

Taking wine in hand, he led us to the cave he’d had cut into the side of the mountaintop. On the Sonoma-side of the cave, burnished copper doors framed by a fallen redwood giant provided access to the cool interior. At first I thought I was in an abandoned missile silo, as the winery equipment has not been installed yet. On the cave’s other side, huge glass doors gave way to stunning views of Napa Valley. When we exited and I went to the rail of the curved balcony that overlooked the Napa side, I was as much in awe as when the Wizard of Oz switched to color.

When we returned to the deck outside the tasting room, with its huge mahogany table and cushioned benches along the side, Gordon brought out the 2001 Gabriella Vineyards Sangiovese I’d requested. This one was also a knockout with a wonderful mouthfeel, spicy cherry and earth-laden dark fruit, and a long finish.

At $100 each, these cult-style wines are reasonably priced, particularly when you consider that each bottle purchased provides a wheelchair and blessed mobility for children, teens and adults the world over. Lookout Ridge; savor the wine and watch the wheels turn.

State Fair Wine Competition Winners

Monday, September 14

This year due to scheduling conflicts, I was unable to judge the State Fair wine competition, held by the NM Vine & Wine Society, of which I’m a member. Instead I helped set up the display of the winners in the agriculture building at the fairgrounds. It would have been more fun if the bottles used in the display weren’t all empty. Apparently, I missed that event as well. Darn!

The numerous multiple award winners included Ponderosa Valley, Luna Rossa, Black Mesa, and Southwest wines (St. Clair/DH Lescombes/San Felipe). The entire list of winners is available at the NMSU website. It was fun draping medals around the bottles and affixing ribbons to Best-of-Show winners, but now I’ll actually have to go out and buy the wines that most interested me. As Dickens once said, “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times” . . . sigh!

Now is a good time to visit New Mexico’s wineries, even though grape harvesting and crushing may still be going on. In the Deming area, the St. Clair and Luna Rossa tasting rooms are “must stops”. In the Albuquerque area, Ponderosa Valley in the heart of the Jemez Mountains is a wonderful fall destination. The St. Clair Bistro near Albuquerque’s Old Town will have their medal winners on display, with tasty snacks and cheese plates to go with them.

In the Velarde/Dixon area south of Taos, Black Mesa, Vivac, and La Chiripada are all within miles of each other amid breathtaking views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. In Corrales, Corrales Winery and Milagro Vineyards continue to win my personal awards for quality NM wines.

Visit a winery, make some new friends, and take home your own “wines of enchantment”. Oops, was that a subtle plug? Maybe so. You can learn more about our fantastic New Mexico wines and wine history by ordering a copy of my book, “Wines of Enchantment”, by clicking here.

Corrales Winery Grape Harvest

Saturday, September 12

Words can hardly express the sensations and emotions that course through a wine lover when he is with his beloved grapes. I realized that afresh while picking grapes at the Corrales Winery on a warm weekend in September. This has become a yearly passion for me as I joined a large group convened to harvest the grapes, enjoy the fellowship of other wine lovers, and sample the fruits of a previous harvest.

The first step in harvesting is to remove the nets, which protect the fruit from hungry birds. The process was aided by a new bailing machine Keith Johnstone deployed on the rear of his tractor. The machine has a platform to hold the net bag, and a bailing arm through which the net is threaded. It did require him to drive backwards through each row with Michael and myself as the tall guys running interference in front. We held the net up off the vines while Clay in the rear bed played spooler. It all worked surprisingly well, and nobody was run over. What could be better?

Amidst the scents of rain-damp earth and grapes, we took our buckets and clippers down row after row. The grapes bled juices that dripped down the dusky skins, soaking the earth as they were severed from the vine branch. I worked hard at not bursting grapes in the cluster, but when tendrils insisted on wrapping around a central branch it became a tug of war. I’ll admit, sometimes I lost a few grapes.

Gradually each bucket filled with grape clusters. We first harvested the Muscat’s, which were big and golden with brown tints and freckles, each bunch heavy in my hand. The Riesling grapes that we picked last were emerald green and smaller on tight clusters, hanging close to the parent stem. The grapes I sampled had good sugar, particularly the Muscat. Who could resist popping a few and imagining what the Muscat Canelli would taste like this year?

Visualizing the finished wine from the grapes I plucked from the vine took me back to the beginning of a wine’s journey. From the time the grapes are unloaded and go through the hurtles of the de-stemming machine, give up their juice and sometimes their skin to form the must, and begin the slow conversion to wine, the process of winemaking begins and ends with the grape.

After harvesting the grapes comes the celebration with a groaning board set with, um, if you haven’t eaten in a while, you might want to jump to the next paragraph. The table was laden with twice-baked potato, sausages, corn-on-the-cob, chicken, NY strips, fixins’ and deep dish apple pie for anyone braving the real possibility of bursting from too much food. I call it a groaning board because that’s the sound the table made as each dish was added.

The wine was principally Keith and Bobbi Johnstone’s, of course, both reds and whites. I stuck with the reds, particularly since my favorites were right there. The 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon has wonderful herbal notes atop dark fruit and black pepper. The 2007 Cabernet Franc has ripe cherry and berry flavors with an under core of black pepper. Both will improve with age, but drink well now.

The feast was under a white tent set up on the green grass between the vineyards, where it sheltered several rows of tables. There sat the weary harvesters, enjoying the food and drink, the conversation, and the convivial atmosphere. It reminded me of a Renoir painting depicting a French countryside with shaded cloisters, the picnickers turned to the viewer, displaying the satisfied smiles that only come from those who cherish life. Yup, it looked just like that. Salut!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Recreating Wine History

Checking my email recently, I almost couldn’t believe my eyes; Zinc Wine Bar & Bistro was staging a “Judgment of Paris” blind wine tasting. Unfortunately when I called in, the maximum of twelve attendees had already signed up. Rats! But with the promise of another possible tasting later, I put my name on the list. This time luck was with me, and the second tasting on August 8 was a go.

I have attended other wine dinners at Zinc, and been impressed with how well organized they were, so I was prepared for a fun evening. Zinc did not disappoint. Zinc’s Kevin Roessler, masterminded the event and greeted my wife and me as we climbed to the second level where a long table was set up and we joined the rest of the celebrants. Six glasses and notes on the wines were arranged at each place setting. Two whites in front and four reds behind had already been poured.

The 1976 Judgment of Paris

Revisiting the original 1976 Judgment of Paris, set up by Steven Spurrier, California winemakers Jim Barrett of Chateau Montelena, and Warren Winiarski of Stags Leap Wine Cellars won top awards in the Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon blind tasting respectively. Spurrier, an Englishman, ran the Academy du Vin, to teach oenology to English-speaking attendees, and sponsored the event to attract attention to his school.

The most attention he attracted was from the French wine judges, who harangued him for what, in their view, was the latest in a long series of offenses by the English. One could almost hear the beginning of a new Hundred Years War in their complaints of his sabotaging the French wine industry. Spurrier, on the other hand, was as surprised as they at the results. After all Chateau Mouton-Rothschild and Meursault Charmes Roulot are some of the most prized red and white wines, respectively. How could the upstart Americans compete with that?

The Zinc Tasting

Duplicating the original wines would have been cost-prohibitive, even if all the wines were still available, but Kevin provided a very good set of replacements. The cornerstone was a 2000 Chateau Margaux, which was enough reason for me to be there. This cult wine, which easily goes for over $1,000, when you can find it, was from one of the great vintage years for Margaux. For the whites, he selected a Grgich Cellars 2006 Chardonnay and a P Matrot Charmes 2006 Meursault. Mike Grgich was the winemaker of the first place winning Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, so the lineages for both were good.

The Chardonnay wines were not hard to differentiate, although the French judges in 1976 were confounded by the similarities. The Chateau Margaux was also easy to spot with an earthy nose, redolent of tobacco and spice, and rich red and dark fruit on the palate. The tannins were sinuous, and the finish just kept going. I can see why this vintage has an average rating of 98 points, with a number of 100-point awards. I savored this one to the last drop, but felt it would be bad form to tongue out the glass.

The Other Wines

The Freemark Abbey 2002 Sycamore Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon was also reasonably easy to spot, a classic Napa Cab. The problem I had was with the Chateau Bastide Dauzac 2005 Margaux and the 2005 Franciscan Magnificat, a Meritage blend. The Dauzac Margaux is a Cinquièmes Crus or fifth growth and didn’t taste like a typical Margaux and both wines had a significant dark cherry palate. I ended up swapping them on my tasting form. Oh well, nobody’s perfect.

The food that accompanied the wines was well selected although I waited until after I’d tasted all the wines before indulging to keep my palate clear. This was a well-conceived and fun event, complete with high-quality wines and tasty complementary foods. Zinc is definately for wine lovers. Salud!

Tunneling Into the Hills of Coombsville

If a winemaker made a wish list of everything he or she would need to make the best wines, and price were no object, it might look something like Porter Family Vineyards. When our guide, Curtis Strohl of Ancien Wines, drove us up the final hill to the Porter property, there were breathtaking views to the north. Below us lay Napa Valley, gently curving through sloping hills. In the near distance, a dilapidated building indicated the last vestiges of a long defunct stage line that brought early settlers to this lush farmland.

We met Tim Porter and entered the nearest building, which also housed the lab for testing brix and other parameters. Tim took over the tour and poured the 2008 Sandpiper Rosé, made from 100% Syrah. Gazing out the west-facing windows, I explored the rounded hill just above us. Grapes blanketed the hill with row upon row of gently undulating vines, but at the base I spotted the entrance to a cave. A wine cave, no doubt. But, no. Upon closer inspection, that cave was actually the winery!

Taking our glasses of wine with us, we climbed the hill and looked down upon a large grape-crushing machine, covered by a tin roof, and resting on the downward slope. This design permits the grape juice to be gravity-fed below to the rear entrance to the cave, a structure that travels the entire length of the hill’s base, and contains more than 17,000 square feet of wine-making equipment and storage, plus a tasting room.

Entering the Cave

We descended the stairs to the rear entrance. The complex looked like a giant mole had cut a huge hole into the hill, magically coating its sides with smooth concrete before continuing its mad scamper through to the downhill opening. Power cables clung to the sides and numerous branches off the main tunnel appeared as we proceeded further into the cave. It was an unreal feeling, as though I’d stepped into a James Bond movie, with a criminal mastermind lurking just around the next corner.

One of the major branches contained a long row of stainless steel fermentation tanks. Above them a long metal track housed an apparatus for automatically performing the daily punch-downs in each tank. What winemaker wouldn’t kill for a setup like this, I thought. Many automated systems used pump-overs to keep the cap broken up, but punch-downs are generally considered a better way to handle the process, except for the added labor usually associated with it. Not here.

When we finally made our way into another branch that was the tasting room, I was ready to sample the wine all this technology was designed to bring forth. Over thirty-five feet in circumference and rising to a rounded top, the enclosure sported indirect lighting along the sides and a huge round table that could have seated all of Arthur’s knights. On it was the Porter Family Vineyards 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, our holy grail and much easier to find than Sir Galahad’s goal.

Was it worth the quest? In spades. The wine is a blend of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Syrah, and 3% Merlot; not a typical Bordeaux blend, but it works. The nose yields notes of violet, cedar, and spices. Packed with dense, dark fruit of blackberry, plum and black currant, the 24 months in French oak added vanilla bean and dark cocoa. The tannins provide good structure and enhance the long finish. There may have been tears in my eyes after sampling the wine, but I quickly brushed them away. The 91 rating from Wine Spectator is much too low. Just goes to show you, some things you have to discover for yourself. Salud!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Ancien Wines: Vintage Pinot Noir

It’s common knowledge that some of the best Pinot Noir receives generous assistance from coastal winds and fog. So why is Ken Bernards, the winemaker of Ancien Wines, choosing the lower Napa Valley? The close proximity to San Pablo Bay is a partial answer, as is the higher elevation here in the shadow of Mt. George. Actually, I’m not sure how much shadow the mountain provides, but it makes for a nice poetic image, don’t you think?

I recently toured the vineyards and sampled the wines of Ancien with Curtis Strohl, the marketing director. We went back in time viewing vines from generations back, observing the different vine pruning and trellis techniques that have evolved in Napa. The Coombsville/Mt. George area has produced outstanding fruit for many years, and is now coming into its own as dedicated and visionary enologists make unique Napa Cabs.

Ken also crafts wonderful cabs, but his passion at Ancien is to produce elegant Pinot Noir from a varied range of vineyards, each an expression of the terroir in which the grapes are grown. Chardonnay and Pinot Gris round out the varieties Ken focuses on here. Each wine is very special, but the Pinots are what I’ve been eagerly looking forward to this day, as I’m a confirmed Pinot junkie.

Curtis set us up under the shade of a sprawling tree and we tasted a number of single-vineyard Pinots, followed by the Chardonnay. The Mink vineyard, which is next door to the winery, provides one example of an Ancien Pinot. Some of the oldest vines of this grape in Napa have been grown here, aided by maritime winds and moisture. One of the secrets of this pinot is the soil, which begins with a few feet of alluvial clays and cobblestones and then a layer of compressed volcanic ash, called tufa. The 2007 Mink Vineyards Pinot Noir delivered on its promise, as did all of the sampled wines.

Ancien suggests that the wine will continue to develop for 7-10 years, which is indicative of a hand-crafted Burgundian-quality pinot. The 2007 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir is totally different, but consistent with the Sonoma coastal area varieties. Even so, this one stands out from many others I’ve tried over the years. The 2007 Carneros Pinot Noir, from the Napa side of the Carneros region, brings yet another expression of Ancien’s philosophy to create vineyard-unique wines.

Finally, we go down to the Santa Rita Hills near Lompoc, California for the 2006 Fiddlestix Vineyard Pinot Noir. Significant coastal influence impacts the fruit of this wine as well. This wine has already sold out, but the others mentioned are still available. Prices range from $36 to $48, well-priced for the quality, and each is an excellent representative of its location, and reflects the crafting of a well-made wine.

Curtis then poured the 2006 Carneros Chardonnay. Normally in a wine tasting the whites are sampled before the reds, but not if the wine is a big Burgundian-style Chardonnay like this one. Then you simply marvel at the wonderful complexity, good acidity, and opulent fruit.

The last wine was a barrel-tasting of the 2008 Sonoma Mountain Red Dog Pinot Noir, as the 06 has already sold out and the 07 just recently bottled. I can see why it sells out early, even sampling from the cask. Maybe I should just buy a case now. Salud!

Coombsville or Tulocay: What’s in a Name

Once again, Judy Diaz has provided a set of not-to-be-missed wineries for me to sample. This time, we’re in Coombsville, a wine district with distinct terroir, but, as yet, without an AVA (American Viticultural Area). There was some debate as to what name to use. The submitted and rejected choice was Tulocay, but as this is also the name of the local cemetery, it did not have a lot of support. “Try the wines of Tulocay, they’re dry as dust”, just brings in the wrong connotations, don’t you think?

Others think Coombsville sounds redneck. Touring the area, feeling the rich volcanic soil, and the beautiful vineyards that lace the hillsides, redneck is the last thing to come to my mind. And after all, it’s not called Hicksville. (Oh boy, I’ll hear it from the Hicksville folks now.) Whatever they finally call it, some very special wines come from this area of Napa, and interest is growing fast.

The proximity to San Pablo Bay keeps the area cooler than the Napa valley floor north of here. Many vineyards are located at 300 to 500 feet. The grapes mature to full ripeness without the higher sugar content of the hotter areas of Napa. Fruit from this region has been used to make outstanding Bordeaux-styled wines for many years, but only recently has the area come into its own for its smaller lot producers.

The red grapes produce wines that are very dark and blue-black in color. Typical flavors of dark fruit and plums, layered with dried herbs and black olives make for unique and flavorful wines. The tannins are silky and fine, with good alcohol levels and acidity, making for nicely balanced wines. The ones I tried expressed a subtle power and grace and made me an instant believer in what this area’s terroir brings to the plate.

We visited three very different, but very good wineries in this tour: Ancien Wines, Porter Family Vineyards, and Tournesol. One thing they all have in common is winemaker Ken Bernards. Ken is the founder and wine maker for Ancien Wines where he pursues his goal to create Pinot Noir from a wide range of vineyard locations. Visionary Winemaker should probably be his full title, as he has exhibited great vision since turning to the craft in 1986.

Beginning as a research enologist at Domain Chandon, he took over as winemaker at Truchard Vineyards, making hand-crafted single-vineyard wines while founding and getting Ancien off the ground. He also helped design the high-tech winery of Porter Family Vineyards. His understanding of the unique terroir of the Coombsville/Mt. George area is probably second to none. Tasting the wines of all three sites, I can attest to his skills.

Our host on this tour was Curtis Strohl, the marketing director of Ancien Wines, who provided good background on the wineries and their history, and introductions to the winemakers. His personal and friendly approach accounted for much of the success of the tour. Thank you, Curtis.

Please see the related blogs on each of these wineries for descriptions of some of the special wines that come from this district.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Toast of Taos July 2-11

Great wine festivals are those that offer wine dinners, a wide choice of wines, a venue that invites exploration and entices the senses, and a special location. Welcome to the Toast of Taos, one of the best festivals in New Mexico. Enchanting inns, imaginative restaurants, wonderful wines, and ghosts of New Mexico’s past all flood the senses here.

The Toast of Taos follows the Southwest Wine Competition in late June and many of the winners are featured at the area restaurants where celebrants can listen to the wine makers discuss their wines, and chefs create pairings to complement them. Last year’s celebration was the first I’d attended and I’m permanently hooked. The event runs from July 2 to 11 this year, but don’t waste any time if you are considering going. Call 575-751-5811, if you plan to attend any wine dinners, auctions, or art tours.

The best part is that all profits go to the Holy Cross Hospital Foundation to purchase medical equipment for the hospital. Sally Trigg and a host of dedicated volunteers keep things running smoothly, from the wine competition through the final dinners and auctions. If you enjoy fine food and wine, art, and scenery, this is the wine festival for you.

Barbeque Wines and Celebrations

Never one to pass up an opportunity to grill, I was surprised and delighted to be given the job of grill chef for a barbeque party on the Stanford campus near Palo Alto. The request was made by my good friend Judy Diaz, and I readily accepted because it was to honor her son David’s graduation from the university. David and Judy stayed with us while looking for a new home, and I played temporary Dad, a role I wish had a longer run. Nonetheless, the role of chef was one I took on with great relish.

My wife, Barbara, and I arrived early to set up the grill and get the meats cooking. When we went downstairs of the Kappa Alpha frat house and entered the kitchen and dining room area, an amazing sight greeted us. It looked like a bomb had gone off. Clearly the grads had partied hard the previous night. The floor was so sticky I had to use a spatula under my shoes to gain traction. I sort of remembered my ship’s parties when I was in the Navy, but this was much worse. At least we swabbed the decks afterward!

We found the briquettes easily enough, but no one had thought to include matches or a lighter. None of the participants had any ignition materials, and I was pretty sure rubbing the briquettes together wouldn’t do the trick, even though the bag said self-starting. Barbara, playing resourceful Girl Scout, rolled a section of a grocery bag into a wick, but since all the stoves were electric, her attempts to light the thing with incessant blowing on the feeble embers wasn’t working out too well. Finally she used tissue paper – remember how well and fast that burns – and sent one of the mothers running with it before it burned itself out. Just in time, too, she touched flame to briquette, and then blew on her fingers. We were off and running.

The tri-tip and sausages were soon sizzling, sending heady aromas over the picnic area, and I figured it was safe to open the wine. I’d stopped at Whole Foods in Palo Alto on the way to the event, because I knew I could rely on a great choice in wines, including a special one for the grad. I wanted David to get off to a great start so I grabbed a bottle of 1999 Chateau Deyrem Valentin Margaux Cru Bourgeois. The price range is from $40-65. At Whole Foods it was only $43, so I actually got off lightly. If David finds he loves Margaux wines as much as me, I can only hope he’ll soon be earning enough to manage the addiction.

I selected a Storrs Santa Cruz Mountains Petite Sirah ($23), which went great with grilling and sampling the tri-tip. Hey, a chef has to taste stuff to make sure it’s cooked properly, right? The wine was full-bodied and lush with black cherry and ripe berry flavors and wonderful tannins. Before I knew it that wine was done and we were just sitting down to dinner. Sitting down was a relative term as some of the attendees placed the tables in the shade, but on a deepening slope. Those on the down slope side had to refrain from sneezing or they’d be tumbling down the hill. I did notice that all the females stayed on the up slope side. Hmm.

I opened the other bottle, a 2006 Escudo Rojo ($13) from the Maipo Valley in Chile. This is a flagship wine of Baron Phillippe Rothschild’s winery in Chile, done in bold red colors. The wine was also bold with a generous mouth feel, good tannic structure, coffee and caramel, laced with spice. Since this was a modestly-priced wine, I wasn’t expecting to be this impressed. It easily handled the steak, sausages and trimmings, and had a high drinkability index. This one goes in my great wines under $20 category. The Baron still knows wine. Salud!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Chasing Down Cheap Wine

Economic downturns affect wineries as they do wine drinkers, but quality should never take a downturn. If a portion of your budget is tied to buying and enjoying wines, how do you maintain quality, and perhaps even increase it, without sacrificing your diminishing resources? There are ways to make this happen.

Taste Before You Buy

There are many good wines under $10 that can serve for everyday drinking, but your guide is not price as much as quality. There are also many great wines under $20 to satisfy your palate. How do you find this out? Wine tasting is the best way, obviously, but how do you do this cheaply? Close proximity to wineries whose wine you enjoy is optimal because tasting their product is built in. Often special discounts are available that can further the wine budget.

When tasting wine, save asking about the price until you’ve tried everything. It is too easy to be misled by price, thinking a $40 reserve Merlot must be better than its $20 cousin. Most likely more labor went into the crafting of the reserve, and the grape quality was probably higher, but the end result may not be the wine for you.

The law of diminishing returns suggests that the incremental increase in quality may not be worth the two-fold increase in price, as in my example. The bouquet and palate results the winery was aiming at may not have translated to your palate, so don’t try to convince yourself that you should enjoy the reserve more.

Discounted Wine

Wine may be discounted for a number of reasons and not all of them translate to inferior quality. The wine might not be characteristic of the varietal, which is often a negative, but if a Cabernet Sauvignon tastes more like a Zinfandel, and you prefer Zins, this could be a good deal.

Label-damaged wines are another good bargain unless you prefer pristine appearance. I bought a case of water-damaged Chardonnay from a winery for less than half price. All I said was, “I really like this Chard, but it’s out of my price range.” (All us wine guys call it Chard.) Another possible bargain is buying older wines the winery or distributor has to move out for the current vintage. Storage costs for a winery can be very high, and unless the wine has shown noticeable improvement over its shelf-life at the winery, they may be willing to part with it for less than list.

Wine tasting at a wine store is another good possibility. They need to move stock, and setting up wine tasting is a good way to do that. If a placard lists the wines and price, try to ignore it until you’ve rated the wines yourself. The same thing goes for the high ratings tagged on some wines. Remember, it’s your palate, not Robert Parker’s that you need to satisfy. Buying a wine that’s been “discovered” by a wine critic is like buying stock when you hear how well it’s performing on the evening news. It’s way too late. Why not discover great wine bargains yourself? It’s much more fun!

Once you’ve found wines you like, particularly at a wine shop, check the lowest prices on the internet, and estimate the shipping costs as well. I have many California wines shipped to me, and what I save on sales tax often covers the cost of shipping. Many internet-based distributors are offering very good bargains including free shipping to help lagging sales. Alternately, if you form a relationship with a local wine shop, you’ll probably get first call on bargains and special deals. Lastly, cheap wine should not taste cheap. You’re only cheaping yourself. Salud!

What’s with Two-Buck Chuck?

I shop a lot at Trader Joes, particularly in a recession when I try to maximize my food and wine purchases. Their most famous wine, of course, is Charles Shaw, better known as Two-Buck or Three-Buck Chuck, depending on which state you live in. At less than jug wines prices, they manage to turn out wines that satisfy many wine palates. A 2005 Charles Shaw Chardonnay even won best California Chardonnay at the 2007 California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition. What’s up with that?

Wine Economics 101

Getting a distributor to carry your wines exclusively, means you don’t need an advertizing budget. TJ buys it, and will advertize it to sell it if need be. At the prices the wine is sold, and with wine bargain hunters increasing daily, that probably isn’t necessary.

The raw product of wine making is the grapes. Buying grapes on the market and shopping for bargains, can reduce the costs of making wine. Alternately, if you own vineyards in the Central Valley of California, where acreage costs substantially less, and produce high volume grapes for bulk wine, the advantages of scale take hold.

Bronco Wine Company has some 35,000 acres up and down the Central Valley, adding 640 acres each year for use in about 50 different labels, including Charles Shaw. So now that you have the cheapest grapes, will this make the cheapest wine? If you streamline and automate the winemaking facilities, and maintain a high utilization rate, that is possible.

Wait a minute! Isn’t there an old saying, great wines can only come from great grapes? The corollary would be mediocre grapes make mediocre wine, wouldn’t it? In that case, the cheapest grapes better not be the worst grapes. For that you need someone well qualified to analyze each batch of grapes to insure the quality is reasonable. Then you need a wine maker that can perform magic with less-than-perfect grapes.

Charles Shaw Wines

Charles Shaw moved to Napa in 1974 with the intent to make French-styled Beaujolais, and, according to some accounts, succeeded. However, other varieties gained in popularity, and after his divorce in 1991, he sold the label to Bronco Wine Company. Once Trader Joes began marketing and selling it, the wine took off. Charles Shaw varietals include Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Beaujolais, Merlot, Shiraz, and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Many contend the “best Chardonnay” award is an aberration, possibly a special reserve crafted for the competition. While it wouldn’t be the first time that has happened it is undeniable that many wine drinkers love their Two-Buck wines and buy them by the caseload. I’d add that it is possibly the best wine value at that price point.

High volume wine provides great savings, but consistency from batch to batch usually suffers when you haven’t hand-picked the grapes, defined a style, and put quality control measurements at every stage of production. Many consumers have commented on the variability of lots of the same vintage at different stores.

I occasionally find a varietal that is drinkable during a vintage year, but most often I call Two-Buck Chuck “One-Note Chuck”, as there is little complexity on the palate or nose to generate interest, for me. The wine demands little and may even be crafted to be easy drinking. I don’t drink it, but I list many wines in that category, and for a lot more money. Besides, it’s not my wine palate you’re trying to please.

Nonetheless, you do get your money’s worth, which can’t be said of many wines. Considering the large base of enthusiasts, they must be doing something right. Charles Shaw wine has motivated many non-wine drinkers to try wine for the first time, and that may be its greatest value in the wine world. Salud!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Santa Cruz Mountain Ramblings

I seldom fail to call on the Santa Cruz Mountain wineries when I visit the area. This is the first wine region I explored in depth when I lived in its foothills. Many wineries in the Santa Cruz Mountains offer discounts on their wines, but Byington was the first one that called it a stimulus package. Byington Winery rests on the ocean-facing side of the Santa Cruz Mountains, surrounded by vines on steeply sloped hills. Their quality wines are well priced and they are known for their Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Sauvignon wines. And the stimulus involves the Cabs, two of which are deeply discounted on the website. I think this is the right stimulus – lower costs on excellent wines.

The East Side of the Santa Cruz Mountains

On this trip I planned to visit two wineries, Savannah-Chanelle Vineyards and Byington, on opposite sides of the Santa Cruz Mountains. The wineries are off roads I’ve bicycled numerous times when I lived around here, so the drive called up memories of other times, happily-spent. Savannah-Chanelle produces a number of wines, but their Pinot and Syrah wines are among my favorites. The 2006 Monterey County Syrah has the same appeal as the 2004s I'm enjoying in my cellar now. The 06 has balance, good fruit and spice and black pepper. Looks like I may be adding a case of this one, too.

Many Santa Cruz Pinots are influenced by the elevations, dramatic slopes of the hills and valleys, the maritime breezes, and the summer fog that forms when warm valley air hits cool ocean winds. Earthy and concentrated fruit are hallmarks of many Santa Cruz Pinots. This is also one of the oldest wine-producing regions in California, and it is rich in wine lore. The majority of Savannah-Chanelle Pinots are from vineyards on the Sonoma coast and Russian River area, which is a key region for great wines, but I still love the Estate Vineyards Santa Cruz Mountians Pinot Noir best. The estate Zinfandel and Cabernet Franc vines produce some of the best wines from these grapes in California as well.

Coastal Views of Monterey

The views from Byington winery are long, descending to Monterey Bay in the distance. Byington has been a destination for me for many years, and this time they made me a deal I couldn’t refuse. I’m looking at a bottle of the 2004 Cerro Prieto Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon that arrived over the weekend. This is a potent Paso Robles Cab, with lots of blackberry and plum. Somehow they managed to crank 16% alcohol into this powerhouse without upsetting the balance. The tannins insure a good shelf life for this wine (4 to 9 years), but I don’t think my case will last that long.

On the website they are also discounting the 2004 Smith-Reichel Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon from Sonoma’s Alexander Valley. This one clocks in at 15%, crafted to be age-worthy (6 to 10 years), and with a depth of fruit Alexander Valley is famous for. Since the normal price of both these cabs makes them a best buy, the sale prices should be darn near irresistible. Well, I certainly didn’t resist. Salud!

Atop St. Helena

Napa County has many beautiful hills and valleys with breathtaking landscapes, but I’ve found none better than the views from Kuleto Estate Winery. This Tuscan-inspired spot rests atop a steep hill near St. Helena, surrounded by terraced hills that shimmer with dusky light on emerald-draped vines. In the distance is Lake Hennessey, which I skirted on the drive up. The 2-mile private road that climbs up the mountainside had numerous panoramic mirrors positioned to expose blind corners, of which there were many. I was hoping I didn’t meet a celebrant coming down, because it is really a one-lane road.

Want to see for yourself? Check out the Kuleto Estate Winery website and pictures that can only hint at the specialness of this place. Setting, mood, and environmental sounds can all enhance a wine tasting experience, and our tour of the property provided the proper stimulus. Steve Frattini was our guide, and handed us glasses of the 2007 Rosato (Rosé) which was dry and full of strawberries and rich citrusy fruit. A good companion for a bracing climb.

We walked an up-sloping trail on the rim of the hill the winery occupied. A soft breeze brought the sounds of Cicadas singing, and sheep bleating. Vista after vista opened up around us as we passed the winery, which looked like it had grown out of the bedrock, stone-faced, with pillars that once served a Mexican church now upholding the patio roof. Beyond the winery was the home Pat Kuleto had built overlooking the valleys below. Earthy accents and the feel of a remote Tuscan villa completed the fairy tale picture.

My good friend, Judy Diaz, secured the invitation to this unique winery. Every time I come to Napa, she has at least one new jewel of a location to show me, but this one was really over the top. The architecture is stunning, even considering that Pat Kuleto has designed some of the most prestigious restaurants in California. The Fog City Diner, one of my favorites in San Francisco, was his 110th design and added to his growing reputation. He now has crafted 170 restaurants and owns some of the most popular, including Boulevard, Farrallon, and Jardinière in San Francisco, and the Martini House in St. Helena.

Rough-hewn stone works and fixtures that could have graced a prince’s hunting lodge, where balanced with art and clever design twists that proclaimed a master’s touch. Once we finished the tour, we went in to enjoy wine and select cheeses. Mindful of how seductively a cheese can enhance a wine, I focused on the wines first. The 2006 Zinfandel reminded me of my first wonderful Zin experience many, many years ago. That it could invoke such a memory spoke well for its balance and structure. Many Zins have an overwrought jammy core that almost overpowers the senses. This one brought the flavors of rich dark fruit and a myriad of spices added to the complexity of this balanced wine. Well worth the $40 price tag.

The 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon delivered all I could ask for in a Napa Cab, with a palate of sun-warmed blackberries, plum and black cherry, and spice, well-priced at $60. How could they top this I thought just before I tasted the 2004 Kuleto Estate Cabernet Sauvignon India Ink. Sampling this heady wine I think I achieved an elevated state of consciousness. Not for the first time I was thinking $90 was a reasonable price for a wine that delivered like this one.

Now that I’ve tasted a number of $90 cabs, which seems to be a favored price point, I’d rate this one alongside the Frank Family 2005 Rutherford reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and the Stonestreet 2005 Christopher Cabernet Sauvignon. If you know these wines you also know what exclusive company the Kuleto cab is in. Just please don’t ask me to chose which one is best, they all bring the fruit, the finesse and structure and the inducement to drink them again.

Steve also managed to locate a bottle of their dry Moscato, which provided a new appreciation of the Muscat grape. The Kuleto Estate Winery Chardonnay was also a surprise, although it had full malolactic fermentation (MLF), it didn't exhibit the buttery palate that makes many chardonnays flabby due to the artful way MLF was handled. All Kuleto wines represent the same attention to quality, passion, and patience that went into the design of Kuleto Estate. Try one of their reds and you may find yourself transported to a Tuscan landscape, too. Salud!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Who Criticizes the Critic?

I recently viewed a very interesting documentary, questioning whether Robert Parker influences wine styles, and if so, by how much. And is that a bad thing? Differing opinions abound, but the term “Parkerized wines” suggests a commonly-held opinion that he does exert a strong pull on a winemaker’s style. One concern is the homogenizing of wines by following Parker preferences, and the negation of the affects of terroir on a wine. In other words, a Sonoma Russian River Zinfandel should not taste the same as one grown in the depths of the Arroyo Grande Valley on the Central Coast.

If two wines do taste the same, we might conclude that one or both wines have been over-manipulated. But how much is “over”? My short answer is that if the true nature of the grape, the soil it’s grown in and the weather patterns that harvest year, would make a unique wine, then over-oaking, longer hang-time, and other techniques would yield a palatable but generic wine that could have come from anywhere. The result is that some of the romance and specialness of the wine has been lost, which is sort of like colorizing Citizen Kane.

When I taste wine, I like to imagine where it came from. Sipping a Margaux, the lighter soils than its Northern neighbors and higher percentage of Merlot yields a soft, elegant wine with silky tannins, unmistakable from other Bordeaux wines. Tasting an authentic Santa Cruz Chardonnay, I’m back on the roads I bicycled for so many years, picking up the scent of sword ferns, huckleberry, trillium, and redwood sorrel. (I hate it when I don’t pick up the huckleberry.)

A wine Parker is said to favor is big on fruit, oak, and alcohol. That’s the short definition, but obviously his palate extends way beyond that or he wouldn’t be where he is. The fact is, many winemakers do go for over-extended hang time and longer extraction from the skins. Longer hang time means more sugars, lower acidity, and more alcohol. I’ve had 16+ % Zinfandels that can make one weak at the knees, bursting with ripe fruit and tongue-curling heat. Just don’t try to pair them with any wimpy food; they’ll overpower it.

Different types of oak change the signature of a grape, often for the better. Overdone they can unbalance a wine. Over-oaked California Chardonnay is, sadly, almost a redundant term. While oak flavors of vanilla, cloves, coconut, cinnamon, and spices can be desirable when subtle, bludgeoning a wine with oak makes them the most pronounced flavors, at which point, chewing on an oak tree begins to make sense. I can imagine someone complaining of oak-withdrawal when they switch to Old World styles.

If you take a red wine that exhibits black cherry flavors from extended hang-time, and age it in new American oak, you’re likely to get a strong vanilla flavor from the vanillin that resulted from toasting the staves before the barrel was assembled. Oak may also impart a toasty, nut-like flavor, such as coconut to the wine. What you can end up with is a wine reminiscent of Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream.

Is that a good thing, or a bad thing? Depends on how much you love Cherry Garcia. By now, most Americans have grown up with California wines, and as alcohol levels rise, and more fruit-forward wines with big oak flavors multiply, our palates can lead us down the primrose path to fruit-bomb wines. Until we try to pair them with foods.

The disadvantages of this style of wine become clear when paired with food. As standalone wines, over-the-top reds stand out, which is one of the reasons they are chosen over more subtle, balanced wines of lower alcohol and oak shading. However, if you took your favorite dish to the tasting room, you might make different wine choices. I’m not advocating this, you understand, just pointing out a simple fact: tasting wines in isolation of what foods complement them, doesn’t reveal their suitability at the dinner table.

That said, I always have some big head-knocking wines in my cellar. Sitting on my patio on a balmy day with a Paso Robles Zinfandel and a well-aged cheddar works for me. Just don’t torture your rotisserie chicken with the same wine. There is room for all styles of wine. As long as one style doesn’t predominate; I have no problem with Parkerized wines.

Yes, Robert Parker has influenced the way wines are made, and that is good and bad depending on your own palate. He has also popularized wine in America, and made us aware of many wines deserving of recognition. Some winemakers have probably changed their style of making wine to earn higher scores. I’ve heard that some winemakers even have “Parker barrels” set aside that exhibit characteristics of past wines that have garnered 90 plus points.

The 100-point scale he created is actually a 50-point scale, going from 50 to 100. Would anyone even sample a 20-point wine? I don’t think so. Many contend that the scale suggests a level of precision that doesn’t square with reality, and I’d agree with that. The scale for movie reviews is often four to five stars, which seems appropriate for wine as well. Since a score of 88 can cause a wine to end up discounted and a 90 plus score can lead to raising the price of a wine, a more rational approach to wine scoring makes sense to me.

So who criticizes the critic? Everyone criticizes the critic when they disagree with a critic’s conclusion. That’s half the fun of reading a review, be it about wine or film. “Did you hear what so-and-so said about the 2005 Caymus Cab?” is often a good opening line in a discussion. So thank the critics for sticking their necks out and telling you what they think. They’ve heard it all before, too.

Bottle Shocked; or Who Was That Guy?

Bottle Shock is the latest in a series of wine-related movies, kick-started by Sideways, with a dubious oenological lineage. Yes, I had issues with that film as well. Since I’m a movie nut, and also write screenplays, I wanted to comment on this film, but movie times and my travel schedule didn’t gel, so I had to Netflix it. I just hope you aren’t expecting an Ebert-like review.

First off, I did enjoy the movie. Any movie that has Alan Rickman cast as a wine snob will get my attention. Can any other actor sneer as fulsomely as Rickman? I doubt it, and his role as the Englishman, Steven Spurrier, couldn’t have been better. Spurrier set up the blind tasting event between French Burgundy and Bordeaux wines and their California counterparts. Dennis Farina was also good as his amiable business associate. The setting of 1976 Paris was well mounted for the actual judgment at movie’s end. (Even though the actual tasting was shot in Napa.)

In many respects, this was a reasonable reenactment of the events surrounding the Paris tasting in 1976, which I learned from reading George Taber’s book, The Judgment of Paris. When the story moved to Napa and images of dusty vineyards rolled by, it triggered memories of my own explorations there, proof they did a good job of evoking Napa in the 70’s. Bill Pullman as the irascible owner of Chateau Montelena, Jim Barrett, hit all the right notes and played off Rickman well.

The following dialog between Pullman and Rickman pretty much sums up what I mean.

Jim Barrett: Why don’t I like you?
Steve Spurrier: Because you think I’m an ass. And I’m not really. It’s just that I’m British, and you aren’t.

At this point, recalling Taber’s book, I was expecting to meet the other major players in the Napa success story. And then . . . and then things got strange.

Who was this Gustavo Brambila character? And where were Mike Grgich and Warren Winiarski? Grgich crafted the award-winning Chardonnay for Chateau Montelena, and Winiarski founded Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and crafted the winning Cabernet Sauvignon at the judging. Their bios in the book were part of what made it fascinating as these two men struggled from the bottom to the top of the Napa wine ladder.

Gustavo (Freddy Rodriguez) is a real character, although he wasn’t at Chateau Montelena when the Chardonnay was made. He even has his own winery, the well-regarded Gustavo Thrace Winery. (I’ve tasted his wine, which is quite good.) He was also the technical consultant to the film. Hmmm. Well, OK, add Gustavo, but why take out two of the four principal players in the Judgment of Paris?

For that we need to check out the behind-the-scenes story, which may be as entertaining as the film. The screenwriter, Ross Schwartz, began work on the script before the Taber book came out. He planned to show the rivalry between Barrett and Grgich, but when Grgich asked to be removed from the film, Schwartz switched it to Jim and his son Bo (Chris Pine). If you don’t think that was a rivalry, you should check out the boxing scenes.

Schwartz decided to focus on this story, and the only mention of Winiarski or Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars was in the closing remarks summarizing the winners and subsequent blind tastings, which were also won by the Californians. If Grgich had wished to be in the film, Danny Devito had been cast to play him. What a missed opportunity, Devito and Rickman discoursing on wine; that I’d have paid extra to see.

While the lyrical subplot of Bo’s and Gustavo’s infatuation with Sam, (played by the glowing Rachel Taylor), was entertaining, it would tend to lead some viewers to the conclusion that Gustavo’s red wine was a winner at the blind tasting. Particularly since Sam’s passion for Gustavo’s wine soon led to a different kind of passion in a shack. I can’t believe the film played on the “shacked-up” metaphor. And I can’t believe I just commented on it.

What they got right was the passion for wine making and the sense that Napa was poised to take on the wine world. Wine purists have derided the movie for its inaccuracies, but the oenological sense of life felt right to me. Although Spurrier sent his assistant to Napa to procure the wine, the filmmaker’s decision to have Rickman confront the Californians on their own turf was an excellent choice and provided some of the film’s best moments.

There is another picture about the very same event called Judgment of Paris, which is in development and slated for 2010. The screenplay is by Robert Mark Kamen, based on the book by George Taber. Kamen is also a wine maker, and will probably be more faithful to the book. The film is also approved by Steven Spurrier, who claimed Rickman was too old and portrayed him as an effete wine snob. Unfortunately, every comment I’ve read by him comes across to me in Rickman’s voice. About Bottle Shock, Spurrier said “No doubt I shall have to watch it on my flight to Singapore next week, but at least it will be from the comfort of First Class, with a glass of Dom Perignon to ease the pain.”

See what I mean? Rickman, right?

Once more multiple movies based on the same story are generating controversy, and talk of law suits. While a more accurate take on the events of the Paris tasting would be welcomed, keeping it as entertaining as Bottle Shock could prove challenging. Particularly since Keanu Reeves is being cast as the diminutive Mike Grgich. What happened to Devito in all this? Who knows, if this movie comes out we may get the Judgment of Wine Movies. Salut!

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Pope’s New House is All about Wine

Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a village dedicated to wine, and even comes with a papal blessing. The name translates as the "Pope’s new house", and at one time it was. Pope Jean XXII had the chateau built in 1320, and it became the summer palace of future Popes of Avignon. The chateau was destroyed by the Protestants of Montbrun in 1562, and the town ravaged by Calvinist twice during the Wars of Religion. If only they’d drunk the wine first, all of this unpleasantness could have been avoided.

The final blow came during World War II when the retreating Germans destroyed the chateau. Now only two walls remain of the building that defines one of the most interesting wines of the Southern Rhône. Châteauneuf-du-Pape is made from up to thirteen grape varieties. Yes, you read that right. I can hardly imagine blending five grapes in a Meritage blend, how do they manage thirteen? Quite well, thank you, if the 2005 vintage is any guide.

There are three key elements of any Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The base grape is usually Grenache, the workhorse of Southern Rhone wines, and also of Spain where it is called Garnacha and is Espana’s most heavily planted grape. Its sweet berry flavors and low tannins make it an ideal candidate for the Rosé wines of Tavel and Lirac. The structure and tannin comes from the Syrah grape, and Mourvèdre adds muscle, deep color, and jammy blackberry favors. What they do with the other ten grapes I haven’t a clue, but I see them as brush marks on the canvas created by the three main grapes.

I recently tried two very different Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines, both from the very good 2005 vintage. The 2005 Pere Caboche Mirande Châteauneuf Du Pape was closer to what I expected in this wine, jammy fruit, good tannins, raspberry in the nose and cherry and plum in the palate. A good entry, but a bit more heat and less balance than the second wine a 2005 Châteauneuf du Pape La Tiare du Pape (the Pope’s Crown).

This is a wine from the Skalli Family Wines Americas, more specifically the Maison Bouachon vineyards. Blackberries and cherries and plum predominate on the palate, but with more subtlety than the Pere Caboche Mirande. The three principal grapes constitute 97% of the wine with a number of other grapes rounding out the blend.

I must confess I didn’t allow enough time for the wine to open up before sampling, and picked up more depth as it had more time to breathe. I’d recommend a full hour in a carafe before indulging, as is true for many of these wines. I had also expected a bigger wine after trying the Maison Bouachon Cotes-du-Rhone, and that colored my first impression. Many of us bring our expectations to a wine, and it can have a negative impact on our appreciation.

If you have not had a chance to sample Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines, or had tried them long in the past, now is the time to savor the wines of this village, blessed by a Pope during its founding, and blessed by the warm weather and stony soils of today. Salut!

French Wines with a Southern Exposure

For several years now, wines of France’s southern regions, most notably the Rhone and Languedoc, have been crafting wines well suited to New World wine palates. The longer growing season permits longer hang time for the grapes, thus higher sugar and higher alcohol for the wines. Longer hang time also means lower acidity and a different flavor profile for the grapes. Add to this the implementation of many modern winemaking techniques, which improves the consistency and quality of the wine.

One of the principal grapes of these regions is Syrah, which is also popular in the domestic market. The Northern Rhone makes many wines exclusively from this grape. In the Southern Rhone region, blends predominate as is typical with many French wines, and the results here are proving popular on this side of the Atlantic. Two of the key grapes used in blends are Grenache and Mourvèdre; both exhibit bold flavors and coupled with Syrah for structure make wines with bright fruit flavors, medium to full-body, and rich tannins.

Two of the most popular of these blends are Cotes-du-Rhone and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. We’ll explore Cotes-du-Rhone in this article and Châteauneuf-du-Pape in a follow-up article. If there was one wine that seemed to be ubiquitous when I explored Belgium and France in the mid-80s, it was Cotes-du-Rhone, and it became the go-to wine my fiancé, Barbara, and I bought. Inexpensive and dependable, it formed the basis of many repasts that revolved around bread, cheese, and pâté.

The Crotte du Diable Incident
One particular cheese and wine pairing always comes to mind. While exploring a castle outside Brussels with another couple the subject of strong cheeses came up. A suggestion was launched that we should try Crotte du Diable, which we were told, loosely translates to Devil’s excrement. That did give me a moment’s pause, but since I’m a certified cheesaholic, and never met a cheese I couldn’t handle, this came as a sort of challenge. Later we went to a fromagerie in Brussels to order some cheeses.

Barbara is quite conversant in French so I let her take the lead on ordering. Unfortunately, she wasn’t as conversant with the metric system. Her request for 200 kilos of cheese (about 440 lbs) prompted the counterman to ask, “Perhaps Madame has a truck outside?” When I saw the Crotte du Diable in the display case and pantomimed that I wanted it was well, I’m sure he thought we were both nuts. The round package – mercifully small as later events would prove – had an orange-yellow background with a black-accented devil holding a steaming object on one of the tines of his trident. The thing looked a lot like, er, perhaps you can guess.

The preparations for the picnic were not complete until we had a bottle of Cotes-du-Rhone, of course. We found a wonderful area on the grounds of Tervuren Park in front of an Musée Royal de l’Afrique Central with marble sculpture, a huge lawn, and a border of trees. After spreading a blanket, I opened the wine and then unpacked the Crotte du Diable, eager to taste this potent cheese. I noticed almost as soon as I opened the package that birds reversed their flight, dogs backed up whining and the sounds of insects buzzing ceased. Or maybe it was just my imagination. The watering of my eyes, I did not imagine, however.

Placing some cheese on a cracker, I was relieved to see the color at least was pale yellow and cheese-like. You’ve heard the expression, “flavor explosion”? I think this is where the term was derived. I experienced everything but sound effects. Limburger is wimpy compared to this little cheese. But I survived, at least momentarily.

Barbara said to me, “Oh, you have to try it with the wine.” Really? So I took a sip of the Cotes-du-Rhone and experienced a chemical change in the composition of the cheese that truly indicated where it got its name. Did this create a bad taste in my mouth? I wanted to rip out my tongue. If I’d looked more closely at this woman, I would have noticed the tears of pain coursing down her cheeks and the faux smile frozen on her face. Then she almost gagged as peals of laughter followed. I’d been had.

After that there was little else I could do but marry her, and try getting back at her for that nasty trick. I don’t think I ever came close, but I keep trying. I also keep trying Cotes du Rhone, but I’m much more careful about cheese pairing.

Maison Bouachon Cotes-du-Rhone
The Skalli Family Wines Americas includes the Napa-based St. Supery Winery, vineyards in Corsica, and in the Languedoc. The family came from Algeria in 1961 after Algerian independence, began growing grapes in Corsica, then Languedoc and two locations in Napa where conditions were similar to the Languedoc region. In 2001, they purchased Maison Bouachon in the Rhone valley.

I sampled their Cotes-du-Rhone “Les Rabassières” recently and was very impressed. This is a big wine, tasting like a harmonious blend of the Old and New World. Red berry fruits, tastes of violets, and prunes with a lush mouthfeel. The Grenache (60%) leads the way with 30% Syrah providing good structure, and 10% Mourvèdre for added complexity. I played it safe and paired it with a NY strip and baked potato. Besides, I’m not sure you can get Crotte du Diable without a permit these days. Salut!