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 Ch√Ęteau 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.