More about wine

Wine, grape, scores, best wines, rankings, interviews, wine news and wine reviews and criticism as written by wine writers.

__________________________ BY TOM MARQUARDT ___________________________

CATASTROPHIC WEATHER IN FRENCH VINEYARDS -- Several reports from France have indicated a catastrophe is brewing from spring frost and hail in several regions. Hardest hit were Champagne and the Loire.

Overall, production in France is expected to fall 8 percent. But in Champagne and Loire -- northern regions more vulnerable to spring frost -- a 32 percent drop is anticipated.  Although not as bad, Burgundy is expecting 23 percent less production.

Fewer wines mean only one thing for collectors: higher prices.

ENJOYING CHARDONNAY NAKED -- Got your attention? It's not that I liked to take off my clothes when I drink chardonnay -- I just like them unoaked. OK, "naked" is the industry's cute term for unoaked, meaning the wine is not fermented or aged in oak barrels. The result is a very clean, crisp wine that complements food much better than an oaky, effusive chardonnay.

The beauty of this can be seen in the 2015 Stoller Dundee Hills chardonnay, a bargain at $25. Perhaps owner Bill Stoller passed along the savings from forgoing $1,000 oak barrels.  This wine has sex appeal with racy lime notes and crisp acidity.

Stoller's 2014 reserve chardonnay for just $10 more is a big, ageworthy wine that blew me away.  


Dear More About Wine: Your recent column on wine deals was interesting to me. For the last 20 years or so I have been telling people how great Columbia Crest wines are – especially their gewürztraminer. It is the only wine I will drink! I grew up drinking wine in Germany and maybe that is why I like this grape variety. So please try to praise my wine too. – S. Joyce

You are so correct. We have been extolling the value of Columbia Crest for years, although not recently. Made under the massive Ste. Michelle Estate wine group, Columbia Crest makes outstanding wines across the board. Its cabernet sauvignon is a great deal and its chardonnay is a wine you can pour to a crowd. Generally, their prices are $12 or less.  So there!

UNIQUE WINES NEXT DOOR -- I love going to a party and finding a wine I’ve never tasted before. Too often hosts resort to the old standbys that a wine merchant thrust into their hands. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to find a red and white wine that intrigues the palate and is still reasonably priced.

So, I was pleasantly surprised to find a bevy of unique wines at a rather large party I recently attended. The host meticulously sought out wines that went with his wife’s copious Italian cuisine. To start he served the Bortolotti Brut prosecco from Valdobbiandene.  His other wines included a Ca Maiol trebbiano from Lugana, Bolzano blend of schiava and lagrein grapes grown in the Alto-Adige region, Cesari Jema Corvina made entirely of gruner veltliner grapes (in Italy!), and a great Antolini Valpolicella Ripasso from Verona.

I have enjoyed the ripasso and the Cesari gruner veltliner before, but the others were new to me. I suspect all of them were new to most people at the party.

Not surprisingly, they were the talk of the party. Wisely, the host thoughtfully provided a copy of the list of wines and tasting notes for those who wished to purchase some for later consumption.

Let me be a model for your next party!

WOULD MILES LIKE HIS PINOT NOIR TODAY? -- It has been 12 years since "Sideways" became one of the hottest wine-theme movies ever. Miles, the movie's main character, was known for his love of red wine and more so for his hatred of merlot.  Merlot has yet to recover from the movie's bum rap.

One of the famous scenes takes place in the small tasting room of Sanford Winery, located in Sta. Rita Hills. Miles describes a rose to his sidekick Jack; then winemaker Chris Burroughs even makes a cameo appearance in the scene.

Miles, Jack and real-life Sanford winemaker, Chris Burroughs.

Miles, Jack and real-life Sanford winemaker, Chris Burroughs.

Following the movie, Sanford's rose sold out and visitors overwhelmed its small tasting room. In short, Sanford reaped huge sales from the movie for years.

I was musing over the question whether Miles would enjoy Sanford's pinot noir as much today because a lot has changed at Sanford since 2004. First, Terlato bought the property in 2006 and immediately hired a new winemaker -- Steve Fennell. Together with Doug Fletcher, vice president of winemaking for Terlato Wine Group, Fennell replanted much of the prized Sanford and Benedict vineyard.

Second, he re-crafted the style of Sanford's pinot noirs. Gone were the heavy, hedonistic fruit bombs that Miles tasted on his alcohol-sodden tour of Santa Rita Hills. In its place is a more delicate, burgundian-like pinot noir. The 2012 Sanford Sta. Rita Hills pinot noir I recentlhy tasted was a stunning contrast to the Sanford pinots I remembered from my visit to Sanford in 2005..

Said Fennell in a recent phone call, "Pinot noir is a special grape. It should have delicacy, balance and elegance."

Fennell said that after he arrived, he integrated viticulture and winemaking. He focused first on the vineyards and gaining an understanding of the differences between blocks, soil and drainage. Then he was more careful about extracting fruit. His pinot noirs are fermented in open stainless-steel tanks and punched down three times a day.

Would Miles approve? "I think he would appreciate them," Fennell says.

I'll be writing more on Sanford in a future column. Stay tuned.

WINE SPECTATOR HONORS WINE LISTS (YAWN) -- Wine Spectator magazine recently released its coveted list of restaurants that earned an award for its wine list. Pardon my yawn.

The list is “coveted” by the thousands of restaurants who received one of three awards, but not so much by those who understand what it means. It's an advertising gimmick for the restaurants and a financial boondoggle for the magazine.

Wine Spectator charges a restaurant as much as $375 to enter the competition. There is no on-site review of the restaurant or its cellar conditions, but instead a computer examination of its submitted wine list. Winning an award gives the restaurant the privilege of posting the award at its door. And, the magazine actively encourages local media to highlight restaurants which received an award.

The chosen restaurants I’m familiar with earned their rewards because their wine lists are very good. But the wines are also very expensive. I didn’t see any awards go to restaurants that offer unique wines at value prices.

In fact, the nearly 2,500 restaurants who were bestowed “Award of Excellence” were recognized because in part they have at least 90 wines on their lists. Although the lists are also expected to show diversity, the criteria says the wines should match the menu in “price and style.” So, a little Italian joint that serves a great but cheap chianti is a long shot. Yet isn’t that where more of us eat?

WHAT'S THE DEAL WITH ROSE? -- I've been sampling a ton of roses in recent weeks -- all part of this writing gig. I couldn't be deeper in heaven even if someone poured me a glass of Petrus.

I've loved rose since I first tasted it decades ago. Then, it was embarrassing to be caught with such a sissy drink and a drink that the casual observer equated with white zinfandel. After beating readers relentlessly about the value of rose, they finally seem to be listening. And, producers are jumping on the rose bandwagon to enjoy the profits. I've never tasted so many different roses in my life and from producers who never made one before.

So what prompted consumers to change their minds? A lot had to do with the hype that has been generated by critics like me. But, roses' new popularity in this country also has to do with a more adventurous consumer. Rose sales have grown 10 times faster than table wines in general.

Of course, the French have adopted rose as their summer drink for centuries. For them, all this buzz here is typical American tardiness to the wine front. You can't go into a French bistro without rose being served in carafes. Some wine producers in southern France --particularly Bandol -- make nothing but rose. Hereabouts, rose is an afterthought of American wine producers. And how can you make a quality rose if it's made from leftovers?

After blazing through 30 or more roses, conclusions can be made:

1. Producers in Provence have fine-tuned rose and American producers are far behind. Okay, that's a generalization with exceptions. But, Provence rose is delicate, faint in color, well balanced and fresh. We've tasted our share of American roses that are heavy, dark in color and fruit bombs without class.

2. Grenache is king but syrah is queen. Grenache is such the perfect grape variety for rose because it has lively fruit character, strawberry notes and simplicity. Similarly, syrah grown in hot Provence adds another dimension with a dash of citrus and occasional spice. There is even minerality in Provence roses.

3. The best rose is simple and light. Why do producers muck up rose by trying to make it complex and ladened with fruit? Even the spectacular roses of Domaine Ott are delicate. They make you think, dance on the tongue and refresh.

4. You don't have to spend an arm and a leg for good rose. Okay, Domaine Ott hovers near $50, but the majority of rose ranges between $12 and $18. Whether it be from Spain or France, rose at this price level is one of the best deals in wine.

5. Rose is made to party. People love its color and its refreshing quality in the summer. It graces a table and honors the hostess. 

For a list of some recent roses I have tried, see the "Wine Recommendations" page.

ANGEL IN A BOTTLE -- I was recently delighted to find Whispering Angel on a restaurant's wine-by-the-glass list. What a treat. The rose has been a phenomenal success since it was introduced 10 years ago by Sacha Lichine who had purchased Chateau d'Esclans in Provence in 2006.

Lichine partnered with Patrick Leon, a former winemaker at Lafite-Rothschild to make a top-shelf, dry roseAt $25 a bottle, it is more expensive than most Provence roses, but achieves Lichine's goal of making a respectable rose that even wine collectors will like. It is as good as the roses from Domaine Ott and Tempier.

Sacha Lichine, Chateau d'Esclans.

Sacha Lichine, Chateau d'Esclans.

So pale in color that you might mistake it for a white wine, it has the delicate red berry notes Provence is known for. Distributed in 102 countries, the wine is flying off the shelves even though production is nearly a half-million cases. 

If you like rose, you need to spoil yourself with a bottle of Whispering Angel. Even at $22 a bottle, it's still a lot less than French champagne and most Bordeaux.

COOPER'S HAWK PHENOMENON -- I've been to many winery/restaurants over the years. No matter where they are -- Michigan, California, Virginia -- they usually disappoint. Only Domaine Chandon impressed me for both the wine and the food. So, I had my doubts about Cooper's Hawk Winery and Restaurants when I recently visited it in Naples, FL.  Could a restaurant that sold only bulk wine shipped from Illinois really succeed?

Tim McEnery, CEO

Tim McEnery, CEO

It is succeeding. On an off-season Tuesday night, it was packed -- the bar was teeming with millennials who have made this a club and tables were ringed with single women and retirees. Every table had wine.

Cooper's Hawk is the brainchild of 40-year-old CEO and founder Tim McEnery, who launched his first restaurant/winery in 2005 in his hometown of Orland Park, Ill.  Today, he has 10 restaurants, including one in Annapolis, and he's reportedly grossing more than $100 million a year.

One would think that not a lot of thought goes into the wine -- grapes are surplus from California, the Northwest, New York and Michigan, then shipped already fermented to Cooper's Hawk's blending facility. McEnery and his Canadian winemaker, Rob Warren, doesn't care much about terroir or origin, but neither do they care about vintage -- wines are blended from multiple vintages. Instead, they concentrate on offering an exclusive product in a club-like atmosphere and providing a service experience.

Serious wine drinkers are likely to cringe at the thought of drinking such wine, but they aren't McEnery's target. Most of the customers I spoke to were just enjoying the wine and could care less about it's origin or makeup. The din in this cavernous dining room exposed the frivolity of the night.

I tasted four wines -- sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, pinot noir and merlot -- and can say that all of them were decent and well-made. They have generic characteristics and little complexity, but I've tasted worse from other producers. 

The restaurant has all the gimmicks to make the experience seem special, including an obscene decanting device that towers over the tables. Gravity-fed, it aerates wine through a filter. A waitstaff told me the filter is to catch sediments -- from a wine that is probably a few weeks old? It was a bunch of voodoo, if you ask me.

By the way, the heavy portions of food from an extensive menu is decent too.

WHAT WILL THEY THINK OF NEXT? -- I should no longer be surprised when some entrepeneur comes up with one more gimmick to sell wine. For a long time, it was a special glass, a can't-fail corkscrew or expensive coolers. They never made wine taste better, but somehow were suppose to make the experience more special. Now, though, they are messing with the wine.

Two crazy introductions this week: a blue wine and a wine for cats. Really? Really.

The cat wine is made by Apollo Peak and is non-alcoholic (thank God for that because cats are crazy enough when they're sober!). It's actually made from beets and has crazy names such as Pinot Meow. Spare me.

The blue wine is a mix of Spanish red and wine grapes with a little bit of natural indigio to give it a blue tinge. Selling for about $11 a bottle, producers hope to introduce it to the U.S. next year. They are targeting millennials because, well, they'll try just about anything.

Once you get past the gimmick here, what do you have? A stupid wine.

FRAUDULENT FRENCH BLENDS -- It has been recently reported that Maison Bejot Vins Terroirs, a Burgundy negociant, has been caught using juice from other French AOCs in its wines. Its CEO has resigned.

Maison Béjot Vins et Terroirs owns several brands and vineyards in Burgundy, including Chartron et Trébuchet, Reine Pédauque and Moillard.

Although Decanter reported that the incident has sent "shockwaves" through the region, it is hardly unprecedented. Burgundian producers have secretly blended wines throughout its history, but it became illegal once Burgundy established strict laws. In fact, many decades ago it used wines from other countries.

Not only does adding bulk wine increase quantity, but it endows otherwise thin yet burgundies in bad vintages. These foreign grapes used in adulterated burgundies are often coming from southern France and Algeria.

Georges Duboeuf's company was convicted in 2006 of blending his crus from lesser-known beaujolais villages. In 2012, Laboure-Roi -- a historic property I once visited -- was accused of blending wines from other appellations and adding table wines to wine musts to increase volume.

More notably, in 2001 the former owners of Burgundy's Chanson admitted to fraudulently mislabeling its wines with specific AOC designations when they included vin de pays from the Languedoc. The admission, though, didn't come until after Chanson sold its property to Champagne's Bollinger, who unwittingly sold the wines to consumers. Eventually, owners of Bollinger were charged with breaking wine laws.

The sad truth is that you can't always be sure when Burgundy producers brag about the importance of its terroir in making its wines so great and expensive.



GALLO MOVES SWIFTLY -- Fans of Orin Swift were surely stunned to hear the news that the iconic brand was recently sold to E. & J. Gallo. The Swift portfolio had developed a devout, rabid following even after it sold its popular Prisoner brand several years ago.

Founded in 1998 by Dave Phinney, Orin Swift became known for its hedonistic wines with colorful labels. They were massive and extracted, which explains their popularity (not with me). Gallo says it fits with their expanded luxury wine portfolio, but I really wonder if Orin Swift's loyal fans will go elsewhere. Gallo is hardly known for its luxury brands and there is a question whether OS will maintain its individuality. Phinney will continue working the wine.

A large company like Gallo can bring marketing and capital investment to a wine, but it didn't seem like OS needed either. For Phinney the price was obviously right.

UWINE ON THE MOVE -- I knew moving my wine collection from Maryland to Florida was going to be a challenge, but in the end it was more than I bargained for. It might have been easier to sell or give away the life-long collection. But I just couldn't forget the years of preserving this wine for personal consumption in my retirement years.

Perhaps you can learn a lesson here.

There were 44 cases of wine to move. Except for costly specialty movers, there are no commercial choices. Refrigerated trucks -- if you can get one -- are very expensive to rent. They even include an hourly charge for how often the cooling unit operates. Moving the collection myself seemed to be the cheapest and best solution.

Renting a truck or a trailer was out -- no refrigeration in the hot, two-day drive to Florida. Cargo vans didn't distribute air-conditioning well to the back, so the choice was a big Chevy Suburban.  The maximum weight capacity was around 4,500 pounds and a case weighs roughly 40 pounds. I stuffed about 33 wood and cardboard cases in back, cranked up the AC and drove to Florida. I had to stop one night, but the temperature didn't get above 70 degrees.

I'm living in a rental condo until my house is being built. When I got to Naples, I stored the wine in temperature-controlled wine lockers. Because of Naples' demographics, there are four wine storage lockers. You'd be lucky to find one in your community, so I was lucky to be moving to the right community.

 I was still left with 11 cases to move, and they will join me on my final trip there.  

However much money I saved, moving wine has not been cheap.  The car rental was  $400 plus fuel. Storage for three months will be another $400. Building a new wine cellar in my home will cost me about $5,000. 

A GEM FROM LANGUEDOC -- When most wine enthusiasts think of French wine, they think of Bordeaux and Burgundy. Maybe champagne and Alsace eventually come to mind, but rarely do any of us talk about the Languedoc region in southern France. However, there are more exciting red wines with unique qualities coming from this undervalued region of France.  Make it a point to try these wines soon – they are great values.
Because there are fewer wine traditions and less history here, winemakers can experiment with grape varieties and wine-making techniques. Most of the red grapes grown here are Grenache, carignan, syrah and mourvedre -- Rhone varietals that need the copious sunshine that southern France provides.
For many years the region was known only for its inferior bulk wine, but today winemakers are producing serious wine at great prices.
I recently pulled from my cellar the 2010 Domaine Le Clos du Serres La Blaca and I probably should have waited a couple more years. It still had the gritty tannins I remember when I bought it. At $20 a bottle, it was a steal. Very dense with blackberry and black olive flavors, violet aromas and excellent structure.
The wine reminded me to not forget the Languedoc for great values.


TASTING ROOM SALES -- A recent Silicon Valley Bank survey of nearly 1,000 wineries found that direct-to-consumer business accounts for nearly 74 percent of wine sales for those that produce fewer than 2,500 cases a year.

For many small wineries, national distribution is impossible. Not only do distributors decline to mess with them, there isn't enough wine to go around. So, most of it is sold through their wine clubs or directly from their tasting rooms. 

I was surprised to see in the bank's report that the average purchase in a Napa Valley tasting room was $246; in Sonoma it was $123. The number drops off in the Northwest -- $77 in Oregon and $62 in Washington State.

The report found that about 6 percent of a winery's visitors become wine club members, which seems low to me.  More and more people in my circle are joining clubs as states relax their laws regard out-of-state shipment of alcoholic beverages.

I joined one wine club in my life -- St. Innocent in Oregon --and although I enjoyed getting their spectacular pinot noirs every year, I dropped out in just a couple of years. My cellar needed more variety and I had moved on. Like me, most people join a club after having a good experience in a tasting room.

Several months ago I met a winemaker who sold only $200 cabernet sauvignons from Napa Valley. He sold his small production directly to consumers and thus saved a bundle of money. Without a cut for wholesalers and retailers, all profits go directly in his pocket. That what lenders like Silicon Valley Bank like to see -- healthy profits.

Georgetta Dane, Chloe's winemaker

Georgetta Dane, Chloe's winemaker

CHLOE WINES MAKE AN IMPRESSION -- i had dinner recently with Georgetta Dane, the winemaker for Big House and now The Chloe Wine Collection. You may remember Big House from the Bonny Doon portfolio. Owner Randall Grahm sold the Big House brand to The Wine Group.

Dane is Romanian-born and came to the United States on a lark in the late 1990s  -- her husband and four buddies applied for an immigration lottery after consuming a few beers. He won and took Georgetta and their newborn son to California. Neither spoke any English, but managed to find jobs at Kendall-Jackson.

Georgetta eventually landed with the Wine Group and is now focused on the Chloe brand.

"Chloe" is as popular for dogs as it is girls, but it also is a marketing tool for the wine's primary audience: millennial women. A bow tie on the label and wines associated with celebration and fun -- prosecco, pinot grigio and rose -- make it a hit at female socials.

I liked the prosecco because Dane reduced the sugar content and the pinot grigio because of a tantalizing mineral thread and  balanced acidity. 

These wines should be easy to find and are rightly priced between $12 and $15. And you don't have to be a female to enjoy them.

A WINE FOR MEMORIAL DAY--If you looking for a fitting wine to honor the fallen servicemen this Memorial Day, consider the 2013 Purple Heart Red Wine ($20). A blend of merlot and cabernet sauvignon, it is a creation of winemaker and Vietnam veteran Ray Coursen. Great grilling wine.  The winery, a new label of C. Mondavi,  gives annually to the Purple Heart Foundation

NICE TEETH YOU GOT -- Several years ago my dentist cornered me about the effects of red wine on teeth. I thought it odd that he was asking me, but apparently he had a patient who had a serious problem.  Red wine's potent acidity can do a number on the buckies.

A recent report on BBC, the effects of red wine on teeth are exacerbated when you brush your teeth after drinking it. Who knew? According to the report, "Leaving time before brushing teeth gives the enamel a chance to recover from the acid attack and makes it less susceptible to being brushed away." 

Experts suggest you wait an hour before brushing.

White wine isn't any better. According to a report in Nutrition Research, "It was demonstrated that white wines have higher erosive potentials than red wines. Within the limits of this study, it can be predicted that a frequent consumption of white wines might lead to severe dental erosion."


BOXED INTO A CORNER? -- At a recent neighborhood tasting, I challenged guests to declare which wine they liked the most: a $5 bottle or a $48 bottle of cabernet sauvignon. Both wines were disguised in carafes. 

I love these challenges -- not because I want to embarrass anyone, but because taking away labels and price tags gets people to concentrate their palates on the wines.  And, I wasn't challenging them to ID the expensive wine -- they didn't even know the cost difference. I just wanted them to tell me which wine they liked.

And, they liked the cheap wine -- a Vin Vault cabernet that costs $20 for 3 liters (4 regular, 750 ml bottles). They knew the other wine -- a beautiful, brawny Priest Ranch cab -- was expensive. But, in the end, it was too tannic and mouth-puckering for them to enjoy with the appetizers.

Frankly, I loved the Priest Ranch and had no use for the $5 plonk. But the moment made me realize that most people don't want full-body wines and prefer to sip on something simple. In an hour, the cheap wine was gone and about a glass remained of the Priest Ranch. I happily drank it.

Box wines have come a long way since Franzia introduced them years ago. The French and Italians have been enjoying them unapologetically for years. In fact, Le Petite Frog and French Rabbit make decent versions.

I guess I'm just out of touch.

BAIT AND SWITCH? -- It's a common scene. You are shopping for wine and are drawn to a tag that touts the high score a certain wine achieved from a notable critic. You decide to give it a try, but get home and discover it was a different vintage than the one in the tag. Do you feel  you've been duped -- or do you think a wine made a year later will be just as good?

Scott Glovsky feels he's been duped. The California attorney recently filed a class action suit against BevMo, a chain retailer, who was filmed by a local radio station selling wines that weren't the ones mentioned on shelf tags.

BeMo says it displays a disclaimer about "vintage substitution" and recommends consumers check the bottle.

This has happened to me a number of times in various stores. You can assume it's an innocent mistake, but some wily retailers hope they can get away with it. It's quite possible that the wine on the shelf could be just as good if not better than the wine in the shelf talker. But consumers should be told and posting a disclaimer in small print isn't going to do the job. Frankly, retailers shouldn't even use these scores if they don't apply to the wine they are selling.

Next time you buy one of these wines based on an expert's score, make sure you're buying the same vintage.

SOTER KNOWS HOW TO AGE -- Ten  years ago I visited with Tony Soter at his Carneros winery, Etude. Alongside the top of several stainless steel fermenting tanks, we tasted through his current lineup of extraordinary pinot noirs and a barrel sample of his single-vineyard pinot noir. It was the barrel sample -- Deer Park -- that most impressed me. So when it was finally released, I quickly bought a few bottles -- expensive at nearly $70 apiece. 

Just this week, I opened my last one. It was crazy to have cellared a pinot noir this long, but I took a chance on the last bottle because the pinot noir was so dense at the start. Alas, the fruit had faded, but not the memory of that great day in Carneros.

Shortly after my visit, Soter announced that he had sold Etude to Beringer Blass. Even more surprising, he was leaving California to establish a wine facility in Oregon's Willamette Valley, where he had owned property since 1997. Soter is a native of Portland..

Pinot noir was still his favorite grape variety, but it would be in Oregon where he would take it to another level.  Worn out by remaining a consultant with Etude, Soter quit that job in 1999 and devoted full-time to his family and Soter Vineyards.

Soter is an interesting guy. Unlike his winemaking bretheren, he never received formal wine tasting at places at the University of California at Davis. Yet he became a valuable consultant to wineries like Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, Chappellet, Shafer and Araujo. He launched Etude in 1980.

Soter seemed to have found more competition in the Willamette Valley. No longer the rising star in pinot noir, he continues to make stellar wines alongside some of Oregon's best. His wines aren't cheap, but with them come quality.  You don't have to be educated in wine to make good wine; you just have to know what you're doing.

BIG MOVES FOR WINE GIANTS -- Two major ownership changes occurred within a week. The first was Jackson Family Wines' announcement that it had purchased Penner-Ash of Oregon. This will extend JFW's reach into the Northwest's pinot noir country. Penner Ash makes some of the best pinot noir in Oregon, but its owners said they didn't have a good succession plan and opted instead to sell the brand.

The more recent announcement was that Ste. Michelle Wine Estates purchased California's Patz & Hall. Patz & Hall also is a pinot noir house although I have enjoyed its chardonnay just as much. The deal includes all property, including its beautiful reception room, the Sonoma House.

The two significant deals is further evidence that major wine interests are scarfing up smaller wineries. However much I fear that this will lead to an homogenization of styles, I am impressed with the dependable quality that comes from these two giants.  They bring to the table capital to invest in barrels and facilities, which eventually leads to better wine. Time will tell, but for now I just hope that Penner Ash and Patz & Hall will continue to make unique, prestigious wines.

APOTHIC'S DARK SIDE -- E. & J. Gallo has had a huge winner with its Apothic Red and Whitelabels.  Since its first release, the wine has soared in sales, thanks to its fruit-forward character and a deceiving sweetness that provides a round, luscious texture. Using a motley collection of grape varieties, the wine defies critics looking for a singular identity. Gallo's superb marketing and ability to mass produce and distribute wine has certainly helped sales.

Now Apothic has added two new red blends to its lineup: Crush and Dark. 

Dark aptly describes the color of this wine. Petite sirah, the primary grape, always makes fora dark wine and this is no exception. Sporting a brooding label that would be fitting for a Halloween party, the 2014 Dark has ripe blackberry flavors with strong coffee flavors and a hint of chocolate. The blend includes cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot and teroldego.

A less impressive 2014 Apothic Crush blends pinot noir and petite sirah with "other" unidentified grape varieties. Cherry and strawberry come to mind.

I can't deny the appeal of these wines while acknowledging they are more for the masses than the serious collector. I am not drawn to wines that indiscriminately blend grapes with the goal to come up with something ripe and forward. I couldn't identify place or grape in these wines. But if I pour them to guests, they would most likely ask for a second glass of Apothic than a second glass of a Bordeaux. Mon dieu...

ETIENNE HUGEL DIES -- It was heartbreaking to hear of the sudden death of Etienne Hugel, one of Alsace's most enthusiastic supporters. Etienne was only 57 and the cause of death wasn't announced by the family.

Etienne was born in the beautiful village of Riquewihr, which is where I met him more than a decade ago. My first meeting with Etienne was during one of his many tours in the United States -- he made me promise to visit him when my wife and I traveled next to Alsace. When we did, he had such an array of wines for me to taste, I was late getting to my next stop at Hugel.  He was so insistent I stay that he called ahead to his cousin at Trimbach to beg for more time.

Etienne Hugel

It was quintessential Etienne. Always promoting Alsace and in particular Hugel. The only person perhaps more charismatic and enthusiastic was his uncle, "Johnny" who died many years ago. Together they made Hugel one of the most prolific Alsace wines distributed in the United States.

"A visionary and a hard worker, my son Etienne travelled the world relentlessly, showing unparalleled people skills and infectious enthusiasm," declared André Hugel. "Throughout his life he was able to communicate his passion, his professionalism and his personal values to all those with whom he worked."

So sad to see someone such as him die so young/