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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.

RECEPTION WINE NOT WELL RECEIVED -- If you are like me, you hate ordering wine at receptions -- weddings, fundraisers, celebrations or any even with a crowd. Sponsors don't want to pay a lot for the wine, especially at the markups charged by the host facility. At some fundraisers, the wine is donated by a local retailer who is only happy to unload unwanted wines.

I was a guest bartender at a recent charity function where the wines were donated or provided at cost. There was a red and white made in Maryland, an obscure chenin blanc and a William Hill cabernet. Except for the latter choice, the wines had little to offer guests.

Standing behind a bar, one gets a good glimpse of consumer tastes. Most women were asking for a chardonnay and then implored me to choose something "similar" once they found out chardonnay was not a choice. Alas, chenin blanc and pinot gris have nothing in common with chardonnay other than they are all white wines. Several of them asked for ice with their wine, which clearly didn't hurt them at all.

Surely, party organizers can do better. I drank the beer.

READ MY WINE -- As if you don't own enough gadgets to make your wine taste better, here comes another one for every well-heeled collector: Kuvee.

The two-part system comes with a wifi connection that allows owners to retrieve information about the wine and even order more of it -- right from a touch screen on the special container.

Here is how it works: you order one of several wines from participating California producers. The special bottles, ranging from $15 to $50, are made of aluminum. You slip the bottle into the larger Kuvee container and pour from there. The system allows you to switch from one wine to another without any appreciable oxygen entering the system. So, if you spouse wants white and you want red, voila, you can alternate.  

The wifi connection provides information about the producer, tasting notes, food pairings and more. 

The Kuvee system with touch screen cost $200 and at first will be sold only in California and Massachusetts, where the company is based.

The founders admit this is a work in progress, but say they have signed up 50 wineries, including Bonny Doon, Pine Ridge and Girard.

I have not tried the system, but I have to question if this is something I need to have. Sure, it would be fun to show off to other tech geeks, but I don't see the wine tasting any better. You have to buy wines from the participating wineries, so you're limited. Sounds like an expensive gadget to me....