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TREATS FROM MONTEFALCO

We have written before about the under-appreciated wines from the Montefalco region of Umbria. Located in the Central Italy, it is the only region not located next to a body of water that surrounds this country.

The most notable red grape grown in this region is sagrantino, a very tannic grape that creates brooding, dark and heady wines with earthy character and complex plum flavors.  Only 25 producers grow this grape on a miniscule 250 acres surrounding the tiny hilltop village of Montefalco. The small production makes the wine expensive and more difficult -- but not impossible -- to find locally. But the search is worth it.

The region was granted DOCG status in 1991. By law, only the indigenous red sagrantino grapes can make up single-varietal  Sagrantino di Montefalcos and the grape is an important component in Montefalco Rosso, where it is blended with sangiovese and other grapes. Blending the minimum of 10-15 percent of sagrantino into Mantefalco Rosso creates wines with more body and backbone than wines made from sangiovese alone, or when blended with less assertive grapes.

Sagrantino di Monteflaco DOCG wines must be aged 29 months before release.

We recently tasted some new releases from two Montefalco producers and liked the following:

Arnaldo-Caprai Montefalco Rosso 2010 ($25). This is a boldly constructed wine with a deep color and dried cherry and plum notes. Needed time to open up. Food really brings out the best of this wine. Try bold meat dishes and red-sauced pasta.

The Perticaia Montefalco Rosso 2010 ($34). This rosso is a blend of 70 percent sangiovese, 15 percent sagrantino and 15 percent c olorino, all of which creates a dilightfully smooth, rich red wine that features flavors of ripe plums and b erries. Very easy to drink and enjoy.

Perticaia Montefalco Sagrantino 2009 ($80). This wine was the runaway favorite of our tasting with big bold flavors of plums, cherries and licorice. Although big in structure, the tannins were soft and create a wine that can be consumed now. Delicious.

-- Tom

LET'S JUST DUMP THE WINE

OK, we all know that Pennsylvania is just plain weird when it comes to regulating alcoholic beverages. Consumers need to make a special stop at a state-controlled store to get a bottle of wine for tonight's dinner, for heaven's sake.

Now comes word that the state intends to dump 2,447 bottles of some of rare wines owned by a Philadelphia lawyer.

The story starts with Arthur Goldman who was reselling wine from his collection without a license -- pretty stupid. That's illegal in any state. He has agreed to pay the penalties, but wants his collection back. The state says it will dump it instead -- not an uncommon practice initiated when states broke up moonshining operations in the 1930s.

Were not talking about a collection of Kendall-Jackson either.  Among the wines are small lots of Turley, Martinelli , William Selyem and Kistler. Even the producers of these wines are protesting the state's sentence.

Here is my summary: let's not take it out on the wines, which were made legally. Do something good for the state and resell them. Use the money for a good cause and keep the wines in the hands of collectors who will appreciate them.

-- Tom

FRANCE BACK IN FIRST PLACE

PARIS (AP) — France has reclaimed its crown as world's biggest wine producer after a poor 2014 harvest saw Italy's wine production plunge 15 percent.

French vignerons will produce around 46.2 million hectoliters of wine — about 6.16 billion bottles — this year, up 10 percent from a year earlier. Italy, whose winemakers have out-produced France's for the last two years, will produce 44.4 million hectoliters of wine in 2014, according to figures released Thursday by the Paris-based International Organization of Vine and Wine.

Total world wine production is set to fall 6 percent this year to 271 million hectoliters. Spain, which leapfrogged France into second place in 2013, will see its wine production fall 19 percent this year to 37 million hectoliters, the organization said.

PETER GAGO: PENFOLDS RELENTLESS GENIUS

It's hard to determine where Peter Gago draws his energy. October was a whistle-stop tour of Washington, D.C., New York City  and Los Angeles. Previously,  the chief winemaker for Penfolds was leading recorking clinics around the world and spending time in Beijing, Singapore, London and Hamburg. Then there was the little business of making some of Australia's most prestigious wines.  A ridiculous pace like this is challenging for a cheetah, but just another day for the infatiguable Australian icon.

When he caught up with him during an overnight stay in Washington, Gago was on his game, waxing enthusiasm for Adelaide's most venerable labels and helping wine writers understand the seemingly endless chess game played by his country's merging wine moguls.

Penfolds, like most of the Australian wine industry, has undergone so many management changes in the last decade that you need a special app to keep track of them. It was renamed Southcorp in 1994 and soon merged with the unimpressive Rosemount Estate a year later. Fosters bought  Southcorp in 2005 and renamed a growing conglomerate of labels Treasury Wine Estates. In a short time, Treasury even acquired iconic U.S. brands, including Beringer, Chateau St. Jean and Stag's Leap Wine Cellars. It is hard to imagine how anything of quality could survive such upheaval.

After TWE went public in 2011, we feared the great wines being produced by Penfolds would become  products of a board of directors more focused on profits than wine. Worse, would the genius of Peter Gago survive?

We're happy to report that the wines -- and Peter -- have emerged from this upheaval intact and prospering in an even more competitive environment.

The wines we tasted during our meeting were from a special collection that showcases the producer's best efforts. Not unlike the wines made in Champagne, these products seek a consistent style from year to year. They are spared the fads and manipulations that are popularly adopted by emerging winemakers seeking attention.  Even the labels have changed little. Putting quality over quantity is a course not easy to take when stock holders seek a stronger return on their investment.

The most famous of these brands is Grange, indisputably the world's most renown shiraz first created in 1951 against management's wishes. The "house style" of this wine hasn't changed from the day it was born: fully ripe grapes, depth and complexity, texture and balance. Such greatness doesn't come without a price -- the 2010 release will cost you $850 for one bottle. Forget about buying a case, because you're not likely to find one in this country.

Fortunately, there are prestigious bottles in the Penfold's collection that are less expensive -- but still a stretch for most consumers.

The 2012 Penfolds Bin 407 Cabernet Sauvignon ($69) is an extraordinary wine with dark fruit, meaty character, gritty tannins and notes of black olives and oak.  For the same price you can get a some shiraz blended with your cabernet sauvignon in an alluring 2012 Penfolds Bin 389.

If you like your shiraz complex but less expensive than Grange, consider the Penfolds RWT Shiraz ($150) or the St. Henri Shiraz ($99). St. Henri has a popular following in Australia, but for us it doesn't hold up to the more viscous and rich RWT.

Penfolds doesn't make just prestigious red wine. We really enjoyed an ageworthy 2012 Yattarna chardonnay ($130) that uses a good dose of grapes from Tasmania. It's complexity and restrained oak with layered peach and pear fruit gave us much to think about as the wine hovered endlessly over our tongues. It is in an elite chardonnay category equal to great Burgundy.

Perhaps these wines are out of reach for many of you, but their quality represent what you can expect from Penfolds and suggest that even its lower-priced wines deliver similar quality.

For instance, the 2012 Penfolds Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz ($30) is a great value. Its medium body exudes elegance and fresh fruit character with classic dark berry and chocolate notes.

If you like riesling, the 2014 Penfolds Bin 51 Eden Valley Riesling ($40) is very aromatic and a sumptuous match to elegant fish dishes.

HALLOWEEN TREATS

If you are hosting an adult Halloween party this year and want to put something festive on the table, consider these two frightening wines:

Ravenswood Besieged 2013 ($16). Only at this time of the year does winemaker Joel Peterson produce this ghoulish blend of petite sirah, cariagnane, zinfandel, syrah, barbera, alicante bouschet and mourvedre.  A flock of ravens circled pickers as they hurried to finish picking the grapes. Appropriately, the label is of a trio of ravens in the night sky -- scary stuff for adult goblins.

Concha y Toro Casillero del Diablo Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 ($11). The title means "devil's cellar" and this Chilean producer is a favorite any time of the year. Made entirely from cabernet sauvignon grapes, it has cherry and cassis aromas with plum and cherry flavors with a good dose of oak notes. 

CELLARING YOUR WINE

The other night I pulled from my cellar the last bottle of 2001 Artadi Vinas de Gain, a  $30 Rioja that was quite the rage when it was released. It is not the pedigree of the wine that is of interest here, but the emotion of the moment when you part company with a wine you have nurtured along for years.

Collecting wine is not something everyone can do because of cost, space or simply because of a lack of interest. But those who do cellar wine understand the sensory pleasure of witnessing a wine evolve from the moment of purchase to peak maturity.  However satisfying the taste of an evolving product of nature, the last drop means the experience is over.

The Artadi estate is relatively new. Juan Carlos Lopez de la Calle founded it in 1985, but his fruit-forward tempranillos were nearly instant hits among critics. This 2001 was earning many rave reviews when we bought it. Unlike fellow Spanish winemakers, the producer used little American oak and preserved the rich fruit character of his riojas.  The wine held its ground over the last decade but, alas, the fruit had faded when I consumed my last bottle.

However disappointing the wine's final gasp, it was nonetheless satisfying. In the evolutionary process, how else do you know a wine's apogee unless you taste it on its decline? And that's the lesson for collectors. You should always taste a wine before it matures so you have a baseline to compare all subsequent experiences. But the last bottle of a case (or more) should be a sacrificial bottle that may disappoint you but confirms that you have seen a wine's entire evolution.

The other day, we opened one of six remaining bottles of 2006 Domaine Joblot Givry Clos de la Servoisine, a premier cru from Burgundy.  It was a relatively inexpensive wine that traditionally out-performed its price. Unfortunately, the bottle was reflecting a decline in fruit and structure. I waited too long. With moderately priced Burgundy -- or any pinot noir, for that matter -- you have to be careful about cellaring it for long periods of time.  I drank up the remaining bottles.

Bordeaux and many California cabernet sauvignons are more reliable. We're drinking our 2000 Bordeaux now and many still have life left in them. 

Collecting wine is immensely satisfying when you have these experiences, but there are no guarantees. And, that's what makes it fun.

For those just getting into wine collecting, I have some advice based on my experiences:

1. But no fewer than 4 bottles of any particular wine. You'll be disappointed to not have more when you taste an extraordinary wine that has matured.

2. Don't think of your wine cellar as a museum. Art can last forever, but not wine. It's meant to be consumed, so drink it up instead of letting it gather dust. I've tasted way too many over-the-hill wines from various cellars.

3. Read, read, read. There is plenty of online reviews that will give you a drinking window of notable wines. Everyone has a different threshhold for what they like -- some like their wines young and vibrant, others like them aged and ripe. Suit yourself, not some critic. But the research will give you insight into the vintage and the reputation of a producer.

4. Find a wine buddy. Our two cellars have some of the same wines because we often split cases. We've done the same with several friends who, like us, may not want to pay the high tariff for a case or who prefer to have less quantity and more variety in our cellars. Splitting a case gets you the case discount -- as much as 15 percent -- and allows you to order a wine that your merchant may not have in stock.

5. Don't assume that all wines age equally well. In short, remember to check up on your pinot noirs more often than your cabernet sauvignons. Pinot noirs are more delicate and can turn quickly -- and that applies to many burgundies.

Most of us know white wines don't age as well or as long -- but many do age. I had a 10-year-old pinot gris from Alsace the other day that was incredible. On the other hand, I have had way too many chardonnays that had maderized.  It's one thing to have a tasty and aged Chateau d'Yquem sauterne,  but quite another to have a dry Beringer chardonnay that is oxidized and sherry-like.

6. Know the elements that suggest a wine can age. First, the fruit, acidity and alcohol need to be balanced. Second, it helps for the wine to have good structure -- tannin that fades in time and alcohol that gives it body. Third, the history of the producer often tells the story. If a producer has been making age-worthy wines for decades, it's likely the current release will do well. Fourth, the vintage. While reputable producers can make good wines in bad vintages, most will do as poorly as the harvest.

There are no guarantees. No one, including critics, can predict with certainty that a wine will age well. But when it does, you will be immensely rewarded.

-- Tom 

FALLING FOR NIAGARA WINES

Travel for us rarely excludes a visit or two to vineyards. It perhaps explains why France and Italy have been our most common stops abroad. Iceland, on the other, hand isn't even on the bucket list.

This year I begrudingly agreed to a river-boat cruise on the Danube, which at least passed through the Wachau Valley where some of the best gruner-veltliners are produced. It was a great trip, he admits, but the Austrian vineyards were a welcomed relief from a steady stream of old cathedrals.

So a trip last month to Niagara Falls was made without consideration for a vineyard tour. Imagine the surprise, then, for him  to find a Canadian appellation just miles down the road along the Niagara River.

Niagara-on-the-Lake is a beautiful village to visit even if wine isn't a factor. It is a welcomed diversion from Niagara's honky-tonk atmosphere and actually an alternative place to stay if you visit the falls. Its tree-lined streets and upscale shops teem with people during the summer season, but we enjoyed them after school resumed.

Surrounding the village are 26 wines that form the Niagara-on-the-Lake appellation. It is bordered by the Niagara Escarpment, Lake Ontario and the Niagara River.

Canada is known best for its luxurious ice wines made from grapes naturally frozen on the vine and picked when temperatures dip below 18 degrees fahrenheit. The grapes are handpicked and pressed to yield small amounts of concentrated juice high in natural sugar and acidity. Grapes will yield no more than a drop under these circumstances, which explains the wine's price.  But, heavens, are they sweet and delicious.

However good the ice wine, the varietal wine is worth tasting too. The pinot noirs and white wines, like sauvignon blanc and chardonnay, stood out for us.

The 2012 Inniskillin Reserve Pinot Noir had good depth and bright cherry fruit.  We also enjoyed the 2013 Legacy Pinot Grigio. 

Inniskillin and Jackson-Triggs have extraordinary ice wines we really enjoyed.

Canadian ice wines are easier to find hereabouts than the varietal wines, but that's all the more reason to visit the region.

-- Tom

PINOT GRIGIO DISCOVERIES

It's not too late in the season to enjoy pinot grigio. A versatile wine, it can match most seafoods, fowl or just by itself.  Here are a few we recently tasted:

Cantina Andriano Pinot Grigio 2013 ($15). From the Alto Adige region, this wine has a showy bouquet and ripe melon flavors.

Terlano Pinot Grigio 2013 ($18). Nice complexity with melon and grapefruit flavors and lingering finish.

Viticoltori Alto Adige San Pietro Pinot Grigio 2013 ($13). Classic melon and citrus notes with a dash of mineral and clean acidity.

Ecco Domani delle Venezie IGT Pinot Grigio 2013 ($12). Using grapes from the Tre Venezie region, Ecco Domani offers up a round and velvety wine with full-blown tropical fruit flavors. About 13 percent of the wine is chardonnay.

BUMPER CROP IN OREGON

Wine producers in the Willamette Valley are reporting a bumper crop of grapes, thanks to moderate temperatures and a good fruit set in the spring. 

Most growers are expectding 20 percent or more of an increase in grapes. Not only is the fruit abundant, but it is pure and clean. This should be good news to Oregon's huge following of its pinot noir. Hopefully, the abundance of fruit will steady prices.

I read this good news while enjoying Ponzi Vineyard's newly released 2012 Reserve Pinot Noir. At $60 a bottle it isn't cheap. But it does exhibit the zenith this region has reached in pinot noir.

The only wine club I belong to is St. Innocent in the Willamette Valley. I just love its consistent pinot noirs and am happy to receive my allotment of 12 a year. In my market, I'm lucky to find one or two of them. That's the case with many Willamette pinot noirs that are produced in limited quantities. It pays to make a visit to this region, if not to sample some of their cult pinot noirs.

The 2014s won't be available for a couple of years, but wine enthusiasts should make a note to buy.  Start saving your money now.

-- Tom 

GETTING COMFY WITH ITALIAN WINES

Tuscany is home to arguably the most famous of all Italian red wines -- chianti. The ubiquitous straw fiascos of the 1960s and '70s, whose light color and lackluster flavors -- however low in quality -- managed to inspire a new generation of winemakers. 

Ignoring the antiquated DOC laws that restricted blending, some producers created the Super Tuscan concept that forced a modernization of the wine regulations and produced some of the most exclusive red wines in the world. They include Sassicaia, Tignanello, and Solaia, all of which are scarce and cost hundreds of dollars each.                      

The predominant red grape grown in Tuscany is sangiovese, which is the majority grape in most red wines, excluding the Super Tuscan’s and IGT wines that are slowly gaining popularity. Most of the Super Tuscans are utilizing the traditional Bordeaux varieties -- cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc.

Different clones of sangiovese are grown throughout Tuscany with sangiovese called brunello in Brunello di Montalcino and morrelino in the Maremma region of Tuscany where it is used in  Morrelino di Scansano.                                              

Overall the red wines of Tuscany are now truly world-class wines that compete effectively in the world market for acceptance on the dinner table. The traditional pairing of red Tuscan wines with Italian cuisine, especially red-sauced Italian pastas and meat dishes, is really hard to beat.

We recently paired an array of Tuscan wines with grilled rack of lamb, homemade pizza, a Italian inspired tomato casserole and several delicious appetizers to evaluate the wines and found the following wines that we can highly recommend.                                       

Castello di Gabbiano Bellezza Chianti Classico Reserva 2010 ($40). Sourced from all estate fruit, this all new oak-aged wine delivers classic dried cherry fruit aromas and flavors. Fleshy ripe fruit with some chocolate notes led to a long satisfying finish.                                             

Tenuta di Arceno Strada al Sasso Chianti Classico Reserva 2008 ($35). This is a very food friendly Chianti Classico that offers good fruit, a nice expression of cherry fruit, a bit of oak, and complexity.                                                                                          

Marchese de Frescobaldi Pietraregia Dell’ Ammiraglia Riserva Morellino Di Scansano 2010 ($25). This is a very smooth and elegant expression of the sangiovese grape (85 percent).Ripe plum and cherry notes with a hint of black pepper spice. Smooth and delightful.              

Luce Della Vite Lucente Toscana IGT Red Wine 2011 ($30).  This blend is the second wine of the famed Luce wine, an alliance of the Mondavi and Frescobaldi families, which costs upward of $100 per bottle.  Composed of 75 percent merlot and 25 percent sangiovese, the Lucente offers an exotic nose and of raspberry and spices. Very smooth in the mouth, with a hint of mocha and an extended finish.                                                                       

Piccini Villa Al Cortile Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 2008  ($80).Even though this is a Riserva we found this Brunello di Montalcino to be drinking nicely now. A hint of licorice with plum and dried cherry nose and flavors, this wine was smooth and pleasing. Try with grilled meats.

-- Pat Darr

WASTED ON WINE

Every few years we hear about a vineyard worker who died after being overcome from fermenting wine. This ear the tragic news comes from Leon, Spain, where a 25-year-old woman succumbed to the fumes from a fermenting barrel she was stirring.

Stirring the lees, or spent yeast cells, is more dangerous than most people believe. The gases are so intoxicating that a person is helpless to get away. In this case, the woman fell into the barrel and drowned. Her uncle found her after employees couldn't locate her elsewhere.

It doesn't happen much in this country, probably because of OSHA standards that regulate the industry.

A BEAUTIFUL CHAMPAGNE

Billecart-Salmon may not be the first house to come to mind when considering a purchase of a  luxury champagne. However, you may want to seek it out if you yearn for a elegant and feminine style in your bubbly.

The champagne house was founded in 1818 by Nicolas-Francois Billecart who was married to Elizabeth Salmon. Both the Billecart and Salmon families owned vineyards that became the early foundation for the enterprise. Russia was the primary market for the early years of this champagne house.

Now run by the 7th generation, this is the oldest family-held champagne house to produce wine today, and the United States is Billecart-Salmon’s number one export market.

We recently met with Geoffrey Loisel, director North America for Billecart-Salmon, to taste some currently available champagnes from this firm. Tasting champagne requires a clear head and palate since the differences between cuvees can be subtle -- even more so with the more restrained Billecart-Salmon style.

 Overall we were very impressed with the wines and believe that the bright acidity and elegant fruit make these wines good candidates for pairing with a wide variety of foods. Consider these champagnes as an opening aperitif with appetizers at holiday parties or for pairings with even main courses such as your Thanksgiving Day turkey. These champagnes are available at many fine wine stores but call ahead for availability.                                                                               

Following are our tasting notes from our favorites:                                                                                         

Billecart-Salmon Brut Reserve N/V ($57).  A blend of an equal third of pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay, this unoaked beauty is a good value, and a good all around champagne. Beautiful fruity nose and flavors and is made from all premier cru and grand cru grapes.           

Billecart-Salmon Brut Rose N/V ($90). Th is wine is made up of 43 percent chardonnay, and 57 percent black grapes (pinot noir and pinot meunier). This sparkler offers notes of cherry and strawberry and a pale salmon color. Drink with cheeses or seafood. Delicate and enjoyable.                                            

Billecart Salmon Grand Cru Blanc de Blanc N/V ($89). Made entirely of chardonnay,  this champagne offers good fruit and a mineral streak as well as an extended finish that should pair well with oysters, sushi or fish dishes.                                                                                                                        

 Billecart-Salmon Brut Cuvee Nicolas-Francois 1999 ($117). The blend is 60 percent pinot noir and 40 percent chardonnay. All grand cru vineyards, this is a beautifully aged and complex champagne with exquisite fruit flavors and a nice nutty note. Outstanding!

FRENCH BURGUNDY NOT ALWAYS PRICEY

With harvests low in Burgundy for several consecutive years, the French are reporting reduced imports -- and higher prices.

Weather has conspired to produce less wines available for foreign markets. This year the price is creeping up from their already inflated levels. Many customers are saying they've had enough of this region's wines.

Wine enthusiasts often think that they have to spend more than $100 for a bottle of great white burgundy and they are certainly right if they like Montrachet. But there are excellent white burgundies from the Maconnais region that costs between $15 and $30.

Look no farther than Macon-Villages, a simple chardonnay that has a good combination of delicate tropical fruit flavors and crisp acidity.

We recently tasted several wines from the venerable house of Joseph Drouhin that can be enjoyed without additional aging yet complement the most serious seafood dishes.

We loved the 2012 Joseph Drouhin Saint-Veran ($20),  a simple and tasty chardonnay from the village of Saint-Verand (oddly, a different spelling than the wine). Fermented and aged in stainless steel, the wine has a very clean and pure taste -- a perfect wine to match with oysters or shrimp.

Although similar in flavor, Drouhin's 2013 Pouilly-Fuisse ($31) has a little more complexity and weight with huge aromatics and ripe tropical fruit.

THE YEAST OF IT

If there is one proclamation we can do without for the rest of our lives, it's the claim from winemakers that their wines reflect a "sense of place." Of course every winemaker wants a wine with characteristics unique to his region's terroir and climate -- what's the value of producing a California chardonnay that tastes like something from Australia?

But a chardonnay that has characteristics unique to a region are few and far between.  Today's winemaker has at his or her disposal a laboratory of methods to alter a wine's flavor. The wines are often homogenized and lacking in  individual characteristics that reflect that elusive sense of place. We dare you to define what makes a Kendall-Jackson chardonnay different from a Penfolds chardonnay, particularly in regards to the soils continents away.

Take, for example, how yeast brings impacts wine.  Yeasts are very instrumental because they convert the natural sugar found in ripe grapes to alcohol. They cling to grape skins and even on the walls of buildings where wine is fermented. Instead of using these natural yeasts, most winemakers prefer to add yeast strains that have been developed in a laboratory, like the University of California, Davis. In short, they don't want to wait around for yeasts to do their natural thing when laboratory produced yeasts can get the job started immediately.

But there is more to yeast than the practicality of controlling alcohol production, particularly in white wines. They produce esters that create specific aromas, color and extracted flavors.  We know this is a lot of boring science, but it's important to know what impacts your wine and who is working to make it unique.

Yes, we know it's not just yeast that crafts a wine's flavor profile. But the common use of laboratory yeast strains takes away opportunity to produce a wine that uniquely represents that unique "sense of place" that winemakers just don't deliver despite their claims.

Kistler, Ridge, Franciscan, Marcassin are among the producers to use natural yeasts and they have unique wines that show what the French call gout de terroir.  They don't seem to have a problem with natural yeasts. Taste Franciscan's Cuvee Sauvage and try to tell us the wild yeasts haven't created a unique wine.

So why doesn't everyone use wild yeasts? To a large degree, they are unpredictable and take a long time to start fermentation.  A yeast strain, like the common saccharomyces cerevisia,  can be added to a tank. Fermentation begins immediately and is over in a week or so. The yeasts can be relied on to complete the conversion of sugar to alcohol and prevent the development of volatile acidity and sulfides.

UC Davis recommends wine be inoculated with yeast strains, but that's what we would expect from an academy that writes the textbook on winemaking. They say without inoculated yeast, a winemaker faces the risk of dumping a percentage of wine that never finishes fermentation or develops off-putting flavors.

Despite their advice, several winemakers have achieved success with wild yeasts. David Ramey, once a winemaker for Chalk Hill Winery, recently told Jordon Ross who wrote a yeast article for Enology International that he began experimenting with indigenous yeast when he returned from Europe where it is commonly used. He found good company with Bill Dyer of Sterling and Helen Turley of Peter Michael who found that wild yeasts created wines with "texture, subtlety and finesse."

Are these top-notch winemakers just lucky  or are they looking harder for great wines than more conservative winemakers?

You won't find Kendall-Jackson or Gallo commonly using wild yeasts because they are production-oriented. They aren't about to wait around for wine to ferment when inoculated yeasts can finish the process in a week. No chief financial officer would allow such an inefficiency.

Ridge's winemaker, Paul Draper, has been using natural yeasts for 28 years. He told Enology International, "It is tragic that a lot of winemakers come out of school being taught that you are supposed to manufacture the wine. So Parker (wine critic Robert Parker) and those guys are simply passing on -- sometimes a bit wrong-headedly -- the fact that these traditional methods are more interesting."

Amen.

It's easy for us to say that more winemakers should take the risk and begin making more unique white wines. We don't have to answer to boards and owners who keep their eye on profits. But to say that wild yeasts don't separate one wine from another and to say they don't work are ignoring the successes of a lot of excellent winemakers. 

THE STATE OF CHILEAN WINE

When you are in this business long enough, a lot of wine theories come and go. Some are debunked only to be endorsed a few years later: heavy oak/no oak; dry/sweet wines; low alcohol/high alcohol.

We are reminded of the yin and yang of the wine business after visiting with a very talented and candid winemaker from Chile who in less than hour gave us an honest assessment of his country's wines and an insight into the techniques -- good and bad -- of enterprising winemakers. At the end of the conversation, we all agreed that there is a tendency in winemaking to over-think wine and to manipulate its creation more than necessary. You have to wonder if it's out of boredom that winemakers look to do something different from their ancestors who made pretty good wine without the wizardry.

Rodrigo Soto, chief winemaker of of Huneeus Vintners South  American Wine Portfolio, spent a number of years with wineries in New Zealand and California before settling in his native winegrowing region in Chile. However proud he is of Chilean wines and the progress he is making, he knows that Chile has lost ground to countries like its neighboring Argentina.

Rodrigo Soto, Huneeus Vintners

Rodrigo Soto, Huneeus Vintners

When we first wrote about wine in the 1980s, Argentine winemakers were in awe of Chilean marketing. They lagged behind their South American neighbor, they said, because Chile didn't have the same marketing genius. But eventually, the Argentines wised up and promoted its ubiqutous malbec.  Who's ahead now? Are you more likely to drink Chile's native carmenere -- or Argentina's local malbec?

Chile lost momentum in the competitive marketplace, Soto believes, because its producers were making wines that were "very conservati ve, academic and too local-centric."  Soto says producers were not adjusting to consumer criticism abroad where wine enthusiasts found Chilean wines "too green in the nose and too dry in the mouth."

We recall those wines: bell pepper, rubber and other offensive notes that left a terrible image for Chilean winemakers to erase.  After trying a few of them at relatively low prices, consumers moved on to Argentina, Spain and other places with good values but better wines.

For Soto, the key to making better wine is in organic farming. He was indoctrinated in this emerging wine-making philosophy after spending six years beside David Ramey, a consultant for Sonoma's Benziger  winery -- a pioneer in organic and bio-dynamic farming.

However good for the environment, organic farming's benefits to a wine's flavor isn't entirely clear to consumers.  Soto said that reducing Chile's offensive bell-pepper flavors requires growers to expose their grapes to more sun. But, in this region more sun can burn the grapes, so there is a delicate balance in achieving riper grapes without the raisiny characteristics that often follow. Not everyone is willing to take the risk and prefer high yields and low prices -- an equation that often creates inferior wines.

"You need a moderate pace of metabolism to get the right minerality and smooth ripening," he says. "Organic slows the ripening process ."

He is using concrete egg-shaped fermentors -- hardly a new device but one gaining popularity over stainless steel. The design of these fermentors allow sediment to fall naturally to the bottom. They retain temperature more naturally and the natural circulation of the fermenting juice doesn't require stirring of the lees. As we travel to various wine growing regions, we are seeing more and more of them.

Soto is convinced these fermentors give more texture to wine. His sauvignon blanc is evidence of that -- unfortunately, this wine can be found only in a handful of restaurants. However, it's not the only wine made under the Ritual label.

We loved the 2012 Vermonte Ritual Casablanca Valley Pinot Noir ($20) made from University of California, Davis, clones. It's light color masks the depth and quality of a medium body, bright and effusive pinot noir with black cherry and raspberry notes. We dare you to find a pinot noir at this price and with this quality.

We also tasted the 2012 Primus The Blend ($20), a melangé of cabernet sauvignon (30 percent) carmenere, syrah, merlot and petite verdot. Wow,  what a great value at this price.

Soto's experimentation with fermenting vessels, natural yeasts and canopy management in the vineyard separates him from Chilean winemakers stuck in their old ways. However, he is the future of this country's fertile wine-growing region.

QUAKE DAMAGE SUBSTANTIAL

Officials in Napa are saying that damages from the 6.0 earthquake total more than $80 million so far.

Rob McMillan, a vice president with Silicon Valley Bank, told Decanter magazine, "We estimate that 80% of Napa County wineries sustained some degree of damage, and up to 25% of the wineries suffered moderate to severe damage exceeding $50,000 per winery."

Worst hit was the Carneros region, Mt. Veeder, Yountville and Oak Knoll.

Although no shortage of wine is predicted, producers will feel even a great financial loss when they have less wine to sell.

A CHATEAU REVISTED

About 5 years  ago, my wife and I returned to St. Emillion. Among the new places we discovered was Chateau La Clotte. Most notable -- even moreso than the wine -- was the proprietor, Nelly Moulierac, who had given up her day job to restore a family estate launched in 1912 by her great grandmother, Sylvain Chaileau. 

Nelly was most hospitable and endearing. She showed us the historic caves overlooking Troplong-Mondot's fabulous estate. Nelly really wanted to make a go of it, but alas the task was overwhelming for her. Just this week it was announced that she had sold a majority of the estate's stock to Chateau Ausone.

We remember hearing her defend the family name and insisting it wasn't the odd-sounding "Clotte" that was causing the problem of sales. She was right -- she just lacked the capital and the distribution to get her brand going. The wines were average at best, but had great potential. 

Ausone will bring new capital to the estate, which is just outside the Village of St. Emilion. The vineyards can produce a lot better.

According to Decanter magazine, Ausone will build a new winery and Moulierac will remain a minority owner. We badly wanted to see her succeed, but it just wasn't in the cards.

-- Tom Marquardt

SOMETHING TO CELEBRATE

It's a rare occasion when I drink champagne. And, I'm not sure why. I grow weary of a plain old wine with just some bubbles to make it sparkle. But real French champagne -- the good ones -- make take notice.

To celebrate a recent wedding anniversary, I opened a Piper-Heidsieck Rare Cuvee. I can't even remember where or why I bought it. Heavens, it was delicious. Heavy, thick granny apple fruit, a dash of sweet apricots and big bubbles indicated that I had it for some time. It was non-vintage.

I cant find any history of the wine, so I suspect Piper-Heidsieck does not produce this every year.

-- Tom Marquardt

AT LEAST, YEAST

We recently met with Rodrigo Soto, chief winemaker for Vermonte in Chile. Vermonte is now owned by Huneeus Vintners and has introduced a new wine called Ritual to take its spot in premium wines.

Besides tasting a few wines, we had a great conversation about winemaking. We agreed that sometimes winemakers over-think the process of making wine and instead of creating something unique, they create something safe. A wine made with inoculated yeasts, controlled by cooling vats, stirred and aged are safe -- but can you tell the difference between a chardonnay made in Napa Valley from one made in Chile?

We've lamented for years that chardonnay, in particular, tastes too much alike. That may be because producers are using the same yeast strain. Yeasts convert sugar to alcohol, but they also produce unique esters that give color and aroma to wine. Only natural yeasts ound on grape skins are unique.

Soto uses natural yeasts and feels he gets more texture and richness to his wine. The Ritual sauvignon blanc proves that.  Francisan makes a Cuvee Sauvage chardonnay from wild yeasts and it too is rich and textured.

Wild yeasts carries risk because they aren't predictable or efficient. But they do produce more unique wines.

We'll have more to say about this next week.

-- Tom Marquardt

INEXPENSIVE WINES FOR THE  HOLIDAY

Everyone is looking for a deal in wine, especially on the Labor Day weekend when crowds are coming over for one last blast of summer fun.

Perhaps you enjoy a glass of wine with your home-cooked meal but are on fixed income or not-enough-income.  There are a lot of choices on the market -- boxed wines, jug wines, cheap imports -- but you are better off to stick with known brands rather than take a chance on some fly-by-night group out to make a quick buck.

Inexpensive wines are made from cheap grapes. Either they come from a less respected region of California (Lodi, for instance) with warm climates or from countries that don't have high labor costs.  The wines are often blended to bolster varietal grapes,  like chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon. It is not uncommon, for instance, to see gewurztraminer used in chardonnay for its aromatics and round, spicy flavors.  It is also common to find a touch of sweetness on these wines to give them more texture and to mask the acidity.

We recently tasted a few wines from well-respected producers who can make decent wine because they are well capitalized. Robert Mondavi's "private selection," for instance are reliable wines for $11. Two other producers we like are Pedroncelli and Alamos (an Argentine winery operated by Gallo). Both sell wines for around $13 apiece.

We enjoyed the refreshing 2013 Robert Mondavi Private Selection Pinot Grigio ($11) for its pear and citrus flavors -- a nice pairing for Maryland crab cakes -- and the exotic fruit flavors of the 2013 Mondavi riesling for the same price.

Pedroncelli has a beautiful 2013 Dry Rose of Zinfandel ($12) for those of you who, like us, enjoy dry roses to launch warmer weather. Its 2012 friends.red ($12) is a motley blend of merlot, zinfandel, syrah and petite sirah. It has a juicy profile.

If you want something really different, try the 2013 Alamos Torrontes ($13). Some may find it too tart, but we like the citrus notes and crisp acidity in this unusual grape variety.

Rancho Zabaco is a reliable producer and its Sonoma Heritage Vines Zinfandel 2012 ($15) is fullo of juicy dark berry fruit with a touch of mocha.

Dancing Bull Sauvignon Blanc 2013 ($12) has crisp acidity with generous pineapple and grapefruit notes to produce a nice sipping wine on a summer day.

MORE INEXPENSIVE WINES IN THE NEXT COLUMN.....

MORE ON THE WINE SPILL

Although there has been considerable damage to wines stored in warehouses and in stores, Napa Valley seems to have come out of the earthquake relatively well. 

As reports trickle in, it appears that luck played a factor. Those who harvested early this year had wines in bottles and stacked on pallets. The shrink wrap saved them from toppling over.

Barrels stored high in warehouses, however, didn't do as well. Experts say a barrel can fall about 3 feet without damage, but many of them are stacked as high as 30 feet. Maybe no more.

A barrel holds about 25 cases of wine. If the wine were to sell at $50 a bottle, that would be a $15,000 loss from just one barrel.

EARTHQUAKE HITS NAPA. BOTTLE SHOCK?

A 6.0 earthquake centered in Napa couldn't  ave come at a worse time. Winemakers are in the process of harvesting an excellent vintage and there are barrels precariously stacked in warehouses. Silver Oak reported significant losses to several barrels it had intended to blend. Others producers say they are faced with disentangling a pile of barrels, which fortunately bounce pretty good.

Hess Collection and BR Cohn reported losses of 50 percent of some of their wines.  But most wineries have just started their harvest and the juice is not yet in barrels. A month from now the damage would have been worse.

So far though, damage has been light.  I assume more reports will be forthcoming.

Because of previous earthquakes in wine country, producers have been building stronger, more quake-resistant storage facilities. This has been a true test of their buildings' integrity.

Want to bet were going to see "earthquake vintage" on the 2014 labels?

Full barrels can weigh 900 pounds.

Full barrels can weigh 900 pounds.

BUT DID SHE DRINK IT?

CEDAR PARK, Texas — A Texas woman allegedly stole a bottle of $3.99 wine to get arrested and see her jailed boyfriend.

Alicia Walicke of Cedar Park was charged with misdemeanor theft and freed on $5,000 bond Friday. Williamson County jail records did not list an attorney for the woman.

Police say Walicke stole a bottle of wine from a gas station Wednesday. An arrest affidavit says police found the woman outside the business and drinking the wine. The affidavit says she told police that she wanted to see her boyfriend, who was arrested hours earlier, and told them wanted to go to jail.

Police in Cedar Park, 15 miles northwest of Austin, didn’t immediately identify the boyfriend or say whether the woman saw him.

A FOREST OF SURPRISE

A friend gave me a bottle of 2009 Sequoia Grove Cabernet Sauvignon several years ago and wrote on the label his name and a request to hold it for 3 years. I looked at it for several years and each time was sure the wine wouldn't make it.  I like Sequoia Grove but didn't think its cabernet had the guts to stand up to any aging - even short term.

But I waited, opened the bottle and sent my friend a note. Indeed, he was right. The bottle was very good. Its rough edges and tannin had mellowed. Still full of exuberant fruit, it show moderate complexity and richness I had not expected.

It just goes to show you that you can't be certain about agibility in wine.  I held wines far too long because my judgment was wrong. And, I often didn't cellar them long enough. You never know.

-- Tom Marquardt

TWO NICE MERLOTS

I'm not a big merlot fan because the ones I like are often too expensive to justify. Yeah, I know Chateau Petrus, one of the great wines of the world, is made entirely of merlot but I can name more merlots that aren't worth $15.

However, I tasted two decent merlots recently. Duckhorn, which makes great merlot year after year, has released an outstanding 2010 Three Palms Vineyard Merlot ($90). Wow, what a mouthful of fruit -- rich, concentrated, long in the finish and seriously delicious.

More reasonably priced is the 2012 Flora Springs Merlot ($25) from Napa Valley It may not have the Duckhorn's depth, but for the price it shows an awful low of character.

-- Tom Marquardt

A SPECIAL VALUE FROM BORDEAUX

Several years ago I was in Bordeaux and stopped at Joanin Becot, which was under new management since 2001. Most impressive was its young -- very young -- winemaker and owner, Juliette Becot. Precocious but determined to make her mark through hard work, Juliette was the only daughter of the Becot family. While her brothers pursued wine, it was uncommon for daughters to do the same. 

That didn't stop Juliette. She convinced her father to buy about 5 hectares for her, but it was up to her to manage  the property. They doubled the property eventually. Dad gave Julliette a pair of working boots and wished her luck.

Well, her wine turned out great. We popped a bottle of the 2008 and it was drinking gloriously. Dad should be proud.

The property is planted to mostly merlot and cabernet franc.

SOME PINOT NOIRS PEEK THROUGH THE CLOUDS

Called the "heart break grape," pinot noir can be a frustrating experience for grape growers -- it's thin skin makes it susceptible to mildew and hail. But, it's also frustrating to consumers.

It's easy to fall in love with the wine, but not so easy to fall in love with its often lofty prices. A good bottle of California or Oregon pinot noir will set you back $40 and more -- easily . And Burgundy pinot noir? Forget about it.

Last year we enjoyed more West  Coast pinot noir than ever. As the grape variety continues to excel in this country, more producers are getting into making better quality pinot noir.

We recently  tasted several California pinot noirs that, although expensive, demonstrate this country's ability to produce world-class pinot noirs.  They have a different profile than what you will find in Burgundy, but they are equally complex. While Burgundy pinot noirs are known for their understated, silky elegance, California pinot noirs are known for their boldness.

Goldeneye's winemaker Michael Fay has found gold in the Anderson Valley. His series of pinot noirs struts the stuff this region capable of making. Sourcing grapes from four vineyards, he has created a blend and three unique pinot noirs that are pricey -- but competitive for those similarly priced.

Goldeneye was founded by Dan and Margaret Duckhorn, whose Napa Valley merlots are legendary.

The 2011 Goldeneye Gowan Creek Vineyard Pinot Noir ($80) is made from eight different clones grown on different rootstocks. The breadth of character shows the results.

We enjoyed the 2011 Goldeneye Confluence Vineyard ($80)  for its finesse and elegance -- it is the first vineyard bought by Goldeneye in 1996.

The 2011 Goldeneye Ten Degrees Estate Grown Pinot Noir ($115) uses the best fruit and barrels for its most prestigious wine. Very complex and long in the finish.

We also liked the pinot noirs being made by David Fossi of Fulcrum.  The Fulcrum Pinot Noir Gap's Crown Vineyard 2011 ($57) is a full-throttle pinot noir from Sonoma Coast vineyards. It  has extraordinary depth and complexity, an earthy, forest-floor character with sweet cherry flavors and hints of dried herbs and spice.  Once opened, you won't be saving any of this for tomorrow.

We loved the Robert Mondavi  Carneros Pinot Noir Reserve 2012 ($60).  This succulent yet complex pinot noir from Napa's Carneros AVA shows off dense, dark cherry flavors and sports blueberry aromas and hints of spice. Nice earthy undertone too.

Knowing that these pinot noirs are more than many of you can afford, we suggest three moderately priced pinot noirs from Mandolin and Meomi. These are relatively easy to find in stores and popular at restaurants.

HEADACHES A WORSE BUMMER FOR WINE THAN SEX

OK, you've heard it before. "Not now, I've got a headache." But did you hear it when you offered someone a glass of wine? Don't be offended if you have.

More and more people are rejecting either white or red wine because it gives them a headache. In my family, one person rejects red wine; another rejects white. A neighbor down the street declines both red and white. Each of them complain of headaches.

For years these headaches has been blamed on the sulfites in wine - drinkers refuse to conclude that maybe it's the amount of wine they consumed that gave them their headaches! But over the years sulfites have been largely debunked as the culprit. More likely it's the tannins in the red wine or the level of alcohol.

More and more wines are being made with higher alcohol content. Zinfandels and many cabernet sauvignons have 15 to 16 percent alcohol. Normal levels were once around 12 to 13 percent, but a trend to make more fruit-forward, opulent red wines -- and warming temperatures that raised sugar levels in grapes -- have created a monster. Higher tannin levels are a part of that trend as well.

Consumers, though, continue to avoid sulfites. So what are they and can you find wines that don't contain them?

Sulfites are found naturally on grape skins -- and other products, such as dried fruit. Many winemakers add more sulfites to attack the natural bacteria also found on grape skins. This process clarifies the wine and prevents oxidation -- a condition that can ruin an aged wine. So, in general, sulfites are good.

Sulfites are not allowed in organic wines. Those consumers who feel they are sensitive to sulfites should look for them. But a word of caution: wine labels that say "made with organic grapes" is not the same. In fact, winemakers are allowed to add sulfites to wines and still add this phrase to their labels. 

An "organic wine" means that it came from a vineyard that has not added herbicides, pesticides or synthetic fertilizers to the process. That includes sulfites.

Buyer beware.

-- Tom Marquardt


A LOOK AT WASHINGTON WINES


Walla Walla Valley AVA has a fascinating geological history. A subset of the Columbia Valley AVA of Washington State, this area was inundated by a series of catastrophic floods -- the Missoula Floods -- at the end of the last ice age 12,000 to 15,000 years ago. The Walla Walla Valley was scoured and then received a massive amount of gravel and fine silt that when dried and blown by the wind resulted in loess -- a very fine mineral-rich soil that covers most of the valley today in depths from a few inches to many feet. Other parts of the valley -- specifically the new proposed AVA The Rocks at Milton-Freewater -- are so rock strewn with rounded orange to grapefruit-sized stones that walking is difficult. Growing anything in this area defies rational thinking but fruit trees and now grape vines are thriving there with spectacular results for some wineries.                                                         

Pat recently attended the "Celebrate Walla Walla Valley The World of Syrah" event in Walla Walla to learn more about this little known wine-making area that is making some amazing world-class wines. Walla Walla wines frequently appear on several respected wine publications' top 100 lists and a search of wines scoring 90 points or more find Walla Walla Valley wines outscoring their public perception.

One winemaker grumbled at a dinner/tasting overlooking the Walla Walla AVA that the beautifully crafted $40-$60 wine red wine blends we were tasting would cost $100-$150 per bottle if the labels read Napa Valley instead of Walla Walla Valley. We would be hard pressed to disagree, but don’t feel the wine world needs more $100 plus wines.                                

The Walla Walla Valley is a paradise for agriculture, as evidenced by the wide variety of crops that dominate the landscape. Fruit trees of all types, alfalfa, wheat, and corn are just a sampling of what thrives in the loamy soils. However, there are two big problems. The area is a virtual desert with less than 10 inches of rain per year. The rain shadow of the Cascade Mountains divides the Washington state into the frequently rainy western portion and the desert-dry eastern portion of the Columbia Valley.

The Columbia River, however, provides irrigation to those with water rights with the water needed for agricultural crops. The other problem is peculiarly difficult to grape growing. Every 6-8 years bitter, well below zero temperatures, roar down from Canada and plunge temperatures to as low as 15-20 degrees below zero, killing grape vines back to the ground.

Walla Walla grape growers have adapted by allowing a shoot from their ungrafted vines to grow from the soil level of the plant, and then burying the shoot in the soil before winter, giving the grape vine a chance to survive the brutal temperatures.  Growers above 1,200 feet are able to avoid this labor-intensive requirement.                                                                                  

During our visit to Walla Walla Valley we visited a number of vineyard areas. One of these was the Upper Mill Creek area where one of the original four founding wineries of the Walla Walla AVA (recognized in 1984) grows grapes.

Leonetti Cellars is an award-winning producer of some of the highest rated wines in the country that amazingly are unknown to many wine drinkers. Leonetti produces wine from this area along with a`Maurice, Tempus Cellars, and Walla Walla Vintners.

Chris Figgins, Leonetti’s winemaker and son of founder Gary Figgins, schooled us on the advantages of growing grapes in the Mill Creek area. Two significant advantages are the 1,200-foot elevation, which protects grapes against the periodic wintry blasts from Canada and the 18-22 inches of rainfall they receive due to their proximity to nearby mountains, negating the need for irrigation.

Chris explained that although phylloxera is not present -- allowing for ungrafted vines to grow in Walla Walla Valley -- “sooner or later we will get it”. He also spoke about the low amount of harmful insects and said that he believed “because we are a young grape growing region, pest pressures are very low”.                     

We tasted a number of wines from grapes grown in the Mill Creek area and found them to be fruit forward and in a balanced elegant style that we especially enjoyed. The a`Maurice Estate Red Walla Walla Valley 2010 $47 is a delightful Bordeaux blend that is rich, smooth and harmonious. The Walla Walla Vintners Estate Syrah Walla Walla Valley 2011 $40 exhibited bright fruit and distinctive black pepper notes.  Figgins Estate Red Wine Walla Walla Valley 2011 $85 was made from all Bordeaux varieties and was very round, smooth, and complete. An intriguingly complex nose started it all off. Last year's 2010 version of this wine earned 97 points from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate.

 -- Patrick Darr


WOW, A DECENT CHARDONNAY

I drink a lot of chardonnay because, well, it's the number one white wine and I like to stay in touch with the market. I love chardonnay from Mersault and Chablis, but it's rare when I get excited about a West Coast chardonnay.

But it happened last night when I opened the 2012 Ponzi Chardonnay Reserve from the Willamette Valley. For $35, it was equal to many Burgundies I h ave recently tasted. It was separated from the herd for its restraint and balance. It wasn't overly oaked or ruined by too much malolactic fermentation. The wine also has intriguing aromatics and a tangerine/citrus profile that I liked.

Coincidentally, I had a 2006 Matrot Mersault open from the previous night and was able to compare them. They had different flavor profiles, of course, but I enjoyed the Ponzi more.

Luisa Ponzi turned out another stellar wine. Try it.

-- Tom Marquardt

MORE INSIGHT INTO ROSE

Recently we wrote about the fantastic, dry roses made in Provence. This week we turn to roses made in other parts of the world.

We like to serve rose at this time of the year because it always sets a celebratory tone in an event. It is a great aperitif to greet guests and it is an ideal wine to serve with a variety of foods. We served it with a spicy Peruvian chicken the other day it was terrific.   It is a versatile wine that goes well with salads, cold pasta, cheese, chicken, fish and anything that comes off the grill.

Rosé sales in the United States were once crippled by the wine's association with white zinfandel, a sweet wine that only in color matched rosé. However, rosé sales in recent years have skyrocketed as American consumers discovered the value and versatility of the wine. In Provence alone, rosé exports to the U.S. have grown 40 percent in just the last year.

Most rosés, including those from southern France, are moderately priced . They won't break the bank, although we have tasted several  more expensive rosés that are a treat and worthy of the extra money. 

Because of its growing popularity here, rosé can be easily found from Portugal, Italy, Spain and California can be easily found. Most producers used the same combination of grapes, but we've tasted some excellent rosé made from sangiovese, tempranillo and  pinot noir.  

For some examples, look to the right....

-- Tom Marquardt

A ROSE BY ANY OTHER NAME?

To really appreciate rosé, you need to go to Provence. But assuming that you, like us, cannot fly to France on a moment's notice, do the next best thing: drink a glass of rosé.

 Amid the waves of lavender meadows or on a Mediterranean beach of this sun-drenched region, rosé is as much a part of the French diet as cheese.  Whether it be during hot summer months when a refreshing glass of dry rosé teases the palate or during the cooler months when vines are dormant, rosé is an all-purpose wine.

This southeastern wine region of France covers about 125 miles of Mediterranean shoreline. The maritime climate and long, dry summers combine to make for ideal grape-growing conditions in most years. The frequent mistral winds keep the crops dry and prevent vine diseases from developing. The climate may not be ideal for cabernet sauvignon -- although it is grown here -- but perfect for the primary grapes of rosé: grenache, syrah, cinsault, mourvedre and carignan.

While rosé is made nearly everywhere now, it is a minor player for producers outside of Provence who prefer to concentrate on, say, chardonnay or pinot noir. In fact, most producers simply bleed off some of their fermenting grape juice after limited skin contact and call it rosé while the rest of the juice is reserved for a red wine. In Provence, however, rosé is often the only wine made from pressed grapes.

"Every decision in the vineyard all year long is how to make excellent rosé," said Julie Peterson, who heads the strategy office in the United States for Vins de Provence. "It is a very different mindset. This is not an after-thought or just a fun thing we're doing."

Rosé has been enjoying steady growth year over year, but that is hardly a new phenomenon in Provence. For 10 years, sales of Provence rosés have experienced double-digit growth in the United States. Although some regions have stepped up their rosé programs, Provence has been concentrating on rosé for centuries. It is the only region to have 88 percent of its production devoted to rosé.

In Provence, winemakers can use nine different grape varieties. Besides the faithful grenache and syrah, they can use more obscure grape varieties, like tibouren. With that, these rosés can have uncharacteristic dimension.

Most notably, these wines are bone dry. One trend we have seen in California rosés is a little residual sugar to tame the wine's natural acidity.  However, sweet wines are a poor match to summer heat and food.  It is the acidity and consistent, delicate fruit flavors that have given French rosés the edge.

Says Peterson, "The real key  for rosé is how do you get flavor,  aroma and character of grape without the sugar in a very tight process?  It is very hard to achieve."

By law, Provence rosés must have less than 3.5 milligrams of sugar per liter. That's dry.

We've spent the last several weeks sampling a lot of rosés from different parts of France, Spain, Portugal and the United States.  We prefer the French versions because they are consistent and have a superb balance of fruit and acidity.  However, that is not to say other regions are making bad rosés -- just often unpredictable ones.

I'll write about other roses in a few days. Recommendations are to the right.

-- Tom Marquardt

WHERE WERE YOU?

I'm sorry if I haven't posted anything in a long time. In truth, I was n vacation in Central Europe where internet access was difficult at best. It proved how tethered we are to the internet.

A couple of things of wine note of this trip:

-- While dining at a very nice restaurant in Budapest, I was approached by an American couple who asked if I was the Tom Marquardt who writes a wine column for my hometown newspaper in Annapolis, MD. They had recognized me from the photo in my column. What are the odds?

-- After tasting a lot of wines in five Central European countries, I have come to the conclusion that winemakers should stick to white wines and beer. The Czech Republic beer is phenomenal and I drank a lot of it. 

The two noteworthy wines are Gruner Veltliner and Muller-Thurgau. The wines we tasted from the Wachau Valley were very good. And, the rose we tasted was very respectable. The reds, on the other hand, were disappointingly thin and often off. It didn't stop me from trying them, but even the recommended wines were unworthy.

-- Tom Marquardt

A FRENCH LAW GONE AWRY

Imagine watching the Super Bowl without ads of young people enjoying a beer party. You probably won't find that void in the United States, but you will in France as regulators attempt to apply a ban on ads that encourage alcohol consumption.

Passed in 1991 and named after it's author, Loi Evin is aimed at the tobacco and alcohol industry. In regards to wine, though, the application of the law is capricious -- and absurd.

France's regulatory agency -- Association Nationale de Prevention en Alcoologie et Addictlogie -- has been harassing a Bordeaux promotion agency for 9 years. It's ads (see example below) feature well-respected and attractive Bordelais with a wine glass and a message to drink less, drink better. ANPAA objected because the ad "exerts on the reader a psychological action whose nature incites him or her to consume" alcohol.

Oh, boy. This is enough to drive a person to drink.

Last year, LVMH featured celebrities -- including Matt Damon -- holding a glass and botle of Moet Chandon. Even though the message in the Paris Match ad encouraged moderation, ANPAA objected. The ads were pulled.

   

 

 

By the way, alcohol consumption in France is down 20 percent. Add to that a recent decision to quadruple the hotel tax on tourists and you have a wine country that is sending the wrong message to wine enthusiasts.

-- Tom Marquardt

WINES FOR THE FOURTH OF JULY

With July 4th just a couple of days away, most Americans worth their barbecue sauce are thinking of the backyard grill. If it isn't a family gathering, Independence Day will be an occasion to get together with friends for some grilled pulled pork, burgers, ribs or anything wickedly bad for you.

Right, it's time to let loose. Abandon those diets, rid the brain of "no, I shouldn't," live for today. Eat away.

Most of us have been behind the grill for months now, so the duty station is hardly new. For the men, though, it's a chance to show some cooking genius because, as the stereotype goes, only men know how to grill. Our wives would disagree, of course, but they are willing to go along with the claim because it relieves them of some responsibility. And, well, the male ego remains intact if they do.

We like feasts where nearly every course is on the grill or smoker. We use the Big Green Egg for smoked salmon and pork -- ribs, loin or pork butt. On the grill will go beer-can chicken, corn on the cob, vegetables, skirt steaks, or whatever. If you come to our house, be prepared to hold a plate or wield some tongs when it gets crazy.

Wine is always present at our July 4th barbecues.  It is an occasion to stow away the serious wines and reach for the simple and fruity wines that thankfully are relatively inexpensive. If wine is your choice for the outdoor feast, we have a dozen of our top recommendations.

To start, we like to serve our guests a rosé or prosecco.  Rosés are becoming more popular because they are delicious on a warm day and add a splash of color to the occasion without any sweetness to dampen the palate. As for the dinner wine, look for a fruity red wine that will marry well with ketchup-based barbecue sauces. 

We know this is a time to have a lot of fun, but please drink responsibly and don't drive drunk.

Las Rocas Rosé 2013 ($14). Made from grapes grown on 30-to 50-year-old vines, this Spanish garnacha is a perennial hit for us. It has luscious raspberry notes and a hint of spice and lime.

Cune Crianza Rioja 210 ($14). A blend of tempranillo (80 percent), garnacha tinta and mazuelo, this simple but delicious wine has nice cherry notes with a dash of spice and oak.

Cline Cashmere Red 2012 ($17). This Rhone Valley blend includes mourvedre, syrah, grenache and petite sirah. Cherry and raspberry notes with enough body to match steak, chicken and pork. Delicious and versatile.

The Great American Wine Company Red Blend by Rosenblum 2012 ($16.50). This is straight forward uncomplicated blend of 74 percent zinfandel, 20 percent petite sirah, and 6 percent cabernet sauvignon. The Rosenblum Company has made a $100,000 contribution to military charities from the sale of this brand, which also includes a chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon. This is a nice summer quaffer that could be chilled to 55-60 degrees for outdoor drinking with soft, round and ripe cherry flavors and an easy drinkability.

Yalumba Y Series Shiraz-Viognier 2012 ($14). The white grape viognier gives this wine an aromatic lift and moderates the juicy exuberance of shiraz. We like this Australian producer for its restraint and consistency.

Thorn-Clarke Shotfire Shiraz 2012 ($20). A regular favorite of ours, this wine has an intense blackberry nose with flavors of plums and other dark fruit. Hints of chocolate and spice. Great match to burgers and pork.

Marietta Old Vine Red Lot 60 ($15). This wine never fails to please. A motley collection of red grapes -- mostly zinfandel -- it has an irresistibly rich, ripe character that begs for a second glass. Smooth texture and fruit-forward style is a great match for anything with a ketchup-based sauce or even with un-sauced chicken.

Dry Creek Vineyard Fume Banc Sonoma County Sauvignon Blanc 2013 ($14). David Stare of Dry Creek Vineyards and Robert Mondavi pioneered the fume blanc style of sauvignon blanc in California modeling their wines after Sancerre from the Loire Valley. This wine is a fantastic classic California sauvignon blanc, exhibiting citrus, grassy flavors with a distinctive mineral streak. A very refreshing and distinctive white wine that should accompany many summertime meals especially those with fish and chicken.

Buena Vista The Count Founders Red Wine Sonoma County 2012($20).For those lovers of the currently en vogue California red blends this offering from Buena Vista is a winner. A blend of 44 percent zinfandel, 17 percent syrah, 13 percent merlot, 11 percent cabernet sauvignon, 10 percent petite sirah, and 5 percent carignane, this beauty is seamlessly smooth and overflowing with ripe cherry flavors and a hint of vanilla.

J California Pinot Gris 2013 ($16). Pinot gris is just another name for pinot grigio but used more often on the West Coast. This perennial favorite of ours has good acidity with classic pear, lemon and mineral notes.

Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio 2013 ($18). Bone dry, this pinot grigio is like biting into an apple -- crisp, juicy and delicious. Citrus notes round out an elegant wine.

Quivira Dry Creek Zinfandel 2011 ($22). We thoroughly enjoyed this delightful wine -- a perennial favorite. It is blended with a bit of petite sirah, carignane, syrah and even cabernet sauvignon to give it more complexity and broader flavors. The result of this melange is a profile that ranges from raspberries and blackberries to ripe, sweet cherries.

Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc 2012 ($15). It seems like this New Zealand producer has been selling wine with screw tops in the United States for decades. Each vintage we marvel at the freshness and exuberance of the classic New Zealand sauvignon blanc. Grassy aromas with citrus and stonefruit flavors are crisp and bright. All of its wines come adorned with screw caps.

A DOMAIN NAME FOR WINE?

About the time you think you have a few domain names straight, along comes a proposal to make it confusing.

You know that a university email usually has an .edu affixed to the end, right? Or that a state government address will include an abbreviation of the state and .gov, right?  Most everything else is .com. org or .net.

Now comes a proposal to add domains like .wine, .vin and even .vodka.  These are among hundreds of proposals made to ICANN, internet domain regulators, in 2012. 

The idea is to open the network to more communities of special interests. Although there is little resistance to most of the proposals, the wine domains have encountered opposition from France and other European countries.

The French are trying to block approval of .wine and .vin because there are no protections to restrict access to the names and they fear the additions will threaten the credibility of geographical regions, like Champagne.

The internet has always been an open platform and I respect ICANN for keeping it that way, but I sort of like mingling with others on the old and tried .com.

-- Tom Marquardt

DROWNED IN CHAMPAGNE

Veuve Clicquot is dumping 300 bottles and 50 magnums of their champagne in the Baltic Sea.  It's not that they don't like them, but rather they want to see how champagne ages underwater.

The experiment commemorates a 2010 discovery of 168 bottles found in the Baltic from a shipwreck. Among the cache were Veuve-Clicquot champagnes that apparently were in pretty good shape.

V-C officials say that the pressure at 43 meters is about the same as what's in the bottle and the temperature is about 7 degrees cooler.

Eventually the wines will be compared to the same vintages stored in the producer's cellar.

All of this seems more like a publicity stunt to me. How long are they going to wait? Chances are it will be another generation that tastes the results.

-- Tom Marquardt

A WINE WORTH WAITING FOR

Last night I pulled from my cellar a 2007 Sanford pinot noir from Sta. Rita Hills. I usually don't hold my pinot noirs for 7 years, but this orphan got lost in the cellar.

Good thing. It was an incredible wine that was drinking so well that I decided to enjoy it just as an aperitif. The cherry and strawberry aromas exploded from the glass and the flavors were robust and ripe.  The mouthfeel feel was velvety and the finish long. I couldn't find a bad thing to say -- except that I wish I had more.

I visited this winery a few years ago and packed this one bottle in the suitcase home.

The experience proved to me that good pinot noir can age.

-- Tom Marquardt

ERIC STINE TALKS ABOUT GUENOC AND LANTRY

ERIC STINE, WINEMAKER GUENOC AND LANTRY  

ERIC STINE, WINEMAKER GUENOC AND LANTRY

 

Eric Stine was struggling as a computer programmer. He was good but he knew he could never rise to the level of the hot-shots around him, so when his New York employer called it quits,  the University of Michigan grad decided to change courses. He considered two options: wine or law school. Hmmm, let's see: being outdoors and making a cool drink or litigating a nasty divorce in court?

He chose wine -- and we're all better for it.

Recalling his days working for a Michigan caterer when he would have well-heeled clients sample wines for their upcoming fetes, Stine says his first training was on the job. One of his clients invited him to his cellar to sample wines and poured him the wine that was a seminal moment: 1987 Romanee-Conti burgundy.

"I'll never forget that moment," he recalls.

He enrolled in the University of California at Davis and after graduation in 2005 he started as a vineyard intern at Trefethen Family Wines in Napa. He got his big break, though, when he joined the winemaking team at Langtry Estate in 2006. And he hasn't left  his post as winemaker of both Langtry and Guenoc.

Guenoc is one of the oldest wineries in California. Established by English actress Lillie Langtry in 1888, it is a sprawling 500-acre site in Lake County. Part of the property extends into Napa County and it is the only winery in the Guenoc Valley appellation (the country's third oldest appellation). Most of the vineyards are planted in the valley where temperatures soar above 90 during the day but drop to the mid 50s at night. Some wines are being made from grapes grown on the hillside in soil that has 8 feet of volcanic ash.

Guenoc seemed to stumble along for years, making decent wine but nothing like it did in its heyday.  The brand was more popular in grocery stores -- especially Safeway where its sauvignon blanc was a top seller for years.

 In 1999, long-time Guenoc owner Orville Magoon indicated a desire to sell some of the property and then became involved in a contract dispute when he cancelled orders for grapes from 15 local growers.  Gallo and St. Michelle Estates were rumored to be among the suitors, but eventually Magoon would sell to Foley Estates in 2012. By then, Magoon had long retired.

Guenoc wasn't the first historic brand to suffer through a dumb stage. Stine arrived about the time Magoon was leaving, and kept his post when Foley Estates brought in capital to polish Guenoc's image.

We tasted through several wines from Guenoc and its upper tier wines from Langtry during a recent visit with Stine. These are wines that, although not competitive in a high-premium market, offer good values for the money. Stine says his goal is to create textured wines.

Although we did not taste them, a low-price version selling for around $10 is made under the distinctive "G" label. Guenoc is trying to stay competitive by offering wines that surpass their price is quality.

Here is a sampling of the wines:

Guenoc Lake County Sauvignon Blanc 2013 ($16). Simple but aromatic. Grapefruit and pineapple flavors with no trace of the grassiness that some consumers find offensive.  We preferred the 2012  Langtry Estate Lillie's Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc ($25) for its sur lee treatment that provides a softer texture and exotic guava and peach notes. Good acidity makes it a great food match.

Guenoc Lake County Chardonnay 2012 ($12). The Guenoc version is more restrained than the 2010 Langtry Estate Genevieve Vineyard Chardonnay ($25) and for that reason we liked it better. But if you like oak on your full-blown chardonnary, Langtry is a homerun. Both sport those varietal tropical fruit flavors.

Guenoc Lake County Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 ($15). This is a great value for those of you who like a fruit-forward cabernet without those mouth-puckering tannins. Black berry and black pepper notes.

Langtry Estate Tephra Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 ($40). This is a very serious, well-integrated wine but again without the harsh tannins that require years of age before it can be enjoyed. Fruit-forward in style, it reveals concentrated black cherry and licorice notes.

Langtry Estate Serpentine Meadow Petite Sirah 2008 ($40). The bottle age of this wine has removed most of the harsh tannins that you find in a young, teeth-coating petite sirah. You can enjoy the generous blueberry and vanilla flavors of petite sirah with this bottle. Stine adds a little chardonnay to the blend to tame the tannins. Although not as layered or dense, the 2012 Guenoc Lake County Petite Sirah ($15) has simple, quaffable qualities with the same soft texture. 

ORANGE WINES....REALLY?

I help a neighborhood group with a monthly wine tasting and it's always fun to find new and different wines for what has become to me a cozy lab. Here, among occasional wine drinkers, I can watch what wines have broad appeal and which get the silent treatment. At the end of the night, the answer is in the bottles -- i.e. what's left in the them.

The last adventure included more challenging wines -- a fizzy white vinho verde from Portugal and an orange wine from the Republic of Georgia. I was most curious to see the crowd reaction to the Georgian Vinoterra made with rkasateli grapes.

It wasn't good. I ended up taking a second bottle home.

Orange wine -- named for its orangey color -- is a result of maceration, or skin contact that is more common to red wine. Usually, winemakers remove the skins after the crush to keep the color pure. The gold color usually comes from barrel contact and aging.

In the Republic of Georgia, however, it is all about tradition. These orange wines have been made in qvervis -- an ancient clay vessel buried in the sand -- for 5,000 years. To its winemakers, extended maceration of white grapes is not a novelty.

I have tasted a lot of Georgian wines and find them fascinating for their unique style. However different they are to me, they are too off-the-wall for most consumers. There is no reference point.

Many observers believe orange wines are a trend and I agree. Abe Schoener of The  Scholium Project has been making orange wine for some time now. His cult following embraces these wines with cult-like enthusiasm, but others find them over the top.

It is hard to describe the flavors of an orange wine. It is best described in terms of emotions. I find the wines to be savory -- a taste recently label umani -- but also funky and cerebral.  You think when you taste them.

...and some people just think they are bad wines -- like those that have been left opened in the refrigerator too long.

-- Tom Marquardt

KILLER WINES FROM MICHEL CHAPOUTIER

MICHEL CHAPOUTIER OF TAIN HERMITAGE

MICHEL CHAPOUTIER OF TAIN HERMITAGE

I met Michel Chapoutier in Washington, D.C. when the fireplug was just shy of 30 years old. It is was hard to take someone so young seriously when he said he would revolutionize an industry so rooted in tradition.  But it wasn't hard to get caught up in his enthusiasm for biodynamic and organic farming -- at that point heresy to other Rhone producers who found Chapoutier brash and disrespectful of his father.

His grandfather urged him to return to his family's failing facility in the Tain l'Hermitage region of the Rhone. Michel didn't mess around in setting his own course -- he banned chemicals and fertilizers, hand-picked his grapes, stopped filtration and used natural yeasts. All that seemed like a gamble, but, boy, did it pay off. Today, Chapoutier's wines earn high scores and their prices have risen accordingly.

He was helped considerably by Tony Terlato, president of Terlato International Wines, who met Chapoutier when he was only 25. He provided the capital he needed to make the changes and this partnership continues today. Terlato imports the wines to the U.S. and he is a direct partner in an Autralian venture.

But the wines are no longer limited to southern France. In the last week, I have tasted Chapoutier wines made in Australia and Portugal. They have the same imprint that demonstrates care and attention in the vineyard, balance and freshness.

I was most impressed with the 2013 La Ciboise made in Luberon. A blend of grenchace blanc, vermentino, ugni blanc and roussane, it is a steal at $15.  It has a great balance of fruit and acidity and loads of peach notes. What a great summer quaffer.

The red version -- a blend of grenache and syrah --- was also very good.

For something different, try the 2012 Marius Blanc, a unique blend of teret and vermentino. At $12, it's a great summer deal.

Finally, for concentration, look for the Chapoutier Pinteivera ($45) made from touriga nacional grapes grown in the Douro Valley of Portugal.

ANOTHER LOOK AT PINOT GRIGIO

Don't look now, but that pinot grigio you like to drink is about to overtake sauvignon blanc in popularity. It may not be selling as fast as chardonnay and it may not be for you, but pinot grigio -- the wine critics love to hate -- is growing in sales as consumers sop up those juicy flavors.

The grape variety that probably got its start in Burgundy but today is most associated with northern Italy, pinot grigio is often dissed because, well, it's boring. However, you can't dispute its soft, delicious appeal.  As an aperitif, it begs for a second glass.

Pinot grigio and pinot gris are really the same grape -- both are descendants of pinot noir. You see more pinot gris in France and Oregon. But the pinot grigio that has captured American consumers comes from the Trentino-Alto Adige region of Italy. The love of everything Italian has fueled this trend.

Pinot grigio's ascent can be traced to the sudden success of Santa Margherita, introduced to this country by American Tony Terlato in 1979. An importer of wine, he searched all over Italy for the "next great white wine" and put his marketing efforts behind this crisp pinot grigio from Alto Adige. Since then the wine has skyrocketed in price and is no longer the bargain it once was -- but we don't dispute its popularity or appeal.

The Alto Adige is just one Italian appellation famous for its pinot grigio. The others Emilia-Romagna and Friuli.

In general, pinot grigio is light-bodied with high acidity and fruit flavors of lemon, lime, pear and apple. It is dry, although many consumers confuse fruitiness with sweet. It is an excellent wine to serve in the summer with foods ranging from seafood to chicken. It's bright acidity makes it an easy quaffer when consumed without food.

As we tasted through several pinot grigios, we were surprised at the complexity we found. The grape's negative image is perpetuated by the cheap dreck that dominates the grocery shelves today. Spend a little more money if you want a serious version of pinot grigio.

Tenute Lageder Porer Pinot Grigio DOC 2012 ($25). Lageder is trying to improve the quality of wines coming from the Alto Adige region.  This single-vineyard wine made from organically grown grapes has good concentration with assertive aromatics and softly textured fruit flavors with a crisp, minerally finish.

Alois Lageder Domiti Pinot Grigio 2012 ($15).  Floral aromas with apple, melon and stone fruit flavors and a dash of spice. One of the best we've tasted this year for the price.

Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio 2013 ($18). Bone dry, this pinot grigio is like biting into an apple -- crisp, juicy and delicious. Citrus notes round out an elegant wine.

Maso Canali Pinot Grigio 2012 ($23).  Winemaker Fabrizio Gatto blends into this wine a little pinot grigio made in the passito style -- from ripened, late-harvest grapes dried on racks. These raisin-like grapes give the wine a riper, very appealing style that is atypical of crisp pinot grigio. Lots of tropical fruit and peach flavors with a rich mouthfeel that comes from sur lees aging.

Marco Felluga Mongris Pinot Grigio 2012 ($18). Made from grapes grown in the Gradisca d’Isonzo province of Gorizia, this intriguing pinot grigio has aromas of acacia flowers and a luscious but firm palate of peaches and apples.

Ecco Domani Pinot Grigio de Venezie IGT 2013 ($14). The 13 percent chardonnay and the two months of sur lie aging give this pinot grigio a broad palate and contemporary personality. Lots of citrus aromas and tropical fruit flavors with round mouthfeel.

Riff Terra Alpina Pinot Grigio 2012 ($10). With its soft texture, this inexpensive pinot grigio is made from grapes grown on the slopes of the Alpine Dolomite foothills of Italy. It has apple and citrus flavors.

Piccini Pinot Grigio 2013 ($10). A very good value, this wine is delicious with honey dew aromas and crisp apple and stone-pit fruit. Piccini makes some great wines, but this great deal stands alone.

THE DIRT ON TERROIR

French grape growers have often bragged about the quality of their ancient soil and say it is the reason Bordeaux and Burgundy are so much better than wines made in the New World. However, a recent study from University of California at Davis says microbes on grape skins have a greater influence.

David Mills, a professor of viticulture and enology, didn't debunk the impact of soil on wine but said it needed to be studied more, according to a recent article in the Sacramento Bee.  He and a colleague instead examined the DNA of grape skins and found certain yeasts consistently present year after year.

The team analyzed 273 samples of zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay musts from Napa Valley, the Central Coast and Sonoma. The non-random patterns they found indicated there were unique characteristics in each of the regions. The impact of yeast on a wine's personality has been known for some time now.

The study, released last November, did not set well with the "terroirists," who swear by the soil's influence on wine. 

I've always sworn that the mineral character I taste in Chabilis and other wines must come from the soil where slate or other compounds were left as the earth formed.  But I've also tasted mint and olives in wine and swear it comes from the grape skins being exposed to those plants grown nearby. I've even tasted smoky red wines that were influenced by fires that swept through Napa and Sonoma valleys. What lands on the grapes logically have more meaning than what surrounds a root.

Just this week I had dinner with Eric Stine, winemaker at Guenoc and Langtry. He told me his vineyards are planted in 8 feet of ash from Mount St. Helena's ancient eruptions. Thankfully, his wine tastes nothing like ash.

-- Tom Marquardt

 

REVISITING CHARDONNAY

Although a lot of consumers pan chardonnays for reasons we don't always understand, the grape variety remains the king of white wines. It's been around a lot longer than most white grape varieties, it is grape used in expensive French burgundies and it's easy to pronounce and versatile with food. You can't say that about viognier or ugni blanc.

Some producers here and abroad even stake their reputation on their chardonnays, eschewing the trend to instead focus on mouth-puckering and expensive cabernet sauvignons. Some of this is driven by profit -- chardonnay sells well -- and some of it is driven by the producers' specialty and what grows well in their vineyards.

For instance, chardonnay is the only white grape grown in Chablis. It's here in this cool, northern Burgundy region where chardonnays have more acidity and less fruit flavors. They are more austere with little oak and a flintiness that makes them a much better companion to delicate foods, especially fish.

We recently tasted several Chablis from the venerable house of Joseph Drouhin. Three 2011 Drouhin-Vaudon Grand Crus demonstrated the quality and uniqueness this region can produce. They were exquisite. Tom also enjoyed a mature 2009 Drouhin-Vaudon Premier Cru Montmains that was an incredible match to fresh crab-stuffed rockfish.

Drouhin Chablis ages well.

Drouhin Chablis ages well.

Few producers outside of Burgundy focus exclusively on chardonnay. But California houses like Chateau St. Jean of Sonoma County make a series of amazing chardonnays. Out of the four we recently tasted, not one was a loser. Instead, each of the three vineyard-designated chardonnays reflected the pecularities of their vineyards: Robert Young, Belle Terre and Cold Creek. At $25 to $30, these wines are a good value.

See next column for a list of rececently tasted chardonnays.

-- Tom Marquardt

WINE WHETS YOUR APPETITE -- BUT TOO MUCH SO?

We always understood that wine can stimulate the appetite. Even care givers encourage wine among the elderly or those with cancer if they have lost their drive to eat.

Now comes a study that says wine may encourage over-eating. Will we ever catch a break?

According to the National Institute for Alcohol Abuse study, men ate 25% more food after consuming a half bottle of Calloway Crossing Cabernet Sauvignon/Shiraz. That's 433 calories -- equivalent to an extra McDonald's cheeseburger.

The control group was given a breakfast, then returned 3 hours later for a lunch of garlic bread and pizza. Some were given part of their ration of wine 20 minutes before lunch and the rest during lunch. Voila, the drinkers ate more pizza.

This just raises more questions for me:

-- What was on the pizza?

-- Would the results been different if the wine wasn't crap from Australia?

-- Who eats garlic bread with pizza? Did they really need more carbs?

-- Were the non-drinkers despondent because they didn't get wine and thus eat less?

-- Where do I sign up for this study?

                                                                            -- Tom Marquardt

CORK OR SCREW TOP?

Somewhere in your house may be a collection of used wine corks. Perhaps they're in a box, a grocery bag or one of those giant jars that has somehow become a decoration. Why do you save them? You haven't a clue.

I have no idea why we save tree bark. A cork has no value even if once it was in a bottle of 1961 Chateau Margaux. It's stinky, stained tree bark.  That's all.

Relax. I came up with an excuse for your obsession: today's cork could be tomorrow's antique. Baseball cards, lead pennies, typewriters, horseshoes  -- antiques.

Screw-top closures are slowly replacing real corks, although they still represent only 10 percent of the closures currently used. That number would be higher if producers would be a bit more fearless. They hold on to the belief that consumers aren't willing to let go of a tradition that no longer makes practical sense.

I've seen enough trivets and wall hangings made of used corks to be impressed. The only good use for a cork that I have found is on the hook of his fishing lures. At least there they protect me from injury.

Ever wonder where cork comes from? Check out the following site:

http://www.wineanorak.com/corks/howcorkismade.htm

WINE NOT HEALTHY FOR THE HEART?

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore have debunked the theory that resveratrol found in wine and chocolate are good for the health. Here we go again.

Researchers studied 800 Italian men and women who were 65 yeas or older. They had participated in the Aging in the Chianti Region study from 1998 to 2009.

Their resveratrol was measured in their urine.

Of the group, 268 (34%) died; 174 developed heart disease and 34 got cancer.

When researchers examined the participants' resveratrol levels, they found no difference between those who died and those who lived.

This study follows countless studies that confirmed the findings first reported by "60 Minutes."  So who do you believe?

More importantly, does it matter? I don't drink wine daily because I think it's healthy for me. I just like it -- same with my fruit and vegetables. 

Plus, these people were drinking Chianti, for heaven's sake. Did the researchers take that into account?

-- TM

OLD WINES, DUMB STAGES AND CHANGED OPINIONS

Over the weekend, I reviewed my inventory of wines and uncovered a mixed case of reds that were at or near maturity. Yikes, I had my work cut out for me.

I popped two corks: a 2006 Ken Wright Guadalupe Vineyard Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley and a 2001 Pesquera from Spain. I had given up on the Ken Wright when I last tasted it a year ago, but this time is was totally different. The sour, acidic one I tasted twice before had morphed into a voluptuous, dense pinot noir with huge raspberry and kirsch flavors. Was it bottle variation? Were the other two in a dumb stage when I tasted them? Or was it me?

The tasting notes from others on Cellar Tracker verified my initial reviews, so it wasn't just me. But few were extolling the wine currently.  All of this reminded me that a wine can change dramatically over time and that one bottle's poor showing doesn't mean the same for the next bottle tasted years later. Never give up on wine.

The Pesquera, by the way, showed exceptionally well. But it always did.

This is what I like about this hobby -- it's a box of chocolates and you just never know what you'll get.

-- Tom Marquardt

CALIFORNIA SOARS

The California wine market has much to brag about this year.  Sales are up, more vineyards have been planted, more wines are being exported and profits are increasing.

According to figures from the Wine Institute, wine sales have increased 3 percent by volume last year. And it wasn't just cheap wine the drove more sales. The premium market -- wines that are priced at $10 and above -- rose 9 percent in volume. This is an important number because the more expensive wines account for nearly half of winery revenues, according to the Winery Institute.

Chardonnay remains the most popular wine with a 20-percent share of the market. The others are cabernet sauvignon (13 percent), merlot (9 percent), red blends/sweet reds (9 percent), pinot grigio (9 percent), moscato (6 percent), white zinfandel (5 percent), pinot noir (4 percent) and sauvignon banc (4 percent). 

It blows are mind that there is more white zinfandel than pinot noir sold, but we suspect the higher cost of pinot noir and its lower supplies are to blame.

LOW ALCOHOL WINE

Francis Ford Coppola has released a light wine -- with the help of his granddaughter who designed the bottle and whose name graces the label.

"Gia by Gia Coppola" has only 11.5 percent alcohol, down significantly from wines whose alcohol content can range from 12.5 to 15 percent.  Less alcohol means fewer calories too.

The goal is to allow people to drink more without getting drunk. Of course, if you drink the whole bottle, the difference is moot.

That would be my fear. Young people will assume low alcohol is no alcohol and underestimate the effects of Gia. 

It comes in a chardonnay, pinot grigio and pinot noir. The wine wines have some frizzante too. All are priced at $14.

PIZZA FRIDAYS

This Friday you are more likely to order pizza than on any other day. Some people even call the day "Pizza Friday." It is the food of choice for children's gatherings. It is the fun food that seems to kick off a weekend.  It's the food to give the babysitter and the kids while parents party.

Perhaps it's because two working people don't have any energy left to cook and simply want to push back with food that can be easily consumed in front of the television.

We, too, like our pizzas on Friday. Although beer was the beverage of choice when we were in college, wine is now the alcohol we drink with pizza.

It's not that we remember what wines we serve with pizza. By the nature of the food, pizza wine should be simple, fruity, carefree and cheap.   Bordeaux and champagne, for instance, would be lost.  But wines like zinfandel, syrah, tempranillo, chianti and even rose make the most sense to us.  Whether the pizza is loaded with meat and vegetables or just served with cheese, the wine should be fruity.

Here are 10 of our go-to pizza wines:

Apothic Red Wine ($9). This slightly sweet blend of zinfandel, syrah and cabernet sauvignon has become a real hit across the country. The price is right, there is a lot of black cherry fruit and it's a pure pleasure to drink.

Marietta  Old Vine ($15). This zinfandel-based red blend doesn't come with a vintage date but a lot number. We first tasted this perennial favorite when it was Lot 10. Now, it's up to Lot 60. With the melange of grapes used in this blend, it is beyond description. But the zinfandel character dominates the flavor profile and it is always delicious.

Bodegas Breca Garnacha De Fuego Calatayud 2012 ($10). The garnacha grapes are from 60- to 80-year-old vines grown dry farmed in an area that gets less than a foot of rain a year. Lush berry, cherry nose and flavors with a classic note of black pepper mark this approachable and pleasing wine. A steal at $10, this is a wine  you can buy by the case.

Don Miguel Gascon Colosal Red Blend ($15). There is 16 percent bonarda, 13 percent syrah and 10 percent cabernet sauvignon in this delicious blend. Intense dark fruit with a dash of chocolate.

Jean Luc  Columbo Cape Belle Rosé 2012 ($12).  From Provence, this inexpensive rosé is made from syrah, mourvedre and counoise grapes and exhibits a fresh berry fruit character and long finish. Simple but delightful.

Alvarez de Toledo Mencia Roble 2009 ($13). Wow. We probably don't need to say any more, but we will anyway. This Spanish wine is made from the mencia grape and shows off abundant black berry flavors and what one wine critic described as balsamic. It's more like heavily reduced balsamic -- very intense and floral. It has a little age and thus more ripeness and maturity. Good match to lamb, wild game and pork.

Banfi Chianti Classico Riserva 2009 ($15). This value-priced chianti from Banfi aims to please every year. It has a velvet texture with dark berry flavors and a hint of licorice.

d'Arenberg Stump Jump Red ($12).  A blend of shiraz, grenache and mourvedre, this Australian winner is packed with plum and blackberry flavors with beautiful spice to offset the pepperoni.

Garnet Monterey County Pinot Noir 2012 ($15). We've always liked this simple and affordable pinot noir from the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA.  Good fruit extraction, silky texture and ripe cherry and blackberry flavors.

Piccini Pinot Grigio 2013 ($10). A very good value, this wine is delicious with honey dew aromas and crisp apple and stone-pit fruit. Piccini makes some great wines, but this great deal stands alone.

NEW WINES FROM CHILE

We recently met up with Alfonso Undurraga Marimon whose name is  iconic in the Chilean wine industry. Undurraga's wines were commonly seen in this market for years, but the family got an offer it couldn't refuse and sold the brand and vineyards in 2006. Since then, Alfonso's father, Alfonso Undurraga Mackenna, launched a new biodynamic winery in the Los Lingues zone of Alto Colchagua in the foothills of the Andes Mountains.

Koyle, named after a native plant in the region, is just beginning to make its way into the local market.

This time around, the family will concentrate on hand-crafted red wines made in small quantities.

Alfonso's Undurraga Marimon's responsibility is getting the wines distributed while his brother, Cristobal, makes the wine. From the looks of it, Cristobal is not shy about experimenting with different blends. He likes malbec because of his experience making wine in neighboring Argentina, but he isn't reluctant to throw some tempranillo with syrah and carmenere. The results are intriguing and will interest those of you who aren't as tradition-bound as the French.

Koyle makes wine in three tiers with the Royale being their reserve class. and two other incredible wines in the upper reserve label, called Auma and LTU. The Auma ($99) is a phenomenal blend of malbec, cabernet sauvignon, carmenere, syrah and petit verdot. The 2008 LTU ($65) is made entirely of malbec grapes and would give any Argentine malbec a run for its money.  It is dense, concentrated, full-blown and delicious.

Here are the Koyle wines we liked:

Koyle Reserva Malbec 2011 ($17). The mineral notes in most of theKoyle wines comes from the unique soil in the Los Lingues region. It is evident in this tasty, full-bodied malbec. Lots of blueberry and plum notes with the classic velvet finish. It is blended with 7 percent syrah and 3 percent carmenere.

Koyle Reserva Syrah 2011 ($17). The style of this wine is closer to what you would fine in the Rhone Valley rather than Australia. Serious but not overripe with generous aromas, blackberry and expresso flavors.

Koyle Royale Carmenere 2011 ($26). Carmenere is always a hard sell because of its unfamilarity and the belief that it makes a better  blending grape. However, this wine, blended with a bit of petit verdot and malbec, is a splendid example of the capability of the grape variety. Good body, complex with graphite and dark berry flavors.

POWDERED ALCOHOL....REALLY?

As if we don't have enough gimmicks on the wine market, now comes two "developments" to provide something new to plague drinkers.

First is Palcohol, or freeze-dried drinks in a bag  that will soon hit the market. The packets will come in cocktail favorites, like cosmopolitan and margerita.  Just add water. Just shoot me.\

Experts fear it will be abused. They think kids will sneak it into stadiums, their cars and forget there is alcohol here. I'd like to abuse it by slipping it into some politician's coffee.

The second gimmick is wine in a can. Like paint can. A Lithuanian ad agency came up with the idea for Beaujolais nouveau.  I hope they use new cans. Maybe Lithuanians will paint their walls with Beaujolais.


BORDEAUX'S 2013 VINTAGE

From all reports, the 2013 vintage in Bordeaux has produced some incredibly tart and green wines. The weather has not been hospitable to the vineyards.

Will that affect prices? Perhaps. But many collectors have decided to stay on the sidelines when it comes to en preneur -- or ordering futures based on reputation rather than taste.  These wines won't hit the market for a couple of years and it seems foolish to guess which wines will overcome such hardship.  

I stopped buying futures years ago. It worked when the vintages are dependable and the prices favorable. Nowadays, the price two years before release is not necessarily better. But I am more bothered by the refusal of the French to lower prices in terrible vintages. They believe, as they often do, that consumers will scarf up their wines no matter how bad they are. 

Neal Martin of the Wine Advocate put it so well in a recent essay on the 2013 vintage. Here is an excerpt that he said so well:

The only morsel of common sense was uttered in Saint Emilion, when a notable winemaker suggested that to have any chance of stoking demand, primeur prices should be set at 2004 levels. I almost fell off my chair in disbelief but I soon realised that it was our shared fantasy. The remainder of my 2 weeks in Bordeaux, the same old arguments were trotted out, arguments long past their sell by date. What is astonishing and dispiriting is the acute solipsism that has become so entrenched in Bordeaux, to wit their misguided and self-injurious belief that all responsibility ends once the beleaguered négociants smile and accept their allocation through gritted teeth. I guess that if you lead an idyllic life unimaginable to most then it becomes the norm. The more salubrious black tie dinners you attend and the more fawning admirers that surround you; the more acquiescent the négoce; the more you feel confident that you can get away with; the less grip you have on reality...

Amen.

-- Tom Marquardt


WHAT YOUR WINE SAYS ABOUT YOU....

We've been told that you can tell a man by the clothes he wears. Well, most of the time it was told to us by someone trying to sell us an expensive suit. But you can tell a person by how he dresses, what car he drives, what book he reads and what hobbies he follows. So why not define his -- or her -- personality by the wine he drinks?

We can't help but size up newly introduced friends by the wines they prefer. Sure, it's stereotyping people, but it's still a great parlor game. Don't you wonder about people who refuse to drink anything but chardonnay or who chide others for liking zinfandel? C'mon, we know you form an impression.

So, here's a tongue-in-cheek profile of  personalities and their wines:

PINOT NOIR: Interested in the finer things in life; discriminating. Very sympathetic and forgiving. Not willing to accept flaws; demanding of others.  Genetics uncertain, but wishes to be cloned. Well educated and refined. Full of it.

CABERNET SAUVIGNON: Overly confident and immodest. Mature and seasoned. Most likely a CEO or owner of the company. Name drops at parties and is insecure. Tends to confine friends to one circle and chooses them based on similar preferences. Likes politics but vulnerable to graft.

ZINFANDEL: Bold and assertive. Dominates conversations and tends to be loud at parties. Likes alcohol and is often called fruity.

CHARDONNAY: Dresses conservatively and is afraid to experiment. Can be wooden at parties.  Well liked by others. Friendly to strangers; beguiling and unintimidating. Likes fish.

VIOGNIER: Shy and reclusive but deceiving. Uses too much perfume or cologne. Lacks depth. Misunderstood.

BAROLO: Very muscular; likes to exercise. Precocious and often immature. Broods a lot.

CHAMPAGNE: Effervescent personality covers up personality flaws. Very outgoing and has an infectious laugh. Always in search of something to celebrate, but has no breadth of character. Confused. Common name: Bubbles.

SAUVIGNON BLANC: Can be unintentionally blunt and acerbic. Often considered second choice in dating opportunities. Likes to mow the grass.

MERLOT: Often seen as losers, but does best when blending into a crowd. Likes marriage. Tries hard to be liked, but can't reverse a terrible reputation.  Spoiled. 

PORT: Often overweight and prefers to be alone in front of a fire instead of at a loud party. Easier to handle in small quantities rather than spending an evening together. Accident prone. Likes raisins. 

GEYSER PEAK LOOKS FOR COMEBACK -- AGAIN    

Geyser Peak has a trio of new wines that hopefully will kick start what is an old and tired brand in California.   The wines appear to focus more on blending under the new ownership of Accolade Wines, which was once a part of Constellation Brands. Accolade has invested heavily in restoring this iconic name. 

Geyser Peak's Tectonic blend

Geyser Peak's Tectonic blend

Many years ago I called Geyser Peak the "comeback kid."  Although it briefly rose in stature, it sunk again due to neglect. Such a pity to see such historic wineries decline like this. Hopefully, Accolade will make it whole again.

The 2011 Tectonic ($28) is a delicious red blend of cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot and about 16 percent of other grape varieties grown in the Alexander Valley. While it lacks focus with that melange, it meets the pleasure quotient. Bright plum flavors with brown spice and round texture.

Geyser Peak's Pluto's Fury Pinot Noir ($28) is named after one of the historic geysers around the winery. With grapes from the Russian River Valley, the wine sports a raspberry aromas and cherry, toasty flavors with good acidity and a medium body.

The final hit in the trio is the Devil's Inkstand blend ($28) from Alexander Valley that is fruit forward with sweet raspeberry compote flavors with a dash of mocha. The blend is made up  of cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot, petite sirah and malbec.

-- Tom Marquardt

WHAT WINE SUITS YOUR PERSONALITY?

We've been told that you can tell a man by the clothes he wears. Well, most of the time it was told to us by someone trying to sell us an expensive suit. But you can tell a person by how he dresses, what car he drives, what book he reads and what hobbies he follows. So why not define his -- or her -- personality by the wine he drinks?

I can't help but size up newly introduced friends by the wines they prefer. Sure, it's stereotyping people, but it's still a great parlor game. Don't you wonder about people who refuse to drink anything but chardonnay or who chide others for liking zinfandel? C'mon, we know you form an impression.

So, here's a tongue-in-cheek profile of  personalities and their wines:

PINOT NOIR.  Interested in the finer things in life; discriminating. Very sympathetic and forgiving. Not willing to accept flaws; demanding of others.  Genetics uncertain, but wishes to be cloned. Well educated and refined. Full of it.

CABERNET SAUVIGNON. Overly confident and immodest. Mature and seasoned. Most likely a CEO or owner of the company. Name drops at parties and is insecure. Tends to confine friends to one circle and chooses them based on similar preferences. Likes politics but vulnerable to graft.

ZINFANDEL: Bold and assertive. Dominates conversations and tends to be loud at parties. Likes alcohol and is often called fruity.

CHARDONNAY: Dresses conservatively and is afraid to experiment. Can be wooden at parties.  Well liked by others. Friendly to strangers; beguiling and unintimidating. Likes fish.

VIOGNIER. Shy and reclusive but deceiving. Uses too much perfume or cologne. Lacks depth. Misunderstood.

BAROLO: Very muscular; likes to exercise. Precocious and often immature. Broods a lot.

CHAMPAGNE: Effervescent personality covers up personality flaws. Very outgoing and has an infectious laugh. Always in search of something to celebrate, but has no breadth of character. Confused. Common name: Bubbles.

SAUVIGNON BLANC: Can be unintentionally blunt and acerbic. Often considered second choice in dating opportunities. Likes to mow the grass.

MERLOT. Often seen as losers, but does best when blending into a crowd. Likes marriage. Tries hard to be liked, but can't reverse a terrible reputation.  Spoiled. 

PORT. Often overweight and prefers to be alone in front of a fire instead of at a loud party. Easier to handle in small quantities rather than spending an evening together. Accident prone. Likes raisins.

-- Tom Marquardt

MERCHANT SUED BY UNHAPPY CUSTOMER

Apparently in Manhattan that there are too many lawyers and not enough ridiculous lawsuits.

Philip Seldon, like many people, followed the emailed advice of a merchant who touted a 2009 Rioja -- highly rated by Robert Parker -- and purchased six bottles at $12.99 apiece. He didn't like the wine and asked the merchant for a refund for the unopened bottles. The merchant refused and the man sued, saying "I've got nothing better to do with my life," according to the New York Law Journal.

He argued to the judge that the wine was not as advertised. Of course, the judge threw out the claim, saying Seldon had not shown any evidence of fraud.

He plans to appeal. Really, Mr. Seldon?

First, I'm surprised the store didn't refund the money for the unopened bottles. I know many local merchants who would. But, second, this is a silly amount of money for Mr. Seldon to try to recover. I'm sure he's just upset by the store's refusal, but did he really think he could win?

-- Tom Marquardt

WHAT IS THE CHAPTAL OF FRANCE? WINE....

Bordeaux winemakers must be relieved that the European Union did not ban chaptalization -- adding sugar to wine to raise alcohol levels -- in 2008. 

No winemaker likes to intervene in the natural process of turning grape must into wine, but in France it is sometimes necessary to preserve the reputation of the wine. Such is the case with Bordeau's difficult 2013 vintage.

Because the grapes were picked early due to threats of rain, sugar levels were down. Less sugar, less alcohol. When it appeared alcohol levels would hover around 12 percent, several producers exercised their option to add sugar to bring up the alcohol to 12.5 or 13 percent. In 2013, the winemakers legally were allowed to chaptalize their wines as much as 1.5%, although top producers report only modest increases of less than a percent.

For many chateaux, it was the first in a long time that they have had to chaptalize their wines. It is more common in Burgundy.

Alcohol gives wine body and with lesser amounts the wine lacks texture and concentration.  While that may not be an issue for producers in Idaho, it's a catastrophe in Bordeaux where expectations are much higher.

So what does this mean to the quality of the wine? Most consumers will not be able to tell the alcohol was artificially induced when all we're talking about is a marginal increase. However, the common knowledge that these wines come from a tough year and are somehow manipulated may be enough to keep buyers on the sidelines.

Major chateaux are undeterred and will keep pricing many Bordeaux consumers out of the market. Pichon Baron, for instance, has raised its prices 28% since 2008 and doesn't appear to be wavering course even in 2013.

I gave up buying Bordeaux futures several years ago. I'd rather taste the wine in a difficult vintage than assuming the producer will not let me down. Cavaet emptor, as they say.....

-- Tom Marquardt

NO MORE AMERICAN FETA OR BRATS?

Now here is something to get your dander up: The European Union is negotiating a free trade deal with the U.S. that would include bans on the use of names like feta and bratwurst on American-made products.

You've got to be kidding me.

Other product names at risk are parmesan, Roquefort, Parma (ham) and Oktoberfest (beer). Several U.S. senators are fighting the request on behalf of their constituents and I assume this issue will die a peaceful death.

However, it is not the first time Europeans have tried to protect their local products. If you recall, Champagne won a hard-fought war to get sparkling wine makers to voluntarily remove "champagne" from their labels. They also have managed to protect cognac as a name for brandy made in that region of France. So, couldn't Greece make the same claim on feta? Or Germans on Oktoberfest beer?

The European Commission website says: "The protection of geographical indications matters economically and culturally. They can create value for local communities through products that are deeply rooted in tradition, culture and geography. They support rural development and promote new job opportunities in production, processing and other related services.

Mark Schleitwiler, vice president of Wisconsin-based BelGioioso Cheese told USA Today that just changing packaging alone would be a "staggering expense." The industry would then have to choose different names, and re-educate customers.

My home state of Maryland lays claim to "Maryland crab cakes" made from crab caught in the Chesapeake Bay. Yet I see the dish on crab cakes made from crab caught off the Philippines and sold outside of Maryland. Many restaurants appropriately call it "Maryland-style crab cakes" and that's what would have to happen with feta, bratwurst, etc.

It's all very silly, isn't it?

-- Tom Marquardt

THAT OBSCURE WINE AGAIN...

I am often asked my opinion about a wine of which I've never heard or seen. There are so many wines on the market that is impossible to know them all. However, I'm intrigued about the California wines that were introduced to someone via a club or a visit to the producer.

I too have discovered wines during my visits to the West Coast and I am disappointed when I cannot find them in the local market. That frustration for me -- and I'm sure many of you -- is the result of two realities:

1. The producer does not make a lot of wine. He has to pay a distributor money to sell his wine in other states and may feel he can instead save the money by selling his product in his tasting room or through his club.

2. The distributor doesn't want to deal with a small producer who doesn't have enough product to make the relationship profitable. A distributor wants to make money and an obscure producer isn't worth the bother.

So, this leaves the consumer feeling abandoned.

For the first time, I have subscribed to a wine club in order to get hard-to-find wines. St. Innocent in the Willamette Valley of Oregon makes very nice pinot noir, little of which reaches the local market. I tasted these wines at the producer's facility last year, so club membership assures me of a few bottles a year. I also have priority in ordering more.

Unfortunately, wine clubs can become very expensive. I wanted to participate in a few more Oregon wine clubs, but I just couldn't afford it.

There are several monthly wine clubs that give access to small producers. But oftentimes I've tasted wines from them that just aren't worth their price. They work for producers who don't want to work with a distributor -- but not always do they work for the consumer aw well.

If your state allows out-of-state shipments of alcohol, clubs are a fun but dicey way to access obscure wines. 

These clubs often let you tailor the choices according to your palates - Forbes even gives you some sample bottles to help you define what you like. Other clubs let you choose by grape variety, price or region.

If you are interested, I recommend you check Jessyca Frederick's WineClubReviews (http://wineclubreviews.net/)  web site.  It's an excellent start for those of you interested in joining a wine club that suits your palate.

-- Tom Marquardt

A SURPRISE FROM ALSACE

My wife and I were enjoying our last night in Naples, FL, and decided to end our two-month fantasy at Bleu Provence. The French restaurant has an extraordinary wine list -- the best in the city. 

Both of us wanted fish, so I narrowed the search to white wines and came across an extensive collection of delights from Alsace. More particularly, there were three pinot gris from the excellent producer Zind Humbrecht.

I saw a 10-year old Zind Humbrecht from its prized Clos Windsbuhl vineyard. It was $88 -- steep for us but I knew the current vintage of this wine sold for more than $55 retail. But how was the 2004 vintage? I summoned the somelier who simply said, "I don't know either."

Really? How could a wine steward not know his wine list well enough to tell me more about this wine? i was stunned but he at least said I could send it back for any reason, if i didn't like it.

I liked it. Aged Alsace pinot gris is hard to find on a wine list because not everyone would enjoy it. The Zind Humbrecht was showing very well and reminded me of the flavors of a vendage tardive -- an exquisite sweet dessert wine that costs hundreds of dollars. The pinot gris, however, didn't have the sweetness or concentration of a vendage tardive.

-- Tom Marquardt

THE ELUSIVE 'GREAT' WINE

What is a great wine? Good question, right? But it isn’t one with a simple answer or an answer any more simple than defining truth.

Great wine to us may not be a great wine to you. So when a critic slaps a “great” on a wine that cost $150, you could easily shell out the money and slap us with a “nuts.”   Like art, greatness is in the eyes of the beholder.

We think about this word as a local group assembles a dinner of 80 people who are challenged to bring a great wine to share. We suspect many of them – wealthy collectors and snobs – will bring aged Bordeaux from their cellars. Likely suspects include Lafite-Rothschild, Petrus, Romanee-Conti, Grange – some snobs won’t want to be embarrassed or shown up. Others at the table may not appreciate an aged wine.

Such competition can be intimidating, so the organizers have implored guests to bring wines with “pedigree, distinction and character of place,” but not necessarily expensive. OK, that helps – but the challenge is no easier or even clearer with those guidelines.  But, if you give this some thought and seek advice if necessary, there are many wines that fit the definition and don’t cost a bundle of money. Be brave.

Such choices could include a Cornas from the Rhone Valley, a hard-to-get Oregon pinot noir, a cru Beaujolais that will give doubters a new impression of this region, a chinian from the Languedoc, a grower champagne, a Canadian ice wine, a rose from Tavel.

You get the point. The wine doesn’t have to be expensive to be great. The story behind the wine will get your guests something new to think about.  If you want to give a host a great wine or serve a great wine for a dinner party, think of the story you want to tell.

As for my choices for a great wine? Romanee Conti, Lafite Rothschild, Krug champagne, Gaja Sori Tilden Barbaresco, Colgin cabernet sauvignon, Beaux Freres pinot noir come to mind.  But I'm still thinking....

-- Tom Marquardt

NEW PHONE APP

A new phone app based on restaurant wine lists in New York could set off a wave of new ones.

Tipsi, which launched this week, inventories wines sold in more than 1,000 Manhattan restaurants and wine stores. It allows a diner to not only find a wine but pair a wine with his entree selection. Pretty cool.

If you are in a quandary about the proper wine to complement your pasta bolognese, pull up Tipsi and it will make a recommendation based on that restaurant's wine list.

Of course, the app fails if the restaurant doesn't update its offerings.

Hopefully, we'll see this app spread to other markets.

-- Tom Marquardt

WINE WORTH STEALING

When does wine become so expensive that it's worth stealing? A 59-year-old Miami man decided that Far Niente's Cabernet Sauvignon at $135 was more than he could afford, so he slipped two bottles of it into his waistband and walked off from a Naples store.

According to the Naples Daily News, Roberto Lalas-Deleon was arrested after being caught by an employee. He offered to return other stolen bottles if the employee didn't tell police. But the employee called police even after the man showed him his cache of wine in the trunk of his car.

In the trunk were 15 bottles worth $1,182.  That's an average of about $78 a bottle.  Maybe he gets probation, the incident will be worth the effort -- BUT HE DIDN'T DRINK THE WINE.

The alleged thief has a taste for good wine. Don't do the crime or  the wine if you ain't got the time....

--Tom Marquardt

VIVINO WINE APP

Although I have been accused of being a “Luddite” albeit for good reason, I at least acknowledge the value of email and especially Google as valuable additions to modern life. So it’s a bit of a leap to recommend an “App” to our readers, but I felt compelled after learning about this new aid for wine shoppers.

The app is called Vivino and allows user to take a picture of a wine label with their smart phone and instantly get information about the wine including the winery, tasting notes, local retailers that carry the wine, an area for your comments and the ability to connect with social media to share the information and your opinion with your friends.  For obscure wines not in the database Vivino will have a real live human being check out your selection and get back to you in a day or two.

Sounds like a good idea to us and empowers the consumer to make informed wine purchases. What’s not to like? 

-- Pat Darr

 

RETAILERS TELL US  WHAT BUGS THEM

A recent survey of retailers is a great study of consumer behavior. Conducted in October by the Beverage Media Group, the survey unveils the pet peeves of retailers who have to deal with ornery customers. It is hilarious and probably identifies each of us more than we are willing to admit.

Here are some of our favorites:

1. The Rhetorical Browser who asks the staff, "Is this wine any good?" What's a retailer going to say? That we made a mistake when we ordered this wine?

2. The Impossible Dreamer who wants a wine to go with steak and chocolate cake.

3. The Rambler who wants to talk and talk about a wine he had but can't remember.

4. The Haystack Needle Hunter who knows exactly what he wants, "a cabernet franc that has fruit like a zinfandel" but who won't just buy the zinfandel.                                                   

We are sympathetic to Rhetorical Browser. I was at a very fine restaurant in Michigan recently and was intrigued by a wine but didn't recognize the producer. So, I asked the sommelier if the wine was any good. Her response: "Do you think we would put it on the list if it wasn't any good?"

She thought she was funny; I  thought she was demeaning. Maybe it was a stupid question, but I was just trying to start a conversation. I probably should have asked her to just describe the wine, but then I probably would have heard, "Do I look like the producer to you?"

-- Tom Marquardt

WATER TO WINE A BIBLICAL FEAT?

The internet is alive with a buzz about a gadget that turns water into wine -- in your home and at a cost of  $2 a bottle.

Miracle Machine is the invention of Kevin Boyer and Philip James, owner of an online wine club. Owners can choose one of six grape varieties and get a shipment of  concentrated grape juice and yeast. Using a phone app, the amateur  winemakers can adjust sensors in the space-age container to tailor a wine to their liking.  

Miracle Machine costs $500.

The creators claim that the gadget's wine will rival anything on the planet, but I seriously doubt that. There's no oak aging, for instance, or any ability to change the yeast.  I seem to remember a bread machine whose makers claimed the product would rival anything out of a French bakery. It didn't. Perhaps Miracle Machine will end up in the same scrap pile as bread machines and Chopamaticks.

Regardless of its fate, Miracle Machine is an intriguing device suitable for those who just love gadgets.

Now, if they an only invent a gadget  that parts the seas....

-- Tom Marquardt

The Miracle Machine -- or is it/  

The Miracle Machine -- or is it/

 

 

WHY IS WINE ALWAYS TO BLAME? 

As if wine isn't credited with enough of society's decay, now we learn it's the probable cause of a lower sperm count in French men. I am not making this up.

A 2012 study showed that men's sperm count dropped by a third between 1989 and 2002. The problem is particularly evident in men living in the wine growing regions of Aquitaine and Midi-Pyrenees, which includes Bordeaux. Sacre bleu!

Researchers suspect the pesticides used in the vineyards are the culprit.  I'm not sure if this revelation will lead to less pesticides -- or fewer French bebes.

-- Tom Marquardt

TOO MUCH ALCOHOL IN WINE? 

It has been well accepted in wine circles that the alcoholic content of wine has increased dramatically in recent years. While most wines once hovered around 13%, today most of them range between 14 and 17%. 

Alcohol gives wine more body and texture. Producers have been able to achieve higher alcohol levels by allowing the grapes to riper longer on the vine.  Hotter growing regions can allow producers to wait until October to pick the sugar-intense grapes. Zinfandel, in particular, can achieve levels of 17% and more. 

Critics have blamed wine critic Robert Parker Jr., but that's just nuts. Parker gives high scores to fruity, high-alcohol wines and it has been said that winemakers have adjusted the style of their wines to appeal to his palate. High scores from Parker's Wine Advocate's mean more profits for producers.

All true, but I have a hard time blaming Parker for this. He's not making the wine; he's not drinking it either. We are. And if we like it, we reward the decisions of the producers by buying more of it.

The dilemma of making high-alcohol wines that can make a couple legally drunk when they share a bottle and making a wine taste good is being addressed by the scientific community.

A team of scientists from Spain and Australia have identified a wild yeast that creates a wine with less alcohol and retain the riper qualities that consumers seem to enjoy. Experiments with chardonnay and shiraz have produced similar qualities and less alcohol.  More studies need to be done, but this is promising.

More than 100 yeasts have been identified, but until now they have all produced roughly the same amount of alcohol.

For more on this subject, see this article in Scientific American:

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/wine-becomes-more-like-whisky-as-alcohol-content-gets-high/

-- Tom Marquardt

INEXPENSIVE PINOTS: NEEDLES IN THE HAYSTACK

I have a special fondness for pinot noir, but it has a bad habit of frustrating me. Like Forest Gump's "life is a box of chocolates" line, you just don't know what you're going to get.

Winemakers agree. Thin-skinned pinot noir is often called the "heart-break grape" because its temperament can easily spell disaster. Mildew and under-ripeness can spoil an entire crop, costing winery owners significant money. For that reason, many have given up on making pinot noir.

But nowadays grape growers have found the cooler climates and soils that are right for this fickle grape variety. As long as it is grown in the right areas, there is a more reasonable chance for success.

Like no other grape variety, pinot noir vines are prone to mutation. However disastrous that sounds, winemakers have benefited from using its variety of clones to produce different results.  A pinot noir made from the popular Dijon clone is quite different than that made from the Martini clone. There are many new clones to make the chemistry even more interesting.

Unfortunately, finding a good pinot noir can be an expensive proposition. It's unusual nowadays to find pinot noir under $40. But I found them -- see the next column over!

-- Tom Marquardt

 

DRINKING MORE, EATING IN

Retail wine sales were up 3.3% in January over sales from January 2013, according to IRI, a Chicago-based research firm.

The sales -- along with even bigger increases in spirits -- indicated  that people are drinking more at home.  Year-end sales in retail in 2013 were  up 5%.  For all I know, it's a symptom of hard times -- or snow. Retailers constantly tell me that sales skyrocket when heavy snow is in the forecast. And, buyers  don't just stock up for emergencies -- they drink what they buy and then restock. If that's the case, no wonder retail alcohol sales are booming.

On the other hand, wine  sales aren't enjoying the same success in restaurants. This does tell me something based on my own experience.

It galls me to pay three more  for a bottle of wine purchased in a restaurant than in a wine shop. I know the prices of wine, so it isn't hard for me to do the math. Worse, it is rare to find a wine list that offers both quality and price. Instead, I pay $40 for a bottle of Kendall-Jackson chardonnay. I could buy a French chablis for that in a store and enjoy it with equally good food at home.

Of course, I may not have the ambience and service that a restaurant can provide. Last night, I had dinner on a deck overlooking Naples bay. I couldn't do that at a snow-covered home in Maryland. So, it's a trade-off.

However, think about January. Cold, rainy, snowy in the Midwest and Northeast. People are hunkering down, lighting a fire, burning candles and making ridiculously huge plates of pasta or whatever. 

My Facebook friends are posting photos of their massive dinners and reporting that they opened a bottle of wine. It's a way of making something good happen in an otherwise dreary environment.  I wouldn't be a bit surprised if a few more babies are born in 9 months.

There is also the issue of driving while drunk. Count me among the flock of imbibers who are scared to get behind the wheel after sharing a bottle of wine with my spouse. However confident I am of my driving ability, I am unsure if I could pass a breathalyzer test. My wife normally drives home, thus depriving her of a carefree night. With that hanging over our heads, it is much easier to just eat at home and not worry. I can get carryout -- sushi, pasta, pizza -- and open a very nice bottle of wine at home and no one has to cook.

 I suspect we are not the only ones discouraged about sharing a bottle of wine at a restaurant.

Some experts say the increase  in at-home wine sales is consumer confidence. I say the cause is more likely a depressing winter and a discouraging restaurant environment.

So what's a good wine to serve in dreary weather at home? Chianti is versatile, simple, inexpensive and Italian. I'm thinking pasta, pizza, burgers. If you're thinking stews, get more  serious about your wine: brunello di montalcino if you want to stick with Italy, or better, a nice Rhone wine from Vacqueyras or Gigondas.  Or a simple Cote du Rhone would be fun -- and inexpensive.

If you're stuck inside, why not spend a few more bucks and try something different?

- Tom Marquardt

 

 

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Tom Marquardt and Patrick Darr

Tom Marquardt and Patrick Darr

What we're drinking...

Route Stock Route 29 Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 ($22).  Route 29 is known to tourists who visit Napa Valley. The grapes from this wine come from vineyards along the route. Ripe plum flavors mingle with spices to produce a decent drink.

Avissi Prosecco ($15). Proseccos come and go in our lives without much distinction, but we were wowed by this newcomer to us. Whether you drink it by itself at a tailgate party (as we did) or mix it with some cranberry juice, you'll be pleased with this sparkling wine.

Matanzas Creek Winery Chardonnay 2012 ($26). This Sonoma County producer does everything with class, including chardonnay. Using grapes from Alexander Valley, this savory chardonnay has a broad palate and good balance. Citrus and peach-pear flavors dominate with a nice mineral thread to give it distinction.

Cadaretta Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 ($40). With a new winemaker at the helm, the Middleton family of Washington state has released an opulent, rich cabernet sauvignon blend using grapes from four regions. Merlot, malbec and petit verdot gives dimension to the cabernet sauvignon. Bright black fruit of plums and black cherries with a good dose of coffee and dark chocolate. Very good.

Mercer Ode to Brothers 2011 ($42). We loved this Rhone blend from the Horse Heaven Hills region of Washington state. The grenache, syrah and mourvedre grapes produce a bright, effusive  and multi-layered wine and fine tannins. It is a perfect wine to drink now and not be offended by harsh tannins yet still enjoyed forward fruit. The brothers are Rob and Will Mercer.

Kim Crawford Core Pinot Gris 2013 ($17). We liked this New Zealand version of pinot gris for its crisp acidity and refreshing flavors of melon and honey.

Etude Pinot Gris 2013 ($28).  This wine isn't cheap, but -- typical of Etude -- it exudes luxury.  Pear and quince aromas are followed by peach and lime fruit with a round texture and balanced acidity.

Concha y Toro Gran Reserva Chardonnay 2012 ($16). This reasonably priced Chilean chardonnay has more balance than we expected. Excellent but suitably restrained pear and citrus fruit with clean acidity and lingering finish.

Cune Reserva 2009 ($28). We loved the depth of this exuberant Spanish blend from the Rioja Alta appellation. Mostly tempranillo, it has 5 percent each of mazuelo, graciano and garnacha tinta grapes to give it dimension. Rich, dark berry flavors and persistent oak notes.

Niner Estate Syrah 2012 ($30). It's hard to deny a second glass of this deliciously juicy syrah from the Paso Robles region. Blended with a bit of malbec and petit verdot, it shows off dark fruit flavors of plums and blackberries with a dash of spice and vanilla.

B.R. Cohn Cabernet Sauvignon Gold Label 2012 ($40). Using grapes mostly from Napa Valley, this sturdy and juicy cabernet is a first for the producer. The gold label is meant to be ultra-premium, but the price is anything but. Even at $40, it's a bargain in the premium category. Cassis, cherry and plum flavors with approachable tannins. Made in the classic modern style.

Stag's Leap Winery Napa Valley Chardonnay 2012 ($30). Reasonably priced, this ripe chardonnay has peach and pear flavors with a touch of oak, lemon zest and mineral.

Byron Nielson Vineyard Chardonnay 2012 ($32). We like the mineral notes  of this easy, medium-body chardonnay from Santa Barbara.  Soft and generous mouthfeel with notes of citrus, vanilla and spice.

William Hill Central Coast Merlot 2012 ($17).  A consistent merlot year-to-year, this William Hill shows off rich black cherry flavors with hints of white pepper and chocolate.  Very easy to drink, it's a good foil to beef and tomato-based pasta.

Menage a Trois Midnight 2012 ($13). This California producer sells a lot of wine to consumers intrigued by the name and satisfied with the price. Now, its Midnight -- a blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon, petit sirah and petit verdot -- gives its loyal following something new. Like it's other red wines, the Midnight 's flavors are ripe, sweet and abundant, not serious but enjoyable for what it is.

Rodney Strong Symmetry Meritage Alexander Valley Red Wine 2011 ($67).This is a terrific blend where the final product is greater than the sum of its parts. 73 percent cabernet sauvignon, 13 percent malbec, 7 percent cabernet franc, 4 percent merlot and 3 percent petite verdot. Aged in 100 percent French oak barrels this is a big wine where the cabernet sauvignon and malbec dominate. The wine has a cherry chocolate nose and flavors, and although assertive it has a smooth delivery in the mouth. Would be a delight with charcoal grilled steaks          

Cambria Estate Bench Break Vineyard Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir 2011 ($34).Intense but elegant black cherry nose and flavors with appealing spicy and vanilla notes. Great by it self or with salmon, chicken, pork or cheeses. Very drinkable and enjoyable.         

Dry Creek The Mariner Red Wine Dry Creek Valley 2010 ($45). Made from 41 percent cabernet sauvignon, 41 percent merlot, 7 percent malbec, 6 percent cabernet franc, and 5 percent petite verdot, this is a pleasing blend that presents a smooth fruit forward cherry/berry scented and flavored wine that is eminently drinkable by itself or as an accompaniment to beef or pork dishes. 

M. Chapoutier Douro Pinteivera 2011 ($42). Michel Chapoutier makes great wine in the Rhone Valley and has since expanded his horizons to other countries. This touriga nacional from Portugal shows what can happen when the skills of such an artisan are applied. Dark red fruit with intense garrigue aromas and rich cherry and plum flavors with a mineral thread.

Fritz Chardonnay 2012 ($25). This is a good value for what the wine delivers. Creamy texture with loads of stone-pit fruit flavors and oak-driven butterscotch. Fritz also makes a special reserve ($55) with full body and lush, Russian River Valley fruit.

Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc 2013 ($18). Varietal grapefruit character dominates this crisp and full-bodied sauvigon blanc from New Zealand.  Very nice personality.

Stag's Leap Napa Valley Petite Sirah 2011 ($39). We have enjoyed this wine over several vintages because of its fruit-forward and easy style  -- not easy for a grape variety that often  produces thick and teeth-coating tannins. It has classic plum, black berry and blueberry notes with hints of clove and white pepper. Blended with syrah, grenache, carignane, mourvedre and viognier.

Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 ($53).  Dense but soft-textured wine with lots of sweet dark berry and cassis flavors. Delicious.

Ponzi Chardonnay Reserve 2012 ($35). This is one of the best chardonnays we have tasted in months. From one of the most reputable producers in Oregon, the Ponzi chardonnay has excellent balance -- opulent fruit but offset by good acidity. At first, it had the austerity of a good French chablis. But the wine evolved in the glass, showing perfumed aromatics and layers of tropical fruit and citrus. For what you get, this is a good value for the dinner table.

Flora Springs Napa Valley Merlot 2012 ($25). You just aren't going to find a merlot at this price with this kind of depth. Lots of rich cherry fruit and spice.

Tenuta Saint'Antonio Amarone Selezione Castagnedi 2010 ($45). Amarone is a very special wine because of its unique vinification, and no one makes is more special than Tenuta Saint'Antonio. The blend is 70 percent corvina, 20 percent rondinella, 5 percent croatina and 5 percent oseleta.  The wine is dense with ripe black berry fruit and spice with a healthy dose of licorice and pepper. For another treat made with about the same grape varieties, enjoy the fresher fruit character of the Tenuta Saint'Antonio Ripasso Monti Garbi 2010 ($19). 

Las Rocas Renegado Red Blend 2012 ($14). As  you would expect, anything from Las Rocas has two things: value and beaucoup fruit. This blend of garnacha, tempranillo and syrah attacks the palate with blackberry and cherry flavors, a dash of spice and oak in a medium body. Good value.

 Cune Monopole Rioja 2013($15).  We really enjoyed this white Rioja made entirely of viura grapes. You may not think of Rioja as a white wine producer, but viura is not uncommon to those who live there.  Generous floral aromas and crisp tropical fruit flavors.

Edmeades Mendocino County Zinfnadel 2012 ($20).  Zinfandel is a great wine to serve with hamburgers, pulled pork and anything with a ketchup-based sauce. The Edmeades is a reliable producer and this year's zinfandel is loaded with blackberries, chocolate and cherry cola flavors.

Mountain Door Malbec 2013 ($12). Malbec is a perfect summer red for grilled foods because it's reasonably priced for those big dinner crowds and it offers lots of fruit flavors to match burgers, ribs and such. This one has a soft mouthfeel with oodles of plum and raspberry flavors. If you can't find it, try Gascon malbec, which is readily available.

WHITE

Aia Vecchia Vermentino 2013 ($12). Vermentino is the perfect grape to use in a spring/summer wine. Aged only in stainless steel, it sports a clean and refreshing character. Lots of aromatics with grapefruit and apple flavors.

Franciscan Estate Equilibrium White Blend 2013 ($23).  Here's a fun twist on sauvignon blanc. Winemaker Janet Myers adds chardonnay and muscat to give the wine more dimension and also a soft, almost sweet mouthfeel. Ripe peach flavors abound.  Good match to spicy foods.

Trivento Torrontes Reserve 2012 ($12). Torrontes is Argentina's signature white grape -- a winner with summer fare, such as salads, appetizers and anything with a citrus flavor. Tropical fruit and lime flavors mix well with the bright acidity to keep the palate refreshed on a hot day.

La Crema Monterey Pinot Gris 2013 ($20). Pinot gris is just another name for pinot grigio, but producers in the United States like to use the name to define a style of wine. We love the aromas of honeysuckle and pear. The palate has melon and apricot flavors -- serve it with fruit!

Kim Crawford Unoaked Chardonnay 2013 ($17).  We are so tired of oaky chardonnays that don't complement grilled fish very well. This New Zealand version eliminates the oak yet provides lots of unadorned flavor and a creamy texture. It would do well with chicken too.

Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc 2013 ($20). Every wine in this reputable New Zealand house is a winner from the unoaked chardonnay to a vibrant, youthful pinot noir. But we feature the sauvignon blanc because its classic grapefruit notes make for a nice summer aperitif. Very refreshing.

ROSES

Mas Carlot 2013 ($15). We literally buy cases of this wine every year because it never gets boring and has a great combination of delicacy and robust flavor. A blend of grenache and rosé, it shows off plenty of strawberry and cherry fruit and good acidity.

Domaine Mordoree Chateauneuf du Pape Rosé 2013 ($15). This was a huge crowd pleaser at a recent party we attended. Lots of upfront strawberry fruit with a touch of watermelon and a great combination of finesse and fruit. Long in the finish and good acidity to embrace warmer weather.

Nicolas Feuillatte D'Luscious Demi-Sec Rosé ($60). How about a few bubbles with that rosé? Nicolas Feuillatte has the right idea for a delicious summer sipper to put life into any party. If you like your wine sweet, this new French offering has loads of cherry and raspberry flavors. Aged 3 years on its yeast cells, it is blended with 30 percent meunier and 10 percent chardonnay.

Las Rocas Rosé 2013 ($14). Made from grapes grown on 30-to 50-year-old vines, this Spanish garnacha is a perennial hit for us. It has luscious raspberry notes and a hint of spice and lime.

Cune Rosado Rioja 2013 ($14). Made entirely from tempranillo grapes, this aromatic Spanish rosé has classic strawberry flavors with hints of red currants and raspberries.

Herdade do Esporao Vinha da Defesa Rosé 2013 ($15). Dark berry aromas with cherry flavors and a hint of mint. It is a blend of syrah and aragones grapes.

Hogwash Rosé 2013 ($16).  Don't let the goofy name and label fool you. This grenache-based wine is serious for a rosé. Bright acidity, bone dry and a delicious combination of mineral and fruit. The name was born when winemaker Tuck Beckstoffer was asked to create a special wine for a pig roast.

J. Russian River Vin Gris 2013 ($20). Using pinot noir grapes, this Russian River rosé will treat you to a plate of cherries and strawberries. Elegant and long in the finish, it's a terrific companion to most summer appetizers.

Etude Rose of Pinot Noir 2013 ($28). From a very reputable producer in Napa, this luxurious rose uses pinot grapes from the estate's Grace Benoist Ranch in Carneros.   Good structure and generous cherry and strawberry flavors.

L'Esprit de Sainte Marguerite Rosé 2013 ($19). From the headquarters of French rosé, this Provencal wine leans on grenache and cinsault for its crisp, delicate flavors and generous fruit aromatics. Silky and pure in fruit.

Rimauresq Rosé Cru Classe 2013 ($22). We loved this medium-body rosé with excellent and broad fruit with a touch of mineral and loads of cherry flavors. Long in the finish.

Palais Prive Luberon 2013 ($19). This grenache-syrah blend is a phenomenal wine set apart from the other rosés with its balance, length and depth of character. Floral and citrus aromas are complemented nicely with strawberry and orange-rind flavors and brisk acidity. Refreshing yet elegant enough to serve with salmon.

Chateau d'Esclans Whispering Angel 2013 ($23). This is quite an exotic blend of grenache, rolle, syrah, tibouren and cinsault grapes. Earthy aromas with bing cherry, raspberry, citrus fruit character and long, herbal finish. Very, very nice.

 

 

Pedroncelli Winery Dry Rose of Zinfandel 2013 ($12). This dry rose bursts with strawberry jam and black berry notes. Crisp yet mouthfilling.

Pigoudet Premier Rose 2013. This was one of our favorite rose discoveries this year. Lots of fruit and length, it his from te Coteaux d'Aix-en-Provence and is a blend of grenache, cinsault, cabernet sauvignon and syrah. Lots of variety!

Terra Amata Rose 2013. Another great wine from Provence, this is a motley collection of greanche, cinsault, mourvedre, syrah, carignan, rolle and ugni grapes. With that comes a broad, quixotic palate that we found intriguing.

Langetwins Sangiovese Rose 2013 ($15). Sangiovese is becoming more popular as a rose and this one is a beaut. Fresh fruit character with watermelon and strawberry notes. Very good.

OTHERS

Waterstone Carneros Pinot Noir 2011 ($22). A very flavorful and pleasant pinot noir for the price with ripe plums and sweet vanillin oak.

Cherry Pie Cherry Tart Pinot Noir 2012 ($25). We're not keen on the kitschy label, but the wine is indisputably as delicious as cherry pie. In short, we get the idea. Very forward with rich, fresh cherry flavors with a spoonful of plum and strawberries.  Good value wine using grapes from several California appellations.

Piccini Villa Cortile Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 2008 ($80). With the additional bottle age, this tasty brunello di montalcino is ready to drink. Complex, layered fruit that is ripe yet well integrated. Black berries, currants and fine tannins.  It is a wine to serve with meat.

Cliff Lede Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Stags Leap District 2010 ($75). Expressive cherry, cassis, nose and flavors with a elegant but full bodied mouth feel Nice solid finish, drink this excellent classic California cabernet sauvignon with bold flavored beef dishes

Santa Rita Medalla Reaal Carmenere Colchagua Valley 2008 ($20). 100 percent carmenere, a hold out from pre-phylloxera Bordeaux. This is a terrific wine perfect for meat and game dishes, with a wonderful complexity that charms the drinker. A nice rusticity balances the abundant cherry/ berry fruit, and the wine finishes long. Great bottle of wine at a fair price.                                                                                                 

Firestone Merlot Santa Ynez Valley 2010 ($20). This is a very well put together merlot . Medium bodied with cherry flavors and a hint of raspberry and vanilla. Well balanced and very easy to drink.

Quivira Dry Creek Zinfandel 2011 ($22). We thoroughly enjoyed this delightful wine -- a perennial favorite. It is blended with a bit of petite sirah, carignane, syrah and even cabernet sauvignon to give it more complexity and broader flavors. The result of this melange is a profile that ranges from raspberries and blackberries to ripe, sweet cherries.

Amici Cellars Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2012 ($25).  More complex than most sauvignon blancs, this treat has fresh citrus and pineapple aromas with round tropical fruit, lemon and a dash of wet stone on the finish.  That half of the wine comes from the sauvignon musque clone is no surprise. Winemaker Joel Aiken has done a very nice job with this brand.

Murphy-Goode The Fume 2012 ($14).  The addition of 7 percent semillon rounds off this spring wine very nicely. Exotic peach and melon flavors.

 

Tenuta di Arceno Strada al Sasso Chianti Classico Riserva 2008 ($35). Made entirely from sangiovese grapes, this Italian knockout has beautiful mushroom and floral aromas followed by cherry flavors with a hint of cloves. Good complexity and finish.

Coltibuono Selezione Chianti Classico 2011 ($15).  This is a reasonably priced chianti made entirely from sangiovese grapes. Fruity with dark berry flavors and smooth texture.

Aia Vecchia Sor Ugo Bolgheri Superiore 2010 ($35). Bolgheri is actually a subregion of Tuscany and located 40 miles west of Sienna. It is near here where one of the first super-Tuscans was marketed in 1994. Today super-Tuscans no longer stir up controversy among old-time Tuscan wine producers. This great wine is a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, petit verdot and cabernet franc. We loved the lushness of the wine and its hints of licorice and mushrooms. It's a great deal among those wines that leave an impression.

Garofoli Piancarda Rosso Conero DOC 2010 ($16). Wow, what a wine. Made entirely from the montepulciano grape grown in the Marche region of Italy, it has a complex nose of ripe plums followed by rich cherry flavors and solid tannins.  Very good.

Joseph Drouhin Chablis Grand Cru Vaudesir 2011 ($72). This is such an exquisite wine, it would be a mistake to serve it against a heavily sauced fish. Enjoy it alone or with rab, lobster or salmon. Lemon scent, round texture and a bit of mineral.

Joseph Drouhin Chablis 2012 ($21). Simple and medium bodied with a minty aroma, apple notes and flinty finish. It's a good introduction to Chablis, but save your sheckles for a grand cru.

Chateau St. Jean Robert Young Chardonnay 2011 ($25). The producer as been making this wine for more than 30 years. There is no malolatic fermentation, but plenty of barrel fermentation and sur lie aging. The result is a creamy wine with lots of oak vanillin to add to the peach and citrus flavors.

Chateau St. Jean Belle Terre Chardonnay 2012 ($25). Very generous stone fruit aromatics give away to a broad palate of rich tropical fruit flavors.

Etude Carneros Estate Chardonnay 2011 ($32).   From one of the better producers in Napa Valley, this luxurious chardonnay has citrus aromas and a round mouthfeel. The flavors are redolent of peach and lime with a nice mineral thread on the finish.

Byron Santa Barbara County Chardonnay 2012 ($17). This moderately priced chardonnay exudes stone fruit and fig notes. Refreshing finish.

Cuvaison Carneros Chardonnay 2012 ($25). A blend of 44 blocks of vineyards, this chardonnay is rich in texture with generous aromatics and a soft palate of stone fruit.

Rodney Strong Sonoma County Chardonnay 2012 ($17).  Ripe apple aromas with forward apple and pear flavors and a healthy dose of brown spice. Soft and rich with a bit of vanilla and oak for those of you who prefer that style.

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Karia Chardonnay 2012 ($35). We liked the balance of this wine when tasted among a group of Napa Valley chardonnays. Good acidity  to make it crisp yet nice mineral and pear notes to keep in interesting. Medium bodied.

Newton Chardonnay Unfiltered Napa Valley 2011 ($64). Wow. Pineapple, mango and honeysuckle in a luscious toasty frame that fills the mouth with pleasure, and goes on and on in the mouth. This is a seriously good wine.

Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay Grand Reserve 2012 ($22). Another tropical fruit driven beauty from Kendall-Jackson. This wine is well balanced  with good acidity to balance the abundant citrus, pineapple, and hint of banana in the nose and mouth. Just a joy to drink as a summertime quaffer.

Kendall-Jackson Camelot Highlands Chardonnay 2012 ($30). Made from grapes grown on 42-year-old vines, this complex chardonnay is loaded with tropical fruit flavors and a vanilla creme brulee finish

Byron Santa Barbara County Chardonnay 2012 ($17). The pure fruit character of this sumptuous chardonnay has been nicely preserved with just a light touch of oak. Stone fruit and spice character abounds.

Cambria Estate Winery Katherine's Vineyard Chardonnay 2012 ($22). Very reasonably priced, this Santa Barbara County chardonnay has simple lemon/lime aromas with peach and apple flavors.

Robert Mondavi Winery Napa Valley Chardonnay 2011 ($19). Rich, creamy texture with flavors of pear and peach.

Hardys Nottage Hill Shiraz 2012 ($13). Here's a juicy and ultra-ripe Australian shiraz. Full of blueberry and cherry flavors with the classic hints of anise and chocolate.

Cuvaison Carneros Pinot Noir 2012 ($38). This is a very nice rendition of a Carneros pinot noir. Cooled by morning fogs from San Pablo Bay, Carneros is home to many pinot noir producers. Soft mouthfeel with bright raspberry and black cherry flavors with a healthy dose of spice.

Cambria Katherine's Vineyard Chardonnay 2012 ($22). Reasonably priced, this elegant chardonnay sports tropical fruit notes with a citrus-like nose and broad, luscious flavors.

Decoy Sonoma County Merlot 2012 ($25). Blended with cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot and cabernet franc, this luscious and balanced merlot avoids the herbaceous character of a lot of off-putting merlots and instead concentrates on pure fruit. Ripe plum and cherry flavors abound.

Rojo Granrojo Tempranillo 2011 ($10).  Rojo has produced an affordable tempranillo and garnacha that would do well with grilled meats and pasta. The tempranillo sports fresh cherry flavors while the garnacha has simple red fruit flavors with a dash of mineral.

Marco Felluga Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso Ronco dei Moreri  2011 ($20). We liked the price on this delicious and concentrated refosco from the Venezia Giulia region of Italy. Assertive raspberry aromas followed by fresh berry flavors.

Quivira Dry Creek Zinfandel 2011 ($22). We thoroughly enjoyed this delightful wine -- a perennial favorite. It is blended with a bit of petite sirah, carignane, syrah and even cabernet sauvignon to give it more complexity and broader flavors. The result of this melange is a profile that ranges from raspberries and blackberries to ripe, sweet cherries.

Amici Cellars Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2012 ($25).  More complex than most sauvignon blancs, this treat has fresh citrus and pineapple aromas with round tropical fruit, lemon and a dash of wet stone on the finish.  That half of the wine comes from the sauvignon musque clone is no surprise. Winemaker Joel Aiken has done a very nice job with this brand.

La Crema Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2012 ($30). After making stellar, reasonably priced wine in California, La Crema has expanded to Oregon’s Willamette Valley.  This terrific inaugural edition combines grapes from 10 vineyards and uses 7 clones to create a floral and bay leaf nose with earthy berry and citrus flavors.

Wente Vineyards Reliz Creek Pinot Noir 2010 ($28). We were very impressed with this excellent, nicely priced pinot noir from the Arroyo Socco region of Monterey. Using estate-grown grapes, Wente has crafted a generously aromatic pinot noir that shows off forward, bright cherry, strawberry and oaky flavors.

Wente Vineyards Morning Fog Chardonnay 2012 ($12). Fogs from the San Francisco Bay settle on the Livermore Valley vineyards that produce this wonderful, affordable chardonnay.  Half of the juice is barrel fermented to strike a balance between freshness and mouthfeel.  Tropical fruit and apple flavors

Domaine de la Mordoree Lirac 2009 ($25).  Wines like this bring such reward to us. We’ve been enjoyed the wines of this Rhone Valley domaine for years and never do they disappoint. This simple Lirac is a stunning example of what the region has to offer besides chateauneuf du pape. Ripe and hedonistic raspberry, strawberry and black berry flavors with good spice and herbs.

Famille Perrin Les Cornuds Vinsobres 2011 ($17).  The Perrin name is gold in the Rhone Valley and you can depend on it for quality wines. This is a blend of syrah and grenache grown in vineyards near the village of Vinsobres. The wine has ripe blackberry and cherry flavors with pronounced dark chocolate notes and a floral, garrique nose. A great wine to serve with game and meat.

Gary Farrell Russian River Selection Pinot Noir 2011 ($45).  In a tasting of a half dozen pinot noirs, this one stood out as the indisputable best.  Very intense aromas of cherries, cedar, and citrus zest. Flavors include sweet berry and dark fruit.  Smooth and long finish.

Don Miguel Gascon Malbec 2011 ($15).  Those of you who like your Argentina malbecs will enjoy this venerable and easy-to-find gem. Classic plum notes with hints of mocha and licorice.

Flora Springs Trilogy 2011 ($75). What is there not to like in this luxurious blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, petit verdot and malbec? Well, maybe the price – but it’s what luxury costs.  We have always enjoyed this exquisite wine for its generous fruit flavors, rich texture, depth of character and tantalizing nuances.

Sbragia La Promessa Zinfandel Sonoma County 2010 ($27). Named for “the promise” that Ed Sbragia made to his father to continue making quality wines, this offering is massive and impressive. Made from 95 percent zinfandel and 5 percent petite sirah, this classic brawny California-styled wine belts out an intense black raspberry nose, and flavors with a bit of licorice that fills the mouth with fruity intensity. Drink this with any boldly sauced or roasted barbecued meats.

Joseph Drouhin Chablis Grand Cru Bougros 2011 ($72.50). Made from grapes from one of the seven Grand Cru vineyards in Chablis this well made classic Grand Cru Chablis is worth seeking out. Very round in the mouth with pear and lemon flavors, a hint of honey and a streak of minerality, and a nice creamy finish. Drink this with oyster, clams or any white fleshed chicken dishes.                                                 

Vina Eguia Reserva Rioja 2009 ($19). This Rioja, made entirely from tempranillo grapes, is a steal for the price. Bold aromas of herbs and vanilla give way to a round and dark-fruit driven wine with big flavors and long finish.

Austin Hope Grenache 2011 ($42).  Made by the Hope Family Wines of Paso Robles, this delightful grenache is surprisingly complex – grenache is rarely complex.  Lots of layered fruit, including plum, cranberry, raspberry, and nuances of vanilla and spice.