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Wine, grape and winery reviews and criticism as written by wine veterans


Summer signals the start of grilling season. For many of us, grilling never stopped even if we had to shovel snow to get to the grill.  But for most fair-weather grillers, Memorial Day marked the time to break out the charcoal.

Grilling is not the same as barbecuing, although the two terms are often used interchangeably. It’s not a difference of devices used, but rather the process that spells the difference. Grilling is generally done over high heat – think steaks, hamburgers, etc. Barbecuing, on the other hand, is done indirectly and over low heat – pulled pork, smoked turkey breast, etc.

We do both. Tom uses a Big Green Egg – a ceramic smoker that diffuses the heat efficiently – to smoke pork butts and spare ribs; Pat uses indirect heat over his charcoal grill to accomplish the same thing – both of us are barbecuing.

However, barbecuing often includes two accessories: wood -- to add flavor to the slow-cooked food -- and barbecue sauce.

OK, we know this is a wine column but defining the process is important to defining the right wine.

Wood and sauce add an entirely new dimension to wine pairing. Grilled chicken with an herb rub cries out for a white wine; smoked chicken with a ketchup-based sauce calls for a syrah or a zinfandel.

Before you head out to the store to find a good wine for your Memorial Day feast, decide first how you will prepare your grilled food. A sauce makes a huge difference to the pairing.

We’ll make some assumptions with the following pairings:

Hamburgers with ketchup and mustard: syrah, Beaujolais, barbera, tempranillo, zinfandel.

Chicken seasoned but without sauce: sauvignon blanc, rosé, riesling, pinot grigio or pinot gris.

Steak: cabernet sauvignon, merlot.

Pork butt or tenderloin with sauce: syrah, merlot, zinfandel, barbera, tempranillo.

Fish: chardonnay, albarino, soave, chablis (pinot noir for salmon and tuna).

Marinated lamb chops or kebobs:  merlot, malbec, cabernet sauvignon, meritage blends.

Here are 10 grill wines we recommend:

·         Columbia Crest Pinot Gris 2013 ($12).  This is a steal – not surprising because it’s from the king of good deals in the state of Washington. Lots of luscious peach and grapefruit notes with a dash of spice and almonds. Good for fish and chicken.

·         Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Pinot Gris 2014 ($15).  You won’t go wrong with this forward pinot gris from California. Using grapes from several California appellations, it is blended with roussane, gruner veltliner, chardonnay, viognier and albarino. It may not have the classic pinot gris profile with that mélange, but it’s unquestionably delicious. Nice aperitif or to go with seasoned chicken.

·         Chronic Cellars Purple Paradise 2013 ($15). This quirky wine with a label made for Halloween parties is the creation of Jake and Josh Beckett of Paso Robles. All of the producers’ wines are blends, this one being a combination of zinfandel (70 percent), syrah, petite sirah and grenache.  Very aromatic with ripe strawberry fruit and a hint of chocolate. This would be a great match for hamburgers, ribs and pizzas. The label alone will draw comments.

·         Clayhouse Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 ($14). Some petit verdot and malbec grapes are blended in this simple but delicious cabernet from a new appellation in Paso Robles. Cherry, cassis and cedar aromas with juicy dark fruit flavors. Match this week grilled beef, especially skirt steak.

·         MacMurray Estate Vineyards Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2013 ($30).  Amazing aromas of lavender and forest floor begin the journey through this luxurious and reasonably priced pinot noir. Loads of bright cherry and currant flavors. Pair this week salmon, tuna, and pork.

·         Sequoia Grove Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 ($38). We’ve been a big fan of this Napa cabernet for years. Always reliable, always juicy and delicious, always with Napa character and complexity. Cabernet franc merlot, petit verdot and Malbec are added to the blend to give the wine a broad spectrum of flavors. The perfect match here is steak.

·         Jordan Russian River Valley Chardonnay 2013 ($30). Sporting a new label, the Jordan chardonnay is a perfect quaff for patio dining. It has a creamy mouthfeel with apple, lemon and mineral notes. Winemaker Rob Davis has crafted an ideal wine to match our local fish.

·         Poliziano Lohsa Morellino di Scansano 2913 ($15). Everything this producer makes is good quality, especially for the price, but this one was a knockout for us.  Sangiovese makes up 85 percent of the blend.  It’s sturdy with bright cherry and raspberry flavors and a touch of licorice.  If you can find it locally, buy it. Match with burgers, pizza, and any kebab.

·         Quivira Dry Creek Zinfandel 2012 ($22). Grapes from three estate vineyards go into this brambly, assertive zinfandel. Rich raspberry flavors and a good dose of tannins make it a sturdy match to barbecue sauces and pork.

·         Edmeades’ Folly 2012 ($26). This blend of zinfandel, syrah, petite sirah and merlot offer a mélange of flavors to parry nicely with ribs, pork and hamburgers. Lush blackberry fruit with a hint of pepper.




German wines have not been much in favor in the United States during the past 30 years. In the early part of the 20th century German wines were found on the tables of royalty in many of the European capitals, and commanded prices that exceeded the finest Bordeaux’s and Burgundy’s. Economic upheaval and two World Wars decimated the German wine industry and a revival in the 1950s and ‘60s expanded vineyard plantings into areas that produced wines of poor to mediocre quality, with cheap wines like Liebfraumilch and Zeller Schwartz Katz dominating the export market and the little space dedicated to wines in American liquor stores of the era.                                    

During this post-war period fine wine was still made in the Mosel and Rhine river area. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t readily available on American retail shelves. Today efforts by American-German wine importers and German wineries themselves have resulted in a plethora of high quality Mosel and Rhine wines available on retail shelves.

Recently, we met with Nik Weis, the third generation of St Urban-Hof, to learn about Mosel wines and taste his family’s offerings. St Urban is the patron saint of German winemakers and “hof” translates as estate in English.

The Weis family has produced grapes for centuries and in 1947 Nik’s grandfather founded St. Urbans-Hof winery. Nik joined the winery in 1997 to work with his father. Today St. Urbans –Hof owns 85 acres in the Mosel and is the second largest family owned winery in the area.                                           

Nik described how the best vineyards are located on the very steep banks of the Mosel and Saar rivers, prohibiting any type of mechanical equipment to plow the vineyard rows. A plow is hooked to a winch to allow cultivation of these almost inaccessible vineyards. Forests are allowed to proliferate on the flat top of the hills to allow for rainfall to be absorbed and gradually introduced to the vineyards below.                                                                                                                                 

Nik is a skillful wine teacher and readily explains the confusing (at least to Americans) language on German wine labels by using a banana in an analogy. He described the varying levels of sweetness in German wines as kabinett is “a beautiful yellow banana”, spatlese as a “banana with brown speckles” and auslese as “a brown banana.” He also referred to the benefits of the bright acidity of the riesling grape in German wines as “acidity is like dripping lemon juice over your food.”                                                                                                      

We tasted a number of St. Urbans-Hof’s wine and the following were our favorites. All of these wines were allowed to rest on their skins for several hours after pressing, used only indigenous yeasts for fermentation, and were only stored in stainless steel tanks                                                                                                                                                                        

·       St. Urbans-Hof Wiltenger Alte Reben Riesling 2013 ($20). Made from Riesling grapes planted in the 1930’s “alte reben” means old vines. This is a rich, fruity wine with a subtle minerality and a touch of sweetness. Try with Asian foods, or chicken and fish dishes. The 2014 version exhibits a bit more acidity and round fruit.                        

·       St. Urbans-Hof Ockfener Bockstein Kabinett Riesling 2013 ($21). This wine exhibits a distinct minerality and ripe fruit flavors of peach, with some floral notes.                                                                                          

·       St. Urbans-Hof Ockfener Bockstein Spatlese Riesling 2013 ($32). 

Although a bit sweeter than the kabinett this wine shows a bit more acidity, which balances the sweetness beautifully. An enticing long creamy finish follows a very distinct mineral streak.                                    


·     St. Urbans-Hof Goldtropfchen Piesport Spatlese Riesling 2011 ($34). Produced from the very low rainfall year of 2011, this wine is made from grapes grown on 80+ years of age and shows low acidity and very rich deep ripe fruit. Much lower acidity than the Ockfener Bockstein. 


Three good harvests in California has built a momentum of sales. In 2014, California wine shipments in this country were up 4.4 percent -- netting a 6.7 percent increase in retail value, according to the Wine Institute,

That's good news for retailers, distributors and producers. Sales growth has increased for the past 22 years.

Although one would guess that it is the cheapest wine that is selling the best, it appears higher quality of wine accounts for much of the growth.  Generally,premium wines make up a quarter of the volume, but half of a winery's revenues.

According to Nielsen, in measured U.S. off-premise channels, the most popular wine types by volume were Chardonnay (19% share), Cabernet Sauvignon (13%), Red Blends/Sweet Reds (10%), Pinot Grigio (9%) Merlot (8%), followed by Moscato (6%), Pinot Noir (5%), White Zinfandel (5%), and Sauvignon Blanc (4%). Red blends accounted for the strongest volume gains, along with Moscato, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon.