Tom's blog

Josh dips into hot prosecco market

Call me a neanderthal or, better, a romantic. But I always liked that real zinfandel comes only from California and that Rias Baixas is the only wine-growing region that can make albarino. Prosecco? Veneto, Italy, right? Who else grows glera grapes anyway?

So, when I saw that Josh Cellars added prosecco to its impressive array of value-priced wines, I was taken aback. How could they? Well, first, the grapes are coming from Veneto. Winemaker and owner Joseph Carr is simply riding the coattails of a successful sparkling wine. But can’t we all just leave prosecco to the Italians and albarino to the Spaniards?

Egads, is nothing sacred any more?

In fact, nothing is. Cupcake and other producers are making prosecco. And, there are producers who are putting their labels on wines made abroad. Gallo has been distributing wines made in Europe for decades, but you won’t find Gallo on the label. That seems to be a smarter marketing tactic. I would imagine many consumers wouldn’t drink a prosecco made by an American producer because, well, it’s not a part of the romantic Italian culture.

What do I know?

Late harvest zin: how sweet it is. Not!

A dear friend shared with me his last bottle of 1968 Mayacamas Late Harvest Zinfandel. What a treat. While many late harvest zins are vinified sweet, winemaker Bob Travers vinified this one dry. Travers is a legend in wine making and this 51-year-old wine demonstrates why.

Despite its age, there was still a freshness to the fruit with raspberries and blackberries most dominant. There was just a trace of the raisiny character you would expect from an aged zinfandel. With 17 percent alcohol in this giant of a wine, there was still a lot of bottle and just some fine tannins. Although some critics, including Robert Parker Jr., suggest this wine can last another 20 years, I thought it was drinking perfectly. Long, long finish and a touch of spice.

It always blows my mind to find such great California wine that has survived this long.

A gut reaction

As if we don’t have enough reasons to consider wine a healthy elixir, now comes a study that shows wine increases “gut microbiota diversity.” Don’t worry, that’s good. It’s probably the same thing yogurt does for your stomach.

Published in the journal Gastroenterology — you subscribe, don’t you? — researchers with King’s College in London found that red wine provides better gut health than white wine, beer, spirits, and cider. The study was done on 918 female twins living in the United Kingdom.

This is amazing for one particular reason: 918 twins agreed to participate in a study!

What a lousy development

The Walla Walla Valley Alliance is reporting that the dreaded root louse, phylloxera is showing up in Walla Walla vineyards. Reports say the louse, which devastated vineyards in Bordeaux and later in California, has been present in the state since 1910 but no one has seen it in Walla Walla until now.

Earlier reports show that it also is in the Willamette Valley.

The colder climate in the Pacific Northwest is too cold for the root louse, but global warming has made temperatures more hospitable. That explains much of the spread.

None of this news means the end is near for either wine region. The spread of the root louse is easier to contain today that it was in the last century. Quarantine is usually the best solution, but no grape grower wants to admit their infection. Phylloxera takes 10-15 years to ruin a vineyard as the louse slowly sucks nutrients from the roots.

What this does prove, however, is that there is risk associated with small Walla Walla producers who develop their own root stock. Those developed by nurseries, for the most part, are phylloxera resistant and come with a lot more science invested in their creation.

Global warming making changes

If you want evidence that climate change is affecting European vineyards, look no farther than Beaujolais.

The region known for its fruity gamays is hitting harvest about two weeks early — one of the earliest since 1988. Climate experts say hotter and drier conditions will become part of the norm.

Warmer weather usually leads to wines with higher alcohol, but drier can mean significant differences in flavor too. I wonder if Beaujolais producers will have to consider growing something besides the traditional gamay. Syrah? Primativo?

Even Burgundy producers are worried. Who’s not worried are the new winemakers in Wales!

Semillon: the forgotten grape

When I first started to write about wine in the 1980s, I remember drinking a Kalin semillon from California like it was yesterday. Semillon is rarely made without a companion grape, such as sauvignon blanc. Many vintners find it one-dimensional and lacking acidity. However, in a blend it can often the natural acidity of sauvignon blanc.

The other day I enjoyed a semillon from Tyrrell’s Wines, an Australian producer in the Hunter Valley. Australia is actually one of the few wine growing regions that produce a number of semillons. The Tyrrell was very simple, but revealed that lush character for which the grape is known.

If you are in the mood, semillon is worth an adventure.

I Ott not be surprised

There it was on the shelf standing by itself on the last day of a sale: Domaines Ott Clos Mireille Blanc de Blanc Cotes de Provence. Why didn’t anyone want it? Was it calling for me?


It’s not hard for any bottles of Domaines Ott to stand out. It’s oddly shaped bottle has nothing else to compare. I’ve marveled at this producer for its outstanding rose, but I never had its white. I had to try it even though a single bottle of any wine usually portends bad things to come.

I just wish there had been more of this wine.

Made from semillon — a variety more common in Bordeaux — and a little rolle, the wine was so exotic with generous stone fruit aromas, and fresh fruit character. Ripe passion fruit and peach flavors lingered on the palate. By aging it in large wood casks, the patina suggests an aged wine. It was a 2016 I tasted but it’s a wine that would improve in several more years.

Now, I’m on the hunt for more of it.

Note to self: just because there is only one bottle left on a shelf doesn’t mean it’s a lousy wine. It’s just that someone overlooked it.

Those Andorrans drink a lot of wine

I’ve always been amused by the little known fact that the Vatican has the highest per capita consumption of wine in the world. No other country comes close — until recently.

The new top dog in wine consumption is Andorra.

You’re probably thinking the same as me: where in the hell is Andorra? And, it’s a country?

The Principality of Andorra, as it likes to be called, is a 181 square miles patch between France and Spain in the Pyrennees mountains. Known for its ski resorts and tax haven, the soverign nation is the sixth smallest in Europe (OK, smarty pants, name the five that are smaller).

The 78,000 people who live there — and the 10 million who visit annually — must drink a load of wine. In fact, the population drinks nearly 57 liters a person!

The official language is Catalan, but when the people drink a lot, it’s more like Mayan.

Here’s the ranking:

  1. Andorra - 56.9 litres per capita a year

  2. Vatican City - 56.2

  3. Croatia - 46.9

  4. Portugal - 43.7

  5. France - 43.1

  6. Slovenia - 42.5

  7. Macedonia - 40.4

  8. Falkland Islands - 38.5

  9. Switzerland - 37

  10. Italy - 34.1

Sacre bleu, French looking for more rose?

The Telegraph recently reported that young French people are abandoning the red wine from Bordeaux in favor of light whites and roses. The 6% drop in sales of Bordeaux has led producers from France’s most elite growing region to start pushing their white wines. Very few of them make rose because, well, rose is so declasse.

In fact, young people in France say they drink wine as an aperitif rather than with meals.

Said Louise Descamps, 28, an assistant television producer: “It’s a change in lifestyle from our parents’ generation. They used to drink mainly red wine at dinner, but we tend to drink more at bars or parties. My friends and I drink more rosé or white. I still enjoy reds from time to time, but only ever with dinner.”

Rose sales have tripled in France in the last two decades; they now account for a third of the wine sold in France.

Imagine that? French Bordeaux and Burgundy were the most desirable wine among the French for generations. Today, however, not only has per capita wine consumption decreased dramatically, but so has the desire for the country’s most prestigious wines.

I can’t imagine Bordeaux producers making rose out of their merlot and cabernet sauvignon, but who knows? First-growth rose anyone?

Not surprisingly, many experts are scoffing at the ntion of Bordeaux changing direction. Wine critic Yohan Castaing told the Telegraph: “It’s not because rosés made in other parts of France work well that they’ll work in Bordeaux. They’re not really part of Bordeaux’s DNA.”

Back to Bern's Steakhouse

Most people who are deep into wine have made the trip to Bern’s Steakhouse in Tampa, Fl. It’s equivalent to Mecca for those who appreciate an aged wine alongside a good steak. Opened in 1956 by the legendary Bern Laxter, it has been filling the house for decades for those who enjoyed dry -aged steaks. .

Bern loved his wine and amassed a collection so huge that he needs an adjacent warehouse to store them. The list, once chained to the table after it began to disappear, is so extensive it would take days to peruse it.

I’ve frequented this place a half a dozen times and it never fails to please, but I learned a valuable lesson the last time I was there with my wife. I enjoyed a 2010 Marsanny and a 1998 Beaulieu Vineyard cabernet sauvignon from the restaurant’s extensive wine-by-the-glass offering. Where can you find wines like this by the glass other than at Bern’s? Both were around $22 a glass, which I thought was reasonable for their age.

We decided to order a bottle of wine for dinner and I decided to let the waiter — who said he was a “sommelier” — find something special within a $100-150 price range. He was gone forever and, frankly, didn’t give it much attention. He came back with two wines from the Rhone Valley — one I didn’t even recognize and the other was a 2008 Jaboulet Crozes-Hermitage. I enjoyed this wine for decades but questioned whether it was still good. I decided to trust his assurance.

The wine was actually fine, but I remarked to my wife that I was surprised that this was the best he could do. Afterall, it’s an average wine and the budget I gave him was reasonable. The list was extensive and I didn’t restrict the region.

He said something that annoyed me. He said the top sommeliers protected the best wines for its regular customers. The waiter said if a customer liked a particular wine, they would declare it off limits in case he wanted it again. Now, I get that regular customers who patronize the restaurant year-round deserve better access to the best wines. But here’s the lesson for me: pick my own wine.

I was entirely capable of finding my own wine and I knew I could have done better. But I thought the waiter (who said he was a sommelier of some level) knew what was really showing well.

If you go, pick your own wine.

Sacre bleu, not French wine!

President Trump is threatening to impose a tax on French wine shipped to this country in retaliation for France’s new tax on digital companies. The French tax would include Google, Amazon and Facebook — none of which are allies of the president but American companies nonetheless.

The war of words could mean that American consumers will pay more for their beloved French wine, but how much more is unclear. Those who favor French Bordeaux and Burgundy probably will not be discouraged by a small tax increase. Less wealthy wine consumers aren’t buying French wine anyway.

The only remarkable event here is that Trump doesn’t drink so it is rather ignorant for him to proclaim that American wine is better. I won’t get into that circular argument, but really, Trump should just stick with the argument that this is a counter-measure, not an issue of which country produces the best wine.

Thinking outside of the box

So, you know about wine in the box, right? And you get your crackers from a box, right? Now, how about it if you could get both in the same box? WOW, Tom, this is the best thing since sliced bread!

cheez it.jpg

Kellogg Co. is released a special wine/cracker box on July 25 that pairs a red blend of House Wine cabernet sauvignon and merlot with its addictive Cheez-its. I haven’t tasted the wine — and probably never will — but I suspect its quality is on the same level as Original Cheez-its. I mean, I can’t stop eating Cheez-its, but I wouldn’t serve them alongside a Bordeaux.

The wine serves 20 pours, which is quite generous. The package costs $25.

The sale begins at 5 p.m. on the House Wine website.

Yes, it's the same wine

I wish I had a nickel for every time someone claimed that a wine they had at home was not the same as the wine they tasted at the winery. They suspect that there was some hanky-panky going on.

“You know, I bet they pour really good stuff at the winery to suck you in. You buy a case when you get home and it’s not the same wine! They did a switch-er-roo.”

Nah. Here’s why the wines don’t taste the same:

You were on vacation in Napa and Chateau Blotto was the third stop of an afternoon blitz. You were enjoying the view — the vineyards, the barrels and the woman pouring the wines behind the counter. You have this tasting sheet in front of you and a place to mark down how many bottles you want. The wife agrees the Blotto Single-Vineyard Fruit-gasm is the best wine she’s ever had in the world. Of course, you want to ship home a case!

Now, you’re having a pasta — the same one you’ve had for the last decade — and you pull out a bottle of Blotto’s Fruit-gasm.. Wait, you say, why does this taste like vinegar?

Setting has everything to do with how a wine tastes because what we see and feel is as much a sense as taste. Our environs can create a special mood in which the wine is as delicious as the experience. It’s the same wine — but the place isn’t as special at home.

I caution people to be careful about buying wines when they travel to wine regions. It is easy to get carried away and join a club or ship back wines. I’ve been sucked into this trap as well, but now I limit myself and buy only a handful of wines that I know aren’t distributed anywhere beyond the tasting room. I pay a lot for these wines, but I have a high standard to meet.

Enjoy the wines while you are there but remember that place has everything to do with the pleasure.

Canned applause

I’ve been dreading the urge to write a column about canned wines. I saw it more of an obligation than a desire to learn of the latest fad. I mean, didn’t we go through this with boxed wines? And screw tops?

Well, I did it. It didn’t take me but 15 minutes to blaze through about 20 of them before I felt comfortable saying I didn’t really like them. Sure, they are as convenient as a bag clip. You can toss them into a cooler and smother them with ice and then hand them out with the beer and soda — oops, don’t give the kid one instead of the Pepsi!

But, geez, I couldn’t get past the taste of aluminum. A straw didn’t help. A glass helped, but if you can’t haul a glass bottle to a picnic, why would you take a Riedel? Maybe I’m a fuddy duddy about cans and boxes, but I just can’t look at my cellar and see stacked cans.

Those who do like them had better be careful. The 375ml cans are half a bottle and pack more alcohol per volume than beer. Don’t think you can chug this stuff and not feel pain in the morning. Some cans are only 250ml and 175ml, so that’s an improvement for someone who wants to minimize their intake.

Despite my thoughts and many of yours, I’m sure, sales are increasing. Canned wine represents only 1 percent of wine sales, but the market is growing. So do warts.

German wines are not kaput

I just returned from a cruise on the Rhine and Mosel rivers. Looking up at the vineyards on death-defying mountainsides gave me a greater appreciation for wines that I often find ho-hum.

One vineyard on the Mosel is on a 65-degree incline, making it the steepest vineyard in the world. There are more deaths among vineyard works in these regions than, say, the flat lands of Bordeaux. Occasionally, I saw a track that carried tools and buckets of grapes to a road atop the vineyard, but mostly it was obvious that workers had to prune and pick the grapes by hand.

Most confusing, was an array of vineyards that went alternately from horizontal to vertical. There was no obvious explanation. Vertically planted vines would open the vineyard to significant erosion in heavy storms. Many times the vines were trained on wire, thus allowing workers to move horizontally between plants. The horizontally planted vineyards also allowed workers to move horizontally — much safer, but I can’t imagine their shin splints.

Say it like it is

This wine description of a South African shiraz is a perfect set up and a great ending. Read it through.


Sine die, Robert Parker

This week Robert Parker Jr. made his retirement official. It wasn’t a surprise that the most renown wine critic was hanging up his corkscrew — he had turned over the reigns of his famous Wine Advocate to Lisa Perrotti-Brown some time ago. But, like politicians and athletes, comebacks are always around until someone makes it official.

I owe a lot to Parker because he created the model of a critic when he launched his publication in 1978. I was living in Maryland at the time and quickly subscribed to what was then the Washington-Baltimore Wine Advocate (he dropped the city names a year later). The publication was a tabloid newspaper for several years and largely unknown until Parker broke rank with more famous critics who had panned the 1982 vintage. Parker said it was going to be one of the century’s best. And, it was.

Parker invented the 100-point scale too. Until then, most critics just described the wine and left the reader confused. Others used various devices to indicate recommendations, but it was the 100-point scale — now widely used — that gave Parker a wide range to classify his wines.

A lawyer by trade who fell in love with wine while with his wife in France, Parker was ruthless in using his pen too. He accepted no advertising from the start and thus had no allegiance to anyone other than to himself. Once famous, his scores could make or break a producer. Any wine that scored less than 90 points was largely ignored; those that did score high, particularly the obscure wines, flew off the shelf. And those wineries who experienced high score raised prices and profits.

He was an honest, uninfluenced wine critic people could trust. And, I did. I bought several cases of the 1982s and remember walking through a Washington, D.C., store with his publication in my hand. I have one bottle left — a Gruard Larose that he scored 95 points. I bought my wines on futures. The Gruard Larose cost me about $15 and I was mortified to be spending this much money on a bottle of wine.

Parker’s influence changed the direction of wine too. Bordeaux producers, eager for high scores, actually changed their wines to gain his favor. And, they weren’t the only wines. Those ripe, high-alcohol and extracted wines we taste today started with Parker. (He later launched Beaux Freres in the Willamette Valley with his brother).

Many critics of the critic faulted him for warping French producers who were no longer making traditional wines.

I met Parker when he was at a book fair at the Naval Academy in the early 1980s. He was just becoming known and few people were stopping by his table to buy his first book, “Bordeaux,” a compilation of wine reviews starting with the 1961 vintage. It was a bible to every Bordeaux collector.

My second encounter with Parker was when he invited users of his online journal to write an essay on why people were so critical. He was obviously stewing over the barrage of personal insults that came from some dust-up I can’t remember. I responded — and won a set of expensive wine glasses that I still use.

Parker had the most amazing palate — so good that it was insured for millions. But it wasn’t everyone’s palate. When people felt differently about a wine he panned but they liked, his critics blamed him rather than realizing that wines are personal and that criticism isn’t always a science.

Thank you, Mr. Parker, for everything you’ve done to wine and to wine criticism.

There's more than one epic wine in Australia

I’ve been fortunate to enjoy Penfold’s Grange a number of times and I’m still waiting for my 1995 to mature. But, wow, where has Yarra Yering been all of my life? Maybe I should wonder where I’ve been.

I was recently gifted a 1982 Dry Red Wine No. 2 Shiraz from this producer — thanks, Ben, if you’re reading this! Still very much alive, it was silky bliss. It spent 21 months in 50 percent new French oak and contains a little mataro, viognier and marsanne. Generous aromatics, light red color, red berry flavors and a dash of spice.

This producer has been around for a long time. Established by Dr Bailey Carrodus in Yarra Valley, the first vintage was in 1973. It makes a Red Wine No. 1, which blends Bordeaux grapes. These wines sell for more than $100 a bottle today and obviously age very well.

Other than Grange, I haven’t cellared much Australian wine for very long. Maybe I should.

China adds to wine tariffs

California wine producers are going to suffer from tariff battles between the U.S. and China. The Chinese announced that effective June 1 it will add another 15% to tariffs on US wine imports. That’s on top of the 15% imiplemented in April 2018 and another 10% increase last September, according to the Wine Institute.

The total tax and tariff rate will be 91%.

China is second only to the U.S. in total value of wine sales. Exports to China and Hong Kong have grown 450% in the last 10 years. They dropped 25% in 2018 when the tariffs were first increased.

This is bad news for U.S. wine producers and it could mean a price increase to consumers from this country.

Paul Hobbs gives greatness to malbec

I confess to not being a fan of malbec. A grape variety basically abandoned by Bordeaux producers, malbec has found a new life in Argentina. Winemakers here have taken advantage of the soil and climate to turn malbec into something more than a blending grape. And, consumers love its fleshy, fruit-forward appeal — not to mention its affordable price.

How ever my lack of enthusiasm for the grape, I came across an orphan in my wine cellar the other day: a 2010 Vina Cobos Bramere. I left it buried among my Bordeaux for years and decided to open it with the prediction it would be over the hill. It was not. The 9-year-old wine was still chock full of tannins. And, it was delicious.

Had I thought more of its creator and less of the grape variety, I wouldn’t have been so surprised. Paul Hobbs, the mastermind behind some of the most complex and heady reds in Napa and Sonoma counties, is the name behind Vina Cobos. Hobbs has been developing property in the Mendoza region for two decades. If there is anyone who can appreciate terroir’s influence on a wine, it’s Paul Hobbs. Two vineyards in Luján de Cuyo and Valle de Uco produce chardonnay, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and malbec grapes.

If you like Hobbs’ wines and if you like malbec, the Bramare will open your eyes.