Tom's blog

The Big Day

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.  This crazy American holiday is difficult for me to understand. I get that it's time for us to find someone to thank and that's cool, except I can't go to the grocery store without encountering someone who wants to pick a fight. Is there a "bah, humbug" for Thanksgiving?

I really think Thanksgiving is just a good reason to eat and drink with other people -- one big epicurean orgy.  I'm so in. 

I read that today -- Thanksgiving eve -- is the biggest day for drinking binges, as chronicled by those arrested for drunk driving on their way to the malls. I believe it. This morning, I'm salivating at what wines I'm going to serve over the next two days. Four people are joining us for prime Kobe steaks tonight; another three are coming over for a turkey feast tomorrow. Already the aromas from making stock are wafting through the house. Surely there is a candle to mimic this smell.

Some aged cabernets and Rhones are in order tonight. Tomorrow I will shift to pinot noir and chardonnay. Whew, no reruns except for maybe a welcoming glass of champagne. I know from past experience that when I get so excited, I tend to drink too much. You too, you say?

And the holiday season is just beginning....

Lite wine? Maybe not....

Just in the nick of time before the holiday binge, Weight Watchers has released its long-awaited low-cal wine. It's a New Zealand sauvignon blanc that doesn't eliminate calories, but reduces them from the usual 120 to 85 per glass. That gives the imbiber an opportunity to have another glass -- and thus kill the advantage.


I haven't tasted the wine -- available at Kroger's or through the WW website for $15 -- but I read that it's tart. Well, that's the case for most New Zealand sauvignon blancs. 

WW isn't the only one to market a low-cal wine. Skinny Girl has several on the market now, but other producers have abandoned diet wine. 

Alcohol gives a wine body, so it isn't all about the buzz. It strikes me that it would be better for a weight watcher to have just one traditional glass of good wine at the Thanksgiving table than two glasses of subpar wine.

Kosta Brown changing course

It was recently announced that Dan Kosta and Michael Browne are stepping down from the pinot noir powerhouse company they co-founded in the late 1990s. That in itself is a remarkable announcement, but to me it was overshadowed by the news that the producer's iconic, hedonistic pinot noirs would change course.

As reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, Kosta said the extracted style of Kosta Brown's pinot noirs is what made them so successful -- and the co-owners so rich that they could leave and start another wine company. But today these wines are a poster child of what NOT to do. Like many other trends, the over-extracted and riper-style pinot noirs are presumably not as highly regarded as they once were. It reminds me of the old chardonnays that were way too creamy, extracted and oaky. That trend changed too.

Getting more recognition nowadays are the balanced pinot noirs that are more cerebral and elegant -- not unlike the style found for centuries in Burgundy. But is such a shift really what consumers want -- or what winemakers want?

Kosta Browne got its breakthrough with the 2003 vintage that scored 96 points in the Wine Spectator. Demand soared so high that people are on its waiting list for more than 3 years. Only 15 percent of Kosta Browne is sold to wholesalers -- the rest are distributed from the winery to eager and well-heeled members. 

Recognizing the need to change directions to maintain profitability, new equity owner J.W. Childs wants to distance itself from Kosta Browne's reputation for ripe pinot noir. Even Kosta says his new venture with Browne -- Alden Alli -- will have less extracted pinot noirs. 

And, Kosta Browne's winemaker, Nico Cueva says he will use less oak, native yeasts and less extraction.

Although I prefer my sensual burgundies to pinot noir fruit bombs, I wonder how a leaner style will fare with consumers. Winemakers are sensing shifting winds, but big and juicy pinot noirs are still loved. Time will tell.

California's syrah making strides

With all the wines from which to choose, we often neglect syrah. Perhaps it’s because we think first of shiraz, those fruit-forward and often insipid knockoffs from Australia. OK, we all know Australia produces some incredibly dense and complicated syrah, but many are way too frivolous and ghastly overripe for us. 

So we happily reunited with the grape variety in a blind tasting among friends. These versions were from California and demonstrated that the grape can lead to some rich and complex wines. 

High on the list was 2014 Ramey Sonoma Coast Syrah ($40). Like its pinot noirs and chardonnays, Ramey’s syrah is made with care and attention to detail. It is balanced and more like a Northern Rhone syrah than an Australian shiraz. More classic in style with earthy, meaty aromas and a flavor profile that strikes the unami element. Dark berry flavors with a dash of olives and pepper. Ver supple and long in the finish. 

Two other favorites were the 2014 Dierberg Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara Star Lane Vineyard Syrah ($40) and the 2013 Donelan Sonoma County Cuvee Christine Syrah ($48).  

The Dierberg showed off generous and forward red berry aromas, fresh raspberry and plum flavors with fine tannins. This wine will age but shows well know when paired with barbecued meats. 

The Donelan syrah was more complex with effusive plum and cassis flavors and a hint of dark chocolate. Balanced but with acidity and balances a lush mouthfeel. Made entirely of syrah, it is a bold version that can be enjoyed now or aged.  Donelan makes an incredible Obsidian Vineyard Syrah that will set you back $105, but as we say, it's incredible. 

Hark, a new and good cabernet sauvignon

I'm often recommended a wine while walking the aisles of grocery stores. It's what sales staff do -- sell you a wine, and often a wine that makes them more money. 

I was a bit skeptical when a Total Wine staffer thrust a bottle of 2014 Courtney Benham Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. For $20, could it really live up to the expectations he pronounced on it?

I'm happy to say that it did. Although not as dense or complicated as other Napa cabernets twice the cost, it over-delivers. It has a fruit-forward style with hedonistic black cherry and raspberry flavors with a good dose of vanilla.  Delicious comes to mind.

This wine is drinking nice now, but has the tannin and alcohol to give it cellar endurance for a couple of years. 

Not all syrah has to be shiraz

With all the wines from which to choose, I often neglect syrah. Perhaps it’s because I think first of shiraz, those fruit-forward and often insipid knockoffs from Australia. OK, we all know Australia produces some incredibly dense and complicated syrah, but many are way too frivolous and ghastly overripe for me. 

So I happily reunited with the grape variety in a blind tasting among friends. These versions were from California and demonstrated that the grape can lead to some rich and complex wines. 

High on the list was 2014 Ramey Sonoma Coast Syrah ($40). Like its pinot noirs and chardonnays, Ramey’s syrah is made with care and attention to detail. It is balanced and more like a Northern Rhone syrah than an Australian shiraz. More classic in style with earthy, meaty aromas and a flavor profile that strikes the unami element. Dark berry flavors with a dash of olives and pepper. Very supple and long in the finish. 

Two other favorites were the 2014 Dierberg Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara Star Lane Vineyard Syrah ($40) and the 2013 Donelan Sonoma County Cuvee Christine Syrah ($48).  

The Dierberg showed off generous and forward red berry aromas, fresh raspberry and plum flavors with fine tannins. This wine will age but shows well know when paired with barbecued meats. 

The Donelan syrah was more complex with effusive plum and cassis flavors and a hint of dark chocolate. Balanced but with acidity and balances a lush mouthfeel. Made entirely of syrah, it is a bold version that can be enjoyed now or aged.   


My advice for starting a cellar

A friend of mine had asked me to put together a list of wines he should buy for his new wine cooler. An avid wine drinker, he stuck to the same wines year after year, content to rely on a name rather than risk money on alternatives.

He wanted to buy 10 cases and take my list to local retailers who would then bid for his business. That's an interesting concept, but one doomed to fail. Not every store will carry all of the wines I would recommend. Any wine the retailer special ordered would have to be purchased by the case because retailers just don't want to put wines on their shelves they don't particularly want. Ideally, he would buy a half-case of each and thus diversify his collection.

But he was determined, so I put together the order. We agreed that 5 cases would be priced $25-$35 and 5 cases would range from $35 to $75. The first batch would be for current drinking -- within, say, 3 years -- and the second, more expensive batch would be for long-term cellaring.

I didn't choose wines that I thought were really special, simply because they would be too hard to find and unlikely would be carried by the retailers he was going to visit. So here's the list of wines of good value -- they surpass similar wines of the same price.

MERLOT: Duckhorn Napa Valley $54; Markham Merlot ($25) 

CABERNET SAUVIGNON (Calif): Chateau Montelena ($58); Robert Mondavi ($30)                   

PINOT NOIR: Domaine Serene Evanstad ($70); Ponzi Tavola ($27)                 

ZINFANDEL: Ridge Pagani Vineyard  ($35); Seghesio Sonoma County  ($18)                                

BLENDS: Franciscan Magnificat ($55); Marietta Old Vine Red ($16) 

ITALIAN VARIETALS: Gabbiano Chianti ($30); Altare Barolo ($50)                                               

SPANISH VARIETALS: Can Blau ($17); Artadi ($18)

FRANCE: Sociando-Mallet Bordeaux ($40); Guigal Cotes du Rhone ($16)                      




Cayuse dumps an entire vintage

Let's all have a good cry. Cayuse, the Walla Walla estate launched by Christophe Baron in 1997, announced this week that it will not release any of its 2015 wines -- nearly 3,000 cases of 750ml bottles and 2,678 magnums.

Christophe Baron

Christophe Baron

Let me give you a perspective of the significance of this decision to both producer and customer. You can't get any Cayuse in the store. You have to be on a mailing list and there's a 7-year waiting list for that too. The wines sell for more than $100 each -- the iconic Bionic Frog Syrah can fetch $300 on the open market if a customer wants to resell his allocation. These wines are coveted.

With this kind of money at stake, the financial consequence is huge for Baron, Washington's first biodynamic producer and a guy who insists on quality. The loss to the customer who salivates while waiting his allocation is equally catastrophic.

The cause of this decision? Bad corks.

In a letter to customers, the producer said during the early bottling process, "paraffin particulates caused by faulty corks was discovered." (Paraffin is often used to seal cork, a natural product of the bark of a cork tree). Bottling was immediately halted. The unnamed cork manufacturer insisted the problem was isolated to the first lot of corks and assured Cayuse that a second lot would be just fine.

It wasn't. The paraffin and an oily film was discovered in a random check and a professional analysis was done of the entire bottle. Researchers confirmed everything was defective. Cayuse offered refunds for the nine bottlings that had been released; another five bottlings were not released.

The letter to customers read, "We are devastated at the loss of these wines...As you know, there is considerable anticipation for the 2015 vintage from Cayuse Vineyards and the wines were outstanding prior to that bottling in May. In March, just two months before that bottling, Jeb Dunnuck of The Wine Advocate tasted barrel samples of these wines and scored them between 93 and 100 points."

Wow. By my calculation, the financial loss is more than $3 million.

However right the decision, it must have been painful. Surely they'll recover their costs from lawsuits and insurance, but the emotional loss cannot be satisfied. A lot of painsaking effort and stress goes into growing grapes from bud set to harvest. To see it all lost to a frickin cork?Mind boggling.... 

Show your support: visit a CA winery

It's been more than a week since fires devastated much of the landscape in California wine country, and already news organizations have shifted to new tragedies. But it's more than ashes that wine producers have to contend with.

Hotels and other tourism-related businesses are reporting massive cancellations in Napa and Sonoma while areas like Paso Robles are showing massive increases as visitors shift their plans. I suspect the Willamette Valley also will show an increase in visitors.

Most of the changes are being made without a good grasp of what is happening on the ground.  For the record, out of the 1,200 wineries in Mendocino, Napa and Sonoma counties, only 10 have reported damage.  The high moisture content of vineyards spared many of them still bearing fruit. However, 90 percent of the grapes had been picked by the time the fires arrived. The prized cabernet sauvignon still on the vines have thick skins and may not reflect smoke taint -- but even so producers will test the juice and decide whether it is worth bottling.

The bottom line is that California wine country is still worth the visit. The wine you'll be drinking in the tasting rooms won't be from this year's harvest anyway. And isn't the wine the goal of your visit?

Take a shower, sip a drink

I don't quite understand the need to drink while I'm in the shower, but apparently the makers of SipCaddy do. They have developed a $14 plastic drink holder that attaches to shower walls or bath tubs with suction cups. 

You must have a problem if you can't even take a shower without a can of Bud nearby.  OK, maybe I get someone lounging in a bubble bath with some champagne nearby, but do you really need a caddy?

Well, here it is for those who can't live without one.

Soap and sip with the Sipcaddy.

Soap and sip with the Sipcaddy.

It's about the people, not the wine

Several wine producers from Napa Valley have been posting on Facebook their experiences with the deadly fires that have literally engulfed wine country.  Many of them are expressing relief that they and their properties are safe while lamenting that others have not been so lucky.

One winemaker told about how her phone was ringing from customers asking questions about their wine orders. Really? With thousands of homes being ravagedby wire and more than 30 people dead, is this the time to ask a small wine producer to focus on their most recent order?

Unfortunately, many people from afar are more devastated by the loss of vineyards. However foreboding that image, it pales in comparison to the lives that have been lost. Even among those who have survived there is the loss of their homes to deal with. 

The vineyards will eventually recover and Napa Valley will be whole again sooner than you think. Let's just think about the fire's impact on people.

Fire ravages Napa, Sonoma counties

My heart and my prayers go out to friends in Napa and Sonoma counties who have been affected by a fire that has consumed 50,000 acres so far. At least 11 people have died, scores are missing and others are injured. Still more people have lost homes and businesses, including several wineries caught in the fire's path.

Having just survived a direct hit from Hurricane Irma, I can appreciate the angst of fleeing a home and not knowing what you will return to. My wife and I were lucky to return to a largely intact house, but others around us fared a lot worse. But hurricane damage -- much of it repairable -- pales in comparison to a fire that destroys everything.

What wineries were leveled or damaged hasn't been disclosed -- except for Signorello's total loss as well as Gallo's Frey operations -- because staffs have fled for safety and simply don't know. But they soon will and I suspect the damage will be immense and wide-spread. 

Most of the grapes have been harvested at this point, but just because they are in fermenters doesn't mean they are safe. The stainless steel containers will protect much of the juice, but buildings and oak barrels are surely to suffer, not to mention the vineyards.

There has been a lot of jabber about smoke taint that will impact grapes still on the vines. I experienced that several years ago when tasting a number of Mendocino County wines from the 2008 whose grapes were downwind of fire. I didn't find them pleasant. My bet is that the only grapes still on the vine may have been cabernet sauvignon -- the iconic grape that goes into top wines in Napa but a variety that is particularly susceptible to smoke taint. Given the caliber of some of these producers, I suspect that many of them will choose not to bottle their wines this year. 

The 2017 harvest will give us a lot to talk about when the smoke settles.

France suffers another crop loss

Today I was musing about France's shrinking dominance of the wine market. When I first got involved in writing about wine, France was well seated at the top. No one else made champagne, no one else's cabernet sauvignon could hold a candle to a first-growth bordeaux and Burgundy's pinot noir prices were in high demand despite commanding some of the highest prices in the world. The French were drinking more wine than water. French wines ruled.

Now, thanks to spring frosts in Bordeaux and summer storms in Champagne, French wine production is expected to shrink an average of 19 percent this year. Among the Bordeaux producers most severely impacted were Chateau Margaux and Chateau Petrus. Even harder hit are vineyards in southwestern France where production will decline 39 percent.

France and Italy compete for being the top wine producing country in the world. Together with Spain, the group makes more than half of the world's wines. But France's production has declined every year -- 11 percent since 2007. So, this year's loss will have an impact on its number one position.

Except for well-heeled collectors, I doubt most wine consumers will be impacted by this year's crop loss. That's because the global wine market is so diverse today that a drop in production in France really doesn't rate more than a blip.

Today's consumers have turned to Spain, Italy and emerging markets like New Zealand. Even the United States has a stronger role in the marketplace here as states like New York and Washington are earning a place on shelves.

French wine prices are likely to rise now, but there is so much more to choose from.

Popping a cork influences a wine's perception

There is an unending debate over screw-top closures. Do they preserve wine better and avoid cork taint -- or will they affect the flavors when the wine is stored over time?

Early research shows that screw-tops don't impart any artificial flavor to wine, but new research knows the mental impact they have on consumers.

Researchers at the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at Oxford University queried 140 participants who sampled two Argentinian malbecs, one with a cork and the other with a screw-top. The wines -- a Terrazas de los Andes and a Catena -- were tasted after the participants listened to a cork being removed and then a screw-top being opened. They were then asked to resample the wines after they personally opened bottles sealed with corks and screw-tops. They were unaware that were trying the same wines but sealed differently.

When asked, participants rated the cork-sealed bottles 15 percent better in quality. Only 13 out of participants said they preferred a screw-top.

Also cited as an influencing factor of whether the environment was festive. A popping cork, in other words, enhanced a celebratory mood.

I'm not surprised by any of this. Unleashing the fury of a cork influences perceptions. People are eager to enjoy wine and celebrate. Let the good times roll.

Patz & Hall on a tear


Patz & Hall, founded in 1988, and recently purchased by Ste Michelle Wine Estates is renowned for their focus on pinot noir and chardonnay from mostly small-lot and single vineyard sites. The winery owns no vineyards or winemaking facilities but maintains long-term grape growing contracts with some of California’s most prestigious vineyard owners.  

We have tasted Patz & Hall wines frequently over the past 10 years and are always impressed with the different expressions of pinot noir and chardonnay from sites sometimes only miles apart. 

We recently tasted several 2015 releases and as usual found several that we highly recommend. 

  •  Patz & Hall Chardonnay Russian River Valley Dutton Ranch 2015 ($38). Made from the prestigious Dutton Ranch grapes, some of which were planted almost 50 years ago. The wine presents delicious ripe pear and citrus notes especially tangerine. Just a bare hint of oak perfectly frames this elegant chardonnay. 

  • Patz & Hall Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast Jenkins Ranch 2015 ($60). Although we find most new releases from Patz & Hall ready to drink, this pinot noir could use 2-4 years to fully blossom. Black cherry fruit as well as some mocha and cola notes are present as well as some elegant oak notes. Be patient. 

  • Patz & Hall Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast Gap’s Crown Vineyard 2015 ($70). While some pinot noir is better suited to lighter style foods like salmon, tuna or chicken, this bold spicy pinot noir can go toe to toe with pretty much any red meat. Ripe cherry and cola notes dominate this medium to full-bodied pinot noir. 

Remembering the BV of old

One of my fondest memories from my early years of writing about wine is Beaulieu Vineyards. A friend was then the education director for Heublien, which at the time owned BV. He would often share many of the wines from the vast portfolio and I got a good understanding of this top-drawer Napa Valley producer.

The wine I remember the most was the BV Rutherford, which then cost around $14, if memory serves me correct.  Sourced from BV's prized Rutherford vineyard, it always exceeded its price in quality. I bought it by the case. 

BV 2014 Napa Valley Cab Sauvignon Beauty Shot Close Up.jpg

I was happy to again taste the Rutherford with the 2014 vintage. The price is now $33 a bottle but it continues to surpass its price in quality. I consider it to be a good value for collectors. It still has layers and layers of Napa Valley fruit, ranging from plums to cherries with hints of "Rutherford dust," cedar, and allspice.

I also tasted the 2013 BV Reserve Tapestry ($65), a Bordeaux blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, petit verdot, malbec and cabernet franc. This wine is huge and in need of aging but loaded with plum, black cherry and blackberry flavors.

Andre Tchelistcheff, the famous Russian emigre first to make reserve wines in Napa Valley, was BV's winemaker from 1938 to the mid-70s. He set the quality tone for these wines, especially the reserve Georges de Latour, and even in death he serves as a mentor. 

BV has undergone a number of ownership changes over the last couple of decades and for awhile it seemed to have lost its focus and its leadership position in the Napa Valley lineup. However, these wines seem to recapture the BV of old.

Thanks a lot, Irma

I'm sorry that I haven't posted in more than a week. My business was rudely interrupted by Hurricane Irma, which blew through my hometown of Naples and shut down my internet service for 9 days. 

The absence of access to the outside world gave me plenty of time to think, especially about my wine cellar that was perilously close to a total collapse. With the hurricane's eye bearing down on Naples, I sacrificed a 1986 Mouton-Rothschild on the eve of the storm because frankly I wasn't sure I'd ever see my wine again. It was given to me by my wife on Valentine's Day, 1988, and was symbolic of a rite we shared every Valentine's Day -- I made a romantic dinner and she bought me a nice bottle of wine. It cost $80 then; it was worth $900 today. And, it scored 100 by Robert Parker and James Suckling. It was damn good.

 My wife, mother-in-law and I were forced into a shelter when the threat of a storm surge was too ominous to safely ignore. When forecasters predicted a 10 foot surge, we expected to return to our house by boat. I paid last respects to my wine collection and left.

The surge didn't happen and I found minor damage to the house when we returned. Fortunately, the wine cellar was just as I had left it -- best bottles at the top and sacrificial bottles at the bottom. Unfortunately, we were without power and no power meant rising temperatures in the cellar. My fight wasn't over.

The well-sealed cellar held its temperature for a couple of days and only slowly declined. But by the fourth day, the temperature was 79 degrees. I was beginning to imagine corks easing their way out of the bottlenecks.

Two buddies from Maryland drove straight through with a generator and gear to hot wire my cellar to the electric panel -- the inside unit could be plugged into a generator but the outside unit was hot wired. Just as they rolled up, the power returned and my collection was saved.

Prior to the storm, I was studying generators and had selected one to install in February when my electrician buddy would be visiting for a week. So, my intentions were good --just not well timed. 

Those of you with collections should take heed of this advice: don't delay. Generators are hard to get at short notice and they are important even if you don't live in a hurricane-prone state. Power can be interrupted by snowstorms, mud slides, tornadoes, high wind or just some fruitcake cutting a cable. My generator will power the cellar, a few lights, the refrigerator, TV and a bit more. It cost me $1,100.

I shudder when I think of the wines I could have lost. There is the financial loss (uninsured), but equally important the emotional loss. Each of these bottles have made several journeys with me and have stories behind them. They are my children.

Drinking a priority wine


If you had a day to drink up your wine cellar, what wine would you start with? It was more than a fun, cerebral exercise for me.  With Hurricane Irma bearing down on Florida, I was faced with what to do with my 500-plus bottle cellar. Both the lack of AC and the threat of wind damage presented a dilemma: stay or flee.

In the end, I have decided to stay with my cellar -- we'll go down or survive, but happily together. But just the thought of losing my cellar got me to prioritize my drinking order. I even assembled three cases to tote in the car: some Gruard-Larose, Troplong-Mondot, Sociando-Mallet and odd bottles of Mouton-Rothschild and Grange.

My best bottle was a 1986 Mouton-Rothschild that my wife gave to me on Valentine's Day in 1988. It cost her $80 then; it's worth nearly $900 today. What better time to open it? It was sublime - everything I imagined it would be. I don't think I've ever tasted a better wine: intense floral nose with hints of lead pencil and cedar; smooth dark fruit, cassis flavors with fine and almost untraceable tannins.

Drinking such wine sets a lofty benchmark for Bordeaux for me. Dense, so balanced, so long in the finish, so perfect. It was superbly delicious and I'm glad I opened it. 



Why do people collect all those corks?

If you are like most people, you're reluctant to throw away your corks. You have no idea what to do with the corks, but you just can't throw them away. So they go into a basket or a big jar that remarkably becomes a room decoration. You probably save hotel shampoo containers too and somewhere in the house is a bag of restaurant matches. Seek help.


I was recently at a rented cabin in Washington and there in the corner next to the fireplace was a basket of corks contributed by the various renters who occupied the place over the years. By the names on the corks, the renters drank cheaply. I told the landlord I had never seen a collection of this size. He emailed me that a youngster, bored by the rain, once counted them -- 1,435 and still amassing.

In the kitchen drawers were a couple of cork trivets -- the landlord's gallant effort to put the corks to use. He could have built hundreds of these and made a mint at the local flea market.


I neighbor asked me to collect corks for her, then presented me with a gift: a house built with my corks and some crafty accessories. It was probably the most unique use of corks.

I did like a friend's wall hanging, a vertical display around a photo of him and his wife. Each cork came from a bottle they shared. It's enough to move a person to tears.


I had a party last night and found 15 corks sitting around this morning. It grieved me, but I threw them away. Sometimes a trashed cork is a piece of art.

The wine workout. Really?

I'm not sure this video inspires a healthly lifestyle, but it's funny. I mean, the woman is obviously fit -- that's good -- but she's guzzling from a bottle -- that's bad. Depending on how many reps she does, she could have a problem with balance. And that's really bad.