Tom's blog

Revisiting an old friend

When I first started to write about wine in the 1980s, I joined an elite assembly of trades people who tasted more than 100 Italian wines at a formal tasting in New York City. Leading the tasting was Carlos Mastroberardino, a young man who was the new generation of wine producers to make wine in Campania. At the time, this region wasn't as highly regarded as, say, the Piedmonte or even neighboring Tuscany. But the grape varieties that date back to Roman times were just as noble as nebbolio and sangiovese. Campania wines are more well regarded today.

I reunited with Carlos many years later while a cruise ship stopped near his Italian home. He met me in Amalfi where we dined on fish and sipped his new releases. I'm surprised I was able to get on the ship nearly 3 hours later.

So, I have an affection for these wines that perhaps is influenced by Carlos' hospitality, but also by the history behind the wines and the grape varieties that, thanks to Mastroberardino, are now grown outside of Pompeii.

The other day I was walked through a store and spotted a single bottle of a 1998 Mastroberardino Radici Riserva from Taurasi. It was $120, a retail price I've never paid for a wine. I lifted the bottle several times and put it back down. Then, with the encouragement of my wife ("just get it, for cryin' out loud!"), I bought it.

I have several younger vintages of this wine in my cellar but a 1998 still on the market was a rare find. We opened it that night and served it with rack of lamb. Wow, it was everything I imagined and still with tannin!  Black cherries, cassis, rust color to show its age, incredible aromatics and long finish.  It was worth every penny.

Alas, I looked on line and found that I could have ordered this wine for $70. 

Is there really an "old world" style?

Last night I led a hearty band of wine enthusiasts through a pretty exhausting comparison of old world and new world wines. It was far from comprehensive, but the selections provided the right platform to compare wines from the two worlds. The results even surprised me.

Old world wines -- principally from European countries -- tend to be more subtle, less alcoholic, higher in acid and more restrained. This is principally a result of a cooler climate that doesn't allow the grapes to ripen as well. But, the wines are also a product of tradition. Generations of old world producers have for centuries made wines for their villages and to accompany meals. The names of their villages -- not the grape variety -- is still the sole focus on their labels.

New world producers -- Australia, New Zealand, North and South America, etc. -- on the other hand, are more likely to use technology and science to produce wines in much warmer climates. The name of grape variety or the vineyard play a more important role on the label than the village where the grapes are grown. 

The differences can be found in the glass, as my tasting vividly proved. A sauvignon blanc from the Loire Valley was clean, simple, medium bodied while a New Zealand sauvignon blanc was bold, stylish and grassy.

The red wines compared similarly. I liked the contrast between a Spanish monastrell and a California mourvedre (same grape). The Rioja monastrell was rustic with earthy, barnyard aromas, medium body and subtle spice and oak flavors. The Cline Mourvedre -- a perennial favorite of mine -- was fruit-forward with ripe cherry fruit flavors and more oak influences, such as spice, vanilla and even a dash of chocolate. The first would do better with food than the ripe and jammy Cline.

Two new world cabernet sauvignon blends -- Unanime from Argentina and Columbia Crest H3 from Washington state -- were classic contrasts to a simple Bordeaux blend from Chateau Fonseche.  The Bordeaux, made in a cooler climate, revealed black berry and currants while the other two had more black cherry flavors that come from a warmer climate. 

As the climate changes between wine-growing regions, the differences are becoming more subtle. But as winemakers travel between regions and learn from each other, so merges their wine-making techniques. Old world countries have been adopting new world practices, including an emphasis on organic farming. And, there is the risk of over-generalizing these differences.

Not to be underestimated is the desire of new world producers to back off its fruit-forward, highly extracted and alcoholic style. This was a style embraced by international wine critic Robert Parker Jr. who could break a producer who chose to ignore his high scores. But it also impressed American consumers who tend to like ripe, bold wines with a dash of residual sugar.

At the end of the tasting, one taster said the comparisons allowed her to better define the kinds of wine she likes. The next time she goes blindly into a wine shop or restaurant she can tell a merchant that she's looking for an old world wine that is more subtle and less ripe. That was music to my ears. It's not that she won't enjoy a New World wine, but she knows what her palate likes and she can intelligently describe it.

Such comparisons are invaluable in understanding that geography and technology between continents have great influence in taste.

The Shark still hitting them

I recently met up with Morgan Norman, the daughter of Australian golf legend Greg Norman. She was in Naples, FL, to attend one of The Shark's iconic shoot-outs but also there to talk about her father's wine. 

Although her father could make some pretty expensive wines to sell to his well-heeled friends, he has instead chosen a course that puts wine into the hands of duffers. Most of his wine -- made in Australian, New Zealand and the United States -- sells for $14 a bottle. And it's good.

For more, see my column on another page.


Getting started in 2018 on the right foot

At the start of every year I exhort my readers to get out of their comfort zones and drink something besides chardonnay and merlot. And, I remind myself too.  All of us have our favorites and when pushed, we fall  back on them much too often. Such a shame when the market is flush with wines from so many countries and with obscure grape varieties that deliver new flavors.

I at least got the year off on the right foot by heading to local stores in search of something different. I stopped first at a store that sells only organic wines -- those made without the use of sulpites, pesticides, herbicides, fungacides and any other nasti-cides. Frankly, I don't see how such a store will survive -- it just opened -- but perhaps I'm underestimating the interest in natural wines.

Organic notwithstanding, I was stunned by the 2015 Domaine Vaceron Sancerre ($35). Unlike so many uninspiring sancerres I've tasted, this one was full-bodied, lush in texture and long in finish. I couldn't stop at one glass.  Was the quality a direct result of organic farming -- or was it a gifted winemaker's skills?

I was also impressed with the organic 2014 Chateau Ste Anne ($42) from Bandol. I can't remember the last time I had a rouge from Bandol. Score a big one on the "something different" meter.

Stopping at another store, a merchant recommended the Passi di Orma from the village of Castagneto Carducci in Bolgheri. Like the super Tuscan wines made east of this relatively new Italian region, it is a delicious blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc. Although these are traditional Bordeaux grapes, it was interesting to taste them grown in a different terroir.  This is a region I have forgotten, but one to watch -- another victory for my new year's resolution.

On a quest to find more gems from the Roussillon and other southern French regions, I bought the Caladroy "Les Schistes" ($16) and the Ollieux Romanis "Classique" ($17) from Corbieres. I haven't tried them yet, but I'm excited.

And that's the whole point.  I look forward to trying a new wine, which is far different than beginning a meal with a mass-produced wine that tastes like so many others in its category.

Look around: there are plenty of unique wines just waiting to be discovered.

Ringing in the year with champagne memories

At this time of the year I can't help but think of the people of Champagne. I always wonder how they celebrate the new year -- surely they drink champagne year-round, so what's the special drink to ring in the new year? Probably vintage champagne.

If you have been to Champagne, you know the pride of the champenois -- and their formality. Every time I've been there my hosts have greeted me in suit coats. That's so totally unlike winemakers from Burgundy and most of southern France. Perhaps because the local quaff is associated with wealth and culture, they feel the need to be a bit more formal.

Remi Krug

Remi Krug

My favorite memory is that of Remi Krug, who with his older brother Henri was the fifth generation to make Krug champagne. Henri died in 2013 at age 75 and passed the baton onto his younger brother, Remi, in 2001.  The company was bought by LVMH in 1999.

My wife and I tasted champagne, including the ultra-expensive tete-de-cuvee Clos du Mesnil, in Epernay and then drove with Remi behind the wheel to Charles Boyer's Les Crayeres for lunch. Les Crayeres is a three-star Michelin restaurant and when Krug walked in, everyone paid attention. I don't think there has ever been a more stellar moment in my wine career -- eating lunch with Remi Krug at an expensive restaurant and drinking more Clos du Mesnil.

Krug champagne is special because it ages its wine in small oak casks -- most other houses age it in stainless steel. Krug also holds the champagne in bottles for as long as 8 years before it is released. This is a more expensive process and hence Krug wines can cost more than $300 a bottle. But the champagnes are more complex than your average non-vintage brut.

I also dined with Claude Taittinger at Chateau de la Marguertterie, a castle used primarily for fetes and receptions. Like Krug, he too was immaculately dressed and so proper my wife and I had a hard time relaxing even after a few glasses of Comtes de Champagnes rose.

Alexandre Chartogne

Alexandre Chartogne

One of y fondest memories was that of Chartogne-Taillet in the little village of Merfy. We had stopped there because the Chartogne family was one of the first to make grower champagnes. Instead of selling their grapes to a cooperative or a producer, the family had decided to make their own. This was in the early 1990s and the movement was just getting started. Phillippe Chartogne and his wife warmly greeted us in his house and showed us the garage where he made his wines. Half way through the interview, his two kids came in from school and we decided to leave. He was disappointed that we weren't staying for dinner, but we had other appointments. The hospitality was unbelievable and today his wines rank among our favorites.

By the way, one of the kids -- Alexandre -- is now the winemaker.

Great memories and I'll be toasting them on New Year's Eve.

Resolutions to ponder -- with wine

The fast-approaching new year gives me time to think about what I want to do. There is only so much I can control, but wine plays such a big role in my life that I need to chart a course that will open my mind to new ideas and challenges. Here are five resolutions we all need to follow:

  • Just say no to bad wine. Too many times I'm asked about someone's favorite wine and to be nice I just shell out a gratuitous compliment. But we need to be more honest about wines we don't like. It could be Chateau Petrus that makes you pale or it could be Menage a Trois. What you like and what I like are probably seas apart. But my preferences shouldn't be yours. Don't follow the herd and laud a wine that has earned high scores. If you don't like it, say it. And don't apologize.
  • Drink champagne year-round. Champagne prices have come down so that you can afford to drink the real thing out of season -- season being the last two months of the year. You don't even have to wait for something to celebrate -- life is celebration. Drink champagne in February or July and you'll think of something to celebrate.
  • Book a trip to California. Napa has been ravaged by fires, but they are still making wine there. In fact, damage to wineries and vineyards has been vastly overestimated. Unfortunately, people have canceled trips. Help them out and enjoy everything Napa has to offer.
  • Think out of the box. I've done tastings that get people out of their chardonnay/merlot boxes. I introduce them to gruner-veltliner, albarino, beaujolais, charbono, roussanne, and other grape varieties that deliver new flavors. With all the wine on the market, why should we be stuck on the same old grape varieties? Let's get out of our comfort zones.
  • Think more about wine and learn. Are you thinking about the wine you are drinking, or just working on a buzz? Spend more time swirling the wine in the glass, taking in its aromas and pondering over its flavors. Maybe you can't identify much, but at least try. Read a book on tasting or attend a tasting and learn what to look for. It's not hard: most pinot noirs taste like cherries; zinfandel reminds you of plums and blackberries; syrah is strawberries; chardonnay is tropical fruit and apples; pinot grigio is peach and apricots. Think about these descriptors and see if you taste them. Go on line and find out what the winemaker tastes and smells in his wine.

Now, get out there and taste!


Duckhorn's neighbors benefit too

I was perusing the wines of an upscale wine shop in my community and couldn't help but overhear a conversation a wholesale salesperson was having with the shop's wine buyer.  His mission was to sell a particular merlot, whose name I did not catch. While they both sipped the wine, the salesperson said, "It is made from property right next to Duckhorn's Three Palms vineyard. You know, the one that got Wine Spectator's number one wine of the year award?"

I was amused. Chances are he never pointed that out before the award was granted earlier this year. But, being a good salesperson, he was gong to use whatever trick he could to sell this merlot. And Duckhorn's newfound fame had coattails to ride.

Does proximity make a difference? If a particular vineyard makes a  great wine, does that mean the one adjacent to it do just as well? I mean, how different could the soil be?

It could be a lot different. One vineyard could be on a slope and the other at the bottom of a hill where the soil is very different. They could have different sun exposures and micro-climates. Even beyond the weather and soil, a  winemaker has great influence over a wine's character. The path from crush to bottle is often winding and how a winemaker uses the techniques available to him trumps terroir. 

For centuries, Bordeaux and Burgundy producers have tried to ride the fame of their prestigious neighbors, but wise buyers know there is more to making a good wine than having a good neighbor. 

The quest to find an exclusive wine -- sans perfume

My nephew, who works in a high-class New York restaurant, was visiting me recently and told me of a special wine sold at his eatery. I had never heard of it, so of course I did my due diligence and then set off on a quest to find it. No success yet.

The wine is the Frank Cornelissen MunJebel from Sicily -- specifically Mt Etna. I have no idea what it tastes like, but I have this driving need to find out. This is the sort of thing that drives up prices -- people willing to pay anything for a price. Prices of his unique wines range from $45 to $250.

 I suspect I will find it only in restaurants and that's a pet peeve. Producers want to showcase their wines and are quite satisfied having it all sold on premises. That people like you and me can't get in a store and instead have to pay a 300% mark up bothers them not one whit. Aaaghhh!

The web site breathes exclusivity. But my favorite part is the producer's willingness to allow tours by reservation -- as long as visitors don't smell of perfume or aftershave. 

And, there is another pet peeve. I've been in countless tastings room with people reeking of some strong scent plastered on their faces in hopes of securing a compliment or something more. You can't hope to pick up a bouquet from a wine with such competition.  So many people are unaware of what havoc they are wreaking on a tasting room when they shower with AquaVelva.

Is it me or is the glass getting bigger?

I have very nice antique, crystal wine glasses in the cupboard that I never use. They are beautiful to display, but the size of the bowl is impractical. I'd be constantly refilling glasses if I put them on a table. I often muse that my ancestors must have sipped wine very slowly or spent their time refilling their glasses.

 Now I find that a study in England confirms that wine glasses have grown. They've doubled in size since 1990, but the Brits say the growth is more significant if you go back 300 years. They are seven times larger than those used by our ancestors three centuries ago.

I'm sure Georg Riedel would argue that today's glasses are designed to give wine more exposure to air and thus extract more aromas and flavors. All of this is true, but the unintended consequence may be greater consumption.  When the doctor asks you how much wine you drink, you say "oh, just a couple of glasses." But a small glass half filled is probably 3 ounces; one of the more popular goblet can half 8 ounces if it's half filled.

Coincidentally, wine consumption has risen dramatically over the years. Whether that's because the bigger glasses encourages more drinking is unproven. 

Treats from the Ribera del Duero

Tinto Figuero has released several new vintages of its excellent line of tempranillo from the Ribera del Duero. Three separte bottlings – one aged 15 months in barrel, a second aged for 12 months in barrel and the third from old vines – show the depth and character that comes from this DO region. 

Tinto Figuero's Vinas Viejas (old vines) 2014  ($68) is a special wine with elegance, velvet texture and finish. Intense notes of red currants, raspberries and anise give it a broad palate we couldn't stop enjoying.  

We also enjoyed the Tinto Figuero 15 2013 ($66), with its dense darker fruit flavors and layered flavors of cocoa, spice and black pepper. 

The producer's Tinto Figuero 4 2016 ($22) is reasonably priced and gives you an idea of what the producer and region can do. 

These wines are worth cellaring too. 

Prosecco fights to keep is name

There are few wines that have had the meteoric rise of prosecco. Long famous in its native Italy, the sparkling wine could never compete with real champagne or even sparkling cava from Spain. The reason was more about marketing, but it was cost that propelled sales to new heights.

Today prosecco -- made from the glera grape instead of the traditional chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier -- is one of the fastest growing segments of the wine market. It is doing so well, that Australian is trying to compete with a sparkling wine it wants to call "prosecco." That development has lead Italians to protect its hold on the name in negotiations for a free trade deal between Australia and the European Union.

Italy is seeking a Geographic Indicator that would reserve "prosecco" for its country of origin. Champagne has earned that right, although its the name of the region as well as the beverage. Prosecco is a village near Trieste, but today the name is used in nine Italian regions.

This all seems silly to most people, but it means a lot of money to producers. Australian prosecco has boomed just like Italian prosecco.

I remember well similar vociferous battles over the name "chenin blanc," used in France and still in other countries, "burgundy" which was copped by E&J Gallo for a fruity jug wine that didn't even have pinot noir, and "champagne" which eventually was abandoned by sparkling wine producers in the United States.

Legendary Duboeufs carry on in Beaujolais

So many people turned up their noses at beaujolais even though it represents one of the most underrated best values from France. Beaujolais has suffered from annual assaults of its own making, namely the release of the frivolous and meaningless beaujolais nouveau. Yet the French wine made with gamay beaujolais grapes has as much character and purpose as any other grape variety. 

Franck and his father, Georges Duboeuf

Franck and his father, Georges Duboeuf

I was reminded of my support for Beaujolais while recently talking to Franck Duboeuf, son of the legendary Georges Duboeuf. I met the elder statesman, still clinging to his title of the "king of beaujolais," in the late 1980s when he was pushing beaujolais to a Washington, D.C. market. His ruffled, curly head of hair was naturally dark then -- not so today, but neither is mine the same. Back then, beaujolais nouveau was arriving via helicopters, submarines, sky divers, hot air balloons and any other gimmick sure to attract a drinking party of revelers.

However silly nouveau, it has managed to bring attention to a region that struggles in the shadows of Burgundy to its north. Perhaps it can't compare, but the crus from 10 Beaujolais villages make some terrific wines that can actually be aged.

For more about this region and my interview with Franck Duboeuf, see my column on another page.

Catching up with Greg Norman wines

When speaking of Greg Norman, it's hard to pinpoint one achievement. As a golfer, he won two British Open Championships and stood atop the list of best golfers for 331 weeks, eventually replaced by Tiger Woods. He's designed more than 100 golf courses and owns 14 businesses. 

He's also established a successful wine business that despite the competition remains a household name. Today I caught up with the wines and with his daughter, Morgan, a full-time resident of Jupiter, Fl. who helps to market the wines and was instrumental in much of the label design.

Morgan and her father have residences on Florida's East Coast and were in Naples for their annual QBE Shootout that this year will raise money for children's cancer. You can't speak of golf without speaking of wine because Norman often sees the two together. His business pattern is to first establish a golfing center in areas where the demographics are good, then introduce his wines to the market. If you recognize the name in golf, you will recognize it on a wine label too. Very smart.

Norman instructs his wine team to make a wine that can be enjoyed with food and is reasonably priced so that most people can afford to buy it. Across the board, the wines are approachable and well priced at around $15. These are wines that aren't over-oaked or over-extracted like so many other wines.

Morgan says that her father has resisted the trend to make fruit bombs, much like many of the Australian shirazes that have flooded the U.S. market. And now the market is coming back in the direction of his style of making a more balanced, less alcoholic wine. 

I'll be writing a column about these wines in the next several weeks. Meanwhile, I highly recommend you try the 2015 Greg Norman Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon, 2015 Santa Barbara Pinot Noir and the 2016 Eden Valley Chardonnay.  All of them are priced under $15.

Making your holidays sparkle

I hate to admit that I don't think of champagne as an every-day wine. It's usually associated with celebrations -- such as Christmas and New Year's. Most champagne is sold in December, so obviously I'm not alone in opening some bubbles at this time of the year.

My wife and her girlfriends love champagne year-round and I pour more for them than I do for myself. To me the bubbles just get in the way of a good wine, but then I recently opened several champagnes that brought me to my senses. The bubbles are part of champagne's character and behind it is a good wine.

That precise thought came to mind when I sipped a 2012 Taittinger. This house is known for its exquisite chardonnay-based champagnes and this vintage version didn't disappoint. It also brought back a fond memory of dining with Claude Taittinger in the late 1980s at Chateau de la Marquetterie, a palatial property that served as a command post during World War I. It was bought by Pierre Taittinger in 1932.


Taittinger has been one of my favorite champagnes ever since I first tasted its Comtes de Champagne. It stands alongside Krug, Cristal and other top cuvees of the most prestigious champagne houses. You never had champagne like this and one sip will make you understand the difference between cheap sparkling wine and champagne. 

This northern region has given winemakers fits over the years, but with global warming it has been easier to ripen grapes. In fact, I have to wonder if one day Champagne won't be ideal for still wine. Could the next best pinot noir or chardonnay be coming from Champagne?

I have been sampling a lot of sparkling wine and champagne in the last couple of weeks. Not a bad gig. A column with my recommendations will appear in the next week or so.

Santa had better be nice

It's not me who should be nice. That is Santa's responsibility. I've been doing good things all year and damn if I'm going to accept some cheap bottle of Cheap Wine for Christmas. What about you? Have you dropped any hints or are you just throwing yourself to well-intended family members who will wrap another bottle of Menage a Trois?

Buying for the family wine snob isn't easy and it may be safer to just buy the guy some golf balls or a gift card at Home Depot. But if you endeavor to step bravely into the world of wine buying, I offer 5 suggestions.

1. Don't buy just any wine There are a ton of wines -- not all of them expensive -- that say "unique." Don't go anywhere near chardonnay or merlot, but instead consider alternative grape varieties that will intrigue your gift recipient. I'm thinking godello from Sicily, muller thurgau from Austria, cabernet franc from Chinon. Think emerging wine countries: Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia.

2. Think about the talked-about wines. Duckhorn's Three Palm Vineyards Merlot was the number one wine in the world in Wine Spectator's annual challenge. It will cost you nearly $100, though. Or think of David Phinney's new blends that draw grapes from an entire country, i.e. "F" is a blend of French grapes, "E" is for Spain, etc. They will cost under $25. 

3. Think local. I dread to recommend this because there are some crazy peach wines from obscure wineries. But, still, most people ignore some of the great wines produced in states like New York, Texas and Virginia.  Chosen carefully, they will be a pleasant adventure.

4. Think outside the wine box. Most people would love a bottle of port to wile away a Sunday night around the fire. An ice wine from Canada is incredible, yet most people haven't tried it. There is also sauteurne that can be pricey, madiera, aged sherry, cognac.

5. Think bubbles. A bottle of real champagne -- not prosecco -- is a luxury and a timely gift to ring in the new year. You can now get champagne for under $50 from producers such as Pommery, Nicolas Feuillatte, Moet & Chandon and others.

If you don't want to buy wine or can't very well ship it across the country, turn a page and look at a good book. My favorite this year is "Cork Dorks" by Bianca Bosker. And there are other practical gifts: a Languiole corkscrew, a Riedel decanter, an aereator.

I have more suggestions in my column on another page. Keep checking back.

I hope this helps. Good luck!

Tasting No. 1

My wife and I had some neighbors and their adult children over for a steak dinner the other night. The neighbor wanted to take us all for dinner on the town, but I suggested instead a dinner at our house. She would buy Kobe steaks and I would provide the wine. I knew this would be a better and cheaper dinner than picking up a restaurant tab for six people. Plus, we love to entertain.

I pulled out several aged California cabernet sauvignons from Mt. Veeder and Episode and a 2003 Clos de Marquis from Bordeaux. None of them really impressed me, but then one of our guests, an oenophile from Chicago, mentioned that the 2014 Duckhorn Three Palms Vineyard Merlot had received the Wine Spectator's top wine in a list of 100 from all over the world.

Then, I remembered I had one in the cellar. So, we poured it and clearly it was the best wine of the evening. I can't remember the last time a merlot made number one on the magazine's list. Ever since the movie, "Sideways," merlot has struggled to get recognized. But the Three Palms, ever one of the best made, was deserving of the award. It was very complex and full bodied with layered dark fruit, spice, cedar, anise and a finish that just wouldn't die. But that's been the case for years.

Congratulations to Duckhorn. 

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. 

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....