Tom's blog

Some wines should just take a rest

After spending a delightful breakfast with Dan Cohn talking about his accessible and reasonably priced cabernet sauvignon, I had quite the opposite experience speaking to Craig Becker, winemaker at Priest Ranch.

Becker has an envious selection of mountain-grown grapes on Vaca Mountain just south of St. Helena. Generally, vineyards located on mountain sides produce late-ripening grapes that in turn create massive wines with serious tannins and depth.

Indeed, these red wines are hardly approachable. Only the regular 2015 Priest Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon was drinkable. The estate’s Coach Blend, a Bordeaux-like blend, the Somerston Merlot and the Somerston Cabernet Sauvignon XCVI were closed, tannic and begging to be decanted or, better, aged.

Don’t get me wrong: these wines were great but far too early to enjoy. And that got me to thinking about the number of people who pay hundreds of dollars in restaurants to taste these wines. Even against a steak, I don’t see how they could be enjoyed.

Priest Ranch is now part of the Somerston Estate as a result of a purchase recently made to expand its vineyards. It is named after James Joshua Priest who settled the property in 1869. It was purchased by the Chapmans in 2004. All of its wines come from estate-grown grapes.

Perhaps the best wine of the tasting was the Priest Ranch Grenache Blanc 2016 ($20). Becker says the yield from this block is 20 tons an acre — but they drop 14 tons to get the results they want.

Bellacosa: finally a true wine to enjoy

I’m so tired of false wines. By that I mean those sappy popsicles that are loaded with sweet fruit and blended with no consideration for what makes sense. Oh, wait, there is a wine called Liquid Popsicle. And there are wines called Kitchen Sink to denote that everything but is a part of the blend, and Conundrum because the variety of grapes make it impossible to define.

But then comes along Bellacosa, a cabernet sauvignon that is appreciably honest.. The wine is balanced and the best $25 cabernet sauvignon on the market today. I am not exaggerating.

The genius behind this three-year-old brand is Dan Cohn, the son of Bruce Cohn whose cabernet sauvignons — B.R. Cohn — were legendary. When Bruce sold the business in 2015, Dan launched Bellacosa with the matra that his wine “had to look like a $100 bottle, it had to brink like a $50 bottle and it had to sell at $25.”

He traveled state to state for 308 days a year while married with child, staying in cheap hotels and putting his wines in the mouths of restaurant beverage managers, retailers and consumers — shoe-leather marketing. When I met up with him for breakfast, he pounded down two espressos — he would have four more before lunch. He is the Energizer Bunny of the wine world.

“I try to keep it under 20 espressos a day,” he quipped.

His first vintage of 25,000 cases sold out in 10 months. Wine Business named him one of the top 10 Wine Brands of 2016. Critics are raving about his wines.

Each restaurant he visits, he challenge doubters to blind taste his $25 Bellacosa alongside the best cabs on their wine lists. In fine restaurants, that can include Hall, Frank Family Vineyards and other prestigious brands that sell for considerably more. He calls this the “Bellacosa Bet” and if he wins the restaurant agrees to pour his wine by the glass. He hasn’t lost yet.

He makes only cabernet sauvignon from California’s north coast vineyards because that’s the grape variety he managed while working for his father. Last year he formed a joint venture with Deutsch Family Wine & Spirits.

What I found so refreshing in Bellacosa is that it didn’t follow the herd of most start-ups that are parlaying the consumer’s coco-cola palate for instant success from cheap blends loaded with sugar and plastered with some catchy name.

You’re a fool if you don’t try this wine.

Phinney sells another one

Wine genius David Phinney seems to have a pretty good deal going. He invents a label, makes it a marketing phenom, then sells it for a princely sum to a wine conglomerate.

Phinney’s most recent deal was to sell his Locations series to E&J Gallo. It was only a few years ago that Phinney was inspired to blend wines across regions and label them after the country’s designation. Resembling a bumper sticker, “F” was for France, “E” for Spain, “AZ” for Arizona, etc. There was no regard for boundaries in deciding which varieties to use in his blends. However quixotic, the wines were tasty — and reasonably priced at $20 a bottle. It was a formula that abandoned traditions that would be Phinney’s ticket to success.

The sales price was not disclosed.

Phinney already had a friendly business relationship with Gallo, having sold his Orin Swift wines to them just two years ago. Constellation now has the Prisoner brand.

Phinney was able to launch new labels without owning any vineyards or winemaking facilities. Think about that. He sells a label. Presumably, he stays aboard and makes the wine, but I suspect it is in name only.

Phinney’s latest wine is 8 Years in the Desert made under the Orin Swift label. It is a zinfandel blend that sells for $45 a bottle.

Nice pitch, Tommy

Tommy Lasorda is the latest luminary to put his name on a bottle of wine. Lasorda Family Wines have released a reasonably priced chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon made from grapes grown in Paso Robles.

Lasorda was a major league pitcher but is known more as the manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers — a position that earned him a place in the Hall of Fame.

More than 90 years old now, I doubt he’s doing much wine making. He did get his interest in wine from his father, an Italian immigrant who did make wine. He is the longest-living Hall of Famer.

Both wines are medium body and pretty pedestrian, but Dodger fans would be proud to own them.

Wine drinkers are a happy lot

According to a study by TABS, 66 percent of adults in the U.S. consume beverage alcohol and among them 45 percent buy wine at least three times a year

The profile of those who enjoy wine is not surprising: 55 percent earn more than $125,000 and most popular are those aged 21-29 and 30-39, and probably hail from the Northeast.

Game of Thrones wine

Now that HBO’s hit series Game of Thrones has won an Emmy, isn’t it time to celebrate? You can celebrate or binge watch the show with the 2016 Game of Thrones Pinot Noir ($20). The wine is made from grapes grown in the Willamette Valley and is full of ripe red berry fruit flavors. 

Rabble comes to life

The Rabble Wine Company is the latest producer to introduce augmented reality technology to wine labels. And, it’s pretty impressive.

rabble.jpg

With the use of an app, a historical woodblock print rendition from the Nuremberg Chronicle (late 1400s to early 1500s) comes to life. These labels depict nature’s wrath, so you can imagine the movement. Among the prints is a fire-breathing dragon, a tempest touching down in Rome, and Mount Vesuvius erupting over Pompeii.

The first release is a red blend of grapes from the Paso Robles region. The wine is pretty tasty but not as exciting as the label — an apocalyptic comet falling on Florence. Nonetheless, it will give you a conversation started for your next party.


Geyser Peak's finer wine

More than a decade ago I wrote about Geyser Peak’s comeback under the guidance of Australian winemaker Nick Goldschmidt. I had met with him during a wine country tour and he was more than happy to accept the title. I remember him acknowledging the work that went into restoring this historic property founded in 1880.

Alas, Goldschmidt left in 2008 after Geyser Peak was sold by Beam to Constellation. The winery has had multiple owners since then, including Ascentia and now Accolade. Ownership changes mean changes in philosophy and in this case the role Geyser Peak should play in the marketplace.

Over time I watched the wines return to their plonk status: cheap, pedestrian and uninspiring. They were made for grocery stores sales and I’m sure they made money if they didn’t make fans.

But I was recently encouraged after tasting the 2013 Geyser Peak Devil’s Inkstand reserve cabernet sauvignon ($55). It reminded me what Geyser Peak was — and perhaps what it can be. It’s a very nice wine.

Using grapes from mountain top vineyards in Alexander Valley, this cabernet was aged 21 months in French oak barrels. The aging provides complexity and depth to this tannic yet approachable wine.

Although the technical notes lists only cabernet sauvignon as the wine’s composition, clearly it has some petite sirah to give the wine its dark color.

Randy Meyer has been the property’s winemaker since 2018.

Alas, balanced chardonnay

I've been opening a lot of chardonnay lately. You may think I'm a glutton for punishment, but I'm not afraid to admit I like chardonnay. I especially like some of the relatively inexpensive burgundies from the Macon and other regions. Alas, I can't afford Montrachet but there is still plenty of good, austere French chardonnay.

What's so good about French chardonnay? They aren't cloaked in oak nor are they sweet, which is what I still find in mass-produced California chardonnays. But, I did find two balanced chardonnays that emphasized fruit and balance over oak and sugar.

The 2015 Fort Ross Mother of Pearl Chardonnay ($60) is unfined and unfiltered, which preserves the purity of the grapes. The oak influence is in the background and adds to the complexity of this luxurious chardonnay but upfront are the generous citrus and honeysuckle aromas followed by layered pear and white peach flavors.

The other version that impressed me was the 2016 Dutton Estate Kyndall's Reserve-Dutton Ranch chardonnay ($42) from the Russian River Valley. Good acidity balances the plush mouthfeel of the barrel-fermented, malolactic fermented fruit.

Has wine consumption hit its peak?

Wine consumption in the United States  has been on the upswing for 20 years, thanks largely to encouragement from health reports that show some benefits from moderate wine consumption. However, like all trends, sales may have reached their peak.

The Silicon Valley Bank Wine Division in its "State of the Wine Industry 2018" report projects growth to decline as much as 10 percent this year. That's down from last year's 10-14 percent growth.

Sales increases were unsustainable. There is only so much alcohol we can drink. The volume of wine we consume -- 2.3 gallons annually per person -- has doubled since 1993. California wineries have increased production in response to the trend 

Even though Americans have more dispensable income now and the nation's economic health is good, consumers aren't increasing their consumption. My bet, though, is that they are drinking better wine. Anyone want to study that?

Bonterra has its prestige

Bonterra has been recognized as a pioneer in organic farming, so much so that it has added "Organic" to to its name. One reason, it seems to me, is that it wants to distinguish its well-known organic wines from a relatively new series of prestigious cuvees. "Bonterra" is noticeably absent from the label.

Meant to emphasize the biodiversity in the vineyards, these wines have purity of fruit, richness, body and drinkability.

I loved 2013 The Butler ($50), a blend of 80 percent syrah, 8 percent mourvedre, 6 percent grenache and 6 percent zinfandel. Generous aromas and flavors with rich mouthfeel and length.

The other wines in this series includes the 2014 The McNab ($50), a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and old vine petit sirah, and the 2015 The Roost, a Burgundian-style chardonnay. 

 

 


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Gaja scores again with a blend

I remember meeting Angelo Gaja in Washington, D.C., more than 20 years ago. At the time he was just starting to gain notoriety for blending grape varieties and introducing Piedmont to controversial winemaking techniques. He declassified his wines and risked it all.

He was widely criticized by fellow winemakers, but eventually won out. He reduced the use of oak and added malolactic fermentation. His wines today sell for a lot of money -- his famous barbarescos can cost more than $300.

Although 78 years old today, he insists he hasn't retired even though his two daughters are operating the family business.

I was delighted to recently find Gaja Sito Moresco Langhe ($50), a red blend that includes nebbolio, merlot and cabernet sauvignon. Unlike his barolos and barbarescos, this blend is ore approachable -- a niche the family must have wanted to accommodate fans who don't want to wait decades for their Gaja wines to mature.

Sito Moresco is named after a family who farmed this 25-acre estate in Barbaresco before it was purchased by Gaja Winery.

This is a delicious wine that continues the family's tradition of blending Bordeaux grape varieties with indigenous grapes.

Phinney at it again

David Phinney, the wine genius that gave us The Prisoner, has launched a wine project in Roussillon. Called Department 66 -- the region is in France's department 66 -- the wines are very good. 

The Fragile rose is OK, but I thought "D66" -- a blend of grenache, carignan, syrah -- is outstanding. It is loaded with fine tannins to suggest aging ability and garrigue character.  Department 66's "Others" wine adds mourvedre to the blend and is equally delicious and ageworthy.

Phinney seems prone to impulse. He was in Italy when first struck with the wine bug. He was standing at an airport when he created his "Legacy" series after being inspired by  a bumper decal. He fell in love with the natural beauty of the Roussillon region that he launched Department 66 and made Maury a second home.

I'm not complaining. D66 sells for $38 a bottle; Others goes for $25.  Fair prices for what you get.

Feeling blue? Here's a wine for you

Those damn French are at it again. A blue wine is selling like quiche in southern France. Sacre bleu!

"Vindigo," a chardonnay made in Spain, is selling out at hotels in the French town of Sete. It is marketed by Rene Le Bail just in time for the vacation season along the Cote d'Azur. He likens the wine to the blue waters of the French Riviera and insists he will limit distribution to small on-premise locations.

The first 2,000-bottle order was sold in days. He's ordered 35,000 more bottles.

The turquoise color comes from a naturally occurring pigment, called anthocanin that's derived from filtering the white wine through grape skins. Frankly, it must look more like Windex.

 

 

Debunking those wine rules

I was reading a recipe the other day that called for a Far Niente chardonnay and I imagined chefs scurrying around town in a fruitless search for the wine.  How silly. There is more than one chardonnay that would do well with a recipe.

And that got me to thinking of rules. Guidelines in the wine world are appreciated, but rules are not because they are so absolute. Take, for example, white wine with fish and red wine with meat. Good guideline, but I can come up with many exceptions. Tuna and salmon do better with red wines.

And then there is the rule that cheap wines on restaurant wine lists are terrible. I had a Boutari wine from Greece the other night for $34 and it was great, despite being the cheapest white wine on the list. With markups as high as 400 percent, you can't afford to order the most expensive wine.

What about the rule of serving white wine in narrow, tapered glasses? I've recently discovered that a full-body chardonnay tastes better when poured in a wide mouth glass generally reserved for red wines. A complex chardonnay needs to breathe before you pick up its subtleties.

I can go on and on about rules.. But I won't.

Old mourvedre shows the power of the grape

I'm a sucker for deals on old wines. They are often discounted because a store is eager to unload them. However, they come with risk. If they were in excellent condition, they wouldn't be discounted, right?

While touring Domaine Tempier in Bandol, I noticed a half-dozen wines from La Laidiere, a neighboring property Domaine Tempier had recently acquired. Red blends (mourvedre, grenache and cinsault) dating back to the 1991 vintage were selling for under 30 euros apiece.  I'm sure Tempier got them with the deal and was eager to sell them because they were someone else's wine.

Veronique Peyraud, one of the sisters running Domaine Tempier, recommended to me the 1993 because it had the highest concentration of mourvedre -- 80 percent. For about $30, how could I resist?

It was a fabulous wine -- the fruit was a little tired, but the structure was holding up. It showed the longevity of wines made mostly from mourvedre.

Veronique was right to point me to a mourvedre-dominated wine. I enjoyed Domaine Tempier's 2014 red blend -- about 60 percent mourvedre -- the following night. It was a beautiful, tannic monster with dense, complex dark berry fruit. Clearly, it could age 20 years.

Mourvedre, called monastrell in neighboring Spain, is a foundation grape to blends made in southern France. Although it often has off-putting aromas, mourvedre provides the hammer to a blend. Grenache and cinsault soften the wine and their floral elements offset the rotten egg notes that often accompany mourvedre.

Tempier's mourvedre now has me in search of similar wines from the Bandol area.

Domaine Tempier's exquiste wines

While on a cruise of the Med, my wife and I had the pleasure of stopping by Domaine Tempier while our ship was moored off Bandol, France. Bandol is arguably the epi-center of the world’s best rose. It is here where rose is often the primary wine made for vacationing Europeans who love to sit in their sidewalk cafes in August.

I have long admired Tempier’s roses – not cheap but more complex and drier than cheap copycats from the U.S. and Spain that are mere after-thoughts in large portfolios. Tempier didn’t disappoint me during my brief visit with Veronique Peyraud, one of several children involved in the operation owned by their parents since 1936. The property was in the family before then, but winemaking was interrupted by phylloxera in the 1940s. Still, some gnarled vines managed to survive and are more than 100 years old.

As good as the roses are, I was more surprised by the Domaine Tempier white blend of clairette, ugni blanc, bourboulenc and marsanne. You get the feeling this exquisite, dry wine will age gracefully for decades.

The estate’s flagship may be its Cuvee Classique, a red blend of mourvedre (75 percent), grenache, cinsault and carignan. It is incredibly dense and complex with dark fruit flavors and a rustic style with gritty tannins.

Domaine Tempier’s success is due largely to its southern facing vineyards, its soil and maritime winds, but also its particular winemaking standards. It does not fine or filter its wines. It is made from organically grown grapes and natural yeasts are used for fermentation. Its red wines are aged in large oak casks.

Local food, local wine

I never miss an opportunity to taste a local wine. Here in Italy, where my wife and I are on a long cruise, there are local wines galore. Historically, wines were consumed locally as well as being grown locally. That they complemented local food dishes is not a coincidence.  Albarino on Spain's north coast match the local seafood while Burgundy's elegant pinot noirs marry well with Dijon's rabbit stews or rich cassoulets. Generations have enjoyed Alsace's pinot blancs and rieslings with the region's famous daubes. Go there and you'll see why.

While I was in Italy's Porto Venere, just outside Cinque Terra, I found a wine and purchased one of the region's famous blends of vermentino, bosco and arbolla.  Acidic, fresh and pure it was delightful. This region doesn't even try to make red wines -- unlike Alsace that uselessly struggles with its pedestrian pinot noir. 

Finding wines asea

I'm on a cruise of the Med, so unable to post too often. However, last night I was able to share a brief moment with the ship's wine steward who chooses the wines. The task is quite different than what beverage managers experience on land. 

A port manager holds most of the cards, it seems. He or she tells each ship's wine manager what's available. I suspect much of it is surplus wine. The other day our wine steward was pleased to get a couple of hundred bottles of a Provence rose while docked in Marseilles. It was OK, but that's about it. I have found that wine aboard ships -- the plonk that is served poolside as well as at dinner -- is acceptable at best. This is Seabourn, too, an upscale ship. They were pouring Nicolas Feuillatte, however, so that's pretty decent champagne.

The port authority apparently acts like a distributor to incoming ships. Our wine steward says he can order directly from the producer too. I was told they go through more than 1,300 bottles a week, which doesn't seem that great for a ship of 600 passengers.

I decided to order a wine package which for $450 gets me access to 6 wines from a pretty damn good list. The list includes a Fevre chablis, Chapoutier white chatauneuf du pape and a Condrieu, Hauts Bailley bordeaux, Silver Oak, Banfi brunello di montalcino, Masi amarone, North Star merlot, and a few more gems that average about $70 a bottle. For a restaurant, those are good averages for premium wines.

Premium wines selling better, but not in restaurants

A recent report from the Silicon Valley Bank -- strangely the best guide to wine sales -- shows that consumers are spending more on their wine. 

The bank reported that "premium" wine sales are increasing while those for cheaper wine under $10 is decreasing. These cheaper wines are often composed of bulk wines, box wines, etc.  Wines that cost more aren't necessarily "premium" in my book, but nonetheless wines in the $15-20 and $20-plus have shown sales increases.

More interesting to me in the study was the change in restaurant wines. Consumers are spending less in restaurants, partly because of a shift to more casual restaurants where wine plays a smaller role.  Also, chain restaurants sell mass-produced wines because they can depend on supply. An increasing number of smaller wineries are ignoring the three-tier system and selling their wines directly to consumers.

More so, consumers at all ages are frowning at restaurant mark-ups. It's about time to rebel. Younger drinkers, theorizes Silicon Valley Bank's study, know they can pay less for wine in a store and are having only a glass of wine or beer in restaurants. Seniors on fixed income are opting for a glass of wine while dining out and millennials are favoring at-home meals.

I'm a senior citizen now, but until recently my wife and I have enjoyed sharing a bottle of wine while dining out. We recently switched to a glass of wine, which we know has a higher mark-up than a bottle. The bottled wines we like are often the most expensive and I know the mark-up from experience. A restaurant bill with wine can regularly top $200 and occasionally $300. I can't sustained a dining bill this high twice a week.

We like to dine at home, which is the trend nowadays. I have a good cellar of aged wines to tap into. But even those seniors who don't have a cellar, it's still significantly cheaper to buy steak and wine and serve them at home. Restaurants are hurting themselves with these high mark-ups.

And this brings me back to my annoyances: restaurants should be less focused on mass producers of common wines marked up 300-400 percent. Instead, they should find the small producers who will appeal to the curious consumer and whose prices are more moderate. They are out there -- I taste these wines every week. 

Sure, these producers may not be able to replenish inventory but why not have a list of daily specials? When they run out, list something else. I've seen this done in restaurants with great success. Those restaurant owners who aren't lazy and who are willing to spend some time on their wine lists will reap the rewards.